Friday, July 19, 2013


The sole purpose of this post is to welcome home my sweetheart from her adventure on the prairie.

Neither of us has been to North Dakota, but she has now been north of North Dakota, presenting her cutting-edge research on information literacy at a conference in Saskatoon.

I arrived early at the airport, both to be sure I was on time and to enjoy some artificially cooled air on a record-breaking hot day, at the end of the third heat wave of this young summer. Through the wonders of Internet and wireless technologies (and by virtue of a decent battery in my Dell, for a change), I have been able to monitor the timing of her arrival.

By virtue of GPS technologies, I was able to see precisely where she was a few minutes ago, and to note that she had just passed over our home-away-from-home of Appleton, Wisconsin, which we will visit in just a few weeks.

Naturally, this image put me in mind of a song, known best to us by its Holly Cole Trio rendition.

Gratitude for an earlier-than-expected return goes to Our Friend, the Jet Stream.

Image: The Weather Channel
I guess I lied in the first line, adding a few other purposes. But the main one is still: Welcome Home, Pam!

Monday, July 15, 2013

High Tide in Venice

About as often as high tide -- 650 times a year -- cruise ships call in Venice. As if the "Pearl of the Mediterranean" were not facing enough challenges from climate change and ground-water depletion, ships now regularly scrape by, disgorge thousands of passengers, and rumble out again. As with any such disaster, some Venetians are gaining enough in the short term to ignore the damage being wrought. The inimitable (though often imitated) Sylvia Poggioli tells the tale.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


Geography enthusiast CGP Grey, famous for his video explaining what territories are and are not part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island, has created engaging, quirky videos explaining a lot of other geographic and cartographic curiosities. His two-part sequence on borders begins with countries that border one country each in various ways:

It concludes with the strange anomalies along one of the world's longest borders -- that between Canada and the United States.

See much more on the CPG Grey YouTube channel.

Friday, July 12, 2013

¿Snowden in the Americas?

US: Where is Snowden?!
Russia: He is not here!
As Robert Burns famously said, it is a great gift to see ourselves as others see us. At least for some folks elsewhere in the world, the U.S. fixation on Edward Snowden is somewhat comical. While Snowden sits in a lounge at the Moscow airport, several countries in Latin America are considering an offer of asylum.

Many European countries have considered providing refuge for the former intelligence contractor, but their relationships with the United States are complex, and none is willing to jeapordize positive aspects of those relationships over this issue.

Because this is not the case for some left-leaning governments of Latin America, many are specultating that  Snowden could show up soon in Venezuela, Bolivia, or Nicaragua. The PRI program Market Place recently discussed these prospects in economic terms. Although the interview provides some information about these countries, it more fully exposes the limitations of a narrowly economic perspective.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Justice in Two Different Worlds

On the radio this morning were the latest updates from two terrible, ongoing stories. Innocent people lost life and limb in each case, and evil intent is to blame in each case. Victims deserve justice in both cases -- restitution for their horrific losses and retribution for those responsible. But justice is unfolding very differently, and the difference is geographic.

View Rana - Boston in a larger map
The first story had to do with the opening of criminal proceedings against of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who faces multiple charges for the April 15 attack on the Boston Marathon and the ensuing days. The charges for these murders and injuries include a variety of potential death penalties. The deaths and injuries cannot be made less terrible by money, of course, but it is notable that $61 million has been raised so far to provide some relief to victims and families.
Photo: Guardian UK
The second story in today's news follows the fate of survivors of the April 24 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory near Dhaka, Bangladesh. In a dangerous industry with more than a century of abusive conditions to its discredit, this was the most grievous of all avoidable catastrophes, with over 1,000 dead. A victim who lost five family members, a leg and a foot has received $120 so far and has been promised $12,000 more. The difference in the financial toll of suffering will of course be vast between one of the world's richest cities and one of its poorest, but the contrast is nonetheless jarring.

More important than the gap in compensation, perhaps, is the gap in retribution. The laws are not written to protect the innocent and punish those ultimately guilty in this case. Some local officials may be sanctioned, perhaps even severely, but as with the Molasses Flood a century ago in Boston, the financial pressure continues -- to build dangerous buildings and leave the risk to those living in and around them.

