Friday, June 29, 2018

Venezuela Fallacy

The once-thriving country of Venezuela has been suffering severe political and economic problems for close to two decades, under the presidencies of Hugo Chaves and Nicolás Madura. The distress is now so severe that at least 2 million Venezuelans are refugees, and many who remain in the country are suffering badly.
President Maduro fails his country
Because both presidents have been socialists, some opponents of socialism apply several logical fallacies to conclude that it proves socialism is disastrous. Writing for Yahoo! Finance, market journalist Dion Rabouin explains why socialism per se is not the cause of Venezuela's woes.

This is especially important to me as I watch a different kind of political and humanitarian disaster unfold in Nicaragua. There the president continues to speak as a leftist while governing from the far right; this has created a dangerous kind of confusion among those few U.S. politicians who are paying attention.


With the recent rise of democratic socialist in U.S. politics -- most notably with the primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez -- the word "socialist" is getting even more attention. It is also being deliberately confused with the national socialism, which of course is abbreviated "Nazi." Thus do people who write more than they read and speak more than they understand spread the idea that Bernie Sanders and Adolph Hitler share a political philosophy.

Querida Tierra de Leyenda

The PRI radio program The World is -- as the name implies -- a font of geographic knowledge. Sometimes I am lucky enough to catch the entire program. Yesterday I heard only a few short bits during the broadcast and the rebroadcast. It turns out that what I heard was the last minute and later the first minute of a two-minute story. Entitled The History of Latin America in One Song. PRI has recently improved the online archive of the show, so that the segment can be found by that title at the end of the list of segments comprising the entire episode.

The story is about Mexican-Canadian musician Boogát's upbeat homage to Latin America.

The song includes a bit of slang and a lot of proper nouns, so people who only somewhat speak Spanish -- like me -- might want to consult the printed lyrics and translation on Musixmatch.

Boogát - Aquí
The song indeed celebrates history and biography, but I notice a lot of geography in these few words. The song might just push aside Santana's Africa Bamba as the selection with which I launch my Latin America geography course next semester!

It will certainly be featured in the course, because it celebrates a lot of the people and places I would be including anyway. Here I am using the lyrics as a way to provide links to some of those people and places. It will take me a while to get them all. Where possible, I will point to links on my own blogs.

Y me gusta así, querida tierra de leyenda
Ahí, todo tiene onda
Y me gusta aquí, América Latina

Frida Kahlo, Diego Maradona
Jodorowski, Liniers, La Mona
Quino, Gabriel Garcia Márquez
Pelé, Jorge Luis Borges

Iñarritu, Iguazu
Mercedes Sosa, Copacabana
Chespirito, el Popo
Victor Jara, la Cordillera

Luis Alberto del Paraná, el Paraná
Pancho Villa, el río Amazonas
Allende, el Caribe, Aguanile
Pablo Escobar, Simon Bolivar

Dj Playero, Astor Piazzola
Machu Pichu, el lago Titicaca
El desierto de sal de Atacama
Atahualpa Yupanqui, Ipacaraí

Aquí, todo tiene onda
Y me gusta así, querida tierra de leyenda
Ahí, todo tiene onda
Y me gusta aquí, América Latina

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Coffee Readiness

We not only survived the 2012 Zombie Apocalypse in Livermore Falls; we got the zombies to wash our van. 
GQ is a font of wisdom on all kinds of subjects, so it should not be surprising that writer Cam Wolf has written about a serious matter of disaster preparedness: what about coffee?

He interviews a number of survivalists who make some interesting arguments about the value of coffee in an emergency, not only for its direct benefits in terms of energy and comfort, but also for its potential value as a tradable commodity. As cigarettes are to the prison yard, so coffee would be to extended off-grid survival.

Sudden Coffee cupping lab.
As someone who was marketing combat and humanitarian rations in the period leading up to the Y2K scare, I know that long-term shelf stability is a key to such preparations. Otherwise, "preppers" (as Wolf calls them) would need to replenish their supply kits as often as they go to the grocery store. For this reason, they focus on freeze-dried coffee, though they claim to have found one that is substantially better than -- maybe even better than -- fresh-brewed coffee.

Sudden Coffee is "beloved among coffee snobs," according to Wolf, and employs an actual barista champion, according to the company web site. The involvement of Umeko Motoyoshi in "each step" of the process notwithstanding, I am very skeptical that any amount of care in the brewing process would allow the quality of coffee to remain intact through lyophilization and extended storage. I am also skeptical of coffee companies that claim to be trading directly but that provide no transparency about their sources.

