Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Canoeing the Freedom Trail

In Boston, we are still having arguments with people who have not physically been with us for centuries, so it is reasonable to think about what we are leaving behind for Bostonians of centuries to come. It may be 300 years before Back Bay becomes a Bay again and the Boston Harbor Hotel has ocean views from every room, but it is not too early to start thinking about such changes to come.

See Boston Underwater for visualizations of deep water at several landmark locations in and around the Hub of the Universe.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Obama to Visit Africa

As I tell students in our EarthView program each week, "Africa is not a country." It is the second-largest continent, with about 1/7 of the world's people and a total of 55 countries (depending on how nearby islands are counted). It is far more diverse than most people realize, but it is the only continent in which nearly every country has a recent experience of colonial rule. The disadvantages of being on the periphery in a post-colonial world-space economy are therefore much more on display there than on other continents.

President Obama will soon be visiting three of those countries: Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania, and will be changing the agenda as he travels. The necessity of development aid has not disappeared, but President Obama will be shifting the attention to trade and investment. "Trade Not Aid" has been the mantra of the Fair Trade movement, and clearly the rules of the world trading regimes need to change.

Much of the media attention to the trip is --as always -- on its cost. Part of that cost, however, stems from the inclusion of 500 business people in the president's entourage. Presumably, some of them will be covering their own expenses. As reported on NPR, this first serious trade mission to the continent is partly in response to China's growing commitment there.

Source: CNN
It remains to be seen whether this visit is remembered for deepening the exploitation of African workers or for maturing the various bilateral relationships between the United States and potential partners in the region. As I prepare for my second study tour to explore Sustainable Development in Cape Verde (one of those nearby islands), I have a deep interest in the results.

Missing Coffee

The Moka pot has nothing to do with chocolate,
and everything to do with Yemen.
Food Studies professor Fabiano Parasecoli was far from home -- Inner Mongolia -- when he realized that coffee had become an integral part of his identity as an Italian.

His brief, wistful essay What Cup of Coffee? traces the arc of coffee's global diffusion, describing several Italian innovations along the way. Italians invented espresso, and as far as I know Italy is the only European country to have attempted domestic coffee cultivation. It lasted a short while on Sicily, which is the culinary pivot between Europe and North Africa.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Latin American Films

Schedule Revised as of June 25, 2013

During the summer session of my class on the Geography of Latin America, I will be showing films nearly every class day. It is a writing-intensive class, so students will be doing a lot of reading and writing outside of the meeting times, and I want to use the meeting times for something a little different. Since each session lasts almost four hours, I have time to show a film each time, and I am opening up the class to visitors who might be interested.

Each class lasts from 8 am to 11:45. To accommodate visitors, I will start each film at 8:30 or 9:00,  as indicated, using the rest of the class time for other activities. The class meets in the Conant Science & Mathematics Center, room 279 (that is in the wing behind Kelly Gym).

Please contact me directly with any questions, and either contact me directly or re-check this post before making a special trip to campus, in case I have had to modify the schedule.

Friday, July 12
9 am  
Tuesday, July 16
9 am
Friday, July 19
9 am
Evita 135m
Tuesday, July 23
9 am
Friday, July 26
9 am
Tuesday, July 30
8:30 am
Friday, August 2
9 am
Tuesday, August 6
9 am
Bus 174 120m
Friday, August 9
8:30 am
Santitos 101m

Monday, June 17, 2013

Nature's Fortune

The current issue of Nature Conservancy magazine includes several positive stories about environmental restoration. One of the most interesting is an excerpt from Nature's Fortune, a new book by Mark Tercek and Jonathan Adams.  The book describes economic benefits of environmental protection and restoration; the example of Mollicy Farms in Louisiana is particularly instructive.

The farms -- adjacent to the Upper Ouachita National Wildlife Refuge -- were made possible by the privately-funded construction of 17 miles of levees, enclosing an area about the size of the town I live in, and separating it from the nearby floodplain. After a half century of effort with various crops, the land owners decided to sell the land back to the public, and they were fortunate that the Federal government was willing to buy it.

As the authors explain, removing the levees is an impossibility, but everyone now agrees on the ecological -- and economic -- benefits of creating significant breaches, so that the land can once again provide some of the hydrologic and ecological benefits it once did.

Breaching the levees is a matter of civil engineering, of course, but choosing where to breach them to greatest effect is a matter of fluvial biogeomorphology. That is to say, physical geography!

View Larger Map

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Nicaragua?

As its name implies, The World from Public Radio International is a great source of journalism integrated with geography, exemplified by a recent story about my winter home-away-from-home, Nicaragua.

A short report about proposed canal projects in Nicaragua exemplifies several interesting connections among economic development, environmental protection, geoopolitics, and global trade. (My recent about the Panama Canal and public health provides more information about these connections and more.)

A bit more than a century ago, the United States simply chose the most expedient route across the Central American isthmus, creating not only the Panama Canal but Panama itself in the process. Teddy Roosevelt aided those who wished to make the area free of Colombia, in exchange for their support of the canal.

