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Posts Tagged ‘sociology

“The abundance of beards in periods of social unrest, times of revolt or upheaval, should be noted”*…

 

beard

 

You could consume more than half a century of American popular culture, from World War II to Korea to Vietnam to September 11, without encountering many bearded manly heroes; facial hair was generally reserved for wild enemies foreign and domestic, swarthy terrorists and libertine hippies. Even American westerns posited a surprising number of neatly trimmed frontier protagonists, reserving scruff for their foes. Italian-produced spaghetti westerns, which introduced Clint Eastwood’s perpetually unshaven man with no name, seem the exception that proves the rule, deploying beards as to emphasize that their protagonists are deeply flawed antiheroes, operating outside mainstream norms.

In the twenty-first century, however, America’s man of the hour is a follicle farm. Hipsters affect the lumberjack’s hirsute machismo. Genteel movie stars like George Clooney and Paul Rudd tantalize paparazzi with full, bushy beards. Police departments in Michigan and Texas have relaxed their officers’ notoriously strict grooming standards to permit beards and goatees. Faux-folksy politicians like Texas Senator Ted Cruz and former House speaker Paul Ryan attempt to transform their brands with a macho hairy mug—just as John Kerry and Al Gore did a few years earlier, with limited success. Our Hollywood war heroes, armed men who go bump in the night, grow facial hair so voluminous that perhaps their beards are what do the heavy bumping. Even that most American of fictional G.I.s, the idealistic Steve Rogers, returns from a depressive self-exile in Avengers: Infinity War with a sexy beard that says “Captain America has seen some shit.”

The Guardian in 2013 hypothesized that human society had reached “peak beard”; though it may have appeared so, the ensuing six years have not dampened enthusiasm for facial hair. The razor industry nervously recorded a 5 percent decline in sales last year as men’s shaving frequency has continued to decline; producers of shaving accouterments have tried to cut prices and diversify into new grooming products, having apparently accepted that our beards are here to stay.

But why is ours such a hairy century? What began this trend, and what fuels it?…

How did facial hair win American men’s hearts and minds? Thank the war on terror: “The Sum of All Beards.”

* Mihail Sebastian

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As we hail the hirsute, we might spare a thought for Muhammad; he died on this date in 632.  The founder of Islam, he is considered by its adherents to have been a prophet, sent to present and confirm the monotheistic teachings preached previously by Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets– the final prophet.  He united Arabia into a single Muslim polity, with the Quran (the transcriptions of divine messages that he received) as well as his other teachings and practices forming the basis of Islamic religious belief.

220px-Mohammed_receiving_revelation_from_the_angel_Gabriel

Muhammad receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. From the manuscript Jami’ al-tawarikh by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani, 1307

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Written by LW

June 8, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The danger is that in this move toward new horizons and far directions, that I may lose what I have now, and not find anything except loneliness”*…

 

Moving trucks line a streets as residents evacuate from an apartment complex which in danger of collapsing due to El Nino storm erosion in Pacifica

 

Mobility in the United States has fallen to record lows. In 1985, nearly 20 percent of Americans had changed their residence within the preceding 12 months, but by 2018, fewer than ten percent had. That’s the lowest level since 1948, when the Census Bureau first started tracking mobility.

The decline in Americans’ mobility has been staggering… Mobility rates have fallen for nearly every group, across age, gender, income, homeownership status, and marital status.

Declining mobility contributes to a host of economic and social issues: less economic dynamism, lower rates of innovation, and lower productivity. By locking people into place, it exacerbates inequality by limiting the economic opportunities for workers.

A wide range of explanations have been offered to account for these substantial declines in mobility. Many consider the culprit to be the economic crisis, which locked people into declining-value homes; others attribute it to the huge differential in the housing prices in expensive cities. Some economists contend that job opportunities have become similar across places, meaning people are less likely to move for work; others see rising student debt as a key factor that has kept young Americans in their parents’ basements.

Now, a new study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York suggests that other, more emotional and psychological factors may be at work…

Powerful psychological factors connect people to places, and often mean more to them than money: “Why Some Americans Won’t Move, Even for a Higher Salary.”

[This is an issue that is likely to become more acute as climate change forces millions of Americans to “retreat” to safer and/or more arable ground.]

* Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

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As we contemplate change, we might recall that it was on this date in 1939 that a German the St. Louis, a German transatlantic liner, was forced to sail back to Europe after more than 900 of its passengers (primarily German-Jewish refugees) were refused entry by Cuba; over 200 of these refugees would later die in the Holocaust.

The St. Louis departed Germany for Cuba on May 13. The majority of the 937 passengers were German Jews fleeing the increasing discrimination and violence against Jews under Hitler, and many planned to stay in Cuba only until they received U.S. visas. However, unbeknownst to most of the passengers, a week before the ship sailed, the Cuban government invalidated one of the types of travel documents held by the refugees.

