Monday, June 30, 2014

China's Second Continent

During my 2006 study tour to Cape Verde, my students, colleagues, and I had many privileges, including a meeting with the U.S. Ambassador Roger Pierce and a tour of the Presidential Palace before meeting with President Pedro Pires. I remember our group of 30 being a tight fit in the embassy and having much more room to room in the palace. It was a palace, after all, so this was not surprising. We did not visit the Chinese embassy, but driving by I remember being impressed -- it was bigger than the other two buildings combined, and was among the largest buildings in the country.
I had proposed the course in response to news that Cape Verde was the first recipient of the U.S.-funded Millenium Challenge Grants, which were short-term infusions of aid intended to help countries rapidly improve their economies. I was -- and remain -- most interested in seeing what we could learn about the social and environmental sustainability of such rapid development. During the travel course, we also visited a relatively small-scale irrigation project that was part of a plan to increase the food security of the country. At the top of the dam was a pagoda, signifying and celebrating Chinese involvement in the project.

Since that visit, I have heard about the steady expansion of Chinese investment throughout the continent of Africa, the most common explanations for which have been its interests in petroleum and other minerals and a general interest in expanding its geopolitical sphere of influence.

This morning I heard two additional and important explanations in an NPR story about Chinese investment in Tanzania and Zambia. Howard French indicates that Africa's growing population is seen as a desirable consumer market, whose one billion people may number two billion by the end of the century.

The author of China's Second Continent goes on to suggest something much more intriguing, though. Geographic illiteracy in the United States contributes directly to China's comparative advantage in the continent. Many of the projects funded by the United States through the Millenium Challenge Grants mentioned above are actually completed by Chinese companies because U.S. investors have so little understanding of the varied opportunities available throughout the continent. Victims of the uniformly dismal portrayals of Africa in U.S. media and publishing -- which I recently discussed in A Billion People Plus One Tree -- they do not even think to compete for work there.
There is a lot more to Africa than this tree. Thinking otherwise is an expensive form of ignorance.

Export Bias

The most recent post on this blog is a great story of peace-building from Uganda, involving an interfaith coffee cooperative that builds positive relationships among farmers from several traditions. Even as I wrote that, I was thinking about a much more negative and better-known story that I have written about before, in my 2010 Target Targeted and 2012 Bad Coffee House posts.

Those stories mention the U.S. roots of virulently homophobic laws in Uganda, which have actually become more brutal since I wrote those pieces. John Oliver has recently explained the political activities of U.S.-based hate groups in Uganda, and he has interviewed one of Uganda's bravest civil-rights activists. Warning: His approach is both humorous and profane, though none of his words are as profane as the reality for gay and transgender people in Uganda.

A second video includes a more extended interview with Pepe Julian Onziema:

After watching these, please return to the coffee story, both to raise your own spirits and to give you a chance to export some good will by importing some good music and coffee!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Coffee Harmony

I try to learn something new about coffee every day, and I usually get my wish because nearly everybody in my life knows this about me. I had missed a very interesting article about another professor in the Boston area whose work has led him to coffee, but fortunately a friend brought the remarkable story to me, and I have already had the chance to share it with some of my students.

In Ugandan Beans Brew Taste, Tolerance, Boston Globe journalist Andrea Pyenson describes how the work of Tufts University rabbi and professor Jeffrey Summit led him from studying the music of the Mbale region to working with them on interfaith community-building through coffee. A Ugandan friend was visiting the rabbi in September 2001, and ended up being in New York City on September 11. Deciding to work toward peace in his own community, he helped to build a coffee cooperative of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish growers. The coffee is available in several variations from Thanksgiving Coffee, and Rabbi Summit has written the liner notes for Delicious Peace -- a CD on which the community tells its story through music. Thanks to the quick work of the US Postal Service, my students and I enjoyed both the coffee and the music just a few days after I read the Globe article. Both were delicious!

Various purchase options for the music and the coffee are on the Delicious Peace Smithsonian page, which also includes detailed liner notes.

Ordering this delicious coffee supports peace-building while rewarding the buyer and any guests who might get to enjoy it. Ordering from Thanksgiving Coffee also provides an excuse to buy a package of the world-famous maracatura produced by my dear friend Byron Corrales in Nicaragua.

Cochabamba, Michigan

Access to water is an increasingly important area of contention between property rights and human rights. As best exemplified by the standoff between Bechtel and the people of Cochabamba, Bolivia, it is increasingly difficult for people to get access to water -- the substance that makes up most of our actual bodies -- without contributing to the concentration of wealth.