Today, investors from China are hoping to build a series of canals across Nicaragua, which is three times wider than Panama but includes a significant inland waterway. In supporting the proposal, the Ortega administration cites the creation of much-needed jobs and the $10 million annual payment the investors would make to the country. Though the Ortega administration describes the payment as "serious money," these gains would be trivial in comparison to the disruption the canal would create along any of the six proposed routes.

Despite an error in the reporting, all of the routes would cross Lake Nicaragua as well as sensitive wetlands in the east. More than anything, the project reveals the lack of political power exerted in the sparsely-populated Afro-Caribbean portion of the country. The gains from the project, though few, would likely accrue far from the negative impacts. Those who think that Daniel Ortega is still a socialist are simply not paying attention to stories like this one.

Some may remember the 2010 dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica over the depiction of a border region on Google Maps. When I arrived in January 2011, I learned that this dispute was taken quite seriously in Nicaragua, as a matter of sovereignty and national pride. The potential of a canal project to disrupt natural environment of the shared Rio San Juan was an important but under-reported aspect of that dispute.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Push Polling Push

While on social media (OK, it was Facebook) moments ago, I noticed a "poll" about natural gas. I use scare quotes with the word poll because this is clearly not a legitimate poll, which is a scientific instrument that uses a combination of random and systematic selection to estimate the prevalence of opinions. This "poll" uses a haphazard sampling methodology.

It is not a strong example of  a "push" poll, but it is worded to emphasize benefits and does not specify risks or use keywords such as "fracking." The web site of the polling company explains the purpose of the polling effort, and is a reminder of the reasons I do not participate in polls as often as I did in the past. I used to think of polls as a way to express my opinion; I now realize that their main purpose is to improve the ability of marketers -- for politicians, products, or lobbyists -- to manipulate audiences.

(See further posts regarding "fracking," a risky process increasingly employed in the extraction of both natural gas and petroleum.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Water and Education in China

With the support of the Massachusetts Geographic Alliance, my daughter Paloma and I are giving a presentation about Water and Education in China, where she participated in a service trip last summer. I will speak briefly about geography as a discipline that is relevant to social and environmental sustainability, since we are speaking to a student sustainability club at Bridgewater-Raynham Regional High School. I will also speak about Project EarthView, which we may be able to bring to B-R for a club event next year.

Mainly, though, we are going to be there to talk about the trip Paloma took with Me to We in 2013. The trip was very successful in its goals of helping North American youth to understand better their place in a complicated world of economic disparity, while also making a meaningful difference in the lives of children who otherwise lack access to both clean water and a good education.

We had arranged the time of today's visit without realizing that it is an important anniversary, as the Tienanmen Square massacre took place on June 4, 1989. I remember driving from Ohio to southwest Virginia for a wedding that day, and being increasingly dismayed at the news we were hearing from Beijing. We would never have imagined that we would some day have a daughter who would travel to that very spot, and return to tell us about the censorship that is still prevalent in the place. Although it will not be the focus of Paloma's presentation today, we will honor those who perished there.

This Lego model of the massacre was captured by Western sources before being removed from a web site in China in the past few days. Despite the ongoing efforts to quiet discussion of this terrible chapter in modern Chinese history, Buzzfeed reports on the role of social networking in opening public discussion after 24 years.

Blue Boat Poem

New Bedford Heritage Apps
Apple & Android
Since I began rowing with Whaling City Rowing last September, my thoughts have increasingly turned to the sea, even though all of my "nautical" activity so far has been in the safe confines of New Bedford Harbor and lowest reaches of the Acushnet River. 

Nonetheless, spontaneous cries of "The sea! The sea!" have become all too common at Casa Hayes-Boh, especially as I spent the spring semester teaching geographic pedagogy through the pages of In the Heart of the Sea. I have also enjoyed learning a bit more about geotechnology and about the New England coastal environment in general.

Photo: Geo-photographer Ashley Costa, New Bedford, MA
Last week, though, the aesthetic and spiritual aspects of rowing were much more on my mind. After rowing during the 6-o'clock hour Thursday evening, I posted this on social media:
Best thing about rowing this evening -- as we rowed toward the rain, a rainbow came to meet us on the water. And then a fainter arm of the rainbow came our way, from the other side. The downpour was brief, so we were dried again by the time we returned to the dock. A very nice row, indeed.
A geographer friend asked me to explain how this worked in terms of optics and weather, to which I responded:
Pamela and Paloma and I had a similar experience in a more dramatic way in Florida once, on the highway. For a rainbow to work, the rain (prism) must be in front of the viewer, with the sun behind. Usually, that means the rain is off in the distance somewhere. But we were RIGHT at the edge, so that it was sunny all around us, with the rain falling hard from the edge of the downpour. So the drops were huge and brightly lit on the water, as the rainbow came right to the fore of the boat. Lasted for about a minute that close, and then it pulled back as the rain moved away. The same thing happened from the port side, but not as dramatically. No photos -- just memories.
That is when another friend replied:
Rowing is bringing out the poet in you James.
This comment really affected me, because I think of other people as poetic, particularly my friends in Nicaragua, where statues of poets are (thankfully) far more numerous than McDonald's franchises, and where my students and I refer to the best coffee farmer as The Poet of Coffee.

