Thursday, March 31, 2011

Coffee Timing

One of the most exciting features of the new Science & Mathematics Center at Bridgewater State University will be the Science on a Sphere (SoS) display. SoS was developed by NOAA and is currently installed in 61 locations throughout the world. It is a large, blank sphere onto which any kind of digital map -- including animated maps -- can be projected.

Many maps have already been created by NOAA itself and the community of SoS institutions, but one of the most exciting prospects for SoS will be the ability to create and display our own globes. Among the first projects I hope to undertake -- with the help of geography students, of course -- is the creation of globes showing the global distribution of coffee production. Because the coffee season shifts from place to place throughout the year, we can develop a series of projected globes that show current distribution of coffee harvest locations each month.

We will draw on a number of resources in the creation of such maps, but for now the Sweet Maria's coffee calendar is the most convenient and complete resource for learning about the timing of the harvest.

The Art of Cultivation

Those who know me well know that I'm always thinking about the farmers. Over the past week, I have been doing even more thinking about farmers than usual. It began last Friday, when I had a group of students with me for an EarthView program, and decided to stop by our local CSA farm with them. At first they just politely got out of the van and followed me, but once we were on the farm itself, we were transformed as our connection to the earth -- which up until a few moments prior had been mediated through tires and roads and buildings -- became palpable. We enjoyed a brief chat with Connie, one of the farmers and a long-time friend. Of course, the connection was made even more enjoyable by the ornery goats and wicked cute new lambs at the farm!

I have also been thinking about Alfredo, one of my very favorite coffee farmers, whom I had invited to our campus this semester. Had it not been for bureaucratic hurdles, he would be arriving next week. I am starting to work on next year, when I will visit his farm in Nicaragua in January, and will prepare the visa materials even before that!

What really got me thinking, though, was an article in Costco Connections magazine about Howard Schultz, who is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Starbucks and its recent financial recovery. I combed the article for any reference to farms or farmers. Images of coffee beans are spread over all four stylish pages of the spread, but coffee farmers are not mentioned. And just as a picture framer might try to take credit for an attractive painting, Schultz congratulates himself repeatedly for improving the business by several changes that are very late in the chain of events: changes in roasting, in brewing, in decor, in barista training. As with a good picture frame, all of these matter, certainly. But none of these matters as much as the bean itself, and good beans do not appear by magic. They come from farmers.

We watched a film about farmers this week in which Freddy Rodriguez delivers a beautiful paean to farmers. The film is Bottle Shock, in which Rodriguez plays Gustavo Brambila, one of several California grape growers who helped to put Napa on the proverbial map with respect to wine. In Brambila's character, he complains to his boss, a farmer he views as a latecomer who he believes does not take the work seriously enough:
You have to have it in your blood. You have to grow up with the soil underneath your nails and the smell of the grape in the air you breathe. The cultivation of the vine is an art form. The refinement of its juice is a religion that requires pain, and desire, and sacrifice.
All of these thoughts were brewing while I attended an event known as Arts for Advocacy on our campus last night. Nikki, a student who has worked in a coffee shop and taken both of my coffee classes, is a leader in the fair-trade movement on our campus. She had told me that she would be reading a poem called "Campesino." I knew it would be good, but I was not prepared for how perfectly she echoed my own feelings about the people who make coffee -- and everything else we eat and drink -- possible.

Afterwards, when I congratulated her on the poem, she simply said, "Thank the farmers!"

The most important coffee cup at
Casa Hayes-Boh, a planter
created by a local ceramic artist.

The Kids Are Outside

To compensate for posting a rather dystopic video about the future of teaching a couple of weeks ago, I am sharing Get Outside and Move (below), which was co-produced by the National Park Service and Third Eye. I learned about the video from Jason, a Third Eye volunteer and recent BSU graduate who uses the arts to do  creative and important work with youth in New Bedford.

The video has gotten the attention of Michelle Obama's Let's Move program, which advocates fitness through better connections to food and exercise. The video has the added attraction of revealing the students' great sense of pride in their community -- from its history and architecture to the beautiful lands and waters that surround New Bedford.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Race Counts

As readers of this blog will know from some recent posts, the spring following a decade year is a great time for geographers, as a variety of stories begin to emerge as geographers, other social scientists, and journalists begin to study new data from the census. The timing has been perfect for the geographic analysis class I am teaching this year, in which students use state-level data to practice some basic mapping, graphing, and presentation skills.

In the context of discussing some of the emerging stories Monday, my students asked some very cogent questions about race in the census -- both how it gets defined and why it is a subject of inquiry in the first place. Today, Morning Edition included a segment about race in the census from an Hispanic perspective, in which the very same questions were raised, and some interesting answers posed. I am not quite ready to agree with those who say race no longer exists, but I do agree that -- at a minimum -- its status as an arbitrary and shifting designation reduces its analytic power.

Still, a number of the stories being published this season do reflect geographic processes that cannot be completely disregarded. The sampling I presented to my students include a story about the Hispanic population in the U.S. reaching 50 million,  the increase of the rural Hispanic population of North Carolina. Closer to home is a Boston Globe article about growing minority populations in Massachusetts. Of course, the always-problematic term "minority" is now becoming absolutely nonsensical in many instances, often replaced by the oxymoron "majority-minority."

Even more interesting to me has been an On Point radio episode about a general reversal in patterns of African-American migration, as many descendants of people who moved north in the Great Migration close to a century ago are now moving south, often to suburban areas. The guests and callers tell an evolving and complex story of demographic change and how it plays out at the personal level. About 15 years ago, I wrote an article about the original "great migration" for a history encyclopedia. A later edition is still available in some academic databases.

Hayes-Bohanan, James. "Great Northern Migration." Great Events from History: The Twentieth Century, 1901-1940. Ed. Robert F. Gorman. 6 vols. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 2007. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Japan Global Links

(C) 2002 - NGM
Fifteen years ago, I wrote a short article about Commodore Perry's 1853 mission to Japan, which ended a period of determined isolation under the Shogun rulers, and is eventually credited with the end of the Shogun era. Writing in National Geographic (October 2002), Scott Elder describes the events in Last Stand at Edo Bay. Ben Griffiths also describes the Perry expedition in some detail.

The East Asian Library at UC-Berkley provides online access to its vast collection of Japanese Historic Maps, including an 1853 detail map of the coast that appears to depict this encounter (see below) and several world maps depicting Japanese cartographic understanding of the world at the time. To me, the great accuracy of these maps -- such as one called "Chikyu Bankoku Hozu" -- helps to correct a mis-perception I had about Japan's isolation. The decision to remain isolated was carefully taken by Shoguns who understood far more about the rest of the world than I previously realized. Elder's article explains why Japan's leaders decided to accept the U.S. overture at the time they did.

