Monday, November 28, 2016

Beyond Castro

Fidel Castro died last week, several generations after entering Havana in the vanguard of a revolution. A decade after passing political power to his "younger" brother Raul, his corporeal passing was nonetheless long-anticipated in Washington and Miami.
A montage from my Geography of Cuba page, recounting my
2003 visit to the island nation.
Whether this is a new, new era in relations between two countries or simply a chance to rehearse old controversies for the sake of nostalgia, it is too soon to tell. As a Latin Americanist, I have been indulging in a bit of the latter and also seeking resources to which I can point my students and other readers for some context. 

One might start with the overview provided by Charlotte England's survey in the Independent (UK), in which she explores how each of these presidents shown above interacted with the elder Castro. Writing for Slate last spring, Fred Kaplan draws connections between Fidel's 1959 conversation with then-VP Nixon and the President Obama's more recent overtures. During that 1959 meeting, it was not clear what direction Cuba would take following the overthrow of the US-allied "friendly dictator" Batista; by the end of that year, the relationship was firmly frozen along Cold War lines.

See my 2009 Cuba May Finally Be Open, 2011 Against the World, and 2013 Cuba Paradox posts for some of my observations about the relationship between Washington and Havana in recent years. 

My real impetus for this post, however, was NPR's Morning Edition, which offered four stories on various aspects of Castro's passing during its November 28 program. Together they convey just some of the complexity of this enigmatic figure and his legacy. Hearing some of these items reminded me of The New Latinos, Episode 4 in the six-part PBS series Latino Americans. This episode details migrations from the Caribbean -- Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Cuba -- between World War II and the 1960s. Particularly in the case of Cuba, it emphasizes the rapid shifts in the public perception of migrants, depending on race, class, and political context.

Whatever happens next between the United States and Cuba -- and whatever we make of the revolution and its aftermath -- one lesson of my 2003 visit remains vitally important: much more unites us as people than divides us.
A rumba lesson in Lajas and a great conversation in Havana, 2003

Saturday, November 26, 2016

¡Mariposas, Presentes!

Yesterday was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, recognized on the anniversary of the 1960 assassination of the remarkable Mirabel sisters. Known as the Butterflies, Patria, María Argentina Minerva and Antonia María Teresa inspired and energized the opposition to the dictatorship of the U.S.-allied Rafael Trujillo, resulting in his eventual downfall.
Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa Mirabal
Their story is told in the novel In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez and in the equally excellent film by the same name starring Salma Hayek, Edward James Olmos and Lumi Cavazos.

In searching for a film trailer, I found two that were created by students;

The one by Kevin Peralta posted a video labeled as an official trailer, though it does not does not actually show the film at all. Rather short takes of high-school students reenacting some of the film's key moments provide  a moving introduction to the story.

A literature student identified only as Travis has also posted a compelling trailer by editing clips for the actual film.

Note: I use the exclamation ¡Presente! in the title of this post in reference to the way those who are killed or disappeared by governments in Latin America are recognized at ceremonies or rallies. The term ¡Viva! is sometimes used, but often not quite accurate for those whose fates are unknown. So when someone like the Mirabel sisters is remembered, the word ¡Presente! (or its plural) is shouted, signifying their ongoing presence in the movement.

In recognition of this practice, the newsletter of SOA Watch is known as ¡Presente! It documents ongoing efforts to close the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, which has a long, bipartisan history of training U.S. allies in the suppression of democratic movements.


In 2016 Minerva Mirabal's daughter Minou Tavares Mirabal told the story of the Butterflies on BBC Witness History (nine-minute audio, as always in this series).

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Happis, Hayes, Whatever

My favorite librarian and I often read to each other -- mostly she to me: I talk for a living, but do not read out loud as well as she does -- and currently we are enjoying a new book by Bill Bryson, who is rapidly becoming one of our favorite authors. See Pam's reviews of other Bryson works on her Liberry Books blog.

