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.

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