Scarcely a generation later, a Japanese student actually studied at Bridgewater Normal School, which eventually became BSU, where I now teach. After leaving Bridgewater in 1877, Shuji Isawa went on to become an important leader in Japanese education. He befriended the geographer Alexander Graham Bell and became the first person to speak Japanese through a telephone! In the nearly century and a half since he was here, scores of Japanese nationals have enriched our campus as they completed their undergraduate education here. In recent years, a growing number of Bridgewater students have had the opportunity to study in Japan on short- and long-term programs.

By the late 20th century, of course, connections between the Japan and the United States -- and indeed between Japan and the entire world -- became increasingly intertwined as manufacturing has become almost unbelievably globalized. Thanks to the digital descendants of Mr. Bell's telephone -- among other innovations -- it is now possible for manufacturers to compete not for the sale of products but for control of each step of a  product's manufacture. As reported in Foreign Policy (and hundreds of other outlets in recent weeks), the tragic earthquake of March 11, 2011 has highlighted just how interdependent the world space-economy has become, as Japan now occupies a central position in many global supply chains.

According to a story in USA Today, Ford Motor Company is advising dealers not to order certain vehicles in black. Aside from the ironic contrast to Henry Ford's old saw about Model T color choices, this story is interesting as an example of the extreme complexity of global supply chains. Ever-increasing sophistication in transportation and communication technologies allow for intricately specialized manufacturing with remarkably short lead times. In this case, Ford uses special paint that in turn relies on special pigments -- in a supply chain with minimal inventories and rapid connections that link a customer back to original pigments a half-planet away with lead time of only a few weeks. It allows for a remarkable array of features to be delivered, but with equally remarkable vulnerability to interruption.

As reported by the Financial Times, it seems that the unbridled pursuit of cost-cutting has come at the cost of increased vulnerability to disruptions in ever-longer supply chains. It is common for products to be put together through Just-in-Time systems. The current disruptions in the automotive and electronic sectors that are resulting from the tragedy in Japan are extreme examples of what is becoming quite common across many sectors. Even minor regional disruptions can now have global reach.

For more information about Japan, the earthquake, relief efforts, and BSU responses, see the Japan Earthquake MaxGuide, maintained by our BSU Maxwell Library.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Where and When

Today we stopped by one of our favorite farm stands -- actually, it may now be the only one remaining in our town. Recalling that our town's Easter "sunrise" service will be held at the farm, we contemplated walking there. The service is fairly early in the morning but not right at sunrise, and though it is often chilly, the walk might do us some good. The geographic question quickly occurred to us: what time will sunrise be on Easter this year? Easter is a "movable" feast, so the first step was to confirm that it is on April 24 this year. This is nearly as late as it can be, and the latest is has been since 1943. (See the intricate details at

I found the site while trying to address the specific question of sunrise on April 24. I was pleased to see that I could find the answer based on Brockton, Massachusetts, the nearest city and one that actually used to be part of Bridgewater. Of course location is relevant, because the tilt of the earth and its rotation on its axis mean that latitude and longitude determine the time of sunrise on any given date. In the scheme of things, a distance of a few miles will not make a substantial difference in the timing of sunrise. Today, for example, the solar day has been (I'm writing this right at sundown) only 12 seconds longer in Boston than in Brockton. On Easter, therefore, we can be fairly confident that the sunrise for the purpose of our walk to the morning service will be at 5:50 -- plenty of time for a 1.5-mile walk to celebrate Easter with our friends and neighbors (especially since we have walked there and back for ice cream!)

A geographer should understand calendars and clocks better than I do; in our house, I leave any complicated discussions of dates to my favorite librarian. But I love being able to play around with the interface between time and space, and was delighted to see that the same site that showed me the available walking time before the Easter service also has a fully customizable version of the classic Geochron that my department keeps in our hallway. The Day and Night page allows a user to choose a location and a local time and date at that location, in order to display the planet as it would appear (if it were rolled out like a pie crust) at that time. The circle of illumination is shown, with dark areas "lit" according to mosaics of nighttime satellite images and daylight areas shaded according to biomes. Unlike other maps of this kind I have seen, it even shows zones of twilight. At any given moment, particular band at the edge of the circle of illumination is experiencing sunrise or sunset; the closer to the equator, the less time a particular point will spend in that band. I first realized this ("the sun sets quickly in the tropics") on a sunset "booze cruise" deep in the Amazon, at 9 degrees south latitude.

Given the opportunity to see how the earth and sun and moon were aligned at any point in time, I of course chose the most significant moment -- and one whose hour and minute I could remember: the moment I became a father. In that moment, I was not thinking about the subsolar point, the position of the moon, or the proximity to twilight (still a couple hours off). But all of that can be discerned below. When our girl was born, moon was above Madagascar, the sun above Hawaii, and we were spinning toward our first night as parents.

Friday, March 25, 2011

BSU Blogfest -- Day 5

Through the course of this BSU Blogfest week, I believe I have pointed to all of the blogs to which I actively contribute: those of myself, my family, my department, and my community. I invite readers to “subscribe” to any of the blogs I mentioned over the course of the week, plus one I neglected to include: The Bridgewaters Project.

The Bridgewaters Project is a life-long blog on which my favorite librarian and I are documenting our explorations – literal and figurative – of every place in the world we can find that bears the name “Bridgewater.” So far, the journey has taken us from  a sleepy college town in Virginia to a microbrewery in Vermont, to one of the most important crime scenes in U.S. history (a mile from our house) and a pivotal location in the history of treating the criminally insane (four miles from our house).

I will finish the week by pointing out that a much larger body of online work has accumulated on my faculty web site – a sprawling entity of hundreds of pages that predates my service at Bridgewater. In the mid-1990s, I was teaching part time at a school known – really – as the University of Texas at Brownsville in Partnership with Texas Southmost College. (A few months ago I blogged about very disconcerting events at my former campus.)

Anyway, I had a day job in McAllen and taught one night each week at UTB-TSC to a group of about 70 students, many of whom walked to class from Mexico (hence the “southmost” designation). I noticed that a lot of my students struggled with the same issues related to writing. Since my home and my day job were about 50 miles away, I did not have a way of spending much time working on it with them. There was a new thing called the World Wide Web, however, and I was learning bare-bones HTML to create something called a web page.

I decided that providing writing tips for my students would be a good use, so I posted that, along with a few links related to the course subject – environmental geography. Eventually the writing tips grew into a whole section, and the links grew and grew. When I came to Bridgewater, I copied the pages to the new web server here, and they gradually grew. A year later, I finished my dissertation on the Brazilian state of Rondonia, and posted the whole thing on the web site. The writing tips grew into something I called the “Not the 13th Grade” pages, which continues to be read by students, parents, and educators throughout the world (120,000 hits and counting).  (And I learned that students everywhere – not just along the border – tend to struggle with a couple dozen common writing problems.)

