Saturday, December 07, 2013

Paralleled Adventure

To keep things simple in our household, we add films to our Netflix queue as we become interested in them, and we then watch them in pretty much that order. This is a low-maintenance approach that requires far less energy than constantly revising the queue to somehow optimize the order in which we watch things. The only down side -- and this definitely qualifies as a "First-World Problem" -- is that we often receive movies and have no idea why we requested them, or even which one of us made the request.

This was certainly the case with In Search of the Castaways (1962) whose Netflix cover reads:

Two children search for their castaway father in this Disney movie based on Jules Verne's novel Captain Grant's Children. Mary and Robert Grant (Hayley Mills and Keith Hamshire) know their father must still be alive, because they have a message in a bottle telling them where he is. With the help of a professor (Maurice Chevalier), they set off to find their father, encountering gigantic birds, volcanoes and a gunrunner along the way.

It looked like our kind of movie -- one of our favorite child actresses on a campy adventure, and nautical to boot. But what exactly caused us to seek it out -- or which one of us did so -- was not clear. Only a few minutes into the movie, though, we realized that this was definitely up our cup of fur, as they say.

Maurice Chevalier is the only actor to appear above child star Hayley Mills in the credits. Very early in the film, he announces that he is a "professor of geography" at the University of Paris. I am certain I have never heard this line in any other film; it might even be unique in the history of cinema.
Professor Maurice Chevalier demonstrates the only appropriate use of a Mercator map: navigation. British possessions (as of the mid-nineteenth century) are highlighted in red. The geographer keeps a bottle in each breast pocket; this one has a note!
Of course I was completely captivated from this point forward. Even if the character were a geography imposter --as I erroneously suspected for much of the film -- the mere assertion of geographic credentials was enough to hook me. A couple of scenes later, this film really showed its geographic muscle. The 37th (South) parallel of latitude figures almost as a character in its own right.

It is not giving away too much of the plot to say that an effort to rescue Hayley Mills' ship-captain father results in a transect along most of that parallel. I pulled a world atlas off the shelf early in the proceedings, and flipped through pages as we followed a hopeful crew across three of the world's oceans.
I am fascinated by vessels that employ two completely different kinds of propulsion, such as the steamer sailboat used in this story.
The film provides some good illustrations of geography as it relates to cartography and navigation; the transect pursued by our heroes provides an interesting land crossing of the Southern Cone, with the most cursory of landings on other landmasses. Seventy percent of the earth's landmasses are in the Northern Hemisphere, and in the mid-latitudes the comparison is even more dramatic; a transect at a comparable northern latitude would require horses and trains at least as much as a ship, but these travelers spent most of their time on or near water.

Sadly, the physical and cultural geography of the film is not quite what it could be. Natural hazards abound, but usually manifesting in ways that range from implausible to impossible. Some effort is made to represent local people encountered on the journey, but usually in ways that exoticize and reinforce negative stereotypes. I was reminded of the true story of the whaleship Essex, whose crew assumed that indigenous islanders would likely be cannibals. Thankfully, this is a Hayley Mills film, so no actual cannibalism is encountered that would put those fears in a tragically ironic light.

Innocent Romance

The transition from child star to grownup star is sometimes abrupt, and sometimes discomfiting or even alarming. In the case of Hayley Mills, it was a gradual process that was carefully managed. We have enjoyed her more famous work produced in the years just prior to Castaways -- Pollyanna (1960) and The Parent Trap (1961).

Growing up on screen, she had reached 16 when this film was released, and the interactions with other characters reflect some subtle-not-subtle changes. The IMDb quotes page, for example, highlights this passage:
Lord Glenarvan: [as John starts to put his hand on Mary's shoulder] Ah, there you are, my boy. Better get some sleep, you know. Got an early start. 
John Glenarvan: We're too excited to sleep. 
Lord Glenarvan: Hmm. So I see! You'd better come along with me, just the same.
As John's father said "So I see," I was exclaiming, "I bet you are."

As if to prove that these developments were not my imagination, the following year (just after I was born), a seventeen-year-old Hayley Mills returned to top billing, in a film with the flirty title Summer Magic, which the studio marketed with the now-corny tagline:
"THAT WONDERFUL HAYLEY! a-flitterin' in a romantic whirl of her own!"
The only question that remains now is whether I will remember any of this when the Summer Magic DVD eventually is delivered!

Spoiler Alert

Actually, such a thing is not needed in this case. Hayley Mills is looking for her lost father, and there is a subplot about a boy who has a crush on her. The outcomes are not exactly in much doubt. I do want to say that the typical RomCom progression plays out in a way that is both fun and revelatory of the degree to which sexism was not even noticed in film fifty years ago.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Sprawl In a Nutshell

Many thanks to my friend Geographer Jeff for this brief, encouraging video. It does not detail the problems caused by suburban sprawl, many of which I address elsewhere throughout this blog and on my sprawl page.