When the ship arrived in Cuba on May 27, fewer than 30 passengers—those who had the proper papers—were allowed to disembark. Despite days of negotiations, the Cuban government could not be persuaded to allow the refugees to enter. Leaving Cuban waters on June 2, the ship sailed near the Florida coast. Passengers petitioned President Roosevelt for refuge but received no answer. The St. Louis was finally forced to return to Europe on June 6.

refugees source

 

Written by LW

June 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

“No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother”*…

 

women

 

If you’re in possession of a uterus, at some point in your life you’ve likely gotten the message that having children isn’t a choice—it’s your duty. For well over a century, doctors, psychologists, and politicians have engaged in intense public campaigns to persuade American women to bear children, publicly exalting motherhood and warning of personal, and societal, peril if they don’t comply.

There’s a word for this: pronatalism, the promotion of baby-making for a nation’s social, political, and economic purposes…

The techniques that have been used to pressure American women to keep breeding are even more shocking than you might think– proselytizing, pseudoscience, and shaming–all committed in the name of turning women into mothers: “A Brief History of Bullying Women to Have Babies.”

* Margaret Sanger

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As we cherish choice, we might send healing birthday greetings to Helen Brooke Taussig; she was born on this date in 1898.  The founder of pediatric cardiology, Dr. Taussig pioneered the use of X-rays and fluoroscopy to identify heart defects in newborns; then in 1944, with surgeon Alfred Blalock, she developed a surgical procedure for treating blue baby syndrome. In the 1960s, Taussig was a leader in the identification of Thalidomide (a fertility drug) as a cause of birth defects, and an effective campaigner for its banning.

Though she chose never to marry nor have children herself, Taussig was responsible for advances that have saved millions of children’s lives.

220px-Helen_B._Taussig source

 

“Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious”*…

 

Jan_Havicksz._Steen_-_Het_vrolijke_huisgezin_-_Google_Art_Project

Jan Steen, “The Merry Family,” 1668

 

The governing elites of ancient and medieval Europe were not greatly hospitable to humor. From the earliest times, laughter seems to have been a class affair, with a firm distinction enforced between civilized amusement and vulgar cackling. Aristotle insists on the difference between the humor of well-bred and low-bred types in the Nicomachean Ethics. He assigns an exalted place to wit, ranking it alongside friendship and truthfulness as one of the three social virtues, but the style of wit in question demands refinement and education, as does the deployment of irony. Plato’s Republic sets its face sternly against holding citizens up to ridicule and is content to abandon comedy largely to slaves and aliens. Mockery can be socially disruptive, and abuse dangerously divisive. The cultivation of laughter among the Guardian class is sternly discouraged, along with images of laughing gods or heroes. St. Paul forbids jesting, or what he terms eutrapelia, in his Epistle to the Ephesians. It is likely, however, that Paul has scurrilous buffoonery in mind, rather than the vein of urbane wit of which Aristotle would have approved…

The churlish suspicion of humor sprang from more than a fear of frivolity. More fundamentally, it reflected a terror of the prospect of a loss of control, not least on a collective scale. It is this that in Plato’s view can be the upshot of excessive laughter, a natural bodily function on a level with such equally distasteful discharges as vomiting and excreting. Cicero lays out elaborate rules for jesting and is wary of any spontaneous outburst of the stuff. The plebeian body is perpetually in danger of falling apart, in contrast to the disciplined, suavely groomed, efficiently regulated body of the hygienic patrician. There is also a dangerously democratic quality to laughter, since unlike playing the tuba or performing brain surgery, anybody can do it. One requires no specialized expertise, privileged bloodline, or scrupulously nurtured skill.

Comedy poses a threat to sovereign power not only because of its anarchic bent, but because it makes light of such momentous matters as suffering and death, hence diminishing the force of some of the judicial sanctions that governing classes tend to keep up their sleeve. It can foster a devil-may-care insouciance that loosens the grip of authority. Even Erasmus, author of the celebrated In Praise of Folly, also penned a treatise on the education of schoolchildren that warns of the perils of laughter. The work admonishes pupils to press their buttocks together when farting to avoid excessive noise, or to mask the unseemly sound with a well-timed cough…

Whose laughter? Which comedy?  The formidable Terry Eagleton unpacks “The Politics of Humor.”

* Peter Ustinov

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As we LOL, we might recall that it was on this date in 1717 that Voltaire (François Marie Arouet), the “Father of the Age of Reason.” was imprisoned for the first time in the Bastille for writing “subversive literature”– satire.  He would subsequently be imprisoned again, and forced in exile.

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Written by LW

May 16, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Status is welcome, agreeable, pleasant, and hard to obtain in the world”*…

 

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a person in possession of little fortune, must be in want of more social capital.”

