The String That Binds Us

January 14, 2022


4,000 year old rope at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis Egypt
Well-preserved rope was discovered at an archaeological site in Egypt dating to almost 4,000 years ago. Photo courtesy of the Joint Expedition to Mersa/Wadi Gawasis of the Università “L’Orientale,” Naples and Boston University

I recently came across an interesting article that suggested string was more important even than the wheel in the chronology of human innovation.

Ferris Jabir in The Long, Knotty, World-Spanning, Story of String reports on the discovery in Egypt of carefully coiled papyrus ropes untouched for 4,000 years, and notes complex textile remains from as far back as 30,000 years ago. Pulling threads together produces string, needed to hang the beads we know of from 300,000 years ago.

“A string can cut, choke, and trip; it can also link, bandage, and reel. String makes it possible to sew, to shoot an arrow, to strum a chord. It’s difficult to think of an aspect of human culture that is not laced through with some form of string or rope; it has helped us develop shelter, clothing, agriculture, weaponry, art, mathematics, and oral hygiene. Without string, our ancestors could not have domesticated horses and cattle or efficiently plowed the earth to grow crops. If not for rope, the great stone monuments of the world—Stonehenge, the Pyramids at Giza, the moai of Easter Island—would still be recumbent.”

Jabir goes on to emphasize the impossibility of maritime navigation (and thus human expansion) without string and rope.

“It is no exaggeration to say that from the invention of sailing through the late 18th century, the economic prosperity, scientific progress, and military success of most nations around the globe fundamentally depended on string and rope. For much of this time, there were no major revolutions in sailing technology. Instead, there were elaborations and restructurings of an ancient template: a roughly crescent wooden vessel equipped with at least one mast and sail, and webbed with plenty of rigging. 

He notes how many of our standard items and resources today as based ultimately on string:

“We still wear shoes laced with string. Our clothes, sheets, curtains, carpets, and tablecloths are all woven from thread. Our phones, computers, toasters, blenders, and TVs still largely depend on bundles of wire transporting electrons. Above our heads, power lines, phone lines, and fiber-optic cables sling from one utility pole to another. More than a million kilometers of undersea cables tie the continents together—the submerged ligaments of global telecommunications.”

The essay concludes by considering the social and symbolic aspects of string and rope:

“For the Indigenous peoples of the Andes, string was its own mathematical language … String and rope are stitched into the English language, into longstanding idioms—learn the ropes, spin a yarn, hang by a thread—and even in the way we talk about relatively modern inventions: to describe the internet, we speak of websites, links, and threads … According to a popular Sudanese myth, a rope once united heaven and Earth, until a mischievous hyena severed it, ushering death into the world. In Greek mythology, the three Moirai, or Fates, spin, measure, and cut threads representing every mortal’s life.”

Well worth the read.

Jobs In Demand

January 7, 2022

According to an article in Forbes magazine, these were the most in-demand jobs in 2021:

The Ephemeral News Cycle

January 1, 2022


Here is a fascinating look at social history from Visual Capitalist: a timeline of Google searches across every state, it shows what the different things people were thinking about during 2021. It shows, I think, the extraordinary power of instantly distributed “news” in framing opinion and setting moods.

What’s With Weeks?

December 12, 2021


In a wide-ranging and fascinating essay in Aeon, historian David Henkin takes apart the whole idea of weeks which, as he explains:

“serve as powerful mnemonic anchors because they are fundamentally artificial. Unlike days, months and years, all of which track, approximate, mimic or at least allude to some natural process (with hours, minutes and seconds representing neat fractions of those larger units), the week finds its foundation entirely in history. To say ‘today is Tuesday’ is to make a claim about the past rather than about the stars or the tides or the weather. We are asserting that a certain number of days, reckoned by uninterrupted counts of seven, separate today from some earlier moment … Weekly counts are reinforced by the habits and rituals of other people. When those habits and rituals were radically obscured or altered in 2020, the week itself seemed to unravel.”