This book -- The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of An American in Britain -- is so rich with geographic gems that it is one of two Bryson books that I will be assigning in my senior seminar in geography in the spring. I cannot possibly include all of his geographic insights on my blog, but after reading the following paragraph, Pam suggested I blog about it. And of course she was correct, for reasons that will become apparent.
In the morning I woke to watery sunshine, and after breakfast in the Burlington's large but empty dining room drove twenty miles down the coast to Happisburgh, a remote and lonely but good-looking village roughly halfway between Sheringham and Great Yarmouth. Happisburgh is dominated by a tall, lovely lighthouse with three red stripes. A sign in the neighboring parking lot informed me that this was "the only independently run lighthouse in the Uk." Now I am very sorry, but how can you possibly pass a lifetime in a country and not know how to abbreviate it? Why did you bother going to school at all? Why did your teachers turn up in the morning? Apart from this minor outburst of illiteracy, Happisburgh seemed to be an entirely agreeable place. It is pronounced, incidentally, hays-burro, or even just hays-brrrrrr. Norfolk specializes in odd pronunciations. Hautbois is hobbiss, Wymondham is windum, Costessey is cozzy, Postwick is pozzik. People often ask why that is. I'm not sure, but I think it is just something that happens when you sleep with close relatives [sic].
Sic in this case letting readers know that this blog does not traffic in humor of this low variety, but Bryson did it, so I am leaving it here for readers to judge for themselves.

More important, though, is the geographic question: where are all these places?

This phenomenon is very familiar to residents of Massachusetts, who are used to some fairly odd pronunciations.

I was introduced to the special nature of Massachusetts town names early in my tenure here, when I told students that a field trip would include a rest stop in LEO-minster -- the first town mentioned in the video above. Fortunately, I was well-versed by the time I made a visit to Leominster High School a couple of weeks ago.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Just Read

Lifted shamelessly from Instagram.

Expert guidance on this topic from my favorite librarian: BBW MaxGuide.

Civil-rights leader and U.S. Congressman John Lewis cites the value of reading and libraries and teachers on the occasion of accepting the National Book Award in 2016. (October 2023 note: I am incredulous that this video has only been watched 20,000 times since then -- many of those times by me. Please share this widely; every American should here what he has to say about the right to read!)

The movie Selma tells some of the story of this national hero. I highly recommend it! And I will be ordering the graphic novel for which he and his co-authors won this award: March: Book Three (the link is to a boxed set of all three volumes; each volume is available in a couple of formats). To learn about the importance of this series, see Jody Arlington's review of the first volume, the Washington Post's announcement of the award for Book Three. I also recommend his 2009 interview with Terry Gross, about the movement to win the vote.

MEMORIUM: Rep. Lewis died July 17, 2020 exactly a week before my own mother, who was an admirer of his. Although it is quite long at a bit more than four hours, I recommend the recording of his funeral, which I watched in its entirety in real time. He brought out the best in a wide variety of speakers and musicians.

Good writing stems from time spent reading. If I see what someone has written, I cannot tell whether they went to a "good" school or not. But I can tell whether they have devoted any serious attention to reading. For more on the connections between reading and writing, please see my How to Become a Better Writer page. It is one of several Writing Tips pages on my Not-the-13th-Grade web site. As "Dear Abby" Abigail Van Buren has written, "Those who do not read are no better off than those who cannot read."

For more on libraries, visit the web site or blog of my favorite librarian.


Item #3 above refers to the skills ascribed to Christian mystic Edgar Cayce.


In the same week that Rep. Lewis so eloquently articulated the importance of reading, other politicians announce their opposition to literacy. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyders -- and his education bureaucrats -- have argued in court that students in Detroit have no right to an education that would afford them basic literacy.

Gov. Snyders doubles down on low-quality education.

All of this comes as the results of a study of information literacy confirms that students across a wide range of ages have difficulty discerning real news from fake news or opinion. When "my opinion is as good as your facts," reality becomes a very slippery concept. The Wall Street Journal report on this study cites educational "consultants" who blame parents for not teaching information literacy, even as it admits that high-stakes testing and the elimination of school librarians are the real culprits.

