May 27, 2018 § Leave a comment
Nöden är uppfinningarnas moder.
That’s Swedish for “Necessity is the mother of invention” (unless I’m just completely mistaken).
For Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin, industrial design students at Sweden’s Lund University in 2005, the necessity was a new law that required children under the age of 15 to wear a helmet when riding a bicycle. They understood that many people, including kids, don’t like wearing traditional bike helmet’s, so they wanted to create something that people would enjoy wearing and that would still keep them safe. The result was a collar worn around the neck that uses an accelerometer to detect a crash and instantly inflates an airbag to surround the head when needed.
In 2011 the Hövding (or “Chieftain”) passed required safety testing in Europe, receiving CE certification, and is now sold in 17 European countries—as far east as Istanbul—and in Japan. So, to readers in the US, when will you see one on a street near you? Probably not soon.
At first I assumed that the major issue was that Americans just aren’t sold on the idea, so I was hoping for some brave early adopters here to get the ball rolling. (I have the same hope for the Ostrich Pillow, another headgear innovation that I’d like to be the second or third on my block to own.) Or maybe it’s the cost: about $350—and it has to be replaced after deploying. But no, that’s not what’s holding it back, at least not yet. Right now, it’s nearly impossible to get one here.
First of all, according to the company’s website, the Hövding hasn’t met American testing standards for bicycle helmets. Second, it can’t be mailed outside of Europe (Japan has them because the airbags are made there). And third—because I know you’re thinking you’ll take your next vacation to Sweden and bring one back with you—TSA won’t allow one on your flight because of its CO2 cartridge.
As for the safety-standards factor in the States, a 2016 Stanford study shows the product’s potential. Mehmet Kurt, part of the Stanford research team, states that “air bag helmets, with the right initial pressure, can reduce head accelerations five to six times compared to a traditional bicycle helmet.” But the kicker is that “right initial pressure.” If the airbag doesn’t inflate with the maximum amount of air, then a forceful impact could cause the helmet to “bottom out,” and the head would strike the ground (or other obstacle) through the cushioning.
But maybe someday . . . here. The Stanford group calls for a general updating of US helmet standards and testing, which, they say, “are very far behind.” And then they want a more in-depth look at several aspects of the Hövding: how it protects against rotational accelerations and forces, how it performs when dropped from greater heights, what can be done to eliminate bottoming-out issues, and how to make it “smarter.”
Here’s hoping all that can get worked out and the Hövding, or something like it, can make it to our shores. Not only would having “invisible helmets” in the US prevent injuries, but it would also increase my odds of getting to not see one firsthand.
(Taylor Kubota, “Stanford Researchers Show Air Bag Bike Helmets Have Promise,” Stanford News, October 3, 2016)
May 6, 2018 § 3 Comments
For me, the most powerful moment in the movie The Greatest Showman is when the curtain rises on Jenny Lind and the “Swedish Nightingale” belts out “Never Enough” with joyful ferocity, while P. T. Barnum, who hadn’t before heard her sing, watches from the wings, simply amazed. His expression is what I think gobsmacked looks like.
(I have to include here, that the “Never Enough” performance was a team effort. Rebecca Ferguson, the actress who portrayed Lind didn’t actually sing “Never Enough” for the film. Instead, the words of the song were dubbed over by Loren Allred.)
But that name . . . Jenny Lind. Where had I heard it before? Jenny Lind. Jenny Lind. Jenny Lind. Something to do with the NBA? No, that’s Jeremy Lin. Jenny Lind. Jenny Lind. Jenny Lind. It wasn’t that I was familiar with her as a singer, even though no less than the German composer Felix Mendelssohn said of Lind, “She is as great an artist as ever lived; and the greatest I have known.” It wasn’t that I’d heard of how she took Europe by storm and sang for Queen Victoria. No, that wasn’t it, either.
And then as I looked into her story, I realized what it was: the Jenny Lind bed—with it’s turned spindles and simple design. I’ve never owned one and can’t say for sure that I’ve seen one in person. I just remember hearing about Jenny Lind furniture, which is only one example from the cottage industry of items using her name to take advantage of Lind-sanity, including Jenny Lind soup, dolls, melons, bread, tobacco, and even a locomotive.
