Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Coffees of Tea Island

As I mention quite often in this space and elsewhere, the greatest advantage of teaching is that I get to keep learning from my students. (Sadly, some of my colleagues are not very open to this, but those who enjoy teaching are.)

In this case, I asked my honors coffee students (yes, that is a thing!) to read an important BBC article entitled The Disease That Could Change How We Drink Coffee. It is about roya, also known as coffee leaf rust, also known as one thing that might motivate some people to pay attention to climate change. We had discussed the disease in the context of my Coffee Bellwethers TED Talk, and I decided this article would be a good way to delve further into the topic.

Being a habitual user of open-ended questions, I did not ask them specific questions about the article; rather, I asked the students to write questions that the article led them to ask. Several of the questions had to do with the differences between Arabica and robusta coffees, which BBC reporter Jose Luis Penarredonda dubs "Beauty and the Beast." (From Jeff Koehler's remarkable book on Ethiopian coffee, I have since learned that Coffea arabica is so named because it was so abundant in Arabia in the 18th century that Linneas thought it had originated there. Its name should have been Coffea ethiopica.)

As the BBC nickname suggests, most people -- expert and otherwise -- prefer the flavor of Arabica, which comprises about 70 percent of world production. Robusta, though, is the hardier plant, resistant to higher temperatures and to many diseases and pests. Robusta can be grown at lower elevations -- which is how Vietnam became the world's second-largest producer of coffee with no real coffee terrain. Robusta also has about double the caffeine of Arabica. As climate changes in coffeelands, we can expect the 70/30 advantage of Beauty over Beast to decline, along with the average quality of coffee as a whole.

A Second Question

Back to the original assignment: One student asked a question that was based on her careful reading of this passage, in which she noticed one word that I had glossed over:
If left unattended, the disease can have dramatic consequences. In the late 19th Century, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and other countries in Southeast Asia were the major exporters of coffee in the world. In a matter of decades, the disease meant they practically stopped growing it.
The word is "practically," which should have signalled to me that the story I usually tell about Sri Lanka is not quite right. I took a strong interest in the teas of Sri Lanka -- whose former name "Ceylon" is now almost synonymous with the beverage -- when I was working on a book about tea a few years back. Alas, I never completed the book, but in the process I learned a bit about the relationship between tea and climate change, and I even managed to attend a tea hosted by the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United States.
While pursuing that research, I learned about the roya infestation of a century ago that Penarredonda describes in the BBC article. Arabica plantations all around the Indian Ocean and into the southwestern Pacific region experienced the blight, which could only be abated by the large-scale clearing of coffee trees.

Throughout much of the region, Arabica coffee plantations were cleared completely, often replaced with Robusta. In Sumatra, for example, most production today is of Robusta, even though Arabica is produced in limited zones and is well known for flavor notes that are best exhibited in very dark roasts.

It was my understanding that in In Sri Lanka, the removal of all that coffee led to the realization that the island was better suited to tea. And certainly, tea is grown in abundance, with greater volume and variety than one might imagine in such a small geographic area. It employs 1,000,000 Sri Lankans!

And yet, it turns out, there is room for coffee. Although the online magazine Perfect Daily Grind cites a growing cafe culture and the economic importance of production in some parts of the island, Sri Lanka is still so dominated by tea that it is not among the top 70 coffee-producing countries, producing less as a country than my favorite mid-sized coffee estate in Nicaragua.

Still, the growing popularity of up-scale cafés is a trend worth watching.
Coffee is trending on the west side of Tea Island
Image: Perfect Daily Grind

Putting the CAR in Cartography

CARtography on the open road
As a geographer, I know the damage that automobiles and automobile-dependent landscapes run counter in many ways to social and environmental sustainability. A search of the word "sprawl" on on this blog points to many of the specifics, and the car-sprawl-car feedback loop is a subject on which I can give a one-hour lecture at a moment's notice.

