The Peasants’ Revolt

May 30, 2021

Today we celebrate the 640th anniversary of the beginning of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

As noted by James Crossley:

The class conflict driving the revolt had been building for decades. Labour shortage followed the devastation of the 1348-’49 Black Death, meaning that labourers could make new demands and seek new opportunities, though the lords did not cave in. 1351’s Statute of Labourers was one parliamentary response which involved trying to cap wages, restrict mobility, and keep serfs tied to the land, and this contributed further to the ongoing resentments. But the more immediate causes of the 1381 uprising included the introduction of new taxes, the most infamous of which was the 1380 poll tax and its heavy-handed collection.

On 30th May 1381, a group of Essex peasants, armed, refused attempts to collect the tax. After the protesters had raised hell in Essex, Kent, and London — and beheaded the Archbishop of Canterbury among others –they even negotiated with King Richard II, demanding the end of serfdom, the pardon of criminals, and the removal of corrupt royal advisors. Richard II agreed to the demands but Tyler was killed in June at a meeting, and the King quickly raised a force that brutally suppressed the uprising over the next few months.

Historians debate the importance of the Revolt to English history. What is not in doubt is that 1381 Revolt became a touchstone for socialist thinkers in the nineteenth century. As William Morris wrote in A Dream of John Ball, people win and lose battles yet ‘the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant,’ and so others ‘have to fight for what they meant under another name.’


The Rise and Fall of Blockbuster

April 7, 2021

For boomers like me, Blockbusters was one of those phenomena that bursts onto the scene, appears to be ubiquitous and unstoppable, and then quickly fades like a winter’s twilight.

From a single store in Dallas, TX, in 1986, Blockbuster exploded across the continent until in October 2004 they had more than 5,700 stores in the US alone. They were the Starbucks of their age. But it all fell apart quite suddenly — what with Netflix and other streaming services and much improved internet coverage and speed — until, today, there is just one Blockbuster store left, in Bend, OR.

This map shows how the rise and fall of Blockbuster mirrors a supernova, flashing into view and then fading to nothing.


When Yo-Yos Were The Thing

February 10, 2021

Do you remember a year or two back when it was impossible to escape the marketing web for fidget spinners. They were everywhere, everyone gave them away.  Looking further back, at just about the time I got interested in girls, the hula hoop was king.  Well, even before that there was a time when the fad was yo-yos:

Image: Vancouver Sun, 1933/4/19, p.12

Good to see our local shops were keeping up with the trends!


Language Exposes An Up-Coming Breakup

February 2, 2021

In a fascinating piece of social science, researchers at Princeton University have analyzed the language used on social media posts by those going through a romantic breakup. They discovered that:

“Language markers can detect impending relationship breakups up to 3 mo before they occur, with continued psychological aftereffects lasting 6 mo after the breakup. Because the language shifts are also apparent in subreddits (forums) unrelated to relationships, the research points to the pervasive impact personal upheavals have across people’s social worlds.”

The researchers studied 1,027,541 posts from 6,803 Reddit users who had posted about their breakups.

“Signs included an increase in I-words, we-words, and cognitive processing words (characteristic of depression, collective focus, and the meaning-making process, respectively) and drops in analytic thinking (indicating more personal and informal language). The patterns held even when people were posting to groups unrelated to breakups and other relationship topics. People who posted about their breakup for longer time periods were less well-adjusted a year after their breakup compared to short-term posters. 

The ubiquity and accessibility of social media in western culture, especially, is making study of the written corpus a valuable new tool in social science. However, you can be sure that intelligence agencies and corporations are also analyzing us in the same way. Just like with mobile phones, convenience always comes at the cost of privacy.


Generation Home-Bodies

February 1, 2021

I have finally gotten around to examining the 20 Striking Findings of 2020 from Pew Research. The one that really intrigued me was the finding that 52% of US adults aged between 18 and 29 were living with their parents in June 2020.

I suppose it is reasonable to assume that the growth in this percentage from February 2020 to June was the result of the covid-19 pandemic and the economic dislocation that it caused. However, as someone who left home at age 16 in 1966, I was stunned to see the steady and continual rise from the 1960 through to today. It seems that neither times of economic prosperity nor those of recession have affected this climb away from independence in the young.

