the concord of discord

My lifetime official science fiction convention attendance is probably fewer than 20 events, including three Worldcons, a couple of Readercons, several Finncons and one Eastercon, as well as free single-day cons and day memberships elsewhere. Now I’ve attended two online cons: Flights of Foundry last weekend and Balticon this weekend. Much as I like traveling, it is pretty amazing to be able to go to conventions without arriving exhausted or wrangling train fares, and that is the first great advantage of online cons.

Another good thing is that like a lot of other online events at the moment, attendance was free or asked only a donation – partly because committees don’t have time to integrate proper membership systems into all the other systems that need putting together. This advantage won’t last, except for small ad hoc events.

I circulated an incoherent version of the following notes to other Easterconners in May. Now (2 August) that the reviews of CoNZealand are confirming some observations, I feel confident to revise and post.

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125 days

125 days since the red alert sent us home from work. 115 days since the lockdown order. There have been adjustments to open sector after sector over the last six weeks but our public and private lives are by no means returned. Lockdown measures are now differentially distributed between city and country, “hot spots” such as Leicester and others. The Leicester council is making an argument for even smaller, neighborhood-based lockdowns.

There have been more than 12 million tests in the UK. 189,438 people were tested yesterday, including regular tests of health workers. The number of cases discovered or confirmed by testing has reached 291,911. At least 45,053 people have died of coronavirus here, with reported daily counts lately fluctuating between 35 and 200. The virus is responsible for approximately 10,000 more deaths if other death certificate mentions are counted, and counting excess deaths means about 10,000 more can be attributed to the pandemic. (Public Health England / BBC)

Travel around England is now allowed and hotels, campsites and other holiday dwellings will be permitted to open under new rules. National Express coaches began operating July 1 on a reduced timetable. Trains have operated throughout, at an added cost said to be £100 per passenger per trip because of overcapacity. London transport is running at 20% of last year’s passenger numbers. Today’s Guardian reports on a “travel safe” campaign to “tempt people back” to transit. As usual policy is not about whether it is safe for people to travel, because we can’t calculate that, or how to make it safe, because we don’t know, but about how to sell them on it.

Government messaging remains fuzzy and the subject of many explainers. Face coverings on mass transit were made mandatory from 15 June, though National Express describes them as only recommended. NX does reserve the right to take customer temperatures before boarding. Masks in shops are recommended, but in the end have not been mandated. The 2m distance has been reduced to “1m plus,” although aerosol scientists think 10 feet (3 m) would be safer. It is hard not to reach the conclusion that proposed rules are dialed back as soon as members of the government realize how difficult they are to keep and how likely they are to be caught not keeping them. To use an Australian expression, measures that could save us get put in the “too hard basket.”

Dr Kimberly Prather, atmospheric scientist at UCSD, prefers 10 feet and says masks should fit snugly enough that you can see them move when you breathe. Also, pay attention to wind direction.
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a knife, a pot and a cooker

I may not have homeschooled children, learned Spanish, or made a film in lockdown, but I have certainly leveled up in cooking. This was unexpected, since my usual position on food is, “It’s all right, I guess, but I don’t know why people make such a fuss over it.”

To be fair, there are reasons. My rooms in Boston and New York had terrible cockroach infestations which put me off home cooking. In fact, it was best to think about what you were eating as little as possible. Canned soup was a godsend, as was oatmeal in packets. The only other period I spent this much time cooking from scratch was the early postgraduate phase at Antti Korpin tie, where I had a clean uninfested basic kitchen and an audience of eaters for the first time in my life. There I mostly learned to bake from my mother’s recipes, which she sent. I also made a lot of chicken and rice.

Staying home this spring meant I had complete control over my intake – no more eating whatever was in the vending machine at work or whatever was least unappealing in the cornershop or Pret on the way to the evening train. Tins of grape leaves on the office shelf, samosas at Stratford eaten on the platform. Until March, if I bought fresh supplies, I wouldn’t be around enough to finish them.

Now over these four months, I have arrived an almost zero-waste kitchen: mostly pescatarian, mostly gluten free (no sourdough starter stories here), and shifting toward a low FODMAP diet. Surprise: when not constantly suffering from mild indigestion, I don’t feel hungry all the time.

