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It pays to be tolerant: Dutch national identity
"It's not always about agreement, more often it's about business."
The roots of Dutch tolerance run deep. Perhaps its sources are to be found in centuries old Calvinist prescriptions, according to which everyone has the right to interpret the Bible in their own way.
Or maybe in the economy, since international trade necessitated respect for others.
"According to our report, there is no such thing as Dutch national identity," announced Máxima, Queen of the Netherlands, in 2007, which delighted some, outraged others, and left others still unimpressed. This expert report commissioned by the authorities was to establish how the citizens of the country identified with it. The words of Máxima, who herself comes from Argentina and learned Dutch only after her marriage to Willem-Alexander, were quoted in various talk shows and press articles, and the Dutch have quarrelled over them at home tables on more than one occasion since. After all, it is a nation that loves to argue.
The word 'tolerance' doesn't itself appear in the queen's speech. Rather, it resounds between the lines. The monarch recalled the Dutch boys of Moroccan descent who guided her around Marrakesh, switching from fluent Arabic to equally fluent Dutch. She also spoke of Semra, a Turkish national, who, having passed her exams at a Dutch university, displayed in her window both the Turkish and the Dutch flag.
In the 1970s, research published by the British author and scholar Christopher Bagley pointed to tolerance as one of the three national traits chosen by the Dutch to define their own collective attitude. We shall inspect the other two a bit later, but first, let us concentrate on what the researchers agree on. Tolerance, the trait that has become pretty much synonymous with the Dutch around the world, has its roots in something much older than the present-day multicultural society of the country. In order to understand the phenomenon of Dutch tolerance, we will need to explain not only this concept, but a few others as well, including pillars, the poldermodel and gedoogbeleid.
Feel free to pray, just not here
"In a country where international trade makes for the society's basic source of income, citizens grow tolerant by themselves," claims Herman Pleij, a popular cultural history professor and writer. He adds that the greatest driving force behind Dutch tolerance is its citizens' belief that it is simply good for the economy. The Dutch treat politics like business.
As an example, Pleij points to the fact that in the 16th century, trade continued above and outside of religious divisions. In the Catholic town of Vlissingen, the Protestant minority contributed so much to the local fish trade that the Catholics agreed to protect the Protestants from religious persecution, as long as the minority celebrated the Eucharist outside the town limits. This caveat was quickly abandoned, however, and in 1566 the Protestants were allowed to take over one of Vlissingen's Catholic churches. What's interesting – perhaps even more so because such turns of events were at that time more an exception than the rule – is that when the Protestants were moving into their new church and stripping it of all religious images (seen by them as godless), they didn't destroy them, but instead entrusted them – intact – to the local authorities.
Hulst and Bronbeek, on the other hand, had for hundreds of years had their 'simultaneums' – shared churches and chapels with separate Catholic and Protestant sections. One Venetian merchant who stayed in the Netherlands between 1562 and 1566 noted that the country allowed remarkable levels of freedom of speech, and that Dutch women had unparalleled freedom of movement in public spaces. In 1699, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de' Medici, observed that the mercantile city of Amsterdam had "become the meeting place of men of all religions and citizens of all countries, which made it one of the most important cities in existence." Jean-François Le Petit, a French immigrant, praised the city, writing that newcomers from other countries could settle there and nobody asked them where they were from or what faith they professed. Those liberties resulted from, among others, the freedom of religion and outlawing of religious persecution introduced in the second half of the 16th century by William the Silent, Prince of Orange, who was himself most likely influenced by the philosophy of Erasmus.
The Dutch divided
Towards the end of the 18th century, the Dutch, following the French, adopted a centralized political system. In 1815, the Congress of Vienna formally confirmed the creation of the Kingdom of the Netherlands ruled by the House of Orange-Nassau. The country was, however, organized around the 1814 constitution, the provisions of which granted royal ministers powers similar to those held by their modern-day counterparts, and instituted direct election.
