Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Beyond the Geography Bee

From Directions Magazine:  Beyond the Geography Bee

Summary:
When was the last time you read about geography in the traditional media? Executive Editor Adena Schutzberg reads about it quite a bit, especially stories about local Geography Bees. The events and their coverage reinforce old ideas about the discipline, rather than showcasing its valuable use in today’s world.
I’m a serial news searcher. It’s my job to keep up with the news about GIS, geospatial technology, GPS, remote sensing, location-based services and related topics. But every now and then I break down and search the news for articles about geography, the discipline in which I hold two degrees.
When reading about geospatial technology news I get excited, jazzed and thoughtful. When I read about geography news I get depressed. Outside of a handful of analytical articles from the Atlantic Cities blog or efforts in local reporting like New Jersey Spotlight or the odd book review or interview with Jared Diamond or Simon Garfield, it’s all about Geography Bees.
 
It’s mid-January as I write this essay. Google News reports it found 523 articles, in the last week, about the announcement of, or the winner of, this or that Bee. This week marks the end of the qualifying period for school Bee events. The news stories, mostly from local papers, profile the event (how many students, in which grades, how they studied, what questions were hard), introduce the winner, and detail the next step in the competition. Martians reading our local papers would assume that geography is a game schoolchildren play, with the highest achievement being attendance at the National Geography Bee. They’d see geography as akin to the U.S. Super Bowl, only with far fewer sponsors and no pay at all for the middle school-sized players.
 
I understand why the local paper and local schools want to highlight their events. I applaud the paper for wanting to promote student achievements other than those found on the football or soccer field. I appreciate that the school cares enough about geography to participate in the event (and has the $100 registration fee to do so). Of course, pictures of smiling children with maps and medals make for eye-catching online or print features. Finally, we adults are always impressed to learn of children who know more than we do about geography. 
 
Sadly, though, these articles about the Geography Bees and the children’s encyclopedic knowledge do not help highlight the important role geography and related technical and spatial skills play in the students’ and parents’ everyday lives. Nor does the coverage explore the way the participants’ cities, states or territories, and country are organized (or not) or how they work together with other cities/states/countries (or not). Instead, the Bee reinforces geography as mostly memorization. I know the questions are getting better, with more of them based on map interpretation, physical geography and the like, but too few address the role of geography in today’s world. Those that do rarely make it into the paper.
 
The Geography Bee homepage includes these two resources for those planning to study for the Bee:
  1. “...The National Geographic Bee Ultimate Fact Book: Countries A-Z, chock-full of all the facts kids need to know to become a geography expert.”
  2. “Simply memorizing terms and place locations can be tedious and even boring. One solution is to make the task fun with an atlas-based scavenger game.”
Sigh.
 
How might the National Geographic Society get at the compelling applications of geography? I suggest a National Geography Fair, akin to a National Science Fair. The students could pick a current geographic problem (local or regional, alone or in groups) explore it, offer analysis and even suggest one or more ways to address it. I’d be happy to be a judge and I’d be far more likely to tune in to the finals on TV where some hip geography teacher interviewed each of the presenters. 
 
I know this sort of teaching and learning is more complex than memorization and that grading the projects and selecting winners would be harder than the current tests used in the Bee. Still, project-based learning is the “in thing”; perhaps project-based competition will be, too? And, in the real world we do projects, not tests!
 
It’s not lost on me that quiz-show host Alex Trebek hosts the National Geography Bee finals on TV. We need to rebrand geography from a category in a quiz show to an activity that people do.

 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Ice Age in the Hudson Valley: A Geographical History

From Hudson Valley Magazine:  Ice Age in the Hudson Valley: A Geographical History

