Goodbye Penny, And Thanks For The Memories

Every day when I come home from work I take all my pocket change and throw it in a bowl. When the bowl is full, it’s time for me to roll the money and take it to the bank[1].

I’ve been doing this for years and it’s become my forced savings program.

On the weekend my bowl overflowed and as I sat down to wrap my change, it was tinged with a bit of sadness – because this is one of the last times I’ll every roll pennies.

Since last March’s budget announcement, the writing’s been on the wall and just over a week ago merchants stopped giving you back pennies – although I’ve noticed that my local loonie store [2] insists on still giving them.

So it was with somewhat misty eyes that I started rolling what might be my last roll of pennies. Well, not too misty because the reality is that it has never paid to roll pennies. The time it takes to roll them is ridiculous and let’s not even talk about the filth that ends up covering your hands.

But I’ve always secretly looked forward to rolling my pennies because they’re this echo of Canadian history that we carry around with us. When you go through and check the years (yup, I’m that anal), you find yourself carrying around totems from another time.

(And you don’t get this for nickels, dimes & quarters because they used to make them out of more valuable elements and those have all been melted down)

A few full bowls back, I found myself looking at a 1939 gem:

1939 Penny

This is before WW II people! (Coins are typically minted the year before)

My now-deceased grandfather was a young man.

There was a man on the coin.

On any given day, other than buildings, when do you come across anything from 1939?

And this happens all the time with the penny.

So, with this final (hopefully) rolling session, I thought I’d do a penny histogram and see how far back I could go. Here are the results:

Penny Histogram

Those are the few hundred pennies I had, organized by year. Here’s a graph for a better look:

Penny Histogram.png

2011 had a banner year; I wonder if the drop-off to 2012 was the Mint giving up on issuing new pennies. 1965 seems overrepresented, as does 1989.

But more interestingly, there’s an unbroken line there from 2012 to 1991 – and from then on to 1977. More than my entire life.

In fact, going I had pennies for all years from 1965-2012 with the exception of 1990, 1976, 1971, 1970 and 1967 (Did the Montreal Olympics and the Centennial change the currency?).

I’ll miss this little thread of everyday history-although I won’t miss rolling it.

Penny Histogram

[1] It drives me nuts that I have to roll my money to deposit it. When I lived in New York, you could go into a TD (formerly Commerce Bancorp) and dump your coins into a big machine. They’d give you a receipt for cash, even if you weren’t an account holder.

In fact, banking down there is just so much easier. If you maintain a balance of $100, you get free checking. That’s all, just $100 a month. Almost pocket change:

US Screen Shot

In Canada, the minimum balance for them to waive the monthly fee is $1,500:

Screen Shot 2013-02-18 at 7.10.57 PM.png

What a fucking joke. I hope all these banks go bankrupt when the Canadian housing bubble collapses.

[2] A moment of silence for the loonie store. Inflation’s forced most of them to become “loonie plus” stores and now the end of the penny’s forcing them up even faster…

Contrasts

Right now I’m reading Empires of Light. It’s the fascinating tale of how the world was electrified. Not “electrified” in the sense of “the Beatles are coming to town!” but rather, literally, why I can flip a switch and the lights go on in my house.

This tale could be utterly pedantic – for instance, “first we wired up Wall Street, then we went up 1st Avenue”, etc. but it’s not. Rather, it’s the story of all the people behind this massive undertaking: their dreams, their quirks, their greed and the alliances and factions between them.

The central characters are Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Edison is the quintessential scrappy American inventor while Tesla is the refined, sophisticated European scientist. I absolutely loved this paragraph where the author writes about what each thought of the other:

…Far worse, believed Tesla, was Edison’s approach to science: “If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search…His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 percent of his labor.” Edison, in turn, dismissed Tesla as a “poet of science” whose ideas were “magnificent but utterly impractical.”

I love the stereotypes they throw at each other (and this is in the 1880’s). For what it’s worth, Tesla’s ideas won, but it took American money and business acumen to make them win – plus he died broke. Edison’s technology lost the war, but lives on (it powers the computer I’m writing this on) and so does his company: General Electric was formed out of Edison’s many holdings.