Still, I love cars and open roads. I have visited well over a thousand counties in 47 U.S. states, and I have to admit that public transportation was limited to airplanes in most cases. I have been through a few dozen counties in the Northeast by train, but only places I had already visited countless times by car. In other words, I am hopelessly part of the automobile problem.

And I would have enjoyed being one of the many cartographic fact-checkers that verified the layout of open roads for map-making companies on the eve of World War II. These CARtographers were lauded by the automobile industry at the time, in a short, industry-sponsored video brought to our attention by Greg Miller of National Geographic.

Connecting Deep Dots

Because I have long been a fan of both biography and public radio, the BBC series Witness has become something that I look forward to most weekday mornings. This 9-minute program comes on at 4:50 each morning, which encourages me to get the coffee grinding done in time to enjoy an interview with someone connected to major historical events. 

Careful readers will note that I have blogged about a few of these before; the most recent to get my  attention was an interview with a coworker of geologist Marie Tharp. Her work is central to a lot of my teaching, yet I had never heard of her. In short, it was her careful mapping of seafloor soundings that identified the world's largest physical feature -- the mid-Atlantic ridge -- and confirmed the theory of plate tectonics that had been disputed by geologists for about a century.

The leader of her team -- who was still an undergraduate while she had earned two master's degrees -- had initially dismissed her interpretation of the data as "girl talk" without explaining what he meant by the term. This did not prevent him from eventually putting his name on the publications that announced her findings.

I recommend listening to the interview and then reading Erin Blakemore's Smithsonian article Seeing is Believing, which provides a bit more of the context of Tharp's work. Finally, I recommend Tharp's own account of her education and research. It is posted on the web site of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute with the title Marie Tharp, and is based on her own book chapter, "Connecting the Dots."


From her own account of her career, we learn that before earning graduate degrees in geology and mathematics, Marie Tharp double-majored in English and music. A foundation in the humanities is a good basis for continued learning in any field.

Give Educators a Break Instead

A privately-branded, publicly funded stadium looms over downtown
Minneapolis, while the bank in question pilfers the schools.
A criminal enterprise known as the Minnesota Vikings has extracted a half billion dollars toward the construction of the stadium shown above, from which its kingpin Zygi Wilf will receive $200,000,000 each year in profits. Citizens of Minneapolis will pay $7,000,000 each year toward operating expenses, and will receive no discounts of any kind.

Minnesota's politicians have allowed Wilf to privatize profits while socializing expenses. This is common in professional sports, but this may be a new extreme. It should have been easy to predict the fiscal deficit as well as the people most likely to bear the brunt of this malfeasance: teachers and children. In the United States, children are "our most precious resource" only when making speeches, not when setting budgets.

This drama plays out just as cities across the United States are playing a similar game on an even bigger field. The Amazon HQ2 competition is bringing out the worst in politicians across the USA. This discussion examines several aspects of the pandering that is all-too common, and suggests some remedies. (Hint: JUST SAY NO)

Innovation Hub Journalist Marc Sollinger spoke with professor Nathan Jensen, co-author of Why Cities Shouldn’t Lure Companies With Tax Breaks. The 16-minute interview is well worth a listen:

Meghna Chakrabarti is one of Boston's great journalists; it was refreshing to hear her recent interview with venture capitalist Ted Dintersmith. Like a lot of rich guys these days, he has a lot to say about education. Unlike a lot of his peers, he admits the audacity of this and even more importantly, what he says is based on listening to teachers. He visited every state and interviewed teachers, parents, students, and politicians. I wish every legislator, governor, and education bureaucrat (including those in higher education) could spare 22 and a half minutes to hear what he found out. (Hint: empower teachers more; test everyone less.)

