Labor Day 2023

Illustration from The Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Karla Kuskin (Author) and Marc Simont (Illustrator). Text reads "They are the members of the Philharmonic Orchestra, and their work is to play. Beautifully."

A quote for this year’s Labor Day post fell into my lap this morning. It comes from a review of an old’s children’s book, The Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Karla Kuskin. The review is by another book blogger, Jane Psmith of Mr. and Mrs. Psmith’s Bookshelf.

So, yes, I cry when I read this book, because it’s about what it means to be a grown-up. It’s about what it means to be human. Yes, you (really, you!) can go out into the cold and the dark. You can force entropy back just a little. You can make something great — and done in the service of greatness, even the small, careful, everyday things begin to glow with its reflected light. So what if the symphony turns back into black notes on a white page when you stop playing? God put you on this earth to create your own little pool of light and order, to take Nature’s form-giving fire for your own, to work not because it’s how you get paid but because it’s how you leave your mark. I’ve read a great many books lately about how we do that, but this picture book is one of the very few that gives the why. Beautifully.

Another book for today: A History of America in Ten Strikes by Erik Loomis:

This book focuses on ten major strikes in American history to tell the story of the United States through an emphasis on class and worker struggle. Combined, they weave a tale of a nation that promised life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but that routinely denied that to workers, whether slave or free, men or women, black or white. They tell a story of nation divided by race, gender, and national origin, as well as by class. They place work at the center of American history. This book sees the struggles for the dignity of workers, the rights of people of color, and the need to fight racism, misogyny, and homophobia as part of the same struggle.

Independence Day!

From two speeches by Carl Schurz, a German-born immigrant to America who became a Union general, Senator, and Secretary of the Interior.

As its advocate I speak to you. I will speak of Americanism as the great representative of the reformatory age, as the great champion of the dignity of human nature, as the great repository of the last hopes of suffering mankind. I will speak of the ideal mission of this country and of this people.

You may tell me that these views are visionary, that the destiny of this country is less exalted, that the American people are less great than I think they are or ought to be. I answer, ideals are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands. But like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you will reach your destiny. I invite you to ascend with me the watchtower of history, overlooking the grand panorama of the development of human affairs, in which the American Republic stands in so bold and prominent relief.

From his speech True Americanism, given in Boston in 1859.


I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves too clear-headed not to appreciate the vital difference between the expansion of the Republic and its free institutions over contiguous territory and kindred populations, which we all gladly welcome if accomplished peaceably and honorably—and imperialism which reaches out for distant lands to be ruled as subject provinces; too intelligent not to perceive that our very first step on the road of imperialism has been a betrayal of the fundamental principles of democracy, followed by disaster and disgrace; too enlightened not to understand that a monarchy may do such things and still remain a strong monarchy, while a democracy cannot do them and still remain a democracy; too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: “Our country, right or wrong!” They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: “Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.”

From his speech The Policy of Imperialism, given at the Anti-imperialistic Conference in Chicago, Oct. 17, 1899.

Juneteenth 2023: Cooperatives

A year has passed since my first Juneteenth post. I still don’t know what specifically happened to the African American farmer cooperatives of Colleton County, South Carolina, but for today we can look more broadly at the examples of cooperatives after the Civil War.

Today I purchased the book Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice by Jessica Gordon Nembhard. Quoting from an essay by Dr. Nembhard and her daughter Susan Nembhard,

When we closely examine African American history, we find the common phenomenon that even when Blacks have struggled to find employment, or have been discriminated against and oppressed at work, they have engaged in economic cooperation and solidarity. By cooperation we mean the founding of worker and consumer cooperatives – enterprises that are owned and democratically self-managed by their own workers or by the local community of consumers, not by a detached board and shroud of faceless profit-seeking shareholders. Though little-known and under-discussed even within radical circles, the Black cooperative movement in the US is one of the oldest and most successful examples of solidarity economy practices in the country. From the times of slavery through to Reconstruction, the civil rights era, and the present day, Black people have built up a solidarity economy in order to consolidate a base of material resources that placed real economic power directly in the hands of working-class Black people. Often, then and now, these have formed the economic backbone of the Black struggle for freedom against racial oppression.

The African American cooperative movement has been a mostly silent partner of the Long Civil Rights Movement in the US – throughout the struggle for Black liberation, activism for political, legal, and social rights was supported by demands for economic justice and cooperative economic practices. Early on African Americans realized that without economic justice – without equality, independence, stability, and prosperity for all – social and political rights were hollow, or not even achievable at all. In an editorial in 1933, W.E.B. Du Bois summed up the power of a cooperative economy for a subaltern population:

 …we can by consumers and producers’ cooperation…establish a progressively self-supporting economy that will weld the majority of our people into an impregnable, economic phalanx.

