Sunday, December 28, 2014

Carrion Coffee

Every once in a while, I am asked whether fair-trade, organic coffee is as good as regular coffee. "No," I reply, "It is better. If you treat the soil and the farmers better, the coffee is better."

My interest in coffee began about 15 years ago, with a focus first on the farmers and then on the environment of coffeelands. It was about 10 years ago that I began to care about the beverage itself, and soon figured out that terrible coffee in the cup is a form of karma. Bad coffee comes from bad coffee systems.

It was around this time that we realized the sinister role that cream and sugar had played in making bad coffee palatable for generations of drinkers who were focused strictly on getting caffeine into their systems. We then also realized that a study in which we participated in 1989 had been specifically aimed at making the world safe for bad coffee. It is easier to mask bad coffee with flavors than to work on improving the conditions of coffee production.

All of this was brought to mind when I saw the latest Rhymes with Orange comic by Hilary Price. Coffee shops or roasters that emphasize flavors are probably trafficking in something close to Carion Coffee.

Rhymes with Orange, Dec. 27, 2014

Sunday, December 21, 2014

From Urban to Urbane

The red marker above shows the approximate location of a crumbling mansion whose restoration is part of a remarkable effort to restore the vitality of Beirut, Lebanon. Be sure to pan and zoom in order to see this neighborhood and its city in a broader context.

Beirut is known to most Americans either as the site of the loss of 220 Marines in 1983 or -- more likely -- simply as one of many unfamiliar cities somewhere "over there" in the Middle East. But it has a rich past, a complicated present, and a future that could illuminate the entire region.

Boston Globe journalist Thanassis Cambanis conveys a great deal about the geography of this city in his article In a Beirut Mansion, A City's Culture is Reborn.

He begins by explaining what Beirut represented prior to the civil war in Lebanon. Early in the article, he evokes the charm and ferment of a vital global city. He then explains how architect Ghassan Maasri is using the city's derelict mansions -- particularly the one on Abdul Kader Street -- to involve artists and intellectuals in making the city great once again.

The discussion at first reminds me of similar projects close to home, where Waterfire and gallery nights have reversed the decay of Providence. But Cambanis tells an even more important tale, as he puts Beirut in the context of urbanization and halting democratization in the broader Middle East.

We should all be wishing Maasri and his neighbors success in the remaking of an urbane Beirut.


Shortly after I heard Maasri's story, I heard another about a terrific house in a great city in tough times. War profiteers are making it difficult for British author Diana Darke to keep a house she purchased in Damascus. On one level, her effort to hold on to a second home is trivial in a city decimated by atrocities, but on another level it is a poignant reminder of what has been lost and what might yet be restored.

Damascus has been a city longer than any other place in the world has been a city. This house represents hope for its future.
Damascus is the world's oldest continuously occupied city. It is just 35 miles to the southeast of Beirut. It is a sign of these troubled times in Syria that despite a major highway connecting one to the other, Google cannot calculate a route.

Explore these cities and the lands between.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Open Roads

My relationship to cars.
Cars are the worst. Not only do they contribute to climate change, but the care and feeding of cars has led to sprawling landscapes that we can only get around by car. This has set up a positive-feedback loop that only makes the climate problem worse, and actually causes many to pretend to believe it does not exist, because the alternatives are so unthinkable.

But cars, alas, are also the best. I have to confess that I love few things better than the open road, explored by car, and just about every county visit I have made has been in a car. I plan to use some form of automobile -- if they still exist -- when Pam and I celebrate our 66th birthdays on Route 66.

Until then, shorter road trips will have to do, and the vicarious enjoyment of such photography projects as Scenes from the American Road from The Atlantic (which is a great font of good writing, especially for geographers). This splendid collection of photographs and accompanying thoughts was gathered from creative thinkers in a variety of fields, from comedy to philanthropy.

I am fortunate to have been on some of these very roads, and look forward to exploring more of them.

Near Chillicothe, Ohio. Jeni Britton Bauer, Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams

Friday, December 19, 2014

Coffee-Flavored Coffee

Pluggers 12/19/2014, Gary Brookins

Thanks to humorist Gary Brookins for a nice chuckle this morning, which I enjoyed over a cup of coffee-flavored coffee, prepared with attention to every detail.

My initial relationship to coffee was far different than it is now, and closer the the relationship most people have to it: as a caffeine vehicle. During my first year of college, I worked in the alumni fund-raising call center late into the night. The styrofoam cups of percolated Chock Full O'Nuts were not there for the flavor.

