November 29, 2011

An Electrical Blackout Just For Me?

After the American Century

The storm that lashed Denmark Saturday night with hurricane winds caused a blackout at our house. We were watching television when suddenly all the lights on the ground floor went out, and the film we were enjoying disappeared. The buglar alarm began to ring, as it does when forced over on to battery power. Not its forceful full screaming mad sound, but an insistent call for assistance. Looking out the window, my wife and I immediately saw that the neighbors were not affected, and we soon found that the floors above and below us still had power. It seemed obvious that the problem could be solved by changing a fuse. We found a flashlight and a fuse, made the change, and. . . nothing happened. By this time we were getting a bit cross, missing the film, and quickly put in another fuse, also without any result.

All this time the burglar alarm continued to ring, intermittently, and we began to wonder if we might be hearing this all night. So we called the security company and asked if they could stop it, and of course also reported that the power outage was the reason. We could hear the wind howling.

It being the middle of a weekend, the last thing we wanted to do was call an electrician, because coming for an emergency on a Saturday would cost us a minimum of $200, based on past experiences when we needed a plumber or a locksmith. So I decided to go outside in the rain and wind to see if by any chance I could spot the problem. It seemed unlikely, but worth a try.

Outside there was lots of wind, but little rain, and I shone the flashlight up on the side of the house where the four electric lines come in. They all seemed very securely attached. But then, from the corner of my eye I saw and in my right ear I heard a buzzing bluish spark. One of those four lines was loose at the other end, where it joined the main line! 

We called the power company, assuming that we would have to wait, perhaps even to Monday, but glad we knew the problem. It was not a short-circuit caused by a leak, for example, which would have been hard to find, expensive to fix, and in the meantime a danger.  This was far better, as the problem was not our fault, and we would not have to pay anything.

Remarkably, a crew was on the scene in less than two hours from the time we called, and by 11 PM a truck with a lift had taken a man up to the loose wire, sizzling there in the rain, and his nonchalance made him casually heroic in the gusting wind. In less than two minutes he had reattached the electrical line and the power was on again in our house.

What does this event mean? Well, that some things work really well in Denmark. But not everything. One of the most frequent causes of blackouts is a failure to trim trees growing beneath power lines. Did I forget to mention this? The electrical line that failed is slightly entangled in a tree, and our neighbor whose windows are closer to the connection than ours, asked that someone from the city come and cut it back. Nothing was done, however, as the municipality seems to be saving money on such things.

That said, it nevertheless did seem rather amazing that of all the houses on this  street, ours should be the one affected, and only one floor, where I happened to be. After all, my last book was about electrical blackouts. Power failures are usually more widely shared, but this one was quite private.

November 25, 2011

New Danish Government Breaks its Word and Slashes University Teaching Budgets

After the American Century                          

Many hoped that the new socialist-led government would offer a dramatic improvement over the previous right-wing coalition. But in many areas where they promised change, they have continued the old policies. Some of the promises they have broken were made with extreme clarity, and then forgotten immediately after they came to power.

One of the most notorious examples was the promise, given in writing as an unshakeable commitment, that the hospital emergency room in Svenborg would not be closed. It serves several islands and the southern part of the larger island where I live, This \signed promise was broken as soon as they took office. Now they declare it will be closed. I firmly believe that some people will die because it will take them over an hour from the time an ambulance arrives until they can get to the only emergency room left on these islands, in Odense, where I live. This is a blow to a beleaguered area that already has trouble attracting residents. Before the election, the Socialists claimed they would help such outlying areas, and not continue the policy of centralization that is undermining them.

Likewise, the new Socialist-led government promised to roll back a sizable cut to the university budgets proposed by the old government before the election. In Denmark a certain amount is paid to each university for every student it matriculates. The old government proposed to cut this amount by 3000 kroner per student, and the new government now agrees. In 2012 Danish universities will find their teaching budgets reduced by c. 600 million kroner, or more than 100 million dollars. (Those who read Danish, see the news stories here, and here) To put this another way, support in most of the humanities will fall by 6.5% per student, but given rising costs the effect will feel like a 10% reduction. This decision will force universities to cut the number of teaching hours, put students into larger classes, fire some faculty, and slow down the purchase of essential equipment. UPDATE, October 2012. These things are all happening. There are now "language" classes, focused on improving oral proficiency, with more than 30 students, in some cases more than 40. This means that during an entire semester a student in such a class will only speak English for about 20 minutes each, at most about two minutes per week. It means that new BA programs are implemented without hiring any additional faculty or providing any additional money in the budget, while announcing goals that cannot possibly be met given the faculty and resources.