The Sudden Coffee web site claims to offer "free" samples for the cost of shipping, but the online interface turns the sample order into a monthly subscription for that would provide instant coffee at a cost of $3 a cup! Thanks but no thanks. If I were a more cynical Coffee Maven, I might surmise that the entire GC article is simply part of a ruse to drive customers to this overpriced offer.

Wolf bolsters his claim by noting that humans and coffee originated in the same place, disregarding the millions of years it took for one to discover the other. Still, I certainly agree that coffee matters, and suggest a less costly approach for those who wish to hunker down in java readiness.

Once coffee is harvested, milled, and dried, it is generally considered shelf-stable for periods of two years or more.  Coffees with extremely refined flavor notes will lose some of those notes more quickly, but the vast majority of coffees are fine for several years once their internal moisture has gotten to the 11-13 percent range. I buy really good green coffee for the equivalent of 10 to 20 cents per cup, and roast it as I need it. My roasting is not expert, but it is so fresh that the result is still better than any coffee I can buy in my town.

Assuming there is a way to get fire and clean water in the apocalypse -- two rather bold assumptions -- a preparation kit that included a French press, a cast-iron skillet, and 10 to 20 pounds of green coffee could keep a survivor going for months. And for those interested in having something valuable to trade, a couple hundred bucks invested with Deans Beans could be worth thousands in a land overrun by zombies.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Geography, Race, and Colorism

The April 2018 issue of National Geographic focuses on race, and begins with a critical look at the magazine's own sordid history on the topic. As new Editor-in-Chief Sarah Goldberg writes in her introduction, "It’s possible to say that a magazine can open people’s eyes at the same time it closes them."
From the NatGeo 2018 caption: Photographer Frank Schreider
 shows men from Timor island his camera in a 1962 issue.
The magazine often ran photos of “uncivilized” native people
seemingly fascinated by “civilized” Westerners’ technology.
Editor Goldberg was also part of a broader discussion about representations of the past in a March 2018 episode of On the Media.
On the same day I first read the National Geographic editorial (I got a bit behind on the magazine), I heard Shades of Privilege, an intriguing and important story about colorism as a particularly insidious form of racism in several national contexts.

Together, I believe these items are good starting points for deeper discussion about the depths of bias. The National Geographic article is particularly important for geographers who are trying to renew interest in geographic education. We already must overcome a stereotype of geographic education as boring; to the extent that the magazine spoke for the discipline, we must also overcome the notion that doing away with geography might have been a progressive choice until the very recent past.

Misplaced Confidence

It is sad -- an inexplicable, really -- that the fisherfolk of Louisiana were counting on the current administration to protect fisheries from the ravages of the petroleum industry. One reason we have Federal environmental laws is that state and local politicians so often pursue a regulatory race to the bottom, and few places have found a lower bottom than Louisiana.
Those who depend on the Atchafalaya for their livelihood also depend upon the
Federal government for protection from polluters.
Image: Photojournalist Vaughn Hillyard, NBC News

That leaves the Federal government -- through its Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers, and other branches -- as the best hope for the protection of fisheries against polluters. As I wrote in Eagle and Condor in 2016, politicians of both major parties have been overly friendly to the developers of pipelines. It should come as no surprise that a deeply anti-environment and anti-science administration would offer even less resistance to those who threaten Louisiana's riparian environments.


This blog includes many references to Louisiana. I will highlight just two relatively recent examples, one bad and one good: Louisiana in Tough Shape and Hot Island Hot Spot.

Humans Should Act Our Age

Our geologic age, that is.

Geologists who define ages and epochs according to the rise and fall of organisms have come to realize that one particular species has dramatically altered the earth in ways that will be detectable well into the future. That species is us: Homo sapiens sapiens. As the name implies, higher-order thinking distinguishes us from the rest of our genus, and indeed from the rest of all life. It may be both our doing and our undoing.

A lot of that thinking has been directed at the extraction of resources that could be used both for energy and for useful products. Those resources, especially coal, petroleum, and natural gas, provided both concentrated energy and material -- plastic -- that could be used to manufacture almost literally anything.

The Anthropocene (human age) is so called because that process of extraction has fundamentally changed the Earth in ways that some humans have difficulty believing. The earth is indeed so vast -- comprising billions of cubic miles of material -- that it seems unlikely that a "mere" humans could affect it in any significant way.

The first step in understanding how this is possible is to think about the spatial scale of Earth's environments. I help to run an educational project called EarthView, in which we take a giant, inflatable globe to school gyms. We point out that on a 20-foot globe, almost everything that counts in the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere -- indeed, the entire biosphere -- is within 1/5 of an inch of the surface. At the scale of an ordinary classroom, all of our resources are within the thickness of the paper covering it.

