July 3, 2013
January 27, 2012
The Guardian asked six major newspapers from across Europe about their local stereotypes of the other countries: Great Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, and Germany. Then they asked six “cultural commentators” from those countries to respond. It’s quite an interesting read.
November 18, 2011
Cahokia‘s just one of almost a thousand sites around the world that UNESCO considers to form, “part of the cultural and natural heritage” of the world that has “outstanding universal value.”
The long, detailed descriptions of the importance of these sites makes the World Heritage List website is a remarkable resource for cultural and physical geography.
November 17, 2011
Almost a thousand years ago, 20,000 people lived at a place called Cahokia. At the center of their city, was the largest artificial mound in North America. A large part of Cahokia’s success is surely its location: near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers — just across the Mississippi from modern-day St. Louis. Yet less than 400 years later (see timeline) the city was abandoned, and no one is quite sure what happened.
Our middle and high school took a trip out to Cahokia last month. It was during the same intercession between quarters when we visited the Laumeier Sculpture Park, the Da Vinci Exhibition, and did our brief biological survey of the campus.
The elevation of the main mound, sitting on the flat Mississippi flood plain, with the St. Louis skyline in the distance, was a great place to talk about the importance of physical geography in the location of cities (your biggest cities are always going to be on rivers, or the ocean or, often, both) and to reflect on how history repeats itself — a once thriving metropolis is nothing now but displaced piles of alluvium and mystery.
View Cahokia in a larger map
Cahokia is a World Heritage Site, and it has an excellent museum. I particularly liked the detail in their life-sized reconstruction of a section of the city.
The site is pretty big, so you can spend a fair amount of time exploring. Fall, when the leaves have turned color, and the air has cooled a little, is an excellent time to visit.
October 18, 2011
One of the highlights of the Heifer Ranch trip was the chance for students to spend a night in their global village. It’s really a set of villages, each simulating a life in an under-developed part of a different developing country.
The Guatemalan house is pretty nice; it keeps you out of the elements, you have actual beds, and running water. The Thai houses are actually pretty awesome. They stand on stilts next to the open fields, giving good air circulation and elegant views. They remind me a lot of some of the older houses from where I grew up. The refugee camp, on the other hand is pretty decrepit. The slums aren’t much better but at least have one house with a wooden floor, though the door was so broken it was pretty useless.
Our students were assigned villages at random, but varying numbers were placed in each village to replicate the population densities more accurately. One adult was assigned to each village. We were supposed to act as if we were incompetent (not hard I know), either as two-year-olds or senile elders.
I ended up in the high population slums.
On the positive side, I was not the only adult there. Mrs H., who had joined our group with her daughter for the week of activities at Heifer, was also assigned to the slums. On the negative side, she and the girls commandeered the one “posh” building that had an actual floor to sleep on. The boys and I had to sleep on the hard, stony ground.
It didn’t help that one of the boys was “pregnant”. One person in each group been given a water balloon in a sling and told to keep it with them, safe, until dinner, when they would “give birth”, at which point the others in the “family” could help take care of the “child”. A key objective was for the child to survive until morning.
The boys scouted all the houses in the village and scavenged a large piece of metal grating to sleep on. It was not great, but it was doable. Better, at least, than the concrete-hard, uneven ground.
There was a lot more that happened on that night. None of the groups was given enough to be comfortable on their own. There was a lot of haggling, trading and even commando raids, but, in the end, they pulled together and made something of it.
The experience was quite useful, I think. Conditions were uncomfortable enough to register with the students, though a single night is not enough to really internalize all the challenges of urban slums where over one billion people spend their lives. But it does provide some very useful context for the poignant images of Jonas Bendiksen (Living in the Slums) and James Mollison (Where Children Sleep).
June 23, 2011
The Fund for Peace has been doing a lot of thinking about what it takes for a country to be considered peaceful, and what it takes for a state to fail. For the last seven years they’ve been putting together maps of the world with an index of how stable different countries are.