These cuts are twice as large as the increases announced for research, amounting to c. 300 million kroner for 2012. These funds are not all funneled to the universities, however. For example, some research money will go to hospitals or innovation support institutions. In any case, the research funds that do go to universities cannot be used for teaching. The plans for 2013 call for even larger reductions for teaching, which will create a severe crisis.

Before the election the Socialists said (or rather they pretended to believe) that increased funding for education was essential, because the only real asset Denmark has is its people. A highly educated and skilled population will be needed to compete in the global market, but this new government, like the old one, now is unwilling to pay for it.  SDU's Rektor Dr. Jens Oddershed, speaking for the rektors of all the universities, declared that the government had broken its word.He was being diplomatic. A more scientifically objective view would be that the Socialists are cynical prevaricators.

Readers inside Denmark know that these are just two of many examples of the socialist-led government's unapologetic refusal to honor campaign promises. Like the previous government, the Socialists lack integrity. They prolaim one thing, but do quite another. In a few areas they are better, but in general it seems that, as George Orwell put it in the conclusion to Animal Farm, "The pigs have become men."

Where might the money come from to support hospitals and education? This government has refused to roll back tax cuts given to the wealthy by the previous right-wing government. Anyone can now see that the cuts were based on miscalculations and that they were un-financed.

Why should universities and hospitals be cut instead of rolling back the tax cuts for the wealthy? This is not even remotely a socialist program. It is not even an intelligent capitalist program. The new government so far has been a severe disappointment.

November 24, 2011

What we can be thankful for on Thanksgiving

After the American Century

A cynic might say that we have nothing to be thankful about on Thanksgiving. But there are some good things. I am delighted that Sarah Palin is not Vice President, for example, and glad, too, that McCain is not living in the White House. I am pleased that US energy use (per capita) has leveled off in recent years, and that the shift to renewable energy is continuing, more slowly than I would like, but it is happening.

It is a good thing that the Cold War came to an end, and that the economies of Eastern Europe continue to improve - a story that has been rather swept aside with all the focus on Greece's deficit. Likewise, little Iceland has clawed its way back from the brink of collapse. Denmark has gotten rid of a very bad government and replaced it with one slightly better. The Germans remain willing to bail out the failed economies of Southern Europe, and the French show signs of dumping their prime minister, whom I never have liked much. Italy has finally gotten rid of that buffoon Berlusconi. As for Spain, the economy is rotten and the socialists have been cast out by the voters, but at least their football is sublime.

Many bemoan the low house prices in much of the western world, but this is a good thing for millions of first-time home buyers, who also get lower interest rates than in a booming economy. My own house is worth a bit less, but I am not planning on moving any time soon.  The loss for me and the majority of people is more theoretical than real, and those starting out a life can get a good deal, often after years of waiting.

I am also glad that the US did not make the turkey the national bird, as Ben Franklin suggested. For in that case it might have become a protected species, and instead we might be eating genetically enhanced butterball bald eagles.

November 12, 2011

Benjamin Franklin's London House

After the American Century

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was one of the most famous Americans in his own time, and he has remained an iconic figure ever since. He is on the $100 bill, his Autobiography is still in print, and some of the institutions he helped create, notably the University of Pennsylvania, are flourishing. He was interested in everything, and his curiosity led him to discover that lightning was a form of electricity. He invented a practical and efficient stove. He discovered the existence of the Gulf Stream. In his 80s, when his eyes were weak, he invented bifocals. Franklin was also a consummate politician and a key figure in creating the American Revolution.  Yet one looks in vain for a Franklin house or homestead in the United States. The houses where he lived have not survived.

The reasons for this are not hard to find. Franklin lived abroad most of the time from 1757 until 1785, almost entirely in London and Paris. In both capitals he represented the Americans. First, in London, he served as representative for several colonies in their affairs with the British government. Before the Revolution, he functioned as a proto-ambassador. Afterwards, he was the first American ambassador to France (1776-1785).  

In London between 1757 and 1775 he lived at 36 Craven Street, close to Charring Cross Station (built much later, of course). This house was opened as a museum in 2005, and it is well worth a visit. Fortunately, the house is easily accessible, being just a few minutes walk from Trafalgar Square. No doubt Franklin chose to live there because it was near government offices. It was also a convenient place for his many scientific friends to drop in.

