Thursday, December 22, 2011

Café Slavia: Redoubt of Ideas

Credit: Martin Sutovec, via Don in Massachusetts
Ronald Reagan is credited with bringing down the totalitarian regimes of the Eastern Bloc, when in fact it was a writer. Not by himself, of course, but the playwright and scholar Vaclav Havel did more to instigate change with his typewriter and ideas than President Reagan with his bombs and secret wars.

I was reminded of that era of transition from nuclear standoff to popular uprising by On Point Radio's wonderful remembrance of Havel just after his death this week. From one of the participants in that discussion, I learned of the pivotal role of a particular Prague coffee shop in the advancement of Havel's cause. Kavárna Slavia is often cited as the most important of several of his haunts as he was writing and meeting and fomenting change in Czechoslovakia. The web site of Café Slavia (as it is also known) suggests a place much larger than a typical cafe, with an extensive menu and elegant decor that suggest "restaurant" more than "coffee shop." Visitors now flock to Café Slavia, both for its food (though some find it wanting) and for its connection to an important history.

The geography of coffee shops often puts them at the center of the local cultural geography because of their role in fostering conversations of substance. It is for this reason that wise politicians go to coffee shops to listen, opportunist politicians go to be listened to, and politicians who fear ideas seek to shut them down.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ayn Rand and the neo-Dickensians

In his AlterNet article "How Ayn Rand Seduced Generations of Young Men and Helped Make the U.S. Into a Selfish, Greedy Nation," clinical pyschologist  Bruce Levine writes:
The good news is that I’ve seen ex-Rand fans grasp the damage that Rand’s philosophy has done to their lives and to then exorcize it from their psyche. Can the United States as a nation do the same thing?
Rand was a writer and philosopher of an earlier generation who continues to damage the society in which she thrived. She elevated selfishness to a virtue, and helped make the United States a less caring nation in which poverty and inequality persist to degrees far greater than would be suggested by this country's wealth, Christian heritage, and rhetorical commitment to the value of children. (Even the conservative London Economist writes that the United States is "in a class of its own as the only rich country where women get no paid maternity leave at all.")

Levine describes in some detail the workings and influence of Rand's inner circle, improbably named "The Collective," which either included or influenced many important neocon figures, from Alan Greenspan and Ronald Reagan to Ron Paul and his rather demented son Rand.

The title and opening paragraphs of the article suggest that the influence of Rand came to define an entire generation. Though I do not think he makes the case for a reach that is quite so broad, Levine is right to take Rand's influence seriously. Because some of Rand's staunchest disciples do now have considerable power, his analysis of her most problematic ideas is quite useful to those concerned with today's politics.

Two passages illustrate some of the more pernicious contradictions of Rand and her followers. First, the champion of rugged individualism has helped to put economic liberty above political liberty, and has put individuals in the thrall of corporations. As Levine explains:

While Rand often disparaged Soviet totalitarian collectivism, she had little to say about corporate totalitarian collectivism, as she conveniently neglected the reality that giant U.S. corporations, like the Soviet Union, do not exactly celebrate individualism, freedom, or courage.
Second, Rand has been embraced by many who consider themselves Christian. Not only does this require believing in a Jesus very different from the Nazarene who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, but it also requires ignoring huge swaths of Rand's writing. Again, Levine explains:
In recent years, we have entered a phase where it is apparently okay for major political figures to publicly embrace Rand despite her contempt for Christianity. In contrast, during Ayn Rand’s life, her philosophy that celebrated self-interest was a private pleasure for the 1 percent but she was a public embarrassment for them. They used her books to congratulate themselves on the morality of their selfishness, but they publicly steered clear of Rand because of her views on religion and God. Rand, for example, had stated on national television, “I am against God. I don’t approve of religion. It is a sign of a psychological weakness. I regard it as an evil.”
To be pro-Rand and pro-Jesus requires a politics in which reason and evidence are diminished and even reviled. Unfortunately, even a cursory examination of talk radio and political debates suggests that is very much the world in which our politics now occurs.

For more about Rand, see my Reason Shrugged and Libertarians in Space posts, in which I describe her thinking on public-sector workers and the delusions of independence among fringe libertarians.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Morning Routine

Boston Globe reporter Lisa Zwirn finds plenty of anecdotal evidence that even in a slow economy, many people continue to splurge on coffee purchased outside the home. She finds that people are remarkably consistent in their habits of location, brew, and flavor, though some customers do have favorite "treat" coffees that they order only occasionally. 

The consumption patterns described in the article run the gamut in terms of timing, location, and quality, and provide some interesting insights into the factors that shape the geography of coffee shops.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Best Case Against Green Energy

Source: Wind Powering America
Every oil field on the planet runs a course from discovery through increasing production to peak production to declining production and eventually to exhaustion. The last drop is never really extracted from the ground; fields can be reopened if the prices rise or technology improves. Nonetheless, just as most of the world's individual oil fields have passed their peak, so also has the planet as a whole. Peak production of the other fossil fuels may not have been reached on a global level yet, but coal and natural gas will inevitably decline, albeit much later than oil has done.

I was reminded of this as I read an article against green energy in an April 2011 issue of Forbes magazine. In The Green Energy Economy Reconsidered, Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren do the great service of describing five important drawbacks to sustainable energy alternatives, with a particular focus on wind and solar power. I call their article a service because it is important to understand the limitations of these sources, if for no other reason than to understand why they have not yet been adopted much more widely.

The authors describe fundamentally geographic reasons that essentially free energy has not been widely adopted in the United States or elsewhere. Low spatial density and spatial mismatches between supply and demand are two of the major obstacles. For Taylor and Van Doren, these are among a handful of reasons to reject government efforts to promote green energy. The article implies at least a faint recognition of the peak-oil problem, but dismisses it as not particularly relevant to questions of electricity production, in which more-abundant coal is dominant. As free-market proponents, they argue that the burdens of green energy are so great that they do not justify market-distorting subsidies.

