06 Delft

October 21st, 2010

"View on Delft" -- Vermeer

Every city has a sound, its own sound, and one that you might miss if you don’t pay heed, but which is distinctive.  When you’ve been away from that city for a while, or maybe even for a very long time, and then you return, a part of you lets that sound envelope you in pleasant familiarity, like slipping on a warm and well-worn overcoat on a chilly morning, and whether you consciously make note of the sound or not, you are affected, either way, by its ability to reach into your personal reservoir of recall and remind you that, yes, you have been here before, this is familiar, this is something I already know.

The distinctive rattle of the London Taxi

In London it is the metallic rattle of the diesel engines of the taxi cabs and the red two-decker buses as they idle at stoplights or intersections, a low-level hum punctuated by the unique diesel sound that’s a little like someone gently rattling a can of bolts.  It’s everywhere in London, the base-line that supports all the other sounds, and when you hear it you know you are in London and nowhere else.   In New York it’s the plaintive wail of car horns, random, first close, like the yelp of a scolded dog and then distant, more like the howling of a coyote.  If you are on the street, the sounds are sharp; inside an office or a hotel, or, if you live there like we did for 25 years, an apartment, this arhythmic  pattern is more muffled, but always present and insistent, an oddball concerto in the key of F (yes, most American car horns are designed to bonk an F note) until after a while some protective brain function  takes over and you stop hearing them, stop being distracted by it all, until you’ve left and come back, and then you hear them again, until you don’t, but you know, assuredly, that you are in New York.

Cairo traffic: An endless sea of honking ducks

In Cairo it’s also the sound of car horns, but different, and far more crazy-making.  When I was watching the 2010 World Cup Soccer matches held in South Africa, I, too, thought my TV had gone haywire because there was a strange, incredibly irritating non-stop buzzing emanating from it.  It was, of course, the racket of the vuvuzelas, those obnoxious South African plastic noise makers that, when blown in unison by the thousands produce the irksome drone of a thousand agitated beehives.  But I was nagged by a sense that I had heard the same thing before, in some other context, but I couldn’t place it.  And then, finally, it occurred to me:  It sounds like Cairo, Egypt, where the city is clogged with tens of thousands of cars, the driver of each and every one of them pounding his horn non-stop—but with a twist:  None of the horns actually works properly.  They’re all crippled from overuse, from being literally blown to death.

It’s all about the diaphragm, apparently.  It seems the modern car horn is of the type originally called a “Klaxon”, which, instead of requiring some energy input such as the manual squeeze of a rubber bulb to propel air out a trumpet, the Klaxon uses the onboard electricity to fire a vibrating diaphragm that produces the sound.  But this diaphragm, like just about everything else, doesn’t live forever.  At some stage of overuse it becomes essentially shredded, and what was originally a sharp and powerful blast is reduced to a duck-like, pathetic quacking noise.  Since it is ostensibly the practice in Egypt to engage your horn from the moment you drive it off the lot and to hold it down continuously until such time as the car is junked, this shredded diaphragm condition describes every single car horn in the country.

Amass tens of thousands of these anemic, non-stop honkers in one place and you have the sound of Cairo.

I’m not kidding.

The sound of Delft is almost no sound at all: It is the pleasant, sibilant swoosh of bicycles by the thousands, rolling and rolling in every direction, the rubber wheels making a gentle but insistent whirring noise, almost like the soft zipping of a plastic zipper or the rustling of a mild breeze through autumn leaves.  If it’s one rider, it’s a defined sound with clear edges; add a couple more and it becomes more blurred, but still with low peaks and gentle valleys, one rider joining with another and then another, and then separating to head in different directions, the combinations constantly altering and augmenting the heft and flow of the auditory landscape, but never becoming anything intrusive or shocking or disagreeable.

Go towards the town center, by the bustling outdoor market, and it becomes a consistent hum punctuated from time to time by the sudden, brief squeak of handbrakes pressing their rubber pads to service on the metal wheel rims.

Overall it is a congenial sound, ebbing and flowing, in keeping with Delft as a bustling—but quiet nevertheless—charming city.


A Day in Delft

Frederick acts a spotter to prevent a dunking in the canal

When we arrive in Delft after the twenty minute drive from Den Haag, our first task is to park without depositing the car into the canal, no easy task, usually requiring a spotter.

Park too close to the edge and you risk going over; not close enough and you protrude dangerously into the narrow street.  There are bicycles everywhere, lovely canals, shops with deeply polished wooden doors and windows, low-slung three story houses looking almost exactly as they do in paintings from the 16th century.

A traveling organ and puppet show provides festive music heard throughout the town

We spend the day wandering through the winding old byways, listening to the happy tunes pumping out of a gaily decorated street-organ-cum-puppet show, buying fresh vegetables at the outdoor market, and admiring the Delftware (more on that in a minute) and the shops of fabrics, housewares, books and pastries.   Lunch is a breeze for me because in Holland everyone speaks English.  Everyone.  And they generally provide menus in both Dutch and English, which helps me to avoid the tripe and cow brains I don’t otherwise recognize quickly enough to avoid.

A few scenes of Delft:

A typical canal side street scene in Delft

Alice stocking up on... legumes at the Delft open air market

Two Holland staples: Tulips and Delftware


Heading home...

