A Brief History of Socks

Greek foot wrapsPaul Krugman wrote a very brief post about Knitting History, apparently just so he could deliver this groaner, “I know I’m just knit-picking.” I’m not sure I can ever forgive that. But the object of the post was a fabulous article by Paul Spinrad, The Surprisingly Tumultuous History of Socks. I find this kind of stuff fascinating. How did people start wearing shoes? When did they come up with the idea of socks? Sadly, Spinrad doesn’t answer those questions. But I’ll come back to him in a moment.

Shoes themselves are quite a recent invention. The first shoes were actually sandals. The earliest evidence takes them back to about 10,000 years ago. Curiously, this coincides with the Neolithic Revolution — the time when humans settled down and started to farm. That’s not surprising. That probably gave them time to think about things like, “If I covered my feet with leather, it wouldn’t hurt as much to walk on gravel.” Socks came much later. They appear to have been added to give extra warmth — just like today.

The Greeks were using socks made out of animal hair in the 8th century BCE. But they weren’t tubes that people put their feet into. They were just lengths of cloth that were wrapped around the feet and the legs. You can see this in the image above. It’s actually fetching. But I find the five to ten seconds it takes me to put on socks each day onerous. Wrapping my feet sounds like far too much work. Then again, I might not care if I had to actually, you know, go outside every day.

The Knitting Girl - William-Adolphe Bouguereau - 1869It was the Romans who changed the art of foot warmth forever. Fascistic though they may have been, they were good at simplifying things. So in the second century, when the Christians were fighting over what their church would be, the Romans invented the sock as a specific foot covering. But since they didn’t stretch, they had to be specifically fitted to people’s feet. And they stayed that way until knitting was invented.

Knitting came along around the middle of the 3rd century by someone in the Middle East. Whereas weaving uses parallel strands of thread, knitting uses a single thread. Thus, it stretches. Let me just stop for a moment and mention that I find this stuff constantly fascinating. Another example is the invention of pottery. It’s this stuff that we take for granted but which was revolutionary. To me, knitting seems more obvious than weaving, but that’s just because I’ve been watching people knit my whole life.

And then in the 16th century, it becomes automated and it’s all down hill. The rest of Spinrad’s article consists of anecdotes. There is one about William Lee, the inventor of the stocking frame knitting machine. He may have built it because the knitting woman who lived next door to him wasn’t interested in his romantic advances. Spite is a powerful motivator! There is also the story of Thomas Chatterton, a poet who forged some ancient poems but was caught because of some sock related anachronism. He killed himself as a result.

Socks are lovely. It is still chilly in my room, but it should be very hot today. So I’m wearing shorts. My legs are cold, but my feet and ankles are toasting. The power of socks!

We Don’t Need Elon Musk

Noah SmithSometimes, really smart people get lost in their own brilliance. Luckily, there are lesser thinkers like me around to show them the error of their ways. Our example today comes from Noah Smith, Did Elon Musk Build That? In it, Smith argues against a common fallacy of assigning proportional blame to complementary causes. So he claims that we can’t say, as conservatives do, that innovation is all about “great men.” But he also claims that we can’t say, as liberals do, that innovation is all about social structure.

I accept this in a certain way: you need both the people and the structure. My problem comes with the idea of the “great men.” Great is a relative concept. And no one ever defines it. What it means in practice is powerful men. The best that an Elon Musk or a Steve Jobs or even an Albert Einstein brings us is a couple of years. For every Wright Brothers, there is always one or more Glenn Curtisses on their heals — or even in front of them. Intelligence and creativity are not cliffs; they are continuums.

Every time I hear someone talking about this or that famous innovator, it makes me start to twitch. But it isn’t because they didn’t do this or that thing. (Although in many cases, it is, in fact, because they didn’t do anything — like Jobs.) It is the idea that doing this or that was a major accomplishment. This is taken to high comedy when talking about Mark Zuckerberg. That was clearly a case where they were doing stuff just like dozens of other groups and happened to have just the right combination of funding and luck. There is no question but that the world would be exactly the same if Karen Kempner had had an abortion 32 years ago.

The fundamental misunderstanding of conservatives — and this goes way back in history — is their idea that the rich are somehow better. It is built into their entire worldview. In order to claim that the status quo is good, you must believe that there is a reason that things are the way they are. Liberals believe that it is stochastic with a broad trend that depends not at all on the specific individuals that take part. Yes, if Einstein had not been around, the world would not have been introduced to general relativity in 1915. The theory would have been developed soon enough. What’s more, the intellectual breathing room his absence accorded might have led to faster progress in other areas.

There is no reason to think that we would be in a markedly different place (Not to mention a worse place!) if all the “great men” had never been born. If we had missed out on them, there would have been others (for good and for bad) to take their places. And that means that the “great men” just fold into the larger narrative about social change. And that should not come as a surprise. The “great man” theory really only serves one purpose: to justify things being the way they are.

So yes, Noah Smith is right that we need the “great men.” But they could be pretty much any men. And that means that the conservative claim is wrong. It is all about the broader society. We don’t need Elon Musk.

Success Sequence: New Way to Blame the Poor!

Matt BruenigIt has been fascinating over the years to watch conservative intellectuals (loosely defined) argue that people are poor because of their bad life choices. This is a major part of the writing done by both David Brooks and Charles Murray. It’s a way of looking concerned and high minded while blaming the poor for all their problems. It is just the modern version of classism: claiming that the rich are deserving of their wealth and the poor are deserving of their poverty. But instead of saying it is genetics (although Murray has said that too), they say it is “cultural.”