I would like to suggest the opposite. The limitations of green energy explain why the market has not yet allowed for their widespread adoption, but these limitations do not explain why that initial market response (or non-response) should be accepted. This may be the strongest possible case against green energy, but it falls short in several key respects. First, fossil fuels appear more cost-effective than they actually are, because important externalities -- including but not limited to pollution costs -- are ignored. Second, free markets in petroleum and the other fossil fuels would lead inevitably to the near-exhaustion of each resource described above, but this need not be taken as the only possible future.

Given the extremely high costs of climate change, our current goal should be to leave as much oil, coal, and natural gas in the ground on a permanent basis as possible. Subsidizing green energy in the short term -- though admittedly not easy -- can bring about some of the needed reductions; doing nothing will, of course, achieve nothing.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Bet Worth $4.81

I'll bet $4.81 that Mitt Romney wishes he had not suggested a bet to rival Rick Perry in a recent debate. As reported by Glen Johnson, when trying to make a point about his record on health care, he suggested a bet of a particular size -- small enough to be taken seriously, but big enough (for Rick Perry and most of the rest of us, anyway) not to be entered into lightly.

On one hand, Rick Perry should have taken the bet, as Romney was putting bravado ahead of evidence in defending one of his many reversals on health care. On the other, he was correct to demur at the amount, especially since this revealed him to be a bit closer to the average audience member than is his challenger.

Just George H.W. Bush revealed his status in the stratosphere of privilege through his fascination with grocery scanners -- he had never heard of them before a grocery-store tour during his campaign -- Romney has revealed his distance from the average American by suggesting this wager.

Based on the latest figures I could see for median net worth, his $10,000 bet would be equivalent to a $4.81 bet by a person of median net worth. (The mean net worth is much higher, since the numerical space below $102,200 is much narrower than the space above it.) As my favorite librarian has often observed, "The problem with rich people is that they don't understand that poor people don't have money." Next to Mitt Romney, almost all of us fall into that "poor people" category.

And by the way, I lied in the first line of this post. Like Rick Perry, I don't bet. And like Perry, I know that most of the evangelical right doesn't bet, either.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Hull High: Another Case for Regionalization

Taking Attendance is an excellent report by journalist Johanna Seltz in today's Boston Globe, in which she describes the problems associated with dwindling enrollment at in the town of Hull, particularly in its high school. Anticipating one of my first questions, she is careful to document this as a demographic trend, rather than a shift toward private schools. She then documents some of the reasons for the trend, including changes in available housing. The article also hints at a bit of a positive-feedback, or spiraling affect, as the problems of shrinking schools are to some degree self-feeding: fewer families lead to fewer families.

Shrinking enrollments reduce variable costs and crowding, allowing for a more tranquil and perhaps more productive learning environment. But the fixed costs of maintaining a building are spread over fewer students, the ability to offer specialized courses is reduced, with the definition of "specialized" eventually extending to basics, such as shop and foreign language. In Massachusetts, high fixed costs at the district level are an additional burden, and Seltz reports on the efforts of Hull Superintendent Kathleen Tyrell to address this through regionalization.

As I have written in some of my earlier posts on this topic, only in Massachusetts (and perhaps New Jersey), would the combination of two tiny towns be considered a regional consolidation. Even this, as Tyrell has found, is difficult, especially for a district that is isolated on a long peninsula, limiting its potential partnerships. Even more limiting than the physical situation of Hull, however, is the ideological commitment to "local control" in school districts. It is sadly ironic that school committees and the citizenry at large is not willing to set aside ego in order to cooperate in genuine regional districts at the county level.

The state provides some incentives to regionalize, but it aims too low. Massachusetts has a few hundred school districts, where states of similar size might have a few dozen. Nobody actually agrees on exactly how many -- one has as few as 2 children. (That is not a typo.) Combining Hull with another small town would be an improvement in the short-run, but county-wide districts would be a more reasonable long-term goal.

As illustrated in Hull, the cost of maintaining 351 fiefdoms is simply too high. A regional district could allow for some real creativity, too, perhaps to include magnet schools or shared resources for 50/50 online courses in some subjects.

I understand why Gov. Patrick and Lt. Gov. Murray have been slow to act on the recommendations on this issue from the 2009 Citizens Task Force Report (the relevant section of which I authored). Inertia is difficult to overcome both at the local level and within the state bureaucracies employed to oversee them. But it is long past time for the state to offer stronger incentives to encourage districts that combine the back-office functions not of two or three towns, but of ten or twenty.

As the Globe report suggests, regionalization would not solve all of the problems associated with Hull's slipping demographics. But it would certainly help!

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Ho Chi Movement

Place and movement are among the five principle themes in the study of geography. Both are captured beautifully in a 2m20s video clip comprising 10,000 stop-motion photographs of public areas in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). It comports very well with what my friend Vernon Domingo has told me about his experience in the city earlier this year.

by Sommer Mathis

Political Fetishes

In today's political discourse the difference between actual conservatives and the radical right is that the latter has turned two conservative ideas into radical fetishes.

A generation ago, Grover Norquist pressured conservative politicians to pledge never to raise taxes. His intention was not simply to balance budgets, but to combine balanced budgets with lower taxes in order to shrink government. His objective, he said, was to weaken and shrink government until it could be drowned, metaphorically, in a bathtub. Even before that, readers of Ayn Rand's fantasies became convinced that the private sector is always more efficient than the public sector, and that it is impossible for the latter to ever be productive.

The results have these obsessive thoughts have been profound for the quality of life in America, particularly with respect to education and health care. An additional result is aesthetic, as public spaces are increasingly privatized and turned over to marketers to make up for gaps in public funding, brilliantly illustrated by Morgan Spurlock below

Sound fiscal  policy and a vibrant private sector can provide sure footing for a democracy, but today's bipedal fetishists view the body politic only from the ankles down.