The second step in understanding how humans can significantly alter the planet is to think about the temporal (time) scale of human activity. Over a few millennia of civilization, humans have changed land-use patterns through hunting, fire, and agriculture. And in just a couple of centuries, we have extracted fossil fuels that have formed over a period of about 300,000,000 years. We use energy for our homes, factories, planes, trains and automobiles that was derived by photosynthesis when India was still attached to Antarctica.

About half of the oil, coal, and natural gas are formed from decayed layers of plants and animals that were growing during the carboniferous period and developed under heat and pressure ever since have been released into the atmosphere and oceans in just two centuries. In half a century, much of that has been turned into plastics that -- whether dutifully recycled or not -- have accumulated into Texas-sized sludge islands in the oceans.
Anthropocene imagined. Image: Shutterstock by way of NPR.
Note vertical exaggeration of the near-surface features.
The Earth has a diameter of 8,000 miles; almost all of our experience is
within a layer that is far less that 1 percent of that thickness.
Thus have geologists recognized our new age. The ability of our children and their children's children to thrive -- or even to survive -- the changes will depend upon our taking much greater interest in what we have wrought, and much greater responsibility for ameliorating the damage.

To this end, the most recent edition of the Ted Radio Hour is dedicated to understanding the Anthropocene and considering our responsibilities. The discussion begins with a paleontologist's perspective on the evidence we are leaving future geologists, and then turns to several discussions of our impact on biodiversity, including the potential of landscape ecology to reduce further harm.


For more on the basics that drive the climate part of our epochal impact, see my earlier posts Frosty Denial and Early Warning. For beautifully written, nuanced discussion of the localized impacts of climate change throughout the world, please see my various blog posts referencing the works of Carl Safina and read his book The View from Lazy Point.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Ben Linder Café Poster

The image below is a snapshot of a tri-fold poster I created for use in promoting a proposal to establish the Ben Linder Café at Bridgewater State University.

The purpose of this post is to share the slide set that comprises the individual sheets that are included on the poster. BSU community members: please contact me to arrange for use of the poster at an event. I can lend it to BSU students who have been closely involved in the project, send the poster to an event with one of those students, or bring it myself if my schedule permits.

The center panel describes the main features of the café and its relation to the legacy of Ben Linder. The left panel 
describes the problematic coffee options currently available at BSU.
The right panel describes the MANY ways in which BSU is a coffee
leader, except on the campus itself.

(Please note: using "Ben Linder" as a search term on this blog will point to many of the ways in which his legacy has inspired Bridgewater State students. The Coffee Belwethers [sic] post is a good introduction to our vision of sustainable coffee for the campus.)


A couple of days after completing this poster, I found something that I will find a way to add -- a pedicafé! That is, a pedicab outfitted as a portable café. The owner and builder was kind enough to let me pose on it as if driving it.
I was actually a little emotional at the chance to pretend-drive
this café trike at the Saturday farmers market at Fairhaven High School.
Silly Bean Coffee offers delicious iced and nitro coffee from Armeno.
BSU students have suggested something like this in the past, but seeing one in action made me realize that this kind of café could be an essential part of a coffee strategy at BSU.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Tell Them They Can't Hug

This was an order that Antar Davidson could not follow.

Davidson was -- until last week -- an employee of a privately-operated detention center in Tucson, where I lived from 1990 to 1994. As a trilingual person, he had a lot to offer children, and he did, until he no longer could.

Please listen carefully to his story. In it, he explains how he noticed the shift in policy not from the news, but from the number and demeanor of the children in his care and the behavior of his supervisors. Please take five minutes to listen to his story; it is not easy, especially for any person who has been a parent or a sibling or a child. But it is important.
The claims of "whataboutism" defenders of fascist and policies and tendencies fall away when exposed to the first-hand testimony of this young man, who put family values ahead of conformity. Read more about Davidson's experience in an LA Times article by journalist Molly Hennessy-Fiske. She posted the story from McAllen, Texas, which was my other former home along the US-Mexico border.

Antar Davidson is my newest hero. We need more genuine Americans like him.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Places are Real; Countries are Invented

In this short conversation with TED Radio Hour host Guy Raz, writer Taiye Selasi offers listeners a lot of wisdom on the meaning of place, and the relationships among place, power, and identity. Some of the things that concern her are familiar, but two decades of thinking about them have led her to some very useful ideas about how to have better conversations about the places that have shaped us.