In fact, because I was fairly early in creating an academic web site (getting a lot of my content online prior to the emergence of Google), searches for many of the key words in the previous paragraph still bring readers to my site, helping to connect with a lot of interesting people. I still maintain and develop the site – particularly the section of about two dozen pages related to coffee – but in many ways I have found blogging to be a better (and usually easier) way to share ideas with my students and broader audiences.

And now for the final question of the Blogfest week.  I thank Cindy Kane for her leadership in organizing this terrific experiment, and I invite readers to explore some of the other excellent blogs that have been part of it!
What do you think BSU will be like in 10 years? 25 years?

One thing I know is that these years will go by more quickly than I can imagine. In some ways, I feel like I just arrived, even though far more than half the faculty have arrived since I started almost 14 years ago! The first answer I have to these questions is that in 10 years I will almost definitely still be working here, though if I am working at BSU (or whatever it is called then) in 25 years, it will likely be on a part-time basis.

I only thought of making a small joke about further possible name changes because of the ongoing attention to our name change last year, but the idea of future name changes actually suggests a serious question. Throughout the United States, public higher education receives an ever smaller proportion of its financial support from the public (that is: students pay more, even though faculty and staff do not make more). Even as politicians increase demands for “accountability,” they also reduce funding. (These are politicians of both major political parties, coast to coast. In fact, in “liberal” Massachusetts, support has been near the bottom and cuts continue apace.) If the political interference continues to increase and the financial support continues to decrease, a name change would eventually be called for, so that state colleges and universities can throw off the shackles of their overseers. In that case, a name like “The University at Bridgewater” would be appropriate, and all the regulatory ties could be cut. This has not yet been seriously proposed in New England yet, but many Midwestern universities are starting to explore such changes. It could happen here.

Back to something more concrete and realistic: In ten years, BSU will rejoin the ranks of respectable universities by requiring its students to complete at least two years of a foreign language. Our previous requirement of one year was not adequate, but rather than improve it, we eliminated it. By “we,” I refer to the faculty and administration working here at the time the new Core Curriculum (an otherwise excellent model for general education) was instituted. I do not, however, mean “we” in the sense of a change I supported. I was among a vociferous group of professors who tried in vain to combat the skullduggery that brought us to our current, untenable status: a global university that does not require a foreign language. I cannot imagine that this will remain in place for another 10 years. Because we do tremendous work in many languages throughout the world, it is only a matter of time before we restore our good name in terms of a language requirement.


On another front, I am not as optimistic, and it is here that I will finally reveal the connection to a Terry Gilliam film at which I have hinted for the past couple of days. The movie is the 1985 farce Brazil, in which the country of Brazil is never mentioned. It is a preposterous dystopia, in which the characters go to absurd lengths to cope with the implausibly picayune demands of a bloated bureaucracy. I had watched the movie a couple of times – searching in vain for some direct reference to Brazil: samba, Rio, anything – before I understood (I think) the point of the film. 

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil was produced in 1985, the same year in which Brazil’s military dictatorship collapsed. What had begun as a more conventional military dictatorship in 1964 (which then “hardened” in 1967) eventually became a bureaucratic regime of ever-increasing complexity and – ultimately – paralysis. Whenever someone found a way around a rule, a new rule would be imposed. The result was bureaucratic authoritarianism – a particularly ossified form of bureaucracy. You can look it up – it is  a real, distinct organizational form first identified by Guillermo O’Donnell. Eventually the Brazilian people developed a way of coping. Whenever a rule prevented people from doing what needed to be done, they would find a “jeito” – a way around. The phrase emerged, “Sempre tem jeito” – there is always a way, by which well-intentioned people can agree to work around bureaucratic impediments to what they need to do.  For every jeito there would develop a new rule and for every new rule a new jeito.

As our campus has grown, I have witnessed a proliferation of procedures, each of which has a purpose and a history and a justification, but which collectively create a kind of paralysis. It is a problem that has been recognized, and I have been part of quite a few conversations – and even a task force – aimed at streamlining our procedures and relationships. Many claim that the problem is inevitable given our growing size, but I am too much an optimist to accept that.

I cannot predict the future, but I would suggest that in 10 years, we will either have figured out a cultural change that removes this burden, or we will have become completely paralyzed by a growing set of interlocking rules. Meanwhile, I take every opportunity I can to suggest that my colleagues watch Brazil! Eventually, the Brazilian people triumphed and now live in a vibrant, rapidly improving country, the envy of the world in many respects. We can do the same.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

BSU Blogfest -- Day 4

Community Blogs

Earlier this week, I’ve shared academic blogs, family blogs, and commercial blogs to which I contribute. It is fitting that on this fourth day of BSU Blogfest, when the theme is community, that I should mention a couple of blogs I set up for my community – one for my church and one for the neighborhood in which I live. Both are 365-day-a-year communities that are distinct from my work at BSU, but both are also intertwined with BSU in various ways. I will mention a third community blog, linking BSU (BSC at the time) to Haiti.

First Parish

About a decade ago, I created a web site for my church – First Parish Church Unitarian-Universalist, Bridgewater. It worked pretty well, but as the church got busier, I found I was the bottleneck for any information going online, and as my responsibilities at the college grew, I neglected the church web site, until eventually a fellow parishioner took it over (for which I’m still grateful). The congregation is small but terribly busy, and eventually it became clear that a web site with a “web master” was not an effective way to keep information about the church and its doing up to date. Enter the blog: with the permission of our Parish Committee (essentially, our volunteer board), I staked out some space on Blogspot.  I invested some time up-front to overcome one of the major difficulties with this type of blog: if it does not have content, nobody will read it. But if nobody is reading it, the motivation to add content is reduced. So I took a leap of faith and posted a lot of articles for very few readers. The blog has not exactly “taken off” yet, but it does seem to have reached a critical mass. More important than the number of readers at this point is the number of blog authors – I still do more than half the posting, but other church leaders are starting to post as well, so I am confident this will become a solid forum for – and window into – our church community.

Bridgewater Center Neighborhood Association

I have the great privilege – more-than-occasional annoyance of living adjacent to the BSU campus. We chose this location quite deliberately, as we have almost always lived within a mile or two of work, and the ability for both adults in a family to walk to work is all-too rare in these days of sprawl. The benefits are many and the problems – in our opinion – are solvable if effective communication and cooperation strategies are used. Our blog – more active in warm seasons than cold – is a proverbial example of attempting to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.  There is plenty of each to work on!

Help. Hope. Haiti.