During the California wildfires of 2016, Brad Craig exemplified the hypocrisy of "fair-weather libertarianism." He was wearing this anti-tax, anti-government t-shirt as he smiled and thanked the tax-supported government workers who saved his home.
Brad Craig, False Patriot

Material World

Thanks to my favorite librarian for sharing a delightful and thought-provoking video from our friends at the Center for the New American Dream. The High Price of Materialism is not the doom-and-gloom piece that its title suggests. Rather, it is a cheery, geographic, and research-based discussion of ways to reduce the influence of materialism in our own lives and in our communities.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

São Paulo Sights

São Paulo has legendary traffic, which can be avoided in three ways: subway, helicopter, and motorcycle. I was probably in the city six times before I knew it even had a subway, and when I rode it, crowding was minimal, though admittedly I was there very off-peak. Helicopters are pricey.

For quick delivery of packages, then, "motoboys" are the answer. Sitting in traffic with a friend in October 2008, I was amazed by their frequency. On an earlier trip, I had actually seen a motoboy pivot his cycle by grabbing the bumper of a delivery truck. A friend whose sister is an emergency-room physician in the city sees these young drivers all the time. But she is a Paulista who needs to get around quickly, so she herself gets to work on a motorcycle.

The helicopters are expensive, but increasingly common for executives whose companies can justify the expense by comparing the cost of flights to their hourly wages. São Paulo is a city of high rises -- much bigger than Manhatten, for example -- and every one of them is topped with a helipad. The Discovery Atlas program Brazil Revealed is a great survey of the cultural geography of Brazil that includes the story of Clarissa Pinheiro Pereira, a young pilot who is among the very few women pursuing the highest levels of professional pilot licensure.

I was thinking about São Paulo this morning because of something I learned last night from Morgan Spurlock's new film The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, in which the Supersize Me veteran immerses himself in product placement, as he previously did with McDonald's menus. The result is nearly as toxic, as he documents the way that school budget-cutters have turned over student eyeballs for rental to marketers through Channel One, school bus ads, and the like. But the ray of hope comes from a change in São Paulo that I had somehow missed: outdoor advertising in almost all its forms has disappeared. As one shopkeeper told Spurlock, this has meant refocusing on the quality of products and customer service to attract attention!

Monday, December 05, 2011

Prices of Progress

Today in my Geography of Latin America class, we read a report from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs entitled The Price of Civilization, which the impact of large-scale resource developments in Brazil, Chile, and Bolivia.

I divided the class into groups, asking first that individual students answer "Who?" questions about the projects: who stands to benefit and who stands to lose something? I then asked them to work in small groups to address "Where?" questions about the location and scale of the projects and the affected communities.

Below are some quick links to what they found, posted here primarily as a way to facilitate our discussion later this week.

Map from Coastal Care
Square Kilometer - Acre Converter (useful for all sections of the article)
Defending the Rivers of the Amazon (a GoogleEarth 3D movie with narration by Sigourney Weaver)
Another map:
Rendering of the dam itself:

Map of Chile
Anger over proposal, reported by BBC in May 2011
Court suspension of project, reported by BBC in June 2011
BBC maps of proposed dams
Patagonia's Rivers at Risk
Project map from Glacier Change
Damming Patagonia: Simply Concrete? from Pedal for Change

Protesters marching to dam site
Highway route map from Intercontinental Cry
NGOs Wrong on Morales from the Tlaxcala blog
Morales Halts Amazon Road After Protests from AlterNet, with photo of protest clash
Project route and community maps from Flickr user Oscar Salgado

Using these images and maps as a starting point, I then asked the students to answer questions about where the projects themselves and the benefits and dis-benefits are likely to be located. From the answer to the locational questions, I hoped that the students would find their way to interesting discussions of how and why questions, and from the preliminary conversations, it seems to have worked!

As we left class, I gave students a copy of "What a Difference a Century Makes," my contribution to a collection of essays about the Amazon region published in Brazil nearly a decade ago. In it, I invite the reader to compare frontier developments of the twentieth century -- which we sometimes find morally dubious or even horrific -- with those of an earlier time much closer to home.

I will also speak of a specific example of a hydroelectric plant I visited in the western Amazon. It is in the Municipio of Candeias do Jamari (shown below). I should not have been surprised that this town -- whose population I saw explode between 1996 and 2000 -- now has a blog!

View Larger Map

Garrett Hardin's influential and controversial 1968 essay The Tragedy of the Commons may provide some insight into the trade-offs between individual and universal costs and benefits.

The Invention of Necessity

I rely on my students to bring me the best lessons, and today a student from South Africa -- where yacht-building is a big part of the economy, by the way -- sent me an advert (as they are called in those places that speak the Queen's English) that seemed at first to be a parody.

I checked the link in the ad, however, and either this is an elaborate ruse or Hargrave Custom Yachts in Ft. Lauderdale really did create it. Hargrave -- which has the chutzpah to use a non-profit *.org address -- has really taken a surreal turn by arguing that such yachts are a necessity. A necessity!

In addition to providing jobs for the boating industry, the yachts provide a means for entrepreneurs to escape from "every two bit politician" [sic -- Hargrave apparently could not afford an English major to hyphenate that compound modifier] who might try to shut down their business or tax their self-made wealth.

The yacht shown, incidentally, is being offered for $19 million, which would buy my entire middle-class neighborhood. A single fill-up of its fuel tanks would cost about as much as my car, and would allow me to drive it around the world -- with a heavy foot -- four times!

This copy was written at a time of record-high wealth concentration and record-low (for the past half-century, at least) taxation. It is a valuable insight into the spirit of entitlement among the super-rich who really feel their wealth arises entirely from their own hard work and brilliance, not realizing the extent to which they depend upon market manipulation, the toil of the poor, and someone else to bear the cost of their pollution.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Geography of Coffee Storage

The coffee fiends who write Adam@Home are at it again! Readers of the strip know that Adam is a work-at-home guy (I keep forgetting the actual job) who as often as possible finds an excuse to be a work-at-cafe guy. This has been inspirational, both as a lifestyle to envy and as fodder for my work on the geography of coffee shops.