A survey last July showed a similar situation in Canada, though the historical dimension was missing from the data.

I have a suspicion that the increase in the cost of housing will account for much of this; plus my guess that advanced education (with its associated costs) is more widely shared than in earlier decades. Perhaps the post-boomer generations are getting married (or attached as couples) later. Any other thoughts?


Let’s Get Rid Of Santa Claus

December 22, 2020

Can anyone explain to me why we still need the myth (or more truthfully, lie) about Santa Claus. Why not just tell kids that this is the time of year we give each other gifts because we love each other?

I don’t believe the lies we tell children add anything to the fun. In fact, as many of us can attest, when the truth does come out it can bring sorrow and heartache to the little ones, crushing their fantasies and forever making them doubt our word.

Those who follow a religion have even less need to lie. Christians for example can explain that the gifts celebrate the birth of Jesus rather than being the result of a merchandising gimmick designed to suck more money out of the parents’ pockets.

Rather than fill our children’s heads with idiotic notions about flying reindeer and a jolly old man (who has a rather unsavoury appetite for young people) why not extol the virtues of freely giving just for the sake of love? Isn’t that a better lesson?

Santa Claus is a malicious fiction and the sooner we rid ourselves of the lies we tell about it the better.


How We Spend Our Time

December 16, 2020

Once again, Visual Capitalist has come up with another fascinating slice of sociological statistics, this time on the ways people spend each 24 hour period in different countries.

The heavy hitters in each category were:

Previous Social History posts.


Fake Commuting

December 15, 2020

Did you know that fake commuting is a thing now?

Apparently, you get in your car and drive aimlessly for a while and then pull up back at your home. You do this before you start your home-based work as it simulates the personal alone time you would have had had you driven to work. Does wonders for carbon emissions too, I bet.

Others do the same thing with a stiff walk or even a run. When I was a younger man we called those things ‘going for a walk’ or ‘jogging,’ but now it is fake commuting.

“Commuting was a great legitimate experience to set up a barrier between the outside world of work, family, [or] social life and demanding your attention,” explains clinical psychologist Dr. Jeannette Raymond. “‘Fake commute’ time is about setting up personal care boundaries — emotional oases and a guilt-free space [and] time to check in on themselves.” The real commute, she explains, created those boundaries artificially; now people have to do it for themselves in a world where those boundaries are increasingly blurred.”

Hmmmm. If I were a cynic I might think that sounded a lot like 1980s psycho-babble. But your mileage may vary, as we used to say.


The Line, Improved

November 30, 2020

In 2008 when I was still travelling by bus to Richmond each day for work, I wrote a piece about how queuing seemed to be a lost art in North America:

“The queue is the physical embodiment of that civilized leveling principle — first come, first served. An orderly queue is not something one should mess with. In North America generally and Canada in particular, the orderly queue is a rare event, saved mainly for those lining up days in advance to buy concert tickets or an attractive condo. Even then, I suspect, orderliness and decorum is better at the front of the line than closer to the back.

But that seems to have changed completely with the pandemic. When I was on the Drive today, there were queues outside and inside several stores and restaurants, and they all seemed both orderly and good-natured. I stood in line outside the Post Office for maybe fifteen minutes and chatted with several others doing the same. No one seemed bothered by the wait or the “inconvenience”. And no one tried to push their way ahead of others.

If nothing else comes from this year of the plague, perhaps this sense of friendly courtesy will carry n and make all of our lives just a little better.


They ARE Watching You

October 5, 2020

I wrote this in the summer of 2013. The situation has only gotten worse.

* * * * * *

If you were at all unsure about just what the US NSA was tracking about YOUR life, then this long and detailed report in the Guardian should set you straight.  They can and do track everything every one of us does online.  Without warrants.  Without overview.  At the whim of individual monitoring officers.

