Wednesday, July 6, 2022

John-Joseph Merlin - A Belgian Personality

Jean-Joseph Merlin
Wikimedia Commons image
I was watching a documentary on the history of clockwork, which spent a lot of time talking about the ingeniousness of automata.

It was fascinating to hear how something which had been the meant only for the entertainment of the super rich at one time became democratized through the growth of trade. It was at this point also that the engineers and artisans behind these automata were finally properly acclaimed for their hard and beautiful work.

One of these famous inventors of the time was belgian Jean-Joseph Merlin (although Belgium didn't exist as such back then).

He was born on September 6, 1732 in Huy (close to Liege), and his family moved to Paris when he was nineteen, where he attended the Paris Academy of Sciences. Besides his engineering studies, he also knew how to play several instruments, such as the harpsichord and the violin, and was friends with Johann Christian Bach (son of Johann Sebastian Bach).

After his studies, Merlin's career led him to London--a major city in terms of automata production--where he ended up working with the famous British jeweller and goldsmith James Cox, and where he also opened his own museum (which drew in all sorts of crowds, including a young Charles Babbage).

And it was then, over the span of around 30 years, that Merlin developed and invented his best works: roller skates (fka skaites), the silver swan automaton, the harpsichord-piano, a time-piece powered by changes in atmospheric pressure, and a self-propelled wheelchair, among many others.

Ever the consumate showman, as Merlin's name grew and he was invited to join ever more illustrious groups, so did, apparently, his eccentricities. On one such occasion, he is said to have played the violin while roller skating. But, unable to stop himself, he rolled right into a very expensive mirror, shattering it (along with his violin, and parts of his person). 

According to reports, it seems that Merlin's last public appearance was in early 1803, when he drove through Hyde Park in a horseless carriage. He died on May 8, 1803, having lived a full life dedicated to creating beauty and spreading the immeasurable joy he felt for his work to others.


1. John Joseph Merlin wiki page

2. The History of Clockwork Machine documentary:

3. Engines of Our Ingenuity No. 630 by John Lienhard, University of Houston

Friday, November 16, 2018

From False Accusations During WWI to Real Atrocities

"This is how German lands will look like
if France reaches the Rhine" - German WWI propaganda

All's fair in love and war.  Anything to win, right?

German counter-propaganda showing
a German soldier sharing
his rations with French children.
And what is needed to make one win in war, but to turn one's soldiers into killing machines, than to vilify the enemy and turn the others into despicable monsters? No one's innocent in this terrible game. Everyone's guilty.

And so, the German generals during World War I, wanting to move as swiftly as possible through Belgium, while worried about free shooters (kinda like guerrilla fighters), had given orders to execute any suspect, and to terrorize the local populations.

To that effect, the most atrocious lies were spread about the Belgian people, tales transcribed by the Kaiser in his journal:

"...the Belgian population has acted in a most diabolical fashion, if not bestial, not one iota differently from the Cossack. They have tortured injured men, beat them to death, killed doctors and medical staff, fired (...) upon defenseless people while staying hidden themselves [...].
Belgium's conditions shall therefore become immensely more difficult." (1)

The lies worked. Atrocious acts were perpetrated against Belgium. So bad were they that they became part of what is now known as the "Rape of Belgium."

The numbers reported in history (2) are quite telling:
  • 6,000 Belgians killed.
  • 17,700 Belgians dead due to expulsion, deportation, imprisonment, or sentenced to death.
  • 3,000 additional Belgians killed on the electric fences the Germans put up to prevent civilians from fleeing.
  • 120,000 Belgians forced into labor for Germany, half of which were deported.
  • 25,000 homes and other buildings destroyed just in 1914
  • 1.5 million Belgians (20% of the population then) fled the country.
Child of 7 gunned down [by German soldiers]
Anti-German propaganda

University of Leuven Library before and
after the German invasion, 1914
It didn't matter who you were, or how old you were, any excuse was good to have you shot (although the vast majority of those killed were men of military age. Historians state (and probably rightly so) that, in addition to propaganda and their generals' directives, many other elements contributed to these atrocities, namely inexperience, lack of discipline, drunkenness, friendly fire incidents, collisions with Belgian and French troops, rage at the unexpected resistance the Belgians showed (indeed, Belgium was hardly considered a "real" country by the other nations at the time), hatred for the Catholic, looting, etc. (2)

To make matters worse, the Belgian civilians were forced to cheer the Kaiser and Germany (or be executed). While in the meantime the war was being portrayed in German penny papers as being semi-friendly, with violence being used only in emergencies. (3)

"Their way of doing war"
Drawing by Georges Scott
But the lies were on all sides. In France, the newspapers keep praising their own troops (thanks to the censors), erasing defeats or retreats, while calling the Boches (aka Germans) all the foulest names, saying that even their cadavers "smell[ed] worse than those of the French." (4)

(1) Translated  by yours truly from French, passage taken from Max Gallo's 1914-1918 Une histoire de la première guerre mondiale.
(2) The Rape of Belgium article on Wikipedia.
(3) The 'German Atrocities' of 1914 by Sophie de Schaepdrijver
(4) Fact translated from the French article Propagande de guerre et patriotique et censure au cours de la Première guerre mondiale by Léon Belhassen.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Reasons Behind The EU's Unpopularity

Here is an essay I wrote a couple of years ago for the MOOC Understanding Europe[0]  (before Brexit even happened) on some of the main reasons I believe the European project has such a bad rep, even among its own constituants. I chose to post this essay now as I still believe in the European project (if handled properly by people of vision who strive for the greater good of all its members), and I think that the points mentioned below are still relevant today (perhaps more so now than ever).

