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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polarity problems

Red alert, day 73. Lockdown, day 63.

Here’s a more durable excerpt from the autobiography of Warren Weaver, the science administrator discussed yesterday. Relevant to studies of qualia and evaluation/Appraisal:

[I have had a lifelong curiosity] about the magnitude of the range of “goodness” possible to various objects or procedures. For example, there are some things (I would offer cheese, whisky, movies, and peanut butter as excellent instances) of which I consider that all examples are good. Some, to be sure, are better than others, and the best can be superb; but none is unacceptably bad.

On the other hand there are interesting objects or procedures which range over a spectacular spectrum of goodness, ranging all the way from unspeakably bad to almost indescribably good. They maximize, as a mathematician would say, the ratio of the goodness of the best examples to the badness of the worst. In this category I would, for instance, place martinis. … These parenthetic remarks are stimulated by the mention, just above, of violin playing. For I think this the ultimate illustration of a procedure with the maximum range from best to worst. I am unable to think of anything more heavenly at its best and more punishing and terrible at its worst.

In my experience, Asian food is pretty much always good, but nouvelle cuisine and technical foods can be horrible. I have only ever eaten these at business lunches and dinners (something I don’t miss about the roaring ’80s and the roaring ’00s), the nadir of which was a celery granita in a Southwark lab food restaurant near the Symbian Foundation.

With films, the experience of immersion in watching large images is generally enjoyable independent of the content, with the exception of forced viewing as in A Clockwork Orange. There is some kind of coherence, even in jump cuts and jerky action. On the other hand, there is something about the stop-and-start quality of musical practice that is excruciating. This is true even of high level musical practice, as I found out from living with conservatory students in New York. The flow is always being interrupted. The same phenomenon is what makes technical problems on Zoom so hard to bear, and also computer problems in general. When I replace this machine, which has 4GB of memory, with one that has 8GB, I too will probably double my brain capacity from not having to wait for buffering.

When you are really starved for reading, all reading material is good (the proverbial cereal box, the value of books in prisons), but as choice increases you can become infinitely demanding. In going through 150 years of newspapers for my PhD work, it was clear that ideas of quality developed with the availability of print. Early 19th century readers got snippets that were often repetitious (five separate stories with essentially the same content rather than a wrap), or else long-winded descriptions and speech transcripts. There were no reporting standards, so we don’t know how much the stories resembled events or in what ways they might have diverged. And it was all the news they had. Now the information has to unroll at exactly the right pace, as well as being efficiently organized for skimming. News features and tabloid news are expected to be emotionally exciting as well.

This passage also reminds me of Lili Loufbourrow’s 2018 essay on the different scales underlying male and female descriptions of sex. Based on medical as well as anecdotal evidence, she suggests the male experience of sex falls into Weaver’s first category – always at least somewhat good – and the female experience into the second. This is a difference theory that explains many problems in law and everyday equity.

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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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scene of change

Red alert, day 72. Lockdown, day 62. I continue to note the counts for each day in a notebook, and they are still alarming.

Marscon (January, Virginia) now takes the prize for farthest-off cancellation.

The house cleanout in 2018 unearthed many hardback books with lofty titles about science, even more than I knew we had. One of them came back to Ipswich with me: Scene of Change: A Lifetime in American Science by Warren Weaver. Weaver was one of the men like Vannevar Bush who led US technology policy in the years after World War II. Bush, an electrical engineer, was the country’s chief science officer during the war and helped supervise the conversion to peacetime (Cold War) research, notably with the creation of the National Science Foundation, as proposed in his book Science – The Endless Frontier. Weaver, a mathematician who had also studied civil engineering, worked mainly on the private side. He ended up running the Rockefeller Foundation and later moved to the Sloan Foundation. He also coauthored the root text on information theory with Claude Shannon.

Weaver was born in the 1890s, as was Bush, in a small town in Wisconsin. His autobiography contains plenty of evidence of how much life has changed: for example, as a child one of his jobs was to turn the mangle for his mother, and another was to use old newspapers to clean the glass chimneys of kerosene lamps. When he joined the faculty of Cal Tech in 1919, his salary was $1,800 a year, and his rent for a cottage with backyard, ten minutes from the university, was $17.

Coming from an age when so many fields were in their beginnings, publishing was slow, and it was possible to keep up, Weaver was able to become a real generalist. He was obviously thoughtful as well as polymathic. I will post a few choice ramblings on other days. However, the abiding impression of the book is how the small number of “meritocratically” selected men in the American prewar generations – in his case the Lost Generation [1] – had an outsize influence on, well, everything. The robber barons and auto-industrialists had an even more outsized influence. It is no wonder that the Silicon Valley plutes expect the same power after growing up seeing Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefeller, Ford, Sloan etc. plaques on everything. Concentration of power creates vassalage, and the largest part of Weaver’s book consists of accounts of junkets around the world to be feted by local scientists who hoped to get some Rockefeller aid.