In addition to bringing information professionals back into schools and allowing teachers to teach there subjects rather than taking of tests, students should be encouraged at every turn to read both deeply and widely. The more we read, the less easily we are fooled.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Still a Small World

Circles of Learning from ACTFL
by way of my Small World page.
A decade or so after revising our general-education requirements in a way that removed the study of foreign languages, my university (Bridgewater State) is considering revisions to the program. A lot of interesting ideas are being proposed, but to my utter dismay, none of the options would restore the study of foreign languages as a core requirement.

I encourage current colleagues and students to read the proposed changes and to participate in the online forum. Both are available on our campus intranet for currently-affiliated persons. 

Alumni and others interested in my contribution to the discussion can read my comments below. Unfortunately, I am too dumstruck by the omission of foreign languages to give much attention to the other parts of the proposal, though I did discuss them during an on-campus forum.

I was quite active in the debate at the time our requirement was reduced from two courses to zero; my Small World web page contains many of the arguments I made at that time.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Carbon Upcycling

Industrial leaf prototype. Image: University of Illinois Chicago via TakePart
From a team of researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago comes news of a technology with the potential to slow the rate of increase of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. The research was recently published in Science and reported on the TakePart blog. The prototype shown above might resemble any number of electronics projects I put together as a kid, but it is more like a leaf than anything else.

The researchers have found a way to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in a way that allows them to produce usable fuel, using techniques and materials that make the process more efficient than heretofore possible.

When the fuel is burned, it returns carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, so this is not a technique for long-term carbon sequestration. It is, rather, a carbon-neutral way to replace fossil fuels; the timing of the extraction of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere makes all the difference. It is analogous to using firewood (as I am doing right now) instead of coal to heat one's home.
Firewood cut by a local tree service; stacked in my garage this morning.
The firewood example is instructive; as I write this, a fire in my fireplace is returning carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. It was removed from the atmosphere by the process of photosynthesis within recent decades, is being returned to the atmosphere as I write this, and will again be taken out of the atmosphere by new trees growing where these were removed. The entire cycle might last 50 to 100 years or so, and the effect on the climate is nil.

Climate disruption occurs when burning fuel returns carbon dioxide to the atmosphere many millions of years after it was removed. The now-familiar Keeling Curve shows a steady increase atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past three centuries, accelerating during my lifetime.
Global levels of carbon dioxide since the onset of industrial uses of fossil fuels. The concentration has grown from 280 ppm to over 400 pmm, with 350 ppm a goal of many experts interested in finding  a level that would facilitate adaptation measures.
This graph is known as the Keeling Curve, which shows the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It is a trace gas -- still less than 1/20th of one percent of the atmosphere -- but a very important one because of its ability to trap outgoing energy in the infrared portion of the spectrum. Gases of this kind are called greenhouse gases, and without them Earth would be no more livable than the moon. My Frosty Denial post explains the basic physics of the relationship between increased concentrations of these gases and increased temperatures.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution in Europe and North America, carbon dioxide accounted for 280 parts per million (ppm) of the atmosphere -- 0.028 percent. As measured in the tiny bubbles of air recovered from ice cores, the quantity barely changed as fossil-fuel use increased in just one small part of the world. But as industrial uses of oil, coal, and natural gas increased and broadened geographically, the concentration steadily increased as well.

That dinosaur in the gas tank was not real, for two reasons.
The organic material in fuel is plant, not animal biomass.
 And the dinosaurs are far too young. 
The key to understanding the increase is understanding the role of time. All of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels originated in that very same atmosphere. It was removed by the process of photosynthesis, building plant biomass that would eventually be compressed and transformed into coal, mainly during the Carboniferous period. Most of the world's coal was formed from plant materials over a 60,000,000 period that ended 299,000,000 years ago.

It is difficult to imagine just how long ago this was; for comparison, keep in mind that dinosaurs did not start to appear until the Mesozoic Period, more than 50,000,000 years after most of the coal had been deposited, The story is similar for oil and natural gas -- most of it was formed over a very long time period, very long ago. Within the first 200 years of industrialization, humans have burned something close to half of the fossil fuels, releasing the carbon back to the atmosphere thousands of times more rapidly than it was withdrawn.

