Monday, September 28, 2020

Coffee Creek Quality

One-minute excerpt of S5E1 of Schitt's Creek, a fair-use clip for educational purposes. May be blocked in some locations; may not be used on monetized sites.

"Coffee Movie!" or "Library Movie!" are expressions we use in the Hayes-Boh household to express our joy when encountering our favorite subjects in a film or a television show. A fantasy sabbatical project of mine, for example, would be to string together all of the coffee references in M*A*S*H; my favorite librarian even has a television tag for entries in her famous "Library" Books blog.

Our pandemic television roster now includes Schitt's Creek, a series to which we are late arrivals. The low-brow veneer covers some rather clever humor in a series that is essentially an inversion of The Beverly Hillbillies. Some scenes are set in a café, but the one that caught our attention takes place in the lobby of the very modest motel that is more central to the series. 

John first mentions coffee as nothing more than a caffeine vehicle -- fuel for a tired person. Stevie tries to discourage him, suggesting that even his low expectations of quality will not be met. 

Coffee quality matters, even when expectations are low. Coffee passes through 50 or more steps from seed to cup, and choices at each step affect quality. Sometimes I can tell that nearly every step went awry.

On June 26 of this year, I was pleased to be part of a wide-ranging discussion of coffee quality with two worker-owners of one of my favorite coffee companies: Equal Exchange. This was a public presentation via Zoom, for citizen-consumers all over the United States. If you have not already seen it, I invite you to watch the archive video, as we talk about the positive correlation between the relationships with farmers and the final quality in the cup. 

I provide links and put the discussion in context with two separate blog posts -- Fair Trade on my Aw, Professor blog and Micro Quality on this one. 

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Virtual Café

I try to learn something new about coffee every day. Friends who grow coffee or are otherwise involved in the coffee industry often help to make this happen -- as do those who have studied coffee with me. Sometimes they recommend a new café or ask me a question to which I do not know the answer. Most recently it was a coffee alum sharing this video and asking "what is this contraption?"
I had never seen one of these, but told her that it is similar to a vacuum press. These are more popular in Japan than in the U.S., though I do have one. It is shown in somewhat improper use in the 1961 "This Is Coffee" video that I show in my classes. But this is clearly more complicated -- on my second viewing I realized that it is, among other things, a steampunk variant on the usual model.

To learn more, I decided to find the café online. For a while, my endeavors were quite confusing. Eventually, I learned that the cafè is an extension of an elaborate persona developed by the barista shown above. The Dungeons & Dragons reference is not immediately clear, but to those whose misspent youth included countless hours gathered around graph paper "dungeons" and rolling dice, the elaborate nature of this faux café does seem a reasonable outgrowth of the game. 

I don't think we I can replicate this coffee, though I'm sure one of my industry friends will tell me if I can. Meanwhile, the virtual tavern is a delightful place to visit for wit and insight on many topics. 


As I was closing some of the many open tabs in my browser, I noticed that my search for "vacuum press" has also revealed the name of this contraption. It is a balance syphon coffee maker and it is available from a certain global retailer. I will see if it is available elsewhere before I decide whether to add one to my fleet of coffee makers.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Not So Long Ago


The image above has been circulating online this year. If someone can tell me the original source, I would love to add a citation. I could spend the rest of this week commenting on it, because it relates to so much of what is wrong in the United States today. I will, in fact, no doubt be editing this post. 

But for now I am using it to refer to one of the many ways in which the "get over it" response to racial injustice is wrong: the practice of redlining. I have heard the term for many years, but learned only recently that maps were published with actual red lines on them. The importance of this practice is included in a PowerPoint file posted by Shane Wiegand for the Landmark Society.

More specifically, a digital atlas of such maps has been published as Mapping Inequality by the University of Richmond. This is a very important resource that details the practice and allows users to see how specific urban neighborhoods were characterized for the purpose of lending authorities during the 1930s. It is impossible to suppose that such stark definitions of desirable and undesirable neighborhoods could be without consequence today.

Sunday, September 20, 2020


On the eve of autumn -- just as the air crispened and my favorite librarian updated our living-room altar for the season -- I chanced upon this image of the 2020 edition of the #FightEvilReadBooks t-shirt. Yes, it apparently is a series, one of many nifty items for bibliophiles offered by Out of Print.

The design serves as an important reminder -- and in these benighted times we need these often -- that the best antidote to ignorance and bias is simply to read well and read broadly. National hero Rep. John Lewis (taken from us this summer, a week before the loss of my own mother) put it well when receiving the National Book Award: Just Read (please listen to his words, even if you are already convinced).

Reading is also the most reliable pathway to good writing, as I detail on my Writing Tips page.

For more specific advice on reading in an ecosystem designed to thwart genuine learning, I recommend the lessons from top journalists that I describe in my 2017 Emotional Skepticism post.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Fire Resistance

Forests have evolved with fire. Humans entered forested landscapes very late in those complicated relationships, with results that have ranged from problematic to catastrophic. In California, for example, more land burned this week in early September than in all of last year. 

Fires have been. getting more dangerous, expensive, and common. This story gives the best quick overview of how this situation has come about, why it cannot be solved easily, and which human factors can be addressed. 

Five minutes is not enough time to thoroughly explain all of this, but sharp NPR reporters found the right experts to introduce the problem and some remedies.

To learn more, please explore some of the other forest fire posts on this blog or take my Land Protection class (GEOG 332) in Fall 2021 to learn more. 