When you or I stand upon the great lawn at the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, we picture ourselves living the grand lifestyle of fin de si├Ęcle Hudson Valley aristocracy, of opulent balls and market-rigging business deals held amid the stunning landscape of river and mountains. When Johanna and Robert Titus stand on that same lawn, they picture something a bit different. In their minds’ eye, they are knee-deep in water, at the edge of a vast lake that stretches from the middle of the eastern Valley counties to the middle of the western ones, and from somewhere near Glens Falls all the way to the Atlantic Ocean (which is about 100 miles further out and 400 feet lower than it is now). The couple also envisions gigantic glaciers, which cover the continent from mid-Long Island, through Chicago and Omaha, to the Dakotas, Montana, and the Great Northwest — and are in the process of melting back to the Arctic.
The Tituses, you see, are standing at the Vanderbilt Mansion circa 15,000 years BP (the geological term meaning “before present”). Robert has a Ph.D. in geology and teaches at Hartwick College; Johanna has a master’s in molecular biology and teaches at SUNY Dutchess. You may know them as columnists for Kaatskill Life and other newspapers. They recently published a delightful book called The Hudson Valley in the Ice Age: A Geographical History and Tour (Black Dome Press, $17.95). Part popular science, part travelogue, it is that rare science book that is both challenging and entertaining. Readers learn about arcane geological formations like moraines, alluvial fans, and rock drumlins. Better yet, they discover where to find the remnants of these formations via hikes and drive-bys at dozens of easily accessible spots around the Valley. Consider these locales postcards from the ice age.
We asked the Tituses to pick a handful of their favorite locations where interested parties can launch their own geological time travel. Once you start, our beautiful Valley will never look quite the same again:
The floor of glacial Lake Albany
That’s what the previously mentioned lake is known as, and the site of the Vanderbilt estate is just one of many places where you can easily imagine the soft, flat lake bottom. “Get used to the idea that anytime you see flat landscapes, you may well be literally on the floor of the lake,” Robert says. The thruway south of Kingston, for instance, was built on such a flat stretch of land, which is the result of deposits left behind as mud on the floor of the lake. “Flat isn’t all that interesting, until you realize you are at a lake bottom,” he says.
springwoodFDR’s Springwood is perched on the edge of an ice age delta
North Lake The area’s many lakes and rivers are all remnants of the Hudson Valley glacier, which preceded and then was overridden by the Laurentide Ice Sheet that covered all of the northern reaches of North America. As the ice advanced, it left scratches in the rock, called striations. One of the best places to find these is along the eastern shore of North Lake in Haines Falls. “Look at the bedrock at the edge of the water, and you’ll see the footprints of glaciers,” Robert says.
The Kaaterskill Clove When deltas, like the one the Vanderbilt Mansion sits on, are carved into gorges by rivers, they are called cloves. In the Catskills, the Kaaterskill Clove — which contains Kaaterskill Falls and the Red Chasm — is an example of this; at its bottom is Palenville, which sits on a formation known as an alluvial fan. Streams from the retreating glacier all headed into this delta in a fan-shaped formation, cutting through rock, sand, and clay to create the landscape. Johanna recommends that you stop at Red Chasm. “This is a really scenic spot — many use it to swim — and you can really see how the waters from the melting ice carved the canyon,” she says.
What’s most important about this site, the Tituses say, is that this landscape carved by melting glaciers became the touchstone of the Hudson River School of Art. “Thomas Cole painted his first paintings there, and they figure so importantly in the cultural history of the Hudson Valley,” Robert says. “And that all comes out of the ice age.”
high falls spillwayThe High Falls spillway in Greene County once drained a glacial lake
The Mansions The big houses built on the eastern edge of the river, including Vanderbilt Mansion and FDR’s Springwood, are all positioned on ice age deposits at the bottom of glacial Lake Albany. Hyde Park rests on one of the lake’s biggest deltas, and the mansions sit on the crest of that delta. “The aristocracy didn’t know it, but 150 years ago [when they were building their mansions] they were following the path of the glaciers,” Robert says.
They also didn’t know that one day, their houses might slip toward the river valley. The houses are not built on bedrock; they sit on soft sediments like clay. Whenever you hear of a home damaged by a landslide, usually after a heavy rain, it’s the result of land like this sliding down the slope of the prehistoric lake bed. “The sediments are very prone to landslides,” Robert says. “We have met people who lost homes that slid downhill, and we have visited homes to evaluate their threat of slides and had to tell them they were threatened. It is a present danger anywhere in the Valley where these deposits exist.”
The Tituses say they have seen evidence of the bigger mansions installing new drainage systems to shore up the grounds on which they sit. “But there is no way to know when a landslide might happen,” Robert says. “It could be 1,000 years, or 10,000 years, or in March if we get a lot of rain.” He doubts the latter, though. “The land has been there 15,000 years, so I don’t think there is an immediate threat.”
patterson's pelletPatterson’s Pellet in Minnewaska State Park, a glacial erratic
The Pine Bush These days, the Pine Bush Preserve in Albany County is a foliage-covered plot of hilly, sandy soil. Just after the glaciers retreated, though, it was a small desert not unlike something you’d see in Lawrence of Arabia. “All that was missing were camels,” Robert says. The sand was blown in from what is now Schenectady County, which then was one of Lake Albany’s biggest deltas. As the lake retreated, the sandy deposits at its bottom were blown by the west winds and dropped here, forming the dunes and swales that have since been overgrown. “Stand on top of the dunes and imagine what the area looked like 12,000 years ago,” he suggests.
There are many more spots where you can pick up the ice age trail. Along their upper edges, the Shawangunks reveal erratic striations left by the passage of ice. Frederic Church’s Olana near Hudson sits atop a rock drumlin, a hill shaped like an inverted spoon bowl, which is a signature of glacial advance. “Each location has its own chapter. We suggest you pick up the book and go see what we saw,” Robert says, “because it is an autobiography of our great adventures.” Adventures that can take you to the dawn of your own homeland.

