Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Vertical World

Click to enlarge
Image: Prior Probability
Date and real source: I would love to know!
All maps involve choices: no single map can be "the" correct map, but all maps reveal something of the priorities of the cartographers who make them and the publishers who disseminate them. One of the most important choices -- especially for maps of the entire world -- is that of projection.

In representing a nearly spherical earth on a flat surface, mathematical bending, stretching, cutting and the like are needed, and the final result is a trade-off among four kinds of distortion. Perhaps one of these can be preserved, but certainly not all of them: 


Which of these are favored depends upon the purpose of the map. I am not quite certain which have been preserved on this world map from China -- direction is definitely not, nor is size. The map draws attention to one of the cartographer's other important choices: the orientation of the map (we almost always use landscape rather than portrait) and the choice of a center.

The choice to center the map on the Indian Ocean has a number of interesting implications here. Students in my Advanced Global Thinking course will be asked to write about what some of these are.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Crypto-Judaic Latin America

I remember the first hours of my first (and so far only) visit to Cuba in 2003 as being a bit rushed. We had experienced a bit of delay at the airport and hotel check-in late on a Friday afternoon, so there had been little time for our group leaders to explain what the first part of our anthropology travel course would be. We simply piled on to our big Mercedes bus for a short drive across Havana, and were deposited into the foyer of a fairly large, modern synagogue.

The rush made sense in retrospect: we were trying to get to the sabbath services, which would begin at sunset. As unprepared as I was for the experience, many of the students in our group were even less prepared, moving out of several layers of their comfort zone in short order: first time on a plane for some, first time in a Spanish-speaking country for most, first time in an authoritarian country as well, and now the first time in a synagogue. In fact, it was adjusting to this that was a more immediate concern than any of the other layers: many of the students had never been to an Orthodox service and did not understand the segregation by gender or the need for men to wear yarmulkes. We got all that sorted, enjoyed the service -- in Hebrew and Spanish -- and then went downstairs for an experience that felt very familiar to me. The potluck supper in the basement felt like hundreds of church suppers I had attended.
Since Pamela discovered a terrific recipe for latkes in 2012, having friends
over for latkes during Hanukkah has become a cherished part of
our late-December traditions. Rowing the rest of the year helps, as
I insist on processing everything by hand. Photo credit to our friend
Korin, who kept me company as I cooked round after round.
This experience was on my mind during first day of Hanukkah, as I prepared our annual latke dinner for friends and considered the story of Genie Milgrom, which I had heard as I made coffee that morning. (Listening to BBC and NPR is an important part of my daily coffee ritual.) In it, journalist Greg Allen tells the story of a Cuban-American in Miami who was raised Catholic but discovered her Sephardic heritage from family recipes.
Her story is told in just five minutes, but it spans five centuries and three or four continents, so I have listened to it several times already, and look forward to listening with students in my course on the geography of Latin America.

This is because Milgrom's family story begins in her kitchen but passes backward through Cuba to Spain and Portugal, and then forward through generations of crypto-Jews throughout the Americas. These are people who lost their lives or their identities in the wake of the Inquisition. She now travels throughout Latin America, helping others to recover their stories. It is fitting that her story originates in Miami, which some consider the de facto capital of Latin America.

Her story reminds us that the Inquisition was not just the Spanish Inquistion, but that its abuses were found throughout the Iberian Peninsula.
A colleague with far greater expertise than I have confirms that this GIF is
a reasonable summary of shifting identities across Iberia, except
for the exclusion of Andorra. The Inquisition involved pushing both
Muslim and Jewish peoples out of the entire realm, or forcing their
religious conversion.
Inquisition door
Photo: Pamela Hayes-Bohanan
Olinda is a beautiful little corner of Recife, Pernambuco, and in 1535 it was one of the first Portuguese settlements in what was to become Brazil. Today it is known for its fine arts, and my family was indeed browsing a gallery there in the year 2000 when we noticed something unusual about the building we were in.

Although brightly painted and opened to admit the midday sun, we noticed narrow windows, heavy doors, and some walls nearly two feet thick. When we inquired about the architecture, the gallery staff informed us: this had been an Inquisition prison. It was in that moment that I realized the global scope of those atrocities. Genie Milgrom's story took me right back to that visit.


Our own Hanukkah tradition continued, with our friend Scott lighting the Menorah for the first night. Between him and my son and daughter-in-law, photographer (and Scott's wife) Korin noticed an interesting figure looking down from the wall: Ché Guevara stares down from a plate I purchased during that 2003 Havana visit.

World of Facts

All the flags!  Getty image by way of Far & Wide
"Interesting if true" is a phrase that became common in our household as my co-favorite librarian and I would read the daily trivia column of the late L.M. Boyd. We found almost everything in his syndicated column to be interesting, even surprising. And most of it was true. We detected errors in one of two ways -- either a claim was so outlandish that we decided to look it up (most of the decades in which his column ran were pre-Google) or -- more likely -- the claim was in an area in which one or both of us had some expertise.

We were reminded of the phrase as I read -- and partly shared aloud Max DeNike's wide-ranging listicle on Far & Wide, entitled Fascinating Facts About Every Single Country on Earth. Each country 

The facts are indeed fascinating, and I have no reason to doubt most of them. In many cases, the facts chosen point to some broader truths about the country in question -- most notably the underwater cabinet meeting in the Maldives, a protest stunt that has become a well-known metaphor for the plight of low-lying islands worldwide.

