Monday, December 24, 2012

Queen Lisa?

Political geography often finds its way onto The Simpsons. In connection with Queen Elizabeth's annual Christmas greetings, Philip Reeves explains how the most political of the Simpsons characters -- Lisa -- is herself now a factor in British politics. She is something of a celebrity among separatists in the English county of Cornwall, where tourism officials are now prohibited from using the words England or county.

This story requires some understanding of the distinctions among such terms as England, Great Britain, and United Kingdom. Although he twice makes a false distinction between politics and geography -- and online commentators object to some of his claims, CGP Grey offers some clarifying remarks on the differences.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Line in the Water

Photographer John  Legge posted this image on the Visit Derby
web site in honor of Samuel Plimsoll's life-saving contribution.
Early this morning, I heard a story on the 99% Invisible design program, in which Roman Mars expressed his admiration for the elegant design of the Plimsoll Line. In looking for the program online, I also found a very nice 2008 BBC story about Samuel Plimsoll's political struggle to get a simple line painted on ships.

The simple line is a triumph of design and -- to be honest -- of the triumph of good over evil.

Honored in Bristol England
Photo by Mike Smith
via Roman Mars 
Now taken for granted on ships throughout the world, the 450mm-long line marks the maximum depth to which a ship can be safely loaded. If the line is not visible at or above the water line, the ship is too low in the water and subject to sinking. The lines to the sides of the basic Plimsoll Line indicate adjustments for the density of water by salinity and season.

The Plimsoll story piqued my interest because of my general pursuit of all things nautical these days. It is also relevant to my teaching about environmental and safety regulations, as it is an unusually clear case of greed (and evil) blocking an obvious need for reform.

I am currently reading Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea, which describes many of the ways in which indifferent ship owners put the lives of their crews in danger. I purchased the book at the Bookworks on Nantucket, where most of the wealth generated by whaling accumulated. As cavalier as ship owners were with the lives of their sailors in 1819, they had become even more likely to take risks by the middle of the century, when insurance made ships worth more at the bottom of the sea.

As a member of parliament, Samuel Plimsoll found this unacceptable. It may be that the insurance companies would have eventually ended the practice of overloading ships (known as "coffins" by wary sailors), but by 1873 they had not acted, so Parliament did. The mandate to include Plimsoll's simple mark was a compromise -- he wanted stricter regulations -- but the intervening years it has saved many thousands of sailors from a watery grave.

Related Non-News
Readers of this post are very unlikely to have heard of the wreck of the Stena Primorsk, an oil tanker that ran aground on the Hudson River on December 20, 2012. The reason the wreck is little-known it is a double-hulled ship. Most tankers have been double-hulled since the 1989 Exxon Valdez wreck (a DUI of catastrophic proportions on the part of Captain Hazelwood). It has been against considerable industry resistance that most countries in the world have pledged to ban single-hull tankers by 2015. Although Exxon does continue to use them, they are now rare because regulators imposed restrictions over industry objections.

Roman Mars (in the story above) explains why these shoes are still sometimes called Plimsolls in the UK:

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Imagine No Fracking

Some say that artists should not advocate controversial points of view. In my view, that is what artists are for, and Yoko Ono apparently agrees. John Lennon's widow and their son Sean took out the following ad in yesterday's New York Times. New York Governor Mario Cuomo recently announced that he has delayed a decision on the regulation of hydraulic fracturing until February. Yoko and Sean have joined with other Artists Against Fracking to encourage him to ban the practice.

John and I approve.

Sitting at the Imagine memorial in Havana, 2003

Monday, December 10, 2012

Mapping Sandy's Reach

Excerpt from a Sandy flood map compiled from FEMA data
by CARTODB and hosted by New York Newsday
The image above was clipped for the Long Beach Hurricane Information page from a much larger, interactive map posted by New York Newsday. It looks a lot like the maps of future sea levels about which I recently wrote in Rising Stakes, but this is not a hypothetical map. Pan and zoom to see where the recent flood waters reached. It is particularly interesting to see which familiar Manhattan landmarks were under water or became waterfront during this storm.

A similar storm on higher future base levels would of course reach much farther inland.

As of this writing (December 10), news about the impact of Sandy continues. A few recent items are particularly relevant to this image. According to the New York Times, Lower Manhattan Residents and Businesses Still Grapple with Recovery.  In a very interesting analysis, NPR reports that Sandy Forces Questions About Waterfront Rebuilding.

And finally, an effort  -- with a bit of good humor -- to restore a very important place that was flooded.

Westport to Freetown

Today's installment of Mass Moments connects two places about which I have written in this space frequently, but which today seem worlds apart: Westport and Sierra Leone. They are connected, of course, by the Atlantic Ocean and also by a remarkable individual who sailed from one to the other on this date in 1815. Having read his remarkable story, I look forward to visiting the Paul Cuffe memorial and grave site on an upcoming visit to Westport.

Among the many causes he championed was that of voting rights for all who pay taxes. Although slavery itself has ended, the problem continues among marginalized people living in the United States. Undocumented workers contribute both labor and taxes without any chance to vote, as their labor has been successfully sieved from their humanity, and even some citizens are barred from representation in Congress, if they live in Washington, D.C.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Climate On Point

"Climate is not weather. But when climate arrives, it arrives as weather."
~~ On Point host Tom Ashbrook

We have had a year in which radio and television reporters sound like they are actors in future disaster films. Today, Tom Ashbrook and his guests focus on a country that finally is paying attention.