While it’s pretty in-depth and makes for rather sobering reading, it’s worth taking a look at the criteria they’ve come up with to determine a country’s stability. It may be useful to include some of this information in the cycle where we focus on peace.
Their criteria for instability include:
- Demographic pressure (such as having too many young adults, as we’ve seen in Egypt)
- Amount of refugees and internally displaced peoples (refugees are people who’ve crossed international borders). Both leaving or entering refugees can undermine stability.
- Historical Injustice – communities can have an understandably hard time forgetting the past, just look at Isreal/Palestine.
- Brain Drain – when countries start to fail, the first to leave are the ones who can afford to. Yet these intellectuals and professionals, with their college degree are vital for creating a stable and prosperous country.
- Inequality – especially when driven by active discrimination (wealth inequality is something to watch out for).
- Economic decline – pushes trade into the black market and increases criminality and corruption.
- Illegitimacy of the state – if people don’t believe the people in government have everyone in the country’s best interests at heart, and are only looking out for themselves and their friends, then there’s probably going to be trouble.
- Public Services go kaput – It’s a really bad sign when the government can meet people’s basic needs – like picking up the garbage.
- The Rule of Law goes kaput – when you’re ruled by the caprice of men, and your rights under the law are not respected, you may begin to consider and agitate for other options for government.
- Personal Armies – forces that are tied to individual leaders, like private militias or super-secret police for example, are very damaging to a country’s cohesion.
- Fighting elites – healthy countries need robust arguments in their political class – think checks and balances – but it can go too far and lead to things like extreme nationalism and ethnic cleansing.
- Invasion – both overt invasion and covert meddling in the affairs of a country are unhealthy for that state’s stability.
It’s also very nice that you can download their index data as a MS Excel spreadsheet, which you can let students analyze to answer their own research questions. For example, I was wondering what was the difference between the best, the worst and the USA, so I plotted this graph.
The USA is much closer to Finland than Somalia, thank goodness, but should probably watch out for that Uneven Development (wealth inequality).
I think something like this would make a good experiential exercise for the science of geography.
March 23, 2011
You can find more of his images in LIFE.
Even without the text descriptions, the pictures are wonderfully composed and evocative. I think I’m going to have to add this one to our library.
An interesting project would be to have my students take their own pictures of their rooms. Just in the book, some of the contrasts are quite startling.
December 26, 2010
In the binomial classification, modern humans are Homo sapiens (Genus and species). But you’ll frequently see us described as Homo sapiens sapiens, indicating that we’re a subspecies of Homo sapiens. One of the reasons for this is the still unresolved question of the neanderthals.
Some recent research suggests that 1-4% of our genes came from neanderthals. If true, this would mean that humans interbred, successfully, with neanderthals. Since one of the key parts of the definition of a species is that its members can produce fertile offspring, neanderthals would then be a subspecies of human. Thus we would be Homo sapiens sapiens and neanderthals would be Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, as opposed to being Homo neanderthalensis, a separate species in the same genus.
Perhaps even more interesting, the same researchers who did the gene work on neanderthal bones also sequenced some bones from Siberia, and found what may well be another subspecies of humans (the original article is at Krause et al., 2010). The genes are different from what’s been found before, but are in an area, and from a time period, shared both by modern humans and neanderthals. And, modern Melanesians (from the islands north and east of Australia) may share some of the genes of the new group. So this could even be another sapiens subspecies.
There are a number of caveats to this research, which is based primarily on gene sequencing and statistics. One key assumption that I’ve always been skeptical about is that DNA mutates at a fixed rate. However, this type of science ties very closely in to our discussions of evolution and themes of what it means to be human.
There are two great novels that address these two things, but I’ll only be using one of them. The one I’ll use is The Chrysalids by John Wyndham, which I’ve mentioned before (here and here). The other is War Games by Brian Stableford (aka Optiman). While the Chrysalids deals with accelerated mutation resulting from nuclear fallout, War Games considers the effects and moral implications of intentional genetic optimization (hence the other title for the book).