“A slide entitled “plug-ins” in a December 2012 document describes the various fields of information that can be searched. It includes “every email address seen in a session by both username and domain”, “every phone number seen in a session (eg address book entries or signature block)” and user activity – “the webmail and chat activity to include username, buddylist, machine specific cookies etc” …

“One document, a top secret 2010 guide describing the training received by NSA analysts for general surveillance under the Fisa Amendments Act of 2008, explains that analysts can begin surveillance on anyone by clicking a few simple pull-down menus designed to provide both legal and targeting justifications. Once options on the pull-down menus are selected, their target is marked for electronic surveillance and the analyst is able to review the content of their communications” …

“Beyond emails, the XKeyscore system allows analysts to monitor a virtually unlimited array of other internet activities, including those within social media. An NSA tool called DNI Presenter, used to read the content of stored emails, also enables an analyst using XKeyscore to read the content of Facebook chats or private messages” …

“As one slide indicates, the ability to search HTTP activity by keyword permits the analyst access to what the NSA calls “nearly everything a typical user does on the internet”.

Anyone NOT worried about this is simply putting their head in the sand.


The Amazon Phenomenon

July 2, 2020

Most of us almost subconsciously know that Amazon is just about everywhere, that it is such a natural part of our lives that we do not give it much more thought. Thanks once again to Visual Capitalist, we now have a useful visualization of just how powerful Amazon has become, and how swiftly it has overcome all competitors.

[Image: Visual Capitalist] Select image for a better view

There seems little to stop further exponential growth. Bezos can keep spinning off more and more multi-billion dollar corporations in emerging markets for as long as the aggregate cash flow is counted in the trillions. This will eventually lead to “trust busting” populists breaking it up, like Standard Oil and Bell, I guess.  But I think any unravelling of Amazon-Bezos will be far more wrenching than any of the historical parallels.


The History of Typography

May 20, 2020

This is a wonderful animated history by Ben Barrett-Forrest that I was directed to on Twitter some years ago now.


Early Urbanism

May 16, 2020

For those interested in the earliest histories of urbanism, new discoveries in Scotland require a whole new focus.

Archaeologists have discovered that perhaps as many as 4,000 people in 800 huts were living on a single hill at Tap O’North village between the 3rd and 6th centuries AD.

“Their discovery means that the area, which today is a quiet village home to just a few hundred people, once had a hilltop settlement that at its height may have rivalled the largest known post-Roman settlements in Europe … the huge fort dated to the fifth to sixth centuries AD and that it was occupied at the same time as the elite complex in the valley at Barflat farm. Dating shows that settlement on the hill extended as far back to the third century, but both hut platforms excavated also had fifth to sixth century AD phases…

At 16.75 hectares, it is “bigger than anything we know from early medieval Britain – the previous biggest known fort in early medieval Scotland is Burghead at around five and a half hectares and in England famous post-Roman sites such as Cadbury Castle is seven hectares and Tintagel around five hectares.

“The Tap O’ Noth discovery shakes the narrative of this whole time period. If each of the huts we identified had four or five people living in them then that means there was a population of upwards of 4,000 people living on the hill. That’s verging on urban in scale and in a Pictish context we have nothing else that compares to this.”

 


Changes To Media Consumption, By Generation

May 13, 2020

From Visual Capitalist comes this fascinating dissection of how each generation is changing its cultural habits during the covid-19 crisis:

Select image for a much larger, clearer view.

The article also includes this breakdown of “Internet Activities” which shows some definite trends, by generation, that should keep social scientists busy for a while:

The full article has a lot more detail on trust, and media subscriptions. I recommend the read.


A Ransom For A Bed

April 22, 2020

About ten years ago, I reported on a bed that started at $38,000 and went up to $210,000.  I thought that was pretty ridiculous. Now, there is a bed that costs almost half a million!

 

This is an image of Drake’s new Grand Vivendus bed from Hastens.

“The bed is entirely hand-made and it takes master craftsmen at least 600 hours to assemble and hand-stitch each mattress and trunk-inspired base at the sixth generation, family-run factory in Köping, Sweden, where Hästens beds have been constructed since 1852.”

Fans of the bed claim it helps move elite athletes from bronze medals to gold, helps CEOs increase productivity, and can help solve your back problems. The bed’s exclusive saleman says:

“What’s sleep worth to you? My clients actually tell me that their sleep is worth millions and millions of dollars because if they can get high quality sleep, they can turn that into big bucks.”

Frankly I just yawn when I hear such pitches,  But, as he will reply, there is already a waiting list for this luxury.


A Powerful Anti-Racism Piece

April 15, 2020


More On The Modern Family

April 11, 2020

About a week ago, I posted about David Brook’s essay on the failure of the nuclear family.  The Pew Research Center has just published a report that supports much of Brook’s thesis.