The Georgian house was relatively new when Franklin rented its best rooms and hired a family to keep house for him. It survived fire, flood, and World War II's bombings, which destroyed several other houses nearby. The place was nearly falling down when saved for posterity. The restored rooms are largely bare of furniture, but their woodwork and arrangement are preserved.

Visitors are taken on  a tour into the past by an costumed actress/guide who holds a dialogue with disembodied voices that have been pre-recorded. The visit to each room becomes a dramatic vignette, that seizes the imagination more than one expects. This sort of thing can be done badly, but it worked well for me, and seemed historically accurate. For the people whom I took the tour with, this technique worked also extremely well. It was like attending an innovative theatrical production.

The next time you are in London, visit the house and get a glimpse of Franklin and of how he lived in c. 1770. If you are interested in doing research on Franklin, note that the top floor of the house has been made into the Robert H. Smith Scholarship Centre, with an array of source materials, plus links to Yale University and other centers that hold Franklin materials.

Finally, in case you have not already read it, Franklin's Autobiography is an excellent book, available in many editions, and also in digital format.

November 06, 2011

Cleveland's Marvelous Public Library

After the American Century

I had the pleasure of spending one day in the Cleveland Public Library. The librarians were knowledgeable, courteous, and efficient. The two buildings were handsome places to work, but the real test of a public library or an archive for a historian is what one finds. Sometimes an entire day yields almost nothing, perhaps due to poor luck, but often due to poorly organized materials, finding aids that are inadequate, or staff who make only a minimal effort. Sometimes, I get what I hoped to find, and go away satisfied, which was my experience on a similar mission at the Boston Public Library a year ago. But once in a great while I find much more than I had dared expect, and if this happens it almost always is because the librarians and archivists are real professionals. 

Cleveland Public Library, the new building holds the photographic collections

In this particularly happy research expedition, I spent almost all my time in the photographic collection, housed in the newer of the two library buildings and located on the fourth floor. All the images that I requested seemed to be near at hand, not buried in a vault or stored off-site. Moreover, the staff, led by the extremely capable Margaret Baughman, took a real interest in my project, and suggested places to look that I had no way of knowing about.

In the space of a single day, I reviewed hundreds and hundreds of images, selecting 14 in the end for reproduction. These images were scanned and ready for me as digital files the following day. Moreover, the price was extremely fair, in an age when every archive routinely demands $100 or more for each image. I have paid as much as $500 for a single image from a well-known magazine, whose name you might guess but I will not specify here. Such high prices force historians to make compromises or omit images, unless they are fortunate enough to find an oasis like the Cleveland Public Library.

Below, I reproduce one of the images I found there, but to fit it within this blog it is a mere jpeg file, not the wonderful TIFF scan provided to me. This is too large for easy use on this blog.

This image shows part of the Ford Motor Company's Model T assembly line. This is how it looked in c. 1915, when the method of manufacturing had just being invented. It was so new it did not yet have a widely used name. Originally, this photograph was used in one of the Cleveland newspapers, now defunct, whose images were donated to the Cleveland Public Library. I amusing it in America's Assembly Line, to be published by MIT Press in 2013, a centennial history of the assembly line in American culture.

Many of the best things in life are unexpected. The efficiency, intelligence and helpfulness of this library staff make Cleveland an attractive place to do research, and I very much expect to return for help with a quite different project, dealing with a young man who grew up in Ohio and edited a newspaper there for some years before the Civil War.

November 01, 2011

Halloween in Boston

After the American Century

In the Halloween streets of Boston costumes. Dracula in the subway, a cowboy in the diner, and a gypsy in the bookstore. Free candy at almost every cash register, and even in a serious office a bit of playful clothing, an odd hat, flashing electric earrings or a wild orange tie.

Whatever may be wrong with the US economy, whatever fears may clutch at the heart (or the wallet), Americans still know how to be playful and a little crazy. There is an edge, and it is not getting dull.

This playfulness should not suggest frivolity, for it is the flip-side of the energy and drive that Americans pass down through the generations. Yes, there are problems, and I write about them here in this space often enough. But there is no lack of enthusiasm and shared good humor nevertheless.

OK, this is just Halloween, but the levity is a sign of good mental health, despite the bitterness about the banks, despite the partisan politics, despite the 9% unemployment, and despite the weight of individual difficulties. Walking around the city today was a reminder that the country is far more than the sum of its problems.