People are more alike than different, but focusing on national identities needlessly accentuates difference. The Places We Call Home page includes links to  her biography and the full TED talk upon which this conversation was based. It also includes a link to another TED talk about which I have written recently, The Danger of a Single Story.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Future is African

My favorite librarian used an excerpt from novelist Chimamanda Adichie's very popular TED Talk as part of a presentation she was giving on religious literacy. In it, she describes the narrow lens of pity through which many -- including middle-class Africans -- view the continent and its people.

We both found that medium is truly the message in this case, in that she has much more to teach us than the avoidance of stereotypes about Africa. Millions of viewers seem to agree.

We also recommend her novel Americanah, especially the audio version.

But her story about stereotypes of Africa is timely, as the Washington Post has recently published an essay on the topic by Salih Booker and Ari Rickman of the Center for International Policy. In The future is African — and the United States is not prepared, they describe demographic and economic trends that will surprise many readers.

Africa is often described as though it were a single country -- although it comprises 55 countries, depending on exactly which island countries are counted -- with 1,216,000,000 people at last count. One of every six people on the planet lives in Africa -- compared to 1 of 23 in the United States -- and the share in Africa will continue to grow grow for the rest of the lives of everyone reading this post. Not only does Africa exist in the North American imagination as a single, pitiable country, but that country is often portrayed as the land of a single tree.

To the extent that the United States government is prepared to interact with the continent's 55 countries at all, it is primarily through an infrastructure that is overwhelmingly military. Opportunities for diplomatic and commercial connections pale in comparison, creating a gap that China has been more than content to fill.

The diplomatic presence in Africa is indeed insufficient, but it is not completely absent. One very positive initiative is the Mandela/YALI Washington Fellowship program, established in 2014. Each summer since 2016, my university has participated, hosting 25 young professionals from more than a dozen countries of Africa for a six-week institute. I have enjoyed meeting the 50 previous BSU-based Fellows, many of whom I count among my friends. I look forward to visiting Fellows in a few different countries during my 2019 sabbatical!


Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was problematic, gutting many embassies and driving scores of career diplomats into early retirement. He was much more humane than his successor, though, and he spent his final hours in the job (before being ousted for something he did right) enjoying the role of top diplomat during a visit to Ethiopia.
Secretary Tillerson enjoying coffee in Ethiopia. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/AP Images
His visit, naturally, included ritual tastings of what is perhaps Ethiopia's greatest gift to the world: coffee. What Linnaeus dubbed "Arabica" should have, in fact, been called "Ethiopica" and Secretary Tillerson enjoyed some in a ceremony that goes back centuries.
Quinnipiac students from Ethiopia shared coffee and coffee knowledge at the fourth annual
Celebration of Coffee in Worcester, held for the first time at the
Worcester Public Library.
I had a similar privilege last October, when students from Ethiopia proudly shared their heritage at the fourth annual Celebration of Coffee in Worcester, Massachusetts. I enjoyed learning more about the coffee ceremony and drinking coffee from a cup identical to that used by Secretary Tillerson.

I am not certain which countries of Africa I will visit next year, but Ethiopia will certainly be one of them, in part because it is the origin of coffee as both a plant and a beverage and because one of the Mandela Fellows with whom I have maintained contact is an Ethiopian diplomat who can acquaint me with many other aspects of the country.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Flooding: It's Not in the Cards

Rook, aka Missionary Poker
Image: Wikipedia
Once upon a time, a family of four (it might have been mine) was gathered around a table to play the card game Rook, which uses a deck similar to standard playing cards, with primary colors in place of suits. While three family members were out of the room, one of them (it might have been my brother, or maybe me) dealt a round. When we returned, each player was holding all of the cards of a single color, in numerical order.

The young dealer insisted that this highly unlikely outcome had occurred naturally. After all, every combination is equally likely, and since every player had an equal hand, there had been no motive for the "crime" of setting up a deal this way. No motive, perhaps, but enough opportunity to leave the other players skeptical. Skeptical indeed.

This came to mind -- actually the mind of my wife and favorite librarian -- as we contemplated the "thousand-year flood" that devastated the beautiful little town of Ellicott City, Maryland while we were visiting family nearby over the weekend. Off-duty guardsman Eddison Hermond perished trying to assist others in the storm.