What began then was a fascinating process called pillarization. Catholics, conservative Calvinists and socialists fought for their religious and civil rights, demanding the formation of their own parties and institutions. Lay and religious authorities allowed just that, seeing as the growing secularization of society might have easily pushed public sentiment towards hostility. This had to be avoided, and thus the four pillars were created: Catholic, liberal, Protestant and social-democratic. Each one of these was, of course, further subdivided. Every pillar had its own schools, hospitals, shops, and later – radio stations, newspapers and television channels (to this day, older generations tend to view television networks and newspapers in light of their Catholic or Protestant roots). Thus, a Catholic would only buy groceries in a Catholic shop or read Catholic papers. In towns and cities, entire districts emerged populated by mostly single-pillar citizens. The country itself was divided into predominantly Catholic and predominantly Protestant areas.
In order to solve problems at the national level, the pillars would delegate their political and religious elites to make terms among themselves. The art of compromise and the art of negotiation that had grown out of the aforementioned mercantile and nautical traditions became ingrained in the national character. All of these factors seemed to feed into a rather coherent worldview: people differ from one another and there's nothing one can do about it; one should, therefore, tolerate others and make the most of the situation.
The make-up of subsequent Dutch parliaments, starting in the 19th century, points to the diversity of Dutch society. The last time a single party obtained an absolute majority in legislature and could rule alone as majority government occurred 130 years ago. Ever since then, the country has been ruled by coalition governments made up of three to four parties each. For the last 60 years, the Dutch House of Representatives, the lower house of the parliament, has been sat in by members of at least nine political parties, though, at times, this number has been known to reach 14.
The Belgian academic Mick Matthys, author of a book about the differences between the Belgians and the Dutch, quotes a Belgian insurance sector worker to whom one very important trait the Dutch seem to possess is their ability to reach business agreement with people they might find disagreeable. "In the Netherlands, you'll do business with your worst enemy. This never happens in Belgium." This sentiment has been confirmed by James Kennedy, an American historian and scholar of Dutch society, who observes: "The Dutch have this notion that one should rather arrive at an agreement with another person than not; disagreement is tantamount to failure."
"It's not always about agreement, more often it's about business," Pieter van Os, Polish correspondent for the NRC Handelsblad newspaper, offers as a good-natured jibe at his compatriots. "When the famous basketball player Michael Jordan was asked why he hadn't endorsed any democratic candidate in an election, he gave a very Dutch answer: 'Republicans buy sneakers too.'"
Social and political scientists agree that the Dutch are largely inspired by trade and business in their views on politics and social matters. Arend Lijphart, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego, draws attention to the fact that such an understanding of reality makes divisions and differences a side issue, instead encouraging people to focus on the maximization of profit through accord and cooperation. Lijphart also brings up the old practice of dividing public money evenly between the pillars and the Dutch tradition of calling meetings, summits and debates – democratic tools for drawing shared conclusions. The very title of Matthys's book, Why the Belgians are Right and the Dutch Prove They are Right, alludes to that time-honoured Dutch habit of debating each and every case until an agreement can be reached.
This national trait gave rise to the well-known Dutch concept of poldermodel (in English, 'polder model') multilateral negotiations. Its name comes from polders, the tracts of reclaimed land enclosed by dikes, on which the Dutch have for years built their houses and cities. The polder model of consensus-based policymaking found use and yielded great results at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, when mutual concessions between the government, companies and trade unions saved the Dutch economy from a crash.
Another trait that has helped forge the Dutch national predilection for consensus is the instinctive antipathy towards hierarchy shared by most citizens of the Netherlands. "They automatically assume that every person has something to say and should be treated as an equal partner in a discussion," writes Matthys. The Dutch call this trait of theirs grote mond, which translates to 'big mouth', but it doesn't mean a gossip or a person who can't keep a secret. Rather, it refers to being eloquent, or more of a 'smart mouth' than anything else. Matthys traces the origins of this phenomenon to Calvinist teachings that allowed every citizen to interpret the Bible in their own way and to defend their opinion. He mentions that when he first started teaching at a Dutch university, what surprised him the most was how energetically his students discussed their required reading. "Interestingly enough, those discussions were dominated not by those who had read the set texts closely, but rather by those who'd only briefly scanned them, but really wanted their opinion heard. And what they especially dwelt on was whether those texts had any practical uses or not."
A black mark against Piet
In one form or another, the pillars somehow made it through World War II, but ever since the 1960s, they have been slowly losing their importance. The cultural, sexual and technological revolutions made new generations of the Dutch rethink their role in society – their parents' and grandparents' mindsets were seen as outdated. What's more, the country saw an influx of migrants, mostly hailing from former Dutch colonies, who didn't identify with any of the pillars, and who brought with them their own beliefs and religions. Those changes also brought about substantial revisions in some of the country's deeply rooted customs. One particularly lively controversy broke out over the so-called 'Black Pete', or Zwarte Piet.