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Acknowledging Lands

I have lived in many parts of Turtle Island:

  • Pauquunaukit (Wampanoag)
  • Carrizo/Comecrudo & Coahuiltecan
  • Hohokam, O'odham, Sobaipuri, Tohono O'odham (Papago)
  • Adena, Hopewell, Miami, Shawandasse Tula (Shawanwaki/Shawnee), Wazhazhe Manzhan (Osage)
  • Piscataway
  • Kaw (Kansa), Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo), Očeti Sakówin (Sioux), Wazhazhe Manzhan (Osage)
  • Manahoac
  • Nacotchtank (Anacostan), Piscataway

These are the original inhabitants of all of the places I have resided in the United States, known by their current names (in reverse order of my time residing in each):

  • Bridgewater and Fairhaven, Massachusetts
  • Pharr, Texas
  • Tucson, Arizona
  • Oxford, Ohio
  • Catonsville and Annapolis, Maryland
  • Kansas City, Missouri
  • Nokesville, Chantilly, and Herndon, Virginia
  • Washington, District.of Columbia
I highlighted in blue the names that were familiar to me at the time I lived in some of the places. As a non-indigenous resident of Massachusetts, Ohio, and Arizona, I have been aware of some but not all of the indigenous people of those places. In Arizona, I had occasional indirect contact with Tohono O'odham people during ceremonies, including one to which the public was invited on their reservation land and another that was an ecumenical service at my church there. In Massachusetts, I have had the privilege of much more direct contact and friendship with Wampanoag neighbors and colleagues. 
Sachem Rock in what is now West Bridgewater, Massachusetts

In Ohio, the university I attended and the lake where I did my master's thesis were named for the Miami people, but the people themselves had long ago been forcibly removed to Florida (not to the part where the relatively new city by that name is located) and then to reservations elsewhere. To its shame, the university used a slur for its team names, and alumni who will not accept the new Redhawks name can still find the old logo in online stores. 

I notice two things about the geography of the indigenous land uses. First, 

I found the names of indigenous people associated with each of my homes by sending the common names by text to 907-312-5085. More information, caveats, and a Facebook Messenger option are posted on the Land Acknowledgement page established by Code for Anchorage (Dena'ina Elnena).

Monday, August 31, 2020

Plantation Discourses

The story of Dutch podcast partners Peggy Bouva and Maartje Duin began with an awkward conversation about the connections between their families. Both live in Holland, but Duin -- a journalist -- discovered that they were connected by a plantation in the former Dutch colony of Suriname.

They discuss their podcast, their friendship, and their travels together in a recent appearance with Joanna Kakissis on NPR's Morning Edition. (Careful listeners will notice that "slaves" is used as a noun in the introduction to the conversation, though "enslaved persons" is used in the conversation itself. This reflects a growing recognition that it is dehumanizing to identify people solely by the bad circumstances or crimes that have affected them.)

Although the podcast itself appears to be available only in Dutch at the moment, Google Translate offers some sense of the summary of each episode of The Plantation of Our Ancestors in other languages, and includes links to other resources, some of which are available in English. These include Mapping Slavery NL, which portrays historical places relating to slavery on the map of the Dutch colonial empire.

The description of the mapping project highlights on advantage Dutch and some other European folks have over those of us in the United States: they know that their countries were part of the metropol, that is, at the centers of global empires. Denial of its imperial nature is a treasured myth in my country, even though no empire has ever been bigger.

As pro-slavery statues are toppled by vote, by edict, or by protestors, some decry the loss of history. In most cases, however, the history remains to be uncovered, whatever happens to icons of bronze men on bronze horses. As we finally grapple seriously with the ongoing implications of slavery, conversations such as those between these Bouva and Duin are essential. 


Even at my seemingly far remove, I have derived a benefit from the ill-gotten glories of Holland's trafficking in humans. Among the artists supported by that immense wealth are both Rembrandt and Vermeer. My answer to the Getty Art Challenge of 2020 was a recreation of Vermeer's The Geographer

My entry in the Getty Art Challenge, special edition for Pride Week.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Angola's Singer, Sprinter ... and Geographer


Bonga Kueda: His beard is no simple matter

Harry Graham's 2018 interview with Angolan musician Bonga Kueda is a half hour very well spent. It is an engaging conversation with an artist whose life traces the arc of modern Angolan history. He describes his journey from music to running and back to music, all while telling Angola's colonial and post-colonial story. The stories of independence in Angola, Cabo Verde, and other Lusophone nations are intertwined with the 1975 fall of Salazar in Portugal itself. 

These events are much more recent than many of our contemporaries seem to think; it is almost to soon to talk about post-colonialism.

The conversation is presented for an English-speaking audience, but Bantu, Portuguese, and French are heard in the background throughout. Despite the deep pain Portugal has caused for his country, the main interview takes place by phone from a barber shop in Lisbon.

I add the label "geographer" to his story even though it is not cited in the interview. Growing up in colonial schools, Bonga had to learn the rivers of Portugal, but his own country was not part of the curriculum. At a young age, he taught himself the geography of his own country and took "Bonga" as a way of rejecting the name given him at birth as the subject of an empire. It is therefore quite ironic that he conducts the interview quite in the seat of that empire.


When looking for the music of Bonga online, I found a recording of Sodade that he made with Cabo Verde's national treasure Cesária Evora.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Shifting Wheels


Biking in Chicago (a city I now visit regularly)
Image: David Schaper, NPR

As people start to move about a little more -- perhaps too much more -- many of us are doing so differently than we did before. Until a vaccine is found -- and taken widely -- transportation patterns are shifting. In a brief radio piece, Journalist David Schaper explores the shifting patterns that are already noticeable. He then discusses which of these patterns might become permanent, and the degree to which some of the changes fit with long-term goals of city planners.

