Monday, January 31, 2011

Where in the World is Egypt?

A bit of encouraging news: I showed this to a group of communications majors today, and after I had it on the screen for a few seconds, they gasped at the remarkable error. This was posted on the Left Take blog, with a suggestion not to turn to Fox News for its Egypt coverage. Sadly, I know that poor attention to geography is not limited to fringe networks such as Fox. I have a colleague who writes 1,000 letters a year to news organizations, pointing out geographic errors in their coverage and maps.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


Starbucks Logos Past and Present

Starbucks Logos Future?

Thanks to my favorite librarian for sharing Steve Heller's NY Times article about branding changes for the world's largest coffee company. To mark its 40th anniversary in March, the Starbucks logo will be a zoomed-in image of the mermaid (Howard Shultz calls her the "siren") that is even a bit more abstracted than the desexing she underwent in 1992. More dramatic, however, is the decision to remove the neat-line circles and text that currently envelop the siren. Shultz is counting on the single color and the abstracted figure both to trigger recognition and to free the company from associations that are limited to coffee.

The Times included a visual witticism (shown above) from blogger Felipe Torres, whose progression of abstractions begin with one in which the siren might be mistaken for Lady Godiva, on the way toward the ultimate abstraction of a green disk. As Heller notes, some companies have come to regret tinkering with their logos. Starbucks is contemplating a change that will only work if the existing logo already had a high level of recognition. Given the ubiquity of the company, I actually doubt that dropping the words will make much difference, as people see a vaguely familiar form, most often in places that are also familiar.

The announcement comes as Starbucks enjoyed a significant increase in profits, to a record $346.6 million in the most recent quarter. Given strong growth in revenue -- to $3,000,000,000 for the quarter -- some analysts thought that the profits could have been even higher, but cited rising prices for commodity coffee as a limitation. I remember from my days in the food industry that even a small shift in unit prices for our inputs would make a difference in our financial performance, and that certainly is true for Starbucks. It needs to be kept in mind, however, that spending on  coffee remains relatively modest compared the size of the company. In 2009, for example, the company spent about $500,000,000 on coffee. That makes it one of the world's largest buyers of coffee, but still represents well under 1/10 of total revenues.

PS: Thanks to my friend Julia for mentioning an obvious omission in this post. Independent coffee shops are usually better! My Geography of Coffee Shoppes mentions (and maps) a few dozen that my students and I have enjoyed. (And yes, I assign students to find me coffee shops!)

Friday, January 28, 2011

Lazy Point Year

Today's On Point program featured an interview with ecologist Carl Safina, who read several passages from his new book, The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World. (The odd title refers to his home on Long Island.) I have been thinking for a while about a new approach for my environmental geography course, and this book might just be it. His discussion with Tom Ashbrook is a rich blend of appreciation for the natural world and insight into the ways in which human institutions are ill-prepared to care for it. On the surface, he seems to be echoing what has become a familiar litany of gloomy predictions, but his critique is deeper than most and his insights more poetic. I look forward to reading all about his year of observing what remains of beauty and wonder in this world, and what it has taught him about our tiny but sacred place in the cosmos.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

More Hot Reading for Cold Days

Hartlaub's Turaco is a bird whose
habitat is protected by
coffee but threatened by 
climate change.
I recently posted an article about climate change in coffeelands -- a threat to habitats and livelihoods that is increasingly the subject of concern and research.

Today, the Conservation & Coffee blog includes a update with about a half-dozen posts on the subject, including some peer-reviewed research and some exciting news about research on this subject at Indiana University.

The C&C blog is the source I know for information about the environmental implications of coffee, particularly those related to tropical habitats. The blog now includes a special page on coffee and climate change, referencing dozens of important items that have appeared on the blog over the past couple years.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Frozen Orange

This morning -- after the sun had been up for more than an hour -- I heard that it was 22 degrees below zero in the town of Orange, Massachusetts. Fahrenheit. Not wind-chill. This is cold, too cold to remind most normal people of the problem of global warming (more accurately known as climate change).

That was exactly my first thought, however, because I had already been intending to blog about an article on global warming and coffee by Orange's own Dean Cycon of Dean's Beans coffee. The article, Will Coffee Be a Casualty of Climate Change, focuses on the changes that highland coffee farmers in Colombia have already noticed. (I have to admit that my second thought was about the possibility of pipes freezing at the coffee company, possibly delaying my latest order of Ethiopian coffee!)

Almost all of the world's coffee grows in a "coffee belt" between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, where temperature, day length, and sun angle remain relatively constant throughout the year. Not every place within that belt is suitable for coffee, though, because lowland areas are too hot and highlands too cold. For the finest coffees, the "Mama Bear" happy medium is generally found between 4,000 and 6,000 feet or so, toward the upper end of the altitudinal zone known in Latin America as Tierra Templada. In Nicaragua, for example, the frequent presence of clouds at this elevation results in cloud forests that create ideal conditions for shade-grown coffee.