Here’s a very short version of several centuries of Delftian history:

In the 1500’s the whole world wanted pepper.  Okay, “Europe” wanted pepper, but, as far as they were concerned, they were “the whole world”.  Pepper.  The stuff sitting on the Bakelite table in your retro-kitchen that you don’t think twice about:  That pepper.  In order to get it, they were willing to do just about anything.

What’s so great about pepper?  Well, not much, unless you’re accustomed to eating putrid, tasteless mutton.  Think of it this way:  Eat oatmeal three times a day for, say, twenty years, and then have yourself a Biryani Vindaloo.  Believe me, you, too, will kill to get more of it, notwithstanding any digestive trauma that might provide something of a near-term downside.

The Dutch East India Company was one of the most powerful trading entities the world has ever known.

The place to get pepper, primarily, and a bunch of other spices, secondarily, was India.  At first, the Portuguese had something of a clear shot at this market, exploited via their “Portuguese East India Company”.  This was because the renowned Portuguese mapmakers had charted a secret sea route to Asia which they kept to themselves until such time as they were stolen by absolutely everybody, and the result was a whole bunch of “East India” companies:  The British East India Company, the Danish East India Company and, eventually, most famous of all, the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC in Dutch), with one of their most important branches located in Delft, one that came to dominate virtually all aspects of the city.

But the Dutch had not only the Portuguese maps, they also had a great idea, one that  involved a new way of organizing their Dutch East India company, and that would, in turn, change the world and create what would become a cornerstone of free market capitalism:  They formed the first “Corporation”.

And what a corporation it was.  Established in 1602 it would be a powerful trading concern for 200 years, paying an average annual dividend to its shareholders that entire time of 18%.  This is Bernie Madoff territory.

In addition, it was so huge and so central to the Dutch overall zeitgeist at the time that it was granted quasi-governmental powers including the ability to wage war, negotiate treaties, coin money, and establish colonies.  Say what?  How crazy is that?  That’s like telling Halliburton they can wage war, coin money, establish… oh, wait.

As is the case with so many companies (in fact, all of them) with too much success for too extended a time maintained too easily by sheer momentum, the VOC eventually became fat, lazy, way too self-satisfied, smug and greedy.  Eventually, in the 1800’s, they made a classic business mistake, the kind that tends to emerge from societal inequities (and some serious stupidity on the part of the Board of Directors).  That is, gradually, over time, they stopped populating their corporate ranks with hungry-ass business types, experienced people with merchant or trading backgrounds, and started giving all the plum jobs to the over-privileged sons, grandsons and great grandsons of the clans who had been made wealthy in the early years and now represented the country’s elite regent class.  You’re familiar, I’m sure, with the kind of people I’m talking about; you probably know a few.  They are the ones who were born on third base and think they hit a triple; arrogant, narcissistic, convinced that their exalted station in life is ipso facto proof of their inherent competency rather than merely a serendipity of their parenthood, one that speaks not a syllable to the issue of their own value, but upon which they can often ride effortlessly and undeservedly their entire lives—these people who, to the contrary, are utterly without any deployable capability at all, and, worse, possess that fatal flaw of all fatal flaws, which is that they don’t know what they don’t know but think they do (that is, not only did they not recognize their blind spots, they thought they had none, and these people will kill any business, any time) and the result was the corporation’s gradual and then rapid descent into corruption, ineptitude-based failure and ultimate bankruptcy.

So much for the Dutch East India Company.

But along the way, the Company was indirectly responsible for two of the three things that most define Delft to this day.  More interesting  than I would have imagined, they are Delftware, really beautiful pottery, famous the world over for its deep patina and exquisite cobalt blue designs, and the Delft Institute of Technology– and you won’t believe what they did for Tetris (yeah, the little computer game).  The third thing making Delft famous, and this one not directly attributable to the Company, at least as far as I know, is Vermeer, and we’ll get to that rascal in minute…


Delft Pottery – think of it as porcelain wanna-be…

So the Dutch East India Company is bringing back all this stuff from the Far East, including Chinese porcelain.  The local Delft earthenware makers, who, up until that point thought of themselves as being pretty cutting edge, took a look at this Chinese stuff and thought to themselves, man, we gotta get with the program, this stuff is great.

Delft is Delft, not porcelain...

Unfortunately for them, the trick to porcelain is not just the technique, it’s the clay you start with, and the amount of clay they had capable of making that kind of porcelain was zero.  I’m not going to bore you with the details, but you can spend a lot of time studying the various clays around the world, and the combinations of clays, and the other things they add in, and then what they do with it all and how they do it, this in the service of getting a picture of the myriad porcelains, ironstones, creamwares, bone chinas, jasperwares, majolicas, faiences and, yes, Delftwares that people have been busily producing for about five hundred years or, in the case of China, probably a thousand.

If you look at the history of this stuff, you come across some familiar names, now very “corporate” but back then just a crazy-eyed guy obsessively trying to figure out how to make their goods seem “deeper” and “richer’ and, well, more beautiful, names like Spode and Wedgewood, but the remarkable thing about the chaps in Delft with their sleeves rolled up and mud up to their elbows during the 1600’s was that they figured out how to mimic the Chinese porcelain they were so envious of by, essentially, slathering it with tin, in the form of a tin oxide, and firing it up.  Steal some Chinese designs, paint it on, slather it again, fire it up again, or a few more times, whatever, and eventually you have product that starts to not only compete with the Chinese merchandise but to have, in its own way, something really unique going for it, and, well, that’s Delftware.  It quickly acquired a worldwide caché as well as imitators in a lot of other places, especially England, until, in the 1700’s, Josiah Wedgewood figured out a way to make something even better, actual British porcelain, which he then proceeded to sell in all the Factory Outlet malls around the world.  Okay, that came a few hundred years later, but you get the idea.