I was still thinking about the rainbow and the poetry comment when I got to church on Sunday morning. The service included a baby dedication -- which always makes me nostalgic and emotional anyway -- and some wonderfully nautical music, Blue Boat Home by Peter Mayer. It does not affect me as strongly as "This Is My Song (set to FINLANDIA by Sebelius), but the lilting tune and poetic imagery are beginning to have a similar effect. 

(Video by Rev. Scott McNeill, Omaha, NE)

Our music director Denise had included this discussion of the piece in our order of service:
You will be singing Blue Boat Home in today’s service (hymn # 1064.) Some of you might think it sounds familiar, and you will be correct. Hymn tunes have names and the name of this one is HYFRYDOL, written in the 19th century by Rowland Hugh Prichard. If you come from a Catholic background, you may recognize it as Alleluia, Sing to Jesus or Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. UU’s may recognize it as Hail the Glorious Golden City (#140) or Years Are Coming (#166) or even Earth Was Given as a Garden (#207.) 
Blue Boat Home is the same tune with funky rhythms and a souped up piano accompaniment. The prelude for today is Partita on Hyfrydol, arranged by Robert Powell. A partita is a repetition of a musical theme in which it is modified or embellished. If you listen closely, you may recognize the tune which you will later sing as Blue Boat Home.
Later that day, I attended the annual Musicale -- an intimate festival of recorder music held in the home of my wife Pamela's recorder teacher, who leads two local ensembles. Denise was also a part of the afternoon music, and as I sat basking in the instrumental music, I thought about the music of that morning and then of the poetry of rowing. I remembered that Denise is a sailor, and it occurred to me that we could do kind of nautical worship service next year.

As we discussed this after the program, we quickly realized that she had been sailing just as I started rowing last week, and when she drew a map of her berth in New Bedford Harbor, we realized that not only had she and another church member gone below deck during the brief downpour described above, but that her boat had been right under the rainbow my fellow rowers and I saw. I do not believe in portends or omens, but this multiple coincidence brings to mind the name of my rowing group: Shiver Me Timbers!

Incidentally, I am not the only UU blogger to have been affected by Peter Mayer's poetry. Rick Brown has written his own homage -- with the full lyrics and some related videos about water -- on Progressive Blogic.

Lagniappe: Hyfrydol
(Added June 9, 2013)

The wonders of the Internet include the fact that we can use modern technologies to reach out and touch our nostalgia in so many ways. As I was writing this article last week, I decided finally to act on my long-standing intention of purchasing a hymnal of the kind I used as a kid in Oak Dale Baptist Church. In moments, a used copy of the 1956 Baptist Hymnal from Convention Press was on its way. Oddly, it was easier to find than the 1970s-era version that we used more often; both were in our pews so that we would not miss any of the old standards.

The main reason I have been wanting one of these is that we often sing something in our church whose tune is familiar, but whose connection to an old hymn I cannot quite remember. In the case of Hyfrydol,  the connection is tenuous. The tune is used in Hymn 9, "Praise the Lord! Ye Heavens, Adore Him," but this is not one of the standards I remember.

Monday, June 03, 2013


In responding to a simple geographic statement by his daughter -- "Daddy, that doesn't go there!" -- a California father began Litterati -- a campaign against litter that blends social networking, photography, and geotechnology in a very inventive and effective form of activism.

Although I am still fairly clumsy with my phone, I managed to join the effort this morning, directly behind our house. I was not surprised -- and a little smug, I must admit -- that I was able to add some detritus from a  local company that is set on world domination.

I hope to find other friends participating soon -- Litterati has not yet caught on in Massachusetts, and it is definitely not from a lack of litter!

Artificial Leaf

Today I received a hopeful and poetic note from a student who studied the Geography of Environmental Problems with me this spring. He share a link that relates to several of the topics we discussed in class. He did so poetically, so I am posting his entire message here.

Dan Nocera, from Yahoo News

"Earlier this year, in an email to you I posed the possible image of a bleak future stemming from the/an energy crisis.  I remember writing that if we were to prevent or mitigate the issue humans would need a breakthrough in one of the fields of renewable energies.   Most estimates I read estimated that oil and natural gas will only last less than the next 100 years.  The blanket of despair seemed woven thick, but through it a needle has pierced and light shines through.  The link below shows a scientist who has an attractive looking possibility for a revolution in energy dependence.  Hopefully the direction gains momentum, and other scientists will develop better answers to the impending energy problem -- and like the article says, answers to the climate water and food issues." 

He refers to Carrie Halperin's ABC News article Chemist Hopes 'Artificial Leaf' Can Power Civilization Using Photosynthesis, which provides many interesting details.

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