Several positive characteristics distinguish DeNike's work from most listicles of its kind. First, it is just one long page, with no ads (pop-up or otherwise), no jumping from page to page, no silly teasers, and a clear organization scheme: one fact per country, in decreasing order of population, with "country" used as defined by the United Nations. Moreover, each entry includes the national flag, most have a high-quality photo that is related to the featured fact, and the current name (as of late 2019) is used. Each item also includes a link to a more detailed article for those interested in further research (as students in my Advanced Global Thinking course will be, even if they don't realize it yet!) It was from such a link that I learned the full story of Dylan's Mozambique
The Pyramids at Cholula are much taller than the Washington Monument,
starting at over 7,000 feet above sea level. Pam and I climbed these
almost every day during the summer 1989.
Getty Images by way of Far & Wide 

In some cases, the chosen fact is one that I find interesting and broadly relevant -- such as the discussion of Cholula for Mexico. I have been inside the pyramid he describes (which local people call "las piramides" because it is really seven pyramids, three superimposed on four smaller ones). I know that it was the most significant structure in the Americas when the Spanish landed, and the site of significant (if brutal) encounters between the Cortés and the Aztecs. I did not know -- or did not remember -- that it is the largest pyramid in the world. Again, interesting if true.

Other facts are interesting in their own right, but not broadly revealing about the country. I am not sure why I found it fascinating when I learned from Bohemian Rhapsody that Freddie Mercury was born in what is now part of Tanzania, but it tells us more about him than about the country itself. It is a reminder that no single story can represent an entire country. In this sense, I give DeNike credit for assiduously avoiding the temptation to pathologize places; in no instance does he focus on poverty or violence. Neither should be ignored, of course, but neither should be allowed to define a place or a people. We are, after all, more alike than different, a fact that is often obscured by a focus on the most negative stories. 

A couple more items merit specific comment. A fellow Latin Americanist geographer (yes, that is a thing, and there are a few of us) asked almost right away about the Brazil entry. Can there really be 100 uncontacted indigenous groups in the Amazon? We are both skeptical, and clicking through the links leads to a video claiming this number for the entire world; even that is doubtful in 2019, especially since a birds-eye photo purporting to represent such groups includes at least one person holding a machete.

Another problematic entry is for Costa Rica, which correctly points out that day length does not very much throughout the year there. This is hardly the most interesting thing about the country (which essentially invented ecotourism and is now a major center for agronomic research in coffee), nor is Costa Rica the best example. Day length varies even less in countries closer to the equator, notably Ecuador, which is actually named for the equator. More important, though, is the "explanation" having to do with distance from the sun. This is a common error among people who do not understand seasons or the basics of earth's orbit around the sun -- such as many graduates of Harvard.

Bottom line: this article provides plenty of exercise for a geographer's mind, and I look forward to using it to inspire further explorations with my students in the new year.


At the bottom of the screen is another entry comparing cities that are famous globally with counterparts in the United States that share their names -- Memphis, Paris, and so on.  

Friday, December 27, 2019

Mozambique Bard?

I first learned of Bob Dylan's 1976 song Mozambique from a 2016 article in Adrian Frey's Club of Mozambique newsletter. Frey points out that many people in Mozambique had -- like me -- never heard of the song until Dylan won (reluctantly) the Nobel Prize in Literature four decades later.

Frey outlines reasons that some in the former Portuguese colony were pleased at the attention while others were offended by the breezy lyrics about a place that was in such real duress at the time of its struggle for independence and subsequent civil war. Among the YouTube comments associated with the live video above is a post by user gardenofthegods, defending the song as a sophisticated but widely misunderstood commentary on the dire situation in Mozambique at the time. Of course, being a YouTube comments section it is not surprising to see the same user yammering on about the volume controls in his phone. Better audio is available on the studio version.

I will be looking for more insight from those who know Dylan or Mozambique better than I do.


I learned of this song from Fascinating Facts About Every Single Country on Earth, posted on Far & Wide by Max DeNike last week. As the title suggests, he shares just one item about each country, and most of them are rather interesting.

Not-Plain Vanilla

Papantla, Veracruz
Image: Zona Turística
Spoiler alert for those taking my Secret Life of Coffee seminar in the spring: the final exam always asks students to identify some other common product they use -- food or otherwise -- whose origins they would like to understand better. Just as coffee is taken for granted (often used as a metaphor for anything commonplace and inexpensive), so too is vanilla given no thought at all. Those who have been learning about coffee with me will not be surprised to learn that the production of vanilla is fraught with challenges both economic and environmental.

NPR journalist Carrie Kahn tells the story of vanilla from the point of view of Papantla, a small town in Veracruz, near the Gulf of Mexico and just a bit north of the city of Veracruz, where Hernán Cortés began the Conquest on behalf of Spain.

It is also not far from Puebla, where my wife Pam and I (known as El Matrimónio de Miami) spent the summer of 1989. Because we spent much of our time in Cholula -- the city that stood between the landing of Cortés in Veracruz and the major target of his ambitions in Tenochtítlan (Mexico City), we learned a lot about the treacherous Cortés. We also learned about the importance of chocolate -- especially mole -- in this region. But we had no clue that we were also so close to the origins of vanilla.