Since I heard both of these interviews, I had the pleasure of listening to a keynote speech by educator -- and game developer -- Lindsey Grace. His focus was on other topics, but he alluded to the problems that have been created by three decades of over-managing and under-supporting teachers. Students that have emerged from Clinton-Bush NCLB regime of hypertesting "are prepared only for a world with explicit rubrics." As I watch higher education respond, I see only a doubling down on the mistrust of educators, especially in schools of education.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Abran la Ventana

Q: Why do Unitarian Universalists sing so poorly in church?
A: Because they are always reading ahead to see if they agree with the words.

My UU congregation in Bridgewater has made an effort to move -- if only a little -- away from this well-earned stereotype by adopting one new hymn each month. Singing it each Sunday of the month allows us to learn a new tune, and examine new lyrics for ourselves.

The Spanish version of the title and chorus
 make clear that the intention is
 to open the window together.
Still, we must start by being open as individuals.
On the first Sunday of April, I noticed that "Open the Window" is printed in our hymnal with an alternate chorus in Spanish and I was surprised that we left it on the page without trying it. I was pleased that we were able to do so later in the month. I noticed a few parishioners were somewhat apprehensive, presumably because they knew they might not pronounce the words fluently. The results, however, were beautiful.

As I did a little bit of research about the song, I learned that singing it in multiple languages -- including American Sign Language -- is an important part of what the polyglot songwriter Elise Witt intended when she created it. It is about openness and crossing borders, and was created specifically for use internationally.

I invite readers to learn more about this hymn from Rev. Kimberley Debus and to watch the Cary Academy singers put it to its intended purpose in this set of clips from a worldwide tour.

As I assured my fellow listeners, speaking -- or singing -- in other languages is not about perfection and should not be focused on what nuance of pronunciation we might miss. It is about building bridges and trust while learning from one another.

As I have argued in my academic role, even small forays across linguistic lines build a better world.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Cleanup: Paying it Backward

Local journalist Sara Cline recently reported on a local environmental case that illustrates an important and little-understood aspect of national environmental policy. The town of West Bridgewater has been asked -- politely but through legal counsel -- to pay $42,000 toward the clean-up of a contaminated property 35 miles to its west, in another state.

More details about the site are available (for now at least) on the Environmental Protection Agency's Peterson/Puritan page. The 500-acre (0.8 square mile) site, located along the historic Blackstone River, contains multiple sources of serious groundwater pollution. As detailed in the site background portion of the page, severe pollution of the sensitive riparian environment resulted from several kinds of manufacturing, combined with at least one major spill, a fire, and the operation of a landfill.
Learn much more about this location from the interactive
community cleanup map.
As is often the case on designated Superfund (or National Priority List) sites, is the landfill that connects the relatively far-away town to the site. The Superfund law that President Carter signed in 1980 is better known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).

The word "liability" is key. Because school curricula focus much more on distant history (which is important) than recent history (which is equally important) and not at all on geography, it is possible to find many young people who do not know of Love Canal, and the power of that name during the 1970s. It inspired Congress to act boldly (as difficult as that is to imagine in 2018), and to admit that HUGE amounts of money would be needed to clean contaminated sites and compensate innocent victims of pollution from earlier decades or centuries.

The money was to come from three sources: general revenue, special taxes on petroleum and chemicals (which the industry actually favored), and fees paid by parties found to be responsible for contamination. This third part -- liability -- is the smallest portion and the most difficult to identify. MOST responsible parties are unknown, defunct, or both. Still, it was considered important to build some accountability into the program where it could be quantified.

As Cline's reporting indicates, the costs assigned to Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs) are low relative to the entire cleanup, for several reasons. The use of a low penalty to avoid costly litigation is one, and the inherent difficulty of calculating relative responsibility is perhaps even more important. In the West Bridgewater case, the shear scope of the contaminated site -- which has been undergoing cleanup for well over 30 years -- makes it difficult to collect much from any one party. West Bridgewater is being asked to pay 1/1,000th of the total cleanup cost.

As mentioned above, Love Canal is the antecedent of the entire Superfund program. My Love Canal Recap article describes the original story and its aftermath.