Although in most European countries Santa is said to fly over from Lapland, Dutch children believe he comes to them from Spain (and by boat, no less). His retinue isn't made up of elves or angels, either. The Dutch Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) arrives accompanied by short, dark-skinned characters – the Zwarte Pieten. Black Pete has become a divisive symbol and the subject of a nationwide dispute that breaks out in the Netherlands every year in the run up to St. Nicholas's Eve on 5th December. It has been going on for a few years now and has, at times, reached the level of life and death – at least in the media.
The Black Pete tradition was first protested as early as the 1980s by the Surinamese actress Gerda Havertong, who appeared on the Dutch version of Sesame Street. In one of the holiday episodes of the show, Havertong's character admonished Big Bird for calling her a Black Pete, explaining that this name was derogatory and offensive to many Dutch children and adults alike. The debate was sparked off anew and for good around 2011, when the artist Quinsy Gario, himself of Antillean descent, appeared publicly wearing a T-shirt with the caption 'ZWARTE PIET IS RACISME' ('BLACK PETE IS RACISM').
Widespread protests swept the country. A group of Dutch citizens of colour sued the mayor of Amsterdam for agreeing to a St. Nicholas parade with Black Petes in it. Dutch television's 'Head Black Pete', actor Erik van Muiswinkel, decided not to reprise the role for that year's televized St. Nicholas pageant. Prime minister Mark Rutte was asked about the issue at, of all places, the Nuclear Security Summit. After numerous complaints, even the UN established a Black Pete task force.
Conservatives declared the debate an attack on Dutch tradition. They explained that Pete is black with soot because he has to make trips up and down the chimneys of the houses he visits with Santa. What they failed to explain was why Santa, even though he takes the same route, doesn't ever seem even a little sooty. A petition for the preservation of Black Pete was drawn up and soon used to launch the most-clicked on Dutch fan page on Facebook. Within 24 hours, the page garnered over a million likes, overtaking even the Ajax Amsterdam fan page. In Friesland, defenders of tradition blocked the motorway, stopping buses with anti-Black Pete protesters. They were fined for this, but soon found a lawyer willing to defend them entirely free of charge – as "Frisian heroes". In Zuilen, near Utrecht, a few men in shoe-polish blackface entered a local school to give children cookies and campaign for Black Pete.
The Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment conducted a survey on the perception of Black Pete among children. It turned out that almost 90% of all Dutch children didn't see the character as offensive or racist. Despite this, most TV stations started introducing Rainbow Petes (only the RTL television broadcaster issued an official message saying that in its programming, Pete would stay soot-speckled). The Dutch, as befits the citizens of a country of compromise, tried to strike a balance. In Amsterdam, the St. Nicholas parade introduced a quota system of sorts. 75% of the Petes were rainbow, white or sooty, and the remaining 25% were black.
The debate, however, returns each year. And there's always St. Nicholas's Eve ahead.
Coffee alla turca
"The square is all cleared up now", read the controversial headline of a 2012 article about the dismantling of a tent camp for people seeking asylum in The Hague. This is just one example that tolerance among the Dutch in two socially important areas – politics and the media – does not fare as well as we might expect. For this reason, the newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad organized a debate on the subject last year, inviting four Dutch women of Turkish origin to join in: two politicians and two journalists. As Yesim Candan (a publicist) explained, after publishing each of her column posts she only needs to wait a few minutes until the first offensive comment appears. When she told her Dutch friends that she was writing a book about sex in Turkey, they would ask: "What does your husband say about this?"
Keklik Yücel – a former Partij van de Arbeid (Labour Party) MP – mentioned that when years ago, as a teenager, she worked on a hospital ward, some patients asked her if she had already been forced to marry and if she needed to keep her virginity intact. Years later, when she entered politics, she was struck by how white Dutch people favour other white Dutch people in filling jobs, calling it 'networking'.