In Friday's strip, cartoonists Bassett and Harrell kicked the coffee connection up a notch. More precisely, they moved the discussion a couple of steps up the commodity chain, with barista Andre discussing important aspects of the geography of coffee care. The timing and location of coffee storage between roasting and brewing is geographic, in that choices about how and when to store the coffee are closely intertwined with choices about where to store it.

Because light, oxygen, and time (after the first 12-24 hours) are the enemies of roasted coffee, the distance between roasting and brewing has a tremendous impact on the quality of the brewed product. This, in turn, has implications for farmers, as they are less likely to be compensated for their care in cultivation if people further down the supply chain obscure their good work through sloppy handling.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Strength in Diffusion

When we take our EarthView geography program to middle schools, one term we always discuss is archipelago, because students are able to see so many more Pacific island groups than they usually notice on maps or smaller globes. I am always reminded that I first learned the word when I was in high school, and that I first saw it used in a figurative sense, in The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn's grim report on the work camps that were scattered throughout the former Soviet Union.

It was probably my frequent reflection on Solzhenitsyn's brilliant phrase that led me to coin the word occupeligo in October, upon hearing a few interesting stories about the spatial configuration of what is more commonly called by the oxymoron "occupy movement." Since the entire point of the demonstrations is to be a fixture in public places, the idea of movement is not entirely sensical to me, though of course the occupations are spreading to a growing number of locations -- hence occupeligo.

Today Radio Boston's Dan Mauzy held a fascinating discussion with Professor Timothy McCarthy, who teaches about human rights and social movements, and Philip Anderson, an Occupy Boston protester who is quite consciously diffusing the movement from the core urban areas to which it has been largely confined to date. Listen to Can Occupy Boston Continue Without Dewey Square? for a really intriguing discussion of the great complexity of the relationships between the uses of physical space and the exercise of political rights such as assembly, association, and speech.

Anderson's diffusion efforts are presented on We Can Occupy, which rejects the notion that the occupeligo has no clear objectives. The site encourages much broader participation in promoting a cause that is actually not vague at all. We Can Occupy argues for the physical decampment of the occupeligo with these assertions:

You don’t have to sleep in a tent to understand what’s wrong with our economic and political system.  You don’t have to march in the streets to believe that we should have a healthy economy for all and a government that serves the people.  You don’t have to get pepper-sprayed to change the direction of our country.

AP Photo via Radio Boston

Founding Principles

Many thanks too Richard Latimer of Falmouth, for his brilliant letter to the Boston Globe this morning. I am taking the liberty of copying the entire piece here, because it is short enough to fall within Fair Use and because it is important enough to have a life online after the usual expiration of online letters sections.

It ran on today's Editorial page under the title

Anti-tax pledge drove Republicans from duty to serve

JOSHUA GREEN attempts to blame the Democrats for Republican obstructionism in assessing the budget impasse (“Picking up pieces after ‘super’ fail,’’ Op-ed, Nov. 24). Try reading both the congressional oath of office and Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge before laying blame here. Governing a democratic society is necessarily about pragmatic compromise, where many diverse interests must be harmonized.

“We the people,’’ contrary to the libertarian ideology of rugged individualism, is a collectivity, as are the common defense and general welfare listed in the preamble to the Constitution. That collectivity is what every member of Congress is sworn to serve when taking the oath of office, to “bear true faith and allegiance’’ to the Constitution, and to do so “without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.’’

The mindless Norquist pledge, however, requires both a mental reservation and ideological evasion as it pertains to Congress’s fundamental duty to pay the national debt by raising revenues, as stated in Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution. Ideologically driven Republican intransigence against this clear congressional mandate is what drives the budget impasse.

Richard K. Latimer

The essential message here is that the Constitution should guide members of Congress, all too many of whom seem to be guided primarily by Norquist's political playbook and Ayn Rand's fantasies. Libertarianism as currently practiced is closer to anarchy than it is to conservatism and closer to nihilism than to patriotism. Actual conservative Republicans (and many millions still exist) who wonder why their party is increasingly distrusted and even reviled should consider how far certain "movement" members of their party have departed from the country's founding principles and from the ideals of the party's great leaders, from Lincoln to Roosevelt to Eisenhower.

Amazon Perspectives

This entry is intended to supplement a short presentation on Amazon deforestation that Diana Ramos -- president of BSU's Students for Sustainability -- and I made as part of the Brazil Magic Event. The event, organized by another student group, La Sociedad Latina, is a chance to celebrate and learn about a country of great and growing importance to Southeastern Massachusetts. The celebration takes place just days before BSU's president accompanies Governor Deval Patrick on a trade mission to Latin America's largest country.

"The Amazon" means several different things. It is the name of the world's greatest river -- perhaps even longer than the Nile and by far the river with the greatest discharge, at 20 percent of the world's total. The Amazon also refers to the watershed of that river -- a massive drainage basin containing a thousand named tributaries, a dozen of them more than a thousand miles long. Finally, the Amazon is the world's largest rain forest, home to the greatest concentration of terrestrial biodiversity, the greatest source of oxygen, and the greatest biological sink for carbon dioxide on the planet -- the "lungs of the world" as it is sometimes called.

The Amazon -- particularly the rain forest -- is the place that made me decide to become a geographer. More specifically, the destruction of the rain forest had that effect, leading me to switch disciplines (from linguistics), learn a new language, and dedicate years to learning about the complex interplay of river and forest, settler and rubber tapper, rancher and logger. Much of what I learned is presented in Rondonia Web, a part of my web site that remains one of the few English-language resources about the Arizona-sized state in the southwestern part of Brazil's portion of the basin. (Most of the other South American countries control some part of the Amazon basin and rain forest, leaving Brazil with half of the total.)

