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.


Supporting Local Stores Goes So Much Further

April 4, 2020

As anyone who reads my history pieces, and especially anyone who has read, The Drive, will understand how important I believe local newspapers are — both for us today and for the historians of the future.  It is with the utmost regret, therefore, that I note the passing of the Vancouver Courier.

The Courier is having to close because of the lack of local advertising that supports its work:

“The small, independent businesses in our community that are under economic pressure to shut their doors or reduce services are the same ones that have supported our coverage and made it possible to deliver free, local news to you. Their significant drop in advertising revenue for our publication and lack of quick, available government funding means that we have been forced to make the difficult decision to cease both print and online coverage.”

Our loyal support of local merchants is one of the reasons our neighbourhood is usually so vibrant and alive.  The current retail shutdown is not of our making. However, as we can now plainly see, lack of that support (for whatever reason) has even wider ramifications than deserted sidewalks and empty stores.

My fingers are crossed that the Courier‘s closure will be just temporary, but I will sorely miss their journalism in the weeks ahead..

 


Covid-19 and Public Transit

March 28, 2020

Visual Capitalist has a fascinating look at the effect the novel corona virus is having on the use of public transit around the world.

 

 

“Today’s chart breaks down daily data from Citymapper’s Mobility Index, according to trips planned on the transport app across 41 select cities.  The results paint a unique picture of how social distancing and lockdown measures are impacting commuter and economic activity in major urban hubs.”


The Unkindest Cut

March 11, 2020

I am, apparently, what is known as an “intactivist”. That is, I am totally opposed to the medically-unnecessary genital mutilation of infant boys in the procedure known as circumcision. I have been writing about this on and off since at least 2004.

At the beginning, let me be clear that I am not opposed to circumcision for, say, religious or cosmetic reasons; but this should be a conscious choice made by the man when he is an adult, not something forced on an unwitting child by others simply to satisfy a prehistoric tribal rite or to make the child look like his father.

This distasteful business was brought to mind by my reading of a study that links infant circumcision to autism. The researchers studied the life histories of 340,000 boys before reaching their conclusions.

“Possible mechanisms linking early life pain and stress to an increased risk of neurodevelopmental, behavioural or psychological problems in later life remain incompletely conceptualised,” said Professor Frisch. “Given the widespread practice of non-therapeutic circumcision in infancy and childhood around the world, our findings should prompt other researchers to examine the possibility that circumcision trauma in infancy or early childhood might carry an increased risk of serious neurodevelopmental and psychological consequences.”

In no way would I equate the savage barbarism of female genital mutilation to the removal of the male foreskin, but child mutilation of all kinds is still child mutilation and all such practices should be banned immediately.


Changing Our World

February 25, 2020

I have noticed recently that a vast swathe of TV ads use mixed-race families, which helps normalise them in the eyes of the average TV viewer.  There are also a good number of gay and lesbian couples in ads these days.  It becomes hard to remember when that wasn’t so.  Here is a great ad by Guinness from 1995.

1995 is not a long time ago, but Guinness were forced to cancel the ad just before its showing due to the number of complaints and the vicious media backlash they received.


How The English Found Cannabis

February 20, 2020

The always interesting Public Domain Review today has an essay on how the English found cannabis by Benjamin Breen:

“In the 17th century, English travelers, merchants, and physicians were first introduced to cannabis, particularly in the form of bhang, an intoxicating edible which had been getting Indians high for millennia. Benjamin Breen charts the course of the drug from the streets of Machilipatnam to the scientific circles of London.”

Thomas Bowery arrived in Machilipatnam in 1673, as a merchant and was quickly attracted by the effects of an unfamiliar drug

“The Muslim merchant community in the city was, as Bowrey put it, “averse [to]…any Stronge [alcoholic] drinke”. Yet, he noted, “they find means to besott themselves Enough with Bangha and Gangah“, i.e. cannabis. Gangah, though “more pleasant”, was imported from Sumatra (and as such was “Sold at five times the price”), whereas Bangha, “theire Soe admirable herbe”, was locally grown.”

From this beginning, Breen traces the spread of the drug to the English middle class.  Bowery and his merchant friends gathered privately to enjoy the weed, knowledge of it spread and its medicinal benefits touted, and Robert Hooke lectured on it to the Royal Society in 1689:

“Hooke’s assessment was positive. The drug, he explained, “is so well known and experimented by Thousands, and the Person that brought it has so often experimented with it himself”, that “there is no Cause of Fear, ‘tho possibly there may be of Laughter”. Hooke concluded by noting that he was currently attempting to grow the seeds in London.”

Despite Hooke’s support, the use of cannabis in medicine did not catch on in England.  There was a revived interest in the 1840s when cannabis tinctures were marketed for “removing languor and anxiety,” but it didn’t last.

This is a very informative and entertaining essay on early western interaction with cannabis.


The Oldest Companies In Each Country

February 18, 2020

Here is a fascinating chart of the oldest companies still operating in most countries of the world.  Click on the image to get the full scale.

 

My favourite is probably Ma Yu Ching’s Bucket Chicken House in China said to have been operating since 1153.