Meryem Cimen, city councillor for Haarlem, added that the higher she progressed within the government ranks, the fewer people of colour she saw around her. "There were deliberations at which I was initially considered a waitress by some politician and asked for a coffee, because Turkish women surely cannot deal with anything other than catering," she continued in an ironic vein.
The journalist Fidan Ekiz pointed out that the years of fighting for equal opportunities for people from outside the Netherlands also have a dark side: "When I first worked for a newspaper in Rotterdam, a colleague at the next desk wanted to know if I was accepted into the editorial office because of the parity ensured for Turkish people. And it wasn't even a spiteful question, he was being earnest!"
Both the journalists who participated in the debate are appreciated by their native Dutch colleagues and media recipients for the fact that they write about society without excessively referring to their ethnic origin and religion. Nevertheless, for many Dutch people of Turkish descent, they are almost considered traitors for the very same reason.
Although the Dutch are generally active in the field of charity and care for human rights, not all of them share this attitude. During the refugee crisis, a politician from the then-ruling conservative-liberal People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) demanded that the crews of Dutch ships that rescue refugees encountered at sea be punished, because it allegedly constituted supporting human traffickers. "This is how we become the last link in a chain of human traffickers that extends all the way back to Africa," he said. He didn't have to wait long for a reaction. Comedian and columnist Pieter Derks replied: "Then let's stop reviving people with heart attacks caused by eating fast food. After all, we are the last link in the obesity chain that extends all the way back to America. Let's not pick up litter from the street and throw them into the bin, because people will litter more, and we will be the last link in the chain of carelessness. Just like you are the last link in the chain of indifference."
And this last word – indifference – has been mentioned over the years as the greatest drawback of Dutch society. Journalist Fidan Ekiz believes that this feature is hidden in the Netherlands behind a facade of tolerance: "For years, the Dutch had an attitude to economic immigrants from other countries that ran along the lines of: 'OK, let them cultivate their customs and religions, after all, they will leave sooner or later anyway.'" In turn, the aforementioned Pieter van Os says: "We are a confident, even arrogant nation. Most of the Dutch don't perceive others as a threat, they simply ignore them."
"In our public debate, it is often repeated that tolerance turns towards indifference, that we are living side by side instead of with each other. Empty, convenient tolerance derives from the reluctance to critically evaluate the behaviour and views of other people," sociologist Dick Pels writes about Dutch indifference in De Groene Amsterdammer. He adds that cultural relativism and the belief that "everything is allowed" shape a specific "culture of avoidance", which does not take into account the most important social problems: discrimination, violence, unequal opportunities – thus opening the field for radical politicians.
This is the nucleus of the long-standing dispute between Dutch liberals and conservatives. The former identify the bourgeoisie with people who pass each other indifferently, but with a smile. The latter argue that true civil society requires intervention in the struggle for values. It sounds good, but this slogan unfortunately often hides xenophobia and intolerance. Ever since the high-profile murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, the problem has been particularly present in the Netherlands.
Fortuyn was an ambiguous figure: on the one hand, he made a career attacking the values of Dutch Muslims, and on the other, he was a homosexual who openly spoke about his relationships with Moroccan men. "He placed our debate on the edge of a knife and put the Dutch liberals with whom I myself identify in an embarrassing position. In a sense, he made it clear that when he criticized minorities, he was still more invested in them than we are, because he frequently gave them a place in the public debate. We have long thought that our indifference to minorities was the highest form of tolerance we could offer. Today I no longer think like that," says Van Os.
See no evil?
And what about drugs? If you think that the search for pure Dutch tolerance will be easier in this case, nothing could be further from the truth. When it comes to drug policy in the Netherlands, there is another term – gedoogbeleid. This policy avoids punishing certain acts in the name of the greater good, as long as they do not exceed a certain limit. This concept is situated somewhere between tolerance and decriminalization. The Dutch government recognizes that it is better to tolerate the presence of soft drugs because their harmfulness is acceptable, their impact on tourism revenues is positive, and in addition it gives greater control over the sale of hard drugs. Although no self-respecting journalist cites Wikipedia, I will make an exception here, because the verb gedogen is explained there in an endearing manner: it is the behaviour of the father who sees that the child, contrary to the mother's prohibition, has eaten a cookie, while he himself does not mind it. To avoid conflict with his wife and conflict with his child, he decides to pretend he didn't see it. Tolerance, indifference, or maybe shirking responsibility?