Great Stories From Hip-Hop

I recently finished Can’t Stop Won’t Stop , Jeff Chang‘s history of hip-hop music. The writing is of variable quality, but the book’s a phenomenal read because the stories are just so damn strong.

I’m not going to review the book here (Amazon does a great job) – and hey, you should read it yourself – rather, I thought I’d share two of the many great anecdotes from the book.

The first regards The Clash and their NYC tour of 1981 (NYC was good to them; the legendary cover of London Calling came from the ’79 tour). The Clash always sought influences outside of rock ‘n roll (half their hits are reggae covers) and here’s what they did on that tour:

[The Clash] were set to play eight nights in June 1981 at an aging Times Square disco, the Bonds International, and they announced their stand with a dramatic unfurling of a magnificent banner painted by FUTURA. But on the eve of their opening, the fire department threatened to shut down the club for overselling the shows, and the fans finally had their white riot when mounted police stormed down Broadway to meet the punks in the street.

The Clash compromised by agreeing to perform eleven additional gigs, and hurried to find opening acts. In yet another naive act of solidarity, they booked Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. But, as Michael Hill wrote in The Village Voice, “Rather than achieve a cultural crossover, it threatened to widen the gap.”

When Flash and the Furious Five stepped onstage on The Clash’s opening night, the white punks stood bewildered as Flash began his “Adventures on the Wheels of Steel” routine on three turntables. Then the Furious Five, dressed in fly leather suits, jumped onstage and started rapping and dancing. Some in the crowd began shouting in disgust. They hadn’t come to see no disco. When Flash paused so that the Five could try to regain the crowd, the crew found themselves ducking a hail of beer cups and spit. The next night, dressed down this time in street clothes, they suffered the same reception. They left the stage angrily with Melle Mel admonishing, “Some of you-not all of you, but some of you-are stupid”, never to return.

Most music fans I know would give their eye teeth to see The Clash and Grandmaster Flash on the same bill, but the world wasn’t ready for it in ’81. Some things are just ahead of their time.

The other great story regards why hip-hop was able to become an unstoppable cultural force. It started out as a NYC local sound and was actually competing against other regional sounds – notably Washington D.C.’s go-go. Go-go is basically party music and so was a lot of early hip-hop (Rapper’s Delight and The Breaks anyone?) so why was hip-hop able to pop while you’ve never heard of go-go?

Despite the best efforts of Chuck [Brown], E.U., Trouble Funk and Rare Essence, go-go never crossed over. When the ’90s came, New York execs rushed to sign hip-hop acts and stopped returning D.C. artists’ phone calls. Go-go survived as one of the last independent, indigenous Black youth cultures.

It was an industrial-era music for a postindustrial era. Just as it was when Chuck Brown walked out of Lorton, bands’ fierce competition to remain atop the club scene remained the primary engine of go-go music. Making records with three-minute hit singles, the thing the music industry was most concerned with, was an afterthought. Economics partly explains why, after the 1980s, hip-hop went global and go-go remained local.

But there was also something else, something which Reo Edwards put like this: “I was talking to a go-go songwriter one time. I said, ‘Man, you need a verse here.’ The guy said, ‘The rototom‘s talking! Hear the rototom?’ there, the rototom telling the story.’ Okay. Alright. You know what the rototom is saying. Maybe the people in the audience know what the rototom saying. But the people in Baltimore don’t know what the hell that dang rototom is saying!”

He shakes his head. “Go-go’s got the same problem today as it did back then. You don’t have no good storylines. Hip-hop,” he pauses for emphasis, “tells stories.”

I’ve always loved the stories told by great hip-hop song (I’m thinking The Message, C.R.E.A.M., One Love, Hate It or Love It) and think they’re some of the most powerful narratives ever in song. Hip-hop’s domination is, in part, due to the power of storytelling.

What Are The Odds This Is True?

So here’s a thought for you.

According to a recent visit to the German History Museum, at its apogee, the Roman army had 400-500 thousand troops to protect the empire’s 50-60 million inhabitants.