It was Cortés, in fact, who first transported vanilla to Spain, one of the earliest instances of transatlantic movements that would be known as the Columbian Exchange.
Columbian Exchange
Image: Nystrom
Sense of place is a very important concept for geographers and travel to the point of origin is a powerful way to learn about the places to which we are connected by global trade. Although we cannot possibly complete such travel to all of the communities upon which we rely, the internet can provide intriguing glimpses into many of those places.

Wanting to know something about Papantla as a place, I started with an image search and was delighted to find this charming video. Even if you do not understand Spanish, I recommend spending the two minutes in which the people of Papantla share their pride in the "three hearts" of their town; the three major sources of pride are the Bird Men, the vanilla (perfuming the world), and the remarkable pre-Conquest architecture.

A second video depicts the art and heritage of the Voladores in more detail.

Lagniappe: A Thousand Thanks

For me, knowing anything at all about the places where my food, beverage, or other goods originate increases my gratitude for all that I have. This is the thinking behind the book Thanks a Thousand by A.J. Jacobs, in which the author finds -- and thanks -- 1,000 people connected to his morning cup of coffee. The book is a quick and uplifting read that will be the community-wide read for Bridgewater One Book One Community in the spring 2020 semester. A great number of activities related to coffee and gratitude will take place between March and April, including several led by me and my students (who do not even know about this yet).

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Lalibela's Black Jerusalem

Image: CBS News
The scale of the carving in the image above is easier to grasp once one notices the humans walking around the edges of the pit in which it rests. It is, in fact, a church carved into this slab of basalt in Ethiopia more than 800 years ago. 60 Minutes journalist Scott Pelley explored this church and the ten others like it -- each carved as a unitary structure on a 62-acre site in Lalibela, on the northern basalt highlands of Ethiopia.

His reporting includes an introduction to the geology that makes these carvings possible and the connections between Jerusalem and this site, considered sacred to Orthodox Ethiopians. He speaks with clergy, pilgrims, and experts on the architecture and stonemasonry of the remarkable site -- while the camera reveals many of the remarkable details of carvings made flawlessly and largely in the dark.

Lagniappe: Coffee

As students of my coffee classes know, Coffea arabica is misnamed because it is native only to the highlands of Ethiopia. Oromia is an important growing area within coffee's native territory, and site of the essential coffee documentary Black Gold. I include it on the map below to signify that although the churches of Lalibela are rely on the same geologic underpinnings as coffee, they are separated by a rift valley and about a 1,000 kilometers of distance from the southern coffee regions.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

CV Coffee Movies

At Casa Hayes-Boh, we watch a lot of movies. Any time coffee is mentioned, one of us is likely to exclaim "Coffee Movie!" even if it is actually only a minor part of the film. In reality, even small scenes remind us of some important (to us) coffee concept. My Coffee & Tea Flicks web page points to some of the more substantial examples of coffee in feature films and documentaries about coffee itself.

This entry is more specific in scope. Here I have collected a series of documentary videos of varying lengths about the coffee industry in Cape Verde, the Atlantic archipelago a few hundred miles west of Senegal. I led a travel course there in 2006 about sustainable development in general. I will be returning in 2021, mainly to the island of Fogo, for my first African offering of my Geography of Coffee course. The videos collected here are meant to prepare students in the course -- and me -- for the experience of a very different kind of coffee production.

Many thanks to my friend Mr. Angelo Barbosa of the Pedro Pires Institute for Cape Verdean Studies at BSU for providing most of these links.

The website of the Câmara Municipal dos Mosteiros (Mosteiros City Hall) is a good source of further information about coffee in Fogo, one of only two islands in Cape Verde where coffee is produced (São Nicolau is the other).

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Os Melhores

"The Best" -- pronounced "Oos Mel-YOR-ays"

I am not fond of college rankings -- the U.S. News lists keep university administrators running from pillar to post trying to game the numbers, and bragging about all the wrong things if the rankings tilt in their favor.

But a recent headline from Brazil caught my attention, and gives me an excuse to make the case -- again -- for public higher education in general. The statement, shared online by various Brazilian friends, reads Entre 20 melhores universidades do Brasil, 18 são públicas. I am not sure why this is major news in Brazil, because public universities already carry the most prestige; the statement reads. "Among the 20 best universities in Brazil, 18 are public."
Most of these universities are federally funded; a few are funded by city or state governments. As I rightly guessed from the headline, the only "private" universities on the list are at least nominally Catholic. Number 19, for example is Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro, pronounced POO-kee HEE-oo.

To my knowledge, all university acronyms have a distinct pronunciation that is widely known. My friends at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul can pronounce UFRGS at UHR-geese without hesitation. Likewise, the main rivals -- and sometime partner -- of my friends at the University of the State of Santa Catarina (UDESC or oo-DESK-ee) are across town at UFSC (OOF-skee), the Federal University of Santa Catarina. At the top of the list is USP (OOS-pee), funded by the city of São Paulo and a leading winner of grants from many sources.

What the major universities have in common is relatively low faculty pay (some of my friends parlay the prestige of public-university sinecures into better-paying side gigs at private colleges) but even lower tuition. If fact, public universities charge ZERO tuition and no hidden fees. The only payment students make to the universities is the fee for the vestibular, the departmental entrance exams that serve as the vestibules to public higher education.