The question of sex work is similarly ambiguous in this respect. In the Netherlands, it was legalized hundreds of years ago, and sex workers are self-employed small business owners, forming trade unions. Nevertheless, when they try to open a business account with a bank, they generally face formal obstacles. Although the first female city mayor in the history of the Dutch capital, Femke Halsema, has organized debates about the future of the Red Light District since the beginning of her term, activists complain that she treats sex workers as vulnerable victims of human trafficking, even though many of them see themselves more as tax-paying, conscious citizens fighting to ensure that their profession is no longer considered taboo.
But many conservative residents of Amsterdam city centre are asking for the red-light district to be removed from the city centre. "How can this be?" I ask Van Os. "They've been there for 500 years!" "The Dutch practice the 'live and let live' principle, but that doesn't mean they are open to any type of lifestyle. Tourists smoking marijuana and having sex with prostitutes? Fine. But I have many friends for whom the information that someone uses a brothel service would be tantamount to severing contact with that person. And if they found out that their teenage son had been smoking marijuana, they would be outraged. This is the epitome of indifference: let others do what they want, but not me and not the people in my circle!"
Dutch openness or tolerance would not be possible if it were not for the enormous internal social control. This is another element of the Dutch self-stereotype, since the ability to exert self-control was mentioned by the Dutch – next to tolerance and manners – in the aforementioned research from the 1970s.
"Be normal, that's crazy enough" is a popular Dutch proverb. The appeal for normality and common sense probably appears most often in discussions on controversial topics, as evidenced, too, by the words of prime minister Mark Rutte when asked at the UN summit about the Black Pete issue: "Come on, be normal."
"Is Dutch tolerance just indifference and conformism?" I ask James Kennedy. "The average Dutchman is individualistic when it comes to defining his identity, no-one will tell him whether to go or not to go to church and how to spend his time. On the level of pragmatic action, even at work, he is a collectivist. He cooperates because he believes that this is the only way to achieve the goal. In everyday life, he is a conformist. He does what others do, when it's convenient." "Doesn't this sound inconsistent?" I press on. He replies with a laugh: "Did I say that the Dutch appreciate consistency?"
Translated from the Polish by Karolina Sofulak
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"Deepfakes" and "cheap fakes" are becoming strikingly convincing — even ones generated on freely available apps.
- A writer named Magdalene Visaggio recently used FaceApp and Airbrush to generate convincing portraits of early U.S. presidents.
- "Deepfake" technology has improved drastically in recent years, and some countries are already experiencing how it can weaponized for political purposes.
- It's currently unknown whether it'll be possible to develop technology that can quickly and accurately determine whether a given video is real or fake.
After former U.S. President William Henry Harrison delivered his inaugural speech on March 4, 1841, he posed for a daguerreotype, the first widely available photographic technology. It became the first photo taken of a sitting American president.
As for the eight presidents before Harrison, history can see them only through artistic renderings. (The exception is a handful of surviving daguerreotypes of John Quincy Adams, taken after he left office. In his diary, Adams described them as "hideous" and "too true to the original.")
But a recent project offers a glimpse of what early presidents might've looked like if photographed through modern cameras. Using FaceApp and Airbrush, Magdalene Visaggio, author of books such as "Eternity Girl" and "Kim & Kim," generated a collection of convincing portraits of the nation's first presidents, from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant.
Modern Presidents George Washington https://t.co/CURJQB0kap— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611952243.0
What might be surprising is that Visaggio was able to generate the images without a background in graphic design, using freely available tools. She wrote on Twitter:
"A lot of people think I'm a digital artist or whatever, so let me clarify how I work. Everything you see here is done in Faceapp+Airbrush on my phone. On the outside, each takes between 15-30 mins. Washington was a pretty simple one-and-done replacement."
Ulysses S Grant https://t.co/L1IGXLI3Vl— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611959480.0
"Other than that? I am not a visual artist in any sense, just a hobbyist using AI tools see what she can make. I'm actually a professional comics writer."
Did another pass at Lincoln. https://t.co/PdT4QVpMbn— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611973947.0
Of course, Visaggio isn't the first person to create deepfakes (or "cheap fakes") of politicians.