Lind certainly became a global phenomenon, helped in no small part by Barnum. So before I continue on with her story, it will help to backfill a little with the beginnings of Mr. Barnum’s career. (It’s not quite the same as what’s portrayed in the film.)
Well before being labeled “The Greatest Showman,” Barnum began his entertainment career in 1835, at the age of 25, and would have been hard pressed to call himself a good person, much less a great one. As detailed by Becky Little in Biography, Barnum’s first money-making show exploited a blind, ill, enslaved black woman named Joice Heth. Billing her as the 161-year-old former nursemaid of George Washington and “The Greatest Natural & National Curiosity in the World,” Barnum had entered into an agreement with an R. W. Lindsay of Kentucky, who “bargained, sold, transferred and delivered” her for the purpose of “possession” and “exhibition” for 12 months (the handwritten contract is shown at The Lost Museum Archive). Lind was actually no more than 80 years old, a fact that was revealed through an autopsy after her death, for which Barnum charged admission.
Several years later, Barnum’s exhibition, as described in the Charlotte Courier, included a platypus, an orangutan, a glass blower, automatons, and a combination ventriloquist and magician. But the main attraction was “the most wonderful curiosity in the world,” the “Feejee mermaid,” which turned out to be the torso of a monkey sewn on to the tail of a fish.
As Barnum’s fame grew and ticket sales rose, he was still seen not as a serious entertainer but as a huckster, and he looked for a way to gain respectability. Enter, in 1950, Jenny Lind.
Lind was born in 1820 to an unmarried schoolteacher in Stockholm, Sweden. Her singing talent was discovered when she was nine and she began performing at the age of ten. Before meeting Barnum, the soprano had already become a hit in Europe with her unmatched abilities, but she’d also retired, at the young age of 29. Four years before stepping away from the stage, Lind had spoken with her friend Harriet Grote about her dissatisfaction with performing. As recorded by Henry Scott Holland in Jenny Lind the Artist, 1820-1851, Grote writes,
I manifested some surprise at hearing her speak of her profession with such dislike. She went on to say that it was the Theatre, and the sort of entourage it involved, that was distasteful to her: that at the Opera she was liable to be continually intruded upon by curious idlers and exposed to many indescribable ennuis: that the combined fatigue of acting and singing was exhausting: that the exposure to cold coulisses, after exertions on the stage in a heated atmosphere, was trying to the chest: the labour of rehearsals, tiresome to a degree: and that, altogether, she longed for the time to arrive when she would be rich enough to do without the Theatre—adding, “My wants are few—my tastes simple—a small income would content me.” She would sing occasionally, she said, both for charity and for her friends, as well as for the undying love she felt for the musical Art; but not act, if she could help it.
While Lind planned to be content to “sing occasionally” for charity and friends, it was her devotion to charity that brought her out of retirement. She saw in the American tour that Barnum offered her an opportunity to make money to provide for others. And in the end, she was greatly successful in that, giving 133 performances in the US—93 with Barnum and 40 independently—and earning an amount that is said to be the equivalent of more than $10 million today (Barnum’s profits were even greater). She gave the vast bulk of this money away to causes such as hospitals, churches, scholarships for poor college students, and pension funds, keeping for herself, writes Holland, only enough money to purchase a cottage in the mountains to serve as her home.
Barnum was eager to showcase not only Lind’s talents but her virtue, as well. As he writes in his autobiography, Barnum’s pre-tour promotion included the following in New York papers:
Perhaps I may not make any money by this enterprise; but I assure you that if I knew I should not make a farthing profit, I would ratify the engagement, so anxious am I that the United States should be visited by a lady whose vocal powers have never been approached by any other human being, and whose character is charity, simplicity, and goodness personified.
And according to The Literary World, at the end of Lind’s first concert in the US, Barnum gave her the title “that Angel” and made sure the audience knew that the proceeds from the evening would go to the fire department.