Like any human enterprise, no matter how noble the original intent behind it, the EU is an organization that has both flaws and strengths. Yet it’s on these flaws, whether real or invented, that people tend to focus, and the younger, more impressionable generations even more so.

It seems to me the chief reason the EU’s popularity has been on a downswing[1] stems from a lack of knowledge of what it is Europe does or the reasoning behind certain policies.

Below are three points that I believe contribute to the EU’s current status as the unpopular kid in school:

1. Culture: We currently live in the Golden Age of the Internet, where everyone must be connected at all times[2], whether though a smartphone[3] or at the very least at home through a modem or Wi-Fi[4]. Though the world is now, literally, at our fingertips, this doesn’t come without its share of cons, one of which is the rise of ADHD amongst its users[5]. This, in turn, has led to the proliferation of ever shorter articles and sensationalist journalism[6], and other derivatives such as reality TV, etc.—anything to get those people to click on your link or watch your show. The more outrageous, the better. In the midst of this mud-slinging industry[7], few are those who want to depict the EU (or anything else for that matter) under a positive light. Coupled with this is the fact that many people don’t even question the veracity of what they read online. A perfect example of this are chain emails people send each other by clicking the forwarding button faster than they can blink, thereby perpetuating the urban legend until it becomes dogma. But remember what Abraham Lincoln said,“[t]he problem with internet quotes is that you can’t always depend on their accuracy.”[8]

2. The EU’s own poor communication skills: As expressed in the point above, the Internet has revolutionized the way people receive and give out information. Not only that, but the IT world is a constantly growing and evolving one, and keeping up with it is a full-time job in and of itself. This is reflected in the EU’s poor performance of reaching out to the general population and informing it of its work. One has but to look at the EU Careers website[9] where people can register to take the admissions exams--it is cumbersome and so hard to use that even for people already working within the organization have a hard time navigating it. The EU’s own newsroom website[10] is foreboding. Its articles are mostly in the form of dry press releases that only the most stubborn are willing to sift through. But in our day and age, if news sites want to increase their readership, they need to have more pictures and write shorter articles[11] that are easy to skim through to get the gist. This is clearly something the EU has yet to develop, and quickly, for its opponents haven’t wasted their time and are dominating the blogosphere and every other i-sphere out there in the meantime.

3. Scapegoating: Blaming others for bad things that have happened, whether due to some outside force or because of personal failure, is a widely-spread human trait. Worse, this tendency is contagious as well[12]. When everything is going well, everything’s OK. But the moment things come crashing down, it’s time to organize a new witch hunt. The latest large-scale wave of such criticism started after the economic crash of 2008, which saw a “brutal recession unfold”[13] and many large institutions falter, bringing many helpless people down along with them. People blamed everything and everyone, from the 1% in the US (Occupy Wall Street movement, for example[14]), to the EU in Europe. And so, in the midst of that chaos, those EU detractors’ voices that had barely been heard during times of prosperity suddenly “attract[ed] more and more supporters.”[15] And as history has proved over and over again, it’s hard to fight the herd-like mentality.

Drawing from these three related points, I believe the first step for the EU to change its image is to understand the human psyche. It cannot hope to regain its citizens’ confidence without making drastic changes to adapt to modern times. In short, it needs to improve its own propaganda.

[0] Taught by Professor Alemanno of the HEC via Coursera.
[1] As seen, for instance, in “the turnout at the EU elections [that has gone] from 63% in the first electionEuropean Paradox?
(1979) to 43% in 2009.” MOOC course, Video Lecture 1.8: What is the
[2] “According to a new ICMPA study most college students are not just unwilling, but functionally unable to be without their media links to the world.” [link]
[3] See article “Smartphones Reach Majority in all EU5 Countries” [link]
[4] See “Penetration rates of Electronic Communication Services in the European Union,” p. 6 E-Communications Household Survey Report, Published June 2012 [link]
[5] Article “The screens culture: impact on ADHD”, US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, published online 2011 September 24 [link]
[6] See article “Yellow Journalism of the 21st Century” by Justin Schuster, The Politic, published February 28, 2012.
[7] Point mentioned in the MOOC course, Video Lecture 1.7: Debunking some of the European myths.
[8] Internet meme [link]
[9] “eu careers – Careers with the European Union” [link]
[11] See article “7 Powerful Facebook Statistics You Should Know About” [link] – “Photo posts get 39% more interaction” and “Shorter posts get 23% more interaction.”
[12] See article “Shifting Blame is Socially Contagious,” University of South California Press Room, published November 19, 2009 [link]
[13] “The Great Crash, 2008 – A Geopolitical Setback for the West” by Roger C. Altman published by the Council on Foreign Relations [link]
[15] MOOC Video Lecture 1.8: What is the European Paradox.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The 10 Commandments Of A Belgian Employee At The End Of The 19th Century