In 2017, many people got their first glimpse of the technology through a video depicting former President Barack Obama warning: "We're entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time." The video quickly reveals itself to be fake, with comedian Jordan Peele speaking for the computer-generated Obama.
While deepfakes haven't yet caused significant chaos in the U.S., incidents in other nations may offer clues of what's to come.
The future of deepfakes
In 2018, Gabon's president Ali Bongo had been out of the country for months receiving medical treatment. After Bongo hadn't been seen in public for months, rumors began swirling about his condition. Some suggested Bongo might even be dead. In response, Bongo's administration released a video that seemed to show the president addressing the nation.
But the video is strange, appearing choppy and blurry in parts. After political opponents declared the video to be a deepfake, Gabon's military attempted an unsuccessful coup. What's striking about the story is that, to this day, experts in the field of deepfakes can't conclusively verify whether the video was real.
The uncertainty and confusion generated by deepfakes poses a "global problem," according to a 2020 report from The Brookings Institution. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense released some of the first tools able to successfully detect deepfake videos. The problem, however, is that deepfake technology keeps improving, meaning forensic approaches may forever be one step behind the most sophisticated forms of deepfakes.
As the 2020 report noted, even if the private sector or governments create technology to identify deepfakes, they will:
"...operate more slowly than the generation of these fakes, allowing false representations to dominate the media landscape for days or even weeks. "A lie can go halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on," warns David Doermann, the director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute at the University of Buffalo. And if defensive methods yield results short of certainty, as many will, technology companies will be hesitant to label the likely misrepresentations as fakes."
Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.
- People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
- They left behind a vast network of corridors and galleries, since reused for many purposes — most famously, the Catacombs.
- Soon, the ancient labyrinth may find a new lease of life, providing a sustainable form of air conditioning.
Ancient mining areas below Paris for limestone (red) and gypsum (green).Credit: Émile Gérards (1859–1920) / Public domain
"If you're brave enough to try, you might be able to catch a train from UnLondon to Parisn't, or No York, or Helsunki, or Lost Angeles, or Sans Francisco, or Hong Gone, or Romeless."
China Miéville's fantasy novel Un Lun Dun is set in an eerie mirror version of London. In it, he hints that other cities have similar doubles. On the list that he offhandedly rattles off, Paris stands out. Because the City of Light really does have a twisted sister. Below Paris Overground is Paris Underground, the City of Darkness.
Most people will have heard of the Catacombs of Paris: subterranean charnel houses for the bones of around six million dead Parisians. They are one of the French capital's most famous tourist attractions – and undoubtedly its grisliest.
But they constitute only a small fragment of what the locals themselves call les carrières de Paris ("the mines of Paris"), a collection of tunnels and galleries up to 300 km (185 miles) long, most of which are off-limits to the public, yet eagerly explored by so-called cataphiles.
The Grand Réseau Sud ("Great Southern Network") takes up around 200 km beneath the 5th, 6th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements (administrative districts), all south of the river Seine. Smaller networks run beneath the 12th, 13th, and 16th arrondissements. How did they get there?
Paris stone and plaster of Paris
It all starts with geology. Sediments left behind by ancient seas created large deposits of limestone in the south of the city, mostly south of the Seine; and gypsum in the north, particularly in the hills of Montmartre and Ménilmontant. Highly sought after as building materials, both have been mined since Roman times.
The limestone is also known as Lutetian limestone (Lutetia is the Latin name for ancient Paris) or simply "Paris stone." It has been used for many famous Paris landmarks, including the Louvre and the grand buildings erected during Georges-Eugène Haussmann's large-scale remodelling of the city in the mid-19th century. The stone's warm, yellowish color provides visual unity and a bright elegance to the city.
The fine-powdered gypsum of northern Paris, used for making quick-setting plaster, was so famed for its quality that "plaster of Paris" is still used as a term of distinction. However, as gypsum is very soluble in water, the underground cavities left by its extraction were extremely vulnerable to collapse.
Like living on top of a rotting tooth: subsidence starts far below the surface, but it can destroy your house.Credit : Delavanne Avocats
In previous centuries, a road would occasionally open up to swallow a chariot, or even a whole house would disappear down a sinkhole. In 1778, a catastrophic subsidence in Ménilmontant killed seven. That's why the Montmartre gypsum quarries were dynamited rather than just left as they were. The remaining gypsum caves were to be filled up with concrete.