And it is true that if you really look at Delftware, the original stuff, and feel it and hold it in your hands, it is exquisite, a triumph of beauty and utility, a near perfect manifestation of the remarkable and very human phenomenon that asks the question, “If you have to make it, why not make it beautiful?”

So that’s the first thing the Dutch East India Company gave to Delft.  What was the second?

Delft Polytechnic Institute

Again, take away the Dutch East India Company and you don’t have Delft University, because it was established in 1852 to serve a very specific need that would not have existed absent the Company.

Remember we talked about how the Company had all kinds of insane mandates and allowances including the right to establish colonies? Well, that’s what they did, and they had a bunch of them in Africa, Asia and across the Pacific and the problem was, in football terms, that they were outrunning their coverage and didn’t have nearly enough trained bureaucrats and civil servants to send to all these places to operate them and keep them more or less under control.

So they started Delft Polytechnic Institute for the specific purpose of cranking out endless Bartleby’s to be sent across the globe as Company employees.  One thing led to another—actually, a bunch of things led to a bunch of other things—and the school went through a variety of permutations and is now considered one of the finest engineering schools in existence.

More importantly, it holds the world record for large-scale Tetris, having used the lights of an 300 foot high building to take the place of what would more normally be done on a hand-held Gameboy.  Very little footage was taken at the time, but you can get a sense of it from the animated .gif at right.  The thing to know is that this little stunt is hugely respected by other Engineering schools, some of which were attempting similar things at around the same time (1995), but none of whom could pull it off with the élan of Delft’s hard-chargers, further solidifying their already solid place amongst engineering’s elite.

From the point of view of “atmospherics”, it is now a full-fledged University comprised of 17,000 of the brightest students from Holland and elsewhere, running around Delft, giving Delft a vibrant, college town vitality.


Girl With a Pearl Earing, Johannes Vermeer, circa 1665

So, who was better at rendering the rich Dutch light, Rembrandt or Vermeer?  Join the debate.  Why not? It’s been going on for three hundred years and between the two of them, they are at the dead center of “The Golden Age” of Dutch painting, although, for sure, Rembrandt, the Amsterdam Firecracker, has a huge tactical advantage over Vermeer, the Delft Mauler, since he, Rembrandt, made over 600 paintings in his lifetime (to say nothing of 300 etchings and 1400 drawings) while Vermeer managed to cough up a mere… thirty four.

Arguably, he was almost as prolific cranking out children as he was paintings:  Vermeer had fifteen children—considerably more impressively, his wife had 15 children—and maybe that explains something, I’m not sure.  In case you’re wondering, this was unusual then as now, Catholicism notwithstanding.  More usual in Delft in the 1600’s would have been three or four children. There are those who say he spawned all those progeny for the calculated purpose of creating so chaotic a home environment as to make it impossible for him to do anything other than retreat to the solitude of his studio—who could blame him?—for the purpose of producing the relatively small body of work that eventually became universally revered and, of course, quite literally priceless.

So what’s up with Vermeer, Delft’s most famous, by far, historical luminary—and “luminary” is probably a pretty good word since, nearly equal to Rembrandt, he is known for his masterful and enchanting ability to render the subtleties of light (especially the afternoon golden light that photographers are so fond of) and especially (and seminally) the ability to use paint and canvass, two decidedly opaque things, to evoke translucence—say, an empty wine glass carelessly tipped on a table surface, or a thin and gauzy drapery through which you can just make out the scene beyond.  In addition, anticipating Georges Braque by 250 years, he blended sand with the paint he used to render the stone of facades, bridges and roofs. Now, to me, that seems both clever and a bit gimmicky, something you might do in Mrs. McNichol’s first grade finger-painting class, but, then, last time I looked, none of my finger-paints was worth twenty or thirty million dollars.

Rembrandt and Vermeer share something else in common:  They each had works involved in what is probably the greatest art theft in history, the 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.  Some guys disguised as cops came in and spirited off thirteen masterpieces that have never been recovered, the case never solved.

Rembrandt's "Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Gallilee" has never been recovered.

Think about that: Since these canvasses have never surfaced, the greatest likelihood is that the job was commissioned by some insanely narcissistic Croesus, somewhere in the world, who has them effectively kidnapped for his own personal and exclusive gratification, a pleasure consisting, probably, not just of the enjoyment of the artworks themselves, but also the delicious power of exclusivity, of denying that same pleasure to anyone else.  Wouldn’t you like to have that guy’s inner life?

Due to some provisions in the Gardner will, the empty frames remain on the walls exactly as they were.  If you should hear of anything, be sure and let them know: There’s a five million dollar reward to get them back…


Vermeers here, get your ice cold Vermeers…

Thirty four paintings.  That’s it for Vermeer.

Hans van Meegeren, perhaps the greatest forger who ever lived.

Except for the ones that started popping  up in the 1930’s, the ones that were considered some of his most magnificent work, except that they weren’t painted by Vermeer in the 1600’s, they were painted by Han Van Meegeren in the 1930’s and are such amazing forgeries,  both in terms of  their artistic brilliance and the technological expertise required to fool the top art investigators into thinking all the materials and all the techniques were legitimate (Van Meegeren went so far as to use badger hair brushes, as  they did in the 1600’s…), that even to this day certain people claim they really are authentic Vermeers, despite the fact that Van Meegeren has confessed to having forged them, since, after all, there’s no way, according to them, that these splendid works could have been done by anyone of lesser talent than Vermeer himself, and, therefore, when Van Meegeren says he did them all on his own, he is, clearly, lying.

