Mini-Stories: Volume 8

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
This is part two of the 2019-2020 mini-stories episodes, where I interview the staff about their favorite little stories from the built world that don’t quite fill out an entire episode for whatever reason, but they are cool 99PI stories nonetheless. We have centuries-old bonds, standard tunings mandated by international treaty, abandoned mansions and secret babies. If you ever need a conversation starter, these mini-stories are our gift to you. Stay with us.

Roman Mars:
First, it’s producer Joe Rosenberg.

Roman Mars:
Okay, so Joe, what do you have for me?

Joe Rosenberg:
What I have for you, Roman, is a story that I have been sitting on for quite some time. It’s one of those ‘Planet Money’ pitches that I never sent to ‘Planet Money’.

Roman Mars:
I’ve got a drawer full.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, and it actually starts, or rather my familiarity with it starts about five years ago, when I was reading the news and I came across this weird little AP wire service item.

Roman Mars:
Weird AP wire service items are our specialty.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, exactly and it was about this announcement in Britain by George Osborne, the then chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK, that Britain was finally going to finish paying off its bonds from World War I.

Roman Mars:
Like 100 years ago World War I, not World War II? World War I.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yes, bonds from the war to end all wars.

Roman Mars:
That’s right.

News Report:
“Still counting the cost of the great war, Britain is only now redeeming most of the remaining bonds raised to pay for World War I 100 years after it started.”

News Report:
“Britain has remembered its debt to the fallen. Another country is set to repay its financial debt.”

News Report:
“The government will pay off more than $300 million worth of those bonds in February.”

Joe Rosenberg:
I was like, how is it possible that it’s only now paid off its bonds from World War I? I mean, I know it must have been expensive and obviously, Britain issued a lot of bonds to pay for it, but I figured Britain, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, must have paid off those bonds a long time ago.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. Just so I make sure I’m up to speed. A bond generally is like when the government needs funds for something and they don’t have enough cash on hand. They’d go to the populace essentially and they say, “Buy this bond for X amount of money and then over a course of 10, 20, 30 years, we will pay you back that amount of money plus a little bit of interest.” This is guaranteed by the government, so it’s a really, really safe investment.

Joe Rosenberg:
Right, and after like max 30 years, usually the bond matures, that’s the term, at which point the government has redeemed the bonds.

Roman Mars:
They pay back everything and the interest in 30 years’ time?

Joe Rosenberg:
Correct, and they are no longer in your debt.

Roman Mars:
Right, but these World War I bonds weren’t redeemed until they were 95 years old, so that seemed way too long for a bond.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, no, it’s crazy, but then it got weirder because it turned out, World War I was just like the most well-known thing the British government wasn’t done paying off. There were actually older bonds from their books that they announced they were also redeeming as part of this package, including bonds from wait for it, the Crimean War, a relief effort for the Irish potato famine…

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Joe Rosenberg:
… the Slavery Abolition Act, the Napoleonic Wars.

Roman Mars:
Goodness, gracious.

Joe Rosenberg:
Even that wasn’t the oldest of the debts because after making the announcement about World War I, George Osborne, the chancellor of the Exchequer, must have felt that he was like on a roll because he then sent out a tweet, which just might be the most anachronistic tweet that you’ll ever see. Check this out.

Roman Mars:
Okay, it says, “We’ll redeem 218 million pounds of debts incurred because of the South Sea Bubble, another financial crisis we’re cleaning up after.” What was the South Sea Bubble? What is he talking about?

Joe Rosenberg:
What he’s referring to there are bonds from a government bailout of investors who were ruined by the infamous South Sea China Bubble in 1720.

Roman Mars:
Oh, of course, how could I forget? The South Sea China Bubble in 1720.

Joe Rosenberg:
Right, of course. I mean, obviously, these bondholders who were still getting paid back by the UK government 300 years later, they had not forgotten. They were still expecting their money.

Roman Mars:
That is incredible. 300 years of bonds. How is that possible?

Joe Rosenberg:
It turns out what is going on and the reason there were these old, old debts is that all of these were examples of a very rare type of bond called a perpetual bond.

Roman Mars:
How does a perpetual bond work?

Joe Rosenberg:
Okay, so a perpetual bond is quite simply a bond that never matures. It promises that instead of paying you back your principal plus interest in full after say 30 years, the government will just keep the principal. Instead, they’ll pay you, your children and your children’s children’s, children’s children a small amount of interest every year for basically all eternity. For at least until they decided to redeem the bond, which means they finally decide to pay you back the principal, which is what the British finally did with 1200 or so perpetual bondholders in 2014.

Roman Mars:
Wow, so when did they make a perpetual bond? I mean, maybe a better question is, why did they do it in the first place? It seems like a really bad idea to borrow money this way. Where did this idea come from?

Joe Rosenberg:
The answer is actually that in some ways, in the beginning, most bonds were perpetual bonds.

Geert Rouwenhurst:
“Before there were even bonds, all borrowing, there was just a process through which you would rent money, you would rent capital. ”

Joe Rosenberg:
This is Geert Rouwenhurst, he’s a professor of finance at Yale. Geert says that, if you go back to the middle ages, you have to imagine an economy where actually kind of like today, renting is really popular. You might pay a small amount of money every month to rent a field or oxen or a house.

Geert Rouwenhurst:
“Just as you would rent a house for an unspecified amount of time, you would rent money for unspecified amounts of time. In private arrangements between two parties, it was always easy to say, I’m going to rent it for some unspecified time and you call me or I call you, and that’ll be the end of the loan.”

Joe Rosenberg:
So just the way that you rent an apartment and you give the apartment back when you’re done renting it, you could do the same thing with money.