The official body governing Paris down below is the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC), founded in the late 1770s by King Louis XVI. The IGC was tasked with mapping and, where needed, propping up the current and ancient (and sometimes forgotten) mining corridors and galleries hiding beneath Paris.
A delightful hiding place
Also around that time, the dead of Paris were getting in the way of the living. At the end of the 18th century, their final destination consisted of about 200 small cemeteries, scattered throughout the city — all bursting at the seams, so to speak. There was no room to bury the newly dead, and the previously departed were fouling up both the water and air around their respective churchyards.
Something radical had to happen. And it did. From 1785 until 1814, the smaller cemeteries were emptied of their bones, which were transported with full funerary pomp to their final resting place in the ancient limestone quarries at Tombe-Issoire. Three large and modern cemeteries were opened to receive the remains of subsequent generations of Parisians: Montparnasse, Père-Lachaise, and Passy.
The six million dead Parisians in the Catacombs, from all corners of the capital and across many centuries, together form the world's largest necropolis — their now anonymized skulls and bones methodically stacked, occasionally into whimsical patterns. The Catacombs are fashioned into a memorial to the brevity of life. The message above the entrance reads: Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort. ("Halt! This is the empire of Death.")
That has not stopped the Catacombs, accessible via a side door to a classicist building on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, making just about every Top 20 list of things to see in Paris.
An underground economy
However, while the Catacombs certainly are the most famous part of the centuries-old network beneath Paris, and in non-pandemic times draw thousands of tourists each day, they constitute just 1.7 km (1 mile) of the 300-km (185-mile) tunneling total.
Subterranean Paris wasn't just used for mining and storing dead people. In the 17th century, Carthusian monks converted the ancient quarries under their monastery into distilleries for the green or yellow liqueur that still carries their name, chartreuse.
Because the mines generally keep a constant cool temperature of around 15° C (60° F), they were also ideal for brewing beer, as happened on a large scale from the end of the 17th century until well into the 20th century. Several caves were dug especially for establishing breweries, and not just because of the ambient temperature: going underground allowed brewers to remain close to their customers without having to pay a premium for real estate up top.
Overview of the Paris Catacombs.Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain.
At the end of the 19th century, the underground breweries of the 14th arrondissement alone produced more than a million hectoliters (22 million gallons) per year. One of the most famous of Paris' underground breweries, Dumesnil, stayed in operation until the late 1960s.
In that decade, the network of corridors and galleries south of the Seine, long since abandoned by miners, became the unofficial playground for the young people of Paris. They explored the fantastical world beneath their feet, in some cases via entry points located in their very schools. Fascinated, these cataphiles ("catacomb lovers") read up on old books, explored the subterranean labyrinth, and drew up schematics that were passed around among fellow initiates as reverently as treasure maps.
As Robert Macfarlane writes in Underland, Paris-beneath-their-feet became "a place where people might slip into different identities, assume new ways of being and relating, become fluid and wild in ways that are constrained on the surface."
Some larger caves turned into notorious party zones: a 7-meter-tall gallery below the Val-de-Grâce hospital is widely known as "Salle Z." Over the last few decades, various other locations in subterranean Paris have hosted jazz and rock concerts and rave parties — like no other city, Paris really has an "underground music scene."
Hokusai's Great Wave as the backdrop to the "beach" under Paris.Credit: Reddit
Cataphiles vs. cataphobes
With popularity came increased reports of nuisance and crime — the tunnels provided easy access to telephone cables, which were stolen for the resale value of their copper.
The general public's "discovery" of the underground network led the city of Paris to officially interdict all access by non-authorized persons. That decree dates back to 1955, but the "underground police" have an understanding with seasoned cataphiles. Their main targets are so-called tourists, who by their lack of knowledge expose themselves to risk of injuries or worse, and degrade their surroundings, often leaving loads of litter in their wake.
The understanding does not extend to the IGC. Unlike in the 19th century, when weak cavities were shored up by purpose-built pillars, the policy now is to inject concrete to fill up endangered spaces — thus progressively blocking off parts of the network. That procedure has also been used to separate the Catacombs to prevent "infiltration" of the site by cataphiles.