In the film The Greatest Showman, Lind is smitten by Barnum and tries to manipulate him with a kiss in front of reporters. In real life, though, there is no reason to think that she had such feelings for him and would certainly not have treated him in that way. Neither did she fall in love with Mendelssohn or the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, even though both of them have been reported to have fallen in love with her. It is thought that Andersen used her as the inspiration for his story “The Nightingale.” Of her, he writes,
With the perfect feeling of a brother I prize her; I feel myself happy that I know and understand such a soul. May God send her peace, that quiet happiness which she desires for herself! Through Jenny Lind did I first know the holiness of art; through her did I first learn that one must forget one’s self in the service of the Supreme. No books, no men have worked on me as a poet in a better or more ennobling manner than Jenny Lind. . . .
Lind eventually married the German composer Otto Goldschmidt, with whom she lived until her death in 1887.
With the tour of Jenny Lind, Barnum gained at least some of the respect in the entertainment world that he had hoped for, and he found respect in other realms as well, earning election to the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1865. By the time the Civil War ended, Barnum’s views on racial equality had evolved, and in a speech he gave to the legislature in support of voting rights for African-Americans, he said,
Let the educated free negro feel that he is a man; let him be trained in New England churches, schools and workshops; let him support himself, pay his taxes, and cast his vote, like other men, and he will put to everlasting shame the champions of modern democracy, by the overwhelming evidence he will give in his own person of the great Scripture truth, that “God has made of one blood all the nations of men.” A human soul, “that God has created and Christ died for,” is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot—it is still an immortal spirit; and amid all assumptions of caste, it will in due time vindicate the great fact that, without regard to color or condition, all men are equally children of the common Father.
I will not say that all of Barnum’s opinions, and vocabulary, in his speech would play well today (read the above quotation in context to see what I mean), but he had come a long way from his mistreatment of Joice Heth. Just as Barnum had used his promotional skills to help Lind raise money for charity, maybe, by her example of grace and benevolence, Lind played a part in reforming his views about humanity.
That is the kind of legacy that is much more important than a furniture style—or even a locomotive.
(Becky Little, “‘The Greatest Showman’ Sidesteps P.T. Barnum’s Most Controversial Act, Biography, December 22, 2017; “Joice Heth Contract,” The Lost Museum, American Social History Productions; “The Feejee Mermaid,” The Museum of Hoaxes; Henry Scott Holland, Jenny Lind the Artist, 1820-1851 : A Memoir of Madame Jenny Lind Goldschmidt, Her Art-Life and Dramatic Career, from Original Documents, Letters, MS. Diaries, &c., Collected by Mr. Otto Goldschmidt, Scribner, 1893; Phineas Tayler Barnum, The Life of P. T. Barnum: Written by Himself, Redfield, 1855; Evert Augustus Duyckinck and George Long Duyckinck, eds., “Illustrations of Humbug,” The Literary World, September 17, 1853; Hans Christian Andersen, The Story of My Life and In Sweden, Routledge, 1852; “P. T. Barnum’s Speech on Negro Suffrage, May 26, 1865 (excerpts)” The Lost Museum, American Social History Productions)
March 18, 2018 § Leave a comment
On March 18, 2012, here’s what I wrote in my first post for Clearing Customs:
During our 10 years as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, we wrote about 120 newsletters. In each one, we included a small section on some news coming out of Taiwan, a fact about the country, or an insight on Chinese culture. When we came back to the States in 2011, we switched the topic from Taiwan to globalization. Globalization means different things to different people, but the aspect we focused on is how the world is shrinking and cultures are more and more interacting with and affecting each other.
Soon, we’ll write our last newsletter, but I wanted to continue gathering and sharing information on the aspects of globalization that interest me. The first few posts come from our newsletter, so some go back a little while, but I’ll be catching up soon. Thanks for joining me.
Since the beginning, I’ve written 415 posts here, and I do appreciate all who’ve joined in, with your views, likes, share, and comments.
And over the years I’ve enjoyed seeing links to my posts popping up in interesting places. For example, Syracuse University, George Washington University, and the University of South Wales have linked to this blog in their online courses. The Physician Assistant Education Association referred to a post in an article on cultural competence. And just last week, a writer for the Atlantic linked to a post in his review of a new album by the former lead singer of the Talking Heads.
It’s been fun for me, and I’ve learned some things along the way. I hope the same can be said for you.