Now Al Jazeera America reports that the United Nations is now considering access to water in Detroit a serious human-rights concern. Thousands of residents have had water cut off because of unpaid bills. Some have defended these measures as necessary steps taken against "deadbeats," but this seems to miss a fundamental question. If water is a basic need, should it not also be a basic right? Those who fail to pay taxes can, after all, still breathe the air and even walk on sidewalks and drive on streets. The problem is that water has not been made universally available in the same way, so that a matter of bill collection can quickly become a matter of life or death.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Stirring Coffee

I have been on the internet long enough to know what GIF means, and what these files were originally for. Graphic Interchange Format originated in the old days (1987, in fact) when modems were soooooo slow that it was difficult to see what an image was going to be until most of it was loaded, which could take quite a while. So the GIFs would load every 8th line or so, and then start filling in. (I write "or so" because I'm not quite enough of a geek to know exactly how many lines were involved or whether they varied.)

At some point, the same technique was applied to very simple animations -- by loading a bunch of different images in a single file. Now "GIF" has become synonymous with "cute or clever short video." It is the application of this usage to my more current expertise in coffee that brings us to the stirring image above. More specifically, though I am especially well versed in the geography of coffee, I also have more than a passing interest in the romance of coffee.

Actually, I use the term "romance" rather broadly to refer to genuine romance, libidinal effects of the beverage, sensual aspects of its marketing, and outright sexual implications of all of the above. Meanwhile, the animation at the top of this article is just one of more than two dozen that were complied in a recent set of GIFs promising to turn on true coffee addicts. Just one more will have to suffice for this space; readers will have to click through to Buzzfeed in order to judge the validity of the claim.


Cartoonists Wulff and Morgenthaler suggest a hot-sounding coffee trend that has not caught on. Thankfully.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Fleet Fish

Photo: Mike Estabrook by way of New Bedford Guide.
At first it was the beautiful image above that drew my attention to an article posted yesterday on the blog New Bedford Guide. I have spent quite a few hours in this harbor since taking up the whaleboat hobby two years ago, and I just never get tired of looking at the ships of the working waterfront.

Then I noticed that the beautiful photo is at the top of an article with an ambitious but promising title: New Bedford Releases Six-Pronged Plan to Revive Groundfishery and Modernize Port. Ambitious, indeed, but also promising, as it turns out, and geographic.

The promising part is that researchers, political leaders concerned about the regional economy, and fishing professionals themselves are all working together. At the center of the article are some technological innovations in fisheries research, but at the center of those is involvement of the people who actually catch fish. Any serious work on sustainability -- economic/social/ecological -- requires deep involvement of the closest stakeholders, a lesson that is lost on far too many architects and managers.

The geographic part is that the strategies address the problem of sample size in the fish surveys on which catch limits are based. Researchers and regulators agreed with fishermen who complained that the surveys were based on very limited transects, but technical limitations made it difficult to sample larger areas. Better cameras combined with pass-through nets designed in cooperation with the fishing experts allowed for a transect that would count fish along a 175-km transect.

The article provides much more detail of how this fits into the plans for regional development, and includes a number of additional resources such as this excerpt from that transect. Perhaps this comprehensive approach will keep these beautiful boats afloat for another century in America's most valuable harbor.

SMAST's New Survey Method from Stove Boat on Vimeo.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Geography of Havering

From The Poke: Time Well Wasted.
One of the great benefits of teaching, of course, is learning from our students. And the internet means never having to stop learning! The latest lesson comes by way of my illustrious former student Micah, who shares this illustration of the musical promise proclaimed by none other than The Proclaimers in their early-90s hit. The band -- fronted by identical twin brothers Charlie and Craig Reid -- was formed in the same year that Pam and I got together, and became known to many North American audiences a few years later through the sound track to the quirky film Benny & Joon.

Here is another version with Mary Stewart Masterson and another with the lads, and yet another with the lads all grown up.

Many fans ask what the meaning of haver (or haiver) is. According to the OED and other online sources, it is a chiefly Scottish or northern English term meaning "To talk garrulously and foolishly; to talk nonsense."

In any case, it is one of several things the singer would walk 500 miles -- or even 500 more -- to do with (or to) the object of his affection. The map above answers the most obvious geographic question raised by the song. I bet that some of my other students, though, can take this a bit farther if they use their atlases or GIS tools to answer a few more:

  1. What are the surface areas of the two circles in which this lover would be willing to walk? We have the radii (500 and 1,000), so the rest should be simple.
  2. What portion of these areas is walkable, i.e., dry land?
  3. What if he went only by roads?
  4. What languages might he haver in once he got there?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Universal: DeafSpace

Click to enlarge
One of the great joys of listening to WGBH-Boston late at night or early in the morning is the variety of programs it airs as part of PRX: Public Radio Exchange. This is a digest of some of the best radio journalism from stations all over the United States. This morning it introduced me to a very spatial program -- 99% Invisible -- a "tiny radio show about design, architecture & the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world." It started as a collaboration between KALW and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco.

The first episode I heard is #50 -- of over a hundred so far. DeafSpace describes innovation at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, where architects carefully studied the ways deaf people experience space, in particular the spatial implications of conversing in American Sign Language. It turns out that doors, windows, window treatments, wall colors, and even the shapes of hallway corners can be designed in ways that better serve people who are deaf or others using ASL.