Even in graduate school, we knew nothing of coffee, and we owe completion of our degrees to endless bricks of Folger's. My favorite librarian Pamela explains, in fact, how we played a small role -- as human subjects in the experiment that led to the introduction of flavored coffees.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Boston's Katrina

The day before pleading with the U.S. Olympic Committeeto bring the 2024 games to his city, Boston's Mayor Walsh announced that an alternative shelter had been found for the homeless people displaced by the sudden closing of this bridge in October. I recently wrote about this because it seemed to show a reckless disregard for the homeless people and other clients of social services on Boston's Long Island. Only this week did I learn just how severe that disregard had been. In its timeline accompanying the story, the Boston Globe describes the bridge's October 8 evacuation:
City engineer meets with MassDOT bridge inspection officials to seek guidance. The state experts are presented with documents showing that certain gusset plates have a "zero load rating" which means they cannot safely bear any weight. The city's consultant tells city employees that the bridge "needs to be closed immediately. This closure should happen by the end of the day." The city immediately begins evacuating the island -- using the bridge.
From the timeline I also learned contingency plans had included the ferry option that I suggested in my Short Shrift piece. Even before reading that contingency plans had been made but ignored, I was beginning to think of the Long Island story as Boston's Katrina. The evacuation in this case had no casualties, but the evacuees need not have been displaced at all. The city has spent two months trying to find the weakest NIMBY zones, and is pleased with itself for prolonging this ordeal only through mid-January.

When opponents of the Olympic bid argue that the money for the games would be better spent on schools, roads, and bridges, the apologists for the bid reply that the Olympics would "force" investment on infrastructure that might otherwise not be funded.

Given the failures -- so far -- at Long Island, this seems wishful thinking indeed.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Read This Poem. I Dare You.

"[English does not] just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." ~~ James Nicoll

I was reminded of this observation today, when a friend shared the poem below. It is an unusual poem, in that it was contrived to shed light on the difficulty of its own words. I usually do not read poems out loud, even though I am aware that all poems make more sense that way. But I made a point of doing so in this case, and I am glad I did.

I am a pretty good reader and I speak -- mostly in English -- for a living. But reading at a normal pace, I was tongue-tied on many lines.

I was also reminded of those who believe that learning a language is easy, though they have never tried to do so themselves. (Read it below or try the original post for some context and a larger font.)

Monday, December 15, 2014

Milk of Sorrow

Neither of us is sure how Milk of Sorrow landed on our Netflix streaming list, but we are glad it did. It is a film, not a movie. It rewards patience, and tells a difficult story beautifully.

Even with our years of experience watching Latin American film, we did not readily understand some important facets of the story. We found reviews by Sheri Linden and Sarah Manvel very helpful. I would consider reading them before watching the film.

People tend to love this film or hate it. Reasons for the latter include its slow pace -- a lot is revealed without dialog or action -- and a general lack of interest in non-Hollywood film. Some Peruvians have complained that it does not represent all of Peru, but of course the film maker makes no such claim. Telling a story of Peru -- even an important one -- is not the same as telling the story of Peru. And although this is a story quite apart from our own brief experience in Peru earlier this year, some facets of it were immediately familiar.

For other examples of film from or about Latin America, see my posts The Most Important Town in the AmericasCups and Summits,  Latin American Films, and Latin American Film Trailers.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Spot the Africa

Oh wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursel’s as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
And foolish notion.
Robert Burns (1759–1796)

A modern rendering of the words of poet Burns might be -- 
Oh, what a powerful gift it would be for us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would free us from many a blunder
and foolish notion.

I think of these lines whenever I notice a bit of wisdom about my own country, offered from the fresh perspective of someone from another. In Spot the Africa, Trevor Noah does just that, on many levels.

Find Africa in these images.
Noah ends with a song that is a send-up of Bob Geldof's recent reprise of "Do they Know It's Christmas?" When I watched the original Band Aid 1984 version with students recently, we found it be incredibly dated. Sadly, the Band Aid 2014 version is even worse. Not only is all the original condescension included, but the reprise (which I do not recommend watching) opens with a jarring, voyeuristic contrast: from the removal of a nearly nude ebola victim from her bed, the scene cuts to the media spectacle of Geldof and his costars arriving at the studio for a red-carpet moment.

My students and I are not the only ones who have objected to the video's objectification of ebola victims in particular and Africans in general. Rather than building much-needed empathy, it actually increases social distance; rather than reducing geographic ignorance, it perpetuates errant stereotypes. Geldof and crew are no better than the chocolate industry, whose first concern was its supply chain, and which responded with highly publicized token donations.

Geldof has not taken the criticism well, cutting one interview short with colorful language and later insisting that his song was not intended to be a dissertation. Also with colorful language. Since Geldof wants acclaim but not serious engagement, mockery seems an appropriate response. Trever Noah delivers it artfully above, and calls to mind an even more elaborate parody by Radi-Aid.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Short Shrift for Long Island

Drumlins are relatively uncommon landforms found in periglacial areas; sea drumlins are much rarer features that can be found where glacial processes interact over time with processes affecting sea level to create a drumlin field surrounded by ocean water. One such place is the Boston Harbor Islands, a National Recreation Area within view of Boston and surrounding communities.