Here is the tricky part, though: Brazil is far ahead of the United States in honoring public higher education. The fetishes of Grover Norquist have been gradually reducing funding for our universities, with xenophobic migration policies reducing the pool of international applicants for our programs. But in Brazil, support for public universities is not simply about enlightenment: it is in fact the epitome of enlightened self-interest.

That is to say that the entrance exams do create a kind of meritocracy in which students of modest means can qualify for a free education (except room and board and the opportunity cost of not being fully employed while in school). On its surface, the vestibular system is objective. If 30 seats are available in a geography department, the students with the 30 top scores on the geography exam get admitted to that department. (Changing majors is not a thing in Brazil.)

But that is only on the surface, of course. The reality is that the children of those with higher income and more education are likely to score better on the vestibular than are their less-connected peers. In fact, it is common for the wealthy to invest in tuition for private primary and secondary schools, with the expectation that this will allow them to have their offspring educated at public expense at the university level. In effect, public higher education represents a net transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.

Brazil's former president Lula -- himself with only a fifth-grade education -- spent considerable political capital in trying to reduce this tendency, but setting quotas for low-income or minority appliands. This is -- to say the least -- highly incongruent with Brazil's recent embrace of more conservative (nay, authoritarian) politics. It will be interesting to see how public higher education fares in the days of Bolsonaro.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Heat Down Under

Source: Courier Mail
When reading the Courier Mail story about expected record heat in Australia, it is useful for non-scientist readers in the United States remember that 1°C = 1.8°F, so the differences cited are almost double what they would seem on quick reading.

... and that 40°C = 104°F, while 50°C = 122°F

Official temperature readings are taken 1.5 meters (5 feet) above the surface. From my experience in Tucson (and from the literature), I know that in dry, still air this means that the surface temperature can be MUCH hotter.

It is also useful when reading the story, of course, to remember that Australia is about to pass from late spring into summer. Records being broken now are very likely to be exceeded in January or February. As has been widely reported, smoke and fire are already serious problems.

Grasslands and Climate

I thought I had learned a lot about grass from my work in landscape maintenance with which I funded the last couple years of my undergraduate studies. In graduate school, I learned quite a bit more from a couple of the professors in my graduate program.

Dr. Hilary Lambert had written her dissertation on the cultural geography of monocrop lawns: specifically, she had connected the obsession with uniform green lawns in the U.S. suburbs to social constructs of the British manor house. And this was decades ahead of Downton Abbey.

Dr. John Klink was my mentor through four semesters of teaching lab sections of physical geography and taught my graduate course on soils. I took several courses that involved soil -- including an independent study -- but soil was the entire focus of a course I took with him. Since he earned his degrees in Minnesota (home of a certain prairie-themed radio program) and I was studying in a place where an entire economy of corn, soybeans and pigs was supported by the soils created by relict prairies, this biome loomed large in his lessons.

The biodiversity of prairie grass is an adaptation to the high variability of available moisture in the regions where it is found. The above-ground expression of particular grasses and other herbaceous plants fluctuates according to the conditions of a given season in terms of precipitation, temperature, fire, and mold, but a great deal more diversity is stored primarily in the roots. The roots are constantly exchanging carbon compounds with the surrounding soil.
Prairie grasses both create and rely on rich soil, with a relatively high percentage of organic matter and often exhibiting very deep upper horizons. It can be argued, in fact, that the United States enjoys a favorable balance of trade only to the extent that we are able to grow crops on the soils that were bequeathed us by the largely abandoned prairies of the Midwest and Great Plains.

So it was with more than the usual interest that I recently read Grasslands among the best landscapes to curb climate change, Bekah McBride's overview of recent research at the University of -- wait for it -- Wisconsin. I found her article a bit too late in the latest semester of teaching my Land Protection course, in which we discussed the ecology and climate-change relevance of both temperate and tropical forests in great detail, with inadequate attention to prairies. I will be including this post for use in our discussion of a land transaction that helped to create the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border, which I enjoyed briefly on a drive between the two states many years ago.


A recent study in Germany found that fields of solar panels (PV or photovoltaic) are associated with relatively high biodiversity. The word "prairie" does not appear in the article, but this seems to be the vegetation type favored by managing lands for large PV installations. Mowing is very infrequent, but must take place just often enough to prevent succession to woodland. The result is a much more diverse grassland than typically found in populated areas.

Friday, December 06, 2019

Bogs and Biodiversity

From Estonia comes new research on the importance of biodiversity related to an ecosystem type that is found throughout southeastern Massachusetts -- the bog. As common as they are in the glacial outwash plains from Middleborough to Carver to Cape Cod, on a global scale these are quite rare.

Not only is the geomorphology needed to create them highly unusual, they must also have a hydrologic balance that allows organic soils to be maintained over millennia. Extended dry periods cause bog soils (highly organic types known as histosols) literally disappear.

As the article explains, adjoining fens (think Fenway) are even rarer and ecologically more important.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Landlocking Kenya

With its independence in 2011, South Sudan became the 14th landlocked country in Africa, one of 45 in the world. Being landlocked is not necessarily an severe barrier to economic development, as demonstrated by the case of Switzerland. But it can be quite an impediment for countries that are heavily dependent upon the export of primary goods, as most countries in Africa continue to be. 

The economy of Kenya is heavily dependent upon tea (mostly lower-grade, destined for Lipton). As with its neighbors to the north, west, and south, it also relies significantly on the export of coffee. Fortunately, each country of East Africa has both commodity and specialty coffee to offer, but most of it must pass through the port of Djibouti, Mombasa, or Dar es Salaam. 