December 22, 2017 § Leave a comment
“This Airport’s Christmas Tree Was So Offensively Ugly They Had to Take It Down”
[T]he people of Beirut, Lebanon were far from pleased with the Christmas tree that was standing in Rafic Hariri International Airport this season.
It wasn’t just ugly—it wasn’t really a tree. The structure was actually made of metal, fire extinguishers, life vests, and other recycled airplane parts.
The tree was actually commissioned as part of an environmental initiative from Middle East Airlines in order “to raise awareness about environmental protection and to prevent logging and awareness on the recycling process.” However, most people traveling through the airport couldn’t really get past the idea that they were looking at what was basically a Christmas tree made of garbage.
. . . . .
After many complaints, the tree was removed from the airport.
Andrea Romano, Travel and Leisure, December 15, 2017
November 4, 2017 § 2 Comments
On Wednesday, while we were watching Game 6 of the World Series, I saw a commercial that featured a young girl introducing herself to her new classmates. Her parents met in Texas, she tells them, then relocated to Washington, and she was born at Fort Knox. Next came Georgia and then Korea. “Mmm,” she says, pointing to South Korea on the wall map, “Seaweed snacks.”
Her fellow students think that sounds pretty awful, but my son, who was born in Taiwan, yelled out, “See? See? I’m not the only one!”
She ends her introduction with “And now we live here for good.”
What were they advertising? I didn’t know, but I wanted to find the commercial online and watch it again. I Googled “home ad seaweed.” Google asked if I meant “home and seaweed” and showed me 5 Creative Uses for Seaweed in the Home, from Rodale’s OrganicLife: fertilizer, dietary supplement, East Asian cuisine ingredient, pet food ingredient, and beer additive. It also led me to a Wired article telling me, “This Seaweed-Covered House Is the World’s Coziest Sushi Roll” (“The primary challenge for the designers was turning an unruly weed into a consistent building material”), and The New York Times sharing that “‘Seaweed’ Clothing Has None, Tests Show” (“the labs found no evidence of seaweed in the Lululemon clothing”).
Thinking the commercial might be selling houses, I searched for “real estate commercial seaweed,” but that honed in on “commercial seaweed,” which gave me Grand View Research’s “Commercial Seaweed Market to Reach $22.13 Billion by 2024,” and “The Power of Seaweed, from the Wall Street Journal (“there’s growing evidence that seaweed might fit the bill as a raw material for biofuel, and one Indian entrepreneur is hoping to exploit it”).
No World Series commercial yet, but I didn’t give up. And through some combination of search terms, I found what I was looking for. The ad is from Navy Federal Credit Union and is titled “Here for Good.” I couldn’t embed it, but you can watch it at iSpot.tv.
Are you like the students in the commercial and you think that eating seaweed is more yuck than yum? Or are you like my son: “Edible seaweed? What’s not to like?” Either way, if you want to find out more about “the new potato chip,” edible seaweed (nori in Japanese, hai tai in Mandarin, or kim in Korean), take a look at KQED’s “Savoring Seaweeds: What You Need to Know before Diving In.” More options? Well Deutsche Welle would like you to know “Seaweed Wine Hits Germany’s Stores, and The Portland Phoenix wants to introduce you to “Seaweed Tea: The Next Big Drink Trend?”
Of course, the chips aren’t made from potatoes, the wine isn’t made from grapes, and the tea isn’t made from tea. They’re all made from marine algae.
So, how long before you’re saying, “Mmm. Marine algae.”
October 20, 2017 § 2 Comments
I recently visited my sister’s Presbyterian Church, and they, as part of their year-long recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, will be celebrating the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan this month. Not knowing what that was, I did some Googling and learned a thing or two . . . or three or four.
First, according to none other than the Scottish Tartans Authority, the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan was begun (at least in the US) by the Reverend Peter Marshall. Born in Coatbridge, Scotland, in 1902, Marshall came to the States at the age of 24 and eventually became pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and chaplain of the US Senate. While at New York Avenue, he held a kirkin’ service as a way to raise money for World War II.
You might be wondering what it means to kirk a tartan (I know I was). Well, kirk is Scottish for church, and tartan was originally a word for a woolen fabric, and then it became the name for the plaids worn by Scottish Highlanders, with each clan having its own distinct colors and pattern. So to kirk the tartan means to wear your kilts and other Scottish-plaid garments to church.