The staples are a lot of brown rice and steamed vegetables, in ad hoc combinations; also gluten free pasta with vegetables, tofu and other soy-based vegetarian foods, and oatmeal porridge. More excitingly, each week I’ve tried to learn a dish that a friend had made. Some results are presented after the jump.

Click in and through to Hannah for multiparty thread about recipe discourse.
People especially loathe cup measures.
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First Bookcrossing meetup since March

First takeaway coffee since March too.
On the right: books I took.
Bracketing cup: books I brought that nobody took.
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the right to celebrate

Although the change of pace on the holidays we grew up with feels like a natural right, the legal basis is less clear than we might like. Here in the UK, bank holidays are established by the Banking and Financial Dealings Act of 1871 as days when “no person shall be compellable to make any payment or to do any act … which he would not be compellable to make or do on Christmas Day or Good Friday.” But there is no underlying act defining the nature of Christmas Day or Good Friday; those holidays are established only by common law.

The 1871 act covers only banks, and application to other businesses derived from the idea that the economy flowed through in-person activities at banks. Non-bank workers do not have any statutory rights to public holidays apart from what is in their individual or collective contracts. Although it is customary to be able to take the eight bank holidays off with pay, employers may count them against the required 28 days of annual leave rather than adding them on.

In the US, government holidays were established in 1870, starting with New Year’s Day, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Initially the holidays were only for the population of the District of Columbia and now they are also for federal government employees nationwide, including the Post Office. Again the legal sense of holiday included the provision nobody should be forced to honor a payment order on that day – rather like the rabbinical discouragement of handling money on a Sabbath. Also noteworthy is the call-out to early modern holiday practices in “a day of public fast or thanksgiving.”

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when we celebrate

In discussing the place of Juneteenth in the US holiday calendar, it is worth looking at the whole yearly round. Europeans often express amazement at the short annual leave that is given to workers in the United States: the minimum is just two weeks compared to four weeks in the UK and six weeks in Finland. I agree this is terrible. No question the American government and employers need to do more on the R&R front. But US workers have that Europeans might envy: a seasonally balanced annual holiday schedule. 

The table above shows that a minimum of eight months have at least one holiday, most often a long weekend. Some holidays aredefined to fall on a Monday and others float. If a floating holiday falls on a weekend, workers get the adjacent weekday, and if it falls on Tuesday or Thursday many employers will give the bridge day to make a long weekend. Thanksgiving is always on a Thursday and the holiday break is commonly from midday Wednesday through Sunday, although travel and cooking make it less of a rest than some other holidays.

With a balanced schedule, you know there’s always a three-day recovery period and a short week not too far away. It boosts the spirits. It helps joint planning for long weekends and three-day events. We have a bit of time to enjoy the outdoors in all four seasons, if our state has seasons. 

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juneteenth: revisiting celebration

Space is a central focus in the #BlackLivesMatter protests working to dismantle racial orders, as well as the counterprotests. The protest actions are taking place in public spaces, already changed by the Covid pandemic. Material symbols of white supremacy such as statues and Confederate flags have been not just challenged this time, but written on, removed by protesters, encased or removed by authorities in anticipation of protest. Racist names on streets, forts and schools are also being replaced. This is taking place not just in the United States but in Britain and continental Europe and Australia. It is the most sudden and comprehensive reframing of linked and landmarked public space since the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago.

Public space is political because the entities in power set the conditions of its use and the ways we refer to it; and linguistic because these terms and references become embedded in language. Considerable effort is required to avoid or change them. But time is also a dimension that is political and linguistic, in the sense that the calendar is a social construction. We observe a seven-day week with a change in rhythm on the evening of the fifth day because of religious tradition – but also because the most powerful governments have chosen to uphold that pattern over others that they could have chosen. Though astronomical periods are fixed, a survey of science fiction, not to mention the various historical and revolutionary calendars, reminds us that there are alternative divisions to the 12-month year and the 24-hour day. 