For the presentation, Diana and I are showing one video, with a promise to provide a link to it and to a couple others. Each video presents a part of the current and continuing story of deforestation in the Amazon: logging, violence, and cattle ranching. In my view, no single story of the Amazon is the complete story, just as no fundamental shift in the geography of a place can be explained by a single factor. The three videos collectively provide, however, a good point of departure for understanding the region.

Deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest describes a transect across the Amazon basin by a geographer who studies the impact of logging and who suggests that a herringbone pattern of clearing would be less destructive than the random pattern he encounters. He offers no support for this assertion, which in fact tends to be contradicted by the experience of Rondonia, where a herringbone pattern of land give-aways led over a million people to settle in a program that was expected to attract ten thousand. Broken Promises for the Amazon is a Greenpeace video focused on cattle ranching as a driver of deforestation. Environmentalist Slain for Protecting Amazon is a reminder that the ecological destruction is accompanied by violence against those who might object. In this case, a victim of that violence predicted his own demise, just as Chico Mendes had done a generation earlier.

The videos are a reminder that this region is not only vast, dramatic, beautiful, and imperiled; it is also complex, experiencing both a variety of threats and an equally varied array of opportunities. In fact, one of the most rewarding EarthView experiences in recent months was our visit to a school where students had been assigned to about a half-dozen different roles -- logger, settler, indigenous person, rubber-tapper -- each of which has a particular cluster of interests. Brazilian colleagues and I actually published a small book in 2003, documenting not only varied interests in the region but also varied perceptions of what the place represents and what it is experiencing.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Gaita in the Neighborhood

One reason I teach is so that I can keep learning! Many thanks to my student Rosie for introducing me to yet another genre of Latin American music with which I was not yet familiar. Like Rosie, I am not yet a fan of the La Gaita sound per se, which we both find a bit tinny and repetitive. Music is important in its own right, however, and is also a gateway to other aspects of cultural geography. This particular music video offers an intimate look at neighborhood life on one street corner in Maracaibo, in the far northwest of Venezuela. The on-screen comments in English help to illuminate the role of the music in the community, and help to make some of the inside jokes accessible to outside viewers.

For more information about La Gaita, see:
Carruyo, Light. 2005. "La gaita zuliana: Music and politics of protest in Venezuela." Latin American Perspectives 32.3: 98-111. 

Gathering in eThekwini

See my CLIMATE page
The South African municipality of eThikwini is best known by the name of its major city, Durban. This city on the Indian Ocean is the focus of worldwide attention this week, as representatives of 190 countries meet to discuss the next phase of cooperation -- or intransigence --  on climate change. I had actually hoped to be part of the meeting, because of a connection to the host city and because of the real urgent need to involve farmers -- particularly coffee farmers -- more directly in the meetings. Although I did not make it to Durban, I'm pleased to see that a small Occupy Earth movement is present, as reported by Meanwhile, Mr. Pushpanath Krishnamurthy is walking across India to draw attention to climate justice; follow his progress on GoPushGo!

My heart is with those who have so far been marginalized in the discussion, but I need also to wrap my head around what the actual negotiators are doing, since our fate -- so far -- rests in their words and deeds. Two stories on the November 29 All Things Considered program serve to outline the major considerations in some detail. As Kyoto Protocol Ends describes the limitations that were inherent in the Kyoto agreement, which is binding, but only on countries representing 20 percent of carbon emissions. Of the major polluters, only the European Union is actually following the agreement. The subsequent interview with Todd Stern may cause some alarm. This U.S. climate negotiator does not consider success an option, if success is measured as a binding treaty, but he does count non-binding agreements announced in Cancun as successes.

To his credit, Stern does recognize that the United States is increasingly isolated; in the rest of the world people might disagree on how to share the burden of climate remedies, but the need to act is widely accepted.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Ditching EPA

If those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, then those who ignore history are determined to do so. Dallas Morning News columnist Dale McFeatters recently described the efforts of 16 senators who are trying to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency.

As he points out in Return With Us Now to Those Pre-EPA Days (Nov. 25), some of the senators -- such as Sen. Orin Hatch -- should know better. The EPA was proposed and approved by President Richard Nixon precisely because a patchwork of local environmental rules (often none at all) had failed to protect both human health and the environment, and market forces showed no signs of doing any better.

The powers of the agency may seem draconian when described in the abstract, but in cases such as Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York -- where Hooker Chemical filled a ditch with thousands of tons of toxic waste -- the ability to regulate, penalize, sanction, and purchase or seize property proved essential, just a few years after Nixon's creation of the agency.

Toxic waste in a residential neighborhood.
Photo: AEG
Love Canal is admittedly an extreme case, but hardly an isolated one. The EPA has caused hundreds of similar sites to be cleaned up and returned to productive use, while continuing to monitor hundreds of others. Meanwhile, during the presidencies of Clinton and George H.W. Bush, the agency greatly streamlined its regulations and improved its ability to cooperate with the industries it regulates as it works to prevent similar disasters. Without the onerous authority granted by President Nixon and the Congress in 1970, however, Americans would not enjoy the level of environmental protection we now enjoy.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Evolving Illiteracies

Recently I was lamenting the state of geographic illiteracy with a colleague. It is an increasingly common condition that was most famously exemplified by Miss Teen South Carolina (above) and Kellie Pickler (below).

The colleague responded that he was beginning to think that discipline-specific illiteracies are proliferating, as people emerge from years of education without rudimentary command of geography, chemistry, math, or even their own religions. This could mean that disciplinary illiteracy is a sign that we overestimate the importance of our own fields and of what constitutes "basic" knowledge. It could also mean that we are generalizing from small samples of unusually ill-informed celebrities. After all, the Miss Teen South Carolina video has had 8 million online views because so many people find it appalling.