Found at the Business Financing Co’s website.


Frisbee Through The Universe

February 12, 2020

Some of the good guys die old.  Ten years ago this week we lost Fred Morrison, the man who gave us the Frisbee, at age 90.

His original was called the Pluto Platter and had the names of the planets embossed around the edge;  which goes some way to explaining his odd outfit in this 1957 publicity shot.

May his soul sail softly through eternity.


Hand Dryers: A Portrait

February 2, 2020

From the always interesting Creative Review comes this look at the work of Samuel Ryde and his epic collection of images of hand dryers in public facilities.

This is just a small selection:

“London establishments are evidently quite concerned about what their hand dryers say about them, with many vying to turn this piece of equipment into an installation or disguise it within a shrine of decorations. Pubs and eateries in other cities seem less bothered. Petrol stations anywhere in the world? Absolutely, categorically, do not care about their hand dryers.  These are some of the implications of documentary photographer Samuel Ryde’s new photo book Hand Dryers, which takes us on a tour of the many places he’s visited by way of the hand drying equipment found on the walls of public bathrooms.”


Wither Punctuation?

January 29, 2020

There is a very good article in History Today by Florence Hazrat on the history (and possible future) of punctuation.  She notes that:

“In classical times there were no punctuation marks or spaces between words. Since punctuation determines sense (‘Let’s eat, Grandpa’ versus ‘Let’s eat Grandpa’), scriptio continua allowed scribes to offer their masters a clean text, waiting to be interpreted by those higher up the social ladder. Writing was merely a recording of, or preparation for, speech: any punctuation that was inserted had oratorical, rather than grammatical, functions, indicating the degree of pauses upon delivery only.”

When classical texts were being rediscovered and copied in the early Middle Ages, scribes added various pauses to assist comprehension and these eventually developed into the comma, the colon, and the full stop.

“The 15th century saw a boom of inventive punctuation, including the exclamation mark, the semicolon and brackets (or parentheses). New marks arise when a lack of clarity needs to be redressed, communication controlled and sense disambiguated, an emergency perhaps stemming from greater reliance on written diplomacy as well as the newly fashionable art of letter writing.”

The semi-colon made an appearance first in 1494; while the dash and the ellipsis had to wait until the 18th century.

She concludes with a warning and a suggestion:

“When constant availability makes us minimise the effort and time we devote to messages, one may assume that punctuation is doomed. After all, December 2019 saw the demise of the Apostrophe Protection Society, because the ‘ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won’, according to its former president. Yet studies on the use of the full stop in text messaging have shown that we do care about punctuation, even in a medium that promises endless continuation. When is it time to not send another text back? A full stop, the study suggests, comes across as aggressive and cuts conversation short. Perhaps a new mark is necessary?

 


Free Speech Is Key To Freedom

January 28, 2020

In view of the latest fuss about “controversial” speakers at VPL, I thought it worthwhile to republish this piece I wrote about five years ago:

* * * * *

Regular readers will be well aware of my absolute antipathy to censorship. And I mean absolute. I can conceive of nothing that anyone could think or say that should be disallowed simply because someone else thinks it somehow “wrong” or “dangerous.” Even Nazis, pedophiles, and Rupert Murdoch should have the right to peddle their ghastly trash.

Given my position on this, it is more than disappointing to read that so many students at Oxford and Cambridge have decided that censorship is no big thing and should even be encouraged to protect, they say, the weak or different (their definition) from being distressed. A debate between abortion legalists and pro-life activists was cancelled:

“Christ Church’s student committee, aka the Junior Common Room, voted to ‘inform College Censors about the mental and physical security issues surrounding the debate’. And it seems the College Censors agreed, stating that they were keen to ensure ‘students’ emotional wellbeing’ by ‘avoiding unnecessary distress, particularly for any residents who may have had an abortion’ …

“Here’s the president of the Cambridge Union Debating Society, Tim Squirrell, explaining in the Tab why free speech isn’t very important: ‘I’m proud that we’ve started to consider the social impact of debates on those that they concern, rather than believing them to be academic exercises which happen in an intellectual vacuum… It’s about time we recognised that and started thinking responsibly and considerately about freedom of speech.’ Here’s McIntyre making a similar free speech-qualifying point: ‘The idea that in a free society absolutely everything should be open to debate has a detrimental effect on marginalised groups.’

What he is saying, of course, is that these “marginalised” groups are too stupid to understand the point of debate and therefore we should keep them in the dark because “we know best” and have to protect them. This is just another version of the Trotskyite vanguard mentality — “we know best what the working class needs and so we will rule and control them.”   Very dangerous bullshit, especially when it comes from what are considered to be the cream of the next generation.

My grandfather lived at a time when socialists had to set up their own newspapers because they were banned from writing about their “pernicious and devilish” ideas. And even then their presses were attacked and destroyed. In my own lifetime, LGBTQ folk were not allowed to spread their “perversions” and “filth” through mass media or through the mails. It took us a long time and much pain and effort to overcome those two censorships.

Now these effete so-called intellectuals want to throw us back into the dark ages of barbarism and elite control. Well “fuck them!” I say.