Saturday, July 28, 2007

I Have Joined an Underwear Cult

I was looking for interesting boxer shorts online. By interesting I mean the kind that will make my kids say "Daaaaad!" when they see the laundry. I found quite a variety of colorful boxers, but they appear to have been made by slave labor in China.

Then I found City Boxers. They promised American-made boxers constructed from durable fabric. The patterns won't make the kids roll their eyes, and they do cost more, but City Boxers seemed a good thing to try. So I ordered a few. They asked for quite a few details of style, materials, cut, and size. It was kind of like ordering a latte at a fancy coffeehouse.

The first email thanked me for my order, but needed to explain the drill to me. They want me to be Completely Satisfied -- so they won't make all that I ordered. Hmm. Instead, they will make me one to try out. They suggest I wear it to do all kinds of things, wash it a few times, and make sure it is what I Really Want. And they will start making the test pair as soon as I confirm that I am ready to take that big step. I was a little slow in responding (I was forwarding the email to my friends), so they wrote again. I quickly confirmed that, yes, indeed, I would like a pair of their excellent underpants. They set to work.

In a day, I got another email:

On Tuesday, July 24, 2007, batch number XXXXXXXXX was created. Your boxer short selections are a part of this particular batch. Batches are a group of many orders that will be created before we move on to subsequent batches. As of this emailing, we have completed 98.48 percent** of this batch.

There are 8 steps in creating our excellent boxers (see specifics at the bottom of this email). Here is the status of your order.

1 pair of 'Burgundy' Boxers
Style Number: 6093
Size: [censored]
Inseam: Standard, 4-Inch
Waistband: Plush Inside-Exposed
Fastener: Button
Pocket: No Pocket
Step 1: Completed (25 Jul)
Step 2: Completed (26 Jul)
Step 3: Completed (26 Jul)
Step 4: Completed (26 Jul)
Step 5: Completed (26 Jul)
Step 6: Completed (26 Jul)
Step 7: Completed (26 Jul)

We appreciate your boxer short order and your patience in allowing us the time necessary to create excellence. We are a bit slower than other boxer short companies, but we do want your shorts to be the very best you have ever worn.

Gary Lindquist
City Boxers

** Your boxers are a member of the batch listed in the title of this email. We must complete the entire batch before your boxers, and the other boxers in this batch, are inspected, bagged, packaged and then shipped to you. This figure notes how far we are along on the entire cutting and sewing process for this batch.


Step 1: Marking and Cutting. Each pair we create is marked with chalk and then precision cut individually. As a part of step 1, a waistband length is cut to a precise length based on the waist measurement you ordered. If your boxer shorts appear too large upon opening the package, this would be due to the stiffness of the fabric you chose. After washing, the boxers will contract down to the appropriate size. Some fabrics will not contract, or will contract very little, due to the initial softness of the fabric. (Average 5 minutes per pair.)
Step 2: Side Seam. A french seam is run down the outside of each leg. French seams are far superior to serge seams. They are much more durable and are without a doubt more comfortable. (Average 3 minutes per pair.)
Step 3: Waistband Material Attachment. A single-needle sewing machine is used to sew the waistband to each side of the front above the spot where the fly will eventually be. Ends of the waistband material are nicely hidden for a clean, professional look. (Average 5 minutes per pair.)
Step 4: Waistband Gathering. A four-needle sewing machine is used to gather the waistband around the top of the boxer short. At the end of this process a size label is adding in the middle of the back. (Average 3 minutes per pair.)
Step 5: Fly Area. A single-needle sewing machine is used to meticulously sew the stitching around the fly area. The reason our boxers last so long is our attention to detail in creating our designs. (Average 5 minutes per pair.)
Step 6: Crotch Seam. A double-needle, French stitch sewing machine is used to sew the crotch seam. (Average 3 minutes per pair.)
Step 7: Fastener and Logo Label. The boxers are finished around the fly area with this step. A button, or snap, is added to the middle of the fly, if applicable. The spot above the fly is sewn together and then our logo label is attached. (Average 4 minutes per pair.)
Step 8: Cutting and Hemming. A straight line from crotch seam to leg seam is cut and then the legs are hemmed. These extraordinary boxers are finished. Now they are carded, bagged, vacuum packed, and are readied for shipment. (Average 5 minutes per pair.)

As you can see, it takes about 33 minutes to complete a single pair of boxer shorts.

I eagerly await the arrival of my undies, though I know I am not worthy.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Is Multiculturalism Ethnocentric?

Randall Collins works through the developments of philosophy in Asia before turning to the post-Greek West in order to show that the same principles, and even the same contents, run through the sociology of all philosophies. He makes the strong claim that there is not an essential East nor and essential West, in philosophy or otherwise. In fact, he claims that treating other cultures as having an enduring essence is just as ethnocentric as thinking that one's own culture does. Multiculturalism, he argues, has become politically correct, but it is just ethnocentrism at one remove.

I am still chewing on this one, but I incline to agree. Your thoughts?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Official Endorsement is Bad for Intellectuals

Randall Collins, in The Sociology of Philosophies, argues that networks, not individual geniuses, make intellectual creativity. High creativity is rare because it is hard to assemble all the right material conditions for a network of intellectuals to have the leisure, the proximity, and the right kind of problem to generate several competing schools of thought.

