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Posts Tagged ‘sociology

“Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before”*…

 

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Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of Memory, c. 100

 

We think of memory as something internal—we remember with our minds (or, for the materialists among us, our brains). But human history is cluttered with attempts to externalize memory by encoding it onto objects and images. We have built models and systems to help us organize, keep track of, and recall information. These techniques are part of what the ancient Greeks called artificial memory. For the Greeks, natural memory encompassed those things a person happened to remember, and artificial memory consisted of recollections a person buttressed through preparation and effort. Artificial memory was a skill that could be learned and improved upon, one that had its own art: the ars memoriae, or art of memory.

The anthropologist Drew Walker reminds us that so-called mnemonic devices are not objects that stand alone but are instead “part of action.” These memory aids cannot fully store information the way writing does; they work only if you have already memorized the related material. Yet even as mere prompts or catalysts, they serve as crucial technologies for preserving and passing on histories, cultural practices, and learned wisdom.

Scholar Lynne Kelly argues that prehistoric and nonliterate cultures relied on memory technologies to preserve their oral traditions, a practice that continues to this day. Australian Aboriginal songlines record memory in short verses that are to be sung at particular places. Knowing the song helps you find your way across the territory—its melodies and rhythms describe the landscape—while its words tell the history of both the people and the land itself, describing, for example, which creator animal built that rocky outcrop or crevasse. Some songlines tell histories that trace back forty thousand years. Many are sacred and cannot be shared with outsiders. The Southern Australian Museum’s 2014 exhibit of the Ngiṉṯaka songline caused significant controversy because some Aṉangu felt the exhibit shared parts of the songline that were meant to be secret and that its curators had not sufficiently consulted with them. While songlines transform large expanses of land into a mnemonic device, other oral cultures have turned to smaller objects—calendar stones, ropes with knots in them, sticks marked with notches—to serve as tables of contents for important stories and information…

Jules Evans reviews mnemotechnics and the visualization of memory– the ways that we remember: “Summon Up Remembrance.”

See also “It’s a memory technique, a sort of mental map”*…

* Steven Wright

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As we stroll down memory lane, we might recall that it was on this date in 1961 that President Dwight D, Eisenhower made his farewell address on a national television broadcast.  Perhaps most famously, Eisenhower, the only general to be elected president in the 20th century, used the speech to warn the nation against the corrupting influence of what he described as the “military-industrial complex.”

But he also used the occasion to urge a long view of our America and its citizen’s responsibilities:

As we peer into society’s future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

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“So distribution should undo excess, and each man have enough”*…

 

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What makes a person healthy, wealthy, and wise? The UN’s Human Development Index (HDI) measures this by one’s life expectancy, average income, and years of education.

However, the value of each metric varies greatly depending on where you live. Today’s data visualization from Max Roser at Our World in Data summarizes five basic dimensions of development across countries—and how our average standards of living have evolved since 1800…

While there’s absolutely no room for complacency, the details are encouraging: “How the Global Inequality Gap Has Changed In 200 Years.”

* Shakespeare, King Lear (Act 4, Scene 1)

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As we mind the gap, we might recall that it was on this date in 1968 that Science published Garrett Hardin‘s influential essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.”  Hardin was building on an argument from an 1833 pamphlet by economist William Forster Lloyd which included a hypothetical example of over-use of a common resource– cattle herders sharing a common parcel of land on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze, as was the custom in English villages.  Lloyd postulated that if a herder put more than his allotted number of cattle on the common, overgrazing could result.  For each additional animal, a herder could receive additional benefits, while the whole group shared the resulting damage to the commons.  If all herders made this individually rational economic decision, the common could be depleted or even destroyed, to the detriment of all.  Hardin generalized this example to all natural resources in arguing that population should be controlled: that left to their own devices, humans would deplete all natural resources, leading to a Malthusian collapse.

Elinor Ostrum received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for her work demonstrating that humans can, in fact, share– and in so doing, be effective stewards of commonly-“held” natural resources.

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“The most perfect political community is one in which the middle class is in control, and outnumbers both of the other classes”*…

 

middle class

 

But is there a middle class?…

Every politician defends the middle class, but none of them knows quite what it is. In August, during a town hall, Joe Biden said, “We have to rebuild the middle class, and this time we bring everyone along.” In his telling, the middle class is part memory and part aspiration, less a demographic group than a morality tale of loss and redemption. It “isn’t a number,” Biden is fond of saying. “It’s a set of values.”

For many social scientists, though, the middle class is a matter of numbers. The Pew Research Center says that anyone who earns between a mere two-thirds of the median household income and twice that amount falls within it. By that definition, just under half of all American adults are middle class. Unlike in Britain, where the category is seen as more culturally refined, the American middle class includes blue-collar workers whose consumption patterns fit the bill; they can buy a home or put their kids through college. Biden defines the middle class even more expansively. To be middle class, he said in Iowa this summer, is to know “that your kid is safe going outside to play”—something most humans, if not most large primates, would agree they want. To be middle class is to be, well, normal.