I will be sharing this story with students in my urban geography and global thinking courses. Those who wish to explore the topic further might also enjoy the free CitiesX course I am taking online at Harvard.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Brockton Honors

In the Fall 2020 semester, I will be teaching a First-Year Seminar entitled Discovering Brockton, which I first offered under the title Geography of Brockton in 2008, when the First-Year Seminar requirement at Bridgewater State University was new. To date, I have taught the course five or six times, most recently as a Commonwealth Honors course.

GEOG 199: Whether a student is a life-long resident or a newcomer to the area, this provides a deep introduction both to the City of Brockton and the academic discipline of geography. The city’s rich heritage of innovation and its many layers of cultural identity are the background for examining challenges ranging from water supply to economic development. The course meets only once per week so that students have the opportunity to visit – in a university vehicle – the city’s people, cultural landscape, and key institutions through direct visits. Students are responsible for significant writing and research between weekly class meetings, so that each meeting can maximize time in the City of Champions.  
Each student in the class will explore the boundary between the City of Brockton and
one of the eight towns it borders. Contrasts between cities and towns - whether tangible
or intangible - are hugely important to understanding the
 geographies of Massachusetts.

The Bridge
: years ago, a young person I met at a conference helped me to find a metaphor for my teaching that has proven helpful ever since. (I have tried in vain to find her again to express my thanks, but it has not been possible; that is another story.) Rather than mastering content that I deliver to students, I endeavor to connect them to ideas and to other people from whom they (and I) can learn. This course has been a perfect example -- I do have some insights and theoretical perspectives to share directly, and also some places I can take students where they can develop some of their own ideas. But in this course, I am often just that bridge (or chauffeur) connecting them to some real expertise. Quite a few people have helped with this course in the past, and I will be calling on some of them -- and some new connections -- this year.

FALL 2020: I am offering this course fully online, because required social-distancing standards cannot reasonably be met. This means that the popular van rides in and around the city will not be possible. I will be recording some of the walking and "windshield survey" mini-tours on my own, realizing that they will not be quite the same. Likewise, I am asking some of the people with whom I normally would arrange for in-person meetings to provide connections in other ways, whether it be Zoom meetings, pre-recorded presentations, or reference to online materials about their organizations or projects.

The class is scheduled 1:50 to 4:30 on Wednesdays. I will use some of that time for my own presentations. To provide for breaks and to simplify the scheduling of guests, I will endeavor to have guest speakers at 2:00 and 3:00, for up to 50 minutes. Some group guests might occupy both slots on a given day.

It is in fact for these potential collaborators that I created this blog post, by way of providing context for the favors I am asking of them.


A brief note about the FYS and SYS series of courses: FYS Geography of Brockton was one of a small group of pilot courses before the requirement as finalized. Before teaching the course, I even joined several Bridgewater State College (as we were known then) colleagues at a conference in Tucson organized by the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience. I also piloted the Secret Life of Coffee as a Second-Year seminar the following year, and have taught about 20 sections of that course.

Students enrolled at Bridgewater State University during their first or second year (by credit count, not calendar) are required to take First- and Second-Year Seminars, respectively. Our advising program specifies the exceptions for students arriving with transfer credits, but for most students, these courses are integral to our Core Curriculum. The seminars allow students to practice writing or speaking skills in the context of a particular topic that is of special interest to the faculty member who is leading the course. 

Friday, July 31, 2020

Supporting Agualí

As many of you know, Nicaragua is near and dear to my heart. In January 2006, I intended to take students there just once. One of those students returned the following year, and I took a total of more than 100 students and colleagues and my own family members over the next decade. Many of those students have returned with me or on their own, and many more of them tell me that their visit was one of the most important experiences of their life. It is my home away from home, and I am in contact with one or more friends in Nicaragua every single day.

Things went seriously awry there in April 2018, so I have not been back -- though one of my Nicaraguan friends co-led my January 2020 travel course in Costa Rica. In fact it is that friend -- Ernesto Ocampo -- with whom I have been working most directly on a new project to help the people of northern Nicaragua. By "working with" him, I mean that he and others in Matagalpa have been doing terrific work to help their community, and I've been consulting with him on how to share that work with potential supporters in North America and Europe.

Nicaragua faces a triple crisis: the global pandemic and economic recession are compounded by the political repression that I have described in some detail elsewhere on this blog. Ernesto and others are responding with a comprehensive approach that integrates community development, environmental education, and English-language education. It is best described by our mutual friend Sage from Chicago -- please keep reading Sage's excellent description of this exciting work, and please join us and other friends of Nicaragua in sharing the project and pledging financial support.

Note that the sponsorships being suggested could be shared as part of a project for a class, club, or religious organization, or simply a group of friends wishing to make the world a better place!

Read all about it at Agualí
Sage writes:

Please consider sponsoring a student for Estación Biológica Agualí's new and exciting project investing in a new generation of environmental leaders in Nicaragua.

Here's an overview from program materials:

"The Agualí Biological Station has created a one-a-half year program for 25 young people that facilitates high-quality education, using English-learning as a tool to acquire new skills in environmental education and multiple other skills."
"In order to carry on with this project, we need people who will be willing to sponsor as many students as possible, the cost for the whole program is worth twice than requested; however, we ask for a contribution of USD 40 per month for each student, and other costs will be covered by the Biological Station and Matagalpa Tours."