You might think that one way to solve this problem would be to have patrons take care of all the material concerns to free the intellectuals to think, argue, and write. It turns out, though, that it also takes the right kind of patron, because it is natural for the patron to look askance at any intellectual developments that would undermine that patron's position. This is true whether the patrons are are rich families, religious authorities, or, especially, the state.

The best circumstances for intellectuals come when they are supported by the small gifts of the many, rather than the exclusive, but string-laden patronage of the few. When intellectual institutions are beholden to a powerful sponsor, they turn their brains and their competitive arguments to the politics of keeping and improving their places, rather than the intellectual problem of improving their ideas.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Law of Small Numbers

One of the most important and least explained points in Randall Collins' theory in The Sociology of Philosophies is the "law of small numbers." He argues that intellectual development takes place in an argument among a small number of intellectual networks. Almost always, he says, these arguments will resolve into three to six or so positions.

Why three is the minimum I sort of understand. For every position X, there is an opposing anti-X waiting to be filled. Moreover, Collins cleverly sees that in most historical intellectual arguments, there is also a "pox on both your houses" position, which tends to draw people who pose paradoxes, relativize all positions, and often promote distinctive lifestyles.

The upper limit of "about six" or "six to eight" is a little harder to see. My best guess is that that is about the limit of different positions that we can keep track of in opposition to our own. Above that, we tend to think of the various smaller sects as variations on one of the more dominant themes.

Collins keeps reminding us that it takes at least three generations to really get the measure of whether a school of thought has been creative or not. I can well believe that it is almost impossible to maintain an argument of more than eight distinct positions for three generations.

The law of small numbers is a useful, testable idea about how intellectual arguments are carried out.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

High Creativity is Rare - But Joining the Conversation is Worthwhile

Randall Collins estimates that there will be, at best, 2 majors philosophers per generation, and perhaps another dozen or so important secondary philosophers. In The Sociology of Philosophies he contends that high levels of intellectual creativity are rare. Taking the long view, it is likely that none of the major thinkers of today will rate a paragraph in the intellectual histories of 500 years from now. This can be somewhat depressing.

On the other hand, the great intellectual project of understanding the world is worth doing. Even being a provincial intellectual, or a thoughtful member of the reading public, is an important part in making creative thought real. How can this be so? Because, Collins argues, the right measure of creative thought is how much other people use and develop your ideas. His rule of thumb is that we can't really begin to say that a thinker is a creative intellectual until a third generation of thinkers has taken up that person's ideas. That means that we, the readers and thinkers (to whatever degree) of this day, are vital to the creative intellectual work of those who went before. Our thoughts are really what makes a genius a genius.

One of the most inviting images in Collins' argument is his account of what intellectual life is, at its heart:

"The intellectual world is a massive conversation. … What makes one an intellectual is one's attraction to this conversation."

Monday, July 23, 2007

EE from CC in IR

I began "theory camp" today with a group of students, working our way through Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies. The heart of the book is a sociological analysis of all the great schools of philosophy, east and west, as social networks. Before he gets to the philosophers, though, Collins outlines the "skeleton of theory." He argues that in any social network, people get emotional energy from exchanging, developing, and arguing over cultural capital in great chains of interaction rituals. In his terms, we get EE from CC in IR.

Interactions rituals are an idea he developed from the work of Erving Goffman, who in turn was expanding an insight of one of the founding sociologists, Emile Durkheim. Social structures aren't really physical structures like walls and floors, but rather are interactions that people have regularly, habitually -- that is, ritually. The specific words they say differ each time, but the form of the interaction is a ritual.

Cultural capital is the kind of knowledge that secures us a place in a social network. It is the kind of knowledge that is useful to you and to other people. We not only exchange it, we develop it, mostly by combining one kind of cultural capital with others to make new social value. Intellectuals, such as philosophers, are especially and primarily focused on exchanging and developing ideas. The idea of cultural capital Collins draws directly from Pierre Bourdieu.

The new idea I have learned from our studies so far is about "emotional energy." When we interact with others in our social networks, we have emotional reactions. The more the network matters to us, the more power these interactions have to lift up or dash our emotions. Collins says we are drawn to the kinds of arguments that our network finds most interesting. If we add to our network's argument successfully, the positive feedback will fill us with emotional energy; the reverse effect leads to negative feedback, which drains our emotional energy.

The stars of philosophy, or any intellectual network, are the most productive, some of their products being particularly insightful to the rest of the network. These stars have the drive to keep working so hard because of their great emotional energy. Emotional energy is clearly a cousin of Durkheim's "collective effervescence." Collins transforms Durkheim's notion from a product of collective emotion and solidarity, to be an engine of the social network. EE makes the social structure go.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Spoiler! (Not Really)

The eldest Gruntled child, Megblum, is paranoid about running across any Harry Potter spoilers. Her friends know this. She called one of them to give him birthday greetings. The conversation went like this:

Friend: "Hello?"

Megblum: "Happy Birthday!"

Friend: "Boromir dies!"

Layers of cultural literacy are buried in that prank.