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.

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