Roman Mars:
Okay, so if you needed 50 gold coins and I were your creditor, I’d basically say to you, “Look, I’ll give you 50 gold coins now and you can keep them as long as you want. Just as long as you promise to pay me at least two gold coins a month indefinitely until you give me the original 50 coins back”?

Joe Rosenberg:
Exactly.

Roman Mars:
Okay, that makes sense. If that was the standard, that their early type of loaning was perpetual loans, why aren’t there more perpetual loans being paid out still to this day?

Joe Rosenberg:
Right. That’s a good question and it turns out that there were a few problems with perpetual loans. The biggest might simply be that, when it came to bonds issued by governments and companies, these types of bonds carried a lot of risk with them, because governments and companies collapse all the time. At which point not only do payments stop, but you’re also not going to be getting your principal back, like ever. Geert says this happened all the time. There were bonds issued by France before the French Revolution and by Russia before the Russian Revolution. Spain defaulted on its debt like three times, and so most perpetual bonds are now just lost to history.

Roman Mars:
Is the South Sea China Bubble from 1720, is that the oldest perpetual bond or are there even older ones out there?

Joe Rosenberg:
Actually, there are older ones and Geert or rather Yale owns one of them.

Roman Mars:
Oh, cool.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, so Geert is the Deputy Director of an academic research group at Yale called the Center For International Finance. One of the things they do is engage in something called scripophily, which sounds like an ancient skin wasting disease. All it means is that they collect and curate financial instruments from various places and times in history.

Geert Rouwenhurst:
“One of the most interesting contracts in our collection is a very old Dutch bond issued by a Dutch water authority in 1648, which pays interests as of today.”

Roman Mars:
1648. So this is a bond that’s been actively paid back since 1648?

Joe Rosenberg:
Yes, and in fact, all of the oldest known perpetual bonds – I think there’s fewer than like half a dozen of them – are from this single Dutch water board. The reason is because this water board is basically this regional entity, which for hundreds of years has been in charge of maintaining all of the dams and levees and dikes in a given corner of the Netherlands. That’s a good business to be in, it’s really stable.

Geert Rouwenhurst:
“The Dutch water authorities, they never go to war and they have the power of taxation, so they have been good borrowers.”

Joe Rosenberg:
“Right, and also there’s a strong incentive for those institutions just to survive because people need them in order to not drown basically.”

Geert Rouwenhurst:
“That’s right, yes, which will become even more pertinent going forward.”

Joe Rosenberg:
It’s super cool and I actually also have a photo of it.

Roman Mars:
Oh, cool.

Joe Rosenberg:
Would you like to see it?

Roman Mars:
Absolutely.

Joe Rosenberg:
Okay, so if you pick up this book to your right, go to the flagged page. This is a book Geert and a colleague edited called ‘The Origin Of Value’, which is about various financial instruments throughout the ages. There’s a chapter all about this bond and so you can see the front and the back of it here.

Roman Mars:
Wow. Well, it’s like just a bunch of script, like it doesn’t look designed the way I think of a bond looking with all the filigree and cool stuff about a bond. It’s really basic.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah. Although what you will see at the center of the front page of the bond, there is this small print. It’s laying out the terms in Dutch that even Geert says he has struggled reading this old Dutch, but basically, it says and I’m going to botch all of these names: ‘Johan van Hogen-houck, that’s the representative of the water board, acknowledges to have received from Mr. Niclaes de Meijer 1,000 Carolus guilders of 20 Stuivers a piece’.

Roman Mars:
Does it say what those 100 Carolus guilders were for?

Joe Rosenberg:
Yes, actually it does. It was for a new cribbage in the town of Honswijk and a cribbage apparently was a kind of pier that was placed in the bend of a river. The pylons of the pier would help prevent the bend in the river from shifting and meandering.

Roman Mars:
Okay, so it just kind of keeps the river in place?

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, and don’t get me started on meandering, that’s my whole other obsession, as you know.

Roman Mars:
What are Stuivers?

Joe Rosenberg:
I have absolutely no idea, but the bond also acknowledges that they owe an amount of 5% a year to Mr. de Meijer, his heirs or other rightful persons, which means this bond is transferable either as a gift or by sale to anyone else.

Roman Mars:
Right. The other thing I noticed about this is that there’s all these notes and annotations all around the corners. I mean it looks like it’s been annotated essentially. Is this the sale and transfer? Is that what that’s all about?

Joe Rosenberg:
Those notations are a record of every single time someone has collected on the bond and how much was paid out and when it was paid out.

Roman Mars:
Oh okay, cool.

Joe Rosenberg:
It really is a living document, which has been written on continuously throughout its 400-year history.

Roman Mars:
It’s like a blockchain.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, no, that’s exactly what it’s like. Even to the point where actually they know how much to pay out because they see all the previous notations, so they know how much back interest they owe you.

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Joe Rosenberg:
Right, and you can actually see, they actually ran out of room. If you go to the next page of the book, starting in the 1940s they added this thing, which is called an allange or sometimes a talon, which is basically like an extra bit of paper with the seal of the water board that continues this tradition of notating every payout.

Roman Mars:
I can see all the notations. It goes across, it looks like it goes all the way to 2003 on here. It’s really diligent.

Joe Rosenberg:
Oh no, yeah. One of the things that I love is that you can see the handwriting of the receiving clerk at the water board getting more and more modern and kind of less and less elegant as the world got more modern.

Roman Mars:
Do we know these people who collected this bond? Is that written down here on who bared this bond?