Source: Kolumn and Al-Jazeera
Producers in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Ethiopia do of course succeed in getting their products to market, but the necessity of clearing customs BEFORE getting to a port certainly reduces their profit, and the limited number of options reduces their bargaining power. Farmers in Kenya have had the advantage of a deep-water port in Mombasa.

Kenya still has the coastline, and the port is still in place, but it may soon no longer belong to Kenya. As reported on Africa Stand, the port itself was mortgaged to secure US$5 billion from China to fund railroad improvements.  Since the debt crises of the 1980s, it has been common for national sovereignty (especially in the area of fiscal policy) to be eroded as a consequence of debt restructuring

The foreclosure on Mombasa, however, appears to be part of a growing trend of loans made by the government of China with unfavorable terms calculated to result in such forfeitures. In the case of Kenya, the result may be that a country with 300 miles of coastline will be as effectively landlocked as Rwanda or Burundi.
Source: Africa Stand

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Detroit Arts City

It is time to propose one-credit honors colloquia for next fall, and I was beginning to think that my next topic should be Detroit, with a focus on the role of the arts in the social and economic development of the city. My kid -- an accomplished artist and honorary geographer -- had introduced me to the importance of this question a few years ago, with a brilliant paper in response to the proposed liquidation of some of the city's great museum collections.

The decision was made for me just now, by an instructive review of Detroit's proto-punk scene on PRI's Studio 360. As part of its American Icon series, journalist Pedro Rafael Rosado makes a convincing case for the pivotal importance of the 1962 one-hit wonder 96 Tears by Question Mark and the Mysterians.
Visual arts will figure just as prominently in our colloquium,
including Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry Murals,
completed thirty years prior to the music featured above.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Why Invest in Disemployment?

These machines are loud and unreliable, and provide evidence in support of my contention that all work involves skill and should be valued. Humans who oversee little clusters of these develop even higher-level skills, but I doubt they are compensated accordingly. I would not last an hour trying to help customers use these things.

Additionally, they rely too much on plastic bags, just as we are making some progress in getting rid of them.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Climate Change is Personal

I am spending this week in Porto Velho, the capital of the Brazilian state of Rondônia, where I did research for my dissertation in 1996. At that time, and during subsequent research visits in 2000 and 2003, the problem of deforestation was framed primarily in terms of land-use change. As I return, the same problem is -- rightly -- viewed through the lens of climate change.

Even when traveling, I often listen to WBUR in Boston, and this afternoon it brought me this excellent reporting on a story I have been following very closely since the summer of 2016. Journalist Rebecca Hersher examines the costs of two catastrophic floods in Ellicott City -- July 30, 2016 and May 27, 2018 -- in terms of personal relationships within a close-knit community that has great personal significance for me.

As the reporting indicates, even though they may disagree on the most appropriate ways to respond to the flooding, town residents acknowledge that climate change makes further severe flooding inevitable. The story briefly and obliquely alludes to land-use change as an additional factor; I discussed this in some detail in some of my previous posts about these floods.

Flood Flash -- July 31, 2016 -- my initial post about the first of the two floods mentioned in today's reporting. We had enjoyed a visit to Ellicott City just a week before this flood. This post explains why it was unprecedented, even for a town with a history of memorable floods.

Flood Peak -- August 5, 2016 -- following up a week after the first of the severe floods. Of course, at that time we thought of it as the only one.
Flooding: It's Not in the Cards -- June 4, 2018 -- a detailed explanation of the multiple reasons that expressions like "100-year flood" are no longer useful, if ever they were.

Houston, Too Close to New Orleans -- August 7, 2018 -- compares flood disasters in three great American cities, two big and one small.

Burying the Survivors -- September 1, 2018 -- in which I indicate which remedy I oppose.


Two posts from well before these floods, merely reveling in the charm that is Ellicott City:

Haunting My Old Haunts -- July 12, 2012 -- is just what it sounds like. This is a great place for ghost stories.

Great Divide Beer -- June 11, 2009 -- a geographic tidbit at one of our favorite E.C. boates.

Photo by Geoffrey Scott Baker conveys the hold this town has on people.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019


I grew up outside a small town in northern Virginia in the first decade after the what is commonly called the Civil Rights Era. My early lessons in U.S. history were through a very particular set of lenses that foregrounded Virginia's place in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars; we learned both names for all the battles in the latter war, and spent a full day exploring the nearby fields of Manassas / Bull Run after extensive study of its details. We knew that slavery was at the center of the war and that it was a terrible thing, though we also learned that many heroic figures of the revolutionary period had held slaves.

A few years later, we learned about Jim Crow, Kansas versus Board of Education, and Martin Luther King -- all of which seemed to belong to a much earlier period. I was an adult before I realized how close in time those events had been, and middle-aged before I realized that some victories had come very late to our particular part of Virgina.

I was reminded of all of this today by the way one of my favorite journalists opened a program devoted to the 400th anniversary of a particular part of Virginia history I do not recall learning. It was 400 years ago this month -- in August 1619 -- that people were first brought as slaves to what would become the United States. This grim anniversary is being recognized by the New York Times in a project known simply as the 1619 Project. (I had seen some links to this project, but had not yet clicked through -- living in Massachusetts, I was curious but for the wrong reasons: I thought it was a project about pre-Plymouth communities surrounding my current home.)