That’s how good he was.  And therein lies a tale, one that is fascinating in fifteen different ways, but I’ll pick just one of them, overflowing with irony.

Van Meegeren was a forger, perhaps the greatest forger who ever lived because he possessed in abundance the three qualities most necessary for excellence at that craft:  Number one, he was truly a great artist in his own right.  He had achieved significant renown in his field. He even executed some fine copies of masterworks, something considered a perfectly acceptable thing for an artist to do, since there was no attempt to deceive.  Number two, he had the patience and scientific acumen to figure out the thousand things he needed to understand, find, or accomplish in order to create materials and produce results that would fool top investigators using the most modern detective equipment.  Finally, and, in some measure perhaps the most important thing of all, he had the fire of righteous indignation burning in his breast, a single-minded, seething determination to make the critics pay for their lack of appreciation for his work, for the indignities they had visited upon his oeuvre.

He was brilliant, talented beyond imagining, but emotionally and artistically bolted to the Dutch Masters he loved, and unable to move on to the Cubism and Modernism that the critics demanded.  So they vilified him, called him a hack, brilliant and talented, but a hack nonetheless.

This ignited a mean fire in him, the embers of which had probably been lit many years earlier by his cruel and probably genuinely sadistic father who often forced him to write a hundred times the phrase “I know nothing, I am nothing, I am capable of nothing.”

He set about proving the critics wrong, and maybe his father, too, and doing so in a way that would not only hoodwink them, but humiliate them thoroughly, and no matter that he, Van Meegeren, wouild be the only one who would know how completely they were debased, since, if all went well, no one would ever detect the forgeries.

His intention was to produce canvasses the critics themselves would have to acknowledge as masterpieces, and he did, and they did, and he was bad to women and vindictive and clearly tormented, but with periods of soaring gratification as his revenge-filled intentions were realized completely, by this man of equal parts grandiosity and self-loathing, who knew on some level, who just simply knew, that his talent was such that he could pull it off, that he would pull it off, and which he did pull off.

The painting was, for him, the easy part.  His first  forgery took a short time to paint but six years of tireless, nefarious sleuthing and experimentation to figure out where to buy 500-year-old canvas, mix paints that could not be perceived as being modern and apply finishing treatments that would age and harden and crack the paint perfectly.  After that, in a few short years, he netted millions of dollars by marketing a string of forgeries that the critics praised as the finest original Vermeers they had ever seen.


He died in 1947, having accumulated a personal fortune of over $30 million dollars by painting pictures so extraordinary, so exquisitely beautiful and with such attention to the craft and the technology of criminal art forgery that virtually the entire art world was convinced, completely and unshakably convinced, that they were authentic Vermeers.

Hermann Goering

And the chances are he would have gotten away with it, that no one would have ever known,  if he had not had the misjudgment of failing to turn his back on Hermann Goering, an encounter that produced one of the greatest ironies in the history of art forgery, one in which the forger, in order to avoid getting the death penalty for one crime, had to opt for the lesser penalties of admitting to another.

Here’s what happened:

The Nazis were foraging all over Europe for artwork they could “appropriate” for the motherland, like pigs snuffling for truffles, with the worst of these being Goering whose snuffling was being done predominately on his own personal behalf.

The rest of Europe, horrified that these thugs were scarfing up all the great artworks, hid them as they could, but also passed laws against selling any of these crowns of their cultural heritage to anyone outside the country. It was deemed treason by the Dutch government to have collaborated with the Nazis by allowing or aiding the movement of any Dutch heritage artwork to them during the war.

It is unlikely that Van Meegeren was thinking about that when he sold Goering a forged Vermeer for $650,000.  In fact, he probably felt pretty good about pulling one over on the fat bastard and bringing back home a bunch of Nazi money.  Treason?  Just the opposite.

Van Meegeren on trial. He escaped the death penalty for treason by confessing to forgery, and became the second most popular man in the Netherlands.

After the war, they opened up Goering’s personal little salt mine where he kept all his stolen and “appropriated” art, and they found the “Vermeer” with a detailed provenance pointing, unfortunately, directly back at Van Meegeren as having sold it to him.

As you can see, this put Van Meegeren in a bit of a pickle, to say the least.  He was brought up on charges for having sold Goering the Vermeer, and there was only one way he could avoid, at best, many years in prison, and that was by neutralizing the foundation of the charge by asserting that he could not be charged with selling a Dutch masterpiece, because it wasn’t a Dutch masterpiece, at least not in the sense they meant, an old one, since, after all, he had painted it himself.  In short, the only way he could wiggle out would be to blow the lid off his whole criminal enterprise.

My own feeling is that on some level he welcomed having to make the revelation, to finally, openly thumb his nose at the critics, to reap, finally, the satisfaction of being the engine of their much-deserved comeuppance, the purveyor of the dripping, gooey egg all over their faces.

It should not be thought, however, that his mere claim that he had forged the painting was sufficient, despite the obvious disincentive to make such a self-incriminating and penalty-freighted assertion, and therein lies the great irony:  His challenge was the opposite of the usual.  Instead of having to prove that a painting was not a forgery, he had to prove that it was—and nobody believed him, so large had been the inherent artistic talent and the cunning forging skills that he applied in producing it.  Whether painted by Vermeer, or by himself, it was a masterpiece.