Rather, in seven short minutes, Rob Steuteville describes a few key turning points in the evolution of sprawl, as the suburban fraction of the U.S. landscape expanded over a few generations AND describes some ways that people are already working to undo the damage.

I am especially pleased that this video avoids a dichotomy that dominates the sprawl discussion. Rather than presenting downtown as the main alternative to sprawl, this video focuses attention on what can be done in the first-generate suburbs.

New Urbanism in city and town centers continues to be very important; but we ignore the potential of inner suburbs at our peril.


As the video above demonstrates, one problematic aspect of sprawl -- both a cause and a consequence, and thus an integral feedback loop. But the cloud of too-wide streets does have a silver lining: room for bike lanes.

Circulating People | Ottawa Bicycle Lanes Project from Ottawa Bicycle Lanes Project on Vimeo.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Two Things We Are Against

Former Maryland Governor Parris Glendening has often quipped that there are two things we are against when it comes to land use: sprawl and density.
The realty industry's latest survey of community preferences bears this out, as described in an Atlantic article whose title is blunt: Americans Are Very Confused About What They Want Out of a Community. It is no coincidence that a generation essentially devoid of geographic literacy is also confused about the conflicting desires for the organization of local space.

This confusion creates a feedback loop, as people arrive in suburbs and then almost immediately start demanding changes to meet expectations that are not appropriate for low-density settlements.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Internal Borders

As many readers of this space know, my favorite librarian and I spent three years in the mid-1990s living in Pharr, Texas, about as close as one can live to the U.S. border with Mexico. The town is in the center of the Rio Grande Valley, a term that could refer to much of Texas, New Mexico, and Old Mexico, but which really refers to the delta area of the river that forms much of the boundary between our two countries. The Valley itself is a bit of both lands, and living there was really a privilege and an important part of my education as a geographer.

A couple of hours ago I was pleasantly surprised to hear the Valley town of Raymondville mentioned by someone recounting a personal story on This American Life. It is rare to hear a story from the Valley on National Public Radio, and even more rare to hear it in the first person. Compounding my surprise was the proper use of the term Whataburger -- a Valley institution frequently used in giving directions (as DD is here in the Bay State).

As fans of the program know -- and we are definitely fans in Casa Hayes-Boh -- each week the producers select a theme, and bring listeners stories related to that them. The theme of today's show (originally aired in October 2012) was "Getting Away With It." In this case, it is a story about the running of illicit drugs, but it is told from a point of view that is not sensational, and mostly about family dynamics that could play out anywhere.

The yellow balloons on the map below indicate places mentioned in the story -- the Raymondville balloon will guide readers directly to the Whataburger -- including one mentioned erroneously. The border patrol station on Route 281 is not in Hebronville (shown with a dotted balloon), but rather in Falfurrias.

That station is quite familiar to me, as I frequently stopped there on my weekly travels from our home in Pharr to Alice High School (both shown with blue balloons). I taught an evening course there for several semesters, in return for a small stipend and gas money (which was almost as much as the stipend), and mainly for the opportunity to continue gaining teaching experience. I taught at Alice High School, but it was actually an extension program of Texas A&M University-Kingsville. When driving to campus, I always had to stop, just as if I were entering the United States from abroad. I was annoyed, but tried not to show it. I eventually learned that a necktie and a Texas A&M parking permit on the front of the car would get me through much more quickly.

For the narrator in the story above, it is clear that although the contraband to be trafficked was already in the United States, it could not get to market without going through one of the interior "crossings" in Falfurrias or Sarita.

View Take Your Kid to Work Day in a larger map

In preparing this post, I got an interesting lesson in social media. When I asked a friend in the Valley to help me confirm the location of the Falfurrias station (which I had on the wrong stretch of road), she looked it up on the Migra's Facebook page! I would never have thought of that.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Brockton Water Update

When I first moved to southeastern Massachusetts, I started learning about my local watershed, that of the Taunton River. I also began to learn about the critical water shortages in the nearby city of Brockton. Water shortages were a topic of modest concern in Bridgewater, but how could they be of such critical concern in a city so close by that it was once known as North Bridgewater?
This is a geographic question, of course. I was pleased to have the chance to explore the question at the 2006 annual meeting of the D.W. Field Park Association, leading me to offer an entire course on the geography of Brockton in 2007 and 2008.

In preparing to offer an honors section of that course in the Fall 2014 semester, I found an interesting article about the desalination plant in Boston magazine. Amy Crawford's Tapped Out explains how the desal plant that went from "pie-in-the-sky" to "under construction" in the period leading up to my first course now appears to be in the "albatross" category. She explains several factors that have converged to turn the ambitious project on the lower Taunton River into a very expensive backup plan.

Among these reasons are better-than-expected results from conservation efforts -- extraordinary among U.S. cities -- and the fact that neighboring towns have proved unwilling to participate, so that fixed costs are borne entirely by Brockton. Assuming the plant remains operable, a rapidly changing climate might very well change some of those calculations, but for now Brockton's only hopes lie in very dubious legal strategies.