Tanzina Vega explored the topic in three brief but powerful conversations on her radio program The Takeaway. The first segment is a discussion with Dr. Ibram X Kendi and Professor Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers of the importance of slavery as a foundational aspect of the United States, and the tendency to underplay its importance.

To open the discussion, Vega asked her listeners to describe what they learned about slavery in school. This turned out to be a great way to enter the discussion, because the approaches varied so much. Americans have a lot of opinions about slavery, but little common understanding of it, and a general tendency to underestimate its importance.

In the second segment,  Vega and William "Sandy" Darity examine the important wealth gap that persists a century and a half as a result of slavery, a century and a half after its formal end.

In the third segment, Vega discusses asks scholar and poet Clint Smith how the 1619 project can inform responses to the notion that slavery in the United States took place so long ago that it is now time to "get over it." They wrestle with whether such a sentiment is even worthy of a response, concluding that although some remain impervious to history's lessons, education remains a worthwhile undertaking. Listen through the final minute, when Smith reads powerful poetry he contributed to the NY Times project.

The Middle Passage, Mapped

An example of the gaps in my own education about slavery is that I did not know the term "middle passage" until I visited a museum in Regla, Cuba in 2003. I was aware of the phenomenon signified by the name, though I did not comprehend the scale of the transAtlantic trade in humans.  Several visualizations now help to convey the enormity, but I think even these resources simply show how incomprensible it is.

I highly recommend the conversation WAMU journalist Joshua Johnson had with Nikole Hannah-Jones, who launched the 1619 Project for the New York Times Magazine. From this conversation between them and with listeners and other key contributors, we learn the reasons for the project, the profound impact it has already had on many readers, and the predictable backlash from people whose worldview has been challenged, perhaps for the first time.

I had gradually become aware, for example, that the project avoided the conventional use of the word "slave" as a noun. This conversation explains why this was a conscious -- and important -- choice. I am reminded of some of my own, much more modest writing about immigration policies that function as human sieves. In other words, the institutions of slavery, immigration policy, and gerrymandering contrive to extract the wealth of human labor without recognizing the full personhood of the associated humans.

Backlash: The Vague and the Furious

In Who Got the Maddest About the New York Times’ Slavery Coverage?, Slate journalist Ashley Feinberg describes the response of various pundits -- including at least one with actual history credentials -- who could have used a trigger warning; without one, they lashed out at the messengers of uncomfortable truths about the central role of slavery in the history of the republic. Their sputtering ire is testament to the importance and veracity of the 1619 project.

That historian, of course, is the inevitable Newt Gingrich, a fellow member of the professoriate described by Feinberg as "a former speaker of the House and noted wife enthusiast."

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Run, Nina

From the today's episode of BBC Witness History, I learned that Nina Simone had lived in Monrovia, Liberia for a three-year period when she was quite a prominent performer in the soul genre.

BBC reporter Lucy Burns combines her interview of Simone's friend James Dennis with archival interviews of Simone herself to tell the story of how personal and political motivations came together to lead the singer to a country that was at the time attractive to many African Americans. The discussion moves on to changes both in the singer's personal circumstances and in the country itself, which has fallen into very difficult times since its cultural heyday in the 1970s.

Liberian Calypso was written by Simone, but draws heavily on Maya Angelou's marvelous 1957 calypso tune Run Joe.


When I am rowing in New Bedford harbor, we often see the word Monrovia on the stern of ships at anchor, and fellow rowers will ask about the name, or about the Liberian flag, which looks vaguely like the U.S. flag. Although it is a small country with a proportionally even smaller economy, Liberia is the registry of record for many ships; it is one of the world's most important flags of convenience.
This ship is not registered in Brazil.
Photo: Maritime Studies

Thursday, August 15, 2019

¡Feliz Cumpleaños, Nacho!

Today's Google Doodle honors culinary hero Ignacio Anaya García on what would be his 124th birthday. I did not know his name, but we all know his nickname: Nacho. And yes, he invented nachos. As a quick-thinking maitre d' in Piedras Negras, he did exactly what is shown in the gif above, for the wives of U.S. soldiers who had wandered across the border looking for a snack.

Bonus: he used Wisconsin cheddar!

The origin story of nachos is yet another reminder of the interdependence of borderlands communities along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. Without both the creative Señor García and the peckish visitors from across the river, nachos themselves would be impossible!

Lagniappe: A Literary Coincidence

If Nacho is short for Ignacio, then it follows that Nacha is the nickname for Ignacia. In Laura Esquivel's smoldering Like Water for Chocolate (film, book, and food) she is the household cook who "who presides over the story before and after her death as spiritual adviser," according to reviewer Janet Maslin. Coincidentally, Esquivel's story takes place in Piedras Negras and Eagle Pass, when Nacho was a young man.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Baby on the Shelf

Writing for NPR's Planet Money, journalist Greg Rosalsky brings to mind -- perhaps inadvertently -- the annoying Elf on the Shelf craze in his discussion of recent research in demographic economics. He begins his explanation of the current Baby-Less Recovery in the United States, by citing the tendency of some economists to put babies in the "durable goods" category, alongside cars and refrigerators.
This reporting draws on research that shows significant correlations between declines in birth rates and subsequent economic recessions. In other words, people anticipating economic put off baby-making early in economic slowdowns. They put, as it were, the baby on the shelf.