Only 10 percent of Americans are categorized as "dismissive," believing that climate change is some kind of hoax. As Ashbrook points out, this minority has had disproportionate influence, but perhaps that is changing.

Callers represent a wide range of views, which are addressed with clarity -- and patience -- by Tom's guests.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

For the Night Stand

Sprudge is the site for "Coffee News & Frothy Gossip," where the pace of posting seems to be as caffeinated as the subject matter. For those awake enough to read all this and wonder, "Where can I read more about coffee?" the site's Holiday Gift Guide should do the trick.

Most of the books are recent and -- I hate to admit -- unfamiliar to me. I agree that God in a Cup is more of a gossipy 2009 time capsule than a serious discussion of the industry (though I took guilty pleasure in knowing some of the subjects of that gossip) and that Uncommon Grounds is an essential (though heavy) primer on the industry. As I point out in the comments section (where other coffee enthusiasts have likewise posted suggestions), no list of coffee books is complete without Javatrekker

The rest of these titles look intriguing, though, and I look forward to finding the ones I do not already have in my personal collection or in our university library (which has an unusually robust coffee collection, in print and online). Incidentally, Sprudge has done booksellers a good turn by linking to local sources (through Abe Books) wherever it can. I will try to do that myself in the future.

Cool Arab Autumn

Cartoon about Lebanon's Hezbollah (Party of God) that has been
repurposed for the most recent conflict and widely circulated.
Fighting recently erupted between Hamas in Gaza and Israeli security forces. The fighting took the form of each side firing rockets at the other, though Israel did mobilize tens of thousands of troops for a possible ground invasion of the small area held by Hamas. As always, civilians on both sides were the main victims, and as usual, the ratio of Palestinian victims to Israeli victims was quite high, about 30 to 1.

The cartoon is intended to disparage Hamas and excuse Israel for the casualties on both sides. It can also be seen as simply portraying the geography of this particular instance of asymmetric warfare. In other words, the occupying power by definition has better control of territory and is better able to protect its civilians than does the insurgent force. This is something understood by both sides, leaving nobody blameless for the civilian casualties.

Another interesting aspect of the geography of this conflict is the role that Israel's Iron Dome played; she argues that it provided tactical advantages to both sides. She also warns against the temptation to scale such a system up to cover an entire region such as the Northeastern United States. Iron Dome is essentially the fish-in-a-barrel version of Reagan's Star Wars. In this case, scale really matters.

One reason that the recent conflict got so much attention is that it penetrated the "bubble" of Tel-Aviv, whose coffee shops are a world away from Gaza. They are among the places where NPR journalist interviewed ordinary Jews and Palestinians for a story on prospects for peace in December 2010. The shops are also the setting for a very compelling film about the political geography of the occupation.

The conflict ended after significant loss of life but still relatively quickly compared to previous conflicts. Among several reasons was the success of diplomatic efforts, particularly on the part of the United States and Egypt. Both the Obama administration and that of Mohamed Mursi were able to work productively with combatants on each side. This positive involvement of Egypt in an internal dispute in Israel would have been unthinkable prior to the Arab Spring, and was taken as a sign of yet another benefit to emerge from the social movement that began in Cairo coffee houses less than two years ago.

It is very discouraging, however, that President Mursi announced a rapid and undemocratic expansion of his own powers just one day after this diplomatic success. The consequences have been serious -- bordering on dire -- and have set in motion a complex set of challenges within Egypt itself. The New York Times maintains a comprehensive page on political developments in Egypt, where the latest news and various views can be found.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Mohamed Mursi
relax in the presidential palace in Cairo.

Shortly after the cease-fire began, France announced support for Palestine to gain elevated status in the United Nations. This shift by one key European country led to the overwhelming passage of a resolution making Palestine a Non-Member Observer State within the world body. The United States and Israel voted against the move, but since it was in the General Assembly rather than the Security Council, a majority ruled. A number of small states highly dependent on U.S. aid voted against the measure, and several larger U.S. allies -- such as the United Kingdom -- abstained.

A momentous furniture delivery. When Palestine got a seat at the UN,
it was a literal seat. Friends from Brazil shared this photo,
reflecting keen interest in the story throughout the post-
colonial world.

Following the vote, Israel announced plans to build 3,000 additional settlements in the West Bank, further dividing the already fragmented territory and threatening the fragile truce. Although the United States sided with Israel against Palestinian statehood, it joined other European allies in condemning the provocative expansion of settlements.

Dalia & Bashir
All of this news has unfolded just as I had the privilege of meeting journalist Sandy Tolan, who spoke on our campus while the fighting was still under way. He has spent a great deal of time with Bashir and Dalia, a Palestinian man and a Jewish woman who are both ordinary in their daily lives and extraordinary in their willingness to listen to each other. They are connected through a house that one lost and the other gained. Tolan's book about the history of that house and what he has learned from dialog with its occupants is named for the Lemon Tree that connected two families that were separated by politics.