Speaking of ice...

The Tituses discuss their book at:
• Mine Kill State Park at the Power Authority. Off State Hwy. 30, North Blenheim. Feb. 2, call for time (weather permitting); 518-827-6111
• John Boyd Thacher State Park Nature Center. 87 Nature Center Way, Voorheesville. Feb. 23 at 2 p.m.; 518-872-0800
The Albany Institute of History and Art. 125 Washington Ave., Albany. March 10 at 2 p.m.; 518-463-4478 or www.albanyinstitute.org

 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

OMG!

Never realized I hadn't posted in over 2 weeks!

Sorry, folks

Things have just gotten away from me the last week and a half...posting should be back on schedule starting this weekend.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Pop quiz: where is the Crimea?

From Yahoo News:  2,000-Year-Old Treasure Discovered In Black Sea Fortress

Residents of a town under siege by the Roman army about 2,000 years ago buried two hoards of treasure in the town's citadel — treasure recently excavated by archaeologists.
More than 200 coins, mainly bronze, were found along with "various items of gold, silver and bronze jewelry and glass vessels" inside an ancient fortress within the Artezian settlement in the Crimea (in Ukraine), the researchers wrote in the most recent edition of the journal Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia.
"The fortress had been besieged. Wealthy people from the settlement and the neighborhood had tried to hide there from the Romans.  They had buried their hoards inside the citadel," Nikola├» Vinokurov, a professor at Moscow State Pedagogical University, explained. [See Photos of the Buried Treasure]
Artezian, which covered an area of at least 3.2 acres (1.3 hectares) and also had a  necropolis (a cemetery), was part of the Bosporus Kingdom. At the time, the kingdom's fate was torn between two brothers —Mithridates VIII, who sought independence from Rome, and his younger brother, Cotys I, who was in favor of keeping the kingdom a client state of the growing empire. Rome sent an army to support Cotys, establishing him in the Bosporan capital and torching settlements controlled by Mithridates, including Artezian.
People huddled in the fortress for protection as the Romans attacked, but Vinokurov said they knew they were doomed. "We can say that these hoards were funeral sacrifices.  It was obvious for the people that they were going to die shortly," he wrote in an email to LiveScience. The siege and fall of the fortress occurred in AD 45.
Curiously, each hoard included exactly 55 coins minted by Mithridates VIII. "This is possibly just a simple coincidence, or perhaps these were equal sums received by the owners of these caskets from the supporters of Mithridates," the team wrote in its paper.
A Greek lifestyle
Vinokurov's team, including a number of volunteers, has been exploring Artezian since 1989 and has found that the people of the settlement followed a culture that was distinctly Greek. The population's ethnicity was mixed, Vinokurov wrote, "but their culture was pure Greek. They spoke Greek language, had Greek school; the architecture and fortification were Greek as well. They were Hellenes by culture but not that pure by blood."
Greeks are known to have created colonies on the Black Sea centuries earlier, intermarrying with the Crimeans. The customs and art forms they introduced appear to have persisted through the ages despite being practiced nearly 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) from Greece itself.
This Greek influence can be seen in the treasures the people of Artezian buried. Among them is a silver brooch engraved with an image of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, and gold rings with gems engraved with images of Nemesis and Tyche, both Greek deities.
When archaeologists excavated other portions of the torched site they found more evidence of a Greek lifestyle.
"In the burnt level of the early citadel, many fragmentary small terra cotta figures were found depicting Demeter, Cora, Cybele, Aphrodite with a dolphin, Psyche and Eros, a maiden with gifts, Hermes, Attis, foot soldiers and warriors on horseback, semi-naked youths," the researchers wrote in their paper, adding fragments of a miniature oinochoai (a form of Greek pottery) and small jugs for libations also were found.
All this was torched by the Romans and later rebuilt by Cotys I, who had been successfully enthroned by Rome. However the treasures of the earlier inhabitants remained undiscovered beneath the surface, a testament to a desperate stand against the growing power of Rome.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Posting resumes Thursday

I know I've been saying this periodically but this will be the last time I say it...I'm visiting relatives and although they have Wi fi I don't have a private room to work.

