Daily Diary – Tuesday July 20

by gregbigelow on 21 July 2010

The first day of formal studies – the second or third day of exploration. Thus far, all goes well. After waking up from bed, many things have occurred. I will attempt to catalog some of them here.

Boats (houseboats and otherwise) on a nearby canal. Their bathrooms lead directly into the water. Avoid swimming in that water (if the color didn’t already inspire the impulse.)

First, we were introduced to several excellent individuals.

Mirjam (pronounced Meer – ee – um) is the manager. She is the boss.

Eva is the assistant program manager.

Tricia Whiting is the lowly intern (though she seems like an awesome and helpful individual).

Note: Most of the information that we then received can be located in your program handbook. I will trust you to refer to it rather than want to read a tedious and likely inaccurate summary. However, here are some following points of particular interest, in no particular order.

1)     RAs can be reached at teamphk@gmail.com or +3164110778 but if calling from a Dutch phone, you’ll want 064110778.

2)    The city is a semicircle. Navigation means engaging in a geometry of curves rather than straight lines. This is often quite confusing. The brain must be trained.

3)    Remember to check in and check out of your buses. Don’t let your money be drained on phantom rides!

4)    About 20% of Amsterdam bikes meet with a gruesome fate each year. Don’t let this happen to yours.

5)    Tipping. Usually 5% – 10%. Though sometimes nothing at all. It seems like a generally chill affair, from what I can tell. Even if you don’t tip, be sure to be friendly to service workers, as they are often bored.

A Most Excellent Lecture

I believe our lecturer for the day is named Geert de Vries. He was most professorial, friendly, and clear. A great presenter of information. We covered a good deal of Netherlands history by taking a look at four major themes.

  1. Necessity of solving dilemmas of collective action.
  2. Commonwealth of Burghers (middle to upper class bourgeoisie types)
  3. The politics of accommodation
  4. Bending with the winds of change

While I won’t go over the entire lecture in detail, as we were recently emailed the slides, I’ll try to go over some interesting points (while still leaving out lots of engaging stuff).

Solving Dilemmas of Collective Action

This is otherwise known as the “free-rider” problem. If you’re a fan of game theory, think prisoner’s dilemma. In short, there are lots of situations in which the greatest overall good can be achieved by getting people to cooperate, but each individual stands to gain the most personal benefit by defecting from said enterprise.

Our professor mentioned the issue of coordinated hill-building, which dates back to 500 BC. The hills are necessary given that about 40% of Amsterdam is below sea-level. Scary stuff! In any case, the dilemma is how a group of individuals comes together (without state coercion) to build these hills. How did these groups prevent against any particular individual defecting from the enterprise and engage in a bit of free-riding, lounging back while the others do all the hard shoveling in knowledge that they will get to benefit from the hill anyway? This is a deep and important question, relevant as much today as back then.

This leads on to the myth of the “Polder Model.” As a reminder, the polder is the low territory which is surrounded by dikes. Were the Dutch particularly well-versed in the development of social organization prior to the rise of a centralized state? What effect does this still have on the national character today? Is that effect due to a continuation of a psychological state that originated in 500 BC or is it primarily a myth made true through its social enactment?

A Commonwealth of Burghers

(as opposed to a dictatorship of French Fries)

History of Western Dominance: Spain/Portugal –> the Netherlands –> Great Britain –> U.S

The Netherlands had its time as world Hegemon during the so-called Dutch Golden Age, during the 16th and 17th centuries. This country was small, but it packed an economic punch. It dominated the seas, used its state-backed corporation (VOC) to wipe out local populations in order to further its spice trading, and generally moved around a lot of money. It was also a relative haven of tolerance at the time, taking in Jews (kicked out of the waning-in-power Spain and Portugal during the inquisition), tolerating Catholics, allowing so-called heretics a bit of free speech, leading the world in artistic and scientific enterprise etc.

They were powerful and had a flourishing society. This economic rise led to a powerful middle/upper class that was fond of trade.

In general, trade leads to a kind of pragmatic tolerance. For one, you start interacting with a lot of different cultures and ideas from around the world. Second, you don’t want to kill your trading partners on the basis of which idol they worship or how they go about scratching their back. Doing this means less money for you and your friends. Moral idealism (especially petty moralizing based on a strong in-group / out-group attitude) limits one’s economic potential quite a bit.

