January 2007


Geographic information systems, or GIS, has radically changed geography and mapping over the last few decades. As I tell my students, on the one hand, GIS means that anyone with access to the software can make a map, making cartography a much more populist endeavour. On the other hand, GIS means that anyone with access to the software can make a map; the quality and cartographic integrity of computer-generated maps isn’t where it used to be now that anyone can push some buttons.

But that’s a rant for another day. I had a long post planned today in response to a couple of interesting articles in the Sunday paper(s), but that can wait for tomorrow. I came across a news story that’s extremely important for GIS and mapmaking in general. Basically, a group of engineers and surveyors is suing the federal government because a law from 1972 requires that all “surveying and mapping” work contracted by the federal government must be done by a company licensed in engineering or surveying. In other words, any GIS application that receives money from the U.S. government would have to be done by a licensed engineer or surveyor. As the legal briefing paper on the Association of American Geographers’ website says:

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Another story on artists reviving a neglected urban area, in this case Butte, MT. They mention in the article that Butte has not suffered from the influx of tourists and second-house-buyers (i.e., rich Californians) that the other major cities in Montana have, which makes it a great place for artists to rehab and work. But they don’t mention the near-inevitable follow-on from artists inhabitating a neighborhood, which Sharon Zukin and others have noted so many times: gentrification. Where is the market for these people’s work; where is the market for the Butte Silver Bow Arts Foundation? I mean, it’s great that the downtown is being revitalized, and it’s great these artists have some place to produce their work. I’m just skeptical that it can last for more than 10 years before they’re priced out to Great Falls or wherever else is left.

On the other hand, there is one cool part of this urban renaissance that is unique to Butte:

“And there is hope for a kind of artistic reparation. An art collection amassed by William Clark, the copper tycoon, is in the Clark Wing that he financed at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. The arts foundation would like to bring it to Butte, at least on temporary loan, after the gymnasium at the Y.M.C.A. is converted into a gallery to be called the Museum of Fine Arts Butte.

“For Mr. Clark to amass his collection cost Butte economic, cultural and environmental devastation,” Mr. Bodish said. “Butte has been sacrificed for America. Bringing part of this collection back temporarily is a gesture of their understanding how important Butte was in American history. It closes the loop.”

Amen. We talk in geography and other social sciences about “sacrifice zones”, places like Yucca Mountain or Hanford, WA, that are expected to suck it up and be polluted zones for decades or centuries or millenia. Butte in particular has long been a symbol of the devastation wrought by mining, not just in terms of the environmental effects, but the fact that because it’s a primary economic activity, there’s no value added in the community. They’re left with the arsenic and other poisons in the watershed, and the economic benefits go outside to the copper companies. It would be even better if William Clark’s wealth was going to clean up the Berkeley Pit, the largest Superfund site in the country, but at least this is a start.

From the L.A. Times: “A total of 11.61 inches of rain was recorded in 2006 at the National Weather Service’s downtown Los Angeles weather station located on the campus of USC. In contrast, in February of 2005 just over 11 inches of rain fell during that month alone.”

Ah yes, the Mediterranean climate. It’s always annoyed me when weather forecasters talk about rainfall being below or above “normal,” because in the climate of Southern California in particular, there is no normal. There’s only average. And we hardly ever hit average, as the figures above show. Mike Davis’s City of Fear includes a rant about this very subject, and I’m sure I can’t match Davis’s rantiness, but it’s still an interesting topic.

It’s also a good example of how our preconceptions about the environment play into how we study it. It’s only been in the last few decades that climatologists have started to consider the Mediterranean climate as driven by catastrophic events, not by the concept of equilibrium that we associate with the humid midcontinental or marine west coast climates of the Eastern U.S. and Europe. Huge swings in terms of rainfall and temperature are perfectly normal for the Mediterranean climate, which is located (besides the obvious parts of Europe, West Asia, and North Africa) along the tips of southern South America, Africa, and Australia. And, of course, California, which means the Mediterranean climate has a disproportionately large share of the population in relation to the land area it covers.

Except here (and in Australia), most of the inhabitants are first- or second-generation dwellers, having come from more regular, “normal” climates. They see these extremes of rainfall as abnormal, something very strange. And they build and dwell as though average rainfalls were normal, as though the typical 11 inches a year was something they would receive every year, not an average of years of plenty and years of want. On the other hand, they do have to prepare for those years of plenty with huge flood control systems to compensate for all of the absorbant wetlands that have been paved over, kind of like having to build the mall parking lot big enough for the day after Thanksgiving, and wasting all of that asphalt the rest of the year. As I tell my classes, it wasn’t until I moved to California that I realized blue lines on the map don’t always correspond to actual water, just concrete ditches.

So, being at a teaching-oriented institution like I am, with no graduate program and nothing but little tiny research grants, I decided to see if I could get a research team of sorts going via independent study. So I have five undergrads working on two different projects for me this term (plus another who’s doing her own thing). So far, since the quarter got off to a very sluggish start due to circumstances largely outside my control (like the weather), nothing much has happened. I’m worried that with only 7 weeks left in the term, nothing much is going to happen, and I’m going to have to assign grades to these folks based on a tiny amount of work, and they’re going to get 4 credits for doing basically nothing.