Henkin traces the origin of the seven-day week to the Romans about 2,000 years ago:

“As the scholars Ilaria Bultrighini and Sacha Stern have recently documented, it was in the context of the Roman Empire that a standardised weekly calendar emerged out of a combination and conflation of Jewish Sabbath counts and Roman planetary cycles … But the crucial formation of our modern experience of weekly time took place around the first half of the 1800s, with the rising prominence of … the differentiated weekly schedule.”

Puritanism — with their weekly stocktaking rituals — and industrialization accelerated the process.

“With the rise of wage labour in the northern and western US, for example, Saturday night became more than just the end of the working week; it was also payday, generating patterns of consumption, commercial leisure and material security that shaped the distinctive feel of each of the intervening days of the cycle …

“The link between diary-keeping and weekly stocktaking also grew more conspicuous during the first half of the 19th century, following the spread of mass-market, preformatted diary books, which typically arrayed periods of approximately a week, as opposed to the monthly spreads that had been featured in earlier almanacs. The new calendar formats reinforced the habit of assessing one’s obligations, accomplishments and shortcomings in weekly increments.”

But, as he points out, these habits were reinforced outside the workplace:

“During the first half of the 19th century, masses of Americans in the northern and western US flocked to theatres, joined fraternal lodges and reform organisations, attended lectures and concerts, and subscribed to newspapers. Increasingly, many also patronised banks (which typically redeemed notes only on certain weekdays) and sent and received letters (which in less populous areas arrived on weekly schedules). All of these practices required participants to attend to what day of the week it was. Whether the activity took place once a week, twice a week or even once a month, so long as meetings, commercial offerings, publications and mail deliveries were consistently attached to particular days of the week, the weekly calendar became indispensable …

“For those who lived in small towns and on farms … they would anticipate the arrival of the weekly mail, apportion the reading of the newspaper they received every seven days, or follow the schedules of a train or stagecoach that passed through regularly on specific weekdays.”

The essay is full of interesting detail and I thoroughly recommend it.

How We Got Frozen Food

November 24, 2021


Business Insider often has short little historical pieces about industries or processes. I enjoyed this one about how Capt. Birdseye put frozen foods into every freezer in North America.

The Five Sandwiches that Made America

November 21, 2021


I always find the Conversation has an eclectic mix of essays, many of which will pique my interest. A recent case in point: the history of five sandwiches — tuna salad, the chow mein sandwich, club, peanut butter & jelly, Scotch woodcock — and what they say about American social history.

The histories of these foods run through the 1890s for the club sandwich — perfectly described as “a blend of elegance and blandness” — through the early years of the 20th century for tuna, pb & J, and the woodcock, and much more recently for the chow mein sandwich of the 1970s.

Image: Alena Haurylick

“As food historian Bee Wilson argues in her history of the sandwich, American sandwiches distinguished themselves from their British counterparts by the scale of their ambition. Imitating the rising skylines of American cities, many were towering affairs that celebrated abundance.

Well worth the read.

What Gives You Satisfaction?

November 20, 2021


The Pew Research group’s latest findings are on what gives life meaning, or at least 17 nationality’s views on that subject. While “family” was almost invariably considered the most important, the range of other sources of satisfaction was quite diverse.

Outside of the United States, religion was barely mentioned.

I was rather surprised at how few people mentioned spouses (or similar):

I was less surprised to find that the Brits were keen on hobbies:

The urge for personal freedom and independence was quite low, even in Trump’s America:

An all-together interesting study.


November 8, 2021


The Tyee has published a long article on a major UBC study that illustrates how economic inequality has a real effect on the length of time we, as individuals in Metro Vancouver, can expect to live. Put simply, people who live in affluent neighbourhoods tend to live a decade longer than those living in the poorest sections.

“The study involved UBC researchers working with the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington and with Imperial College, London. Its ambitious goal was to track life expectancy and major causes of deaths in Greater Vancouver over a quarter-century, from 1990 to 2016. Moreover, they broke the numbers down to the census-tract-level — in effect, neighbourhood by neighbourhood. Overall, the study offers an invaluable portrait of our collective health before the pandemic.”