The Politics of Accommodation

4-5 historical “pillars” of society. They are… the Protestants, the Catholics, the Liberals, and the Socialists. No one pillar held a majority. This leads to an approach to politics based on… accommodation! Even if the base of the pillars hated the people in the other pillars, the elites were forced to cooperate in order to let the state successfully function!

Apparently, this leads to a rather boring and moderate politics that isn’t very polarized and which necessitates a great deal of coalition building.

Bending with the Winds of Change

As a relatively minor nation on the world state (following their decline from power) the Dutch government is apparently very keen on going with the flow in regards to both internal and external issues. This kind of pragmatic tolerance has led to things like the functional regulation of cannabis and prostitution rather than a moralistic crackdown. They do seem to be on the leading edge of an overall Western move in a similar direction (if trends over the last 50 or so years continue.)

The Challenge of Globalization

Globalization producers winners and losers. The worldly middle and upper classes generally stand to profit while poorer, more traditional segments of society often feel insecure about economic developments and tension placed on group identity. From my understanding, these forces have been at play throughout the entire world over the past several hundred years. It will be interesting to keep them in mind as we examine the microcosm of the Netherlands.

An Introductory Tour of Amsterdam’s Streets

Following lecture in the morning, we split into two groups to be led by two volunteer Amsterdam locals. They kindly showed us around some parts of their city in the form of a walking tour. One of the most interesting things my group discussed was how the layout of the city had changed over the course of its history. According to our guide, it is in fact initially improbable that a location like Amsterdam (with a foundation of sand, lack of quick access to the ocean, stagnant and poor fresh water supply) would become the center of the world’s major power in the 17th century. Nevertheless, its central location in the Netherland’s trading empire ensured its growth. In practice, that meant waging a constant battle against the water, laying down dykes and expanding Amsterdam’s territory. Indeed, when Amsterdam was originally constructed, the place where we now sleep was underwater.

Getting a cup of coffee inside the De Waag “castle” in New Market

A New City (on Camera)

Getting to know a city takes time. I’ve attempted at capturing a glimpse of the spirit of arriving in, and getting more comfortable with, Amsterdam in this video. I hope you notice some elements of your own experience. I, at least, was initially confused and overwhelmed by the winding streets, perhaps not helped by the raging jet-lag. Quickly, however, I became attached to a canal or two, gaining confidence as we shopped at the “Albert” and moved about small segments of the city without totally losing ourselves in the semi-circled geography.

I am interested in what Rob said at the end of our morning lecture. He told us to keep in mind the five main ideas that Geert de Vries presented. The fact, that there were several main ideas is partly why the lecture was so very effective. It simplified a massive amount of history into a handful of takeaway points. Now, we have some general heuristics that we can carry with us as we confront the messy particulars of life in Amsterdam. Of course, those points are generalizations, and might very possibly mislead us at times. Nevertheless, they are necessary. We are constantly categorizing and simplifying our personal experience anyway, putting the sensory data of the world into nice little boxes. To be given new boxes based on the history of the Netherlands, rather than weird subconscious biases or whatnot, is a valuable thing indeed. After all, the end result of what we gain from our time in Amsterdam is not so much what we do, but how we process what we do. And that comes down to the models we hold in mind as we move about the city. In fact, this is true in all of life. Perhaps it is the physical dislocation of coming to a new place that brings this into especially sharp relief.

So what of our experience so far? To go somewhere new keeps your brain on edge. Life acquires a strange kind of vividness, or oppositely, a kind of fantasy. Whatever the particulars of the effect, there are undoubtedly cognitive consequences of removing yourself from home. Thus, I think it interesting that we are coupling this movement with social science research. What will be the effect on how we think? Are we made more observant, for example, by the simple act of dislocating ourselves from some of our familiar surroundings? And what of the dynamic between experiencing and writing? In what way will the constant output of words change how we process our lived experience?

Maybe these will prove interesting questions for you as we move forward. Personally, it seems as though a long time has passed in the period of a few days. Such are the life-stretching effects of travel. I can only hope that they continue, that I maintain a certain degree of mindfulness as I pass my days in Amsterdam. It is a city that quickly grows on a person. It’s relatively small, compact nature inspires confidence in the feet and mind. Everything seems within reach. A mix of youth and energy and travelers with a strong sense of local identity and pride in a city that once ruled the world and, despite its small size, remains one of the world’s most well-known locations. It is a rich place to study, a churning collision of peoples and cultures. Day one of formal activities complete, we set off in further exploration.

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