Look for a review of Collective Courage here in a few weeks.

Memorial Day 2023

Memorial marker for Lt. John R. Fox

When directing artillery fire, using the phrase “danger close” signifies that the desired target for the fire is close to friendly forces, possibly including the artillery observer — and that the observer is aware of that fact. The distance for a strike to be considered “danger close” varies with the type of weapon, but for artillery it’s at minimum 600 meters. The point of the phrase, of course, is to acknowledge that the request is dangerous but not suicidal.

Calling a strike directly on one’s own position is an evocative act. As a former artillery office put it on Quora: “People who called in artillery, or gunships, or aerial bombs on their own position have been noted to have received EITHER a posthumous Medal of Honor OR… considered to be foolish and excitable at their funerals.” And that makes sense; trying to live to fight another day is better than a heroic sacrifice that accomplishes little.

Of course, some times living to fight another day is not in the cards. Lieutenant John R. Fox found himself in such a position in Sommocolonia, Italy, on 26 December 1944. A group of U.S. soldiers were dug in defending the village against an overwhelming force of the Wehrmacht. Lt. Fox directed artillery fire against the attackers, but eventually his position was about to get overrun with no chance of Fox being allowed to be captured. Consequently, he called down fire on his own position.

As it happened, one of Fox’s best friends, Maj. Otis Zachary, was the gunner. Zachary refused Fox’s request until a colonel ordered that the fire proceed.

After the battle, the villagers were rounded up and made to leave the village. Their priest recalled seeing Fox’s body surrounded by the corpses of a hundred attackers.

Instant Medal of Honor? Not so much:

Medal of Honor Recipient John R. Fox

Like many African American soldiers, Lt. Fox’s sacrifice was not recognized at the time. The “Buffalo Soldiers” were, after all, just expected to melt away. Formal desegregation of the army wouldn’t happen for another four years.  It took 38 years for him to be awarded a Distinguished Service Medal; 53 to get the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The villagers of Sommocolonia had long acknowledged the sacrifice of the U.S. soldiers in defense of their town, but had it not been for the efforts of the survivors and families of the soldiers, as well as that of author Solace Wales, Lt. Fox may not have been remembered at all.

Remembrance is not a passive act. It takes time and effort to remember, especially of the things that for whatever reasons of prejudice were discounted or intentional forgotten.

On this Memorial Day, remember — actively.

Presidents’ Day 2023

As of the writing of this post, Jimmy Carter is at home receiving hospice care. However many hours, days, or weeks are left to him, he can rest assured of near-universal acclaim for having conducted the best post-presidency in the modern era.

A United States President nowadays commands awesome power, including quite literally the ability to instigate the end of civilization as we know it. That that power is wielded by a democratically elected official who can count on being held in contempt by a portion of the electorate is an irony of the modern age. Carter was of course not immune to that: Marlene recalls working as a librarian the 1980s and being asked for Rosalynn Carter memoir First Lady from Plains by a slightly different title: “First Lady Complains”.

Presidential power is not the domain of a Superman single-handedly changing the world; many hands are involved. What the President can do at best is to inspire, to lead, to exemplify, to cajole, to persuade, but almost never to directly do. Carter exemplified some of the best of that indirectness. Let us consider a few incidents.

Carter survived Admiral Hyman RIckover’s job interview – undoubtedly one of the toughest anywhere in the world – to serve in the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarine service. In 1952, an experimental nuclear reactor in Ontario, Canada, the Chalk River NRX, suffered a partial meltdown that resulted in a radioactive mess. The cleanup took 14 months, and since the NRX was being used to test fuel for U.S. nuclear submarines, Canada invited the U.S. Navy to provide men to assist with the cleanup (and to supplement the Canadian reactor staff, many of whom were reaching their legal radiation exposure limits). Rickover, seeing an excellent training opportunity, sent them over, including a team led by Carter.

Carter’s team was responsible for performing some of the disassembly of parts of the reactor and had to move quickly. According to his memoirs, they had about 90 seconds apiece to do their work before reaching the maximum permitted exposure. They came, they planned, they did their work, and went back home. While it left an impression on Carter – having to test your urine for six months before it stopped registering as radioactive tends to do that to a person – the tale subsequently grew in the telling (by others). Some accounts published in recent years might give one the impression that he saved Ottawa (which wasn’t in danger) by personally leading the entire cleanup effort (he was responsible for just one team consisting of between one and dozen men as part of a much larger operation run by the Canadians). But Carter himself had a more accurate perspective: he did his duty bravely, as many others did, and ensured that the men he led did theirs.