In retrospect, it is no surprise that this increased the concentration of carbon dioxide from 280 ppm to 350 ppm by the time I entered college in the 1980s, and to 400 ppm and beyond during my adult life (so far). The perils caused by this increase include rising seas, shifting crop seasons, and the steady creep of tropical blights and diseases into formerly temperate regions. No longer a future worry, the changes are widely apparent and developing so rapidly that no single remedy can be considered sufficient. Improvements in technology need to be coupled with changes in the uses of energy, as well as measures to protect the most vulnerable people.

At this point, the key question about the carbon-capturing technology described above is whether it can be deployed at a sufficient scale and efficiency to be economically viable. If it is successful, it could help to slow the rate at which carbon dioxide continues to increase in the atmosphere. For the reasons described above, it cannot actually bring those levels DOWN -- only slow their increase. Even if this becomes a "silver bullet" technology, we will have to do much more to protect Earth's climates.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Border IRL

The border between the U.S. and Mexico has loomed large in the twisted political season of 2016 -- larger than life, in fact. Much opining, mansplaining, and bloviating was in the air, spoken by and spoken to people with little experience of the border itself. I started this post prior to the election, to draw attention to some realities of the border itself.

I lived on the border for seven before moving to New England, and although that was twenty years ago, I continue to think and read about it quite often. My time away from the border constantly reminds me that for most people in the United States, it is an abstraction.

Not every person who lives there will reach the same conclusions that I have -- some of my good friends have spent many more years there than I and may view it differently. But I think it is important to look at it from an IRL perspective -- what is it like In Real Life?

First comes a report about the recent rapid increase in hardened borders worldwide.

The report goes on to detail the physical walls and other security measures that currently exist along the border between the United States and Mexico. To those not familiar with the region, this might resemble an open door, but the unwalled stretches are places of incredibly harsh terrain, deadly climatic extremes, and isolation. Even these areas, though, are under constant surveillance, by permanently anchored dirigibles and other devices.

To get a sense of just how rugged the border area is, The Intercept team produced a video of the entire border as seen from satellite imagery downloaded from Google Maps. The six-minute virtual flyover surprised even me with the amount of difficult, open terrain. The project is entitled "Best of Luck with the Wall" because at reveals just how daunting a task a coast-to-coast wall would be. The text accompanying the film explains some of the ways that the border has already become an immense nexus of surveillance data.

Migration, of course, has much more to do with economic, social and political factors than with physical barriers or even policing. Those are important factors as well, but in the absence of serious discussion of the costs, benefits, and causes of migration, wall construction will be a disappointment -- to everyone except the contractors who are hired to build them. Those who saw the Big Dig project in Boston swell from $3 billion to $14 billion have some idea of what a great southern wall would actually cost.

Click to enlarge and explore. Purple icons mark where my wife Pamela and I lived in the 1990s; blue icons mark places I have crossed (Pam crossed all but one of these), and yellow icons mark places I really wish I had crossed but have not yet had a chance. Zoom in to each icon for a closer view and a bit of my story in the place.

One of those is the easternmost crossing -- less than a mile from my former classroom at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Although technically a delta rather than a valley, and really not very "grande" near its mouth, the term RGV refers to the flatlands to the south and east of Laredo on both sides of the border. It is a cultural region with a long history of tight interconnections. The UT-RGV system now includes several campuses. In the mid-1990s I taught at this one, when the campus was know by the names of two schools that had merged -- it really was called UTB-TSC: The University of Texas at Brownsville in Partnership with Texas Southmost College. I am disappointed, actually, that "Southmost" has been dropped from the name. When participating in a 5K run on this campus once, we kept being interrupted by federal agencies asking if we had seen migrants -- we were that far south. More constructively, when I taught evening classes here, about 1/3 of my students were Mexican nationals who lived at home and walked across the border for their classes. Simpler times.

Lagniappe -- Values
As I continue to think about walls and fences, I keep coming across this aphorism. It reflects how my family tries to live, and I think it is how most people in our country try to act at a personal level. There really is no reason to avoid this way of thinking at a global scale.

NEW November 2017 -- see ESRI's map story by Krista Schlyer.

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