On one level, the story is heartening, but it is also discouraging to see the speed with which Israel and Palestine are moving away from any real prospect of coexisting as two, viable states. Despite the movement toward de jure recognition of two states, the proliferation of settlements, checkpoints, and walls implies a de facto movement toward a single, deeply divided state, more akin to Apartheid-era South Africa than anything else.

The key question today is where greater peace and justice will be found -- in a single state with democratic legitimacy or in separate states whose viability is ensured.

Oil Non-Futures

UPDATE: After this was posted, news emerged that Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), a career-long recipient of oil-industry funding and a vocal denier of climate science, has been chosen to chair the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

Former Boston City Councilor Tom Keane is one of several writers to conclude -- based on production forecasts from the International Energy Agency -- that the future portends A new world of energy independence. Writing in the Boston Globe last Sunday, he predicts peace and prosperity based on petroleum production, basing his forecast on a linear extrapolation of recent trends that neither can nor should be sustained.

His argument is an illustration of the fallacies that arrive when economics and politics are considered in the absence of geography.

The image to the right accompanied the online version on Keene's article. I do not think it is meant to be a parody, but a smiling Uncle Sam bathing in a pool of petroleum reminds the viewer more of the catastrophes of the Exxon Valdez or Deepwater Horizon than of the prosperity that the oil is meant to make possible.

In the print edition, Keene's article ran alongside Student activism is alive and well, in which Bill McKibben (of expresses optimism that the young activists leaders he meets on campuses have both the wisdom and the idealism to brush aside such dangerous, facile approaches as those advocated by an under-regulated petroleum industry. Bold New Plan on Nation of Change describes McKibben's work with universities in more detail.

This week, Adam Greenberg of Milton, Massachusetts is one such young leader who is currently representing youth at the climate meetings in Doha, where his voice is sorely needed. Last year, Abigail Borah of Vermont bravely stood up at a similar meeting in Durban, calling attention of the failure of the official delegation to take seriously the burdens that are being shifted to the shoulders of her generation.

At this writing, I am not sure whether the Globe will run my reply to Keene's article. I sent it Monday morning, and post here in its entirety for the convenience of readers. (Update December 9: The Globe did run the letter, along with another letter about the importance of science in this debate and a photo of an anti-fracking sign)
In his exuberance over reports of growing U.S. petroleum production, Tom Keane has set aside his usually careful approach to complex policy questions (“The energy glut,” December 2). It is true that dependence on production elsewhere has led to dangerous entanglements in oil-producing areas, which in turn have been justified excessive military spending and reckless engagements. Those bells are going to be difficult to unring, however, and just as military contractors did not suffer from the promised the post-Soviet “peace dividend,” so too will a way be found to sustain support for the military-industrial complex in the absence of strategic petroleum interests.
Keane’s analysis also raises but too blithely dismisses very important concerns about the environmental geography of petroleum production. Nothing has changed to discredit peak-oil as a principle. Even if heroic (and dangerous) measures prolong the inevitable decline of production in a region, the decline will come, and as it does, increased costs will push us toward alternatives. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) simply means that even more disruption of the carbon cycle will take place in the mean time, with costly and deadly consequences for everyone. 
Fracking is affordable only if the costs of contamination and dwindling water supplies are borne by water users in producing areas. The optimistic production forecasts are based on straight-line extrapolation from recent production increases, which occurred in a well-financed regulatory vacuum.
It is strange that Keane cites unspecified regulations as an obvious remedy to the catastrophic environmental costs of fracking, and mentions the risks taken with BP’s offshore production as evidence. The failure of evidence in the Deepwater Horizon case should make us worry more about fracking, not less.
Additional resources are on my recent Fracking Hell post and my Inconvenient Geography page, as well as Fracking Our Food from The Nation.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Accidental Geographer

Earlier this week, my daughter sent me a link to the video below, with the notation that I might like it. Indeed, I do!

I often talk about the transformative power of travel for many of the "ordinary, mall-dwelling American teenagers" who have changed before my eyes during travel abroad with me. Matt could probably be better described as "couch-dwelling," as his ambitions at age 23 were limited to the making and playing of video games.

He did a little bit of travel, though, and videos of himself dancing in front of landmarks fed the internet's hunger for quirky diversions. After an initial burst of attention focused on him as an individual, he discovered "that people are a whole lot more interesting than old landmarks and monuments."

The videos remind me a bit of the video clips my friend Dean Cycon has posted about his coffee travels. They are fun and quirky, but always respectful of the communities he is visiting. His YouTube channel has the same name as his most excellent book, Javatrekker.

The same day that I learned about the exuberant travels of Matt, I heard an interview with writer Davy Rothbart, whose wisdom about the value of cross-cultural experience comes through, despite his somewhat puerile attitude toward women. During the interview, he told Tom Ashbrook that "Whenever I engage with strangers, I am always rewarded." I certainly concur.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Rowing and Rocket Science

As I mentioned in Harbor Learning a couple of weeks ago, I have been learning a lot since joining Whaling City Rowing this fall. I have enjoyed the exercise, the company, and the exploration of coastal geography. One of my fellow rowers just purchased an app for his iPhone that (after taking the precaution of buying a water-proof cover) he was able to use to track our progress this morning.