The report of the Mexican agricultural programme dates particularly badly. Weaver stresses the need to convince Mexican officials that the American project to change their crops was their idea, and the importance of choosing men who could sell it:

…as is critically true of any project, the scheme would never be any better than its leadership, so we were determined to get the best. We did, as events have clearly proved. J. George Harrar was, at that moment, the head of the department of plant pathology at Washington State College. He had spent several years as professor of botany at the University of Puerto Rico, and both he and his wife were fluent in Spanish. Beside his technical and professional qualifications, George had been a four-letter athlete at Oberlin, and when he eventually became the head of the Mexican-North American agricultural group in Mexico he furnished them leadership at every level – he could run faster, jump a wider stream, dance the samba better, shoot better, and work harder both in the office and in the field than anyone. In tact and courtesy, in skill and knowledge, in his infectious personality, in energy and dedication, he was the ideal leader. That Harrar is now president of the Rockefeller Foundation is but the natural culmination of a plot that some of us schemed in 1941.

No doubt, Harrar was talented and good at his job, but I find this cringey – the assumption that an American should lead the joint project, the assumption that Harrar could be better at Latinx culture than Latinxs, the ableism, the clubbiness, the hero-worship. We are such a long way off here from decolonization, own voices, privilege checking, balance of all kinds. The Harrar generation was still around, though retired, when I entered the workforce.

The Mexico project, as described in the book, involved breeding new grains and standardizing agricultural practices to maximize production. I suspect monocultures, DDT and so forth were involved, as that was the direction in US farming at the time. This is the kind of work we are now looking to undo with crop rotation and diversified farming, indigenous knowledge of additional grain varieties, organic farming and so on. Though in the short term, the extra food was needed.

[1] The Lost Generation were so called because of the Great War caused many to feel unstuck in time (to borrow a phrase from a book about another war). Weaver incidentally was too thin to be regularly drafted in 1917, but on his first sojourn at Cal Tech in 1918, his boss had him posted to the Bureau of Standards and that was his service. The flu pandemic is not mentioned.

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tell me more

Red alert, day 71. Lockdown, day 61.

Friday of spring Bank Holiday weekend in the UK, Helluntai weekend in Finland [1] and Memorial Day weekend in the US. Today I met T in the park for a chat again. There were some other small groups meeting – families, dog walkers, flower sketchers – but quite scattered. Ipswich Borough Council has sent out an e-mail setting out once again the blurry lines for interaction as the weather tempts people outside:

What is missing from this list? Masks. The kind of mask regulation we are seeing in my blended, semivirtual, Anglo-Euro-American space is local and privatized and tentative: Sajid Javid has proposed mask requirements for London transport; shops and workplaces may be able to require masks for entry but it is by no means widespread. I saw only a couple of masks in my hour out in Ipswich, which included a shopping stop.

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stand still, stay silent

Red alert, day 59. Lockdown, day 49.

Stand Still Stay Silent is of course a webcomic.

Finally a simple, population-normalized graph has made it onto social media. It is possibly dodgy, depending on how much we trust the reported figures, and already out of date as death rates in Germany and China are reported rising again, but the outsized losses in the UK, US and Sweden are indisputable:

Boris Johnson is set to finally read the speech on easing lockdown tonight. The top ministers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have repudiated the new “Stay alert” messaging, pointing out there was no Four Nations discussion. Arlene Foster says NI is “not deviating from prior messages at this time.” Mark Drakeford: “Staying home remains the best way you can protect yourself and others.” Nicola Sturgeon reiterates “Stay home” – except you can now go for a walk twice a day – and has also joined the chorus of people asking what “Stay alert” means.

Downing Street responded by releasing a clarification which was basically the same as Stay Home, only with a few hedges (“if possible,” “if you can”). (Earlier, two-panel version, possibly sent by e-mail to press since I cannot locate the original tweet.)

In Ipswich, Borough Council leader David Ellesmere (this is not the same as the Mayor, which is a ceremonial office) says “the current situation will not change radically in the short term.” Some construction will resume, along with garden waste collection. “It will be some time before council revenue-generating services like sports centres, the Regent and Corn Exchange will be able to re-open.”

Not cancelled, so far: Futuricon, which is this year’s Eurocon, to be held in Rijeka, Croatia, beginning of October. I actually had an early bird ticket for this (still only 15 euros).

Zoom today: an hour with L testing presentation formats co-hosting and breakout rooms. I wish I’d had a chance to do this before giving lectures on Zoom. We’re both now much more aware of eye lines and how things look to the viewers, as well as ways to improve the sound.

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