Republicans, for their part, rarely promise to rebuild the middle class; they want, as President Trump has said, to make it “bigger and more prosperous than ever before.” But liberal politicians from Biden to Barack Obama to Elizabeth Warren often vow to restore the middle class to the former glory of the three decades after World War II—a time when, they say, prosperity was shared and class conflict neutralized.

Even then, however, there was a sense that the middle class was in crisis. In his 1956 best-seller, The Organization Man, William Whyte wrote of a middle class—an implicitly white middle class—trapped in suburbs and office jobs, shorn of the entrepreneurial individualism and wartime solidarity of earlier generations. In 1969, a New York Times reporter found in Italian-American Queens a community trapped between escalating grocery bills and the expanding “ghetto.” In 1977, the middle class was “struggling uphill,” the Chicago Tribune wrote. In 1992, it felt “betrayed” and “forgotten,” according to the Times. And since 2008, Times subscribers have read of a middle class that is “sagging,” “shrinking,” “sinking,” and “limping.” In short, the middle class, as our politicians imagine it, has never really existed [in a settled, continuous way]: It is always in decline, always on the brink of being rebuilt.

To imagine the middle class, then, is to invoke a myth. Politicians use it to bind Americans together in a shared hope that they can one day return to the lost idyll of the postwar period. In that sense, the concept is remarkably optimistic, if somewhat inconsistent. As Lawrence Samuel argues in The American Middle Class: A Cultural History, the term expresses two incompatible things: It suggests that the United States is a classless society in which most citizens belong to the same social sphere, even as it hints at a rarefied class above the middle that anyone can reach if they work hard enough to ascend the ladder of opportunity. These can’t both be true—if the United States were a classless society, there would be no need for upward mobility. The metaphor gives the lie to the myth. Every ladder, after all, has a top and a bottom—and it’s the bottom that bears all the weight…

Politicians– and business people and academics– are quick to reference “the middle class.”  John Patrick Leary (@johnpatleary) explores “What We Talk About When We Talk About the Middle Class.”

* Aristotle

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As we contemplate classification and its consequences, we might recall that it was on this date in 1792, during George Washington’s first term as president, that the first edition of The Farmers Almanac was published.  (It became The Old Farmers Almanac in 1832 to distinguish itself from similarly-titled competitors.)  Still going strong, it is the oldest continuously-published periodical in the U.S.

Almanac source

 

Written by LW

November 25, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Being a woman is a terribly difficult trade since it consists principally of dealings with men”*…

 

Woman Stands in Empty Classroom with Note

 

Alter the status of women and you have affected all the most intimate and significant nodes of life: the relation of wife to husband, mother to child, sister to sibling, daughter to parents, worker to coworkers, and employee to employer (or vice versa). This change in women’s standing that happened what seems like yesterday, and is still happening today at an accelerated rate, is the most profound revolution that can take place in a society. It takes and gives energy to all the other reforms of our time. After all, the civil rights movement involves black women, the LGBTQ movement concerns lesbians, the disability rights movement affects disabled women, health care reforms implicate women care-givers and the objects of their care. Raise any part of our society to a more just condition and justice for women is centrally at issue. It is the reform of all reforms and the basic measure of our progress…

The inestimable Gary Wills recounts “My Education in the Patriarchy.”

For a powerful way to address this opportunity globally, consider Landesa.

* Joseph Conrad, Chance

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As we think inclusively, we might recall that it was on this date in 1890 that journalist Nellie Bly began her 72-day trip around the world.

In 1888, Bly suggested to her editor at the New York World that she take a trip around the world, attempting to turn the fictional Around the World in Eighty Days into fact for the first time.  A year later, at 9:40 a.m. on November 14, 1889, with two days’ notice, she boarded the steamer Augusta Victoria, and began her 24,899-mile journey.

She brought with her the dress she was wearing, a sturdy overcoat, several changes of underwear, and a small travel bag carrying her toiletry essentials. She carried most of her money (£200 in English bank notes and gold in total as well as some American currency) in a bag tied around her neck.

Bly traveled through England, France (where she met Jules Verne in Amiens), Brindisi, the Suez Canal, Colombo (Ceylon), the Straits Settlements of Penang and Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan.  Just over seventy-two days after her departure from Hoboken, having used steamships and existing railway lines, Bly was back in New York; she beat Phileas Fogg‘s time by almost 8 days.

Nellie Bly, in a publicity photo for her around-the-world voyage. Caption on the original photo reads: “Nellie Bly, The New York WORLD’S correspondent who placed a girdle round the earth in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes.”