I was in Nicaragua with students – including a Haitin-American student – when the horrors of Haiti’s earthquake became known last year. Other BSC/U students were in Belize, both groups on the other side of Haiti from our home base. Because of the amazing proliferation of internet and phone technologies, the two groups – each of which included students who had traveled on the other trip the previous year – started to hatch plans for doing something about the disaster.  When we got back to campus, the ideas and connections campus- and community-wide grew, leading to a blog that ended up being relatively short-lived in its active use. The Help. Hope. Haiti. project won an Impact Award last year, and more importantly raised thousands of dollars and educated hundreds of community members about the many realities of 2010 Haiti.

Readers who got here from a BSU Blogfest link might be seeing only this post. If so, please explore the archives of over 300 articles, most with photos, maps, and or links to still more information! Meanwhile, I invite readers to read my thoughts on today’s theme: the BSU community itself.
In what ways is BSU a community?  In what ways is our community strong and in what ways can it improve? What does “your BSU experience” mean to you?

When I was completing my Ph.D., I applied for very few academic positions. I had a private industry job that I did not consider permanent, but I enjoyed it very much, as my wife enjoyed her library job. Our intention was eventually to move in pursuit of a permanent academic position (or better yet, two such positions), but we were in no rush. I therefore only applied to schools where I could really envision myself working, and could not picture myself spending one extra minute in the cut-throat world of R-1 universities (where I was getting my degree), I mostly looked at smaller colleges. I had attended UMBC when it had about 8,000 students, so I could envision myself at both small and medium-sized schools up to that approximate size.

It may be a cliché to suggest that the relatively small size of the campus – particularly when we arrived in 1997 – contributed to a strong sense of community, but I will suggest it anyway. I felt welcomed and well-connected to various parts of the campus within a very short period of time. Since I began the job days after becoming a father (and months before my wife Pamela began her work on the campus), these connections were especially valuable and continue to be. During my service as department chair, I became even more deeply aware of a number of people on the campus I could count on in difficult situations.

It is also a cliché to suggest that the growth of a campus makes connections and community more difficult. I do not actually believe that, at least not in simple terms. Certainly, growing size means knowing relatively fewer colleagues or classmates well. What is more important is the sense of mission – of wanting to contribute. That is still quite strong here, perhaps even stronger than when I arrived, as being here is far less likely to occur by accident or default than it once was. BSU is populated mainly by people who want to be here, and who want to do the best learning they can. As with the Haiti example above, I am constantly impressed by – and energized by – most of our students.

Sadly, the word “most” is necessary – and this is the area for continued improvement. Most students, faculty, and staff members are at BSU because they have chosen to be, and it is reflected in the respect, commitment, and patience they exhibit.  For me, it remains difficult to understand what to do with the outliers – people who seem to have arrived by mistake. In some cases, these folks simply do not contribute much, but in others, they actually undermine the contributions of others.

As somebody who resides in the broader community just outside the campus, I see this as one of the biggest challenges we face. For many people in the town and region, the university is defined by the two percent or so who routinely disrespect the neighborhood in which the campus is situated. The importance of this is not entirely visible from within the campus community itself, but from the outside it is glaring. It is for that reason that much of my work involves making the residential community visible to students and making the positive contributions of students visible to the residential community. And fostering those connections is where I think my own most important contributions take place.

(Note: I had suggested to BSU Blogfest participants that today’s blog would explain why I think everyone should watch a particular Terry Gilliam movie. I was mistaken: today’s discussion is building toward that movie connection, but the full discussion will better fit the theme of Day 5: the future. All will be revealed then!)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Lost Opportunity

Early this week, we watched the film Romero, about the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador in 1980. The film described his journey from a cleric who tried to remain apolitical to one who understood that his religious calling required him to be on the side of the oppressed in his country. For this he was killed, while saying mass. He was one of tens of thousands killed in a country of just a few million, hundreds of thousands of whom fled the country during that period.

When we finished the film, we realized that the anniversary was coming up -- tomorrow, in fact. As I have for many years, we will light a candle in his honor. A friend reminded me that she named her son -- now a young man -- in his honor.

Being caught up in my own work, I was scarcely paying attention to President Obama's Latin America tour, even though Latin America is the main area of my academic work. I was quite startled, then, to realize that on his way home, the president was stopping in El Salvador. "Amazing," I thought. I wondered if a U.S. president had ever visited before, and I thought it fortuitous that he was visiting so close to this important anniversary.

Then I received a message from a fellow Latin Americanist (that is, a scholar who studies Latin America), urging us to write letters encouraging the President to commemorate the Archbishop's death, particularly since he would be there so near the anniversary. By the time I received her message, the president was already there, so I checked in with her about what may have happened. She replied that the president did refer to Archbishop Romero, but only in platitudes. I went to the White House blog, where I found two articles that mention the archbishop in the context of the visit, and my colleague was absolutely right: the remarks of President Obama and President Funes really define platitudes: positive-sounding words that signify nothing at all.

El Salvador is still in deep trouble, two decades after civil war officially ended. And that trouble has a lot of implications for the United States, related to drug traffic, immigration, and gang violence. So the two presidents exchanges ideas about these problems and some proposed remedies. At least in the public remarks, however, no mention seems to have been made of the deep roots of these problems, and our complicity in them at many levels.

The Obama presidency is all about social media, so I am hoping that in a small way I have been able to use the White House blog both to learn and perhaps to make a difference. Here is what I just sent to the White House:
I am pleased that the president visited the grave of the martyred archbishop of El Salvador. A colleague mentioned that platitudes were exchanged, and my reading of the WH blog suggest that even that barely happened. On the eve of the anniversary of a brutal assassination of a good man by our allies at the time, more should have been said about the historic complicity of the U.S. in all that has gone wrong in El Salvador. 
Moreover, from what I can tell, immigration was discussed, but coffee was not. This is like discussing birth without mentioning pregnancy. We cannot simply paper over the problems of migration and development -- we must look at root causes arising from injustice. For more on connecting the dots between coffee and migration, please see my page at 
Thank you.
I invite readers of this blog to get involved, and to start challenging your federal legislators and the White House to look at the entire region with a deeper sense of history. As indicated by the COHA analysis of the visit, the U.S. approach appears to continue demanding more of Central Americans while demanding less of ourselves. If this is the best that a progressive president can do, social justice in this hemisphere is far from fruition.

BSU Blogfest -- Day 3

Blogger for Hire

Last year, I sent a note to the publisher John Wiley & Sons about a technical problem with one of its online resources. I must have mentioned that I was trying to connect to it from one of my blogs. In any case, the editor took a look at my blogs, and invited me to start blogging for Wiley. I had written for Wiley before, with mixed results, and was a bit reluctant because the last product had followed such a tight formula that I felt I really contributed nothing to it. Moreover, I do my blogging as a way of trying to interest new people in geography, and I did not want to create blog behind a pay wall. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Wiley was really interested in something like the blogging I already do, as part of a new site is open to all web users and promoted to Wiley customers.