Perhaps the most intense dimension of political-linguistic time is the establishment of commemorative days by nations and other political entities. The call to make Juneteenth a national US holiday is a significant thread emerging from the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, and one that would directly affect the largest number of people in their everyday lives, reminding them of these moments year after year. Juneteenth, June 19, is an African-American celebration of the end of slavery – not the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, but the news reaching the last enslaved Black people it had been kept from, in Galveston Texas two years later. It has sometimes been called Black Independence Day. In Texas it was installed as a state holiday (Texas Emancipation Day) in 1980, which means Texans get the day off and public events such as parades are organized to recognize it. Most Juneteenth celebrations, however, are private, family affairs. Over the years, Juneteenth has become a ceremonial holiday (recognized with flag waving, proclamations and other official discourse but not a day off) in all other states with the exception of Hawaiʻi and the Dakotas. 

I happen to have written a PhD dissertation on the language associated with national holidays, which is how I learned about Juneteenth. As often happens, just defining the terms – or rather, exploring their semantics, was one of the hardest parts of the study. In English, for example, holiday is a word with multiple overlapping senses; it is, as we say, polysemous. As you’d expect, it derives from religious occasions – holy days. In modern British English, however, holiday by itself most often means annual leave or vacation: multiple days away, prototypically at the seaside. In American English, the most common meaning of holiday is a celebration day, prototypically Christmas, or a day of the year that is a paid day off .

Concordance lines from the British National Corpus (early 1990s)
vs. the Corpus of Historical American English (for 2000).
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swearing, no screaming

Howard Dean had a Zoom call with Democrats Abroad today. There was self-redacted swearing but no screaming. Dean is now in charge of the Dem clearinghouse of voter data which aims to source information from different organizations to identify voters who can be influenced and not waste time on those who can’t. He made lots of crunchy Josh Lyman-style state by state predictions.

The tl; dl from Dr. Dean:

– Core Democratic constituencies now are women, PoCs, under-35s, making a Black female veep candidate a logical choice. It may be “the first election since 1960 where VP choice matters.”
– Says Stacey Abrams and Biden have “chemistry.”
– Encouraged by seeing white kids are following Black kids – emphasis on following, “not patting them on the head and telling them how to do it” – to the barricades.
– Bob Vallier of Dems Abroad: Clinton “ignored loud messages from the left and cultivated independents, centrists, and never-Trump Republicans.” Dean says Biden will not repeat the mistake; and would go further left if elected.
– “Biden has embraced Medicare to 60 and now we need to get him to 21. He is actually taking a look at UBI which is incredible.”
– However Dean also says the strategy is to stay safe and let Trump bury himself.
– The Republican clearinghouse database has a budget of $250 million; Dems $12 million.
– For voters abroad, avoiding postal delays is key. Use VoteAbroad.com. Make sure you register to vote as soon as you can. Most states will send out ballots by e-mail. Use that option. Return your ballot as soon as you can.
– Some chat about the possibility of collecting up ballots and sending them together so individual ballots don’t get hung up at Customs.
– While healthcare remains Dean’s No. 1 issue, he says the first priority for a Biden administration should be to do something about the Supreme Court to keep it from rolling back liberties further. Not sure how, since appointment is for life, something about the House and Senate, but that is at least a legal problem that could be straightened out faster than sorting healthcare (says Dean).
– Book recommendation on depolicing: Zach Norris, We Keep Us Safe.

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no way out

Former Commerce Secretary Robert Reich on yesterday’s livestream from Democrats Abroad UK. Some notes:

– Reich says we’re at a once in a hundred years crisis, a “triple barreled emergency” of “pandemic, econom[ic collapse], and racism and its consequences.”
– Calls Trump’s response to the Black protests “a nightmare of leadership, something you would expect from a dictatorship that had no concern and no feel for human rights.”
– Expects as much as 25% unemployment to be announced next week. (It declined to 13.3%.)
– Does not see an economic recovery from Covid of the V, U, or reverse checkmark type, i.e., a rapid recovery, however delayed.
– Does not endorse always running on deficit spending (TIL: this is called MMT, modern monetary theory) but does say that this is not a time to worry about it – the US should be spending more on infrastructure and education.
– Slams bank bailouts that enabled share buybacks – calls again (cf. 2008) for helping individuals to “stay in their homes,” “get food on the table, and survive well.”
– Proposes a moratorium on student debt followed by reorganizing to eliminate it.

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not premier league, learned league

Red alert, day 76. Lockdown, day 66.