The video below was taken just 24 hours after we had driven through the area, admiring how well the downtown had recovered from 2016 flooding. More harrowing, it was filmed just as my mother-in-law was returning from a family gathering with us to her home just a mile from these scenes.
This was the second such flood in two years, perhaps even more destructive than the deadly 2016 flood that put the entire downtown area out of business for nearly a year. I will not detail that flood here, as I have covered it in some detail in other Ellicott City blog posts, especially Flood FlashFlood Peak, and Houston.
I had driven past this place in the sunshine the day before.
Image: Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun

Rather, I want to focus on the use of recurrence intervals, in this case 1,000 years. Even NPR used this expression uncritically in reporting on the flood's aftermath. A 100-year flood was more commonly cited in the past, perhaps because it is the interval most important to the delineation of flood plains for insurance purposes. Whatever the specific interval, the term lends itself to misinterpretation. The fact that we now routinely hear of 500- and 1,000-year events should be a hint that something is seriously awry.

To understand how a recurrence interval can be misinterpreted, it is useful to understand how it is defined. A flood level with a recurrence interval of n years has a 1/n probability of being met or exceeded in any given year. The "expected" interval between such events is n years, but this does not mean it will be exceeded every nth year. Consider a simple card example -- the probability of drawing a green card in Rook is 1/4, so the expected interval is one green card every 4th draw. Of course they may be drawn consecutively or with a longer interval between them. So the first way in which recurrence intervals may be misunderstood is that they do not define intervals in the sense of regular timing.

This basic fallacy is rather easy to understand, and most people know that low-frequency, high-interval floods could occur within a short span of time, and this is what seems to have happened in Ellicott City. But just as highly unusual coincidences can make us suspicious of card sharps, so too should highly improbably flood events lead us to question the calculations.

Page One of any discussion of probability (whether in floods, industrial quality control, or card games) states some basic assumptions that are often forgotten by the time the probabilities are calculated. Those assumptions are that the events in question are individual observations drawn from a population of discrete, random, independent events. If there is any kind of relationship among successive observations, or if there is any kind of secular (long-term) trend in the population being observed, then all calculations of probability are meaningless.

To calculate flood recurrence intervals, a record of gage readings may be taken from a single stream over a period of just 30 years to define a curve of probabilities that will estimate recurrence intervals of up to 100 years within acceptable error tolerances (typically 0.05, or 5 percent). This is valid ONLY if the factors affecting flood levels remain constant. The main factors are climate and land use, and this is the problem worldwide, and especially in suburban areas. Climate is changing everywhere, and land use is changing in most places. So terms like 100-year and 1,000-year describe how rare today's floods would have been in the past. But without understanding why the past is no longer a guide, we will continue to put lives and property in danger if we use these terms for decision-making.

Further Reading

Much has been and will be written about these events, so I would like to cut through the noise to recommend two articles recommended by two friends who were undergraduate students of geography with me -- studying hydrology just a few miles from this disastrous flood in between many long walks along nearby streams. The first is Ellicott City flood was no 'act of God,' an opinion piece by Baltimore Sun journalist Dan Rodricks. He laments the role of politics in deliberate misunderstanding of the science that explains these events and the resultant dismissal of common-sense remedies such as rain taxes. He cites some of the papers in which hydrologists called for the elimination of the language of recurrence intervals.

The second is Does it make sense to rebuild Main Street Ellicott City? by blogger and architect Klaus Philipsen. His focus is on the infrastructure in the immediate area of Main Street itself, where some structural features do seem to amplify the damage done by flooding. He compares the options Ellicott City faces with steps taken by Frederick, another of our favorite downtowns that appears to have found some increase in resilience through civil engineering. All would agree, I think, that dramatic intervention in upstream land uses is also needed, with particular attention to the reduction of impervious surfaces.


As I was writing this piece -- over the course of several days -- I learned of a project being undertaken in Chicago that is relevant, even if the circumstances are not exactly comparable.
Resilient Chicago community -- Blacks in Green
From the Yale Climate Connections project, I learned of Blacks in Green (BIG) a community-scale project that is fostering climate justice and building climate resilience. As the Yale team and BIG founder Naomi Davis understand, resilience is not a zero-sum game. Treating the land and water better is also good for equity and economies.


In the midst of the many calamities and dislocations of the first half of 2020, extreme flooding in Michigan was the direct result of climate change and a refusal to enforce dam-safety laws. As I describe in Dam Shame, the damage was compounded by terrible inattention to other environmental regulations.

2023 Follow-up

July 2023 flooding in Vermont provided a reminder that terms like "100-year flood" are no longer meaningful. NPR did a story about this, but wasted the opportunity to provide a fully useful explanation. The story focused on this as a problem of risk communication, which it is, but only hinted at the much more serious issues described above. Probability models should not be used only with discrete observations that are not connected to each other by trend lines. And probability models of one population should not be used to describe other populations. Because of land-use and climate change, flood and temperature data from different centuries might as well be from different continents. 

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