Joe Rosenberg:
No, we actually don’t, but Geert says that’s kind of the point. This is a bearer bond. I mean, if you’re the person holding it, you’re the person they have to pay. It doesn’t matter who you are.

Geert Rouwenhurst:
“That’s a unique aspect of a bearer bond. There doesn’t need to be a record of who owns it. The bond itself is the ID.”

Roman Mars:
You actually have to take this piece of paper and go to Holland to collect the money for it?

Joe Rosenberg:
Yes, precisely that is the catch. Anyone can present this bond and collect their money, sort of no questions asked. Almost like it is money, but you have to physically present it to the registrar at the water board office. That’s what all these notations are really notating, that someone showed up.

Tim Young:
“To keep it alive, the bond itself needed to travel in person, with a bearer at least once in a generation.”

Joe Rosenberg:
This is Tim Young, he’s the curator of modern books and manuscripts at the Yale Beinecke Library, which is where the bond currently lives. He is the most recent bearer of the bond. He actually traveled all the way to Holland from New Haven to collect on it. He was the first person to do that since Geert acquired it.

Roman Mars:
The way I picture this is that there’s this old Dutch building from the 17th century just sitting there and an old man has been waiting for centuries…

Joe Rosenberg:
Sure, let’s run with this.

Roman Mars:
… for a person to bear the bond in a clerk suit. I don’t even know what…

Joe Rosenberg:
A Scrivener.

Roman Mars:
Exactly. Would be sitting there. It’s lit by a candle. He has a Quill pen and he makes a notation and he hands him some money from an old till or something. Maybe it’s in gold medallions or script that is also 400 years old.

Joe Rosenberg:
You nailed it. No, actually what you said, it’s all kind of like half true.

Tim Young:
“When I showed up with this water board bond, it was in a little town called Hooten. My brother and I walked about half a mile down the street and found this very lovely building and knocked on the door. I said, ‘hi, I have my water board bond,’ and they go, ‘oh yes, we’re expecting you.’ Then we went to a conference table and they literally gave me a gigantic paper check like you see on TV.”

Roman Mars:
Why’d they do that?

Joe Rosenberg:
Well, so full disclosure, they actually had a Dutch television crew waiting for him.

Roman Mars:
So they were doing this little bit.

Joe Rosenberg:
Oh yeah. I mean, this was obviously good PR for the water board and for Yale. They weren’t going to let this moment go to waste.

Tim Young:
“Then they gave me a check, a real check, a small check to bring back to New Haven. Then they said, oh, let’s actually go see the pier.”

Roman Mars:
What is he talking about, the pier?

Joe Rosenberg:
The public work that this bond funded is still there. It’s still standing.

Roman Mars:
Oh my goodness, okay.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, and it’s still regulating river flow, which just might be my favorite aspect of this whole story.

Roman Mars:
Wow!

Joe Rosenberg:
An actual real-life human thing that was achieved by this bond, and this kind of weird aspect of time travel where you were partially responsible for this thing that nevertheless predates you.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Tim Young:
“When I went in 2015, I got to stand on the pier, they called it, that had this connection between me, between Yale and people who are working for a company that is the descendants of something that was established 400-500 years ago.”

Roman Mars:
I’m trying to wrap my head around just the value of this bond and the value of what they payout. Yale bought it for how much money?

Joe Rosenberg:
Obviously, it’s an incredibly rare item for any scripopholist, scripophile, I don’t know, but Geert told me that they got it at auction for roughly $24,000.

Roman Mars:
Okay, and so how much did Tim get on his both big and tiny check when he went there?

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, not as much.

Tim Young:
“They did 12 disbursements for every year worth of interest that was being paid out, and that was 11 Euro, 35.”

Joe Rosenberg:
With 12 years back interest, that came out to a whopping 136 euros and change.

Roman Mars:
This is the thing about a perpetual bond is that inflation really eats the value of a bond like this.

Joe Rosenberg:
A Carolus guilder just isn’t what it used to be.

Roman Mars:
Guess not. Can’t buy a beer with that anymore.

Joe Rosenberg:
No, sir.

Roman Mars:
Thanks so much. That’s awesome, Joe.

Joe Rosenberg:
Roman, you’re welcome.

——————————————

Roman Mars:
I’m in the studio with Sean Real, our composer and you always bring me a delightful music-related mini-story every year.

Sean Real:
Oh, thanks Roman.

Roman Mars:
What do you have for us this year?

Sean Real:
Okay, so do you know what concert pitch is?

Roman Mars:
I have no idea what concert pitch is.

Sean Real:
Okay, so it’s what an orchestra will tune to and we basically have like a standard pitch right now of 440 hertz. Which is like, if you think of a sine wave, 440 hertz means that the sine wave is like hills and valleys. It’ll go up and down 440 times in a second.

Roman Mars:
Okay, and so all the instruments are tuned to this pitch so that they all sound good together essentially? The A note that one instrument plays is the same A note that another instrument plays?

Sean Real:
Exactly, and 440 hertz is Concert A.

Roman Mars:
Is this the standard for every orchestra all around the world or does it vary depending on where you are?

Sean Real:
If we’re just talking about Western music, which is mostly what I’ve researched for this, like there are a lot of different tuning traditions. In Western music up to like a lot of pop music and stuff, today it’s like mostly 440 hertz.

Roman Mars:
How did they center that as being the value that everyone tunes to?

Sean Real:
It’s actually a very messy history of how we got here. If you go back a few hundred years, if you go throughout different countries in Europe, you would be hearing wildly different things as far as like what the pitch was for different orchestras.

Roman Mars:
As long as all the instruments in the room are the same tuning, does it really matter that between orchestras they have the same tuning or did anyone really care?