One way that people have found to quantify this concept is the “Success Sequence.” This is the idea that with three weird tricks, you too can avoid poverty. I’ve never given it much thought, because the whole thing is such question begging. It isn’t as bad as saying, “make a lot of money and you won’t be in poverty.” But it is close. Check it out:

  1. Graduate from high school;
  2. Maintain a full-time job or have a partner who does;
  3. Have children while married and after age 21, should they choose to become parents.

The thing that jumps right out of this is that the second weird trick is as close as one could get to assuming the conclusion as is possible without being laughed out of polite company. Forget high school and children, why not just leave it there at number two? But I think that’s clear enough. If it had been “one weird trick,” it would have been obvious that it was nonsense. But people look at the three and figure each of those must add something to the equation. And all three things are good ideas. So what the hell?

I don’t know exactly how these weird tricks were developed. But I figure, it started with someone thinking of a short list of similar “good ideas.” Then some numbers were crunched, and they determined that these three created the best correlation and they went with it. As it is, there are plenty of people like Rich Lowry who are just itching for anything to use to claim that the poor have no one to blame but themselves.

The amazingly brilliant Matt Bruenig decided to look at the numbers regarding the Success Sequence, even though it is clear to him as well that it begs the question at hand, The Success Sequence Is Extremely Misleading and Impossible to Code. He concluded:

Given the above, it’s honestly hard to understand why Sawhill/Haskins and Brookings more generally have presented the Success Sequence like this, or indeed at all. Full-time work gets you the vast majority of the way to the low-poverty conclusion and then high-school education gets you basically right up to it. Bringing in the marriage and child-delay stuff is totally unnecesary and then can’t even be properly identified in the data. Adding a condition that does basically no work for your conclusion that you can’t even identify is utterly baffling. I hate to accuse others of bad faith, but it’s very difficult to not wonder if there was an agenda for the marriage/child points that they crammed in no matter how irrelevant it was and how impossible it was to operationalize.

But the more fundamental critique remains. Isn’t it self-evident that if the poor all had full time jobs that most of them would not be poor? The point of the Success Sequence doesn’t seem to be to illuminate the causes of poverty. It seems to be just to excuse poverty — as a way to claim that it is all about the poor being undisciplined and lazy. It’s sad — and totally unacceptable coming from a decent think tank like Brookings.

Morning Music: The Sea Refused No River

All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese EyesBack in the late 1980s, I was shocked to learn that there were people I greatly respected who hated the Pete Townshend album All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. How could that be?! I thought it was one of the greatest albums ever recorded. I think that even more strongly today. But I think I have a better notion of why people don’t like the album. It is personal and unapologetic. It is, in fact, a proud statement that stands against the shallow snark and ironic detachment of the modern world.

There really is nothing easier than standing aloof from your art — silently telling your audience, “Don’t worry; I’m not serious; I too think everything is a joke.” The funny thing is, that I agree with the basic idea: everything is a joke. But does that mean that our actual feelings are any less real to us? Hell, I think consciousness is a chemical trick. But I don’t live my life based upon that belief. I really do feel lonely and embarrassed and stupid. And I can wink about it, but that doesn’t make the feelings any less real to me. For all of our society’s ironic detachment, we are still as lost as ever.

For our week of spiritual songs, I could have picked anything off this album. But I decided to go with my favorite: “The Sea Refuses No River.” I love that the metaphor works on so many levels. You can certainly see the song simply as romantic love. A man saying, “If you love me, you cannot deny my love.” But that’s a pretty limited interpretation of it. Better would be death: we all flow into the sea of eternity. But I always think of it as love in the broadest context. The metaphor illuminates the concept, because love is, ultimately, acceptance.

Anniversary Post: Urbain Grandier’s Release

Urbain GrandierOn this day in 1634, Urbain Grandier was burned to death. It must have come as a relief. He had been horribly tortured up to that point. But what do you expect from good Christians? I know, I know: Christians would tell me that the men who tortured and killed him didn’t actually have Jesus inside them and weren’t “true” Christians. But any religion that does such a bad job of instilling its moral tenets has got to be suspect. And let’s face it: modern Christians don’t do a very good job of being advertisements for God’s love.

Grandier was a Catholic priest in France. He didn’t believe that priests should be celibate. In fact, he wrote a book arguing against it. And he practiced what he preached. He was known to be a hunka hunka burning love. He apparently angered Sister Jeanne of the Angels — who seems to have fallen in love with him from afar. This led to the whole convent that she headed accusing Grandier of evil and impure acts. The church tried him and found him not guilty.

Unfortunately, Grandier had managed to really piss off Cardinal Richelieu. If that name sounds familiar, he is the main villain in The Three Musketeers. But in real life, he was much worse. After Grandier was found guilty, Richelieu just ordered another trial. But by this point, the nuns had calmed down and refused to testify against Grandier. What’s a cardinal to do? Well, they tortured Grandier for a confession. But they apparently never got one, so they just forged a confession.

But I feel a certain kinship with Urbain Grandier. I too once thought that the logic of my own personal obsessions were obvious and if only the beauty of my argument were seen, the world would agree. But I was never burned at the stake. Still, I feel certain that this is just the result of good timing. If I had lived a couple hundred years before now, I would have met a violent and painful end. But I would have provided a confession long before the torture started. I’m not a fool.