Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Mauve and Cerise, I think


America, circa 1958, according to JK Galbraith:

The family which takes its mauve and cerise, air-conditioned, power-steered and power-braked automobile out for a tour passes through cities that are badly paved, made hideous by litter, blighted buildings, billboards and posts for wires that should long since have been put underground. They pass on into countryside that has been rendered largely invisible by commercial art. (The goods which the latter advertise have an absolute priority in our value system. Such aesthetic considerations as a view of the countryside accordingly come second. On such matters we are consistent.) They picnic on exquisitely packaged food from a portable icebox by a polluted stream and go on to spend the night at a park which is a menace to public health and morals. Just before dozing off on an air mattress, beneath a nylon tent, amid the stench of decaying refuse, they may reflect vaguely on the curious unevenness of their blessings. Is this, indeed, the American genius?

The point he’s making is about a social imbalance caused by differences between private and public spending. In America, a society of affluence, where the production of comic books and pornography count as valuable economic output, the outlaying of money on roads, parks, policing, education, and other public services is considered nearly valueless and unpalatable.

America is still often considered a land of crumbling infrastructure, but compared to the America described above, some things have improved. The countryside is largely visible, our parks no longer a menace to morality, and the air has been mostly purged from the stench of decaying refuse.

Our private consumption has has also made progress over the decades, seeing as we’ve developed the good taste not to continue buying our autos in the colors of Wild Berry Skittles.

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A year ago I met two important people on my porch.

The first was a gal named Thelma. We first spoke in the kitchen–which was apropos–but we met on the porch, chatting and staring at the stars and the city across the way. My life with her has had the indolent pleasure of a ceaseless brunch whose end I wish never to come. Knowing Thelma’s appetite, I’m sure she would agree.

Here we are last Christmas on said porch, one from a series some people somehow took seriously (such is the mystery of our love):

The second important person I met on the porch was a fellow by the name of Taylor. His arrival on the porch was at first inauspicious, as it interrupted one of the aforementioned conversations between Thelma and me.  He soon won us over, however, with a bottle of duty-free scotch initially intended for our landlord.

Here is Taylor on CNN talking about his organization in Rwanda, and here he is snuggling with me on the porch (photo credit: Thelma):

Through a logical chain of conversation since unlinked by poor memory, Taylor and I got to talking of my teenage fascination with World War II and his work as associate producer on The War, a documentary by Ken Burns which I had watched just before coming to Rwanda*. Seeing my interest in the process, Taylor offered to link me up with someone at Florentine Films for an internship while Thelma rubbed my shoulders encouragingly–our first meaningful physical contact.

That was a year ago on a porch in Rwanda. Much happened in the meantime, but as of last week I’ve begun an internship at the editing house for Florentine Films in Walpole, NH until December. I’ve washed dishes and taken out the trash, but I’ve also gotten to do some (very very) basic editing work on a DVD extra for the upcoming Prohibition and may have made my first visual contribution by finding some period newspaper articles on FDR’s 1910 state senate campaign for The Roosevelts (coming in 2013!). Here’s a boring and unlikely to be used sample:

Beyond a rendezvous with Thelma in Germany I don’t know what the new year will bring, but so far things have been nicely unpredictable.  The only ill harbinger at the moment is the prospect of my first New England winter, which will surely keep me inside and off any porches.


* In another strange linkage, I had first seen The War during my year in Germany but quickly changed the channel because I didn’t want to watch it in my limited German and have its impact lessened as a result.

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Like Lewis and Clark, I find mosquitoes to be doubly pestilent, as the little red bumps they leave behind are about as annoying as remembering how to spell their name. An article in the current Technology Quarterly from the Economist comes as a soothing poultice:

Researchers at Intellectual Ventures, an innovations company established by former Microsoft executives in Bellevue, Washington, have developed what they call a photonic mosquito fence. It has a series of posts, each of which is equipped with a cheap camera and a light bulb (which will be swapped for a light-emitting diode in future versions). The cameras are connected to a central computer. When a camera detects movement, the computer analyses it to see whether it is consistent with the behaviour of a mosquito. If it is, then the computer trains a laser onto the insect and blasts it into oblivion.