Sean Real:
There was a time where people didn’t really care and music didn’t really travel that much anyway. It’s really fascinating to think about this time where, if you were traveling from country to country-

Roman Mars:
To gain a lot of opera hour.

Sean Real:
… had good pitch you could hear, you could tell that the orchestras were, some were tuned really low and some were tuned really high. Some as low as like 374 hertz and some as high as 567 hertz, which just for reference let me play you what that is. First I’m going to play you 440, which is what we do today. (440-hertz note plays). Now here’s 374. (374-hertz note plays)

Roman Mars:
Yeah, so that’s really different. Yeah, I don’t have very good pitch and that’s very different.

Sean Real:
Yeah, and those are both considered A.

Roman Mars:
Wow, okay.

Sean Real:
Then the highest one, 567. (567-hertz note plays)

Roman Mars:
Wow!

Sean Real:
Those are all supposed to be the exact same note. That’s the reference point for an entire piece of music. Where these numbers come from is from this survey conducted by the French government in the 1800s of different pipe organs, which were centerpieces of a lot of orchestras which are just centered around the church pipe organ. In order to tune a pipe organ, it’s more like construction than it is actually just regular tuning. It’s always made more sense to just tune to the pipe organ.

Roman Mars:
I see. I see. Whatever the A that the pipe organ says it is, that is what the A is for that room because retuning a pipe organ it’s not like twisting a little knob on a violin?

Sean Real:
No, it’s like getting in and sawing stuff and sanding.

Roman Mars:
All these sort of un-standard tunings get perpetuated in different rooms and concert halls because of the pipe organ that is there?

Sean Real:
Yeah, so there was a time when the pipe organ was the most central part of the orchestra, but then stuff started to develop in Europe. As concert music became more of a thing, more of like an event to be attended, concert halls started being built bigger and bigger. You would have just large, large halls, you could put lots of people in it, but they couldn’t really account for how sound travels. If you were sitting in the back of a concert hall, you would mostly only hear the bass, because bass notes just travel further than higher frequency notes. To compensate for this, a lot of orchestra leaders would tune higher. They would get everybody to just move everything up and they were just stories that I was reading of people being frustrated because their strings were always breaking.

Roman Mars:
They were tuned too tight.

Sean Real:
Singers were having to go to the doctor from straining their voices and people were in uproar about this.

Roman Mars:
There’s already the chaos of every pipe organ being different and then they introduced concert halls. Then there’s this arms race for how to be higher so you can be heard better in concert halls. Then it gets more chaotic and so every different concert hall is now pitched wildly different, it drifts even more?

Sean Real:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Sean Real:
Mostly consistently getting higher and especially with violin strings and sort of those kinds of stringed instruments being able to be tuned higher. String makers were making strings stronger in order to keep up with the pitch rising gradually. It came down to singers being like, “You have to stop.”

Roman Mars:
“You have to stop.”

Sean Real:
“We have to stop this.”

Roman Mars:
“Can’t sing any higher than this.”

Sean Real:
It got to a point where the French government actually had to like decree that concert orchestras would tune at 435 hertz.

Roman Mars:
Okay, and so you said 440 was the standard now?

Sean Real:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Roman Mars:
435 is set, so obviously it’s shifted. When did 435 become the standard?

Sean Real:
435 became the standard in France in 1859, but then a while, while later in 1919 it was adopted by a bunch of other nations. That’s because of the first Treaty of Versailles.

Roman Mars:
The Treaty of Versailles that was the surrender of Germany during World War I.

Sean Real:
Yeah, the treaty that ended World War I.

Roman Mars:
That actually has a clause in it that talks about the tuning of orchestras?

Sean Real:
Yeah, section two, article 282.

Roman Mars:
They took this seriously. Wow, okay.

Sean Real:
There’s all this stuff about tariffs and like standardization things.

Roman Mars:
That makes some sense. You’re trying to create a unified Europe, so you’d want taxes to be fair and import and export. You wouldn’t necessarily expect French tuning to be the thing that is the thing that is adopted in the Treaty of Versailles, but there it is.

Sean Real:
And yet they did. America, at that point, was tuning to 440.

Roman Mars:
We actually violated the Treaty of Versailles.

Sean Real:
Well, we didn’t sign it.

Roman Mars:
We didn’t sign it, that’s right.

Sean Real:
Actually, one country that did violate the Treaty of Versailles in this particular instance at least, was the United Kingdom. The way that tuning is written in this convention that’s in the treaty, is that you have to tune to 435 hertz based on a tuning fork at a room temperature of 15 degrees Celsius. I think it was the Royal Philharmonic in the UK were like, ‘Well, our concert halls are a bit warmer. We are at about 20 degrees Celsius, so it makes sense for us to tune a little higher, because the temperature would actually bring us down to 435.” Actually, they were ending up at like 439 with a bunch of smaller instances and details that I didn’t find super interesting. There was another convention meeting of the minds about concert pitch and it was raised to 440-

Roman Mars:
440 after that point, but that’s amazing that it was considered so important culturally for the harmonious existence of Europe that everything be tuned to the same frequency.

Sean Real:
Yeah, it makes a lot of sense when you think about like instruments are built to be optimal for a pitch of 440 hertz, like a 440 A. I feel a little romantic about the idea of just going to the town over, like the music’s going to sound a little different.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. That’s kind of nice. Like you haven’t heard Handel’s Messiah until you’ve heard it in Prague or something like that.

Sean Real:
Exactly. Yeah. Oh, that was another one of my favorite things was that Mozart actually wrote everything at 421. I was wondering if in the movie about Mozart, they had like actually…

Roman Mars:
Oh, done it at the right frequency or the contemporaneous frequency.