Perhaps a simpler explanation is in order, though. Perhaps learning really has declined as decades of "reform" have reduced education to whatever is easiest to measure. Short-term gains in a few narrowly-defined areas of knowledge come with at least three significant kinds of costs. The first is that short-term drills to boost test scores will not be sustainable. No Child Left Behind has elevated "cramming" for a test from something the best students avoid to a blueprint for running entire schools. The second is that educators have to teach in ever-narrow bands of information, some subjects get left out. Third, conveying of that information becomes more important than the art of teaching and the skill of learning, until eventually a school becomes a building full of people simply going through the motions.

But I digress. The impetus for this post is a breath-taking display of scientific literacy at another beauty pageant. As reported on, when the 2011 Miss USA contest included the usual question-and-answer period, it uncovered a wide vein of scientific illiteracy. Relatively affluent young people from each of the United States revealed that they had not learned even very basic things about science and about the meaning of a democracy. Snopes is a web site that evaluates urban legends, and first became involved when its readers asked about the veracity of this video:

Aside from the fact that the actresses in this video appear several times each, with different sashes, it was apparently difficult to discern that this was a parody of the way real pageant contestants responded to a question about the teaching of evolution. Even the very few who exhibit some support for science are surprisingly willing to allow conjecture, opinion, and myth to share equal time in science classrooms:

This is more horrifying than amusing, as contestant after contestant reveals breath-taking scientific illiteracy. Opponents of science education have succeeded in shifting the debate toward some vague notion of fairness, rather than accuracy, as all views of the evidence are seen as somehow equally deserving. It is interesting that this kind of relativism comes from the far right, which in other contexts insists on absolutism in teaching. Most of the contestants also exhibit a lot of confusion between moral and scientific questions. Questions about how the world works are not moral questions, just as questions about how we should treat our neighbors are not scientific questions. I was also reminded of my colleague's concern about multiple illiteracies, since most of the responses fail in several dimensions: science, logic, and grammar.

In the actual interviews, Miss Vermont shows the best understanding of the issues, arguing that our understanding of short-term processes involving bacteria and disease only make sense in the broader context of evolution. In the parody, sadly, Miss Vermont is shown as the least gorgeous contestant, in a flannel-and-glasses stereotype. Of course, one can be both beautiful and capable in science and math, as Danica McKellar teaches young women through Kiss My Math and other books.

It is also too bad that the videos do not show how the non-voluptuous and non-female can be equally illiterate or inumerate. Examples abound, of course: just today a middle-aged man approached our car on his motorcycle, treating the double-yellow line as a lane rather than a divider, as if he and his Harley had zero width.

But I will close this post with one from Harvard University. It is a favorite among geographers, because Harvard closed its geography department in the 1950s and seems not to have recovered. The clip below is part of a longer project about science education known as A Private Universe.

September 25, 2012 Update:

The shuttering of Harvard's geography department deserves some elaboration, especially as the university has moved in recent years to re-fill the void but without reversing its mistake of a half century ago.

Homophobia certainly was part of the equation, which those who see Harvard as a bastion of liberalism might find difficult to believe. It was not the sole cause, of course, but it was a factor in the closing of  departments at Yale, Harvard, and Stanford.

Neil Smith's definitive 1987 article on the Harvard crisis details the demise of the department and its ramifications. The article is cited in a 2006 article in Harvard Magazine that dismisses the role of homophobia and focuses on the vocational value of GIS, mistakenly elevating it as the principle savior of the discipline. Geographic Information Systems and related geospatial industries certainly are important, and it is great to be in a discipline with both academic and practical value. But our friends on the Charles seem to remain resistant to the value of geography as vital discipline that integrates global education and the STEM disciplines.

Returning to the original theme of this post, it should come as no surprise that the failure to teach geography is associated with a failure to learn the subject. Fortunately, the cause of geographic and scientific literacy has been rejoined both in Massachusetts and nationally, and the book Geography for Life provides a clear map of the road ahead.

Photo (c) 2012 by BSU geographer Ashley Costa, opens the new
AAG/NCGE/NGS publication Geography for Life.

The Original Off-Season Lodgings

Yesterday we enjoyed a very pleasant and fairly traditional Thanksgiving dinner with friends. Living only a dozen miles or so from Plymouth Rock, we cannot help but give the holiday a lot of thought. It is one of our favorites, despite knowing all too much about the myths and realities of the original feast.

One thing that is often forgotten is that although the Pilgrim's first feast was in Plymouth, it was not the first place they tried to settle upon arrival in what would become the Bay State. As comedian Jimmy Tingle explains, they first tried the other side of the Cape Cod Bay, in Provincetown, which was no easier to book then than it is today. His riff beautifully captures many Bay State nuances that help to define our sense of place.

It comes as The New Yorker also sends up the Pilgrims in a mockery of today's immigration discourse and as a Jimmy Kimmel overlays a snippet of that discourse on the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special.

Today, by the way, is not just Franksgiving Day, but also the anniversary of a very significant event in the history of Bay State waters -- the rescue of 29 sailors during a ferocious storm in 1888. The rescue took place in Hull, just a bit north of Plymouth and Cape Cod Bay, but the U.S. Lifesaving Service is most closely associated with the Cape itself, where at least 3,000 shipwrecks have occurred.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Discord and Connections

When we think of music, we do not always think of the stuff that makes it possible. A Gibson guitar, for example, is as much an idea as an object. (See the wonderful film Herb & Dorothy for an exploration of this approach to art.) Even a Les Paul guitar, however, comes from somewhere, and efforts to ensure the social and ecological sustainability of timber harvesting in those distant "somewheres" has created a cultural and political backlash, according to Bruce Gellerman's report on efforts to undermine the Lacey Act.

Another segment on the same broadcast of Living on Earth reports that the American Academy of Arts and Sciences now recognizes the importance of integrating social science with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines if progress on environmental problems is to move from academic circles to the real world. Fortunately, the National Science Foundation has been recognizing such a need over the past several years and has expanded NSF geography programs within its Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences -- not a perfect fit, but one that is helping others to understand how geography does connect to many other fields.