I need to be very clear about a few things that might otherwise be inferred from the foregoing. I do understand the difference between a deliberate attack with individual responsible parties and events that are the inevitable consequence of systemic actions. I also certainly do not begrudge the bombing victims in Boston the funds they have received -- my family has even contributed.

I would be equally willing, however, to support a set of economic rules in which nobody has to risk life, limb, or starvation to make the things I wish to buy.

Latin American Film Trailers

As mentioned in the recent Latin American Films post, I am trying something new in the summer version of my Geography of Latin America course. Students spend a lot of time outside of class doing research and writing. Because summer-school sessions are long and relatively few, I am using the time to explore the human and physical geography of the region through film -- mostly feature films. I am also opening up the class to other members of the campus community.

As I prepared the list of films, I realized that far more films could be considered "essential" than we can possibly view and discuss in the five-week class. So in addition to the films I have chosen -- with the help of librarian and fellow Latin Americanist Pam Hayes-Bohanan -- I am sharing some film trailers, with the intention of encouraging students and visitors to seek out some additional films on their own.

Herewith, in no particular order, are links to those films and their trailers:

Carla's Song 1996 --  Nicaragua

Romero 1989 -- El Salvador

Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights 2004 -- Cuba

Men with Guns 1997 -- Central America (fictional composite)

Mojados: Through the Night 2004 -- Mexico/Texas

El Norte 1983 -- Central America and Mexico 

Motorcycle Diaries 2004 -- South America

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada 2005 -- Mexico

Cidade de Deus / City of God 2002 -- Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Note: The DVD version has a very interesting documentary among the video extras.

Bordertown 2006 -- Ciudad Juarez / El Paso

Kiss of the Spider Woman 1985 -- Argentina

Woman on Top 2002 -- Brazil


Monday, July 08, 2013

Arch Druid

My first visit to the Southwest was as part of an almost madcap journey from Annapolis to Ensenada, by way of Los Angeles on the way out and Tacoma on the way back -- 8,500 miles in 17 days, never exceeding 62 mph in the 1960 VW my friend Mike -- a fellow undergrad in geography -- drove mostly at night to avoid overheating. From midnight at Four Corners to the following midnight in Needles, the time we devoted to the great deserts was hardly adequate.

My second journey was just a few years later and also with fellow geography students, this time the bulk of my graduate cohort at Miami University. That is in Ohio, of course,  Our department encouraged us to attend the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers when it was held in Phoenix in April 1988. This was in the days before universities would pay to fly students, and for some reason vans were not available. We somehow managed to rent two comfortable sedans -- new Oldsmobile Delta 88s -- for the occasion. These were local rentals, but with unlimited mileage.

We somehow pushed ourselves to get to Denver by evening -- slightly out of the way, but I had a beautiful calendar in my office with a photo that was helping to determine the route. Despite white-out conditions on the Front Range, we pushed through to Moab, entered Arches National Park through an unattended gate, and positioned ourselves to see the sun rise at the very arch I had shown the others on my calendar.

Simon Christen, National Geographic
I have some lovely, old-school photos that perhaps I'll be inspired to digitize now that I am revisiting this journey. We very much enjoyed the sunrise and the park, and as budget-conscious graduate students, were not sad that we had missed the chance to pay admission. We very much enjoyed seeing the mule deer on our way in as well! We zipped down to Phoenix, a couple of days there more than doubling my desert experience.

My third visit to the Southwest was a bit more extensive, as my wife Pamela and I moved to Tucson for graduate school. Having kept our noses to the proverbial grindstone for most of our time in Ohio, we were determined to get to know this place a bit better, and did manage to explore much of Arizona and a bit of the rest of the West while we were in residence in the early 1990s.

We recently had the privilege of reconnecting with writer Tom Miller, from whose work I had learned so much about the Borderlands and Cuba. Since his visit to Bridgewater, I read Revenge of the Saguaro, his eclectic and delightful collection of essays about topics both new and familiar.

Miller's exploration of its New Mexico setting inspired me to watch The Milagro Beanfield War for the first time in many years, and to share it with students in my summer class on Latin America. His chapter about Edward Abbey reminded me that I had somehow gotten out of Arizona without actually having read Desert Solitaire, which is part memoir of his time as a ranger in Arches and part call-to-arms for the protection of public lands in the West.