View Larger Map

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Climate Foxholes

This morning I was reminded of the adage that there are no atheists in foxholes. Leaving the theological implications of Pascal's Wager aside for the moment, I found a connection between two island stories this morning.

Damage in Taclovan is undeniable. Photo: Aaron Favila/AP, via The Guardian.
The first is widely known, of course, as the most powerful storm ever observed arrives in Vietnam, having pushed past numerous low-lying Pacific islands before devastating many islands of the Philippines.

The visitation of such a calamity on an island country presents special challenges, as people on some islands will have few places of  refuge. A resident of Kiribati has already sought "environmental refugee" status, and entire countries such as his are considering ways to migrate as countries to higher ground. As researcher Susan Martin points out, people who migrate always do so for multiple reasons and usually do so domestically -- the internally-displaced Dust Bowl refugees known as Oakies are a perfect example -- but anybody who is concerned with international migration must include climate-driven migration in their calculations.

When Mary Robinson addressed the Association of American Geographers in 2012 she admonished us to work diligently for climate justice, because those most vulnerable and those most responsible are not the same people, and do not live in the same places. I must admit that I thought of her remarks as referring mostly to some future condition, though the fact that daffodils were blooming in Manhattan on that February day should have been a clue. It turns out that the migration, crop loss, and impoverishment are the least of the injustices of climate change. The dying has started.

A young boy from Mr. Sano's city.
Image: Erik De Castro/Reuters via The Guardian
So it that Yeb Sano has traveled from the ruined city of Tacloban to the pointless climate talks in Poland, leaving his family behind to bring his story to the banquets halls and negotiating tables of Warsaw, hoping someone will listen to his anguish. 

The complexity of our climate means that we can each deny responsibility; climate change did not invent drought, flood, typhoon, or blizzard. But the increasing frequency of "wild weather" is now far outside the bounds set by prior experience. We predicted a new normal, and statistically, we are there. Typhoon Haiyan has been compared to a Category 5 on the hurricane scale, but this is only because Category 6 had not been contemplated when looking at the storms of previous generations. A storm sustaining winds of near-tornado strength across hundreds of miles had not been imagined before this most unusual century.

Students, parents, and educators: It is sometimes difficult to find appropriate educational materials for such an event; I recommend the Philippines storm post on Listen Edition as a possible starting point for discussion with upper-elementary and middle-school learners.

Key Considerations
Closer to home is a less dramatic story about insurance and planning in the city of Key West, Florida -- a lovely place I have not yet managed to visit. Those who manage public affairs in Key West -- and especially those who set insurance rates -- cannot afford "ivory tower" arguments about whether or not the climate is changing. In the case of those with actual responsibilities, to ignore rising seas is now unthinkable. Just as governors have shown more leadership than the national government, so too have municipal authorities and private-sector planners in Key West left debates to those who still have the luxury of entertaining denial for political purposes.

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Incidentally, the "comments" section of the Key West story illustrates the severity of geographic ignorance. Comments on all sides of the climate "debate" reveal profound gaps in understanding of physical systems, human settlement patterns, and math.

(Posted April 15, 2014)

Image source: Climate Denial Crock of the Week
Looking for the link to my own post here, I found several other blogs that have made the same observation. Peter Sinclair, for example, focuses on reinsurers. These are pretty conservative folks as a rule, and they are not in a position to make their decisions on the basis of ideology.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Zoom In

If you use the "PLUS" button in the upper-left of this image, you will zoom in on its center, as if decreasing your elevation above the earth. You will see one very broad change, and then something small and intriguing. You can then use the "MINUS" button to zoom back out and see the context, and just how vast this visually homogenous area is.

If you click to view the larger map, you can bring the little human figure down to the scene for an eye-level view.

You can then learn the fascinating story of how this was created from ViralNova.  Several geography and geotechnology lessons are illustrated by this exercise. One is the revelation that despite the world being a crowded place in many ways, vast tracts are essentially untouched by humans. Even in this case, however, a local community is part of the story, and it is now connected to the humanitarian and military experience of people hundreds of miles away.

The exercise also reminds us that the data about the planet that is collected by satellites is indeed vast, and that the rendering of these data into images is somewhat arbitrary. Notice the dramatic differences in color as Google Maps serves imagery (which is results from the coding of streams of digital numbers) gathered from different satellites, or from the same satellites on different days. Also notice that a current copyright date is applied to the image, no matter when the data were collected.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Creative Resistance

I first learned the story of the song "Calice" from the liner notes of Luaka Bop's Beleza Tropical album, the first installment in David Byrne's legendary Brazil Classics series.

The story of this song is remarkable -- bordering on incredible -- but numerous Brazilian friends have confirmed it for me. While many outspoken artists had to leave Brazil during a series of military dictatorships from 1964 to 1985, Chico Buarque de Holanda was able to stay and still publicly protest government oppression. He did so most famously with this song, which was a rallying call for millions in Brazil. On one level, it is a religious song, in which Christ prays for his Father to "take away this cup from me" in the Garden of Gethsemane. But on another level, the word "chalice" is the same as the phrase "shut up," and this song ends by mocking the military's insistence on a silenced citizenry.