Location, Location, Location. Plus Timing

February 2019 update: At some point since my 2011 post, the Green Bean came under new management. I now enjoy frequent visits there, mostly after my morning rows in New Bedford harbor. The staff are friendly and effective. I'm tempted to remove this post, but it remains a good reminder that location alone is not enough.  People are still the key variable in any business.
I spend a lot of time thinking about coffee and coffee shops. Not only do I visit a lot of shops to see what they are doing for coffee and how they fit into their communities; I also assign my students to do the same, and I have even investigated starting a few different kinds of coffee shops, though none has become a reality just yet. If I find something I do not like in a shop -- unless it is truly one of the bad guys -- I follow the adage, "If you don't have something good to say, don't say anything at all." But Saturday's experience was so instructive -- and geographic -- that I decided to share it.

We were headed to New Bedford to visit Travessia Urban Winery, the last stop on our Coastal Wine Trail we had pursued as an intermittent staycation over the past six months or so. Travessia is the only one of the nine wineries on the trail (from Southwest Rhode Island to the tip of Cape Cod) that does not grow its own grapes, but this three-year-young winery uses grapes from some of the others, and is already producing better wines than others. (More on the geography of this transect of wineries in another post.)

About a decade ago, I helped to organize a region academic conference in New Bedford, and became quite interested in the renewal that was just starting to take place there. Local investment in the Zeiterion Theater (to which we have returned many times for a variety of terrific performances) combined with federal investment in the National Historic Park (naturally, a BSU geography alumnus was involved in that) and a lot of other leaps of faith to create a vibrant downtown, in the midst of a city that is on its way back. In an earlier post, in fact, I shared the nationally-acclaimed work that another BSU graduate has done with the National Park Service and local youth to exhibit and cultivate a sense of pride among youth in the city.

Back to the coffee shop. When we planned our outing to Travessia, we decided to visit the Ocean Explorium to see its Science on a Sphere. While there, we planned to visit one of the area's new coffee shops. The first choice had been Celtic Coffee, because I had heard good things about it from several students, but when we found several others independent shops even closer to our destination, we decided to save Celtic Coffee for another time.

Instead, we decided to try Green Bean, because of the cool sign and the promise of ethical and sustainable product. We had noticed the cafe from the south, corner entrance, but we actually entered from the north side of the shop, through a side door facing a small lobby shared with the winery. This turned out to be a very important distinction. We entered the shop and were pleased -- as have been some other reviewers -- with the light, spacious ambiance. With a varied menu -- even including several single-origin coffees -- plenty of seating and an inviting atmosphere, it seemed the perfect cafe. Surrounded as it is by a number of thriving attractions where plenty of other entrepreneurs are now happy to invest in businesses both similar and complimentary, we were expecting an excellent cafe experience.

We were wrong, and we were reminded of three factors that are essential to success in an independent shop, even if all the other ingredients are in place. First is customer service. We were not greeted at all, and our orders were taken and prepared grudgingly by the younger of two women working at the time. The other employee then turned off the lights, and though the sunlight allowed us barely to notice the change, this was our first hint that we were about to learn about the second factor. It was 2:00 on a busy Saturday afternoon, and this cafe was closing. In fact, it was closing as we walked in the door, but this had not been communicated. We were advised that the time was posted on the door -- and we advised (very politely given the circumstances) that the door through which we had entered IN PLAIN VIEW had no such sign.

The closing time was bizarre, given the fact that the entire neighborhood was bustling. While we were inside, many people were walking the neighborhood while others struggled to find parking. Both Travessia and the Ocean Explorium across the street had groups of visitors, many of whom might have welcomed a coffee, but the cafe was closing earlier.

This leads to the third factor, which is a failure to pay attention to one's surroundings. Although the location of this cafe must have been chosen on the basis of surrounding businesses and institutions, its hours of operation -- and orientation toward customers -- was not affected by changes in this dynamic downtown. The staff were only vaguely aware that the business next door -- which shares a common entrance -- had recently expanded, and had not therefore considered the positive implications for their own shop.

Of course, I do not entirely blame the workers themselves, at least not entirely. Their behavior was unlike anything either of us has done in food or retail work, but the real culprit is a manager who has clearly failed to cultivate a spirit of pride in the establishment and focus on customers.

As a geographer, I often repeat that location matters. But it offers no guarantees, either.

Shop hours are scrawled on a cardboard sign on the main
entrance, but not posted at all on the second entrance.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


Our family does a lot of blogging. Our dog, Perry the spirited minpin, helps. So much so that we decided to hop on the branding bandwagon and put her on all the blogs. As I write this, in fact, Perry is in her accustomed position, laying alongside me in the comfy chair, staying out of trouble and letting us think, read, and write.

Some of the blogs to which Perry contributes in ways great and small:
This one, Environmental Geography
"Library" Books
Celebrating the States
Una Nueva Receta Cada Semana
My Year of Reading "Year of Books"
The Bridgewaters Project
Paloma Helps
BSU Geography
BSU EarthView
Teaching Geography
First Parish Bridgewater
Meaning Not Dogma (no pun intended)
Wiley GeoDiscoveries
Bridgewater Center Neighborhood Association
Fair Trade BSU
Fair Trade Bridgewater
Help. Hope. Haiti.

Where are the Humans?

It is hard to know what counts as a human being any more. As the Occupeligo has helped a much broader part of the population understand, it is not necessary to be a person at all, in order to be human, as many corporations could tell you. If they were people, that is.

As I wrote in my Human Sieve post last year, an increasingly greedy and xenophobic nation wants the labor of immigrants but not the immigrants themselves. Though most Americans do not yet take this as far as Mitt Romney has, there is a growing interest in narrowing the definitions of "person" or "citizen" to include only one's self and one's closest associates.