So wrote Jane Austen, or she would have, I think, if she were chronicling our current age (instead we have Taylor Lorenz, and thank goodness for that).

Let’s begin with two principles:

  • People are status-seeking monkeys*
  • People seek out the most efficient path to maximizing social capital

I begin with these two observations of human nature because few would dispute them, yet I seldom see social networks, some of the largest and fastest-growing companies in the history of the world, analyzed on the dimension of status or social capital.

It’s in part a measurement issue. Numbers lend an air of legitimacy and credibility. We have longstanding ways to denominate and measure financial capital and its flows. Entire websites, sections of newspapers, and a ton of institutions report with precision on the prices and movements of money.

We have no such methods for measuring the values and movement of social capital, at least not with anywhere near the accuracy or precision. The body of research feels both broad and yet meager. If we had better measures besides user counts, this piece and many others would be full of charts and graphs that added a sense of intellectual heft to the analysis. There would be some annual presentation called the State of Social akin to Meeker’s Internet Trends Report, or perhaps it would be a fifty page sub-section of her annual report.

Despite this, most of the social media networks we study generate much more social capital than actual financial capital, especially in their early stages; almost all such companies have internalized one of the popular truisms of Silicon Valley, that in the early days, companies should postpone revenue generation in favor of rapid network scaling. Social capital has much to say about why social networks lose heat, stall out, and sometimes disappear altogether. And, while we may not be able to quantify social capital, as highly attuned social creatures, we can feel it.

Social capital is, in many ways, a leading indicator of financial capital, and so its nature bears greater scrutiny. Not only is it good investment or business practice, but analyzing social capital dynamics can help to explain all sorts of online behavior that would otherwise seem irrational.

In the past few years, much progress has been made analyzing Software as a Service (SaaS) businesses. Not as much has been made on social networks. Analysis of social networks still strikes me as being like economic growth theory long before Paul Romer’s paper on endogenous technological change. However, we can start to demystify social networks if we also think of them as SaaS businesses, but instead of software, they provide status. This post is a deep dive into what I refer to as Status as a Service (StaaS) businesses…

Eugene Wei (of Amazon, Hulu, and Flipboard, among other tech successes) on the implications of our hunger for recognition and rank: “Status as a Service (StaaS).”

Pair with: “Understanding Tradeoffs (pt. 2): Breaking the Altruism vs. Capitalism Dichotomy.”

[Image above: source]

* Buddha [Ittha Sutta, AN 5.43]

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As we contemplate our craving, we might recall that it was on this date in 1845 that a method for manufacturing elastic (rubber) bands was patented in Britain by Stephen Perry and and Thomas Barnabas Daft of London (G.B. No. 13880/1845).

In the early 19th century, sailors had brought home items made by Central and South American natives from the sap of rubber trees, including footwear, garments and bottles.  Around 1820, a Londoner named Thomas Hancock sliced up one of the bottles to create garters and waistbands. By 1843, he had secured patent rights from Charles Macintosh for vulcanized India rubber.  (Vulcanization made rubber stable and retain its elasticity.)  Stephen Perry, owner of Messrs Perry and Co,. patented the use of India rubber for use as springs in bands, belts, etc., and (with Daft) also the manufacture of elastic bands by slicing suitable sizes of vulcanized India rubber tube.  The bands were lightly scented to mask the smell of the treated rubber.

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Written by LW

March 17, 2019 at 1:01 am

“It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit”*…

 

Barnum

 

“Business is the ordinary means of living for nearly all of us,” P.T. Barnum wrote in his 1865 book The Humbugs of the World: An Account of Humbugs, Delusions, Impositions, Quackeries, Deceits and Deceivers Generally, in All Ages. “ ‘There’s cheating in all trades but ours,’ is the prompt reply from the bootmaker with his brown paper soles, the grocer with his floury sugar and chicoried coffee…the newspaper man with his ‘immense circulation,’ the publisher with his ‘Great American Novel,’ the city auctioneer with his ‘Pictures by the Old Masters’—all and everyone protest each his own innocence, and warn you against the deceits of the rest.”