Many subterranean streets have their own names, signs and all. This is the Rue des Bourguignons (Street of the Burgundians) below the Champs des Capucins (Capuchin Field), neither of which exists on the surface.Credit: Jean-François Gornet via Wikimedia and licensed under
The cataphiles, however, are fighting back. In a game of cat and mouse with the authorities, they are reopening blocked passages and creating chatières ("cat flaps") through which they can squeeze into chambers no longer accessible via other underground corridors.
Catacomb climate control
Alone against the unstoppable tide of concrete, the amateurs of Underground Paris would be helpless. But the fight against climate change may turn the subterranean labyrinths from a liability into an asset — and the City of Paris into an ally.
The UN's 2015 Climate Plan — concluded in Paris, by the way — requires the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050. And Paris itself wants to be Europe's greenest city by 2030. More sustainable climate control of our living spaces would be a great help toward both targets. A lot of energy is spent heating houses in winter and cooling them in summer.
This is where the constant temperature of the Parisian tunnels comes in. It's not just good for brewing beer; it's a source of geothermal energy, says Fieldwork, an architectural firm based in Paris. It can be used to temper temperatures, helping to cool houses in summer and warming them in winter.
One catch for the cataphiles: it also works when the underground cavities are filled up with concrete. So perhaps one day, Paris Underground, fully filled up with concrete, will completely fall off the map, reducing the city's formerly real doppelgänger into an air conditioning unit.
Cool in summer, warm in winter: Paris Underground could become Paris A/C.Credit: Fieldwork
Strange Maps #1083
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Meconium contains a wealth of information.
- A new study finds that the contents of an infants' first stool, known as meconium, can predict if they'll develop allergies with a high degree of accuracy.
- A metabolically diverse meconium, which indicates the initial food source for the gut microbiota, is associated with fewer allergies.
- The research hints at possible early interventions to prevent or treat allergies just after birth.
The prevalence of allergies arising in childhood has increased over the last 50 years, with 30 percent of the human population now having some kind of atopic disease such as eczema, food allergies, or asthma. The cause of this increase is still subject to debate, though it has been associated with a number of factors, including changes to the gut microbiomes of infants.
A new study by Canadian researchers published in Cell Reports Medicine may shed further light on how these allergies develop in children by examining the contents of their first diaper.
The things you do for science
The research team examined the first stool of 100 infants from the CHILD Cohort Study. The first stool of an infant is a thick, green, horrid-looking substance called meconium. It consists of various things that the infant ingests during the second half of gestation. Additionally, it provides not only a snapshot of what the infant was exposed to during that time, but it also reveals what the food sources will be for the initial gut bacteria that colonize the baby's digestive tract.
The content of the meconium was examined and found to contain such varied elements as amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, and myriad other substances.
A graph of the comparative, summed abundance of different elements in a metabolic pathway after scaling to median abundance of each metabolite. The blue figures are those children without atopy, the yellow ones show the data for those with an atopic condition. Petersen et al.
The authors fed this information into an algorithm that used this data, along with the identities of the bacteria present as well as the baby's overall health, to predict which infants would go on to develop allergies within one year. The algorithm got it right 76 percent of the time.
A way to prevent childhood allergies?
Infants whose meconium had a less diverse metabolic niche the initial microbes to settle in the gut were at the highest risk of developing allergies a year later. Many of these elements were associated with the presence or absence of different bacterial groups in the digestive system of the child, which play an increasingly appreciated role in our overall health and development. The findings were summarized by senior co-author Dr. Brett Finlay:
"Our analysis revealed that newborns who developed allergic sensitization by one year of age had significantly less 'rich' meconium at birth, compared to those who didn't develop allergic sensitization."
The findings could be used to help understand how allergies form and even how to prevent them. Co-author Dr. Stuart Turvey commented on this possibility:
"We know that children with allergies are at the highest risk of also developing asthma. Now we have an opportunity to identify at-risk infants who could benefit from early interventions before they even begin to show signs and symptoms of allergies or asthma later in life."
A model for early childhood allergies
Petersen et al.
As shown above, the authors constructed a model of how they believe metabolites and bacterial diversity help prevent allergies. Increased diversity of metabolic products in the meconium encourage the development of "healthy" families of bacteria, like Peptostreptococcaceae, which in turn promote the development of a healthy and diverse gut microbiome. Ultimately, such diversity decreases the likelihood that a child will develop allergies.