But as a result of the fact that the mines producing lead 600 years ago had been depleted and today other mines are used in slightly different locations resulting in a miniscule difference in its chemical  characteristics, he was able to prove that the painting could not have been produced back in the day.  So, in order to save himself from criminal treason, he had to prove his culpability for criminal forgery, which he did, and the process of all this nearly killed him, and the stress actually did, just a few days before he was to start his two year imprisonment back in Holland.

There is much, much more to this story, and reading it is a constant ride through the mysteries and vagaries of the human psyche and a study of the impact a fickle and shifting society can have on that psyche; a story that constantly raises complex questions about the ways we impact the world, or the world impacts us, and what, really, is a “Masterpiece” and where does it get its intrinsic value, if any at all, and to what extent does our knowledge about a painting, and our belief  about it, founded or not, affect the way we see it and feel about it, and if Van Meegeren had changed places with Vermeer, would he have become “Vermeer”, and if the reverse, would Vermeer have become Van Meegeren, or maybe, just maybe, Jung had it right and they both form a unitary part of some globule floating around the collective unconscious?

Believe it or not, they are still arguing about it over sixty years later.  And if you were the owner of a painting that, if painted by Van Meegeren, as he admitted, is worth a couple of thousand dollars, but if painted by Vermeer, which you continue to claim, since, after all, let’s not forget that Van Meegeren had plenty of incentive to lie about it to avoid the treason charge—is worth, say, thirty million, you might be arguing about it, too.

But any way you look at it, you really, really gotta love this guy.

If you’re interested in reading more about this, here’s a good book:

The Man Who Made Vermeers:  Varnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren
(pub 2009) by Jonathan Lopez

The Great Bicycle Lock Mystery

There is only one country in the world that has more bikes than Holland.  Can you guess?  Here’s a hint:  it has a population 82 times larger than Holland.  Right:  China.  However, even with that, China only has a little less than half a bike per person.  Holland has more than one bike per person, 1.1 to be exact.  Oh, and they have around seventeen million people.  You do the math.

Bikes at the Delft Railroad Station

It’s one of the reasons the design and manufacture of bicycle racks is such a huge issue in Holland.  I mean, take a look at these bicycle racks, at right, at the Delft train station.  In Holland people are a lot more interested in making sure they have a place to park  their bicycle when they go downtown, than their car, notwithstanding how treacherous canal-side parking is and how easy it is to maneuver your car right into the water if you aren’t careful.

They say the canals in Holland are three meters deep:  One meter of water, one meter of mud, and one meter of bicycles.

There was something else about the bicycles in Holland that caught my attention however, and got me to thinking, to wondering and then to be really quite bewildered…

In New York, where I did have a bike and did at least some city riding, you always, and I mean always lock your bike if you leave it even for a minute.  And there’s a specific way to do that.  Most people carry a thick cable to chain their bike to a tree or a lamp post or some sturdy object.  And you need to do it properly, with the cable first going through the front wheel and then through the frame and only then around the tree or the post.  If you put it just through the front wheel, they will leave the front wheel and steal the rest of the bike.  If you just put it through the frame, they will leave that and steal the front wheel.

And sometimes they will steal everything, no matter what you do.  I had a friend who had a brand new bike, and a good one, and expensive, and right out of the shop (“Conrad’s” as it happens, the quite famous bike shop in Manhattan).  He rode it down to 14th street and used the huge “Kryptonite” U-shaped metal clamp to secure it to a large stanchion while he went in to buy a quart of milk.  Three minutes later, he came out to find only the splintered remnants of his lock and no bike at all.  It seems marauding gangs of latter day bandits ride around in Econoline vans armed with a cans of liquid nitrogen which, when sprayed on the big lock, freezes it instantly, allowing them to shatter it with a slight tap of a ball-peen hammer, throw the bike in the van and speed off to the South Bronx where they turn it all into cash, cocaine or, I suppose, Lotto tickets.

That’s the kind of bike environment I’m accustomed to, so I was curious as to how they handle it in this mecca of the great velocipede.   So I began paying attention to this ‘bike security”  issue wherever we went, downtown, outskirts, good neighborhoods, night, day whatever.

Here’s what I noticed, some of which is pretty straightforward and makes sense, more or less, but the latter part of which has me stumped :

The vast number of bikes carry locks of one type or another, with the overwhelming majority being the plastic-covered chain link variety.  On the other hand, and surprisingly, fully 20% carry no locks at all.

Notwithstanding whether they carried a lock, only about 30% actually used it to its fullest at any given spot in any given neighborhood at any given time.

Let me explain what I mean by “to its fullest”:  By that I’m referring to the “New York” technique, where you run the cable through the frame and through the front wheel and then around a serious anchor of some kind, like a rail or a lamp post.  A step down from that, somewhat less “serious” would be putting the cable only through the front wheel and then around the anchor.

A simple loop through the frame and he front tire to prevent and impulse thief from riding away with your bike. This would NEVER work in New York.

Finally, less serious still, and something I’d never seen done, but actually pretty common in Holland , it seems, is just looping the cable through the frame and through the front wheel but not anchoring it to anything, an approach that does little more than prevent someone from actually riding  your bike away,  aimed, presumably, at the impulse thief, the one with the barking dogs who decides to “borrow” a bike for a while…

All of this struck me as illogical.