In many ways, this 1968 work is the Bible of the Southwest environment, and I was like a church-goer who absorbs a good bit of scripture through osmosis. When I finally started reading this remarkable work last week, it was immediately familiar. That sensation arises in part from my own time spent in similar landscapes, but is more importantly related to his masterfully conversational writing style and most of all an indicator of how deeply he effected many of the people I had the privilege to know and study with during my Tucson days.

When he first arrived at the Park -- it was then still a National Monument -- Abbey was given responsibility for a truly astounding amount of territory, and supplied with a modest vehicle and a more modest trailer. He was worried about mice in the trailer, but not for the reasons I would be. He understood that mice would attract rattlesnakes, and his fears were realized early one morning as he sat on his doorstep and noticed one just behind his bare feet. What to do?
"There's a revolver inside the trailer, a huge British Webley .45, loaded, but it's out of reach. Even if I had it in my hands I'd hesitate to blast a fellow creature at such close range, shooting between my own legs at a living target flat on solid rock thirty inches away. It would be like murder, and where would I set my coffee?"
I admire the sincere depth of his ethical ruminations, the patience and cleverness that get him out of this particular pickle, and of course his devotion to my favorite beverage -- though I have no illusions that his coffee is organic, ethically traded, or even palatable.

Note: The title of this post is a play on another environmental work that I did read; in fact Encounters with the Archdruid (one word) was the very first environmental book I read, unless the "have dominion over the Earth" passage in Genesis is counted. As I mentioned in my Old River Control post over two years ago, I really should write something about that particular Archdruid and my encounters with him.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Hail Plows

These photographs were taken in Santa Rosa, New Mexico on the Fourth of July. Hail occurs when convective thunderstorms repeatedly raise water droplets into the upper troposphere (the anvil shape of strong storms shows where the tropopause boundary layer is). The stronger the updrafts, the more times each particle of water will rise, accumulating a bit more ice each time, until it is heavy enough to fall to the ground.

According to Jon Erdman of the Weather Channel, this area is known as Hail Alley, and major hail events happen several times each year in the region. Where intense storms occur at high elevation, the hail has less opportunity to melt as it falls. Of course, high elevation has not been a factor in unusually intense hail storms in the past year or so in the Lower Rio Grand Valley or in Mississippi.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Cuba Paradox

Pam and I spent part of Independence Day getting as close as most U.S. citizens (or visa holders) will get to Cuba. We are both very lucky to have traveled to Cuba -- the only country in the world to which travel is forbidden for most citizens of our "free" country.

In 2003, I used a license from the U.S. Treasury Department (under the Trading with the Enemies Act) to accompany a study tour to Cuba that was jointly offered by Bridgewater State College (as it was called then) and Cape Cod Community College (as it is still called). BSC/U offered only one more study tour before losing its license.*

Almost a decade later, Pam had an opportunity to follow, this time under a license for a literary tour of Havana, led by author Tom Miller. This was an opportunity she could not pass up: Pam had been Tom's research assistant when he was writing Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels through Castro's Cuba, first published in 1992.

When I had traveled in 2003, Fidel Castro was aging, and I thought I was witnessing the last days of his Revolution. When Pam went earlier this year, I was glad that she could bear witness to Cuba as it has been -- for better or worse -- before the inevitable change.

This seems to have been the main motivation for BBC journalist Simon Reeve as he prepared the one-hour documentary Cuba 2012 (full program embedded above). Traveling just last year, he captures a moment after Raúl Castro has liberalized restrictions on small businesses, but before other changes, such as the ability to travel abroad that began the day after Pam's visit this January.

At 30:40, Reeve notices that an elementary school near the site of the Bay of Pigs invasion features an illustration of a rifle, with the admonition that Cubans should learn to shoot, and to shoot well. As a Brit, he is taken aback, whereas in the United States this bit of propaganda would be considered a good idea by some gun-industry lobbyists and their allies.

At around 43:00 begins quite an interesting sequence about real estate. In a park where I am pretty certain I encountered a lot of artists selling their work in 2003, people were wandering about with classified ads for real estate pinned to their shirts. One of the agents working the park had come from a rural area to Havana to sell cheese, taking advantage of the reforms that allowed for such private enterprise. Almost immediately, she realized that she could make a lot more money selling real estate, as a half-century of an ossified housing market has suddenly opened up.