One of Carter’s signature accomplishments during his presidency was the signing of the Camp David Accords that normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt. This time, Carter personally chivvied the negotiations along, including taking Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin on a tour of the Gettysburg battlefield to ponder the cost of war. While the Accords did not achieve all that Carter hoped for, as he had tried to get Syria and Jordan to participate, they led to a peace between Israel and Egypt that remains unbroken.

However, Carter’s best legacy may ultimately have nothing to do with nuclear power or high diplomacy. In fact, that legacy may be marked by an absence: specifically, that of Dracunculus medinensis, i.e., the guinea worm. In 1986, Carter’s foundation started an effort to eradicate the guinea worm. This project is the epitome of a group effort using boring means to achieve its aim. An eradication program inherently involves many international and national health agencies, and guinea worms do not lend themselves to extinction by the heroic efforts of genius medical research. Instead, the weapons are education, water filters, and patience. But nearly 40 years of patience can be enough: there were about 3.5 million cases of guinea worm disease in 1986. Last year, there were about 13.

Carter likely will not live to hear the World Health Organization’s proclamation of the end of the disease – but he can rest easy knowing that his efforts will outlive him and achieve a permanent solution to a major problem; the sort of legacy not every U.S. President is accorded.

New Year’s Day 2023 (observed): You are the New Day

Sometimes the obvious thing is obvious because it is good. One obvious thing: if you are at involved in high school chorus in the U.S., you will run into the King’s Singers and their cover of “You are the New Day” by John David:

I was no exception lo these many years ago. David’s secular hymn still sticks in my mind, even as time marches on. Alas, I just learned that the high school music teacher who introduced me to it passed on early in 2022.

I wish you all a happy new day and new year, and leave you with the original version by the Airwaves:

I will love you more than me and more than yesterday
if you can but prove to me you are the new day.

Send the sun in time for dawn, let the birds all hail the morning.
Love of life will urge me say, you are the new day.

When I lay me down at night, knowing we must pay,
thoughts occur that this night might stay yesterday.

Thoughts that we as humans small could slow worlds and end it all
lie around me where they fall, before the new day.

One more day when time is running out for ev’ryone,
like a breath I knew would come, I reach for a new day.

Hope is my philosophy, just needs days in which to be,
love of life means hope for me, born on a new day.

Boxing Day 2022 and the detection of tsunamis

‘Poetry’s unnat’ral; no man ever talked poetry ‘cept a beadle on boxin’-day, or Warren’s blackin’, or Rowland’s oil, or some of them low fellows; never you let yourself down to talk poetry, my boy. Begin agin, Sammy.’

On this Boxing Day, I will take the advice of Mr. Weller from the Pickwick Papers and not deliver even a single stave of poetry. Instead, I’ll focus on the natural topic of the day: early warning systems for tsunamis.

The earthquake and tsunami of 2004 in the Indian Ocean took place on December 26th and thus is also known as the “Boxing Day Tsunami”. It killed roughly 230,000 people, making it one of the worst natural disasters of all time.

The epicenter of the earthquake was off the northwestern coast of Sumatra in Indonesia. The resulting tsunami hit coastlines throughout the Indian Ocean, with. Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand suffering the most loss of life.

While it took the tsunami between 15 minutes and several hours to reach various coastlines, unfortunately, most areas had little or no warning that it was coming. A few communities benefited from local knowledge of past tsunamis (or from schoolchildren who happened to remember their geology classes) and evacuated their beaches, but there was no system for detecting tsunamis and broadcasting warnings that covered the Indian Ocean. (And unlike the Pacific Ocean, tsunamis are not particularly common in the Indian Ocean).

Needless to say, after 2004 there were a lot of international efforts to set up a warning system.

Representation of a tsunami detection and warning system. Image credit: GITWES

UNESCO’s Indian Ocean Tsunami Information Center‘s website describes the warning infrastructure that has been put in place since 2004.  As of today, the three centers of the system (or Tsunami Service Providers (!)) are in Australia, India, and Indonesia. A combination of sensors, 24/7 operations centers, procedures, bureaucracy, and exercises have improved the chances that a tsunami will be detected and warnings relayed in enough time to allow people to flee to higher ground.