Either it’s safe to leave your bike in Delft, or it’s not.  What causes some people to be,clearly, very concerned about theft and some not at all?  What external factors are at play?  Location?  Quality of the neighborhood?  Quality of the bike?

But no matter how hard I tried, I could discern no patterns. Everywhere I looked there were at least some people who did serious locking and some who did no locking at all, and I began to ask myself how come?  Assuming all these people had the same degree of local knowledge, it should be all one thing or all the other.  Either a neighborhood is safe for leaving your bicycle, or it’s not.

But, no, every neighborhood had just about the same ratio of locked to unlocked.

Night versus day?  Nope, the same.

Okay, then, it must have to do with the quality of the bike.  Newer, nicer bikes get locked; older less desirable ones can survive less protection.

Nope.  Some of the nicest looking bikes were unlocked; some of the crappiest ones chained up like a Brinks truck.

I looked and I looked and I tried like heck to find some kind of pattern, some kind of guiding intelligence to all this seemingly erratic bike locking behavior, but I could find nothing.

At which point it occurred to me that this might be a manifestation of something a lot more interesting than just the external reality of the relative likelihood, under any specific combination of factors, of having your bike stolen, but, rather, a function of any particular person’s interior landscape, which is to say, how they feel about the possibility of getting their bike stolen.

Now, I know this might sound a little far-fetched, but I’m telling you, I became obsessed with trying to figure out why some people lock their bikes and some people don’t, and we’re not talking about some small number of bikes used by a marginal amount of people, we’re talking about a bazillion bikes used by everybody.

And I concluded that at the end of the day, it’s all about the inner life, and I would bet that somebody could come up with a personality profile that would be able to predict whether you are a person who locks your bike in Holland or one who doesn’t, and it would be all about how you feel about the possibility of having it stolen.  A person who is going to be beside himself or herself if their bike goes missing, that person is going to lock it, every time, but, when you think of it, it’s not so much about the bike as about the feeling, or the anticipation of the bad feeling, should it be stolen.  Someone who doesn’t lock their bike has concluded, on some level, that if their bike should be the one in the haystack that does indeed have the bad luck to be selected for theft, well, it’ll be a bad feeling, but not that bad, and preventing it isn’t worth having to futz with the cable twenty times a day.

Somehow, there’s a lesson there, something to do with paying attention to—and in some measure managing—the feeling and the emotional equation, irrespective of the intrinsic value of the bike.  Someone with a rusted out, single gear workhorse that’s seen better days might nonetheless be vulnerable to intense bad feelings if it’s stolen, unlikely though that may be.  Conversely, someone with a new multi-speed beauty (and I saw lots and lots of them completely unsecured) might view its potential theft as a glitch in the road they could live with if they had to.  Does that mean poor folks lock their bikes and rich ones don’t? Again, nope, at least not from what I could assess from the aspect, clothing and demeanor of the folks I saw actually going to their bikes and riding away on them.  No external pattern at all.  None.

Maybe it’s about the value of “getting your mind right” as the guard counseled Cool Hand Luke; maybe it’s about  finding ways to craft for yourself  the best psychological and emotional architecture to move through your days, your particular days for your particular self.

I was reminded of the time I lived in London for a couple of years.  It’s not true that you need an umbrella in London:  You need at least six. Why?  Because when you get up in the morning and it’s raining, you take your umbrella.  In the afternoon, it’s perfectly sunny so you leave it at the office because you either forget it or you decide you don’t want to futz with it when you don’t need it, and, besides, you look like a dope walking around in the bright sunshine with an umbrella, or, at  least, like a Monty Python character.  A few days later it’s raining in the morning again, but your umbrella is at the office, and, on the way to the Tube there are forty guys selling umbrellas (they’re in on the cosmic con) so you buy another one, and now you’ve got two at the office and none at home.  Over time, this goes on and on with various permutations, like the fox rowing the turtle and the snake back and forth across the river, until you’ve got at least six of them all in one place or the other, and you find yourself spending inordinate amounts of time dealing with the “umbrellas issue”, thinking about it, deciding, anticipating, wondering what the weather is going to do, to the point  where what should be an afterthought at best has now intruded insidiously on your daily routine.

But then maybe, like me, you hear some weather geek on the Beeb talking about how he’s done a comprehensive analysis of the weather reports over the last fifty years and determined that if you look only at the specific commuter hours in London and ask yourself how many times in any given year does it rain during those particular hours, the answer… twelve.

And you say to yourself, like I did, hey, wait a minute.  Are you telling me that if I’m willing to let myself get rained on twelve times over the course of a year, then I can forget about this umbrella business altogether and never have to think about it again?

The answer is yes, but you do have to “get your mind right”  so that when you do get rained on, one of those twelve times, you can remind yourself that as unpleasant as this might be in this moment, it beats the hell out of the daily umbrella game.  Or, as Lance Armstrong once said, “Pain only lasts a little while, but giving up lasts forever…”

That’s the way it is with the bikes in Holland, I’m sure of it.   “Nothing is either good nor bad lest thinking make it so.”

And the further question I’ve been puzzling over, but haven’t answered yet, is which kind of person am I more likely to want to spend time with?  The kind who locks their bike, or the kind who doesn’t?  The one thing I know for sure is that they’re going to be very different people.