As we expected from the detailed forecast on US Harbors, we had a light snow this morning, and lower tempertures than we experienced on our Thursday-night row around New Bedford Harbor. We had considerably less wind, so the overall experience was less demanding. Still, we stayed close to the dock, and stayed out of the main shipping channel.

View Larger Map

The MotionX GPS software answered questions I have had in mind since beginning this hobby. We covered almost three miles, with a top speed of 3.9 miles per hour; I had had no idea what either number might be. It will be interesting to compare with more favorable conditions, when we go a bit farther and do a few drills at somewhat higher speed.

Name:Row test
Date:Dec 1, 2012 7:57 am
(valid until May 30, 2013)
View on Map
Distance:2.94 miles
Elapsed Time:1:07:25
Avg Speed:2.6 mph
Max Speed:3.9 mph
Avg Pace:22' 58" per mile
Min Altitude:0 ft
Max Altitude:0 ft
Start Time:2012-12-01T12:57:32Z
Start Location:
Latitude:41º 38' 24" N
Longitude:70º 54' 48" W
End Location:
Latitude:41º 38' 22" N
Longitude:70º 54' 48" W

The min/max altitude relfect the fact that my friend's iPhone was in his pocket, inches above the waterline. When he steers (which involves standing), he might gain a foot or two!

All of this is a perfect fusion of old and new, outdoor and indoor. The beauty of whaleboating has been getting outside in varied weather and connecting to the historic legacy of my adopted home region.  But to describe it, we are taking modern geotechnology outside with us. What we blithely describe as an "app" is really the fusion of several incredible technologies, all of which fits in a pocket because of the miniaturization predicted by Moore's Law. The technologies include cellular telephony and the internet, along with geographic information systems, satellite image processing, and global positioning systems. These last three are geotechnologies, which are partly responsible for the growing career opportunities for geographers

Two of the last three also technologies mentioned also require rockets and satellites moving at blistering speeds, all to record our hand-powered progress around a small harbor island!

Photo: Ann Hart on Topix Brockton
December 6 UPDATE: The Time and Date web site provides additional information that is useful for mariners -- even low-tech, near-shore mariners such as our whaleboat crews. Its New Bedford lunar page details the rising and setting of the moon, as well as its illumination. This gives us some idea of what to expect on our night-time rows, and of course has influence on the tides. The US Harbors New Bedford tides page indicates the timing and magnitude of tides, along with sunrise and sunset times. This is quite helpful, especially in combination with the hour-by-hour forecasts of temperature, wind, and weather in the harbor. Taken all together, I know that my rowing this evening will be cold, clear, dark, and with low water so that we have to "pick" carefully as we depart the slip area. We will have nothing like the beautiful full moon we had last week. We will have neither the fading sun nor the rising moon that was required for Ann Hart's lovely harbor image shown here.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Leak Busters

A team of geographers at Boston University are using geotechnology to pinpoint an insidious contributor to climate change. The work is described in Fueling Global Warming, Not Homes. Combining sensitive detection equipment, global positioning systems, and geographic information systems, the researchers are both quantifying and locating significant emissions of methane to the atmosphere. Individually, the leaks are safety hazards and economic losses to customers or utilities. Collectively, they are a measurable and preventable contributor to climate change.

Fracking Hell

Today's On Point discussion of Better Fracking is informative and thorough. It is important, though, to listen to the entire program. The headline is about reductions in the amount of good water turned into poison. But like "clean coal," this is a distinction without a difference.
As the scientists on the program stress repeatedly, reducing the amount of water used in fracking partially addresses only one of several fundamental problems with this approach to energy development. At the end of a long, careful discussion, it remains clear that fracking is not part of a viable energy policy. If allowed to continue, it will merely delay the need for a comprehensive conversion to sustainable energy.

Learn more about fracking from a Nation Action blog post that includes an 18-minute video.

December 7 update: Several instances of scientific fraud and conflicts of interest related to pro-fracking research have led to disciplinary action against professors at the University of Texas and elsewhere.

Rising Stakes

As world leaders gather once again to discuss change, hopes are high that something tangible might actually result from the discussion, though the United State remains hampered by ideology. In any case, a series of maps from the New York Times illustrates part of what is at stake.

The maps, under the dire but accurate title What Could Disappear allow readers to compare the geographies of two dozen coastal cities with several possible futures. The 5-, 12- and 25-foot scenarios show what would be under mean high-tide over coming generations and centuries.
This five-foot scenario for Boston, for example, shows (in light blue) the 9 percent of the city (26 percent in Cambridge) likely to be "lost" in the next 100 to 300 years. For those who think in terms of our  responsibilities to our grandchildren, these are not theoretical futures.

Being above high tide, of course, is not the same as being above the threat. Mean high tide is the base above which all storm surges are measured. All of the damage from Super Storm Sandy occurred above mean high tide.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Precious Progress

For prints, see WildNatureImages
We spent the first four years of my doctoral program enjoying the vibrant, desert life of Tucson. That program took eight years, which is why we are not as much fans of the university as we are of the city. At the time Tucson was a less-sprawly, somewhat more progressive version of Phoenix, closer to the border and with a lot more wild lands nearby.

We have been very distressed, therefore, to learn that the always severe politics of the state had become downright vicious, with many measures echoing the kinds of social control that have constrained Palestinians or South Africans. I have written about my distress in a series of posts, beginning a couple of years ago with Just Like Arlo and Human Sieve, which focus on the ways in which border "security" measures attempt to disembody cheap labor.