My posts there are less frequent – even though I’m paid for them – because of a few ways this blog is different from my main blog, even though the subjects are nominally the same. Although the editor has assured me that they want “my voice,” I do verge into more radical territory on my blog, though I like the opportunity to get critical ideas out to a new audience through Wiley from time to time.

A greater limitation is that a corporation-owned blog is more concerned about potential lawsuits than is a strictly academic blog, which results in a much more conservative approach to posting images. On my own blog, I consider a clearly cited image, linked back to origin, to be within copyright fair-use, and I’ve actually had this view validated on several occasions by various copyright holders.  The other differences is that the publisher likes for me to highlight “key” words, which many of my off-the-cuff posts do not really have, and that it can take a week or so for a post to appear. Still, I have enjoyed posting these, and I invite readers to choose the following links: my posts , all the posts, and Concept Caches.

The project has forced me to diversify slightly in terms of blogging interfaces – all of my other blogs are on Blogger/blogspot, but Wiley uses Wordpress (which I do not find substantially different) for its main blog and a proprietary (I think) database for its companion Concept Caching site. The latter allows users to load geolocated photos with brief captions. It is not limited to hired authors; anybody can set up an account and share examples of geographic images from the field.

Now for today’s Blog Fest theme question:
What does the phrase “effective leadership” mean to you?

Since I first read the list of themes a couple of weeks ago, I have been giving this question the most thought, and a constant stream of both positive and negative examples have been running through my mind.  The common threads are closely related to what I have written earlier this week about learning: leadership is listening. And like leadership, listening is rare.

I have many opportunities to witness different leadership styles as I travel from school to school with Project EarthView (whose blog I mentioned on Day 1). Almost every Friday, our team – usually a retired teacher, an undergraduate student, and one or two professors – visits an elementary or middle school in the area. We have found that whether the school seems to be a positive, constructive learning environment has a lot to do with the on-site leadership – that is, the principal. Simply put, the best schools have excellent principals, whose personal styles may run the gamut – from flighty to regimented, quiet to loud, funny to serious. But the good leaders communicate with clarity and respect to everyone around them, and they are clearly listening. They know that their purpose is not to achieve, but rather to facilitate the achievements of those around them. They command respect because they give respect.

Weak leaders -- and I have seen them -- lead from a position of scarcity. When asked for resources, they respond, “Why can’t you do without that?” In these days – years, decades – of criminally underfunded schools, the worst leaders are those who cave in too quickly to outside demands, “leading” their schools to please their outside taskmasters.

Good leaders -- and I have seen them, too -- lead from a position of possibility. When setting priorities, these leaders listen to the ideas of the people they lead more than they impose their own notions and theories of what will work. When asked for resources, they respond, “I will figure out how to get that for you” or “How can we make this happen?” And because they have not squandered resources -- and staff morale -- chasing their own agendas, the resources might actually be available!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

BSU Blogfest -- Day 2

Because the theme for today is the role of technology in relationships, I’ll introduce some of the family blogs. Our dog even helps sometimes, by not climbing on my laptop when I’m blogging! We call her “Blog Dog” whenever she cooperates like that.

Paloma Helps (India)

I do not actively post on this blog, but I do provide some ideas for our daughter Paloma, who is preparing and raising funds for a future service trip to India.

Celebrating the States

Pamela Hayes-Bohanan is a BSU librarian and Spanish professor, and the only other “Hayes-Bohanan” in the world, as far as I know. Over the past couple years, she has created a few blog projects with very specific content and defined timelines – each a calendar year. Because the projects include both writing and real-world activities, I have been involved in each of these in various ways. For today’s post, I will just mention the one that has been the most geographic. In fact, I sometimes draw on the Celebrating the States blog for my geography classes or for my other blogs.

The Happy New Year post (from the last day of 2009) explains how this blog was planned. I must say it was both enjoyable and informative, as we explored movies, books, and food related to each state, sometimes involving our friends in the festivities. I sometimes enter a state name in the blog’s search box to bring back an favorite from last year, and I invite readers of this blog to explore it.

Una Nueva Receta Cada Semana

This year, Pam's blog project once again involves food, but it turns a bit inward, as one of the main goals is to introduce more variety to the family diet by using the underused resource of recipe books we already own. Again, the blog's kick-off post provides more context. Follow this blog for some interesting meal ideas and occasional food-related movie reviews.

Once again, now is the time  for the Blog Fest daily theme question:
What role does technology play to help or hinder relationships?

I began using computers for educational purposes thirty years ago, when they were generally not networked, and the “good” computer in my high school lab had 32k of RAM and no disk drive (only a cassette tape for permanent storage). Some government and industry computers were networked in those days, but nobody I worked with was even aware of that fact yet, and we were happy to write simple, stand-alone programs. By the end of the 1980s, I was using some basic networking protocols – such as chat and ftp – strictly for academic purposes as we were finding ways to use desktop computers to tap into the power of mainframes, mainly to run statistics or process satellite images.

Eventually, we learned of something called http and the web, which we saw simply as ways to find academic resources and old-fashioned local bulletin boards. My wife Pamela and I were among the very first people to use the internet – successfully, I might add – as part of a job-search strategy. This was at a time that the web was available, but no browsers or web search engines existed, but the network was beginning to pull together local bulletin boards. It was in this way that I found a listing for a job for Pam in Texas while we were living in Arizona – an amazing feat in 1994, which only happened because both the employer and I were unusually interested in computers. When we moved to South Texas, I actually attended meetings of active internet users, of which there seemed to be only a few dozen in our area.

The first time I created a web page, its sole purpose was to provide academic information to students in a night class I was teaching, because the class was at a campus far from my home, and I had no office hours. Eventually, I became adept at integrating technology in my teaching, through various generations of courseware, from Lotus LearningSpace and WebCT to BlackBoard and now Moodle.

I mention this ancient history by way of explaining that I see social networking and even the web itself as a relatively new add-ons to internet technology, though I know that for many people – either younger people or later adopters – sites like Facebook and Google are the primary lens through which the internet is viewed.
I see a lot of advantages to social networking on the one hand and the ability to find answers to questions quickly on the other. Because of my life history of moving around quite a lot and my more recent work in international education, I have a lot of friends and colleagues in far-flung places.

Prior to the advent of Facebook, I would think of these friends frequently but actually communicate with them rarely – often going years between visits or even letters or emails. Facebook has not reconnected me with all of the interesting and wonderful people in my life, but it has helped me to do so with many of them, and to share bits of wisdom or news on a fairly regular basis, in turn making our face-to-face reunions a bit richer. And with the people I do get to see on a regular basis, social networking helps us to share community and professional news, commiserate about politics, and to get people together for actual events in the real world. I have also found it a useful tool for promoting social movements, such as an effort (stalled at the moment) to develop a creative coffee concept for our campus. The multi-directional connections made possible by social media mean not simply spreading an idea online, but rather using online communication to develop the idea in cooperation with others.