Begging the question

“… and that begs the question.”  I hate it when people say that, and I hate it for two reasons:  One,  because it’s using that phrase completely erroneously, and two, I hate it because I hate it, which is to say I’m not proud of hating it, because there’s no good reason to hate it, but I just do, and it’s all Gandleman’s fault.

Gandleman.  I’ll get to him…

People say something “begs the question” when what they really mean is that it gives rise to a question;  that given what you’ve just said,  an obvious additional question to ask about it would be…

Like this:

Somebody says, “The other day Joe went into a bar with a frog on his head, and Phil the bartender hit it with a frying pan and gave Joe a concussion.”

And then the next person says, “Well, that begs the question:  Why did Joe have a frog on his head?”  As in:  The first sentence is practically “begging” the second one to be asked.

But that’s not what “begging the question” is, or what it refers to.

“Begging the Question” is a specific logical fallacy propounded in formal Aristotelian logic (with a parallel in symbolic Boolean logic, too) that has nothing at all to do with “begging” in the sense of supplication, importuning or asking.

“Begging” is used in the old, antiquated sense to mean “lacking”.  Did you ever hear the expression that something “beggars the imagination”?  Same sense, same root.  It means you lack enough imagination to even conceive of whatever preposterous thing you have been confronted with.  “How people would react if Dolores wears that hat into church beggars the imagination.”

So, “begging the question” doesn’t mean fervently and obviously requiring further inquiry; it means that the question that should be there in the first place, isn’t, making the original statement logically fallacious at the outset.  Huh?

I know, I know, that’s sort of the way I felt about it at first, and if you think that’s bad, you should see St. Anselm’s proof of God.  My suggestion?  Find Gandelman.

I’ll explain:

For a short time when I first went off to college I had the ludicrous notion that I would be a philosophy major.  Looking back these many years later, it is easy to see how insane an idea that was, but, at the time, it made a great deal of fractured sense to me, I guess because I found it interesting and I was naïve enough to think that perhaps some of these twisted, obsessive over-thinkers might actually lead me to some kind of path out of my own pall of confusion and despair, something I was in favor of at the time.

And who knows?  Had it not been for St. Anselm and Gandelman, I might have continued on and been reciting epistemological truisms to this day as I work on the road crew of the State highway authority.

It seems I was constantly running into Gandelman.  If I signed up for a class, he would be in it, too:  The Philosophy Major track.  He was a squat, pear-shaped fellow, swarthy with a full goatee, the better to adopt a contemplative pose as he stroked it, looking into the middle distance, absorbing and digesting the complex, labyrinthine trains  of thought being delivered to us by the shovel full.

One of those classes was “Introduction to Logic” with the first half devoted to classic Aristotelian stuff (you know:  “All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal”) and the second half to Boolean “symbolic” logic, which basically takes Aristotelian logic and turns it into X’s and O’s and equal signs and so on, and which would (who knew?) become the basis for all the early computer programming.

It was in that class that I got my mind poisoned forever by taking a bite of the apple and learning what “begging the question” actually means.

Aristotle called it petitio principia which roughly translates into “assuming the initial point” and it complains that what you’re doing is making a big deal out of supposedly proving something that doesn’t actually need proving because you’ve already established it as true, or at least assumed it as true, right at the outset in the first thing you said.

Aristotle: Major nit-picker

So quit waving your arms and thumping your desk and dishing out all these histrionics:  You’re not proving anything ‘cause it’s already in the premise, Big Boy.

It’s sort of like a circular argument, although Aristotle would be annoyed if you said that because, when you really get into the nitty gritty (which we’re not going to do), it’s actually pretty different, in a nit-picky sort of way, but then, what was Aristotle if not nit-picky?

In the main, “Begging the Question” is the fallacy of sneaking into your premise as an assumption the very thing you are making great show of proving, and you see it all the time.  One really simplistic (and therefore somewhat unfair) example would be “God exists (conclusion) because the bible says he does (premise, with the unspoken, “sneaked in” assumption that the bible is the unchallenged word of God).”  There’s a “missing” question here, one that is going a-begging, having to do, obviously, with the reliability of the truthfulness of the bible.

Like I say, that’s a very simplistic example.  Usually they are much, much more subtle, but no less fallacious.  Now, bear in mind that “fallacious” doesn’t necessarily mean “wrong”—it just means unproven, from a formal logic point of view.  And you see these arguments all the time, on some of the most contentious issues of our day:  The Death Penalty, Abortion, Gay rights, Affirmative Action and so on.  Maybe we’re going to work all this stuff out someday, let’s hope so, but constantly “begging the question” about them isn’t going  to help matters much because, on some level, everybody senses that there’s something not quite right about the arguments, even if they can’t put their finger on what it is exactly, unlike Gandelman.

Gandleman could put his finger on anything, and he could do it in a millisecond.  We’d all be sitting in class, struggling with the nuances, going back and forth with the professor, getting more and more confused as we went along, trying to tease out an understanding from the dense text and the opaque examples, until, at some point, Gandelman would raise his hand and explain it all, simply and concisely in a seemingly disinterested monotone, as if he had finally had enough and it was time to move on.

There is no way I can overstate how annoying this was.  It was both a discussion stopper and a buzz kill, believe me, and it happened in class after class, from Ontology 101 to Introduction to Theology, from Epistemology to Ethics:  We all struggle; Gandelman falls off a log.

The final straw for me, in two respects, was St. Anselm’s Proof of God.