This woman's exuberance in her new career reminded Pam of research we had both read a few years ago. Money can buy happiness, up to a certain point. That is, research has shown that happiness is independent of income, above a certain level. For those barely making ends meet, though, incremental increases in income do tend to bring more happiness, and the excitement of this home seller certainly bears this out.

Reeve does an excellent -- if sometimes awkward -- job of bringing the viewer story after story of ordinary Cubans who are finding ways to benefit from what he calls Cuba's "Second Revolution" (forgetting to count the one in which they threw off the Spaniards). Toward the end, however, he extrapolates a bit too far, though. He assumes that if a little change brings a little happiness, then sweeping change will bring sweeping happiness. That certainly remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, for North Americans curious about a country they do not yet have the Independence to visit, this film is a one hour very well spent.

*In order to avoid another recount in Florida in 2004, the Bush brothers (President George W. and Governor Jeb) declined to renew more than 90 percent of academic licenses to travel to Cuba. The strategy worked, so that questionable voting practices were displaced to Ohio, where they were less expected.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Pivoting Texas

Electoral politics in the United States have become quite polarized, with high-stakes primaries and private campaign financing driving wedges between "red" and "blue" politicians and the states from which they are selected. As I have written in Represent and Enumeration, winner-take-all outcomes tend to obscure the fact that the two major parties are closer to parity than is often assumed, and most states are best described as "purple" in terms of voting and registration.

It is in this context that Mara Liasson asks whether my former home state of Texas will become a presidential battleground. Texas is often thought of as the "reddest of the red" states, but it did elect Ann Richards just before George W. Bush, and it is far more diverse -- by many measures -- than its image.

It has remained "red" since Gov. Richards left the scene, in part because Perrymandering strategies that allowed representatives to choose their voters, rather than the opposite. Voting is about more than ethnic identity, of course, and my own friends in Texas run the political gamut, regardless of ethnicity.

But the research that Liasson cites does suggest that given its large size and changing make-up, Texas may be the state to watch in 2016 or 2020. If so, I will be glad not to no longer have a telephone or television in the Lone Star state!

Almost Twins

Two months after celebrating my 50th birthday, I learned that the ZIP Code (Zone Improvement Plan) was doing the same, having entered the world on July 1, 1963. The lengthy PSA shown above was part of the roll-out of a new addressing system that was intended to move the mail quicker and more reliably. Josh Sanburn describes the origin of the ZIP Code and the promotion effort in some detail for Time magazine.

As song and dance, the PSA is so weak that it is amazing ZIP ever got off the ground. As geography, though, this 15-minute presentation is relatively sophisticated in its explanation of the causes of postal delays and the advantages of a remedy we now take for granted.

Because ZIP Codes were later adopted by the Census Bureau as a common unit of reporting, the term has become almost synonymous with "neighborhood," especially when drawing comparisons on such factors as household income.

Wake-up Map

National Weather Service warnings by county
July 3, 2013
Click map to enlarge
Part of my morning routine is to check the local weather, going to the original source at, rather than a commercial site, most of which add unnecessary visual packaging and no advertisements.

Before I could even notice the local forecast on the left-hand side of the screen (hot, muggy, chance of storms), the national map really caught my eye.

The symmetry would be pleasing, were the threats on the ground not so dire. Just as the southwest is dangerously hot and dry, the southeast is dangerously wet. The purple shading indicated only "excessive" heat. Tucson is not included, as it will only reach 105 degrees today. In between, the tan areas appear relatively calm, but they suggest the possibility of dangerous storms -- not in all of these areas, but in any of them.

As common as such "crazy" weather is becoming, it has not yet had a significant effect inside the Beltway, where members of Congress continue to reap rewards for inaction on climate change. Outside the Beltway, concern waxes and wanes, though a growing number of people do sense that something is not quite right.

Outside the country, worries grow about climate justice. As inconvenient -- and even deadly -- as climate change is becoming in the United States, it is a significantly greater threat in countries without adequate public and private resources to devote to adaptation.

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