I’ve never supervised students before, so I haven’t had to deal with the delicate balance between checking in on them and nagging. This quarter, I’m only coming in two days a week most weeks, and there isn’t a lot of time during the day for me to connect with them. I suppose I’m going to have to start scheduling a half an hour or so to talk with each of them and make sure they’re getting stuff done. And that they’re learning, ’cause the point is not just to make them research slaves, but to help them practice and enhance their GIS skills.

It’s just so hard to get engaged on a project when the odds are good that I’m leaving when the year is up. I want to be at a more research-focused university (though not exclusively research-focused), and my husband has a number of issues with his current institution as well. So I’m being hesitant about community-based learning projects (though I am doing one with my class this term; more on that in another post), or applying for mini-grants for next year, or networking with other people on campus, because it takes a lot of time and (for me) emotional effort to do that. And if I’m not going to reap the benefits, or if I’m not going to be here to hold up my end of the bargain, then why start in the first place?

So that’s one advantage of the independent study, is that it’s over in a quarter. It’s a project that’s basically repeating the same process in a couple of dozen different locations, so it can be expanded or contracted quite easily. I just hope I don’t forget that since I got a course release from the college for this quarter, I have to do some of the research, too…

I’m sure I won’t be the only commentator to notice that this is going to be a Midwestern Super Bowl, just like it was a Midwestern World Series. And as exciting as it would have been to see the Bears crush the Patriots again, it’ll be even better to see them defeat some Hoosiers. Illinois and Indiana in the Super Bowl: who’d’a thunk it?

“Bear down, Chicago Bears
Make every play clear the way to victory
Bear down, Chicago Bears, put up the fight with the might so fearlessly
We’ll never forget the way you thrilled the nation
With your T formation
Bear down, Chicago Bears
And let ’em know why you’re wearing the crown
You’re the pride and joy of Illinois
Chicago Bears, bear down!”

(Yesterday doesn’t count resolution-wise because I was traveling and didn’t have access to the Internet for most of the day. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)

So, raise your hand if you’ve heard of Alton, Illinois. Yeah, that’s what I thought. I’ve heard of it because of its bridge, since I absolutely love cable-stay bridges, and I’m fascinated by how they appear in the unlikeliest places (like Redding, CA, or Alton). The New York Times had a story recently about residential conversion of downtown lofts and other buildings, in part because of Alton’s location within commuting distance of St. Louis (across that beautiful bridge). But all of the people they quote in the article are past retirement age, and are either “coming home” from other parts of the country or are selling their suburban houses and moving somewhere they can walk instead of drive.

For all of the attention that gets paid to the “creative class” and how important it is to attract them with trendy restaurants and lofts and other acoutrements of a cool downtown, retirees are a largely-ignored demographic when it comes to urban redevelopment. And yet, it makes so much sense to focus on these folks: they’re growing in number, they want to walk rather than drive as they age, many of them have disposable income for the shops and restaurants that keep a downtown vital, they probably grew up in an era where walking was still seen as a viable mode of transportation, and they don’t all want “adult communities” (which always makes me think they’re x-rated or something) or “assisted living”. I wish more places would focus on urban development as it pertains to the aging population; it could make a big difference in how our cities look, and how mobile and active our population continues to be as it ages. So, go Alton!

Yeah, so it’s a couple of weeks late. It’s not a resolution to stop procrastinating, so it doesn’t matter. Or, better late than never. Right?

Anyway, the resolution is to write for at least fifteen minutes a day here on this blog. I’ve already been able to use a post as fodder for an academic conversation, and I’ve just started writing here, so I figure if I do commit to searching out interesting stories and research to post about, I’ll have more to talk about IRL. The problem is, though, I don’t have a whole lot of colleagues to talk to IRL, which is one of the reasons why I’m currently in the Midwest doing the interview thing and not having the time to write any posts.

I generally make New Year’s resolutions three times a year. Once, at the actual beginning of the calendar, generally has to do with lifestyle kinds of things like exercising more, eating better, calling my friends and family more, etc., etc. I might actually stick with that second one in that I’ve been feeling for years that I should give up pop (yes, I’m from the Midwest; no, it’s not soda, it’s pop, darn it!) for purposes of reducing my sugar and caloric intake. But I’ve never cared about it enough. Now, having read that women who drink cola three times a week have a noticeable loss in bone density because of the carbonic acid in the cola, I’m thinking, “Bye bye Pepsi, it’s been nice knowing you…”

The second resolution comes at Lent, when I give up something like candy or pop or ice cream for 40 days, thinking it will change my eating habits enough that I’ll stay off it forever. Never happens. But one of the accomplishments I’m most proud of in my life is foregoing ice cream for Lent during the year in high school that I was working at Baskin-Robbins. Those little pink spoons are awfully hard to resist, and I am not exactly Ms. Willpower, so I’m still impressed I made it through.

Finally, I make a set of resolutions when the school year starts, since for all but seven years of my life, that’s been the real start of the year for me, not the calendar. Those are generally more associated with organization, dedicating time to writing and reading, etc., etc. None of these resolutions last any longer than the others; I’m more successful at Lent because of the spiritual motivation, but also because it’s a limited time period. The end is in sight, even when I’m just starting out. Trying to permanently change one’s behavior, however, is a different matter.

And…fifteen minutes are up!

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