Shoe Fail!

Wednesday’s catastrophic shoe fail, that resulted in a knee injury for Duke University star basketball player Zion Williamson, gives me the perfect pretense to update my three year long experiment in wearing only minimal shoes.

You can read more about the details of Williamson’s exploding Nike in the New York Times. The article reports on how shoe companies bribe universities to feature their products. Athletes have to wear the company’s shoes but receive none of the sponsorship dollars except for a few free shoes that they have to wear unless they get a medical excuse from . . . doctors working for the shoe company. On the bright side the athletes get a great lesson in neoliberal economics that clearly debunks the commonly held myth that the “free hand” of the market leads to some sort of Edenic meritocracy.

They also get a lesson in how our culture likes to think of its technological products–such as those “high tech” athletic shoes–as based on some kind of engineering magic when in reality they are just poorly made plastic crap festooned with magical brand sigils. As Harvard’s Daniel Lieberman has shown, modern athletic shoes have no peer reviewed evidence behind them. What little thought goes into them suffers from a basic logical error known as survivorship bias. Shoe companies address weaknesses in our feet by adding more and more cushioning which, ironically, leads to weaker feet muscles. Like a dog chasing its own tail, these springy, mattress-soft shoes leads, in sports like basketball, to higher and higher jumps and bigger and faster athletes which, in turn, leads to more injuries which leads to more cushioning in a never ending cycle propelled by advertising dollars and Wall Street investors. Though I have no evidence, I’m willing to bet that basketball players had fewer injuries in the days of the more basic Chuck Taylor shoes of the early 20th century.

An Update
So how is my minimal shoe experiment going? In short, great. Not only have I had no return of the dreaded plantar fasciitis, but I’ve also saved a lot of money. It turns out that without any cushioning to lose its spring, a minimal shoe lasts a lot longer than those giant Nike atrocities. I’m three years into my barefoot running shoes and it’s just about time to replace them. Root Simple has no shoe sponsorship, but I will say that I was able to switch my running shoes, dress and casual shoes all to minimal versions made by the same company: Vivo. Kelly tried a competing company Lems and reports the same good results. There definitely was a few months of getting used to not having any support and learning to walk as mother nature intended us to walk. I’ve even proven that you can fence, a sport that requires a considerable amount of bouncing and jumping, in minimal shoes.

This is also a perfect opportunity to clarify that I’m not one of those barefoot conspiracy theorists. Thanks to the News From Nowhere podcast of journalist Corey Pein, I discovered that there’s a strange world of folks who hold that there’s a vast conspiracy against walking barefoot. Pein talked to Brandon Sutton (Chad Vigorous) of @th3discourse about the barefoot conspiracy theory community, who make the flat earth/pizzagate folks seem grounded, so to speak. While I love a good Sasquatch story I just want to make clear that I don’t see the universe through the prism of bearing one’s sole. It’s funny that these kooky ideas obscure an actual conspiracy of shoe companies that really do bribe colleges and podiatrists to push their injurious products.

A Manual of Needlework and Cutting Out

Please enjoy this manual of the lost art of hand sewing by Agnes Walker published in 1907 and recommended by YouTube sewing sensation Bernadette Banner. What makes the book useful is that, unlike a lot of sewing resources, there’s not a lot of assumed knowledge. The book also shows the high level of craftsmanship expected of young children before the great crappening of the mid-20th century.

Saturday Tweets: Your Own Personal Disney Castle

Los Angeles: A New Beginning

From now on when I get triggered by a panel discussion featuring our mayor’s underlings, rather than run home and report on it I’m just going to make up what I’d have rather heard. This little imagined scenario was inspired by hearing the mayor’s current and former sustainability director spend an hour discussing pie in the sky notions that, in my cranky opinion, will never materialize. The mayor and his people seem to think that self flying vehicles are the solution to our current crisis. I could be wrong, but I’m willing to gift a LA River crayfish dinner in ten years time to the folks that prove my more down to earth climate change solutions notions wrong. So instead of waiting for that flying Uber, let’s trim the sails and plot a course for a different utopia . . .

Los Angeles, 2025
Enveloped in the white arc of a exploding battery, the mayor’s self driving electric limo careened off the road and ground to a halt along side of a mini mall convenience store at the corner of Temple and Alvarado. Who knew that the limo’s algorithms favored raccoons over human passengers?

Three hours later an autonomous ambulance pulled up.

“I’m Siri the paramedic,” said a disembodied voice emanating from a speaker next to a dirty and stained touch screen. “Are you okay?”

“Ugh. I think so,” said the mayor. “But I can’t see.”

“An Uber is being dispatched,” said the screen.

Later that evening, after a long and painful Uber ride, Garcetti awoke at KFC General Hospital. He would have many hours to reflect on his record as LA’s longest serving mayor while enjoying the ever popular Cheeto Chicken Sandwich™ that replaced the bland hospital fare of his youth. At his side was Lauren his sustainability minister.