Just as social networking has made connections with people easier in many ways, search engines and the proliferation of information-rich web sites have helped connect people to information. Standing in a kitchen in Vermont last week, we were trying to remember the name of an actor. The youngest person in the room grabbed a laptop that was sitting on the answer and found the answer. The rest of us knew how, but resisted the urge.

Of course, as I write this, I can remember that scene but neither the question nor the answer to it, which brings me to one of the most serious difficulties with both social media and search engines: fragmentation. The ability to connect quickly – with people or with ideas – also allows for disconnecting quickly. It means that whatever there is to do right now, there might be something “better” in five minutes, so we become less willing to commit to plans. Because we can go online to accomplish one thing but be quickly pulled to another, we might not do that one thing very effectively. We now have the technology to access information that is unprecedented in depth, volume, and ease of access. But because there is so much available – and because it is so easy to move to a different task – we often settle for whatever nugget of information we find first. Anything that is beyond the first page of a Google search is likely to be left unread.

The human mind is capable of absorbing much more intellectual food than we often provide it. The deployment of information to our homes, laptops, and now to our phones, means that a mind need never be idle. Driving a car requires focused attention at times – such as when entering a rotary – and relatively little attention at others – such as when driving on an empty road. Our phones can now bring conversation – and even texting – into fill those relatively idle moments.

Classrooms are similar to automobiles, in that the amount of attention required fluctuates from minute to minute as the class unfolds. I’ve noticed that any time I mention a number, students become focused and find something to write with. And when I’m posing a difficult question or leading to a suspenseful point in a story, students are in rapt attention. But in the necessarily slower-paced times of describing a system or series of events, attention can waiver. Prevoiusly, professors in this circumstance might be competing with passing distractions of various kinds or the temptation to pass notes. With rapid access to social media and the web, however, the stakes have been raised. Minute-by-minute, a professor – or anybody wanting face-to-face attention from another person – is potentially in competition with – quite literally – with every person each student knows, plus a world-wide collection of information and entertainment resources. Students (or colleagues) who fail to handle this temptation effectively can create dramatic responses, such as the one below. I am given some hope, though, by students who are giving this problem serious thought -- sometimes even blogging about the need to step back from an approach to time and relationships that is far too frenetic.

Monday, March 21, 2011

BSU Blogfest -- Day 1

I am pleased to participate in Bridgewater State University’s first Blog Fest, which celebrates social media week by drawing attention to some of the bloggers on our campus. The bloggers who are participating include those who use blogs (short for web log) as a regular part of their work, those who find it an interesting way to extend their work into new areas, and those who simply enjoy sharing their thoughts in a public arena. I have been blogging for a few years and now contribute to nearly a dozen blogs on a fairly regular basis, for all of the above reasons.

Blog Fest participants have been given suggested themes for each day of the week, in the form of questions to which we can opt to respond. Before answering the question for this first day, I want to mention a couple of my other blogs, as I will do throughout the week.

Environmental Geography

“Geography is what geographers do,” we sometimes say. The corollary is that individual geographers can approach the discipline in a variety of ways. This is my “main blog,” on which I share examples of the “geographic imagination” as I see it. 

Geography at Bridgewater

I set up a separate blog for my academic department, through which we can share announcements of upcoming events, promote specific courses and internships, and – this is the most fun – brag about the achievements of our students and alumni! We find that the blog conveys the vibrancy of our department much better than a static web page can do. (Note that the actual blog address starts BSC rather than BSU -- a reminder to new bloggers to choose their addresses carefully!)


One of BSU’s most visible outreach efforts is the Geography Department’s EarthView program, in which we take a hand-painted, inflatable globe – one of two of its kind in the world – to area schools and special events. Well over 20,000 students – in small groups – have participated in EarthView programs, in which they get to see the earth from a very special point of view: inside! We use this blog to build on the connections we make during the programs. The blog includes geographic information about each school we visit, links to games and lesson plans, and articles about the topics that we cover with the kids – from tsunamis to Ellis Island.

Now, for the Blog Fest daily theme question:
What has been a learning experience that has impacted you the most in your life?

I am fortunate to be in a career that enables me to learn something new every day, and I have decided to write about what makes that possible, which is a positive attitude about who can be my teacher. 

We often hear that when evaluating an argument we should “consider the source,” and this caution may sometimes be a useful source of caution. A seemingly contrary piece of advice – which I got from my father – is even more important: truth is truth, no matter who says or writes it.  I read a lot of newspaper columns, some by writers with whom I disagree 95 percent of the time. But when they are right, I have learned to admit: they’re right. 

A corollary to this is that I try not to judge people for ignorance (sometimes I fail). I wish I could remember who taught me this, because it has proved very important. He said, “Whenever you are amazed at how someone could possibly not know something, remember where you learned it.” Wow! Everything that is obvious to me now must have been unknown at some point. This has helped me to be – or at least to try to be – a bit less judgmental. It has also helped me to be grateful to all those who have helped me learn.

One story brings both of these lessons together for me. About 15 years ago, I worked in a specialty food company in McAllen, Texas. The Texas Secretary of Agriculture came to visit one day – a handsome, friendly man who would go on to become a governor – Rick Perry – with whom I agree on almost nothing. But he did something very interesting that I will never forget. As he moved through our factory, meeting assembly workers, shift supervisors, inspectors, and managers, I heard him ask the same, perfect ice-breaker question many times: “Where did you go to school?” This gave him a chance to find common ground with each person, wherever they were from, and however far they had gotten in their education. 

Every time I want to scream at something he has said or done as governor, I have to remember that he once taught me something – and that everyone I meet has that potential.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

BSU Blogfest

I am joining fellow bloggers among the students and colleagues at Bridgewater State University in an interesting experiment. The first BSU Blogfest will encourage readers to explore a group of blogs each day of the coming week, as each of us touches on a theme for that day. I have selected this, my "main blog" as the place where I will explore those themes. I'm also going to point to some of the other blogs I write or help to write, as part of the celebration of academic social media.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Pi Day Memories

Real Men Cook Quiche
We celebrated PI Day at our house with a scrumptious mushroom quiche -- Pam is good at crust; I'm good at filling. I also celebrated by challenging my K-16 students and colleagues to some earth and globe calculations via our EarthView blog.