The article also describes an infra-red curtain designed to keep mosquitoes out; not as satisfying as conflagrating the little beasties, I suppose, but in any case more effective than the mosquito net I can’t seem to find the time to install over my bed.

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The festively decorated Galeria Kaufhof department store in this western German town is cutting prices on items from fleece sweaters to toy castles. At the Karstadt store across the street, the discounts range from cashmere sweaters to fondue sets.Not too long ago, these sales would have been against the law.In contrast to the U.S., where pre-Christmas price cuts play a key part in retailers’ strategies — and shoppers’ buying plans — holiday sales mark a small revolution in European retailing. For decades, European retailers could cut prices only during certain periods set by the government. The winter sales, usually in January, came too late for cash-strapped Christmas shoppers.In 2004, Germany’s retail laws changed to allow stores to hold sales when they please, but most retailers still kept prices high in the holiday season. Now, though, that last remnant of traditional retail regulation is cracking as well.

That from a Christmas Eve article in the the Wall Street Journal. The article also notes that Germany relaxed its restrictive store-closing laws last year, allowing states to decide the matter for themselves. I am not sure what the current state of legislation is here in Meck-Pomm–the only stores I saw open today were a Burger King and a McDonald’s, natch.

I had always assumed that Germany’s store-closing laws which, among other things, forbade stores from opening on Sundays, were enacted to reflect some cultural consensus about the fourth commandment–most businesses in the United States used to close on Sundays too, after all. But as I’ve heard Germans themselves say and as indeed the article itself points out, one of the main reasons Germans still support laws of this type is that they believe allowing stores to open anytime would benefit larger stores at the expense of small retailers who can’t afford to man a till 24/7:

But moves to change the rules for when and how people shop have come slowly and brought public soul-searching about life in a consumer society — as well as stiff resistance from trade unions, churches, and small retailers who say increased flexibility hurts store workers and benefits only large chains…

“Stores should not be open too long, so that the sales people can rest,” says Sophie Coumel, 33, who works for a Franco-German youth organization in Berlin and was buying a present at a Kaufhof store one recent evening.

Why Frau Coumel doesn’t believe workers are capable of deciding for themselves how much rest to get mystifies me. The same goes for the “trade unions, churches, and small retailers,” who apparently believe that the preferences of millions of German consumers should be subservient to their own. If workers don’t want to work longer hours, they won’t. If Germans don’t like shopping on Sunday, they’ll stay home. If customers like small retailers better, they’ll be fine. How can a piece of legislation possibly do better than to simply let each person make up his own mind about what’s best for himself?

What’s that Fig? Oh, that’s right–people are stupid. How stupid of me.

Of course, current arguments for an old law often don’t have anything to do with the original reasons for it. The WSJ article also mentions a German law enacted in 1933 that “prohibited haggling and put limits on bonus schemes such as store-loyalty cards.” The law lived on until 2001, supported because it was thought to protect consumers and small business. One of the reasons it was actually made into law, however, was because the Nazis found it a good way to “hurt the country’s department-store owners — many of them Jewish — who had been experimenting with creative sales strategies.” Historians generally agree that the Nazis were an unseemly lot, so I’m surprised the Germans didn’t question the law after the war, but, to be fair, the original effects of many laws are soon forgotten.

Take the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, which was essentially the first federal minimum wage in the United States. While it is still on the books today and enjoys support across the political spectrum because of its ostensible protection for construction workers, the law was probably passed merely because it was a good way to price minorities out of the labor market, who were presumptuous enough to work for less money and depress wages for whites.

These laws, like so many others, were passed not to prevent exploitation but to prevent competition, which is the most surefire mechanism for protecting worker and consumer alike.

It probably would have allowed me to buy some cold medicine today, at any rate.