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Written by LW

November 14, 2019 at 1:01 am

“There’s no big apocalypse. Just an endless procession of little ones”*…

 

Empty_wave_at_Banzai_Pipeline

 

Humanity is facing multiple possible apocalypses, with narratives that often miss an important point: The apocalypse probably won’t be quick or final. It will be an environment, not an event or an end point for humanity. The apocalypse is more likely to bring misery than catharsis or salvation. Although worst-case scenarios theoretically make it easier to prevent dire outcomes, in the case of slow-moving apocalypses such as climate change, it’s difficult for humans to envision the scale of the problem and to imagine how we will actually experience it…

Via Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Jamias Cascio argues that we’d be well served to face up to the deeply dramatic– if not melodramatic– realities that we face: “The apocalypse: It’s not the end of the world.” [free access until January 1, 2020]

* Neil Gaiman, Signal to Noise

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As we take care, we might we might recall that it was on this date (coincidentally, now Chicken Soup of the Soul Day) in 1952 that 9.0 Mw earthquake centered at Severo-Kurilsk in the Kamchatka Peninsula triggered a major tsunami.  the majority of the Severo-Kurilsk citizens fled to the surrounding hills, where they escaped the first wave.  But most of them returned to the town and were killed by the second wave.  According to the authorities, out of a population of 6,000 people, 2,336 died; the survivors were evacuated to continental Russia.  The settlement was then rebuilt in another location.

The tsunami caused flooding as far away as Hawaii, almost 3400 miles way.  Midway Island (over 1800 miles away) was inundated with water, flooding streets and buildings.  On the Hawaiian Islands the waves destroyed boats, knocked down telephone lines, destroyed piers, scoured beaches, and flooded lawns.  In Honolulu Harbor a cement barge was thrown into a freighter. In Hilo Bay a small bridge connecting Coconut Island to the shore was destroyed by a wave when it lifted off its foundation and then smashed down.

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Midway Island after the tsunami

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Written by LW

November 12, 2019 at 1:01 am

“If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens”*…

 

Wonder Bread

 

Because of its central role in human nutrition, bread has appeared in countless cultural and religious keystones: the epic of Gilgamesh; the description of Egypt as the land of bread-eaters; Jewish oppression and the feast of Passover (bread of the afflicted); the Roman cry of “bread and circuses”; bread as a symbol in the poetry of Omar Khayyam; bread that signifies the body of Christ in the Eucharist. In short, made with simple, wholesome ingredients, bread is the staff of life. German bread continues to exemplify this tradition, one that Jews were supposedly destroying with processed white bread.

In contrast to the German disdain for white bread, in the United States it had become a symbol of successful industrialization, of a promising modern future. In the early twentieth century, Americans had developed a new anxiety about the potential contamination of their food supply. Eugene Christian and Mollie Griswold Christian exemplify the dramatic phobias surrounding both home-baked and bakery-bought bread in their 1904 book Uncooked Foods and How to Use Them: A Treatise on How to Get the Highest Form of Animal Energy from Food, with Recipes for Preparation, Healthful Combinations and Menus. They write, “Bread rises when infected with the yeast germ, because millions of these little worms have been born and have died, and from their dead and decaying bodies there rises a gas just as it does from the dead body of a hog.” Yum! Mass-produced bread seemed somehow safer, more sterile, in the public eye…

Food, politics, and culture– the dark and white flours of ideology: “Breaking Bread.”

* Robert Browning

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As we loaf, we might recall that it was on this date in 1826 that Noah Cushing, of Quebec, who two years earlier had received Canada’s first patent for his mechanical washing machine, patented a threshing and winnowing machine… which was briskly overtaken by Cyrus McCormick’s better-performing reaping machine, patented in 1834.  Threshing and winnowing capacities were added to the reaper to create the now-standard “combine” that’s used to harvest grain.

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Plaque commemorating Cushing’s (first) patent

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Written by LW

October 31, 2019 at 1:01 am

“I think a strong claim can be made that the process of scientific discovery may be regarded as a form of art”*…

 

Science

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Click through for neuroscientist (and accomplished comic artist) Matteo Farinella’s unpacking of a serious issue in the practice of modern science: “Scientific knowledge is drowning in a flood of research.”

* Ernest Rutherford (Nobel laureate and “father of nuclear physics”)

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As we honor abduction, we might spare a thought for a theorist supreme, Claude Lévi-Strauss; he died on this date in 2009.  An anthropologist and ethnologist whose work was key in the development of the theory of Structuralism and Structural Anthropology, he is considered, with James George Frazer and Franz Boas, the “father of modern anthropology.”  Beyond anthropology and sociology, his ideas– Structuralism has been defined as “the search for the underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity”– have influenced many fields in the humanities, including philosophy.

220px-Levi-strauss_260 source

 

 

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