A conversation with Noam Chomsky

This year at the Association of American Geographers I had the great (a bit surreal) opportunity of watching a live conversation between Noam Chomsky and the AAG Executive Director Doug Richardson. The full video of the interview can be watched here, but I decided to report my abbreviated two-cents on the most important topics covered. Dr. Chomsky eloquently and on a continuous stream of ideas elaborated about the state of affairs today and the future socio/economic/political (insert other here) context.
I should also mention that at the end of their talk Chomsky received the AAG Atlas Award which symbolises the quest of a scholar to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders in order to further studies in prominent fields.
On the topic of HUMAN RIGHTS:
NC: “The declaration of independence states the fundamental human rights and the role of the United States is variant in those three. The first is Life the second is Liberty.
The third component (the Pursuit of Happiness) which is related to cultural and community rights is simply ignored, such as the debates on social and economic rights such as the right to education healthcare and proper/decent employment.
It is worth noting that from the OR- Organisation of the Rich countries-  The US ranks at the bottom of this list of approximately 30 countries. The US is practically alone in the developed world without some form of general health care. And that is not because people do not want it. When the question is posed in an appropriate way (because we know that a lot of answers stem from how the question is posed) – so without some sort of manipulaive political agenda- when the question is posed the right way people’s answers are quite generally in favor of universal health care. However polititians (in the Reagan administration when reforming the bill) claimed that universal healthcare did not  have political support. (Nevermind the fact that when asked sbout it about 2/3 thought of course yes in favor while the other 1/3 already thiught that universal health care was provided and mandated in the constitution – as this great sacred document of all guidelines). Of course, conglomerates from the farmaceutical and insurance industries were not supporive. And there is is this thing called the population but they do not have political support.”
DR: “People are often trying to anticipate what the outcomes of their practices could be.
With all new technologies coming up we can run into unintended consequences. GPS was developed for environmental purposes and got translated into surveillance and warfare, for instance.”
NC: “Well there are movements that deserve our attention such as the Network of Concerned Geographers – which are widely about aspects such as the human terrain issues. The fact is that at this point the Top of the agenda for everyone should be:
Human survival. There are two areas recognised by anthropologists which are The Anthropocene and the Nuclear era that started after WWII that have drastically impacted the relationship of humans and the environment. Now The US is racing towards the precipice of environmental disorder while simultaneously the nuclear tension increases in the Russian border.
The doomsday clock established in 1947 (composed by data scientists and serious researchers) has established how close we are from midnight (which symbolises the apocalypse of the end of time as you will call it. The clock points have gone back and forth in minutes and the closest it was to midnight was in 1953. A couple of weeks into the Trump administration the clock has been the closest since 1953 and that is a result of the ominous threat of environmental capacity and nuclear warfare. Those should be topics of interest to geographers and researchers but also to human inhabitants in general.”
About LINGUSTICS and its connection to HUMAN RIGHTS
NC: “Well you see linguistics from the time that I started was developed widely in army language schools. Interestingly enough around the time that I started at MIT in the 50s, MIT was about 90% supported by Canada. My department, however, was 100% funded by the Army Services. The Pentagon from the 50s to 70s was the US government’s industrial development sector. It frightened the population into thinking the Russians are coming and put money into technologies and the high-tech economy which were decades later handed over to private enterprises for a profit.
The cutting edge of research and development in the university has switched from electronics to biology, and now the taxpayers are subsidising the biological economy which will be handed over to large companies for a profit. Much of the basis for modern tech economy was funded through the Pentagon.
If we look at infrastructure. The interstate highway was part of the national defence highway system to move missiles around. This was a way to undermine other types of transport (such as rail) to switch energy systems to fossil fuels. This is the way the economy functions pretty generally, these are far from being conspiracy theories (insert here the example of Exxon and GM which were sued for ruining the California railroad system and after trial convicted of paying the feeble U$ 5,000 fine).”
DR: “We have seen this as a cyclical event in history and do you think we are not back again on this process moving closer to the precipice of dictatorship?”
NC: “Yes, there is now is a rise of populism, nationalism, fear of the foreign. The US has always been a very frightened society. It does not take much to scare people. At this moment in Europe the majority of the population wants to keep all the Muslims out of their countries. All of them as if that makes sense.
The real question is why is this showing up everywhere now? It has to do with the actual (predictable) consequences of the social and economic (neoliberal) programs with the Washington consensus that were instituted in the 1990s of letting the market lead everything – which in practice is largely not true since we know massive subsidies have been established to large conglomerates.
The radical counterpart of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the view that if people are not doing well right now its because they did not work hard enough. There has been stagnation and decline for large parts of the populations. Middle aged white males with mortalities increasing in America? That does not happen in modern developed society! These are people who do not want to take hand me down from the government- who have contempt for the people who do- and want to have a purpose and do some honest work. But this has all been taken from them by very specific policy.
Look at the Troika for instance? Along with this attack on basic human rights there has been a clear attack on democracy. And people are aware of this. There is a general hatred and contempt for government and a lot of things that come out of that are very dangerous while others are very hopeful. Let us not look at the victory of Trump but at the success of Bernie Sanders (loud clap from the audience). This contradicts the very good predictor of candidate success which has always been campaign funding. Sanders comes along disregarded by the media, using scary words such as socialism and no corporate funding- and he who could very well have won the  electon if it wasn’t for party shenannigans.