There are different sponsorship opportunities that you can explore at this link:

Sponsorship keeps the program 100% free for students, keeping people afloat during these difficult times - in particular in economies that rely on tourism. Agualí's educational model is holistic - not just English language education, but also a base in subjects from permaculture to trail building to theater - the skills to create a graduating cohort of professional naturalists and environmental educators.

You can commit to a one-time donation or recurring sponsorship for a part or all of the program. For example, I have committed to sponsor one students at $40/month for 12 months. You also have the option to be put in contact with the student you are sponsoring and have a more intimate look into the program and the amazing work that is happening at Estación Biológica Agualí.

Head to to check out the other work Agualí is doing, and send me a message to access a comprehensive overview of the program through email - I hope that you will consider supporting the amazing work of Ernesto Ocampo and the Agualí team!

James again:

Feel free to contact me with any questions. I would also be happy to set up a video chat with Ernesto, myself and any potential supporters.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Mitigating Flood

Scholars Jacob Bradt and Carolyn Kousky recently analyzed the most recent data on flood insurance claims in the United States in studies published by the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the Wharton School. Claims vary considerably from year to year (they call the data "spikey"), but claims have been increasing. Moreover, the average value of each claim is increasing dramatically. As with any good business-school presentation, this graph of claim values is already adjusted for inflation. That is to say: more damage is being done by floods in real terms.

I learned of this study from the notes published to complement the following radio segment, which I recommend highly. In just four minutes, NPR journalist Rebecca Herscher conveys the implications of this trend in both personal and policy terms.

As her reporting illustrates, the rising cost of claims is putting increasing pressure on the mitigation efforts of the federal government. For decades, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has sought to reduce flood damage through mitigation: simply purchasing properties considered particularly vulnerable to flooding.

As the number and value of properties actually damaged by flooding increases, so too does the cost of meaningful mitigation. The focus of the story is on the increasing importance of funding of flood mitigation by state governments, as they realize that FEMA funding is not keeping up with the increase in damage resulting from land-use patterns and climate change. As I wrote in Climate Foxholes back in 2013, climate denial is not an option for those with real-world responsibilities such as planning and insurance.

Much of my writing on this topic has been inspired by the painful experiences of flooding in Ellicott City, Maryland, a charming mill town just a few miles from the campus where I became a geographer. My 2018 post Not in the Cards post includes the most direct explanation of the changing math of assessing flood risk; my more recent Dam Shame post includes links to each of my Ellicott City posts and a link to the recovery efforts of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey.


Herscher reports from two states where I have lived -- Virginia and Texas. The water official she interviews in Texas has both a great Texas accent and a fun aptronym.

Career tip: if all of this mitigation work sounds like a job for geographers, that is because it is. A few years ago a student enrolled in our department because of her background in public safety and her  interest in emergency preparedness. She is now one of many geographers working for FEMA. As the NPR story suggests, there will be increasing need for geographers in similar agencies at the state and local level.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Belts and Roads, Worldwide

Shopkeeper Amaleea Hayu supports the rail link in Malaysia,
which of course will have benefits along with its costs.
One reason I teach is that it helps me to keep learning. It was from a student in my summer class that I learned of an article describing the BRI -- China's Belt & Road Initiative, a major series of projects of which I had only the vaguest understanding.

Its scope is enormous -- trillions of dollars of infrastructure spending in 125 countries over the next three decades. This story in Sierra magazine describes the destructive potential of just one small segment of the ambitious work, in Malaysia. It also describes the problematic relationships among those who finance these projects and those who are responsible for regulating them. Patterns established by colonial projects the world over will be easy to recognize.


Those interested in the wetlands aspects of this article might be interested in my other articles that mention wetlands, including Louisiana in Tough Shape and Hot Island Hotspot.

Micro Quality

I was pleased to be part of an online discussion of coffee quality recently -- specifically about the connections between cupping quality and the quality of life for the people who grow the coffee. The short version: better quality is good for producers.  Feel free to watch the long version of our discussion, entitled Our Version of the Perfect Cup, and to read about the context of that conversation.

This discussion was part of an ongoing series of educational events organized by the Equal Exchange Action Forum, the citizen-consumer arm of the fair-trade company. Equal is known for its leadership in coffee, but now sells cocoa, tea, cashews, and other products on behalf of small farmers throughout the world. The Action Forum allows its customers to think deeply about the entire food system and to collaborate on making it healthier and fairer for people and the planet.
A central premise of our discussion is that higher quality in the coffee itself is associated with the development of producer communities. It also reflects one of the principle benefits of the entire fair-trade movement in my view: greater transparency and better connections between those who produce food (if we count coffee as a food) and those who consume it. As we explain, prior to the fair-trade movement, farmers has little if any information about the quality (and therefore the real value) of their products.

So please listen to the conversation in which we explore these connections; for those who have not given much to how high quality is achieved in coffee or why it matters, I think we provide a worthwhile introduction. As we explain in our discussion, an important aspect of improving coffee quality is the selection of better-quality coffee at various stages. From picking the coffee through roasting it, the best beans can be separated to get increasingly high-scoring results in the cup (coffee is scored much like wine).
Mild spoiler alert: I went looking for an image like this on
Instagram while watching one of the videos below. I should
not have been surprised that the first good example I found
was posted by the same person! It is part of a series of slides that
presents his case about microlots in a different way.
But please note that my co-presenter Mike Mowry begins to explain the problems that can arise from a focus on microlots, which are at the far end of the quality distribution. Microlots are very small batches of coffee -- perhaps just a couple of 100-pound bags -- that have been cultivated, selected, and processed with great care. They have the potential to earn premiums far above the price of ordinary coffee, and even more than most specialty coffee.