Curtis Acosta
This year, I have written about a number of developments, starting with a Tucson Teach-in that we held in February, in which we discussed how the state-wide political movements were having very specific impacts on students in the Mexican-American Studies program in Tucson. (See all of my Arizona posts for more details.) We centered that discussion on a viewing of Precious Knowledge, one of whose heroes is Curtis Acosta. A decade ago, when the School Board of the Tucson Unified School District wanted to narrow the gap in achievement and engagement of Mexican-American students, Mr. Acosta was part of a team that implemented a remedy that actually worked by establishing just one course in Mexican-American Studies. Students excelled not only in this more relevant course, but in their other studies as well.

Instead of getting awards, though, the teachers and students were attacked for introducing race into what many outsiders asserted had been a race-free setting. Of course, race had been a factor all along, and the work of these teachers actually allowed for some important and constructive discussions that freed students to do some real learning. The film documents the pressure on this and similar programs, at both the state and district level, and the eventual success of the curriculum's opponents. It was clear that just as one arm of a radical political movement worked to strip away civil rights for many Arizonans, another arm was determined to shut down any critical thinking about such measures. In the view of some activists on the right, schools were to be used to indoctrinate students that they were not experiencing discrimination.

The film ends grimly, but the story did not end with the film. When I was in Tucson, I was part of winning a few civil-rights battles, and apparently the ability to work together on matters of justice is still alive and well in Tucson. The work I did had very little to do with trying to elect particular candidates, because my preferred candidates never had a chance of winning. So in those days we got a lot done by working with whatever officeholders were in place. In this case, however, it was clear that more attention needed to be paid to the composition of the school board. Three individuals were undoing a major, successful initiative of an earlier board, and undermining the education of thousands of students in the process.

Juarez, Foster, and Grijalva, TUSD
School board elections really matter!
This fall, Camy Juarez and Kristel Foster were endorsed by teachers, and were elected to join Adelita Grijalva, who continues to serve and who had been the sole advocate for Mexican-American Studies on the most recent configuration of the board. Two members remain who had worked to dismantle Mexican-American Studies, but they will no longer have the votes to sustain such destructive measures.

All of this is by way of background for some very positive recent developments, reported by David Safier on Blog for Arizona. As a result of litigation that predates the above-mentioned drama -- and has been going on since before we arrived in Tucson in 1990 -- a court-mandated desegregation plan is near final approval. It includes a lot components that one would expect in such a plan, related to the location of attendance boundaries and the relationships among feeder schools.

It also mandates that "culturally relevant courses of instruction designed to reflect the history, experiences and culture of African American and Latino communities" be included as core courses at the high school level. In fact, implementation of this requirement will include similar components at the middle and elementary levels, as explained in Safier's overview of the plan. The plan does not necessarily require the return of the specific program described in Precious Knowledge, but in extended comments submitted to the blog, teacher Curtis Acosta expresses genuine optimism.

Wade Davis, quoted by Trying God's Patience/FB
The good news from Tucson came just as I noticed this online poster, which I have dubbed "Most succinct geography lesson." It is a lesson, sadly, that those running education in Tucson for political purposes in recent years have not yet learned.

The Pesky Poor

"Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
-- Jesus, Matthew 19:24
(A verse many Biblical literalists will do anything to explain away.)

Steve Greenberg, artist
"The poor are taking all of our money! That's why they are so ri.... Oh, wait a second."

As this Occupier notes, the poor did not start this thing:

All Aboard

As we prepare for our course on the Geography of Chocolate, we have become as interested in unusual references to the confection as we have been previously to the many dimensions of coffee. So this brief story of a record-breaking chocolate train from The Guardian could not pass by unnoticed. It looks scrumptious, though we have to wonder how well the chocolate farmers were compensated for their part in this effort.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Seaside Changes

Just yesterday, I posted Harbor Learning, in which I described some of the ways in which my new hobby of whale-boat rowing is helping me to learn coastal geography, both physical and human. I am very glad to be reconnecting to New Bedford in particular, a city I first came to know when we held a regional geography conference there in 2001. We learned something of the city's whaling heritage while organizing that event in the recently-organized New Bedford Whaling N.H.P.

Later on Sunday, I found that the lead article in the business section of the Boston Globe would bring more coastal lessons. Erin Ailworth's A Sea Change describes the rapidly changing economic geography of coastal and island communities throughout New England.

Many coastal communities are heavily dependent on fishing, an industry whose decline is lamented despite its very serious dangers. The gleaming fleet I see in New Bedford belies an industry that is in such serious decline -- related to overfishing and to the regulations intended to prevent it -- that a state of emergency was recently declared.

Coastal geography also includes growing vulnerabilities, as Super Storm Sandy continues (at this writing) to demonstrate, and coastal communities are exploring many protection strategies.

Ailworth's article, however, focuses on changes related to evolving markets for renewable energy. As the map below (which accompanied the article) suggests, the nature of the connections to these changing markets varies from place to place along nearly 500 miles of New England coastline.

My own learning is certain to continue in the spring, as I continue to read, to row, and to use the US Harbors Network resources about which I wrote yesterday. One exciting coincidence ensures that I will learn even more, however.