The research further finds that the sensitivity of potential parents to economic stress is far from uniform across demographic groups. For the first time, in fact, married women aged 30-34 are now the most likely to have children because they are less susceptible to economic woes than their younger sisters. For the first time, student loans are cited as a significant demographic factor. The pernicious ramifications of Grover Norquist's politics of austerity, in other words, are showing up in population figures.

The article is a good illustration of details that sometimes arise in discussions of the later phases of the demographic transition model. Broad patterns in population change result from fundamental shifts in the economy, from rural to urban, agricultural to manufacturing. Smaller but still significant shifts then occur as a result of important but less profound economic cycles or social changes.

I found this article via another story I had heard on air -- Less Sex, Fewer Babies: Blame The Internet And Career Priorities. In this lighthearted but very important segment, journalist Sam Sanders explores several reasons that the United States -- along with other economically prosperous countries -- faces a growing need for immigration. That's right: while politicians exploit xenophobic fears of migration in the short run, our current reliance on millions of immigrant workers (regardless of legal status) will only increase in coming decades.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

The World Between Two Covers

I will be assigning this very geographic book in my spring 2020 class, Advanced Global Thinking.

The World Between Two Covers: Reading the GlobeThe World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe by Ann Morgan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As my favorite librarian Pamela says in her review (http://liberrybooks.blogspot.com/2019...), this is "not a beginner's 'year of' book." It is the first of the genre we've read that does not follow a calendar, for example, and some chapters will be a bit obscure for those with limited exposure to postmodern lit-crit.

But the work is full of wisdom about the value of reading in general and the importance of reading beyond one's usual bounds in particular. Her insights into the highly uneven geographies of publishing and translation are particularly valuable.

Her insights into the origins and current status of globalization are so keen -- and clearly articulated -- that I will be assigning an early chapter or two in my new Advanced Global Thinking class in 2020.

For another discussion of Morgan's project, read Winnie Khaw's review.

To see what Morgan chose to read, view the list on her blog.

View all my Goodreads reviews

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Why Walk

Amidst some errands Tuesday morning, I enjoyed hearing most of a conversation between WBUR journalist Meghna Chakrabarti and Norwegian author Erling Kagge, whose most recent book is Walking: One Step at a Time. Just as I was contemplating the pathetic irony of listening to their conversation -- Why We Walk -- in my car, I heard a caller describe her neuroscience research (yes, call-in shows in the Boston area are not like those in other places) about a place where I had a walk planned the very next day!
In the fall semester of alternate years, I teach a course called Land Protection (GEOG 332). It is the epitome of environmental geography class in that it examines the interface between physical and human geographies. In this case, we study forest ecology and landscape change as it relates to conservation policy and related elements of the tax code. It's a fun course, really, and many who take it go on to work as volunteers or professionals in conservation.

One of the texts in that course is Thoreau's Country, in which author David Foster compares observations from Henry David Thoreau's daily journal with his own observations of New England forests, especially those he has made as the long-time director of the Harvard Forest in Petersham. I take my students to that forest -- almost all of which would have been agricultural land in Thoreau's day -- for some close-up examination of landscape change. Over the years I've been aware of various kinds of research going on in the forest, including snow studies by a friend of mine and long-term climate studies under the auspices of the United Nations.

It is at about 22m45s into the On Point installment that the caller Susan discusses her research into the mental-health benefits of walking, particularly in the woods, and by extension a key benefit of maintaining public open space. She has been learning more about these benefits through research in the very same woods that I was visiting in order to fine-tune the forest-ecology exploration I will be repeating in the autumn.


Humorist Bill Bryson has written a very different book with a similar title, which I have read with students in another context and that I highly recommend -- A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Squaring History

Amidst the jumble of place names strewn across this scene from a busy part of the Belgian capital is symbolic but hard-won effort to right -- albeit in a very small way -- an historic wrong of European colonialism in Africa.

The square recognizes the 1960 independence of the Belgian Congo -- now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- by honoring Patrice Lumumba, its first prime minister. In 2018, officials in Brussels renamed Bastion Square in his honor; as of this writing, Google Earth continues to use both names.

As reported by Times journalist Milan Schreuer, the honor is in stark contrast to the brutality of Belgium in the Congo in general and of its treatment of Lumumba in particular. That he would be honored in a neighborhood that is both in the metropol and populated by many of his compatriots gives the irony of the honor a spatial manifestation.
Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba of Congo in New York in 1960.
Allyn Baum/The New York Times

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Coffee Prices Under Water

I welcome this story from NPR's Planet Money journalists Sally Herships and Stacey Vanek Smith, in which they draw attention to the perilously low prices of coffee.

Image (as seen in my family's dining room)
By Oliver Ray
They rightly ask why prices paid to farmers can be so low when retail prices for coffee drinks is increasing. The answers they provide are correct, as far as they go, and include one that I had not thought of: coffee itself constitutes a shrinking proportion of what is in a typical retail cup of coffee, as concoctions involving milks, creams, sugars and syrups become more popular.