“[T]hree-in-ten U.S. adults think it’s a good thing that there is growing variety in the types of family arrangements people live in, while about half as many (16%) say this is a bad thing. The largest share (45%) don’t think it makes a difference, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in June 2019.”

The figures are fairly consistent across a variety of demographics:

“While Republicans and Democrats are now significantly more likely than they were in 2010 to say the growing variety in the types of family living arrangements makes no difference – and less likely to say it is a bad thing – the change has been most pronounced among Republicans. A decade ago, 45% of Republicans said this was a bad thing; today, a quarter of Republicans say the same. Among Democrats, 17% said the diversity in family types was a bad thing in 2010, a share that has fallen to just one-in-ten in the latest survey.”

 


A New Post-Virus World Order

April 7, 2020

Many of us, I know, have been contemplating the societal changes that could come about as a result of the devastation of covid-19. This disaster, horrible though it is, is an opportunity to step away from some of the bad decisions and policies we have followed for so long.

While some of us have thought and written about the possibility of a progressive — not to say revolutionary — future (guaranteed annual incomes, medical services for all, a rebalancing of corporate-human interaction, a fostering of community, etc), Politico has been looking at a decidedly more prosaic and worrisome set of possibilities. The following is from their email of today:

Regular checkups — Singapore and other Asian countries adopted widespread fever testing in the aftermath of the SARS epidemic. After coronavirus, the same could become the norm in the U.S. Before someone enters a store, office building, school, stadium, airport or other public space, they could be subject to thermal scans to check for an elevated temperature, much like they sometimes have to go through a metal detector to check for guns today.

Tracking — China and South Korea are already using apps to trace people’s movements and record symptoms in order to track the next hotspots. Americans may have to get more accustomed to logging and sharing their movements to help officials track and contain the virus spread. Rhode Island Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo is urging residents to keep a daily log of where they have been in case they become infected. She suggested today that such logs could become a requirement for coronavirus testing in the state. “There is going to be a discussion about how to manage security and privacy concerns while meeting this gargantuan challenge of tracking sick patients in any given community,” said Dan Hanfling, an emergency room physician and vice president of In-Q-Tel, which invests in security technology.

Random sampling — Ohio and Masschussets are planning to randomly test people in order to get a better handle on case counts and virus spread. Until widespread testing is available, random testing could allow a region to track the virus spread and know when to re-impose stay at home orders.

Certifications — Germany is already creating certificates for people who have recovered from the virus, which confers on them at least short-term immunity. The certificates allow people to sidestep lockdown restrictions. If antibody testing becomes more widespread, the idea of certifying the recovered could take off here as well.

Staggered seatings and at home services — Restaurants, museums and concert venues could offer staggered seatings and shows with smaller, separated crowds. Painted lines on floors could help people appropriately space. In addition, hairdressers, manicurists and other service providers could move to home services that limit customers’ contact with one another.

More public spaces and micro-transit — Cities could accelerate new forms of transit and rethink public spaces, said Steven Pedigo, a University of Texas urban affairs researcher. More cities could build bike lanes or widen the ones they already have. Wider sidewalks, too, could help people commute without contact. Cities won’t disappear as the result of the pandemic, but they could become less dense.”

What do we think of those as the future we grow into?


Was The Nuclear Family A Mistake

April 6, 2020

In the Atlantic, I find a really interesting essay by David Brooks entitled The Nuclear Family Was A Mistake which traces the history of the family in America over the past few hundred years.  He concludes that “[t]he family structure we’ve held up as the cultural ideal for the past half century has been a catastrophe for many,” and we need to find a better way.

He describes the early American settler households, extended families linked to family businesses and farms.

“Steven Ruggles, a professor of history and population studies at the University of Minnesota, calls these “corporate families”—social units organized around a family business. According to Ruggles, in 1800, 90 percent of American families were corporate families. Until 1850, roughly three-quarters of Americans older than 65 lived with their kids and grandkids. Nuclear families existed, but they were surrounded by extended or corporate families.”

These families had great resilience and helped develop socialization:

“If a mother dies, siblings, uncles, aunts, and grandparents are there to step in. If a relationship between a father and a child ruptures, others can fill the breach … Multiple adults teach children right from wrong, how to behave toward others, how to be kind.”