The One Book One Community partnership in Bridgewater has selected Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea as a community read for the spring semester. At the Nantucket Whaling Museum, I once heard an oral account of the sordid tale that inspired New Bedford's Melville to write Moby Dick, giving some hint of the many lessons to be gleaned from this great work.

I will be using it -- as I usually do with the spring selection -- as a text in a class I am teaching for future geography teachers. I look forward to meeting the author and to learning from the book, my students, and the many activities the partnership committee is planning.


After posting the above late on the 19th, I awoke on the 20th, and found -- as I do every morning -- an email message about Massachusetts history from Mass Moments (a free subscription that I heartily recommend). It was more than a little spooky this time.

GoldieBlox -- Reading for STEM

Debbie Sterling is an engineer from Rhode Island who has creatively addressing the dearth of women in her field. She recognized that problem-oriented play is part of what shapes future engineers and scientists, and that previous efforts -- such as selling Lincoln Logs in a pink box -- were not going far enough.

She created GoldieBlox, a toy designed for girls ages 5 to 9 that combines reading with spatial problem solving. She used Kickstarter to get pretty far along in the production process, and is currently taking orders for April shipment.

I learned about GoldieBlox from Eduardo Jackson's article Move Over Barbie. The status of the project and ordering information are at

Sterling's project reminds me of the Kiss My Math books for somewhat older girls by actress and mathematician Danica McKellar (which I describe on my Not-the-13th-Grade page.)

Business Model

Since the days of Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann, public education has been a key to the success of the United States. In the generations that followed them, faculty-governed higher education -- both public and private -- became one of the country's greatest strengths. Following World War II, university education in the United States became more widely available to U.S. citizens while also attracting some of the strongest students and scholars from throughout the world.

Since the 1980s, however, two fads have begun to undermine education, especially public education. One has been the steady privatization of public services. At a rhetorical level, this has been justified by the constant assertion that private companies are always more efficient than public agencies. In reality, privatization has extracted a layer of profit from many publicly funded services while reducing or eliminating accountability.

A related trend has been to encourage schools to operate "more like business," without identifying why this would offer any advantages. In K-12 education, this has been manifested in an increasing reliance on high-stakes (and high-profit) testing, without any accountability for the testing regimes themselves. In Massachusetts, for example, some school officials are more likely to listen to local realtors than too experienced educators, when deciding to what extent they should emphasize test preparation.

In higher education, managing "like a business" has meant embracing Eisenhower-era hierarchy rather than Deming-style modern management. It has also meant a desperate fixation on branding trends and a steady erosion of faculty governance.

Readers of my blog will know that these are recurring themes for me. They come to mind today because of an excellent article by Professor Chad Hanson of Casper College in Wyoming. "Why Can't A Firm Be More Like a College?" stands the familiar rhetoric on its head, and helps to explain why tenure has contributed to the success of universities. Although much maligned by those who do not understand its purpose, he argues that tenure could be more effective than the Damoclean approach to management that is common in most for-profit firms (including for-profit "universities.")

His article is available as a one-page summary on page 12 of the current NEA Advocate or as a complete article in NEA Thought & Action.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Harbor Learning

Toward the end of the summer, I enjoyed a Boston Globe article about rowing clubs in Boston and Hull. For some reason, I found myself going quickly from wistful thoughts of how nice that would be to actually getting myself involved. Not in those towns, as it turns out, but in New Bedford, whose Whaling City Rowing was mentioned briefly. Not only is New Bedford easier for me to reach, but it has the added element of a connection to the historic whaling heritage of this region. I am very glad that whale hunting is no longer practiced or sanctioned here, but the tradition and its geography are fascinating to me, so I am glad to be connected to it in a small -- and benign -- way.
Photo: Whaling City Rowing
For a couple of months now, I have been rowing once or twice each week, learning the lingo (Avast!) and techniques of rowing. I have not joined a regular team so far, but have been part of a circle of about a dozen rowers (more than half of whom are middle-aged teachers like myself), five or six at a time. A full boat includes five rowers and a steerer, but we can operate the boat with four or even three rowers.

Rowing is a thorough workout that makes being outside at temperatures close to freezing quite enjoyable. It is also a chance to see a working harbor at different times of the day and different times of the year, with an incredible mix of boats and ships, including one of the country's largest fishing fleets.

For each row, the club members who steer the boats make determinations about weather conditions, drawing on their own experience and several online resources.  For rowing in New Bedford -- which we normally restrict to the large and well-protected harbor, steerers can begin with a marine forecast from The Weather Channel. This forecast is based on conditions just outside New Bedford's famous and impressive sea wall, but it is good to know what is going on "out there." Inside the harbor itself, the New Bedford weather report of the US Harbors Network are quite important. The sometimes significant difference between the two helps to explain why "harbor" is synonymous with "protect."

Some of the crews are pretty hardy, so cold alone is not enough to cancel a row, nor is rain. Wind, perhaps, or heavy rain. Or enough cold to freeze the boat in place. Otherwise, the rowing activity itself provides enough heat to make for a quite enjoyable outing when conditions might seem a bit chill. It is surprising, in fact, how much I enjoy the cold rows, given my fondness for living and working in the tropics.