Many versions of the song continue to be posted on YouTube, including a version created for a geography class that features provocative imagery from the military period  and a more recent version that features imagery from recent protests triggered by bus-fare increases.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Sergio Mendes

In this Seinfeld scene, Kramer is offended that a record reseller does not know the greatness of Sergio Mendes. It is not clear whether the writers intended for Kramer himself to be part of the joke; as important as Sergio Mendes is for bringing Brazilian music to the United States, he has not been very well known in Brazil, as he was exiled throughout almost all of the military period of 1964 to 1985, but became famous among sophisticated listeners in the U.S.

I learned of the U.S. band Black-Eyed Peas when I was walking through a book store with my mother. I noticed a display of CDs featuring their work with Mendes -- I had no idea who they were, but bought a copy without hesitation. The best known track is Más Que Nada.

The Mendes story is placed into context in the Netflix series Break It All.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Self Gerrymandering

As I wrote in Article One almost two years ago, the first article of the United States constitution provided for the employment of generations of geographers, by stipulating that the citizenry be counted and mapped on a regular basis. The original purpose of the Census was to ensure that Congressional representatives be selected in proportion to the population of each state and district. As everyone by now knows, geographers have been employed almost since the beginning of the Republic to reverse that process: Gerrymandering allows representatives -- to some degree, at least -- to select their voters.

In recent years, the modeling of voter geography has become sufficiently sophisticated to allow incumbents to identify and select increasingly loyal groups of voters -- people who disdain Congress in general but are incredibly devoted to their individual members of that august body. The result, as most observers realize, has been an incredible polarization of the electorate, highlighting the red and blue in a country that is essentially purple (again, see my Article One post for details.

It is in this context that political journalists Steve and Cokie Roberts encourage readers to "Turn Off the Blowhards." They cite a recent and perspicacious article by David Carr, who observes that the media -- and readers/viewers -- are increasingly gerrymandered.

Twenty years ago, cartoonist Peter Steiner identified anonymity as one of the fundamental characteristics of the Internet. A related feature has been the incredible fragmentation of media that has been facilitated by the growth of the Web. It is increasingly easy -- and comfortable -- to become immersed in an echo chamber of those who will not challenge our assumptions, Gerrymandering ourselves into very small, very uniform districts of limited discourse. Anonymity allows forays into the intellectual turf of "others" to be limited to verbal volleys that range from snarky to abusive, but that do not resemble real discourse.

As the Robertses argue, the combination of polarized voting districts and polarized thinking districts is increased dysfunction, exemplified by ever more frequent paralysis. The reform of political districting is daunting and perhaps impossible; the reform of our own habits of mind, however, can start immediately.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Busmoor's Holiday

The term "busman's holiday" frequently comes to mind when I take any kind of a vacation, because the line between what I enjoy in my time off and what I do as a professional geographer is often blurred. It is far from a bad thing, though: if walking in the woods with with my family -- for example -- reminds me of something related to my work, I have chosen my work well, and am fortunate to have it.
My latest "Sombra" photo. I took the first first against a coffee backdrop in 2011,
when comparisons were made to the famous
"Shadow" statue of Sandino in Managua.
Twice in a fortnight, this precise example has played out. As with a walk on the Lexington rail trail two weeks ago, this morning's brief adventure in the Cape Cod moors reminded me of ongoing work I am doing with students, related to the development of the Nunckatassett portion of the Bay Circuit Trail. This weekend, the insights came as we walked through the Seabury Farm Conservation Area in Barnstable, at the recommendation of our hosts at the Lamb & Lion Inn. Equally inviting would have been the trails of an Audubon property directly behind the inn (and facing Cape Cod Bay, except that we had a canine companion with us, who is precluded by the Audubon management plan. The admissibility of dogs is an important consideration in any open-space management, and this area of Barnstable now has ample public land in both the dog and non-dog category.

When Pam and I -- and our doglet Perry -- stepped into the scene above, I exclaimed "The Moors!" as I was reminded of the upland grasslands of Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles (though our min-pin is neither a hound nor very Baskervillian). On further discussion, we found that we each had different definition of "moor," all of which were substantiated by quick Google searches and -- more importantly -- by the Oxford English Dictionary. We learned that it can mean a highland open space, especially if covered with heather, a swamp, or any uncultivated land. We also learned that "moor" in the ecological sense has an etymology that is completely separate from the word "Moor" relating to people of North Africa.