It is too late for this year's Pi Day, but it is not too early to start sharpening pencils and gathering "pi" recipes for next year!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Teaching Mentors of the Future

My recent McSchool post centers on a video that seems like a parody of education "reform" but is actually a serious piece of bragging from the Education-Industrial Complex. Apparently, we are living in an age of  convergence between parody and reality (remember the difficulty of discerning Sarah Palin from Tina Fey a couple years ago), so I will be clear: the following is a parody. It does represent, however, where we seem to be headed, as politicians across our country's narrow political spectrum continue to be taken in by the chimera of "accountability."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Mapping America

Thanks to the New York Times for putting data from the U.S. Census Bureau's most recent American Community Survey online in a very engaging format. Maps relating to race, income, education, and families are available at scales ranging from very local to the entire country. The data are aggregated at the level of the census tract, which are calibrated to include roughly equal numbers of people (so that tracts in Manhattan, for example, are tiny in comparison to rural tracts or tracts in most other cities). Individual dots are scattered randomly within those tracts or larger spatial units -- each dot representing different numbers of people depending on the scale being viewed. The maps are produced in partnership with Social Explorer, which provides access to a wealth of census data.

NASA of Coffee

While we are wasting our time in the United States debating whether or not the climate is changing, coffee farmers throughout the world are trying to figure out how to cope with it. The New York Times reports on the research being undertaken at the "NASA of Coffee" in Colombia, a research center dedicated to researching its potentially devastating effects on coffee.

This video accompanies a print article whose title points out why even the most disinterested coffee drinker should care: Heat Damages Colombia Coffee, Raising Prices (though climate change is not the only cause of the price spike that has been developing over the past few months). Learn more about coffee and climate change from my previous blog posts on the topic.

Hydrogeography of Giving

I do not usually forward or post anonymous, schmaltzy tidbits from the Internet, but I could not resist the geography metaphor in this plea for living generously. (I received it from a fellow geographer who is also not in the habit.)

Image: AtlasTours

Sitting in the geography class in school, I remember how fascinated I was when we were being taught all about the Dead Sea.  

If you recall, the Dead Sea is really a lake, not a sea. Its so high in salt content that the human body can float easily. One can almost lie down and read a book!

The salt in the Dead Sea is as high as 35% - almost 10 times the normal ocean water. And all that saltiness has meant that there is no life at all in the Dead Sea. No fish. No vegetation. No sea animals. Nothing lives in the Dead sea.

Hence the name: Dead Sea.

While the Dead Sea has remained etched in my memory, I don't seem to recall learning about the Sea of Galilee in my school geography lesson. So, when I heard about the Sea of Galilee & the Dead Sea and, the tale of the two seas - I was intrigued.
Turns out that the Sea of Galilee is just north of the Dead Sea. Both, the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, receive their water from river Jordan. Yet, they are very, very different.

Unlike the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee is pretty, resplendent with rich, colorful marine life. There are lots of plants and lot of fish, too. In fact, the sea of Galilee is home to over twenty different types of fishes.
Same region, same source of water, and yet, one sea is full of life, the other is dead. How come?

Here is why: The River Jordan flows into the Sea of Galilee and then flows out. The water simply passes through the Sea of Galilee in and out - and that keeps the Sea healthy and vibrant, teeming with marine life.

But: the Dead Sea is so far below the sea level, that it has no outlet. The water flows in from the river Jordan, but does not flow out. There are no outlet streams at all. It is estimated that over a million tons of water evaporates from the Dead Sea every day, leaving it salty. Too full of minerals and unfit for any marine life.

The Dead Sea takes water from the River Jordan, and holds it. It does not give/flow out. Result? No life at all. Think about it. Life is not just about getting. Its about giving, sharing. We all need to be a bit like the Sea of Galilee. 

We are fortunate to get wealth, knowledge, love and respect. But, if we don't learn to give, we could all end up like the Dead Sea. The love, the respect, the wealth and the knowledge; could all evaporate. Like the water in the Dead Sea.

If we get the Dead Sea mentality of merely taking in more water, more money, more of everything, the results can be disastrous. A good idea to make sure that in the sea of your own life, you must have outlets. Many outlets for love, wealth and everything else that you get in your life. Make sure you don't just get, you give out, too. Open the taps. And you'll be opening the floodgates to happiness.

Make that a habit. To share. To give. Experience life. Experience the magic of giving.

James here again: The geography metaphor is much ore useful with a map. Click below to pan, zoom, and activate labels.

View Larger Map

Plum Island

On days that I am teaching, I often check historic anniversaries to see if a relevant anniversary can be brought into the discussion. For anniversary lessons close to home, I subscribe to the Mass Moments e-mail list. Every day I receive a brief description of an event that took place in Massachusetts, with a link to a more detailed version of the story, along with a bibliography and links to related resources.

Yesterday's post began with a 1704 wolf hunt, building on that event to describe the fascinating history of land management on Plum Island, a 9-square-mile barrier island north of Boston. I have been to the island once, more than a decade ago. I remember it as a beautiful place to which I would like to return, and I am more determined to do so after reading this article. We were at a graduation party at a private home, but when we return it will be to wildlife refuge that covers much of the island. The Mass Moments post describes how that refuge came to be established to protect the great diversity of birds that migrate to the island.

Free Fuel Illusion

The New Agriculturalist blog recently reviewed a new title from Zed Books that I look forward to seeing. According to the review, James  Smith's Biofuels and the Globalization of Risk analyses the diversion of agricultural land to the production of fuel, and concludes that current approaches do not contribute to sustainability. The subtitle hints at the reason: The Biggest Change In North-South Relations Since Colonization?

Simply put, the production of fuel from corn and other crops transfers dependence on oil to dependence on cropland that is still needed for, well, crops. Smith estimates that 350 million people could be fed from the land that has already been diverted to biofuels. He concludes that biofuels offer a promise that cannot be realized: sustainability without lifestyle change.

Zed Books offers an additional title on this topic: Food versus Fuel.

Monday, March 07, 2011


Last November, just after El Dia de Los Muertos, I posted an article about the violent unraveling of the US-Mexico border zone, a region in which I lived for seven years. The article focused on the growing violence that still remains largely confined to the Mexico side, though its roots are deep on both sides. I included a discussion of  Santa Sangre, a new, nihilistic religious movement created by and for the narcotraficantes themselves.

Damien Cave reports in today's NY Times that the movement has grown to about 6,000 independently-built chapels throughout the country. He also reports that the influence of traffickers is being felt in the mainstream church as well. His focus is on a new church building in Pachuca (north of Mexico City) that was funded by a well-known member of the Zeta gang. Although at least one blogger sees this as bias against the church, I find that journalist Cave offers a sympathetic description of the dilemma that church officials and parishioners face as they decide whether or not to accept such tainted money, and the difficulty of resistance. He also alludes to the moral taint that is often associated with more formally legitimate funding sources. The major implication of this piece, however, is that the U.S. drug war as it is currently pursued threatens to undermine the Mexican state.