The US Harbors Network is good for more than weather reports, the US Harbors Network web site is a terrific source for armchair coastal explorations. The site provides high-resolution aerial photography that is integrated with detailed navigational charts of more than 1,100 harbors. Viewers can toggle among views of the charts, the photographs, and (as shown above) a 50-percent opaque overlay. The three whaling boats maintained by our club, by the way, are kept at the docks shown on the south side of Popes Island. We enjoy rowing around Crow Island, which has a family home with a lot of interesting and nautical "lawn art." If we row to the west side of the harbor, we "power up" to minimize our time in the very busy channel.

The high-resolution photography allows me to show off our boats, two of which were moored on adjacent docks when the photography was flown. These sleek beauties are about 28 feet long, with five oars ranging from 15 to 18 feet. Yes, each oar is a bit different, and so too is the experience of rowing in each of the five seats. Additionally, the steering oar is 22 feet long, and can be used either as a tiller or to propel the boat near obstacles. Given that all of the oars are stored in the center of the boat, the launching and docking of the boat requires a lot of careful cooperation.

Cooperation is, as it turns out, a key aspect of nautical life. Boaters of all kinds -- amateur and professional, military and civilian, large- and small-craft -- depend upon each other for certain courtesies that can quickly become quite critical. The sharing of information and responsibilities is essential for comfort and safety. The US Harbors Network web site reflects this spirit of cooperation, blending as it does geographic information from a variety of private and government sources. A September article about rescues of marine mammals near Provincetown is an outstanding example of that nautical spirit of pulling together.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Whole Latte Love

I must confess that I am agnostic regarding the musical merits or demerits of the band Nickelback, but I am smitten with the official video for Trying Not to Love You. This formulaic coffee romance features Jason Alexander (Seinfeld) in two roles, Brooke Burns (Baywatch) in several tight outfits, and plenty of gratuitous latte art. It also introduces the long-overdue concept of coffee snow angels.

Normally, I would insert some geographic observations here, but this is just fun to watch.


Cartogram by Gott & Colley

Thanks to my friend Gerard -- a librarian and geographer -- for sharing this cartogram representing the 2012 presidential election. Each state (plus DC, which should be a state) is shaded according to the disposition of its electors (red for Mitt Romney and blue for Barack Obama). More details, including the average of pre-election polling by state) are provided on the Electoral Scoreboard 2012 page. The cartogram technique uses area to represent data, so that results are visually proportional in ways that might be obscured in other kinds of mapping. In this case, for example, many of the states won by Obama have relatively high population density, so that a glance at a conventional map -- which represents each state by its surface area -- makes it appear as if Romney won in a greater portion of the country. By area, he did, but by population, he did not.

Other maps have challenged the red state / blue state notion itself. Robert Vanderbei's Purple America is the best example. The 2012 result map shown below is distinct from more common electoral maps in two ways. First, it shows results by county rather than state. A state that votes for one candidate almost always has some areas in which the other candidate prevailed. Second, each county is shaded according to the proportion of the vote going to each candidate. The differences in voting are substantial, but in most places the vote is much closer to 50/50 than one would guess from watching television.

Purple America 2012 from Robert Vanderbei
I have written several articles previously about the power of politicians to choose their voters in our system, and this often contributes to the impression that differences are stronger than they are. My own state (where gerrymandering was invented) is represented by exclusively by one party in the House of Representatives, and representation of the other party in Ohio is also greatly out of proportion.

The blogger Skeptical Avenger has shared a map by Chris Howard that goes a step further, using hues as in the map above, but adjusting the saturation according to population density. The result reinforces the notion that urban areas tend to be more left-leaning, thous some swaths of rural blueness also appear in middle tones, notably in Vermont and (a surprise to me) in many Piedmont counties in the South. The result is impressive, though I would quibble with the blogger's emphasis on the word accuracy, since every map is a set of choices that are not always directly comparable.

I was pleasantly surprised that this election was decided in relatively short order, compared to the year 2000 debacle. I had boldly predicted that we would not know the winner until Thanksgiving, and I am very happy to have been mistaken. As it was, the gap between the two leading candidates was big enough that Governor Romney and his allies conceded in the wee hours of the next morning. They had held out hope and did not  concede until a couple hours after most non-partisans were convinced of the outcome. This is because they had been believing the echo chamber of their own pre-election pollilng. Still dawn did not see phalanxes of lawyers descending on election offices, so faith in our elections was -- at least for now -- restored.

We Could Learn A Lot From Brazil

I could not help, however, thinking about the comparison to Brazil. I have had Brazilian guests with me on voting day here in Bridgewater, and I have been in Brazil on an election day. The differences are dramatic and quite instructive for the United States. . First of all, Brazil has one Sunday for national elections (Congress and the president) and every four years. Municipal elections are also held every four years in alternation, so that a national election day is held every two years. The simplicity of this scheduling compares favorably with the ease with which people in the United States can become confused about the timing of local elections.

Voting in Brazil is incredibly reliable, with machines audited in real time on election day. The measures to ensure the validity of results is remarkable. Voting in Brazil is also mandatory, generating a fair bit of travel, often to one's home of origin. Some claim that the elections are even a bit sexy, as some areas have become attractive for celebrity voting.

