champagne anarchist | armchair activist

Tribute to the rebellious cyclist

Apparently, bike couriers with fixies and cans of Grolsch hold an alternative commemoration each year on 4 May – the date of the official war commemoration – to honour their predecessors who were active during the German occupation. Pete Jordan writes about this in his book De Fietsrepubliek. The commemoration takes place at a small monument near the Martelaarsgracht, which reads:

At this location on 4 May 1945, the last courier of the resistance, Annick van Hardeveld, was murdered by the German occupier. She was 21 years old. This sign is a tribute to all who fought against injustice and oppression.

The text is reminiscent of a passage in Pete Jordan’s previous book, Dishwasher. In that book, he investigated the history of dishwashers and discovered that radical dishwashers had played a pioneering role in the American union movement. To honour them, he put up pieces of paper at various historical locations, with texts like:

On this spot in 1934, dishwasher Ramon Bolasquez smashed the windows of the Waldorf-Astoria during a strike by culinary union workers.

And:

On this spot in March 1972, fifteen dishwashers fought for workers’ rights by staging a successful wildcat strike. And I, for one, thank them.

De Fietsrepubliek is a tribute to the Amsterdam cyclist. From the ‘possessed riding style’ of the bicycle boys who made deliveries for shops and laundrettes in the 1930s, to the organisations that fought for our right to cycle through the passage under the Rijksmuseum. Jordan writes about the anarchist reputation of cyclists and how the authorities time and again tried to discipline them; about the cycling monarchs Wilhelmina and Juliana; the antibicycle measures of the German occupiers; the fight for a bicycle-friendly city and the history of bicycle theft.

Perhaps these subjects aren’t new, but Jordan adds surprising details and new insights. For example, I had no idea that Queen Wilhelmina – when still just underage – appealed to the Council of State because her mother Emma wouldn’t let her ride a bicycle. Or that it was customary between the end of the 1950s and the mid-1970s in confrontations between youths and the police to unscrew the housings off bicycle bells and throw them at the police (tip: don’t skip the footnotes in the book).

Pink bicycle

One of the subjects Jordan has sunk his teeth into is the white bicycle plan launched in 1965. Provos wanted to make thousands of bicycles available for anyone to use for free. When the first white bicycles had been confiscated by the police, provos left flowers and painted a bicycle white at the statue of anarchist Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, near the Westerpark.

There have been at most a few dozen white bicycles in Amsterdam, but in the international media the project grew to mythical proportions. According to some, the white bicycle plan had been a fantastic failure; others claimed it had been a great success. The success stories were used to legitimize imitations: yellow bicycles in Portland, Oregon; purple bicycles in Spokane, Washington; red bicycles in Madison, Wisconsin; blue bicycles in Victoria, British Columbia; green bicycles in Tampa, Florida and pink bicycles in Olympia, Washington.

De Fietsrepubliek is full of such stories. Anyone even slightly interested in cycling or Amsterdam should read this book.

The original English version of De Fietsrepubliek, In the City of Bikes, will be published later this month.

Data analysis course

Cool, I’ve got my statement of accomplishment for the Data Analysis course. It was a lot of work and I learned a lot, but there’s still a lot more to learn and I might actually re-enroll if they offer this course again.

US Congress’ interest in the world: the role of elections, trade and oil

Graphs may not be visible in older versions of Internet Explorer.

Number of times countries are mentioned by year


Select country:

Codeyear offers a course on how to use the API of the Sunlight Foundation to search transcripts of the US Congress. I used this approach to find out how often foreign countries are discussed in Congress. A simple inspection of the total frequencies suggests two conclusions:

  • Interest in foreign countries rose under the ‘Bush doctrine’ and fell since the start of the current economic crisis;
  • There are often peaks during odd years. Plausibly, Congress focuses more on domestic issues in even years, when there are elections for Congress.

Of course, the pattern may be different for individual countries (use the selector under the line graph to see data on individual countries). For example, interest in Afghanistan took off after 9/11; for Hong Kong it peaked in 1997 (transfer of sovereignty); for Serbia, Kosovo and Albania in 1999 (NATO bombing campaign); for Tunisia in 2011 (Arab Spring) and interest in Austria took off in 2009 (well that’s actually a mistake: in 2009, somebody named Steve Austria joined the US House of Representatives, boosting the number of times the term ‘Austria’ appears in transcripts).

Number of times countries are mentioned by population, GDP and trade

The scatterplots illustrate how the total number of times a country has been discussed in Congress over the period 1996-2012 is associated with population size, GDP and the amount of trade between that country and the US (note that the scales are log scales, a feature of D3.js; unfortunately I didn’t manage to get readable values on the x axis). Population, GDP and trade are correlated, so figuring out what exactly drives US Congress interest in a country remains an interesting challenge.

Interest in countries is also related to the presence of natural resources: for countries without oil, the median number of times they were discussed in Congress is 331; for countries with oil it is 900.

Of course this is just an exploratory analysis. An analysis at country/year level might yield more specific conclusions. If you want to do your own analysis, download the data here (country/year) and here (country).

Method

I searched transcripts of the US Congress using the Capitol Words api of the Sunlight Foundation, using country names as search terms. Of course, this method isn’t perfect. I had to remove country names that can’t be distinguished from names of US states (Georgia, Mexico). Afterwards, I realised that I should also have removed Austria, because of confusion with a representative with that name.

Because this is just an exploratory analysis, I took a rather pragmatic approach to selecting background information on countries. For GDP, I used data from the World Bank; data on population, trade (2009) and oil reserves are from Wikipedia. For the scatterplots, I removed countries with incomplete data.

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Paste0

Paste0 in R is one of the things that we learned about in this week’s videos for the Data Analysis course. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I was wrong! I just learned about statistical computing’s most influential contribution of the 21st century!

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