From 1989 to 1990, I worked for Dames & Moore, which was then a major environmental consulting firm. It was there that I learned the practical importance of CERCLA. Because a company -- or even a town -- can be found liable for long-ago and far-away contamination, it behooves them to search for possible sources of such liability. This often involves painstaking inspections of old maps and directories, combined with current databases. This is ideal work for geographers!

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Languages: A Gateway Skill

The peace sign between my church
and my campus is in many languages.

Most people who know me know that although I am not fluent in any language other than English (and that one is debatable), I regularly use other languages to the extent that I can, and that I have benefited greatly from being able to do so.

I understand why some students resist studying foreign languages; I declined to do so the first time it was an option for me, in 8th grade. My next opportunity was in 10th grade, and I loved it! In my senior year, I took German III, Spanish II, and Latin I, and enjoyed all three. 

Below is a statement I presented as part of current debates about bringing a language requirement back to my university, where it was removed about a decade ago. 


Buenos tardes. Boa tarde. Guten abend.

If you understood any of that, you can thank the general-education program at your own undergraduate institution.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak about proposed changes in general education. Because general education is about half of my teaching load and about half of what makes teaching worthwhile to me, I have a great deal of interest in how it is organized. For this reason, I am grateful for the great effort that the committee has devoted to the work of revising general education at BSU.

I am convinced that many of the most important outcomes of general education can be achieved, however, by inclusion of courses in foreign languages.

Because of a general aversion to foreign languages in the United States – and an increasingly hostile climate to anything at all that seems foreign – students who are not required to study a foreign language are not likely to do so.

The current Core Curriculum has been an experiment – without I.R.B. approval – in giving students more choice in the area of foreign languages, among other things. The promise of choice has been a false one; a decade without a requirement has resulted in fewer choices. In other words, a university without a foreign-language requirement is, to a great extent, a university without a foreign-language option.

And a university without a robust foreign-language option is not a university in any meaningful sense of the term.

Many of my colleagues and I have spoken or written at every available opportunity about the need for any revision in BSU’s general-education program to reverse the mistake of the Core Curriculum – which we fought doggedly at the time – by expanding foreign-language opportunities. 

A lack of competence in languages places unnecessary limitations on what my students can gain from my geography classes. More importantly, it places sharp limits on the value of their degrees.

Especially in these xenophobic times, it is malpractice to recommend monolingual students for baccalaureate degrees. In our gateway cities, in global businesses, and in graduate schools, they need to have studied at least one foreign language at the college level. Instead, many of our students are graduating with weaker language skills than those with which they enter.

Thank you. Gracias. Obrigado. Vielen Dank.


See more of my thoughts on the value of language learning on my Small World page, which I created during the last round of foreign-language debates on our campus.


Whatever happens at the university level, I am proud to say that my department will soon be requiring a foreign language for all students completing B.S. or B.A. degrees in geography.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Lawyering Coffee

UPDATE: On March 30, Peter Giuliano -- an industry leader I have seen in coffee documentaries and in the coffeelands of Nicaragua -- issued a strong statement on behalf of the Specialty Coffee Association in response to the legal ruling. He cites several medical authorities in objecting to the legal decision I discuss below.

"But that's a very low animal!" my friend exclaimed (in Portuguese), as he tried once again to get me to explain the plethora of lawyer jokes in the United States.

He was referring to the use of the word "snake" to describe lawyers, which he had heard from American television or movies, probably more than once. Throughout the first several weeks of my 1996 research project in Rondônia, he would ruefully regale me (if that is possible) with the latest examples of lawyer jokes he had heard, and would even allow me to tell him a few more.

He was, as readers may guess, a lawyer himself, married to one of the professors I was working with. In Brazil, he asserted (and I've been given no reason to doubt him), lawyers are generally respected. A lot of education is required to become a lawyer, and they are considered comparable, he said, to other professions.