Regular readers of this space will not be surprised that as a Coffee Maven, I have several caveats:
  • The story focuses on Colombia, which is an important producer, and Brazil, which is the biggest. Production trends in these countries certainly are important. They neglect to mention Vietnam, where the World Bank has promoted high-volume, low-quality production. Its rapid move to second place about two decades ago continues to disrupt the market, while causing environmental problems and not providing much benefit to farmers in Vietnam itself.
  • At $1.08/pound, the current price in Colombia, though low, is a bit higher than the most commonly used benchmark price, which is $0.94. Readers of this blog can always find the benchmark price at the top-left of this page, courtesy of a widget from Investing.com.
  • These prices refer to the export price -- coffee as it gets placed on a ship in Colombia, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, or any producing country. Most farmers are several steps removed from this, and must work through a series of middlemen (they are always men), including unscrupulous ones known as coyotes. Unless they are involved in a fair-trade or direct-trade contract, farmers will see only a fraction of the export price.
  • Farm workers will earn even less if they do not own the farm. Harvesting coffee pays the equivalent of a nickel or so per pound.
  • Just as the piece focuses on Colombia as a producer, it also focuses on a single retailer: Starbucks. It is indeed important, but in many ways not representative of the retail side of the industry.
  • And finally, a small mistake that is often made. The story references the New York Stock Exchange, which facilitates public trade in equities (stocks) that constitute corporations. Coffee is traded on the New York Coffee Exchange, also known as the C Market. The operation of this market is explained in the very important film Black Gold, which I mention in various contexts throughout many posts on this blog.
Still, this story is an important one, and I am very glad to hear it told to an audience beyond my small orbit. Please scroll up and give a listen!

And always remember: #thankthefarmers

Dam Problems

Journalism, it is said, is the first draft of history. Journalism can also serve as a window on geography. That is often the case with the work of journalist (and fellow employee of Massachusetts public higher education) Steve Curwood. The view is amplified by the journalists and scholars he brings onto his show, Living on Earth.
I recently found his January 2018 conversation with environmental journalist Fred Pearce is an excellent example. Wetlands are seasonally inundated areas that play a vital role in ecosystems throughout the world.

In the segment (13 minutes) entitled African Dams Dry Up Wetlands & Local Jobs, Pearce explains the causes and consequences of wetland losses in several parts of Africa. His emphasis is on the lost of riparian wetlands lost as annual floods are eliminated by the construction of dams. The conversation illustrates how environmental problems interact with economic security, migration, and even national security. He links the loss of wetlands to decisions about migration on the part of people who would have much preferred to stay home.
Manantali Dam, Senegal River Basin
The conversation also reminds us that although climate change has wide-reaching consequences, it is not always the primary driver of environmental problems. Sadly, humans have no shortage of ways to disrupt the natural systems upon which we depend.


The very first project initiated by the World Bank was the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, which created electricity and extended growing seasons, but disrupted the floods that had supported Egyptian civilizations for thousands of years and made farmers there dependent on chemical fertilizers. It would be the first of many dams that came to symbolize the arrogance of Rostovian  development theory (simply build infrastructure and everything will improve).

December 2020 update: BBC Witness History includes The building of the Aswan Dam as part of a series on the work of UNESCO. This focuses on the scramble of scholars from all over the world to move Nubian artifacts from the threat of rising waters and on the dislocation of 100,000 Nubian people. 

Dams featured prominently in the very first book I read as a geography student, and small dams were essential parts of my master's thesis, Source-area erosion rates in areas tributary to Miami Whitewater Lake (Ohio). Finally, this blog includes the story of the Rio Doce, a dam failure in Brazil that did incalculable damage.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Mexican Countries

By now, this screenshot will be familiar to many:

FOX NEWS screenshot with title: "Trump Cuts U.S. Aid to 3 Mexican Countries"
Fox News screenshot, as reported by Newsweek
and everybody else.
This filled my weekend newsfeed, an some have asked for my thoughts on it. Here is what I posted in response to a query from a BSU alumnus:

I have a few thoughts, in no particular order, other than the first:
  • I am glad so many of my friends thought of my efforts in geographic education when they saw this.
  • I am also reminded that our most prolific geographer -- the late, great Dr. Harm de Blij -- told us that he wrote 1,000 letters a year to public officials and the editors of various programs and publications about errors of this kind or erroneous maps. Some stand out more than others, but many are made. Dr. de Blij, incidentally, was the first person to put a map of Kuwait on television when Iraq invaded it; he knew instantly that it would be an example of Americans learning geography through war.

And some more thoughts:

  • We wonder why Americans are so bad at geography, but we don't actually teach it much. The world is big and complicated; it needs more than a quick class in middle school. Massachusetts is about to increase it from a miniscule part of the curriculum to a tiny part. We need more, but someone in state government is working very hard against us.
  • It remains illegal to become a certified high-school geography teacher in Massachusetts.
  • Seeing this post did motivate me to get the publicity together for our next advocacy day (April 17, 2019) at the State House.

Photo by BSU Alumna Ashley (Costa) Harris
Massachusetts State House 2012
As published in National Geographic's
Geography for Life
And two more thoughts about the story:
  • The xenophobia of the people involved is giving the quote more attention.
  • The attention is a distraction from the important part of the story, which is the application of hamfisted negotiation tactics to a matter of extreme complexity in the international sphere.

My doctoral minor in Latin American Area Studies can now be called Mexico & Stuff.


The essential site Latino Rebels provides an antidote to the ignorance, in the form of a map (hurrah!) and a poem that is as instructive as it is tragic: Central American (In)Visibility.

Map: Latino Rebels

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