I've been reading this really interesting book, La vie quotidienne en Belgique sous le règne de Léopold II (1865-1909) by Georges-H. Dumont, for research purposes, when I fell on this little tidbit I thought you guys might enjoy.
Belgian miners circa 1900. They were considered
inferior because they worked with their hands
and in the bowels of the earth.
Particularly for those of you who want to spot the differences (where have we improved in over 100 years), and the similarities (I assure you, some things never seem to change).
So, here goes:

  1. Respect of God, cleanliness and punctuality are the rules of a well-ordered house.
  2. As of now, the personnel will have to be present from 6 am to 6 pm. Sunday is reserved for religious service. Every morning, everyone has to say prayers in the principal's office.
  3. Everyone has to do overtime if management deems it useful.
  4. The oldest employee is in charge of the premises' cleanliness. The youngest must show up at his place, 40 minutes before prayer time, and are also at his disposition at the end of the day.
  5. The clothing has to be simple. The staff cannot wear light colors, and must ware appropriate stockings. It is forbidden to wear rubber boots and fur coats inside the offices, due to the presence of furnaces and kilns. Exceptions in case of bad weather: scarves and hats. We also recommend everyone bring, during wintertime, four pounds of coal.
  6. It is forbidden to talk during office times. An employee who smokes cigars, takes alcoholic drinks, goes to billiards rooms or attends political meets will be considered suspect with respect to his honor, his honesty, and his propriety.
  7. It is permitted to take some sustenance between 11h30 and noon. However, work cannot be interrupted.
  8. Employees have to show modesty and respect before clients, management and representatives of the press.
  9. Each staff member has the duty to keep good care of his own health. In case of illness, a salary will not be paid. We recommend everyone to save a good part of his pay so that, in case of inability to work, and in his old age, he will not be dependent on the community's goodwill.
  10. And to finish this, we would like to draw your attention to the generosity of these new rules. We expect from it a considerable increase in work.

Lovely, isn't it? And one of the many reasons I do not wish to travel back in time... What are your thoughts?
The rules were translated from the Règlement de bureaux et chancelleries (private collection), or the rules the poorly-paid
office and chancellery employees had to follow. As you can see, as stringent as the rules a "lower" miner had to follow, so
no reason for them to feel superior. Yet superior they did feel.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015


Campaign for women's suffrage in Belgium, 1908.
Source: Getty Images
Feminism (n.):
Belief in or advocacy of women's social, political, and economic rights, especially with regard to the equality of the sexes.

Ah, what a dangerous word to (rightly or wrongly) bandy about these days. Or has it always been so?

In any case, the role of women in Belgian society, and particularly their rights and how hard they had to fight to get them, is the subject of this post.

Before Belgium's independence, when its states were under the control of Napoleon I, women weren't considered for much else except for reproduction purposes (or for men's pleasure, depending on which strata of the society you happened to belong to). For though he was behind great changes for his country and revamped the French legislature, among other things, Napoleon didn't believe those rights were meant for the "inferior sex."

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Boundary Between Flanders And Wallonia

Belgium split in two (or three, depending on who and where you are)
Who's heard of Belgium is also aware of the the sometimes, and unfortunately, great differences between its two main regions (Brussels notwithstanding): Flanders (the Flemish-speaking, Northern side) and Wallonia (the French-speaking, Southern portion).

What is really interesting, however, is that though this separation hasn't always existed (indeed, Belgium used to be a Celtic country before the "Germans" and Romans invaded them), this boundary between the two regions is perhaps much older than one might think, and takes us all the way back to...

358 C.E.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Century Of Freedom...And Political Changes

Albert Devèze
"A [political] party does not have a reason for being unless it possesses its own ideal which it pursues with  the conscious and tenacious effort to progressively achieve it, an ideal which is susceptible to arouse within its adherents enthusiastic impulses and fervors of faith.
Does that mean the party must adhere to an immutable dogmatism, whose rigid rule will be the norm of its activity? Definitely not. It must, on the contrary, understand that when it comes to translating its idealism into positive laws, that these can only be the legislative raiment adapted to the measure of the social being who wears it; that this collective being, through internal and external transformations, suffers all the phenomena of growth and development, health and sickness, and that yesterday's impossibilities must consequently become today's possibilities and tomorrow's inevitable. If such is not that party's concept of politics, it would soon become a power of blind conservatism first, of reaction next. From then on, its decline would sanction its divorce from the people's material and moral necessities whose destinies it would have the pretension to hamper."
~Albert Devèze, Un siècle de libéralisme
(transl. by A. Ellefson)

After the Catholic Party, it is the Liberal Party that is the oldest political party in Belgium, having been officially formed in 1846, followed by the third of the three major parties, the Socialist Party, which was founded in 1857 (although, with time, these have split and reformed into many other parties).