In certain very tall mountains, warming temperatures tend to shift the zones upward, and if this happens gradually enough, perhaps coffee can be cultivated in new areas. The changes may be too rapid for this to take place, of course, and an important hypsometric reality is that less land is available at higher elevations. In fact, many of the mountains of Central American coffeelands are not much taller than 6,000 feet, so that any upward movement of the coffee zone would be literally into thin air.

Diagram by Mark Healy, Harper College

Apt Map Humor

Wasserman Boston Globe
Click to enlarge
I am always pleased to see maps in unexpected places. I particularly enjoyed yesterday's Wasserman cartoon in the Boston Globe, as it cleverly brings together two stories that have been in the news of late. I have commented extensively on the geography of Gerrymandering, an unseemly practice that was invented in my current home of Massachusetts and recently perfected in Texas, my former home. Politicians in both states will be deeply engaged in the practice this year, given recent shifts in population growth.

In this elegant graphic, Dan Wasserman cartographically links this ongoing story of political geography with a bit of cultural geography that emerges every year as the snow falls. City of Savers is just one of scores of recent articles and letters about the practice -- particularly entrenched in South Boston -- of saving shoveled-out parking spaces with chairs, carts, and other objects. The boundaries are often blurred among protecting one's investment of time, marking territory that is actually public, and littering. The debate on those questions is likely to more contentious than those regarding the political map!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Nicaragua Return

Coffee drying in trays beneath the beautiful cliffs of
 Peñas Blancas near El Cua
At the beginning of this month, I returned to Nicaragua for the fifth time, leading a group of Bridgewater State University Students on a study tour entitled Geography of Coffee. The trip web page includes a few photos and stories, with a link to almost a thousand more photos and links to similar pages for the previous tours.

As always, I missed home but enjoyed time with our wonderful BSU students and with many Nicaraguan friends -- farmers, tour guides, restaurant and hotel workers, activists, and others -- who make this journey so meaningful.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Frog Coffee

Many thanks to my favorite librarian for alerting me to this story from the New York Times about efforts to improve the quality of coffee in Paris coffee shops. I have never been to the City of Lights, but I had assumed -- apparently in error -- that the long history of cafe culture would translate to quality coffee. After all, Paris has been known for its elegant, street-side cafes since shortly after the Turkish Ambassador introduced the beverage in 1669.

According to Oliver Strand and other critics, however, indolence and complacency have led to poor coffee care. The article describes an annual competition that aims to improve Paris coffee. If ever I get a chance to visit Paris, I will certainly look for these prize winners!

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Not Quite Seemless

The World-Wide Web is, in some ways, like the World Series. The Facebook version of Scrabble, for example, goes out to the entire WWW, except the part outside of North America.

Are We There Yet?

Just a few minutes ago, on a flight from Atlanta to Managua, my students and I were curious about our progress. A solid deck of clouds at a lower level made physical landmarks impossible. I am taking advantage of the fact that Delta is offering its new WiFi service for free during the winter holidays, today being the last day of the offer. I am not sure I would be willing to pay for this access, but it has been a very intriguing thing to put to use. Within minutes, we were able to use a combination of GPS and Internet technology to figure out where we are, and to post it on a web page about our trip and on this blog.

By the way, in the time it took me to write about all this, we crossed the Straits of Florida and are about to traverse the western end of Cuba.

Post-script: A few hours ago, as we were winging our way toward Cuba, I tried to send this post to a friend when the internet connection cut out. It was not a Trading-with-the-Enemy problem, though: the WiFi service on airlines extends to within 100 miles of the U.S. coastline and above 10,000 feet elevation.

Talkin' Dragon

For the first blog post of 2011 I'm trying to use my new Dragon software. If I'm successful you'll be seeing a lot more of posts from my digital recorder on traveling in Nicaragua.

PS: This ended up being my second post of the new year, but it worked pretty well for a first effort. I had to correct one syllable.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

GIs and a Cuppa Joe

"Do you care for some of this miserable muck that passes for coffee these days? ... Osgood, Where is this coffee coming from?"

John Tate as Adm. Bidrie in On The Beach

I heard the lines above as I prepared for a study tour to Nicaragua, where I will be exploring the origins of some of the finest coffee in the world. The 1959 film, set in World War II, is a reminder that despite all the advances in specialty coffees, quantity continues to trump quality for the vast majority of the market.

Nowhere is that balance more evident than in the coffee traditionally provided to soldiers and sailors. See my Civil War coffee post and my coffee and M*A*S*H posts for some examples. Coffee references are not limited to military programs, of course. I've started to gather a few examples on my Coffee and Tea in Film page.

Admiral Bidrie and his Lieutenant represent many coffee consumers, even today: they have no idea where their coffee comes from. I am privileged to play a small part in helping people overcome that cognitive gap, with the hope that with knowledge comes an interest in fairness.

One last reference to On the Beach, though it is not related to coffee: Eva Gardner's character Moira Davidson says to Gregory Peck's Cmdr. Towers:
"It's unfair.... I had to take algebra twice. The only thing I could understand was geography. And I liked geography."

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