Today, the United States military has ~1.5 million active duty personnel and a similar number of reservists (source) to protect its roughly 300 million strong population.

Interestingly, this is roughly the same ratio of 1 soldier per 100 citizens. This is only two data points and does not a trend make, but I wonder if there’s some sort of permanent ratio that is simply the cost of being the world’s policeman – and it’s independent of technology/politics/history/etc.

Cappadocia

1.

I’m 1,000 meters above the earth and falling at 5 meters per second. Actually, it’s not just me – Wendy’s there too, plus almost 20 unbathed French, German and Japanese tourists.

The funny thing is that I have no idea that we’re falling. We’re not accelerating so I can’t feel anything. Despite the fact that the air is in front of my face – no windows here – I can’t hear any rushing or anything. And the martian landscape we’re above gives no clues as to depth. Add in the fact that the balloons around us are both going up and down and I’d have no idea which direction we were moving if our pilot didn’t tell us.

Cappadocia from above

A balloon ride over Cappadocia is an essential means of seeing the landscape. Every morning almost a thousand people go up in 72 different balloons; it’s the largest collection of balloons found anywhere outside of balloon festivals.

You arrive early to watch them inflate in the pre-dawn twilight.

Balloon inflating

Depending on the whims of your pilot, you might then rocket to a few hundred meters and watch the other balloons rise. And I should add that you have no idea where you’re going to go; your course is set by the vagaries of that morning’s wind.

Balloon taking off

Balloons

Our pilot then dropped down into one of the many ravines that dot the landscape. We all watched speechless as he glided over ledges and dropped down into canyons that contain thousand year old cave dwellings. We could have literally reached out and touched them or plucked walnuts from trees. You can get a sense of it about halfway through this video:

Our pilot then rose quickly to 1000 meters where the temperature is noticeably lower and we got a profound sense of just how thin the bottom of a balloon’s basket is and how far we were from the ground…

Balloons over Cappadocia

Balloons over Cappadocia

Landing is also an interesting time. Since nobody knows where you’re going to land, a fleet of chase vehicles are following you around as you fly. When you land, a trailer pulls up directly underneath you and the basket drops into place. Very professional.

A quick glass of sugary fermented grapes masquerading as champagne and you’re back to your hotel. And it’s not even 8:30 am yet.

2.

In the distance, looming over all of Cappadocia, is the massive volcano that deposited all the rock and ash that makes the area so unique. Except that according to our guide – and one should never fully trust a guide in this touristy an area – there were actually three simultaneous volcanos that flooded the area with ash and lava millions of years ago.

I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a little bit of miscommunication here between geologists and the tourist industry. I mean, think about the word “simultaneous”. For type A people like me, it’s got a pretty clear meaning. At exactly the same moment (define it as the time taken for an atom to change state, a hummingbird’s wings to flag; whatever nano-scale small increment of time you want…), two or more identical things need to be happening.

Now imagine you’re a geologist. You spend your time wondering how a four billion year old rock evolved and most things take millions of years to occur. Unless your one of those adrenaline junkies who studies volcanos and earthquakes, it’s likely that in your entire career you’re going to see nothing happen. All the action has either occurred in the past or is set for the future. That continental drift ain’t fast enough for you to observe. On any given day, it’s the academic equivalent of watching paint dry.

So maybe, just maybe, when the geologists talk about “simultaneous” volcanos they really meant that three volcanos, only separated by a few hundred thousand years, formed the valley. I mean, they could be forgiven for getting carried away in the excitement of a few things happening in less than a few million years and calling it “simultaneous”. In the grand scheme of four billion years of volcanos blowing apart and reforming the earth, that’s a pretty inconsequential error.

But I digress; it’s just one thought that ran through my head as we were in the bus riding from site to site.

And there’s a lot to see in Cappadocia.