My co-presenter Mike Mowry begins to explain this during our conversation, and afterwards he shared two videos from Colombia that explain why high quality being good does not mean that extremely high quality is better. In two segments that are part of a series of videos about coffee economics on the Cedro Alto Coffee channel, Karl Weinhold explains the math of microlots and how that math tends to work against farmers, and especially farmer cooperatives. Hint: it is not simply a matter of only a few farmers getting the premium prices; even those getting the premiums might not fare well overall.

To be honest,  I had not thought seriously about the potential downside of microlots until we began to prepare for our presentation.  I remember the thrill of visited a mill specializing in microlots during my January 2018 visit to Estelí, Nicaragua. For a coffee nerd who cares about the farmers, the land, and the cup, it was exhilarating. So learning about the potential downside of ultrahigh quality was sobering.
Africa-bed drying of microlots in Estelí, Nicaragua. These beans are being
dried with extraordinary care, in lots as small as 5 pounds (nanolots).

Long before I knew anything about quality in coffee, I read and re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (Phaedrus, #1). Much of the book concerns Robert Pirsig's maddening (literally) pursuit of the meaning of the word "quality." The rest of the book concerns a long ride on a motorcycle.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Oklahoma Questions

Earlier this month, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch surprised many observers by writing a 5-4 decision in favor of indigenous rights. I had not been aware of the McGirt v. Oklahoma case until the day it was decided, when I saw various links indicating that the map of Oklahoma was to be redrawn. As a geographer, I naturally had some questions.
A map of Oklahoma circulating since July 9.
Because the McGirt case concerns jurisdiction over a criminal case, the immediate effect of the "redrawing" relates to which areas remain the purview of state or federal prosecutors and courts. The majority opinion cites long-standing treaties as the basis for federal jurisdiction on behalf of tribal governments. In his dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Roberts appears to emphasize the inconvenience of this result for the State of Oklahoma, rather than whether the treaties are or are not valid. Journalists Chris Casteel and David Morris describe the ruling in an article and video posted on The Daily Oklahoman immediately following the ruling.

A few days later, the NPR program 1A (please get to know this show if you do not already!) assembled an expert panel to discuss the ruling in a broader context. Host Jenn White discusses the McGirt case, the name change of the Washington-area NFL team, and the victory of native people in the Dakota Access pipeline case with indigenous academics and activists, as well as Jonodev Chaudhuri, ambassador to the United States for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. This discussion is a half-hour well spent, as the experts answer some of the questions raised by these rulings and indicate that some of its geographic implications remain far from clear.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

COVID Policies and Trans Communities in Latin America

Social-distancing protocols in some parts of Latin America have been gendered, because this seemed to be an easy way to reduce potential crowds by one half. In some cases, however, the rules facilitated abuse by police and others. As reported by Jennifer Bitterly for the Christian Science Monitor, some trans activists in the region have found a silver lining in the responses.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Coffeeland as Empire

I had already begun to read Augutine Sedgewick's hefty tome Coffeeland: One Man's Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug when a fellow geographer passed along Oliver Taslik's much more manageable review, The callous roots of caffeine capitalism.

Taslik confirms my impression that Sedgewick's work has a great tendency to wander and meander across time and space, making me feel a bit better about already having gotten a little bit lost in its pages. He also reminds us that the James Hill -- the "One Man" of the book's subtitle -- is not the real subject of the book.

Rather, it is the broader story of the hazards of economic and social -- and political -- development that is dependent on a single crop. Diversification to other crops is scarcely better, if they remain within a narrow range and share post-colonial patterns of dependency.

I hope to have more to say on the work when I reach its end, and I hope some day to reach El Salvador itself -- a country I have studied a fair bit but not yet visited.


Those who know me well may notice that the title of this book is very similar to a word I use often -- Coffeelands -- as a term of endearment for all of the places around the world that provide our coffee, and to the people of those lands. It is also the name of one of my very favorite coffee shops, whose owner has been with me on three coffeelands journeys (so far).

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Discovering Our Own Neighborhoods

Atlas Obscura is always a trove of geographic insight; the geographically curious can spend hours perusing the online or print version.

A recent contribution by journalist Lauren Vespoli offers even more to the geographically curious (including hints as to how and why we should all be geographically curious). In How to Dig Into the History of Your City, Town, or Neighborhood, she describes how she has used newly-found down time to explore her own surround -- and to engage friends to do the same. This is very creative online bonding! As she makes clear throughout the piece, the history comes in many forms and so do the processes of discovery.
Geographic discovery involves inquiry about
the ordinary in our midst.
She describes several tools that are familiar to me as a professional geographer -- such as Sanborn maps -- and other fascinating tools I had never heard of. I am most excited about using the Archipedia, which has well over 100 listings in each of two cities I teach as honors colloquia -- New Orleans and Detroit. Sadly, none of the fascinating buildings of Brockton (about which I teach an honors seminar) are this database, but I have other resources for exploring that city formerly known as North Bridgewater.

Among the tools Vespoli introduces is another I learned about from a fellow geographer just recently. Mapping Inequality is an impressive online collection of the maps used by the Federal Home Owners' Loan Corporation to guide mortgage rate-setting. In the guise of managing institutional financial risk, these maps also imposed or reinforced geographic patterns of racial discrimination through the practice of redlining. For many communities across the United States, researchers can discover whether their own neighborhoods fell inside or outside of those red lines.