The mayor put down his sandwich and began to stammer, “Bi, biiiiii bi biiiiii”

“What are you trying to say?” asked Lauren.

“Biiii, biii, biiii, biiiiiiiiii, biiiiicyyyyy . . .  bicycle,” said the mayor.

It was the first time in his many years as mayor that anyone had ever heard the mayor say the word.

“You mean those things kids use?” said Lauren.

“Maybe we could have protected lanes for them,” said the mayor. “That way you’d be safe and you wouldn’t get stuck in all the self driving car jams. Maybe more people would use them.”

“That’s insane. It will never happen,” replied Lauren. “I mean, it’s over 120º for most of the summer here now thanks to climate change.”

“Maybe that’s why we need ttttttt . . . trrrrrrr . . . trrreeeees . . . trees,” replied the mayor.

“What’s a tree?” asked Lauren.

“I think it’s some kind of self growing thing that makes oxygen and shade,” replied the mayor.

“Won’t they block the solar panels?” asked Lauren.

“Ba, ba, bu, buuuuuu . . . bus,” said the mayor.

“Huh? Mr. Mayor are you okay?” said Lauren.

“It’s . . . it’s like a car but carries over 100 people,” said the mayor.

“We’ll have to run that past minister Musk,” said Lauren as she gazed out the window.

“We could have lanes dedicated to buses,” blurted the mayor. “Maybe there could be affordable housing too?”

“With trees and bicycles? That’s impossible!” said Lauren. “How will we keep the coders employed?”

“Wait, who’s this minister Musk?” asked the mayor. “Is he that guy who accused a diver of being a ‘pedo’ so that he could buy some more time to make his own boy sized mini-submarine?”

“Really? He said that?” exclaimed Lauren.

“Yeah, I think that’s him,” replied the mayor. “Why the hell did I trust him so much?”

“Are you okay? Can I get you more Cheetos?” asked Lauren.

But all the Cheetos in the world wouldn’t bring the mayor back to his former self. Fredric Jameson once said, “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” But that’s just what the mayor began to imagine thanks to the unlikely conjunction of an algorithm and a raccoon.

He realized it was well past time to learn to dig not learn to code. It was time to build sea walls instead of apps, bus lanes instead of battery packs, affordable housing instead of Olympic villages. With all the freeways gone he was able to make room for gardens and orchards.

It was a new start. The people of LA were no longer consumers in a climate change crisis but, instead, neighbors working hard to assure their children’s bright future.

Cybernetics: A Fatal Flaw

Still from Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

Last week I wrote about an archive of 1970s appropriate technology publications called Rain. I still contend that there is much to be reclaimed from this movement but it’s also healthy to look at what went wrong. A provocative and controversial book I just finished, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet makes note of what may have been the fatal flaw in the movement: cybernetics, the dream of self organizing systems as an alternative to the messiness of politics. As the author of Surveillance Valley, Yasha Levine, puts it,

Back in the 1960s, many of [Stewart] Brand’s New Communalists built micro-communites based on cybernetic ideas believing that flat hierarchies, social transparency, and radical interconnectedness between individuals would abolish exploitation, hierarchy, and power. In the end, the attempt to replace politics with technology was the fatal flaw: without organized protection for the weak, these would-be utopias devolved into cults controlled by charismatic and dominant leaders who ruled their fiefdoms though bullying and intimidation.

As an example he cites a New Mexico-based commune, known as The Family, that went particularly bad.

The Family quickly transformed into a rigid hierarchy, with men addressed with titles like “sir” and “Lord,” and women forced to wear skirts and assigned conservative gender-based work: cooking, child care, and washing. A founding member who called himself Lord Byron presided over the group and reserved the right to have sex with any woman in the commune . . . “There was constantly a background of fear in the house–like a virus running in the background. Like spyware. You know it’s there, but you don’t know how to get rid of it.”

Levine contends that this type of “cybernetic utopia gone bad,” birthed in the idealistic pages of the Whole Earth Catalog, is how we ended up with Google and Facebook’s spyware based business model. Think for a second about how absurd it is that Mark Zuckerberg seems to believe that algorithms can parse the subtleties of all the world’s languages and flag the sort of hate speech that leads to deaths in countries like Myanmar and India.

Still from Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

Levine also cites one of my favorite documentaries, Adam Curtis’ three part All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Part II is about the problems of cybernetics, the failure of communes and the mistaken belief in a “balance of nature.” You can watch it here. I also recommend parts I and III.

Unfortunately it seems that what we got out of the idealistic ecotopian movements of the 1970s was cybernetics not composting toilets. Counterintuitively, I think that instead of abandoning idealism and utopian thinking, we actually need to walk away from the dystopian stories we’ve been telling each other for so many post-Mad Max years and begin to tell utopian stories again, just different utopian stories than the last round. I’ll have to develop this idea further in future posts, but in the meantime, do yourself a favor and spend an evening with Adam Curtis and let me know what you think.