I was a fan of the Saturn car company from its inception to its untimely demise, only because it seemed genuinely to be working toward human-to-human relationships among people with many different roles, from designing and assembling the cars to selling and buying them. A formative experience for me, in fact, was watching a Saturn training video in which a man explained that he was so glad to have come to Saturn from a previous employer (another General Motors division) where he was "hired from the neck down." At Saturn, he brought not only his arms, legs, and back to work, but his mind and soul as well. Unfortunately, the room for such a brand in the GM stable appears to have been limited.

Just as it can be disheartening to be considered a one-dimensional worker, so, too, is it problematic to be thought of solely as a consumer. At some point after World War II, consumerism grew from being simply a lot of consumption into being a genuine -ism, which is to say a world view that is wrapped around consumption.

At some point the meaning of "shopping for the holidays" shifted -- for an alarming number of people -- from "shopping as part of the preparation for enjoying the holidays" to "shopping as a holiday." When the shift from "person" to "consumer" has gone this far, it has in fact gone too far.

As with many things in the U.S. these days, the trend seems to be bifurcating. Despite an economy that is foundering and environmental systems that are becoming unraveled, many people find themselves in a race to consume ever-more stuff, though they might not even have a place to put it all. Others, however, reject the idea that they should participate in their own objectification, and refuse -- as my family has done for two decades -- to purchase anything at all on Thanksgiving or the day after. These are days for feast and famine, and maybe a film and some music, but in our house, the day after Thanksgiving is BUY NOTHING DAY.

All the world is a stage, they say, but we might not even be players. The consumers who choose to play in the arms race of ever-earlier holiday openings and the workers who are forced to play along are more puppet than actor. When the invisible hand of the market is not pleasuring itself under the sheets of the global economy (as Carl Safina has so artfully written), it is busily working the strings of a marionette show whose point is increasingly obscure and whose ticket price is ever-growing.

Accountability and Community Colleges

As often happens, two stories appeared in the press on Friday that are essentially unrelated, but with contrasting elements that reveal something about our times. In this case, it is about the disparate expectations of accountability among public employees.

Mitt Romney -- though in many ways the least public-minded person in the country -- has been a public-sector worker and is seeking an even higher position as a government worker. Yet the "accountability" he and his ilk insist upon for others is something with which he cannot be bothered. He airily dismisses any questioning of his decision to erase most evidence of electronic communications from his term as Massachusetts Governor, and literally to buy the rest.

Meanwhile, "reformers" continue to push so many "accountability" measures on educators that it becomes increasingly difficult for them to educate. Any negative results, however, are assumed to be the fault of the educators, since the reformers themselves are never asked to account for themselves. Today's second story is about the most recent calls to squeeze even more out of the state's community colleges. Boston Mayor Menino suggests that educators -- whose work he cannot begin to understand -- be "taken to task if they don't perform."

Everyone consulted for the story -- which did not include the educators or even the administrators involved, incidentally -- conceded that the community colleges are underfunded and already do quite a lot with quite a little. Massachusetts, after all, is behind nearly all other states in the funding of public higher education -- some years ranking 50th, some years as high as 48th -- and community colleges have received the worst fiscal beatings. Some of the "reforms" suggested are simply ways to make the community colleges more effective at lobbying the legislature. For a legislative leader to insist on such a necessity is to shift the blame from the perpetrator and toward the victim.

Also mentioned in the article is the fact that community colleges have to accept any high school graduates who come their way. These graduates are a nearly pure sample of MCAS victims. That is to say that college readiness of arriving students continues to diminish as teaching-to-the-test becomes pervasive. It being too difficult to hold the promoters of MCAS accountable for their mistakes (and too costly for those receiving those testing fees), accountability is simply moved downstream, to the professors. Professors, incidentally, who teach ridiculous course loads, again because the governor and legislators are not held accountable for their unconscionable neglect of public higher education.

The same meager funding that lengthens the teaching day beyond what is reasonable also shortens the learning day, as students who pay ever-higher fees must work long hours flipping burgers or waiting tables, rather than focusing on their studies. Educators know that time on task is a crucial variable in achievement, but when time on task is reduced because the public has not supported its young learners, it is inevitably the learners and their teachers who are blamed.

Aside from misplacing accountability, those who would reform community colleges make an even more fundamental mistake by failing to understand the dual mission of community colleges. For certain students in certain circumstances, a community college is a place to get prepared for a particular trade or career. For other students in different circumstances, however, it is a place to get prepared for further learning at a four-year institution. For many students, community colleges serve both functions, one for a near future and one for a farther future.

The Boston Foundation should be aware enough of the dynamism of the world economy to realize that an education that is focused too narrowly on certain vocations is not an education for the future. The governor and legislature could more credibly improve community colleges by unshackling K-12 teachers from the MCAS and fairly funding the community colleges so that the teachers could be freer to teach and the learners freer to learn.

An op-ed published in the Globe on Sunday addresses the shortcomings of the "reform" movement from a different angle. University of California Vice Provost Russell Rumberger describes How College Prep is Killing High School, arguing that the emphasis on academic subjects poorly serves the one-third of future workers who will need other skills that were once taught in high school. He cites Thomas Jefferson, who stated in 1818 that "stated that the purpose of public education included giving citizens information for transacting business, the ability to express ideas in writing, and an understanding of duties to neighbors and country."

Rumberger's complaint is not limited to the amount of emphasis on college preparation; he also complains that the simplistic manner in which this has been done is leading to systemic failures for which the reformers are not being held accountable. High-stakes testing is associated with record low rates of graduation and a measurable decline in so-called soft skills -- a crisis, really, in the availability of even minimally prepared workers.

Moreover, all of this misplaced effort is not even achieving its stated objective: Rumberger confirms what those of us who teach at the college level have been seeing: standardized tests are making students less capable of college-level writing and critical, integrative thinking.

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