I'll be home Thursaday and will get back into the swing of things then.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The New Geography of Jobs

From Bacon's Rebellion:  The New Geography of Jobs

The New Geography of Jobs” is arguably the most important book about urban economics published in 2012. Author Enrico Moretti, an Italian-born economics professor at Berkeley, analyzes the great divergence occurring between metropolitan regions in the United States. While much of his narrative about the “innovation” sector as the key driver in regional growth will be familiar to readers of Richard Florida, Moretti provides a valuable counter-balance to Florida’s theories about the creative class.
Just as Florida ascribes remarkable wealth-creating properties to the “creative class,” Moretti puts the innovation sector — referring primarily to high-tech industry clusters — at the center of his analysis. While Florida suggests that members of the creative class gravitate to metropolitan areas that offer a particular set of attitudes (openness, tolerance) and amenities (urban cafe lifestyle, street arts scene), Moretti argues that the economic logic of labor markets are the driving factor.
To Moretti, metropolitan regions are labor pools. The labor that really matters in a knowledge economy is college-educated labor. And what matters even more than generic college-educated labor is labor with technology-related competencies in demand by the corporations that create innovative products and services. “In the world of innovation,” Moretti writes, “productivity and creativity can outweigh labor and real estate costs.”
Thus, a region like San Fransisco/San Jose can have outrageous costs of living and doing business yet tech businesses migrate there because that’s where the talent is. And talent moves there because that’s where the jobs are. By doing a better job of matching employers with workers, the productivity-enhancing advantages of “thick” labor markets like Silicon Valley’s more than compensate for the region’s higher costs.
There are two other critical benefits to industry clustering, Moretti writes. Innovation clusters attract investment capital, which funds and nurtures  business start-ups. And clusters have what he calls almost “magical” spillover effects. “New ideas are rarely born in a vacuum. Research shows that social interactions among creative workers tend to generate learning opportunities that enhance innovation and productivity. This flow and diffusion of knowledge represents a crucial third advantage for workers and firms that locate within an innovation cluster.”
Thus, regions with strong knowledge clusters tend to grow, attracting both corporations and employees. Regions with weak knowledge clusters tend to remain weak. A third class of cities, which are caught in between, have uncertain futures.
The great public policy question for wanna-be growth centers is how to jump-start an innovation cluster. Broadly speaking, regions have followed two types of approaches. One is a demand-side approach, attracting employers with the hope that workers will follow. The other is the supply-side approach, improving a city’s amenities to lure talented workers in the hope that corporations will come. Following (and often misinterpreting) the theories of Richard Florida, many regions have invested public resources in a futile effort to make themselves “cool” and attract the creative class.
Moretti demolishes that reasoning: “It is certainly true that cities that have built a solid economic base in the innovation sector are often lively, interesting, and culturally open-minded. However, it is important to distinguish cause from effect. The history of successful innovation clusters suggests that in many cases, cities became attractive because they succeeded in building a solid economic base, not vice versa.”
Seattle, for instance, was a dump before Microsoft landed there and created a thick labor market for Amazon.com and a swarm of technology start-ups. Now the region is the epitome of cool. Conversely, Berlin may be the coolest city in Europe from the perspective of artistic creativity, Moretti argues. But technologically, it ranks low on the innovation index, and its income is lower than many other German cities.
What, then, can regions do? Building world-class universities is no panacea. For every Stanford/Silicon Valley, there’s a Johns Hopkins/Baltimore. How about a “big push” industrial policy — targeting a growth industry with public investment? Such approaches might be successful, he contends, but they are very expensive and very risky. Governments chase fads; they are not good at picking winners and losers. How about investing in schools and universities to create home-grown human capital? Great idea, except in the absence of local innovation clusters, the talent will move away. Regions subsidize the development of someone else’s workforce.
At times, Moretti sounds as if the rise of innovation clusters is a matter of serendipity, beyond the ken of government policy wonks to manipulate. Who could have predicted the rise of Microsoft? Who could have predicted its transformative effect on Seattle? One of the few tangible policy proposals he advances is to reform immigration policy to encourage well-educated foreigners (not unlike himself) to settle in the United States. They contribute disproportionately to wealth creation. Of course, they, too, tend to migrate to the nation’s main innovation centers.
Bacon’s bottom line: Other than to replicate Seattle by giving rise to a Microsoft-scale success story — in other words, by getting lucky — there is no simple answer. I distrust industrial policy of picking industries, whether conducted at the national level or the regional level. And the pseudo-Creative Class approach of investing scarce public resources in urban amenities that attract young, educated workers is equally problematic unless corporations can be recruited or businesses launched to hire them.
My inclination is to stick with the basics. Government should focus on a few things and do them well. Here in Virginia, and throughout American, that means reforming key broken institutions — K-12, higher ed, health care, transportation and land use — while keeping taxes as low as practicable and the business climate as hospitable as possible. I do think there is a role for making regions attractive to the creative class but those initiatives are best left to the civic realm. In sum, regional success is like personal success — the harder you work, the luckier you get.