As the story makes clear, improving accessibility for some people often improves it for most people. This is a beautiful illustration of the principle of universal design, since the results make a more pleasant and useable space for people with any level of hearing. Truly universal design benefits not only a wide range of people, but also any given person over a wider span of her or his lifetime, as abilities change over years of living.

The story starts where the design of buildings or outdoor spaces should -- with careful observation and deep discussion with users. For more than a generation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has required that buildings meet certain minimum requirements for accessibility. But it is easy to find -- even in brand-new buildings such as the one in which I teach -- examples of construction that meets the letter of the law but that is not genuinely accessible. Taking the time to avoid these shortcomings can make indoor or outdoor spaces better for all people who use them.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Radio Free Alcatraz

"America did not get its wealth by being nice..."
~~ John Trudell

During my drive to an Atlantic harbor this morning, I heard an interesting story from BBC Witness about an important historic event in a famous Pacific Harbor. The Native American Occupation of Alcatraz is a chapter of Nixon-era activism that I had somehow missed, though the phrase "Radio Free Alcatraz" did ring somewhat familiar.

When I got home, librarian Pam and I found that listening to the entire story was worthwhile for the light it shed on what later evolved into the American Indian Movement (AIM) and for its vivid description of the geography of the island itself. Although the story suggests that nothing was being done on behalf of Native Americans prior to the 1969 occupation, an article about the occupation on Native Village describes several efforts to occupy the island that began in 1964, very soon after it was decommissioned as a prison in 1963.

Today the island is open to the public as part of the National Park Service, which describes the events in an article entitled We Hold the Rock. Not only does the NPS invite people to learn about these events, but its web site even describes the occupation as "one of the most influential events in the island's history" and one "that saved the tribes and maybe the island too."

I look forward to finding a copy of the 2001 PBS documentary Alcatraz is Not an Island, though it is not available through the usual channels.
From the graffiti slide show that is part of the NPS museum exhibit Indian Occupation

Whaleboat Delivery

From its berth nestled in the corner of Pope's Island Marina ...
... an early-rising crew ...
... led by a worth skipper ...

took the Flying Fish (that's the one in the middle, whose oars are not wrapped) on a 3.4-mile journey across the New Bedford Harbor, through the storm gate into the Atlantic ...
... passing some other boats in a motorized convoy ...
... before landing on a beach at Ft. Taber...
... and resting for a while alongside the boats it would be racing later in the morning.
This morning's run of 3.4 miles took just under 42 minutes, assisted as we were by calm winds and an outgoing tide. (The tide assisted; the winds simply did not interfere.) The purpose of this short voyage was to deliver a boat for use by my Shiverin' Timbers teammates, representing Whaling City Rowing in the Open Water Rowing Challenge. Although the same captain is steering the boat for delivery, race, and return, the race crew was able to start fresh, while the rest of us got to enjoy an early-morning row on a beautiful day.

The race was sponsored by our friendly rivals over at Buzzards Bay Rowing Club. And yes, the Acushnet River harbor is big enough to support two, active clubs keeping alive the tradition of nineteenth-century Yankee-style whaleboats!

Friday, June 06, 2014

BAT Anomaly

Common Core is opposed from both the Left and the Right, leading many to assume it must be a good thing, or a toss-up. Opponents find common ground against CC and work together, but those on the Left have very different motivations and must sometimes part company. The founder of the leading anti-CC group had put it succinctly:

The BAT Anomaly
1. We oppose Common Core and fight for our unions to fight Common Core. We oppose it because it is undemocratic, expensive, discriminatory, undermines good teaching and learning and is a cash cow for powerful corporations.
2. We part company with other opponents of Common Core when they support charter schools, vouchers, school privatization, and attacks on collective bargaining.
3. Our opposition to Common Core is integral to our identity. But so is our opposition to School Closings, VAM, Charter School Favoritism, attacks on collective bargaining and teacher tenure, theft of teacher pensions and hiring of Teach for America temps over veteran union teachers.
~~ Professor Mark Niasson, Co-founder Badass Teachers Association

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Owners of the World

The most important speech I ever heard was given in February 2012 by former Irish President Mary Robinson, who admonished a group of assembled geographers to apply ourselves to the problems of disparity in the causes and consequences of climate change. A video of that speech and and my initial reactions are posted on this blog, and I refer to her work in several other posts.

Today her organization shared the words of some even more important speakers through its Facebook page, which pointed to this video as part of an article about the importance of broad participation in climate talks. In most global summits on trade, development, and the environment, a heavy police presence keeps the best-informed and most vulnerable people outside of the discussion. This video shows a different approach. Top government officials were brought together in genuine dialog with "the owners of the world" -- people from throughout the Global South who know first-hand the consequences of rapidly changing climates.

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