Sean Real:
They appeared to have not so I’ve never really heard a Mozart song.

Roman Mars:
That’s true. Maybe none of us have. That’s so cool. It would actually be kind of a fun exercise to have an orchestra digitally remaster the classics in their original tuning. It’d be so interesting just to hear if there’s a real difference. I don’t know if I could, my pitch isn’t so terrific. Maybe you would enjoy that exercise quite a bit.

Sean Real:
I wonder if there are people that are already doing that. If anybody is doing that, please reach out to us and just tell us about your work, what you’re doing.

Roman Mars:
That’s awesome. Okay, cool. All right, well thanks, Sean.

Sean Real:
Thank you, Roman.

——————————————

Roman Mars:
I’m in the studio with senior producer, Katie Mingle.

Katie Mingle:
Hey, Roman.

Roman Mars:
Hey, it’s been a while.

Katie Mingle:
I know. It really has.

Roman Mars:
What’s your story?

Katie Mingle:
Well, I think we should start out by meeting someone named Irene Wurtzel.

Irene Wurtzel:
“Hello?”

Katie Mingle:
“Hello. Is this Mrs. Irene Wurtzel?”

Irene Wurtzel:
“It is indeed.”

Katie Mingle:
Irene and her husband Alan live in an area in Washington, D.C. called Kalorama.

Roman Mars:
I don’t know what that is.

Katie Mingle:
It’s a very fancy neighborhood. It’s the neighborhood that Jeff Bezos lives in.

Roman Mars:
I see.

Katie Mingle:
Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner live there, or at least they did until very recently. I’m not sure if they still do. A bunch of like ex-presidents, former presidents have lived there. Woodrow Wilson, FDR, the Obamas live there currently. Yeah, when you think of this neighborhood, think of motorcades and secret service retinues. There are definitely some standalone homes with yards, but then there’s also a lot of row houses like townhouses right next to each other, but like huge. Multi-floored.

Roman Mars:
Right, fancy ones.

Katie Mingle:
We’re not talking about like tenements, but I guess no matter how fancy a neighborhood is, there’s always going to be that neighbor who’s just problematic. Yeah, so Irene has this house right next to her. Here I’ll actually let her describe it.

Irene Wurtzel:
“Well, it’s just a very early 1900s house with very good lines, nice windows and it has an elegant look from the outside. No one has lived in it since we’ve been here.”

Roman Mars:
How long are we talking about?

Katie Mingle:
That’s since 1993.

Roman Mars:
Woah. Okay.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
That is substantial.

Katie Mingle:
Yes, like almost three decades I think. I think that’s…

Roman Mars:
Yeah, getting close.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah. This is a 10,000 square foot, five-floor mansion.

Roman Mars:
It’s huge.

Katie Mingle:
It’s a huge space to just sit empty for that long. It’s also connected to Irene and Alan’s house. It’s one of these row houses. I think what happens to that house can actually affect their place.

Roman Mars:
If a vacant property has rats or termites or a bug problem, it actually causes more problems to the neighbors than otherwise because they’re connected.

Katie Mingle:
Right.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Katie Mingle:
Irene says, over the years there’s been stuff like decaying pieces of concrete, bricks falling off, I guess a wooden window frame from that house dropped onto their patio somehow. Then there have been things like rats and other little visitors.

Irene Wurtzel:
“They kept the windows open and, among other things, birds flew in and out of the house. On the side of the house, the window was always open. I think birds are building nests in there.”

Katie Mingle:
Yeah, she said there was one brief period where this house next door was kind of a noisy rooming house of some sort but mostly it’s been empty since 1993.

Roman Mars:
So it’s not so much that she has like a problematic neighbor, it’s that she just has no neighbor at all and it’s a problem?

Katie Mingle:
Right.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, so why has it been so empty for so long?

Katie Mingle:
That is the question, Roman. That’s it. That’s what we’re here for. The answer is that this house falls into this special category of property in D.C., which is diplomatic property. It’s like a very D.C. problem.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. One of my favorite things to do in D.C. is to go to the embassy row and spot all the flags. That’s like my favorite thing to do, so what country owns this?

Katie Mingle:
Of course, that’s your favorite thing to do.

Roman Mars:
It’s fun, but what country owns this property?

Katie Mingle:
This house is actually owned by the government of Argentina. It’s not the embassy per se. It’s a building that the government-owned. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe initially they would have people stay in this house when they came to town to do embassy business. I think it’s possible that people who worked at the embassy may have lived there at some point. D.C. has about 530 of these diplomatic properties, like embassies and kind of additional houses. They’re not all falling apart like this, but there’s definitely several buildings that are in pretty rough shape. They’re common enough that they’re like YouTube videos that you can watch with people exploring them. Here, let me put one of these on.

YouTube Video:
“All right guys, so we’re at an abandoned embassy. We already made it inside.”

Katie Mingle:
First of all, this guy should have a second career as like ASMR video guy.

YouTube Video:
“A lot of this and stuff were abandoned just due to financial issues and then relations between the countries, other stuff like that. This one’s been abandoned for 18 years.”

Katie Mingle:
There’s one part where they’re in the bathroom and they’re kind of like, “This is a big day, this is what people in other countries used to wash their butts.” These guys don’t know a ton about-

Roman Mars:
Other cultures.

