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.

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