This form of the household survived for a long period.  “According to Ruggles, the prevalence of extended families living together roughly doubled from 1750 to 1900, and this way of life was more common than at any time before or since.”  However, industrialisation and urbanism eventually worked their magic.  As the younger generation moved to the cities, they were distanced from their families both geographically and socially.

“The decline of multigenerational cohabiting families exactly mirrors the decline in farm employment … A young man on a farm might wait until 26 to get married; in the lonely city, men married at 22 or 23. From 1890 to 1960, the average age of first marriage dropped by 3.6 years for men and 2.2 years for women … By the 1920s, the nuclear family with a male breadwinner had replaced the corporate family as the dominant family form. By 1960, 77.5 percent of all children were living with their two parents, who were married, and apart from their extended family.”

The old corporate family was replaced in many places by a new form of “extended family” — that of friends and neighbours; coalitions of unrelated nuclear families.  And for a short while, this proved a stable format.  It was an historical moment delivered by the growing economy of the 50s and 60s, and by a relegation (after the freedom of wartime) of the woman back into the house.  It could not last.

“When we have debates about how to strengthen the family, we are thinking of the two-parent nuclear family, with one or two kids, probably living in some detached family home on some suburban street. We take it as the norm, even though this wasn’t the way most humans lived during the tens of thousands of years before 1950, and it isn’t the way most humans have lived during the 55 years since 1965.  Today, only a minority of American households are traditional two-parent nuclear families and only one-third of American individuals live in this kind of family. That 1950–65 window was not normal …”

“[T]he sheltered family of the 1950s was supplanted by the stressed family of every decade since. Some of the strains were economic. Starting in the mid-’70s, young men’s wages declined, putting pressure on working-class families in particular. The major strains were cultural. Society became more individualistic and more self-oriented. People put greater value on privacy and autonomy. A rising feminist movement helped endow women with greater freedom to live and work as they chose.”

Societal norms changed and marriage, the family, had to change along with them:

“Over the past two generations, people have spent less and less time in marriage—they are marrying later, if at all, and divorcing more … Americans today have less family than ever before. From 1970 to 2012, the share of households consisting of married couples with kids has been cut in half. In 1960, according to census data, just 13 percent of all households were single-person households. In 2018, that figure was 28 percent.”

There is also an economic class system in operation.

“In 1970, the family structures of the rich and poor did not differ that greatly. Now there is a chasm between them … As Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, once put it, ‘It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged’.”

And why should we worry about the decline of the traditional family and its supports?

“The people who suffer the most from the decline in family support are the vulnerable—especially children. In 1960, roughly 5 percent of children were born to unmarried women. Now about 40 percent are. The Pew Research Center reported that 11 percent of children lived apart from their father in 1960. In 2010, 27 percent did. Now [only] about half of American children will spend their childhood with both biological parents. … According to a 2003 study that Andrew Cherlin cites, 12 percent of American kids had lived in at least three “parental partnerships” before they turned 15.”

And consider single men — “Extended families provided men with the fortifying influences of male bonding and female companionship. Today many American males spend the first 20 years of their life without a father and the next 15 without a spouse” — and seniors — “‘elder orphans,’ with no close relatives or friends to take care of them.”

“When you put everything together, we’re likely living through the most rapid change in family structure in human history. The causes are economic, cultural, and institutional all at once … The structures that once supported the family no longer exist” as Jane Jacobs wrote in 2004.

And that is just the first half of his essay.  In the second part, he looks in depth at alternative arrangements. In the end he is, I believe, cautiously optimistic:

“The two-parent family, meanwhile, is not about to go extinct. For many people, especially those with financial and social resources, it is a great way to live and raise children. But a new and more communal ethos is emerging, one that is consistent with 21st-century reality and 21st-century values.”

Brook’s essay is a long and involved read but it is well worth the time to explore one of the key institutions of human life from the past to the present and into the future.  Put on the cocoa and settle down to an absorbing read.


In Support of Key Workers

April 6, 2020

 

British graphic artist Craig Oldham has produced this poster in support of all the workers continuing to deliver essential services through this virus crisis.  He notes that these now-essential workers are often the lowest paid and the least considered.

Thanks to Creative Review.