But…

The greatest humbug of all is the man who believes—or pretends to believe—that everything and everybody are humbugs. If you can imagine a hog’s mind in a man’s body—sensual, greedy, selfish, cruel, cunning, sly, coarse, yet stupid, shortsighted, unreasoning, unable to comprehend anything except what concerns the flesh, you have your man. He thinks himself philosophic and practical, a man of the world; he thinks to show knowledge and wisdom, penetration, deep acquaintance with men and things. Poor fellow! he has exposed his own nakedness. Instead of showing that others are rotten inside, he has proved that he is. He claims that it is not safe to believe others—it is perfectly safe to disbelieve him. He claims that every man will get the better of you if possible—let him alone! Selfishness, he says, is the universal rule—leave nothing to depend on his generosity or honor; trust him just as far as you can sling an elephant by the tail. A bad world, he sneers, full of deceit and nastiness—it is his own foul breath that he smells; only a thoroughly corrupt heart could suggest such vile thoughts. He sees only what suits him, as a turkey buzzard spies only carrion, though amid the loveliest landscape. I pronounce him who thus virtually slanders his father and dishonors his mother, and defiles the sanctities of home, and the glory of patriotism, and the merchant’s honor, and the martyr’s grave, and the saint’s crown—who does not even know that every sham shows that there is a reality, and that hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue—I pronounce him—no, I do not pronounce him a humbug, the word does not apply to him. He is a fool…

Via Lapham’s Quarterly, “The Great American Humbug.”

* Noël Coward, Blithe Spirit

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As we honor honesty, we might send licentious birthday greetings to Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac; he was born on this date in 1619.  While he was a bold and innovative author in the 17th century libertine literary tradition, he is better remembered as the title character he inspired in Edmond Rostand’s noted drama Cyrano de Bergerac, which, although it includes elements of the real Cyrano’s life, is larded with invention and myth.

Cyrano was possessed of a prodigious proboscis, over which he is said to have fought more than 1,000 duels.  Surely as importantly, his writings, which mixed science and romance, influenced Jonathan Swift, Edgar Alan Poe, Voltaire– and Moliere, who “borrowed freely” from Cyrano’s 1654 comedy Le Pédant joué (The Pedant Tricked).

220px-Savinien_de_Cyrano_de_Bergerac source

 

Written by LW

March 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Commercials are about products… in the same sense that the story of Jonah is about the anatomy of whales”*…

 

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In a civilization organized primarily around the funneling of capital to corporations, commercials offer a space of transcendent communion with the objects of our dependence and desire. They take place in a realm understood to be ideational without quite being imaginary—existing not in any one person’s mind, but ambiently, on a level of reality we rarely think to question, encoded in the daily order of things as neatly as the peanut butter aisle of a suburban grocery store. (This bare proximity to capitalism’s exposed nerves, combined with a habitual callousness to human dignity, is I believe why, in the recent words of A.S. Hamrah, “TV commercials are the worst thing to see on hallucinogenic drugs.”) These commercials embody and transmit all kinds of cultural norms, declaiming on the career-destroying horror of “even one flake” of dandruff, the correct way to manage a labor force, how women should interpret cough syrup viscosity, and so on.

Commercials also encode and preserve basic aesthetic and narrative conventions. Musically, they’re a trove of low-rent original product psalms, in styles ranging from quietly sophisticated poultry rock to funky rugged simplicity jams that sound like a person in a boardroom frantically describing the inner life of a coalminer. They introduce stock characters from discomfiting gym teacher to comic book nerd. They offer an education in America’s throbbing corporate epiculture, whose dark world they echo in a thousand ways—through who gets represented and who not, portrayals of nations and cultures, depictions of idealized daily life, enshrinement of a particular commercial landscapestyle parodiesintimations of eternitymessages of warningmessages of beneficence, and more—all calligraphed into air and sent streaming through the walls of our homes by giant corporate antennas…

From Ian Dreiblatt, “Toward a Theory of the American TV Commercial of, Oh, Say, About 1990.”

[image above: source]

* Neil Postman

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As we take it all in, we might celebrate National Tooth Fairy Day.

In the mid-1920s fairies were used for all sorts of health education from bath fairies to fresh air fairies as a way to get kids to remember to eat their vegetables, wash behind their ears and get a good night’s rest. Unlike toothpaste today, that advertises fruity flavors and sparkles to get kids excited to brush their teeth, in 1925 it was probably quite a bit more difficult considering the pastes were mostly peroxide and baking soda. One advertisement was for a Fairy Wand Tooth Whitener. This product promised to brush away cigarette and coffee stains.  The ad was aimed at both children and adults, we hope!

Then in 1927, Esther Watkins Arnold printed an eight-page playlet for children called The Tooth Fairy. It was the same year Sir Arthur Conan Doyle “proved” his claim that fairies and gnomes are real and “verified” with pictures of two little girls surrounded by fairies. The world was ripe with imagination and primed to have a tooth fairy about to come collect the lost teeth of little boys and girls and leave a coin or two behind.

Arnold’s play began to be performed in schools the following year, and the tooth fairy has been slipping into homes ever since.  She (or he) started leaving nickels and dimes under the pillows of sleeping children. Over the years there have been variations on the theme.  In 1942, in an article written by columnist Bob Balfe in the Palm Beach Post, his children received War Stamps to put in their books when they lost a tooth…

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Written by LW

February 28, 2019 at 1:01 am

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