In some contexts, "moor" refers specifically to areas reserved for shooting (that is, hunting), which is the case on this property we were walking in Barnstable. In Massachusetts, hunting is allowed on public lands unless specifically prohibited, subject to certain set-backs in distance from roads and buildings. As we consider the development of trails through public lands in Bridgewater, this is an important subject to understand, as it is in any place experience rapid suburban sprawl. Newcomers are sometimes surprised to see hunters close to their homes, and long-timers are sometimes surprised to find that the places where they hunted in their youth are now off-limits. In this context, the signage used above can be a vital part of managing public trails. The photo includes another essential element of trail management, which is to identify the right level of vehicular access, and to find ways to achieve it that meet the various management objectives at a site.
I noticed this house as we were about to exit the property, along what is known as Aunt Hatch's Lane. This house was clearly in place before the recent designation of the surrounding land as public open space. In many similar situations -- I do not know whether this case is one of them -- public space becomes accessible only if access is provided across private lands. In such cases, tax benefits may accrue (a major topic in my course), along with a sense of serving the public good. It is also quite often the case that the value of this kind of property actually increases, despite the potential loss of privacy, because of its proximity to protected lands. In fact, some argue -- not without justification -- that land protection is often purused specifically as a way of protecting property values. It is certainly the case that many Massachusetts towns with a high proportion of public land also have extraordinarily high property values.

I named the photo above "buffer" because the value of the property is further enhanced by a thick growth of vegetation on a steep slope, separating it both visually and physically from the public way.

Aside from good exercise, a major reason to spend time in the out-of-doors is to appreciate its aesthetic beauty, and I was fortunate that Pam noticed the above "still life" along the trail's edge. It is good always to have an eye open for such encounters.

I look forward to hiking this property again, when I'm prepared for a longer exploration of the "Amazon Trail" just to the south of the area we explored. I am intrigued by its name, since it was the Amazon that got me into geography in the first place!

View Larger Map

Back to that Audubon property: we got no farther than the train tracks, which of course we know not to walk along, tempting though it be. The night before our walk, we noticed the Cape Cod Dinner Train, which we had enjoyed riding last year. This section of track is near the one low overpass along Route 6A, a quaint -- if treacherous -- crossing that I have admired since my first visit to the Cape many years ago.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Behind the Citgo Sign

One benefit of the extreme traffic delays caused by Winter Storm Saturn on a Friday back in March was that I had a lot of time to listen to the radio in our own trusty Saturn as I alternately slid, slogged, and sat between our home and our daughter's school. I now write in October, as I discover this article in my "draft" folder. I was prompted to look for it as I read an excellent student paper on Venezuela. It is a coincidence that world attention will soon be on a stadium that sits just below the Citgo sign in Boston!

In addition to a lovely story about the Iditarod, I heard this thought-provoking piece about the recently departed and scarcely mourned president of Venezuela.

Whenever I think about Venezuela, my first thought is of a friend we had in college, with whom my future wife Pam was able to visit the country in 1986, when its economy was prospering and its politics were of no great interest. Unlike many of its neighbors, Venezuela had tilted neither very far left nor very far right at that time, so I actually knew very little about it at the time. I often wonder what our friend's middle-class family thinks of all the changes since Chavez came to power in 1999, and whether they are even still in Venezuela.

My second thought about Venezuela is always of Jimmy Stewart mispronouncing its name in the 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life. As he thumbs through a stack of notices for possible adventures abroad, he mentions Ven-zuh-WHALE-uh oil fields.

A Boston Icon, based
in Caracas
Pam's visit to Venezuela came four decades after this cinematic nugget, and we hardly even noticed the country's purchase of a 50-percent stake in Citgo that year. In between, Venezuela had helped to found OPEC as a way to gain some influence over the rate at which oil was being exploited, and thereby increase its share of the wealth in the core that was being built by the depletion of oil in the periphery. Its purchase of a retail network allowed for vertical integration to capture an even greater portion of the wealth generated by its oil. In  2000, one of the first achievements of the newly elected Chavez was to purchase the remaining shares of Citgo, making a familiar U.S. brand part of Venezuela's national patrimony.

This January, I was in Nicaragua in the days leading up to Chavez' latest inauguration, and speculation about his longevity -- including the possibility that he was already dead -- intensified. It was during this time that Julia Sweig wrote a cogent analysis of the Chavez period for The Atlantic, in which she observes that:
The 14 years of his tenure coincided with a consensus across the continent favoring socially inclusive economic growth, democratic representation, and independence from the U.S. national security and foreign policy priorities of the previous century. 
In the United States, opposition to Chavez at the highest levels of government was thoroughly bipartisan, further evidence that in their acceptance of the status quo in the world economic order that was established at a hotel in New Hampshire so long ago.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Spring Clean for the May Queen

"April showers have wrought May bouquets. Purple-blossomed beach peas now line the sand path to the beach. Shadbush, Beach Plum, and Wax Myrtle blooms paint the higher marsh and the wild, scruffy yards around our cottages in luxuriant broad-brushed whites, perfuming the almost-warm air. Around the marsh edges, I try not to alarm the fiddler crabs that bustle around their burrows as they spring-clean for the May Queen."