Let’s start with those thousands of Star Wars-style (despite any protestations by your guides, none of it was filmed in Turkey) rock-carved dwellings that are ubiquitous. Some have even been converted into hotels:

Cave Dwellings at Goreme Open-Air Museum

Cave Dwellings Near Goreme Open-Air Museum

Cave Dwellings Near Goreme Open-Air Museum

These were built by early Christians; when anyone invaded, they would rush underground to various cities they had built. The area is literally pocked with multi-layered underground cities. At Derinkuyu you can go eight floors undergound and explore countless booby traps. Interestingly, no one knows how they disposed of their bodily wastes…

There are also vast crumbling castles. The ruins of Cavusin were used from the 9th century until the Ottomans. Erosion gradually pulled down the mountain’s facade and revealed all the dwellings there:

Old Dwellings in Cavusin

And the similarly ruined castle of Uchisar looks like a failed cross between Mont St. Michel and Kowloon Walled City:

Uchisar Castle  

It also happens to have one of the best views of the area…

View from Uchasir Castle

…and the view from the neighbouring Cafe at Argos is one of the best views you’ll ever find in a cafe (if I could afford it, I’d stay at the associated Argos In; mindblowing place).

View from Cafe at Argos In Cappadocia

The region also abounds with numerous stream-filled canyons, almost all of which can be hiked. It’s fun to descend from the dusty plains into the tree-lined bottoms. At some points you actually have to hike narrowly through ancient hacked-out caves or water-eroded tunnels. Also, beware that nothing is marked clearly; you occasionally come to cliffs and have to backtrack:

Goreme Open-Air Museum

Ihlara Valley

Pigeon Valley

Finally, since Cappadocia was once covered in water and composed of different layers of sediment, the rocks have eroded at different rates and left some pretty incredible – and almost unbelievable – shapes behind:

Balanced Rocks

Rock structures

3.

Those early settlers were mostly Christians who excelled at creating churches. There are hundreds of them; when some of them break, the Turkish authorities don’t even bother to fix them or seal them from the elements:

Cave Dwellings Near Goreme Open-Air Museum

The earliest recorded cave paintings come from the 9th century and are fairly simple:

Inside church

However, over the next two centuries they got increasingly sophisticated:

Church at Goreme Open-Air Museum

When the Muslims came, they began a process of gradual assimilation and slowly exercised their power over the locals. Since Muslims aren’t allowed to worships idols, Christians weren’t allowed to paint eyes on their saints:

Church in Ihlara Valley

What did these people do to survive? Farming was pretty common – and you can see it pretty much unaltered from how it was likely practiced then (the following photo is actually an orchard amongst many dwellings and rocks):

Orchard and field

But the real money was in dovecotes. This is a polite way of saying that the locals earned their keep by collecting bird shit. They would create caves that contained numerous alcoves for pigeons and then brick them in:

Dovecote in Pigeon Valley

Drawing on Cave Dwellings Near Goreme Open-Air Museum

The red paint apparently attracted the pigeons; once a year they would go in and collect all the guano. Erosion gives the casual tourist a sense of what the alcoves looked like:

Dovecotes

Nowadays it is all tourism, all the time. In fact, the main city – Goreme – is literally built out of the old dwellings (as are Uchasir and Cavusin):

Goreme

4.

If you look at all the photos above, you may noticed the complete and utter absence of horses. This would be of no consequence, except that, curiously, “Cappadocia” means “land of beautiful horses”.

If you go on a group tour of the many sites, remember this, as eventually you will be taken to a jeweler to watch onyx be carved (as a prelude to shopping!). This trinket will then be offered to the first person who can recite the meaning of Cappadocia.

Also make sure to remember that speed is more than accuracy here as your judge is not a native English speaker. If you, as I did, should yell “land of many horses” or something similar you’re likely to win. And then you, like me, will be the proud owner of an improperly finished paperweight.

If one of you kind readers gets it for Christmas, please enjoy your handmade souvenir, created by a Turkish master who has spent his life – just as his father and grandfather – perfecting the art of turning raw rock into emotion. I’m sure you’ll love it.

5.

Cappadocia is a fantastic place and here are a couple more photos to close:

Panorama

Pigeon Valley

View from Uchasir Castle

Panorama