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Upon being asked what the hardest part about learning English was, my German roommate (who, by the way, is precious treasure in that he never tries to speak English with me) replied that it was probably learning pronunciation. Unlike German, English is one of a few languages with a defective orthography, which means that the symbols used to represent the sounds of the language are incomplete. The made-up word “ghoti” could, for example, reasonably be pronounced like the word “fish,” since “gh” can be pronounced as an /f/ (“rough”), “o” can be pronounced as an /i/ (“women”), and “ti” can be pronounced as /sh/ (“nation”). In a complete orthography, however, this nonsense is not possible. Thus, while I can relatively easily pronounce German words that I’ve never seen nor heard before due to its having a complete orthography, my German roommate is unable to do likewise in English.

So why does English have such a nonsensical orthography? One simple answer is that the spellings of words became standardized before the pronunciations were. Before the advent of the printing press and mass-produced literature, it might not be uncommon for the same word to be spelled a dozen different ways, which reflected in part how the word was pronounced. Today, the pronunciation of the word “knight” makes little sense because its spelling is a remnant of its pronunciation in the Middle Ages, which was something like “kah-NI-gaht,” as the following video demonstrates:

Once mass printings became commonplace, however, the spellings became frozen in time while the pronunciations kept marching proudly on, leaving us English speakers with what we have today.

The irony? It’s all due to a bloody German.

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Death and Taxes

Up until the Hundred Years’ War in the 14th and 15th centuries, royal European governments were expected to be funded more or less out of the pockets of the ruling family. Levying taxes directly on the subjects was rare, as governments were obliged to follow the legal maxim of cessante causa cessare debet et effectus (“when cause fails, the consequence should fail”). In other words, taxes could only be levied in exceptional circumstances (such as for a war), and when the circumstance ended, so did the tax. In the nearly fifty-year reign of Henry III during the 13th century, for example, taxes were levied directly on royal subjects only five times. Because the Hundred Years’ War lasted so long, however, taxes began to be collected more and more frequently, and soon enough annual taxation became a normal occurrence.

Occasional flights of fancy notwithstanding, it is not often that I would consider living in the 13th century as preferable to present day–yet fiscal policy seems to have been, in its own way, far more sensible. Of course, if I had lived in the Late Middle Ages, one out of every three people I knew would have been dead by the time I turned eighteen.

Still, everything has its trade-offs. I remain ambivalent.

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A German author and journalist recently lamented the lack of attention given to the important historical contributions of Thuringia and Saxony despite Prussia having been recently elevated in the collective German conscience:

If you drive two hundred kilometers south [of Berlin], you come to a region where a lot more was going on. Here the history is so intricate and divided that it can’t be made to suit the purposes of nostalgic identification although this is where, quite literally, everything German that had a positive influence on the world, began. Between Wittenberg on the Elbe and Weimar on the Ilm are regions that get hillier to the south, in whose little cities creative production developed over three centuries with an intensity comparable only to Tuscany in the Renaissance or Greece in Antiquity. Thuringia and what used to be the regions of Anhalt are to the Germany what Umbria is to the Italians: the heart of our country. But this never acknowledged by those caught up praising Prussia.

Yet a simple listing of events reveals this to be an anomaly. This region – between Erfurt and Wittenberg – is where Luther’s Reformation began, and spread around the world, making among other things, the United States what it is today. Here – between Weimar and Dessau – the Bauhaus style was developed, and continues to shape metropolises the world over. And here Bach and Goethe got to work, here Luther wrote his translation of the Bible in the German language we still write with today.

I know regrettably little about much of the substance of the article, but that which I do know seems congruent with the author’s thesis. It is quite amazing that a city like Wittenberg (and yes, I did actually go there for Reformation Day–in fact I lived there for a month almost four years ago) has not become a locus for both domestic and foreign tourism and the city’s name not a metonym for Germany’s cultural importance in the world.

Birkenstocks and BMWs are one thing, but the Protestant ethic is simply unparalleled as the most important German export, and one incidentally that not even the strongest of euros can hope to diminish.

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