I will also use this in my course Environmental Regulations, because this kind of research -- while enjoyable in its own right -- is potentially quite useful in some of the detailed work necessary to protect us from environmental contamination. Because pollutants from the past can be just as dangerous as chemicals currently in use, searching for possible relict sources of pollution is an excellent application of geographic skills.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Dam Shame

I did my entire master's thesis on dams, so I feel emboldened to make more than the usual number of dam-related puns whenever the topic of dams comes up. And for the same reasons, I make sure that the topic comes up more than it does around normal people. That said, the title of this post is slightly mismatched to the topic, because the people responsible for the recent dam failure in Edenville, Michigan and for the associated toxic-waste disaster downstream seem to have exactly zero shame.

Shortly before a catastrophic failure. Image: NPR.
I am including a few items that relate to different geographic lessons about this failure. First is from a rather nerdy geomorphology perspective, but it illustrates sometihng everyone should know about dams.

Every dam has a spillway at some level below the top of the dam -- usually at least a few feet lower. This spillway defines what should be the maximum level of water behind the dam. It must be designed with a capacity to allow for ANY possible flow of water around the dam. If water is allowed to flow over the wall of the dam ("topping" the dam) failure is quite likely. This is especially true of earthen dams, but is also a danger with concrete or stone dams. Dave Petley's American Geophysical Union blog post on which I found this video includes more technical details, including some that are in the form of questions, as this system is much more complicated than it appears to non-specialists.

The failure of this dam brings immediately to mind the 1889 Johnstown Flood. In both cases, innocent downstream communities were devastated by a failure of both engineering and conscience. Wealthy owners had been warned that their structures were unlikely to survive expected rain events, but chose to risk not only their investments but also the properties -- and the very lives -- of downstream neighbors. Lee Mueller, the owner of the Edenville Dam, is doubly culpable because he has actively ignored federal and state safety regulators and he must know the history of Johnstown. He is a perfect illustration of the need for environmental regulations, and the need to empower those agencies charged with enforcing them. Sadly, at least 2,500 dams in the United States are considered dangerous, meaning that they are both in a position to cause deaths if they fail and in a state of repair that makes such failures more likely than they ought to be.

When I commented about the good luck that nobody was killed by the Edenville collapse (though thousands were evacuated and millions of dollars of damage was done), a friend and former professor of mine quickly corrected me: nobody died as an immediate result of the collapse, but the flood damage included the inundation of an inadequately prepared chemical plant downstream.

As I explain in my 2016 Houston, Too Close to New Orleans post, tanks storing hazardous chemicals are required to be surrounded by secondary containment, meaning a wall or berm that will contain the chemical in the event of flooding or failure of the tank. I know this because I have done the calculations for such containment in Puerto Rico. The inside dimensions must be adequate to contain the entire contents of the dam, plus a small freeboard capacity. Similarly, the outside dimensions (height above ground) must be high enough to withstand a 100-year flood. Tanks on Dow properties downstream from Edenville were not adequately contained, so my friend is correct that increased casualties are likely. But they will be the result of long-term, low-dose chemical exposure that will be impossible to document on an individual basis.

In the case of the Dow facility, it is not yet clear what the nature of the miscalculation was; it could very well be that the berms met legal requirements and failed anyway. This is because the regulations worst-case conditions on which regulations are based might assume only meteorological flooding, not that caused by independent failures upstream. Moreover, the 100-year flood level is no longer an adequate way to estimate flood risk. It describes a flood that would have a 1/100 probability of being exceeded in any given year in the past. As I explain in my 2018 post Not in the Cards, even in the hands of statisticians, hydrologists, and engineers who do understand precisely what the term does and does not mean (and these people are rare), existing records are not adequate to estimate flood probabilities, because climate change means that today's conditions are statistically not related to those of the past.

Ellicott City Comparison

Image: Scott Weaver
I was reminded of the flood-interval problem in the recent Save Our Town episode (s3e10) of Gordon Ramsay's 24 Hours to Hell and Back. Careful readers of this blog (if there are any) might know that "Our Town" refers to Ellicott City, Maryland, whose 2016 and 2018 floods I have written about in Flood Flash and Burying the Survivors, as well as Not in the Cards. No dam was involved in these catastrophes, but other aspects of the story are relevant.

We are not fans of reality television -- even if it pertains to food -- but of course we watched this show with great attention (and through torrents of tears, to be honest). PLEASE watch it if you can, because ultimately it is a hopeful story. Because it is not a show about hydrology, though, it is understandable that a mistaken comment about the floods was included without correction. Someone in the program said that the town had been struck by two 1,000-year floods. They did not go on to say that the odds of this would be close to one in a million, but it is implied. The reality, unfortunately, is that the floods in Ellicott City were inevitable given. climate change and recklessly inadequate regulation of upstream land use. The three blog posts above describe the details.

Incidentally, Ellicott City is still vulnerable, but engineering remedies -- including those described in Ramsay's show -- have likely reduced the risk in general terms and have removed some of the most vulnerable victims completely.


Strictly speaking, my master's thesis was not about dams: it was about soil erosion. But the unexpectedly rapid sedimentation of a reservoir behind a medium-scale dam was the motive for our study, and we examined several dozen small-scale reservoirs to study the problem. When we started the project, I could barely discern small reservoirs on aerial photos; after a full year of study, I felt as though I knew some of them personally.

I am not certain to what extent dam safety has been a factor in the decision, but I recently learned that a small dam about a mile from my house in Bridgewater is slated for removal. This will create some environmental benefits and some environmental hazards (principally from the draining of artificial wetlands and the possible liberation of long-dormant toxic sediments). I will be following that with nerdy interest!

Neighborhood Pride

The Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco has long been home for many transgender people. Even in the context of a city with a strong reputation as a safe haven for GLBTQ people, however, the neighborhood has not always met the needs of its transgender residents.