Katie Mingle:
… other cultures necessarily, they’re just doing the YouTube stuff, trying to get some views. It’s sort of not ideal to have all these empty mansions that only lawbreaking YouTubers are using. It’s actually really complicated and difficult to get anyone to do anything about these buildings. They aren’t actually considered to be foreign soil. There’s sort of a misconception out there that they are foreign soil, but they do have a bunch of special privileges. For example, the police couldn’t get a warrant to search for an embassy. They’re exempt from, I think most if not all taxes, and they don’t have to build by code. They’re encouraged to, but they don’t have to.

Roman Mars:
I see, I see. There could be an illegal kitchen on the back of…

Katie Mingle:
Totally, yeah. Like a city council member for the Kalorama area was quoted saying, “Basically if I have a vacant house that’s becoming a problem, I can call in the cops, clean it up through a fence around it. If necessary, seize it for unpaid taxes.” He says, “I have a lot of tools in my toolbox, but I don’t have those tools available to me if it’s a diplomatic property.”

Katie Mingle:
One thing that makes these properties interesting and maybe also a little harder to address, is how different each one is. If you think about your neighbors kind of having issues or your neighbors potentially having baggage, behind each of these properties is basically the story of entire countries in political upheaval. Let’s take Yugoslavia.

Roman Mars:
Well, that’s not even a country.

Katie Mingle:
Right. Exactly.

Roman Mars:
They have a property?

Katie Mingle:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
Oh, God.

Katie Mingle:
They don’t anymore actually, but they did and for quite a while they had this house. In 2006, all of their diplomatic properties were divided among the six succeeding countries. This house that they owned in D.C. was turned over to Bosnia. The deed was never transferred and then in 2008 someone at the Bosnian embassy was quoted saying that, they didn’t even know who had the key. I guess they eventually found it because they did finally sell the house in 2015 for $650,000. It had been vacant for like three decades, so it was in terrible shape. There was a tree growing through the garage, there was mold everywhere. I think the owners basically gutted it and started over. In response to a lot of different neighbors complaining about a lot of different properties, the state department issued a response saying like, “Basically our hands are tied because of this Vienna convention. The only recourse we really have is to remove diplomatic status from these properties, in which case they become subject to the same property taxes as everyone else and sometimes that motivates them to sell.”

Roman Mars:
Why don’t they do that? What’s the problem with that?

Katie Mingle:
I think they do sometimes do that, but I think they’re pretty hesitant to do it, because they want to maintain good relations with these countries. These properties I think are probably kind of low on their list of concerns overall. Actually, in the case of the Argentinian place right next to Irene and Alan, they actually did remove diplomatic status from that property and it didn’t seem to make a big difference.

Roman Mars:
Why not?

Katie Mingle:
I mean just politics again, like I believe Argentina’s ambassador told the Wurtzels that the country would actually gladly be free of the property and the tax burden of it. But because of a loan that the country had defaulted on in 2001, they couldn’t just freely sell their assets. I don’t know if that’s still the case for Argentina. I did not reach out to the country of Argentina for a comment, but they still haven’t sold it.

Katie Mingle:
Irene told me that about six months ago that they saw for sale sign go up in the yard and they got really excited. It came down a few days later and she thinks maybe they just changed their minds.

Roman Mars:
Oh, that’s too bad.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
That’s so cool. I’d never thought about that at all before when I was looking at flags in embassy row. Another thing to consider.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah, and thanks to a writer at the Washington Post named Jenna Portnoy, who wrote the article where I first read about this. Also, thanks to Abby Madden who works with us on the show and helped me with a lot of this research.

Roman Mars:
Cool. All right. Thanks, everybody.

Roman Mars:
We have one more story about secret nuclear families and how they were hidden from foreign spies and even the post office after this.

[BREAK]

——————————————

Roman Mars:
Okay. So I’m here with Delaney Hall and so what is your mini-story?

Delaney Hall:
So I’ll start by telling you about these home movies that I recently came across on YouTube that have kind of been haunting me. They’re from the 1940s so they don’t have any sound. I’ll just have to describe them to you. Imagine early color films, so the colors are kind of muted and washed out. And the films show footage of these young people like in their twenties and thirties. They’re riding horses through the mountains of New Mexico. They’re skiing, they’re playing tennis. There’s one movie where it looks like they’re having a party at a lake, so they’re all in bathing suits and there’s this one woman carrying a 12-pack of Coors on her shoulder. Another is doing that funny walk in flippers down to the edge of the water.

Roman Mars:
That doesn’t sound especially haunting. That sounds really pleasant.

Delaney Hall:
I know, I know. They’re totally normal home movies, but they’re haunting, once you understand the context, which is, these were movies filmed by a physicist named Hugh Bradner back in the 1940s at a place that was then known by a secret code name, ‘Project Y’ or ‘Site Y’. Today it’s Los Alamos. And so all of these seemingly carefree young people, they weren’t just having a great time in beautiful Northern New Mexico. They were helping to build the first atomic bomb.

Roman Mars:
Right. That adds a lot of context. Heavy stuff is going on in the background of that.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, and it’s sort of the contrast of them having fun, hanging out, and then knowing what they were doing during their working lives and they were helping to build this weapon of enormous power and destruction. It’s going to completely transform the world – the geopolitics of the world – but they’re also just young people living their lives.

Alan Carr:
There were a lot of young people here. The average age was 29. The most common age was 27. So you had a lot of young single people here. There were a lot of young couples.

Delaney Hall:
So this is Alan Carr and he is the senior historian at Los Alamos National Lab and he says the fact that there were all these young people working together on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos actually presented some surprising security challenges. Because for one thing, some of them, it turns out were hooking up and getting married.

Roman Mars:
Totally. Exactly.

Delaney Hall:
And having babies out there on this top-secret military campus, which was not even supposed to be a place on the map.