When social and economic conditions bring about stress, despair and anger. One reaction is violence and xenophobia. Another kind if futility let us just give up. Another reaction is to think that there are drastic things that can be done.”
DR: “It is a difficult course [to achieve radical change] when you have a media controlled by coorporations with similar strong agendas.”
NC: “There are two paralel tracks: to change the media. There is still plenty wrong but it is a fact that society has become more civilized. That is the impact of the activism of the 60s- to educate people on all sorts of subjects and society did become more civilized. The media is more informed than it was years ago. If we look at the extermination of indigenous populations in the entire continent for instance, anthropologists stated it was about 1 million people who had no ownership of the land. It was a long way to go but that false history has been significantly overcome and high school students now can actually learn a good deal of what happened. There is a reaction to that. People in the media also grow out of false facts. The other path is the creation of new media which is a lot easier now. It is a matter of doing the things that you have opportunities for.
We should not disregard the hardships of the past of course but also recognize how far we have come. And what were the conditions that enabled this change in irder not to fall into futility and despair. (He gives the example of growing of a jew in the 1930s. The resson why MIT became so established was because anti semitism in the 1950s which prevented great scholares from getting employed in Harvard for instance. He acknowledges the difficulties of the tensions of the past).”
NC: “There is a boycott movement right here [at AAG]. I was supposed to be interviewed by a young journalist who is British and whose grandparents were from Syria and he got barred from entering the United States. You know that several scientits chose not to come to AAG this year and this does bring to light the question of how should professional societies respnd to issues like these. Should professional meetings even be taking place in countries that have these sort of sanctions? The ultimate point about boycotts is that they can be very efficient but we must ultimately be very strategic and think of how the victims can benefit the most from it. Boycott the srategy of warfare, we should always have in mind the victims caught in the middle of humanitarian crisis.”
DR: “Your thoughts on the rise of china. Do you imagine a time in the future in which the dominant Chinese internationa network would transcend that of the us and europe?”
“If we go back a couple of centuries China and India were the most industrially developed nations. Of course that has all changed through colonialism, but now china is starting to reclaim its place. In many ways it is threatening, in others necessary. There are several studies claiming that the center of power will shift over the pacific. Now yes, China does have a big economy and has been increasing its purchasing power but it is an extremely poor country and have been pretty much been stuck there. They do have problems that we do not have such as the lack of a strong agricultural technology. It is astounding though that even though they do have astounding problems, the world has somehow been looking for China for answers while the US is going backwards. However, the idea that America is over is fearmongering. WWII was very beneficial for the US economy and unprecedented growth rates from that period still makes the US a very rich country. While its power and wealth has declined, China has a very long way to compete.
If we look at how China has a huge assembly plant, the profits that come back from that process are very low. In the case of Apple, for instance, the richest corporation in the world, their design is made here and assembly made in China but they are still and making most of the profits. Even though a lot has been going through China, they are far from those who benefit the most.
We have moved from a period in which the identified rich nations were actually those who owned corporations. But now coorporations have global reach, setting up complicated supply chains. While still needing national base and taxpayers support obviously but they have independent lobbying capacities. So, okay if we step back and we look – aside from country capacity, 50% of the global economy is owned by american corporations, and that is very indicative. I dont see much chance of an asian century, even though it may not be a bad idea at this point.”
DR: “You are very consistent in your opinions. When i interviewed you before, one of the first questions i asked was “are you a libertarian socialist.” And you said yes, that seems still true.”
NC: “I do identify like that if we do have to pick a name that is ok… The only ism I seem to believe in is trueism.
DR: “This question I asked before was about anarchism and its relevance for an advanced technological society. You were pretty sympathetic with anarchism and you talk about integrating it to the 20th century.”
NC: “As you know anarchism covers a broad sPectrum. It is a valuable one, one that converges with libertarian marxism, there is a point in which some varieties come together.
Let us look at the huge problem of de-industrializing america. In 1977 US Steel decided to close down their plant in Youngstown Ohio, which was a town largely built by unions. The union offered to buy the plant and hand it over to the workforce. The company did not like that probably due to class reasons. Coorporations sometimes prefer not to make profit to undermine class struggle. This case went to court, the coorporation won, but people did not give up and established small worker owned enterprises in the old Rustbelt and integrated in the new service economy that has been forming there. These are things that can certainly be done at a very large scale.
The Obama Government in the 2008 crash nationalised the auto industry. The choice that was taken was determined by the ideological structure of the country: to bail out the companies and hand them back to the same banks and managerial institutions and have them now produce cars. A more sensible option both political, human and environmental would have ben to hand it over to the workforce and have them produce what the country needs. Not more cars for traffic jams but for decent public transportation. Well that was never considered, and if that is the case it is because of people like us. Who have the responsibility to act and mobilize and did not do so.
The same is true of the environmental problem. The federal government is a wrecking ball acting in the name of profit, but states, small governments can have an impact. And it has to be done. To prevent the federal government from destroying all of us.”
DR: “You have done so much. Have you considered the South of France, taking up a new musical instrument? There are rumours of you maybe taking up a new career and having a new gig in Vegas. Is it true? (this picture was shown haha).”
Source: Article published in The Onion about Chomsky taking residency in Las Vegas.
NC: “We will see.”