Community leaders worked with city officials to create Compton's Transgender Cultural District in 2017. It is named for the site of the Compton's Cafeteria Riots of 1966, a pivotal event in the community's history, similar to the better-known Stonewall uprising in New York City three years later.

In this brief 2019 story, journalist Chloe Veltman tells the story of the neighborhood's transformation with the help of resident Honey Mahogany and city planner Brian Cheu.

Today, the district provides affirmation, a sense of place, safety, and support for economic development. The cultural projects of the district include advocacy, celebration, and education both in real-life events and online projects. The personal stories collected on its YouTube channel are a good place to learn, for people inside and outside of the community. For example, Kelly Kelly explains specifically why having this geographic space is important to her.
Map: Transgender District SF Map Page

The district's sense of place is promoted in a variety of ways, including lamp posts and of course Instagram.

A post shared by Transgender District (@transgenderdistrict) on


Any success in improving a neighborhood leads almost inevitably to concerns about gentrification: the tendency of improvements to make a neighborhood unaffordable for its residents. This can happen in a variety of circumstances. The first neighborhood I remember living in was Seven Corners in Falls Church, Virginia. It was rather modest when we lived there in the 1960s. My great grandparents happened to move into the same area in the late 1970s, and had financial difficulty staying when improvements were made to many of the apartments there. Upgrades have continued, so that it is now difficult to find any house in the area for under $600,000.

In many cases where the arts have been part of a conscious project of community development, property values can rise much more dramatically, often to the detriment of many of the same people who made the renewal possible in the first place. I have addressed the gentrification question in three different posts on this blog. Gentrification Outcomes (2018) is the broadest of these, drawing on excellent journalism by Linda Wertheimer. My 2016 Gentrifeination post explores the very specific role of coffee in gentrification. Most recently, Somerville Success (2020) focuses on the role of zoning in promoting the development of a city near Boston, with a link to a talk about gentrification there.

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Gambling with Macau

I have long been fascinated by the Treaty of Tordesillas in my courses on Latin America, I mention the many levels of audacity it represents, starting with the vagueness of its definition with respect to the Cape Verde archipelago and ending with the fact that two guys in Europe decided that a meeting with a third guy was the way to settle their differences over how to divide up the right to subjugate much of the rest of the world. I've been so fascinated, in fact, that a visit to the site of that meeting is on my agenda for a (now postponed) family trip to Europe.
Every once in a while I am reminded that the line across the Atlantic had a counterpart on the other side of the globe, established by the Treaty of Saragossa. I found this map of both on the very informative Doctrine of Discovery page posted by Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer, a professor of history retired from Humboldt State University. Those reminders usually relate to the tiny Lusophone countries of East Timor or Macau (Macao) -- that is, coffee or gambling.

And this morning it was the latter -- the UrbanX course I am taking online features a 2016 article by journalist Simon Lewis about plummeting casino revenues in Macau. I include it here because it describes several aspects of the economic and cultural geography of this tiny country while explaining the counterintuitive finding that falling revenues might be a positive trend for its citizenry. Gambling addiction is often seen as an individual problem, but the experience of Macau illustrates the damage that can result when governments or entire economies become dependent on it.

The article includes this video from the Macao Government Tourism Office, in which historian Julian Davison explores the city, making many connections between its unique local features and its global position along what he calls the maritime silk road. We also learn that its name derives from the Portuguese spelling of the name of a Chinese ocean goddess -- this naturally reminds me of Iemanja/Yemaya. This is broadly similar to that of nearby Hong Kong, but with Portuguese rather than British connections.

How small is Macau? Even smaller than I realized. At 45 square miles, it is only twice as large as the small town I live in. I used the magic of The True Size to bring its shape to my neighborhood in southeastern Massachusetts for comparison.
Comparison: The True Size 

Monday, May 25, 2020

Somerville Success

As part of the CitiesX course I am taking online, I very much enjoyed this 2018 with Joe Curtatone, the mayor of Somerville, Massachusetts.

I learned some interesting things about a city near Boston I have visited only a few times, and I recommend the discussion for anybody who is trying to imagine improving how their own communities work.

The mayor's approach to leadership is also refreshing -- it involves long-term, deep listening. His discussion with Professor Ed Glaeser is short on details, but he references another talk that provides some more specific examples of how Somerville has succeeded. That talk was easy to find -- city planner George Proakis addressing a TEDx Somerville event in 2014.

Proakis starts with a fascinating primer on the origins of urban zoning in the United States before turning to a discussion of the process Somerville pursued in changing its zoning code that year. Spoiler alert: both talks include a gem that should be obvious, but sadly is not: if we plan our cities for cars, we are going to get cars. We cannot plan for cars and hope for walkability!

Bonus: Proakis mentions Artisans Asylum as an example of an enterprise that would be difficult to categorize under traditional zoning rules. It is the first makerspace I heard of, and traditional zoning struggles with whether to call these education spaces or manufacturing spaces. I learned of Artisans Asylum when my son had an internship there -- in teaching the tenants how to use the equipment, he developed skills that have been very useful to him as an artist.

I have not gotten to them in the course yet, but at least three other videos relate to Somerville: Happiness Survey, Green Line, Gentrification.


One of the ways to tell that Somerville is succeeding is that it has an extraordinary array of coffee shops -- a friend who used to live there has introduced me to a couple of them. I look forward to visiting again after the plague, to see how coffee fits into the Assembly Square area in particular.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Nicaragua on BBC

While doing some homework for the edX course I am taking, I consulted the BBC country profile for Nicaragua. I was shocked to see that it has not been updated since May 2018, and that the update at that time does not represent the brutal reality of Ortega's crackdown on dissent. 