So begins the "May" chapter of Carl Safina's masterpiece, The View from Lazy Point, about which I have posted several times. The naturalist and MacArthur Genius takes readers on a year-long journey around the planet that is beautiful, inspiring, and terrifying all at once.

This particular passage is the transition from his "April" discourse on the pressures exerted by a growing population to his "May" examination of the value of fishing as a mode of learning, and of his own transition from fishing into graduate school and ornithology. In describing a small but significant observation at the verymost edge of the sea, he evokes a bit of Baby Boomer nostalgia.

See the Stairway post by blogger Rock Legend for lyrics and some insight into the emotional pull of this song, which I looked up just in case some of my students -- who are reading Safina with me -- might miss the reference. As he (?) suggests, I know exactly where I was the first time I heard this song, over thirty years ago. Coincidentally, just after looking this up, NPR aired a story about the longevity of popular songs.

Incidentally, most of my students recognized the song, though very few had heard this rendition by Heart. None of them thought of the song when reading the passage above. I recommended that they give the Heart version another listen -- every day!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Lexington Trail

A few years ago, I noticed that an extraordinary agglomeration of coffee shops was to be found in the center of the town of Lexington (that place west of Boston where the set-to with the British started). Service-oriented businesses of this kind are very interesting; although Christaller's Central Place Theory would normally suggest just one of each kind of service in a small center, it sometimes occurs that a positive effect arises from the agglomeration of several, seemingly competing, businesses.

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In the case of Lexington, both coffee shops and bicycle shops (and one combined coffee/bicycle shop!) enjoy the benefits of being a destination that attracts more than the expected number of customers.

Many factors may contribute to a thriving downtown, and the general prosperity of the region certainly contributes. Lexington is one of several contiguous communities with the highest incomes and housing prices in Massachusetts, which in turn is among the highest states on both measures. Massachusetts also has an exceptionally heterogeneous landscape, though, with field, forest, water, and built environments closely intermingled. In this context, the carefully configured confluence of transportation systems is vitally important.

As my own town -- with some help from some of my geography students -- works toward the improvement of local trail networks, I am sharing a few observations from a short walk in Lexington yesterday, with my favorite librarian and our somewhat crazy dog. This is not so much a photoessay as an Instagram assortment, but it does have a few lessons for anyone thinking about trails in their own neighborhood.

The Lexington Depot houses the Lexington Historical Society.
It is also a convenient place to stow bikes, under a nice canopy.
Because the railroad went through the station, so does
the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway.
These old sidings are a reminder that the main trail is formed in the old rail bed. The United States reached a peak of railroad miles around 1910, with a steady decrease ever since. This means that throughout the country are many miles of potential paths, already graded for easy riding, and with ownership or easements that facilitate connections that would cost a fortune to make through new land purchases. As the Minuteman Trail makes clear, these paths are also wide enough to accommodate emergency vehicles.
One reason that trail projects can be successful is that while they combine recreation, the enjoyment of natural and historic areas, they also have economic benefits. Hit and Run Sports and Games is an excellent example of a business well-suited to bicycle-oriented development. Accessible from both the street and the trail -- with a hand-made sign listing some of its wares -- this is youth-oriented business is ideally situated. 
ACROSS Lexington uses both the commuter path and other lines of connectivity to bring together the entire town, as the long version of its name implies: Accessing Conservation land, Recreation areas, Open space, Schools and Streets in Lexington. We found this marker just off the rail trail -- it helps residents and visitors alike to know and appreciate what is in this community.
Here Pam and our microdog head toward the one thing that every town should have: a public visitor's center. Easily reached by foot, bike, car, and bus, this center provides rest rooms, respite, and information -- a low-cost investment in civility and marketing that benefits residents, visitors, and local businesses alike.

Repela Tomate

This still life -- in our kitchen in Bridgewater, Massachusetts -- reminded me of the coffee repela (gleaning) we witness in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. As with tomatoes, specialty coffee is harvested when red-ripe. But at the end of the season, it is all harvested, with the ripe fruit (coffee is a fruit) sent on for processing and export, and the rest kept to ripen for home use.
Both photographs relate to climate change. In the case of Matagalpa, I have taken students to the same area almost every year since 2006, and only learned about this "gleaning" practice a few years ago, as the timing of the harvest at a given elevation shifted steadily earlier. Where we once were making the third or four regular pass through a stand of coffee trees, we are now making the fifth, final pass.

As for the tomatoes at home, Pam planted the tomatoes in the summer, as she always does, starting with seedlings on our sunny porch. But odd timing of wet, dry, cool, and hot periods resulted in very low yields, with the bulk of the crop growing very late in the season, when there was not enough sunlight to ripen them. She harvested these mostly green tomatoes when it became clear that no more ripening would occur, but frost very well might.

We will bag-ripen some of these, but stay tuned to Nueva Receta for news of some fried green creations!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Their Therapy, Our Nation

Today's Boston Globe carries two articles about two billionaires who are trying to work out some deep internal conflicts. Unfortunately, they are working them out on the rest of us, using MIT as a base and the whole country as their therapy couch.