I was beginning to believe all these dusty philosophers and theologians were using very different methods and traveling a great variety of avenues—to all arrive at pretty much the same place, and that was at some kind of crossroads or chasm or wall that was the furthermost point they could travel with their minds, with logic, but that point was never where they intended to wind up, they had a lot further to go than that, but in each and every case they hit a block that couldn’t be overcome with logic.  Yes, they all needed to get past that point and, presto chango, they all managed to get to the “other side” and then continue on with logic, but for each and every one of them there was a spot in their thinking that they couldn’t get past just by thinking about it.   For Kierkegaard, he referred to the block point as a “chasm” and the process of getting over it “the leap”.  Only then could you move on to the places he wanted to take you, now back to using logic.  Others used different terminology, but it was all the same.  For the theologians it usually involved some kind of “faith” or “willful belief” that got you from the front end, over the hump, and then on your way on the other side. Pascal called it a “wager”.  Hobbes was big on boredom.

For Sartre it was “utter despair”:  Until you reach that point—an emotional abyss that you arrive at intellectually and by “knowing” (an odd way to arrive at a feeling)— you’re stuck on the near side.  But when you’ve crossed that point, when you have literally not one shred of hope left, then and only then you can start acting “in good faith” to embrace real “freedom” instead of doing what most of us do which is run like hell away from true freedom, because we haven’t figured out, yet, that there’s no point.  To anything.

Even Descartes, Mr. “I think therefore  I am”,  had to do a triple axel to get to a proof of God, one that could not be arrived at until you prove your own existence but which is (are you ready?) “logically prior”.  Huh?

Every single one of them arrived at a spot that you had to get over but which couldn’t be accomplished by applying classical philosophical or logical methodologies.  If you didn’t find some other way to get over it, around it or through it, you were stuck.

I found this disconcerting.  It was one thing to struggle through all this painful stuff, constantly having my own intellectual inadequacies highlighted by Gandelman’s contrasting facile brilliance, if it was actually going to get me someplace in terms of figuring out my own universe.  But that was becoming doubtful, more so by the minute.

And then came St. Anselm’s proof of God.

Here’s a little taste:

Even a fool, when he hears of … a being than which nothing greater can be conceived … understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his understanding.… And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.… Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.

Get it?  Me neither.  At least, not at first.  So I spent all night parsing the sentences, putting parentheses around phrases like “that than which a greater cannot be thought to exist” and calling that “A” and “that than which a greater can be thought to exist” calling that “B” and so on and so on.

Then I went to class the next day, pretty much as confused as when I started, and the professor opened by asking, “Has anyone been able to figure out what St. Anselm is getting at here?”

Profoundly bored, Gandleman slowly raised his hand, heard his name called, and without looking up from the book he was reading (why, after all devote one’s whole attention to something as simple as St. Anselm?) and said, “If you can think of it, it isn’t God.”

He was right, of course, and it was at that moment that I said to myself three things:

1.  I hate this guy, Gandleman.

2.  Gandelman is the perfect philosophy major.

3.   I am not.

He should be a philosophy major.   I’m not sure what I should be, but, based upon a simple comparison to Gandelman, I should not be a philosophy major.  Clearly.  And so I moved on, with some reluctance, deciding to see if maybe folks like Melville or Apollinaire had a better lever for tapping in to what I was after, but, still, I retained a residual interest in the theological aspects of what I had been studying, probably because I was suffering from a kind of “cognitive dissonance” that I was interested in resolving.  That dissonance flowed from the contradiction between what I was reading and learning about theology and religion, most of which strained credulity, I thought, but which was at war with a restless and ill-formed but intense and very real sense of the existence of a spiritual component to life that I had discovered deep within myself at a very early age, for reasons I couldn’t explain, and despite a home life that would have been likely to propel me in the opposite direction (and which, to some degree, did).

I was listening carefully and with an open mind to those who argued that belief in God was an act of weakness flowing from a lack of courage, the courage to face life honestly, an inability or unwillingness to look the reality of our corporeal existence and eventual death and nothingness square in the eye. According to them, and it made some sense to me, belief in God was a Feuerbachian projection of our deepest wishes onto some manufactured God, a perception cobbled together by our interior selves to be whatever we needed God to be.

But it didn’t feel like fear to me, not then and not for many years to come as, from time to time, I would find that this core belief of mine in the existence of God and the goodness of God and, maybe just this, the presence of God, whether rooted in reality or in wishful thinking, not only served me well but was, at times, the singular engine of my survival.

Throughout that time, and to this day, in an age in which there are those who argue with great fervor and persuasiveness that, yes, belief in God is an irrational manifestation of fear, I have returned always to that original contention that it doesn’t feel like fear, and then one day I knew and I understood why it didn’t feel like fear and that for me at least, my firm and unshakeable, and, yes, extremely helpful belief in God was and is not an act of fear:  It is an act of humility.

Just that; simply that.

One more reason I like the Dutch

We’re on a three car trolley late at night coming home from dinner, the cars maybe half full.  It’s pretty quiet, a low murmur of conversation.  I notice that three people are on cellphones, and I notice this because I see them, not because I hear them.  The Dutch, unlike most other people in the world, and most certainly Americans, have figured out that you can have a conversation on a cellphone without raising your voice any more than you would in a normal conversation and by so doing have thusly achieved what I thought was the unachievable, which is the considerate, non-annoying use of the cellphone.

Amazing.  Hats off.

Tomorrow… Amsterdam.


# # #

N E X T :  Amsterdam



[click any image to launch gallery]

N E X T :  Amsterdam


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