Qual + Quant method: Geo-narrative

Today I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr Mei-Po Kwan from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose extensive work consists of analysing data with GIS in a mixed-method research. GIS has long been used by geographers and planners as a valuable tool to spatialize quantitative information, but Kwan has revisited the technique by building tools that incorporate qualitative data as well. That is a growing need considering new lines of research that acknowledge that conventional GIS is not enough to capt people’s feelings and perceptions (such as fear or place attachment). While past research usually relied on pattern recognition algorithms, recent technologies such as sensors and personal GPS have allowed for collection and analysis of individual complex data. 

How residents perceive and use space is now a central concern for researchers focusing on people’s well-being and sense of place. The method called geo-narrative combines spatial patterns, analytical data and also social/behavioural information to generate an interpretive mode of analysis of large complex datasets (i.e. based on lived experiences). One important tool for narrative analysis, for instance, is called 3D-VQGIS, which permits adding images, audio files and texts to maps. Within the interface, the researcher is also able to code those texts according to nodes, a functionality common in qualitative analysis software such as NVivo. Another method presented was Ecological Momentarily Assessment (EMAs) which consist of live surveys of user’s sentiments on pre-determined or randomly selected spaces and time by questioning them via their smartphones. Sketchmap and cognitive mapping can also be used to assess user’s perceptions through participatory activities – all forms of connecting social aspects to GIS.  

Furthermore, an additional factor that adds complexity to geo-narrative models is their ability to incorporate time. Points and georeferenced locations as we find in GIS are a stable information, but in fact, moveable points and populations are increasingly important. As Kwan pointed out, most of the times the key question is not related to where people linger but how they move and where their trajectory is affected by space and sentiments (Image 1). 