Early in the visit, my Portuguese was good but not great. I could communicate necessary things, but jokes and subtleties were beyond me. So I considered it a personal linguistic breakthrough when I explained one thing about lawyering in the United States that made him nod, "Ohhhhhh. Entendeu." "I understand." 

I have been thinking of this over the past week, as many friends have asked me to comment on the latest coffee story to be making the rounds. The acrylamide story appears to raise questions about coffee and health, but it is mainly a story about lawyers. As reported by Reuters and many others, Los Angeles judge Elihu Berle has ruled that Starbucks must display a warning about possible cancer risk arising from the acrylamide that is created in the roasting process.

This case is similar to those whose explanation finally allowed me to make the connection for my lawyer friend in Brazil. It has deep-pocketed defendants, disinterested but numerous plaintiffs, and a lawyer who has figured out how to capture a hefty fee from "organizing" one to sue the other. I put the word organizing in quotes because the class of plaintiffs in such a suit have no idea they are going to be plaintiffs until the suit is under way. Each plaintiff has a very small stake in the case, but the fee each of them shares with lawyers can add up to real money. I recalled a case in which airlines were shown to have been overcharging customers. I "won" that case along with thousands of other passengers; we each received coupons toward future travel, which eventually saved me dozens of dollars. The attorneys involved won millions, of course.

The current case is not exactly analogous, because plaintiffs will not receive compensation, but attorney Raphael Metzger almost certainly will. California law is written -- with the laudable intention of protecting public health -- in such a way as to create irresistible incentives for such legal action. Of course, it is unlikely that no lawyers were present when the relevant legislation was drafted.

I am not prepared to let the defendant's lawyers off the hook without some criticism, though. It seems that they are prepared to comply and even pay fines in order to avoid delving too deeply into the potential -- though small -- risks posed by acrylamides.

The Coffee

The defendants include 90 coffee roasters and retailers, though Starbucks is the largest of these and the most often cited in media coverage. Interestingly, acrylamides are associated with darker roasts, for which the company sometimes known as Charbucks is most famous. (My spell-check did not even flag that pejorative nickname just now!)

Although the company added medium roasts (which it calls "Blonde") to its menu in recent years, it is still best known for super-dark roasts. The reasons are several; I'm not sure which of these is most important:
  • Howard Shultz starts each day with a very dark Sumatra.
  • His original idea with the brand was to mimik the cafés of Italy.
  • The darker the roast, the easier it is to maintain consistent flavor over a wide geographic range of sources and over many crop years. In other words, charcoal is charcoal. 
That last snide remark notwithstanding, I do like very dark coffee at times, but a lighter roast often brings out more subtle flavors, particularly among my favorite coffees from Latin America.

The Risks

So what about the actual risk? The National Cancer Institute provides a readable acrylamide fact sheet, with links to original studies. The research does indeed connect acrylamide to cancer, though it cites only mouse-model studies and offers several reasons that human-model studies have been inconclusive. It also explains how acrylamide is created in the roasting of coffee, as it is in the high-temperature cooking of several other fruits and vegetables. Similar risks are posed by "French fries and potato chips; crackers, bread, and cookies; breakfast cereals; canned black olives; [and] prune juice." Higher risks are produced by cigarettes, and workers in certain manufacturing industries are required to wear protection against respiratory exposure.

To date, if colleagues at the Vanderbilt Institute for Coffee Studies have written on this acrylamides, they have not posted it on our web site, which does include quite a articles on coffee and health, mostly positive.

Acrylamides are not, incidentally, the same compounds that are created in the grilling or processing of meats. Laboratory studies and limited epidemiological evidence suggests that PAH and PAA compounds may also be related to cancer. I have not heard much about these since last summer; though they may become part of an annual grilling-season clickbait ritual.

Bottom Line

For now -- like the lawyer who brought this case -- I will continue to enjoy my coffee.

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