We became gradually aware of these islands during our early years in the region, and about a decade ago made our only visit (so far), when we took an MBTA ferry from Hull to Georges Island for a summer afternoon visiting the old fort there. Last year, I became vaguely aware of Long Island when we took an informative working harbor cruise with Boston Harbor Cruises (this particular route is not in its web site, as it is offered only once a year or so). As we passed under the bridge that connects it -- via Moon Island -- to the mainland, our guide told us that access to the island is restricted.

I did not learn of the modern uses of the island until they had been abandoned in October of this year. The island that was used for military, vacation, medical, and human-services purposes for several hundred years suddenly became inaccessible. The bridge that had replaced regular ferry service in the early 1950s had become so unsafe that Boston's mayor ordered it closed, and the island abandoned so quickly that many homeless people sheltered there were not able to collect their belongings.

This week, a brief radio report confirms that the out-of-sight-out-of-mind solution provided by the island is not easy to replicate elsewhere in the Hub. As winter sets in, no place has been found for the hundreds of people who have relied on the shelter it provides, and no other Boston communities seem willing to fill the void.

The predicament of those stranded by the closing of this bridge raises some difficult questions. Bridges throughout the United States have begun to collapse, and many more are in danger of doing so, as ideologies opposed to public investment preclude the funding of appropriate maintenance. But this seems an extreme case: how could a bridge serving the homeless be considered useable one day and not the next? Note that Google has already eliminated the map (shown above in satellite imagery) entirely:
Officials estimate that it will take three years to replace the bridge. That would be a reasonable estimate for a new bridge, or for a bridge that does not provide unique access. But given the importance of the bridge for the people who have relied on Long Island, that delay is an indictment, as is the failure to reinstate the ferry service that once connected Long Island to the city it serves.

UPDATE -- March 30, 2015

Globe reporter David Abel takes the administration to task for continue to fail those displaced by neglect described above. As city leaders crow about the suitability of Boston for the 2024 Olympics, it comes to light that the replacement shelter will not be ready by April.


As I was writing this piece, I noticed an image from the Paravani River in Georgia (former S.S.R.) that shows the kind of creativity that has not yet been mustered for the people of Long Island. I am reminded of the adage "If they can put a man on the moon, why can't they ..."
Image: ©Yuriy Buriak on PizzaTravel

Bridging the Hudson

During our time in Bridgewater, we have had the good fortune of spending quite a bit of time in the lower portion of the Hudson River Valley, between Albany and New York. This is both because it is on the way to so many other places we routinely visit and because we have good friends there, one of whom is a consummate geographer.
From Geographer Jeff we learned of a recent article celebrating one of the many fascinating structures of the region -- the Bear Mountain Bridge. The Secret History of the bridge was recently posted on the lohud blog by a former executive director of the New York Bridge Authority, who shares insights into its financing, geography, and engineering.

Much more about the region can be learned from Scenic Hudson, where Jeff puts his geographic expertise to work as Director of Land Use Advocacy.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014


Just as Only a Game is the only sports show I listen to regularly, Marketplace is my sole business program, since most business-oriented journalism embraces too many of the simplifying assumptions of neoliberal economics. Even Marketplace was testing my patience in recent days, ending a recent segment with "Buy Early, Buy Often" uttered without irony.

 But my Marketplace is back this week, redeeming itself with thoughtful and creative journalism about economic geography at a very local scale. And as if to welcome me back into the fold personally, its series on gentrification begins in ... wait for it .. a Latin-themed coffee shop.

For the series York & Fig, Marketplace has actually set up an office in the Highland Park area of Los Angeles, where the intersection of York Boulevard and Figueroa Street ten miles north of its main office and right in the middle of a rapidly changing neighborhood. The purpose is to investigate the process of gentrification, with a focus on exactly what indicates that a neighborhood is beginning a process of rapid economic and social change.

The first indicator: coffee. In this case, Café de Leche is a local establishment that has been gaining a lot of positive attention, and whose very presence is seen as a bellwether of changes that are underway. For those who care more about coffee than economic geography, this story is a great hook -- come for the coffee, and learn just how interesting urban geography can be!

The café that drew me into this series is actually about a mile ENE of the intersection that is the hub of this changing neighborhood. The next time I am in LA (it has been close to thirty years, so I'm overdue), I'll visit so that I can review it for GeoCafes.


While I was thinking about these stories, my favorite librarian shared another story about a very different kind of change in the economic geography of Los Angeles. The article LA's Mom & Pop Donut Shops Have Harsh Words for Dunkin' Donuts gives hope that the City of the Angels might be able to resist the sweet temptations of Coffee Hell.

DK Donuts owner Mayly Tao says, "Dunkin' is the McDonald's of donuts. I haven't tried their donuts, but I hear they're stale."

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