First is PayPal founder Peter Thiel, who is offering antischolarships -- $100,000 awards to bright young people, as long as they commit to stay out of school. He has his reasons, but mostly he is working out his own internal tensions between the fact that higher education made him what he is and the feeling that he wishes that were not so. Rather than work this out on a therapist's couch, he is grabbing a lot of attention (and he got mine, unfortunately), by paying a few people to opt out. If in the process he encourages many more to do the same -- but without his money -- what kind of safety nets would he support for them?

Second is Tea Party co-founder David Koch, who dropped $20,000,000 on a day-care center because the plight of MIT lab assistants without good day care brought a tear to his eye. I join Joan Vennochi in applauding his generosity, but in seriously objecting to his desire to strip away social safety nets from people who are not directly connected to him.

The cognitive dissonance that Vennochi identifies is also a moral lapse. Koch is simultaneously generous and miserly. In a supposedly pragmatic country, his is a contradiction that is steadfastly supported by a vocal minority whose objection is on purely theoretical grounds. Generosity is great, they argue, but it should all be individual and voluntary, rather than communal.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

IPM House

After a decade in our "new" house, we have been rethinking a bit of the land management. Our 0.31-acre property is certified wildlife habitat and does draw an impressive diversity of critters, especially dragonflies, pollinators, and birds. But invasives were really crowding out the beneficial flora to the point that we recently hired a goatscaping crew, who removed most of ten years of random growth in as many days.
A human landscaper with organic-farming expertise has been working with us as well, as we move toward slightly more active management along the lines of permaculture, which would make the land productive both in ecological and culinary terms.
With his help, we have also -- at long last -- installed a bat house. Since it is in close proximity to the university, we hope that it can be part of a broader effort to encourage IPM -- integrated pest management -- as an alternative to aerial spraying for insect pests.

Aerial spraying has growing support as mosquito-borne diseases become more common as a result of climate change. A large slice of public opinion simultaneously endorses this blunt-instrument reaction to climate change while denying that the climate is changing. We know the climate is changing, and would prefer not to poison our way out of the consequences.

So in addition to better management of standing water, bat houses (and purple martin houses, which we also have) can be part of a more nuanced approach that will not kill beneficial insects and worms along with the pests. Bats love mosquitos, leaving all the other insects for the birds!

Diversity Grant Guidelines

The document below is copied from guidelines for a diversity grant currently available at BSU. I am placing it here on my blog for the benefit of diverse stakeholders (alumni and community members) who might have ideas relevant to the grant, but who cannot access the guidelines. I apologize for the weird formatting.

ALL members of the campus community are encouraged to submit applications to fund their diversity-related projects.
Apply Now! Applications for Fall 2013 projects are due October 4, 2013
Awards recipients for fiscal year 2013 projects have been selected.
Deadlines for Fall 2013 and Spring 2014 projects
For projects occurring during Fall 2013:
  • Deadline 1: April 19, 2013
  • Deadline 2: October 4, 2013 (Maximum possible grant award is $10,000)
For projects occurring during Spring 2014:
  • Deadline 1: November 1, 2013 (Maximum possible grant award is $5,000)
  • Deadline 2: February 14, 2014 (Maximum possible grant award is $5,000)
About the Grant
The Promoting Diversity Grant is designed to promote, support, and encourage new and collaborative diversity and social justice efforts that directly benefit undergraduate students, including but not limited to programs, projects, workshops, series, events, and other creative initiatives.
  • Grants of up to $5,000* are awarded four times during the fiscal year: twice during the Fall semester and twice during the Spring semester. There are two application periods during both the Fall and Spring semesters
  • Grants are available to campus departments, offices, and officially recognized student organizations
  • All grant recipients will be required to submit the results of their project's assessments to the grant committee to gauge the impact of their program/project
  • Assessments are due 30 days from the date of the project's completion
  • Applications are judged based upon a scoring rubric
* Applicants may potentially be awarded more than $5,000 during a given cycle.  Any remaining funds from one application and disbursement cycle are rolled into the next application and disbursement cycle but only if both cycles occur within the same fiscal year. Funds remaining after the fiscal year are NOT rolled over to the next fiscal year. 
Grant Requirements
Projects that receive grant funding must meet the following criteria:
  • Relates to diversity or social justice
  • Collaborative
  • Fills a campus need or educational gap
  • Specifies learning goals
  • Conducts assessments to gauge effectiveness of program/project
  • Directly benefits undergraduate students
  • The submitted application contains all required materials and information
Preferred Criteria
Project developers are encouraged to create projects that have the following characteristics:
  • Intersectionality
  • Highly collaborative
  • Innovative or pioneering
  • Sustainable
  • Interdisciplinary
Read how the committee understands "diversity," "social justice," "collaborative," and "intersectionaliry" on our "definitions" resource. 
Grant Restrictions
Projects that include any of the below elements are not eligible for funding:
  • Funds that go to individual students to address personal financial need, including student travel to conferences
  • Projects that support a candidate for political office or ballot question
  • Projects that charge admission to BSU undergraduate students
  • Projects that include fundraising of any kind during the event
  • Funds that pay honoraria to BSU faculty or staff
  • Projects or programs that are off-campus
  • The grant will fund projects that offer gifts or prizes to participants, but the monies from the grant may not go towards those expenses
  • A project that has any expenses that violate federal, state, or local law, or BSU policies
Note: Grant recipients who fail to submit their project assessment results by the deadline are ineligible to receive funding from the Promoting Diversity Grant for one academic year.
The grant committee strongly encourages applicants to be familiar with the following:
1. The committee's working definitions of diversity and social justice, collaboration vs. cooperation, and intersectionality
2. Resources are available to help applicants write learning outcomes and assessments, potential assistance with writing outcomes and assessments from the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment is available to assist with developing learning outcomes and assessments
3. The committee's scoring rubric --the tool used to determine which projects will be grant funded
Assessment Guidelines
In a one page pdf document, summarize the results of your assessment. At minimum, include the following information based on your assessment data:
  • Specify how your project did or did not achieve your learning outcomes
  • Specify how your project did or did not benefit undergraduate students
  • Indicate if or how your project should be modified in the future to improve its benefit to undergraduate students