Some days I’m really fine with lockdown – the introvert cry of, “I’ve been preparing my whole life for this!” – and some days I feel buried alive. This was one of the buried alive days.

People on social media are doing the Sky National General Knowledge Test, which has some notably misleading question and answer selections. Scores for people who don’t mind boasting about their trivia scores ranged from 75 to 90. My usual trivia fix is Learned League (NYT article, WaPo article, Guardian article). I can refer anyone who wants to try a rookie season. The next season starts on August 19.

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panic don’t panic

Red alert, day 75. Lockdown, day 65.

Private Eye is doing a good job of covering the pandemic these days, not a surprise for the last investigations-focused news organ left. (Cleverly camouflaged with the cover and center section of humor magazine for twelve year-olds.) Each fortnight’s issue nowadays contains at least two solid pages of news summaries by “M.D.” Lately M.D. has front-loaded the space with the number of deaths and excess deaths, pointing out how Covid affects non-Covid health outcomes as well (delays in visiting the doctor, delays in treatment).

MD themself did not take the threat seriously at first, nor discuss it as sensitively as one might hope:

600 people a year die of flu, 10-13,000 in a bad year.
In the two SARS coronavirus outbreaks between 2002 and 2004, the UK media again went into full throttle “killer virus” mode and yet only four people in the UK were infected, with no deaths. This was largely due to calm, coordinated global public health measures. 

Pandemic infections come and go, and Covid-19 may yet turn out to kill more Brits than seasonal flu does every year. But pandemic panic always causes significant harm, and usually overloads the NHS more than the virus. Yes, it’s exciting that a virus may have come via snakes, bats and pangolins to infect us. Yet it may be less deadly that boring old Influenza A in a bad year. So get a grip and wash your hands: it’s the best thing you can do to protect yourself. (MD, Issue 1516 / 21 Feb)

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partial explanations

Red alert, day 74. Lockdown, day 64.

More of Warren Weaver, this time on scientific explanation. Many of us have thought the following, for example when reading bad wall texts in science museums, but Weaver, with the confidence of the mid-century master of the universe, was able to say it in print:

[A]s far as I can see[,] science has only two procedures of “explanation” and they are both, in any strict logical sense, frauds. One of these procedures consists of remarks which really say: “This phenomenon X which puzzles you should no longer do so; for it is closely like a phenomenon Y with which you have long been familiar.” The strange fact is that one need not really understand Y. He only needs to have been familiar with it for a long enough time so that he has the (fuzzy and unanalyzed) conviction that he understands it. 

This is explanation by simile, and it is both strangely satisfying and practically useful. This is what happens when a scientist says, “Radio waves spread out, die off, are interfered with, like the expanding ripples when a stone is thrown into a pond.” This is what happens when a scientist says, “The electrons in an atom revolve around the nucleus as do the planets around the sun.” 

These explanations by simile are not trivial. Not only do they bring the personal satisfaction of one who says, “You know, I didn’t understand that at all before, and now I do”’; they also furnish an important motivation within science as did, in the nineteenth century, the extensive simile comparing electrical quantities and actions with mechanical quantities and actions. But from any fundamental point of view, explanation of this variety, however comforting and useful it may be, is not really explanation. To say that the voltage that “causes” electricity to flow in a wire is like the pressure that causes water to flow in a pipe is very helpful and comforting to a person who is just establishing acquaintance with electricity, and who has for so long seen water flowing in a pipe that he thinks he understands why the pressure causes this; but it is certainly no ultimate explanation.

The second procedure of explanation is very different in character. It is exhibited in pure form in mathematics and theoretical physics. A statement is established by logical derivation from one or more previously established statements. They in turn have been established from a second prior set. One backs down a sort of logical staircase, the statements on each step having been proved by those on the next lower step. If one backs all the way down this stairway he eventually lands on a step which in our modern view does not bear the caption (which Euclid might have written there); “These statements are self-evidently true,” but rather bears the candid caption, “This is as far down as we presently go: the statements on this level are pure assumption.”

So this second kind of explanation, like the first, does not furnish any ultimate explanation. Both kinds, or mixtures of them, end either in the illusion of familiarity that makes one content to drop the effort or the bafflement of pure assumption.

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