Alan Carr:
All the sudden you went from a locale in New Mexico where no children were ever born, hardly, to all the sudden there’s eight births a month. That looks awfully suspicious if you’re doing the paperwork down in Santa Fe. Why are all these kids being born in Los Alamos? I don’t even know what Los Alamos is.

Roman Mars:
So now we think of Los Alamos as this place where the bomb was made, but at the time was Los Alamos even like a place that would have couples and babies?

Delaney Hall:
Right. No. Back then it wouldn’t have been and that, yeah, that’s an important point. And so to understand why this would have been suspicious, let’s backtrack and I’ll explain how the government even chose Los Alamos as the site for bomb development and what it was like before it became Project Y. So what happened is in 1942 the military decides they need a central laboratory in an isolated place where they can design, build and test nuclear weapons.

Alan Carr:
Where do you put a place that does those types of things? This was arguably history’s biggest super-secret project.

Delaney Hall:
And so they decide there’s some very important criteria for this place. It needs to be remote, for safety reasons. They want to keep the scientists who are working on the project away from other people. They do not want them accidentally blabbing about what they’re doing.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, that makes sense too.

Delaney Hall:
And they also want it to be near a rail hub so that they can ship all the stuff they need there – cyclotrons and whatnot. And then finally they want it to be at least 200 miles from any international boundaries.

Alan Carr:
Maybe they watch these old movies where a saboteur gets off a submarine and runs in and sabotages the factory. It blows up. Well, we want the saboteurs to have to run a long, long way. Right?

Roman Mars:
That’s a good point.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah. So at this point, and again this is 1942, Robert Oppenheimer has been selected as the head of Project Y and he had spent a lot of his time in his youth in Northern New Mexico, which is remote and meets most of the other criteria. So they start looking around the area and pretty soon they settled on what’s now known as Los Alamos, which is about 45 minutes northwest of Santa Fe.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. So what was Los Alamos really like back then? How would people think of Los Alamos back then?

Delaney Hall:
Back then it wasn’t even a town. There was this rustic boys’ school there called the Los Alamos Ranch School and that was about it. So the government just bought the school. They went about setting up this state of the art lab on the top of this very isolated remote mesa.

Roman Mars:
Okay. That sounds hard. That sounds logistically very difficult to do. And then, especially in 1942.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, it was kind of a logistical nightmare. The whole location was served by this one little that snaked up a huge cliff and they were shipping in massive pieces of equipment, pipes for one thing because Alan Carr told me there wasn’t a reliable water supply, and there also wasn’t any electricity.

Alan Carr:
And so the original engineers who built the town acquired a large generator in Texas. They had it shipped to Santa Fe by train, put it on a truck and drove it up the hill. And as they were, it fell off the truck, it broke, it cracked, and they welded it back together and managed to get it up the hill. And so in those opening months of 1943, the real heroes were the construction workers.

Roman Mars:
So like listening to all the things that they had to do, it doesn’t sound like you could keep Los Alamos a secret for very long. If you’re shipping gigantic generators and there’s these trucks on the highway, I mean, how do you keep that all secret?

Delaney Hall:
Right, yeah, it’s kind of mind-boggling. So for secrecy, the main thing they did is that the people who worked on the project weren’t necessarily told what they were going to be doing until they agreed to join the project. So they’d be told something vague like you’ll be doing important work for the war effort. It might help to bring the war to an end. But it was really only after you arrived in Los Alamos that you would learn the details. There was also a fence around the whole town so that people couldn’t just wander in. And then there was the mail. So all the mail was censored obviously so that no one would accidentally write a friend and say what they were doing.

Roman Mars:
Right. That totally makes sense. I mean I’m surprised they even had mail. I mean, how could you have mail trucks coming in and out of Los Alamos? I mean that seems like a huge security risk in and of itself.

Delaney Hall:
Right. It would have been. And so according to Alan, there were not mail trucks coming in and out of Los Alamos. All the mail was actually delivered to Santa Fe and it was delivered to just two main PO boxes that served the entire Project Y. So there was PO Box 1663 which was for the civilians. Because all the scientists working on the project were civilians. And then there was PO Box 1539 for the military. So that meant that all the mail coming to the area just went to one place that was far from the actual town and then it would likely have been trucked up by the military.

Roman Mars:
So if there are two PO boxes for the entire community, is that like people wrote to a thousand people per PO box basically?

Delaney Hall:
Yeah. So the number of civilians working at Los Alamos was in the thousands.

Alan Carr:
It would have in the low thousands, I would guess. People receiving mail at PO Box 1663, probably somewhere between 4,000-5,000. So a lot of mail.

Delaney Hall:
The fascinating thing is that this whole PO box thing actually connects back to the Los Alamos baby boom that we were talking about at the beginning.

Roman Mars:
Okay, how was that?

Delaney Hall:
So as Alan was saying, there were all these young people working in Los Alamos back in the 1940s and the scientists and engineers who worked on the bomb, they were civilians, which meant the military could not boss them around as easily or control their behavior in the same way they could with people who were enlisted.

Alan Carr:
It’s easier to control people in uniform than civilians. If you’ve got a bunch of people in uniforms here working, one thing that they’re not doing is getting married and having children.

Delaney Hall:
But the civilian scientists, that’s exactly what they were doing. A lot of them were young. They’re basically partying when they weren’t working, as I’ve seen in those home movies they shot. And they were also having babies, which was a total headache for the military.