The study notes that:

“Between 1991 and 2016, there was a downward trend in the LE [life expectancy] gap, whereby the lowest gap was observed in 2001 (6.9 years for females and 7.9 for males), but this reversed and increased by 1.4-1.6 years between 2001 and 2016.” By a wild coincidence, 2001 was the year the BC Liberals won a huge majority over the NDP and ran the province under Gordon Campbell and then Christy Clark until 2017.British researchers noticed a very similar effect during Margaret Thatcher’s years in power.”

That seems to show a direct and almost immediate correlation between austerity politics and public health.

The difference between neighbourhoods was stark. As the report notes:

“Within the City of Vancouver, we observed a 10-year gap in LE for males in [census tracts] located within 5 kilometres of each other.”

After reviewing the causes of death, the Tyee article concludes:

“Our health-care system is dangerously stretched and facing unprecedented occupational health and safety threats. Those with “routine” medical needs are being missed or delayed, becoming collateral damage. The top 10 per cent set the policies that decreed the early deaths of the bottom 10 per cent, and many of the rest of us in the middle. Now they — or we — need to set new policies that will protect everyone’s health and lifespans. Even if the rich don’t like it, they will have longer to brood over their misfortunes than the rest of us will.”


The Gig Economy

November 5, 2021


A new report published in the Guardian shows that 15% of workers in Great Britain — 4.4 million people — are now employed in the gig economy, or what they call working for “platforms”. These are companies such as Uber, Deliveroo, and parts of the Amazon empire.

The growth in this kind of employment is staggering: 6% of workers in 2016, 12% in 2019, and 15% today.

“[T]he research indicated an especially strong rise in such employment among couriers and those doing other driving work, as well as in errand and odd jobs services. Almost a quarter of workers have done platform work at some point, up from one in 10 in 2016, the study found.

It sounds like an economic benefit for the workers but it has been shown that they often have to work multiple jobs, have low average incomes, and rarely have the financial and security benefits that more regular jobs would offer.

“[P]latforms including Deliveroo, Stuart and Amazon Flex say their workers are independent self-employed contractors without such basic rights.”

“Gig economy platforms are using new technologies to carry out the age-old practice of worker exploitation,” said [Frances] O’Grady [General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress]. “Too often gig workers are denied their rights and are treated like disposable labour.”

In Canada, the situation is similar, with 10% of the workforce in the gig economy. Payment issues seem to dominate the problems here:

“For one in five Canadian gig workers, it currently takes at least a couple of weeks to receive payment after their work is done. Moreover, the gig workers who do get paid on the same day that their contract is done are predominantly paid by cash (59 percent), which creates challenges in terms of traceability.”

It’s a changing world, sure enough. I’m all for individual freedom of choice, for flexibility, for the kind of independence that the gig economy should be able to supply. I do however worry that certain protections we take for granted may be lost in the process, and within a capitalist economy is it hard to see how they can be replaced.

More Changes to “The Family”

October 13, 2021

The latest Pew Research reports that there has been a significant shift over the last thirty years in household living arrangements. It shows that 38% of adult Americans now live alone, up from just 29% in 1980.

“The growth in the single population is driven mainly by the decline in marriage among adults who are at prime working age. At the same time, there has been a rise in the share who are cohabiting, but it hasn’t been enough to offset the drop in marriage.”

Significantluy, the research shows that unpartnered males do not fare as well economically as those living with a partner:

They also quote research showing that being unpartnered has a negative effect on both educational and health outcomes for both men and women.

Trends such as these will have major impacts on a range of activities, for example on what type of housing should be built. I have reported previously on related Pew Research materials.

I note that these are American statistics but our economies and cultures are so entwined that it seems reasonable to extrapolate Canadian outcomes along the same lines.

What Jobs?

September 19, 2021

The always useful Visual Capitalist site has come up with this interesting graphic to visualize how the job market may change over the next ten years:

Health care jobs seem to be the big winner; and that should be no surprise given the ageing population and the current fatuation with covid.

The U.S. Taliban Capture Texas

September 1, 2021

The Corona Virus and Urban Planning

August 28, 2021

We are all well aware that two years of living with a pandemic has brought about significant changes in attitudes, work habits, commuting, etc. But I was surprised by a recent Pew survey that showed a large change in housing preferences.

The detailed research shows that this trend carries across all political, age, gender, and race characteristics.