Below is the message I sent BBC. I hope to have a reply soon, and will update this post if I do.

I turned to this profile because I have come to distrust the CIA Factbook, as some sections -- especially in Latin America -- have been edited for political purposes over the years.

So I was shocked to see what BBC has for Nicaragua, two years after the events of April 2018. It is no longer at all accurate to consider Ortega "left wing" nor is it reasonable to end the country profile with the withdrawal of the social-security "reforms" that sparked the protests of that month. Hundreds were killed and thousands more arrested or disappeared.

Coverage of the crisis in the US and UK was late (NPR did not air anything about this until the day after I contacted them) and scant, but there have been stories on BBC itself that would help to update this page.

Thanks for all you do at BBC to provide reliable coverage throughout the world. I hope you can act quickly to amend this entry.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Guardian Women

An April 2020 post on the blog A Mighty Girl highlights the contributions of 16 women to the protection of the planet. The list starts with Anna Botstoff Comstock and Kate Sessions, born before the U.S. Civil War to Greta Thunberg, born in this still-young century.

I know the work of several of these women, but others were introduced to me by this listicle, entitled Guardians of the Planet: 16 Women Environmentalists You Should Know. I am using the list in the online summer version of my introductory Environmental Geography course. I have taught the course in many formats, using a traditional textbook by my master's advisor for many years.

Almost a decade ago, I found a book that has worked better in many ways, The View from Lazy Point by MacArthur genius Carl Safina. I have already been supplementing the book in a few ways -- it was never intended to be used in this sort of class, after all -- and decided that I should create some supplemental activities using this list. Many of the most important environmental leaders on the planet are women -- including the original tree huggers -- and their words and works have been the basis of many of my other classes.

I am having each student read this article and do just a little research about one of the women on the list. Because enrollment in the class has recently surpassed the number of women described here, I have added a few more guardians of note. (Enrollment in the course is still open, so I might add a few more by next week). These links point to Wikipedia entries, a starting point comparable to what the listicle itself provides:

I have already given the students in this class plenty to grapple with in this five-week class, so I am grateful to my favorite librarian for helping me to craft a bibliographic assignment that requires the students to explore the contributions of these women without taking on too much additional work. 

They will also be helping me to create a map that locates all of the guardians we are studying -- including Carl Safina.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Fun Final Exam

World's Longest Walk: Ciencianautas

When I announced that I was teaching a new course -- Advanced Global Thinking -- many of my friends congratulated me on the title (I was really pretty proud of it) and said they wished they could take it. I offered it for the first time this spring with a great group of graduating geography majors. I very much enjoyed our conversations during the first half of the semester, which ended up including global thinking about a global pandemic -- something we were well prepared to discuss but could not have anticipated.

Near the end of the semester, I noticed an interesting post on a Brazilian science Facebook page, and realized instantly that I had material for our final exam. Before posting the exam, we had some online discussion of the 2009 ocean crossing by Katie Spotz, which our EarthView program had followed avidly. Coincidentally, Katie contacted me right after that discussion, to share her newest project - a walk across Maine. More on that later (though you can donate now).

My students enjoyed writing this exam and I very much enjoyed reading their answers, each of which emphasized very different geographic concepts. Some students even shared the challenge with their families, which inspires me to post it here publicly, so anybody with curiosity and a little time on their hands can have the same fun.

Herewith, the exam question:

Please see the link on Ciencianautas (Science Explorers or Sciencenauts -- an example of something that works better in its original language than in translation). See what you can discern from the post before looking at my translation below.


This map shows one of the longest uninterrupted walks that you can make on the Earth. A journey leaving Cape Town, South Africa, ending in Magadan, Russia. This represents a distance of 22,387 km.

Google Maps estimates that it would take 4,492 hours to navigate, which means 187 days of walking uninterrupted. If you were to decide to walk 8 hours per day (much more reasonable), it would take 562 days to make the trip.


Now the assignment. Imagine that you were going to take this trip in 2018-2019, and write an essay of 5-7 pages describing how you would use human and physical geography in the planning process. [After some discussion, we decided to take Covid-19 considerations out of the exam. Those playing at home can choose a near-future time frame if they would like to focus on the geographic implications of the pandemic.]

PLEASE know that I realize you cannot write a comprehensive plan in the coming week. To do so in reality would require a year or more. But choose a few aspects of this journey and explain how you would apply your geographic expertise to plan those aspects. Choose a couple of things -- or maybe even just one thing -- that highlights your geographic skills.

ALSO: I understand that one risk of an online exam is that you can end up spending far more time on it than the two hours normally alloted. Please do not spend all of your waking hours on this. But please give it some thought and then write an essay you would enjoy reading. And of course, please read your essay for style and grammar before turning it in.

Make sure to give the essay a good title; you probably cannot do that until you are nearly done with the essay. I look forward to seeing what you come up with!


Here are some related links, including recent post on this very blog and some pages my students recommended after doing this research:

Longest Walk on Brilliant Maps -- perhaps the original source of the map above.

Tom's World Walk -- a very modest and average guy on a very long walk. Bonus: his web page starts with a reference to a very geographic song I've blogged about.

The journey envisioned above is a long-distance walk, but if it uses a designated long-distance trail, such a use is coincidental. Many long walks are inspired by the very existence of such trails, the most famous in the United States being the Appalachian Trail. My recent Trail Protection post discusses some of the legal, management, and policy questions relating to such trails, including a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.

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