When I was in Brazil for an election, a friend took me from Sao Paulo (where he was living) to Minas Gerais (where he was from), so that he could vote. (And so that I could enjoy his family's coffee farm.). There his sister joined us, though she had been working in California!

Brazilians take pride in their elections, and I witnessed the fact that results were available online -- even for minor local races -- almost immediately. In the United States, by contrast, even during this relatively undramatic year, national results were quite slow in some states, with local elections in Arizona still being disputed a week after the polls closed.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hurricane Lance?

Big Yellow Taxi: Notice the sheen of oil on the flood waters
Charles Sykes, AP/NYT
As I wrote recently in Frosty Denial, the United States remains singularly committed to ignorance in the area of climate science. Nobody has offered a plausible alternative description of the physics that explain a growing constellation of facts, but politicians, media, and a sizable slice of the general public remain convinced that there are two sides to the question of whether humans have been changing the climate.

This week, one of the most expensive storms ever to strike the United States has ravaged New Jersey and New York City a week before a presidential election that will decide whether the next four years will bring relative inaction or absolute inaction on climate change. (Sadly, our range of choices is not very wide, excepting Jill Stein.)

In much of the world -- even in some circles in the United States -- people who have actual planning responsibilities recognize that they can no longer afford to pretend that the atmosphere is not changing in problematic ways. I am working in a small way with the tea industry, for example, as tea scientists and policy makers try to discern the best way to advise farmers whose plants should remain productive over a period of decades. Closer to home, state governors have long been ahead of their more partisan counterparts at the federal level. Neither insurance companies nor the investors who set their stock prices can afford to deny the obvious, as has already been made clear by Hurricane Sandy.

This image is not genuine. I should have checked Snopes, which
refutes a lot of the images currently circulating.
Stark images abound that illustrate the unusual scope of Hurricane Sandy -- a slow-moving storm almost a thousand miles wide -- but a couple from New York are especially poignant. Not since Hurricane Katrina have images of rising water been so prominent within the United States. The automobiles sitting helpless in the flood waters, covered with a film of oil, remind us that our individual dependence on fossil fuels contributes to a growing assortment of collective risks. The (apparently false) image shared by Occupy Wall Street -- of a Scuba diver under Times Square -- reminding me of the similarly outfitted cabinet meeting held in Maldives in 2009.

This morning, a BBC announcer openly questioned the long-term viability of New York City as a human settlement, and although that reaction might seem a bit premature, it is certainly the case that large population centers near sea level (which is where most of the world's large population centers are) will are now subject to increasingly frequent and severe threats.

Bill McKibben and the movement have been using a "connect the dots" metaphor for the past couple of years, encouraging people to draw the most plausible -- and useful -- conclusions they can from a rapidly growing body of evidence.

Hurricane Sandy -- and the attendant blizzards, storm surges, power outages, and deaths -- have proven to be such a large DOT that it is actually bringing discussions of climate change back into political discourse (where it rightly belongs). The policy questions that are emerging fall into two categories. The New York Times, for example, has cited the need for a strong federal role in disaster response. Governors and mayors -- most notably Gov. Christie of New Jersey seem grateful that FEMA has adequate funding and a director with actual qualifications.

At this point, some readers might be wondering why the title of this post suggests a renaming of the hurricane. The idea is inspired by a collection of excerpts relating the super storm to climate change, which appeared during the storm on Treehugger. I recommend reading it for all of the interesting questions and analogies it raises, but the most intriguing is this:
Like a baseball player on steroids, our climate system is breaking records at an unnatural pace. And like a baseball player on steroids, it’s the wrong question to ask whether a given home run is “caused” by steroids.
In light of recent attention to bicyclist Lance Armstrong, this is particularly apt. Just as the distinction between his individual performance and the enhancement of that performance cannot be clearly made, the contribution of climate change to this week's mayhem cannot be calculated in detail. The timing of the storm probably contributed as much to the catastrophic coastal flooding as did sea-level rise, but the fact is that both contributed.

Of everything I have read this week, however, it is a speech based on the work of Alfred Wegener that I found most interesting. A century ago this month, Wegener began to revolutionize the study of geology with a seemingly elementary observation. The coastlines of eastern South America and western Africa appear to have been connected at some point in the past. From this simple observation arose the theory of plate tectonics, which initially earned Wegener nothing but scorn. Beyond the usual, healthy skepticism about new theories, he endured scorn from those for whom his ideas were inconvenient.

In New Frontiers, Wegener biographer David Lawrence gives an eloquent -- and alarming -- description of America as a nation that has always been conflicted about science. We gladly accept the productive innovations that arise from science, but are too quick to dismiss scholarship that conflicts with our profits or ideologies. Quoting Isaac Asimov, Lawrence calls out the now widespread notion that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."

Last-minute addition: Today the radio program Fresh Air included a very informative interview with Radley Horton, a scientist who serves on New York City's climate-change panel. He does not claim that climate change "caused" the storm, but he does talk about some ways that the general trend and the specific event are related. Later in the day, All Things Considered aired an equally important interview with Andrew Hoerling, who explains that climate change does not seem to be changing the frequency, intensity, or track of hurricanes, though it is correlated with many other kinds of extreme weather. Both interviews bear careful listening, because it is easy to extrapolate too far from either set of statements.

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