One wonders if this will be a long-lasting change; if so, then urban planners with their favoured densification strategies may need to re-think the futures they are planning.

Mood and Emotion: The History of Blue

August 17, 2021

French historian Michel Pastoureau has written Blue: The History of a Color. The Claremont Review of Books published a review that describes the work as:

“an exhilarating and richly informing book on how the European peoples from the Iron Age until today have decorated themselves and their cultural artefacts with the color blue.”

Early Mediterranean civilizations had little use for blue:

Homer’s sea was “wine dark”; blue would not be used as water’s color until the seventeenth century .. [T]he Romans associated blue with the savage Celtae and Germani, who used the woad herb’s rich leaves for their blue pigments.

And this remained the state of affairs going into the Middle Ages.  However:

“Artisans employed by the mysterious twelfth century Abbot Suger of St. Dennis Abbey developed what would become known as “St. Denis Blue.” Its beauty inspired Christians to adopt it as fitting for heaven, nobility, and the Virgin Mary, who had traditionally been shown in dark clothes highlighting her suffering.”

Pastoureau’s book carries the history of blue (and often green and red and black, too) through the medieval period, the introduction  of indigo in the 1640s, of Prussian blue in the 1700s, the adoption of blue by the Romantics, the French Revolutionary militias, the Napoleonic army, Levi Strauss, and on into today.

“For Pastoureau, color schemes are the essential building blocks of our conceptualization of the world … The introduction of blue, yellow, and other colors in the Western palate reflected not simply a broadening of the easel, but a broadening of consciousness, which entertained increasingly new ideas.”

The effect of colour on culture and society is a fascinating subject and I can thoroughly recommend the review.

For related material, I wrote about the strange history of Prussian Blue some time ago, and about a new blue.

Religion as Mosaic in India

July 18, 2021

Here in North America we tend to see religion as black or white: there are “liberal” religions and there are “conservative” religions; and religions tend to be seen as monolithic, like Catholicism or Islam. A new survey published by Pew suggests that religion, and “Christianity” in particular is far more colourful in India.

As they point out in their introduction:

India’s massive population is diverse as well as devout. Not only do most of the world’s Hindus, Jains and Sikhs live in India, but it also is home to one of the world’s largest Muslim populations and to millions of Christians and Buddhists. A major new Pew Research Center survey of religion across India, based on nearly 30,000 face-to-face interviews of adults conducted in 17 languages between late 2019 and early 2020 (before the COVID-19 pandemic), finds that Indians of all these religious backgrounds overwhelmingly say they are very free to practice their faiths.

Yet, despite sharing certain values and religious beliefs – as well as living in the same country, under the same constitution – members of India’s major religious communities often don’t feel they have much in common with one another. The majority of Hindus see themselves as very different from Muslims (66%), and most Muslims return the sentiment, saying they are very different from Hindus (64%). There are a few exceptions: Two-thirds of Jains and about half of Sikhs say they have a lot in common with Hindus. But generally, people in India’s major religious communities tend to see themselves as very different from others.

These perceived differences are reflected in innumerable social protocols that in everyday life tend to keep the religious groups segregated. There is a widespread dislike of inter-marriage, for example:

These social protocols operate within the caste superstructure, each reinforcing the other.

Indians, then, simultaneously express enthusiasm for religious tolerance and a consistent preference for keeping their religious communities in segregated spheres – they live together separately. These two sentiments may seem paradoxical, but for many Indians they are not.

A fascinating analysis that extracts the survey data on India’s millions of Christians illustrates the mosaic of belief systems that fall under the heading of “Christianity” in India.

Most Indian Christians say they believe in karma (54%), which is not rooted in the Christian religion. And many Indian Christians also believe in reincarnation (29%) and that the Ganges River has the power to purify (32%), both of which are core teachings in Hinduism. It is also somewhat common for Indian Christians to observe customs tied to other religions, like celebrating Diwali (31%) or wearing a forehead marking called a bindi (22%), most often worn by Hindu, Buddhist and Jain women.

And much of the divergence in belief can be traced to which caste the Christian considers themselves to be:

I had an uncle who was a professor of sociological statistics in the 1960s and 1970s. I blame him for my interest in this kind of survey.

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?