Image 1: “Space-time paths of individuals collected with GPS can provide more accurate assessment of their exposure to environmental risk factors (e.g., traffic-related air pollution, carcinogenic substances, etc.) when integrated with detailed data about the
spatial and temporal variations of these risk factors.” Image and legend pulled from: meipokwan.org 


Another idea that can be revisited is that of geographic units of analysis, which have traditionally consisted of census tracts or neighborhoods. The problem with cartesian and state imposed boundaries is that they do not correspond to residents mobility and living habits, thus, such spatial and temporal uncertainties can lead to misleading results which Kwan names the Uncertain Geographic Context Problem. However, linking models to behavior and travel patterns provide researchers with a new form of establishing such geographies.

Finally, the challenge remains on how to conduct detailed and statistically significant geo-narrative projects. Meanwhile, it provides us with a comprehensive form of building a new theory based on events in space and time which can serve as a basis for predictive models. Detailed literature on Geo-narrative and geovisualization is available on meipokwan.org. 


I have recently had the pleasure of going home for the holidays – home being the city of Fortaleza in the Northeast region of Brazil. It is no secret that Brazil has been an economically stable country in the past decade and its cities have been trying to catch up on years of stagnation in terms of infrastructure and urban development. This December I noticed several measures being implemented in Fortaleza with the goal of developing the transportation network such as the long awaited construction of a subway and bus rapid transit system. 

As part of those transportation policies the city has also implemented a bike sharing system and has slowly been building bike lanes across central areas (Image 1). The lanes have not been added without controversy: in a city dominated by automobiles for so long it is almost impossible for the middle class population to accept dividing street space with pedestrians or bikes. Bikes are associated to the poorest people and many consider it a vehicle used in robberies. Those preconceptions do not exist only in Brazil, but several American cities have also not been able to advocate for the importance of bicycles.


Image 1: Bike sharing station in Fortaleza sponsored by a local health insurance company. Source: http://www.unimedfortaleza.com.br/portal/bicicletar_principal.html

What I find interesting is that while researching the development of bikes I learned that it was once quite popular in the United States. So in this post I will expose a bit of that entertaining history.

The modern two-wheel bike with gears was developed by John Kemp in 1885 and by 1890 bikes had taken over the nation in the period called the “bicycle craze”. The widespread use of bikes originated the “Good Roads Movement” where advocates for improved roads led by bicyclists turned local agitation into a national political movement being responsible for paving several roads across America. Bikes were also an important social equalizer as everyone was able to ride one, due to its affordability. During the social movements of the 20th century, the “toy” represented freedom and became a symbol of feminism, of the fight against restrictions in everyday life ranging from a lack of mobility to the Victorian dress (http://www.crazyguyonabike.com ) (Image 2). 

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”  Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) 


Image 2: Women wearing shorts while riding bikes. Photograph by Hermann Landshoff (1905-1986) for LIFE magazine. 

However, around 1897 sales plummeted – the bicycle was no longer fashionable. Cars became a desired object and the highway movement further encouraged automobiles (Image 2).

LA cicleway

Image 3: The Los Angeles Cycleway, once called “one of the most noteworthy infrastructues of California” was replaced by a freeway. Source: http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/in-1897-a-bicycle-superhighway-was-the-future-of-california-transit

The Sixties arrived, marked by an oil crisis, the hippie movement and a remodeled 10-speed bicycle which was not as expensive. It started being used more for recreational purposes and for children but that era still represents an advancement into reintroducing bikes as a mean of transportation (Image 4).


Image 4: advertisement for a Bike catalog in 1963. 

The Millennium generation has arrived and in the midst of a hipster, young crowd came a new bike boom. As people have moved back to the cities and realized there is not enough space for cars, there is a gap in the transportation means used and bikes are becoming once again a useful locomotion device. The design scale of bicycles inherently discourages sprawl while promoting a closeness that urbanists strive for. New policies such as Traffic Calming and Bike Sharing fit into the new movement that supports bikes as a sustainable alternative.