Salaries are Spatial

Because the United States does not provide universal health care -- as the governments of most other wealthy countries do -- most people who are insured purchase their health insurance, sometimes as individuals but usually as part of an employee group. Connecting health care to insurance and insurance, in turn, to employment, creates a tremendous amount of waste, confusion in the best cases, while leading to misery, pain, illness, and even death in the worst cases.

I bring all this up because it relates to a special case of a general phenomenon I have been observing for years. One reason we do not have universal health care is that its opponents (read: the American Medical Association and insurance companies) have managed, with decades of effort, to convince enough people that the words "public," "government," and "Communist" all mean the same thing. At the same time, they have convinced us that the alternative is "choice" and that this is best provided by a "free market" in health care. The shameless commodification of health care should come as no surprise in a society that seems bent on subjecting every aspect of human endeavor to whims of markets.

What is surprising is the extent to which people have been convinced that such a convoluted, artificial, and indeed rigged system is in fact a "free market" when nothing can be further from the truth. I am increasingly convinced that no free market as defined in neoclassical economics exists for any good or service, and never has. Health care as it exists in the United States should be just the most obvious of many examples.

The involvement of Blue Cross/Blue Shield adds to the cognitive dissonance in the discussion, as it bills itself (pun intended) as a network of non-profit organizations, even though it serves to generate exorbitant monetary rewards for its leaders. In Massachusetts, the stratospheric severance pay given to its recently departed CEO has raised eyebrows and has gotten the attention of our attorney general, if not our governor. Exorbitant rewards for poor performance are becoming all-too familiar, as are the excuses for out-sized pay at the top of most organizations.

In the case of severance packages -- and I have seen this up-close in a former church -- it is routinely pointed out that the executive's contract required a particular level of severance pay. Current directors have no choice but to comply with what is, after all, a binding obligation. This begs what should be an obvious question: why are such terms negotiated? I would certainly include a generous, no-fault payout in my contract if I could, but everyone knows that is impossible. Why? Because such arrangements do not come from negotiations that take place in free markets or from collective-bargaining processes. They come from a third universe of compensation decisions: executive pay.

Learn more at
Executive PayWatch

In executive pay -- and in the pay of those who work closely with executives -- free markets do not operate, at least not fully. In this arena, pay (and benefits, including severance) may be influenced by several factors, including such "market" considerations as years of experience, breadth of knowledge, level of responsibility, special skills, and so on -- in short, the scarcity of one's credentials and the level of one's commitment. These are minor in comparison, however, with one much more important factor: proximity to those who set salaries.

This became crystal clear to me more than a decade ago, when I heard an executive -- justifying large administrative pay increases while staff pay stagnated -- remarked that "these people work their butts off." In that moment, I realized that the work of those close to the top is better compensated simply because they are close to the top. The difference in pay, for example, between "executive" secretaries and other secretaries has something to do with ability, since executives will reward themselves with more talented secretaries. But the gap is enhanced by proximity to the top, even in the most honestly-run organizations. (One interesting corollary: executives who assign themselves the most talented and best-compensated support staff -- often in unlimited numbers -- enhance their own performance relative to ordinary workers who have far less control over hiring of the people on whom they rely.

Which brings us back to Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Not only is my proximity thesis borne out by Killingsworth's extraordinary; these directors took it to an extraordinary level by approving pay for themselves as members of a non-profit board. The advantages of this arrangement compared to a "government takeover of health care" are difficult to discern.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Biggest Ships Ever

During my last semester as an undergraduate, I took a course in the geography of transport development -- in other words, how the current configuration of transportation networks had developed. To be honest, although I was a geography major, I only took the course because it fit my schedule -- I was just racking up credit hours at that point. (Little was I to know how much that one choice would steer the rest of my life, as getting to know Dr. Starr a bit better was to open the door to everything else I have done in geography.)

During the course, I remembered that as a first-year student on a different campus, I knew a student whose major was transportation, and I could not fathom how that could be an area of study. After a semester with Dr. John Starr, however, I realized that transportation is both a product and a producer of many intersecting geographies.

Of all the developments and technologies we studied -- from canals to the Eisenhower interstates -- one word stands out as most crucial for understanding the ongoing integration of the world space-economy (a.k.a. globalization), and that word is: conTAINerization. I remember my classmate Mike and I competing to see who could best capture Dr. Starr's glee in sounding out the word. RO-RO shipping (roll on - roll off) had revolutionized the transportation by greatly reducing the costs incurred at break-in-bulk points. Once put on a truck, products could move by road, rail, sea, and then rail and road again. Uniformity in containers and investment in the necessary cranes eliminated thousands of jobs for stevedores and others, while greatly decreasing the time required for shipping products.

Combined with strategic decisions being made from Bentonville to Beijing, containerization allowed for the rapid increase in the length of supply chains. As a graduate student teaching economic geography, I drew on an excellent article* about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to illustrate the equally important role of communication and information technologies in enabling extremely long supply chains to reduce costs, even for complex products being created and engineered within short time frames.

Which brings us back to the Danish company Maersk, which is the focus of a very brief article I noticed in the current issue of The Economist. Like many people, I've been seeing the company name for many years, but did not give it much thought until a high-profile piracy incident in 2009. Standard containers now figure very prominently in the coffee trade, as importers and exporters usually try to transact trade by the container, rather than by the bag (a huge difference), and I recall seeing a number of Maersk containers as we made our way from the coffeelands of Matagalpa toward the sea in January of this year.

The amazing thing about this story is that despite the ongoing recession in some countries -- such as the U.S. -- Maersk has been expanding its activities and profits and is expecting enough growth in the near future to sustain TEN new ships, each about 25 percent bigger than the largest ships currently on the water (which are Maersk ships). The new colossi will each hold 18,000 containers. If each container were to be put directly onto a semi-tractor, a single new ship could empty a string of trucks 200 miles long, bumper-to-bumper. The ships will operate between Europe and Asia, in part because a lot of trade is between these regions (empty ships to China; full ships from China) and presumably because they are post-Panamax, which is to say too big to fit through the Panama Canal.

It is perhaps incongruous that such large ships have an environmental benefit. Once loaded and in motion, the marginal costs per mile of transporting containers is relatively low by rail and extremely low by water. Similarly, once loaded, the marginal cost per container of transporting extra containers diminishes with each added one. A ship that combines the latest energy-conserving technologies with enormous size can therefore be seen as a boon to the environment.

The article ends with an interesting observation. Although container ships are currently being built, enough ships have been built in recent years for bulk products such as wheat or coal. What is most interesting is how these bulk ships currently travel: in contrast to container ships laden with consumer goods going out from China to all parts of the globe, bulk ships are steaming toward China laden with the raw materials of the rest of the world, which will go back out to much of that world in a different form ... and in containers!

*Patton, Phil and Mark S. Wexler. 1992. How a ridiculous idea mutated into a marketing star. Smithsonian 23(9).

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