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Avast, Pull Together!

I am a big fan of fellow UU Robert Fulghum, and many years ago my favorite librarian and I enjoyed listening to All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten and other works as we spent many  hours on road trips in the Southwest. I was reminded of the title this morning, when I was telling a colleague about my new hobby of rowing. As he asked how I was doing, I almost responded with the "I'm busy" mantra of educators and other professionals, but I said, "keeping active" instead.

I actually meant it in the same way -- look at me and all I'm doing -- but as I said it, I realized that I really have been active for the past year in a way I was not previously. I told him that I had been rowing, and then I realized the beauty of a phrase I will be hearing later this evening: "Pull together!" It comes after we have all come to the harbor at the end of a work day, scrambling perhaps to get there in time, and then doing the complicated dance of getting ourselves into the boat and the oars out of the boat, and the whole setup into a safe place to begin rowing. The actual phrase is "... annnnnd: Pull together" as our boat steerer will lead up to the exact moment when everyone is perfectly ready, muscles taut and minds focused, so that we get the boat moving in a straight line.

This evening, that moment of pulling together will be our signal that it is time to do a bit of real work. Real work by the standards of a group of modern, middle-class professionals in need of a workout, that is: not real work compared to the rowers of the whaleship Essex, for example, or many others who toil daily in fields and factories the world over. It will be a bit more work than usual, only because of an upcoming regatta this weekend, for which we are doing some last-minute training.

And the reward for that work will be the other nautical word that I have come to appreciate: "Avast!" It means stop, which sometimes means there are more instructions coming. But it also means rest: take a moment to enjoy the privilege of being quiet on the water for just a few minutes. 

In my year of rowing, I have written several posts on this blog about the technical things I have learned. But these three words -- avast, pull together -- capture the true lessons.

And after we have enjoyed our moment of rest, it will once again be, "Pull together!"

Image: Whaling City Rowing

Fantasy League Rebound


It is once again time to talk about our friend, the pink unicorn, the emblem of free markets. In August, I mentioned the fantastical creature in connection with Spirit Level, an analysis of the deleterious effects of income concentration. That the rich get richer is bad enough; that many of them believe they are winning a game that is not rigged is just annoying. That many of them do know that the game is rigged is just wrong.

A couple of days later, my Return of the Pink Unicorn post described a temporary drop in stock markets that occurred when minutes of a Federal Reserve meeting suggested that the game might not be rigged quite as much in favor of investors. The impression was quickly reversed, and so were falling stock prices.

Which brings us to this morning. The Federal Reserve actually did meet yesterday, and it decided to keep stimulating growth, sending stock markets around the world up by more than one percent. The number at the top of this post is a very conservative estimate of the capital gains made JUST TODAY on the basis of that one announcement. I base the estimate on a report on world market capitalization from the American Enterprise Institute. The first word of its tagline is "freedom," but it is not really serious about that.

This news comes as Congress is debating whether to keep funding food subsidies for the poor, a program that has long had the support of conservative Senator Dole, who is aghast at his own party's selfishness these days. Cuts on the order of $4 billion per year are being contemplated by anti-tax fetishists in the House of Representatives who are both inhumane and bad at math. The result would be an unprovoked humanitarian injury that would also increase unemployment in the food sector and that would not balance the Federal budget.

Just as global capital "earned" more yesterday that Congress intends to save at the expense of poor people, middle-class families such as my own do also benefit. Those of use with typical retirement portfolios also "earned" as much yesterday as we can expect to spend in welfare-related taxes over the next several years. In this way, a game rigged for the top one percent earns the complicity of the next 10 percent or so.

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