Fighting this movement is unrealistic – not saying that using bikes (or buses, or cars, or walking) will save the world, but policies need to support this mode as an alternative to those who wish to use it. In several countries bikes have already been embedded in the culture despite extreme weather conditions or large distances (often brought up as to why the use of bikes is impossible). My advice to Fortaleza: while gas prices increase, the dollar becomes more valued and society worships more and more physical fitness – sit back and relax because the “hipster ecologists” of the 21st century will probably win this fight.


Today I had the opportunity of attending a workshop in Hartford, CT called Presenting Data and Information taught by statistician and Yale professor Edward Tufte. He is noted for his writings on information design and as a pioneer in the field of data visualization (Wikipedia) – his several books illustrate beautiful examples of how design can be used to successfully convey data.

The workshop, in which there were at least 500 people, was somewhat an informal lecture about key important points for the presentation of data, while examining visual examples and passages from his own books. In this post I will summarize interesting aspects mentioned by Tufte, which are often irreverent and unconventional, therefore appealing to researchers who seek to embrace complexity in their research findings.


“We have had enough of little graphics”

When presenting your data, researchers should refrain from using those graphics in which numbers are translated into a picture. That visual form takes effort from people in order to translate it (its color coding, fonts and so on). Little data does not need to be shown in charts, just put it into the text! The designer should minimize this “design figuring out process” – people have not come to your display to learn about coding, they have come to learn about your content.

“The strongest aspect of your research should be its own content.”

A presenter should use designs that get non fictional information through to the viewers in order to achieve high rates of information flow. One should go right into the material for the presenter’s role is to guide an audience through a content and not to convey or teach the information. When information is given correctly to people, they can have their own perception and reading of it.

“Get your presentation out of your own voice and give them to experts.”

One should always showcase clearly the name of the authors for a determined content – that helps credibility in several ways by showing that research has been done.  Names often have reputations attached to them: for credibility, accountability and competence – provide credentials after a quote.

“Do whatever it takes!”

Do whatever it takes to explain something – use all the methods needed. Do not limit yourself to just one strategy by closing your mind in the beginning about which strategy should be taken.

“No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader’s intelligence, or whose attitude is patronizing.” E.B.White


“Don’t get it original, just get it right!”

“The best that design can do is to do no harm.”

“See with an open mind but not an empty head. Keeping an open mind does not mean that you have become stupid, but just that you are willing to entertain contrary ideas.”


1) Always arrive to your meetings early.
2) Your meetings and presentation should always will be 20% short- people will be more alert and interested.
3) Every meeting begins with a document which should be read before: paper/laptop/ipad
Why is it that the only way that people can get information is by looking at a bullet list shown in a screen? The rate of information transfer just approaches ZERO! No wonder people just fall asleep – they spend too much time waiting for info. If you give them a document and retire the Powerpoint, viewers will be able to look at content in their own time (Image 1). Do not worry: the fact that you do not have a powerpoint does not mean that you have not lost control, you have after all prepared the document!

Amazon Staff Meetings

Image 1: Jeff Bezos talks about Amazon’s staff meetings and the usage of a document in the beggining of the meeting. Source: http://conorneill.com/2012/11/30/amazon-staff-meetings-no-powerpoint/

4) People prefer to listen to themselves – than the speaker – than other people in the audience.
5) If the exact sciences, the document given should begin with an abstract: what the problem is, its relevance and what are you going to do about it as a solution.
That abstract is probably the only thing that people are really going to read, so make sure it is done right.

Finally, for those hoping to come out of the workshop being able to produce the beautiful graphics as Tufte does, the event must have been disappointing. However, design is not something that can be easily taught in bullet points in one conference room . A successful designer has a pictionary of beautiful examples in his mind, and that personal database is what will make his future illustrations possible. In that train of thought, the 4 books that participants have received represent a wonderful acquisition to provide inspiration for successful and clear design illustrations (Image 2). Those visual resources aligned with Tufte’s unconventional ideas about research and academic findings, constituted an event that was worth going to.

Tufte Books

Image 2: 4 books received during the workshop. Source: Lara Furtado, 2014.