Since its creation, tartan (plaid) has certainly gotten around and made its mark on the world. In fact, as Elizabeth Wayland Barber writes in The Mummies of Ürümchi, the oldest existing piece of tartan fabric was found in the tomb of a Celtic man (known as Cherchen Man) from around 1,000 BC, unearthed in, of all places, northwest China. And since then, it’s put down roots all over.
In the early 1600s, the British East India Company established a trading post, including Fort St. George, in the fishing village Madraspatnam (later Madras, and now Chennai). They chose the location, in part, because of the cotton cloth made there, and developed it into a textile hub. About 100 years later, madras came to the American colonies when the former governor of Fort St. George, Elihu Yale, made a donation, including madras cotton, to the Collegiate School of Connecticut. In recognition of his gift, the school changed its name to Yale College (today’s Yale University). Move ahead another 100 years or so, and the tartan pattern—handed down from the Scots—was woven into Madras cloth and became a hit, so much so that madras is now virtually synonymous with brightly colored plaids.
(There are a lot of sources for the history of madras, but I chose the Gentleman’s Gazette, because not only can they tell us how madras came to the Ivy League, they can also tell us how to wear madras shirts, shorts, jackets, ties, and belts to sport that Ivy League style.)
The British and French brought madras fabric to the Caribbean in the 1600s, and according to Carol Tulloch, in Defining Dress: Dress as Object, Meaning, and Identity, the madras “handkerchief” fabric became “a currency of slavery”—made in India, sold to traders in London, and then “used to barter for slaves in West Africa and to clothe slaves in the West Indies.” It’s unclear to me exactly when the madras cloth flowing into the Caribbean took on its characteristic plaid, but tartan is now part of the national dress of several islands, such as the quadrille of Jamaica and the karabela of Haiti.
Some say that the use of madras in the slave trade is what brought it to East Africa, where it has become a major element in the traditional dress of the Maasai, in the form of the shuka. Others claim the origin of the “African blanket” is from Scottish troops stationed there, or it was introduced by Scottish missionaries. An article in The Star of Kenya includes the tale of tartan coming to East Africa by way of the British, stating that during a visit by Queen Victoria, tartan fabric was used for table coverings and the Maasai were told to clothe themselves with the tablecloths so as not to offend the queen with their nudity. This seems rather apocryphal to me, especially since before wearing the modern cloth shuka, the Maasai wore a version made from animal hides, which would seem to have covered their nakedness just fine.
In South Africa, not only do traditional dancers from the Pedi people group wear red plaid, but it’s actually in the form of a kilt. In another somewhat fanciful, but popular, story, as recounted in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, it is said that when British troops came to the area in 1878, they were led by kilt-wearing soldiers. The Pedi, thinking they were fighting against women, refused to shoot, until it was too late and the battle was lost. (So maybe the Pedi donned the kilts as a future battle tactic?) But others say the kilts were adopted after the Pedi fought by the side of the Scots during World War II.
Of course, I didn’t need to do any research to know that donning plaids is an essential part of the traditional dress of many tribes. Take, for instance, preppies, lumberjacks, and hipsters. But I certainly hadn’t put the pieces together for tartan’s reach around the globe and beyond.
Beyond? you ask. Lunar module pilot Alan Bean took care of that in 1969 when he carried a swatch of Clan MacBean Tartan to the moon and back during Apollo 12. A few years ago Bean gave a piece of that cloth to the Scottish Tartans Authority for safekeeping.
Now that’s getting around, in style.