Alan Carr:
Oppenheimer’s boss was the general named general Leslie Groves, and he didn’t like all these kids being born, because, well, first of all, you have to try and keep it secret. You have to put a maternity ward in the hospital, you have to have a school district. All these things he didn’t want to have to worry about. So he ordered Oppenheimer to tell the staff to ‘stop having kids’.

Roman Mars:
I’m sure that went over well.

Delaney Hall:
It actually, as I’m sure you can imagine, did not go over well.

Alan Carr:
Especially considering that the director’s wife kitty was pregnant at the time. So I don’t think that that order was carried out.

Roman Mars:
So how did they manage to keep all these new Los Alamos babies under wraps?

Delaney Hall:
So the main way was that they did not list the place of birth on the birth certificates. They couldn’t put Los Alamos because Los Alamos didn’t really exist in the official record. It was totally top secret. They couldn’t put Project Y cause that would also be weird. And so even though these babies were born at the hospital in Los Alamos, their birth certificates just said ‘PO Box 1663’.

Alan Carr:
If it says PO Box 1663 that keeps that a lot more secret.

Delaney Hall:
Although it also seems like you’d be like, what are these babies born at a PO box? What does that mean?

Alan Carr:
That’s right. But at least the PO box doesn’t give you a location and that’s what they were trying to keep secret.

Roman Mars:
So any idea how many kids were actually born and have the PO box listed as their place of birth?

Delaney Hall:
Alan guessed maybe a hundred or 150 kids. He has actually seen some of the birth certificates before.

Roman Mars:
What a weird side effect of history. Well, cool. Well, thank you so much, Delaney. Appreciate it.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, thank you.

  1. Susan Nace

    RE: Concert Pitch by Sean Real

    RE: Concert Pitch now
    Orchestra directors are still playing with concert pitch. Not certain, but I heard San Francisco is A=441, many are at 442, and Von Karajan pushed his orchestras as high A=452.

    RE: Temperament – A great area to explore
    Great book about temperaments, which is even more fascinating than tuning pitches, is Temperament by Stuart Isacoff. There were huge arguments over it and J.S. Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” was a theoretical work (although it is a series of 48 Preludes and Fugues in every key) because equal temperament was a controversial idea in Bach’s day. There are several different temperament systems and several are used now. Choirs and Instruments use either just or a combination of just and Pythagorean tuning. Ragnar Bohlin with the SF Symphony Chorus is all about tunings and his choirs (generally toward the end of the season) show it!

    Finally, glad you posted Vivaldi in A=415 Youtube
    Historically Informed Performance (HIP) has been around for a long time in the 20th/21st centuries and Early Music musicians are all over the tuning, techniques, and using instruments of the period (or facsimilies) Andrew Parrott’s groups do original tuning. I had the opportunity of hearing Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” with period instruments and lowered tuning. I am not a Mozart afficionado, but with period instruments and lowered tuning ,I fell in love with Mozart. It was a completely different experience! The San Francisco Early Music Society can link you up with performers and scholars!

    Cheers! Keep exploring: Music has a lot of “invisibleness” by design!

  2. On the Dutch bond value: A Dutch guilder (‘Gulden’ in Dutch) is valued in 100 ‘cent’. And a ‘stuiver’ is simply 5 cent! In the report is was mentioned that a guilder is „20 stuivers“, 20 times 5 cent equals 100 cent, which gives one guilder.
    This has been the case until the introduction of the Euro also in Holland.

    1. Stephane Famelaer

      So 1 stuiver was almost the same as one Belgian Frank. Interesting 🤔 never knew this!

  3. Charles Wu

    The concert pitch story is totally missing any mention of the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) movement in classical music which aims to play classical music as the original composers had heard it, on historically-accurate instruments and using historical tuning (usually around A=415). Even a layperson can hear the differences in tuning and style:

    Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony played by the Orchestra of the 18th Century under Frans Bruggen on period instruments and tuning: https://youtu.be/5DFJ-8tdrTA?t=120

    The same piece played by the Vienna Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein on modern instruments and tuning: https://youtu.be/W-uEjxxYtHo?t=25

    There are at least a dozen world-class period orchestras who specialize in historical performance (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_early_music_ensembles), the best-known of which are the Academy of Ancient Music, Concentus Musicus Wien, the English Concert, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and the Orchestra of the 18th Century.

    There’s also a number of soloists who similarly play on period equipment (Rachel Podger and Andrew Manze are the most famous violinists). For piano pieces, Robert Levin has recorded most of Mozart’s best known piano concertos on period-accurate fortepiano instruments. This just scratches the surface, and would make a great 99PI story.

    So you don’t need computer modification to hear period-accurate tuning, you just need to fire up Youtube or Spotify and listen to some great musicians who are keeping old music alive today.

  4. Tim Harris

    Not precisely bearer bonds but, to this day, the design of English bank notes includes a printed promise from the Bank, such as “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of ten pounds”. I have always been curious what the Bank of England would give me if I arrive and ask them to make good on this.

  5. Sheryl

    On concert pitch, being obsessed with Bach at one point I was well aware of baroque music ensembles that tune their instruments to the appropriate historical tuning. I also was looking this up and found that contemporary musicians like Jimi Hendrix and U2 tune down a semitone for greater resonance. When I tune my violin by ear I always end up about a semitone flat from A440. I wonder if that is a somewhat “unnatural” tuning to my ear?
    Something else to explore: Temper. Around Bach’s time there were many ways to tune a piano/ klavier. Not just in terms of the central pitch but how far each tone is space from the others. Perfectly “even” temper (equal spacing of tones) ends up sounding out of tune to our ears. So thus Bach’s “well tempered Clavier”. I’m far from an expert, but I think there is a whole show’s worth of stuff to explore w/r/t tuning and pitch!

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