(Todd Wilkinson, “The Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan,” Scottish Tartans Authority ; Elizabeth Wayland Barber, The Mummies of Ürümchi, Norton, 1999; Sven Raphael Schneider, “Madras Guide–How the Shirt, Pants & Jackets Became Popular,” Gentleman’s Gazette, July 12, 2013; Carol Tulloch, “That Little Magic Touch: The Headtie,” Defining Dress: Dress as Object, Meaning, and Identity, Amy de la Haye and Elizabeth Wilson, eds, Manchester University, 1999; Andrea Bohnstedt, “The Maasai ‘Shuka’ Has Evolved into a Brand,” The Star, May 17, 2014; Paul Alexander, “The Tale of the Kilt,” Mail & Guardian, June 13, 1997; Todd Wilkinson, “Armstrong’s Lantern: Spaceflight Scottish Connections,” Scottish Tartans Museum)
[photos: “Sporrans on Parade,” by Stuart Grout, used under a Creative Commons license; “Dominican Plaid,” by Ken Bosma, used under a Creative Commons License; “Maasai Mara Adventure,” by Gilad Lotan, used under a Creative Commons License; “Pedi Man,” by firesika, used under a Creative Commons License]
August 20, 2017 § Leave a comment
Dépaysement. It’s a French word that means something like “culture shock,” but it’s for those times when culture shock isn’t enough to capture what you’re feeling.
I could give you my definition, but it would just be a reworking of what I’ve found others saying. Instead, I’d rather let those others speak for themselves:
- (sentiment dérangeant)disorientation
- (sentiment agréable)change of scenery
(“English Translation of ‘Dépaysement,'” Collins)
It’s hard to put your finger on the feeling. You’re away from home, in a foreign land, surrounded by foreign faces. You’re apprehensive, but excited. You’re nervous, but alive.
Every synapse feels like it’s firing when you first set foot in a strange place, when you have to figure out the lay of the land, try to decide if you’re safe or in danger, if you should be elated or afraid. Every part of you is in overdrive.
What do you call that? “Culture shock” doesn’t cut it. “Excitement” doesn’t do it justice either, given that undercurrent of fear. We don’t have a single term that sums all those feelings up.
But the French do.
(Ben Groundwater, “Why ‘Depaysement’ Is the One Foreign Word Every Traveller Should Know,” Stuff, May 4, 2017)
In France, the feeling of being an outsider is known as dépaysement (literally: decountrification). Sometimes it is frustrating, leaving us feeling unsettled and out of place. And then, just sometimes, it swirls us up into a kind of giddiness, only ever felt when far away from home. When the unlikeliest of adventures seem possible. And the world becomes new again.
(Tiffany Watt Smith, Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty—154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel, Little Brown, 2016)
People do some out-of-character things in foreign countries. They strike up conversations with strangers in bars, even if they would never do the same back home. They wear unflattering hats. There’s something about being a stranger in a strange land that’s equal parts exhilarating and disorienting, and this messy mix of feelings is what the French word depaysement . . . means to capture.
(Melissa Dahl, “10 Extremely Precise Words for Emotions You Didn’t Even Know You Had,” Science of Us, New York, June 15, 2016)
The gray and quotidian machinations of metropolitan life must be “deciphered” in order to discover another reality lurking just beneath the surface, the “sous-reality” of the historical marvelous. In surrealist wanderings through old neighborhoods, parks, cafés and restaurants, the city itself is text—the hidden mysteries like the markings on the Rosetta Stone. This mode of archaeological “reading” is linked to a phenomenological position which Jean Pierre Cauvin has identified as “dépaysement”: “the sense of being out of one’s element, of being disoriented in the presence of the uncanny, or disconcerted by the unfamiliarity of a situation experienced for the first time”. Literally, we might interpret “dépaysement” as “out of country”, or “displaced from one’s homeland.” Within the surrealist context, it refers to a cool disassociation from the mores of twentieth-century Parisian culture so that everyday material objects are freed from their ideological trappings and all of Paris opens itself up as a strange civilization to be “read” for the first time.
(Sasha Colby, Stratified Modernism: The Poetics of Excavation from Gautier to Olson, Peter Lang, 2009)
More than a statement of “homesickness,” depaysement implies a sense that you cannot go home again, that you may be forever disconnected from your old world (Smith 2006). Depaysement is reminiscent of a kind of ritualistic “becoming,” but does not imply being caught in the middle, as in Turner’s (1964) “betwixt and between,” because depaysement is not qualitatively transitional. A rite of passage implies a new social role or place in a social structure. Depaysement implies a sense of being stripped of that social structure altogether. It implies a new permanence in one’s experience in the worlds.
And then there are these musicians from Japan who call themselves The Depaysement (no, not “The Basement” or “The Debasement”). Watch their video. I’m sure they’d appreciate your views.