And yet: it is a hard problem to not only detect tsunamis but to keep up the effort year after year. The 2018 earthquake and tsunami in Sulawesi, Indonesia killed about 4,400 people. While the the Indonesian meteorological agency (BMKG) did issue warnings, a number of problems led to fewer people actually getting the warning than planned. These problems included:

A lot more to do, clearly, and I hope that the people of Indonesia will be better served in the future. However, I want to emphasize that this is a difficult problem: laying all the blame on the BMKG would ignore a lot of structural factors.

Let conclude by circling back to Boxing Day. Traditionally it includes distributing alms to the poor; certainly, when the next tsunami disaster occurs, donating to relief funds would be a good thing to do. However, I can’t say I know where you could effectively donate to improve tsunami warning systems; it may not be the sort of problem that really lends itself to individual charitable giving.

Thanksgiving 2022

Galen here once again to wish you all a happy Thanksgiving. As was the case in 2018 and 2020, more cats have entered our lives. This time, it’s Luna (who likes bathroom sinks and has OPINIONS if you’re not petting her when required) and Tuna (who is a very sweet and very large lug of a kitty). Alas, this year also marked the passing of Freddie. Cats leave holes in our hearts when they pass; new cats do not fill those holes, not quite, but lay the groundwork for future holes — and yet I cannot imagine a life without them.

The reading for today is a small one: “The cat’s song” by Marge Piercy:

Mine, says the cat, putting out his paw of darkness.
My lover, my friend, my slave, my toy, says
the cat making on your chest his gesture of drawing

milk from his mother’s forgotten breasts.

Let us walk in the woods, says the cat.
I’ll teach you to read the tabloid of scents,
to fade into shadow, wait like a trap, to hunt.

Now I lay this plump warm mouse on your mat.

… the rest here

Veterans Day 2022

Cat on the HMAS Encounter sitting in a ship's gun barrel
The feline mascot of the Australian light cruiser HMAS Encounter during WW1

Since the beginning of armed conflict, soldiers have had to find small comforts where they could. Sometimes that comfort has come in the shape of cats and other furry pets.

Soldiers’ and sailors’ cats often had jobs — killing vermin, acting as mascots, and so forth — but as this piece by Nick Barnett put it,

Why does a soldier in the trenches make a pet of a cat? Sure, a playful cat can relieve boredom, and in a setting where hugs generally aren’t going to happen, it can provide a warm little body to cuddle.

Tucking a cat into the crook of your arm, feeding it, giving it life amid wreckage and danger, would have been a way of reminding themselves that there was reason for going home, and that they were still human.

That, to me, is the other great job – alongside the mousing – that cats have played in war zones. They’ve lifted men’s spirits and reminded them who they are.

On this Veteran’s Day 2022, we are 104 years past the end of the “war to end all wars” — that expression of a hope doomed to be left unfulfilled for the foreseeable future. Thus, cats still find themselves in war zones and in the care of soldiers, although nowadays the cats of war sometimes have Instagram accounts.

Of course, the cats are not the center of any war — just a sideshow, really. Give a thought to those who have found themselves in war, that uniquely inhumane yet all-too-human circumstance.

Also, Слава Україні!

Labor Day 2022

Luna supervising the production of this very blog post

I think that Labor Day can be a slightly ambiguous holiday for a computer technologist such as myself.

On the one hand, although I am not a member of a labor union and my profession infamously resists being organized, I enjoy many of the benefits of past union efforts, including the weekend and subsidized health insurance. I was not forced to work as a child, nor could I have been legally employed as one, and I have recourse if I were to lose my job.

On the other hand, one of the points of computers is that they can perform certain kinds of tasks more quickly than any human could. This often gives people the opportunity to do more interesting work and promotes economic growth. In my particular niche, library automation, the computer taking care of the recording of checkouts means that fewer people are needed to do things like send out overdue notices, in principle freeing up staff time to do more interesting things like run children’s story hour.

Now, new technology does not inevitably mean that the robots instantly take over all the jobs. While on the face of it ATMs are an obvious threat to a bank teller’s job, between 1970 and 2010 the number of bank tellers actually increased. Why? While fewer tellers were needed per branch, banks had various reasons to open a lot more branches (which nowadays are largely sales offices that somewhat grudgingly also accept small business deposits and convert coins into more useful cash). But with the rise of mobile banking and the decline in number of branch banks as the industry consolidates, the prospect for bank teller employment is looking grim.

However, sometimes the robots really do quickly take over. When’s the last time you’ve encountered an elevator operator?

Let’s get back to libraries. Computers have allowed the creation and maintenance of big global databases that gather together the efforts of lots of library catalogers. Let’s say your public library just received a box of the latest James Patterson novel and needs to get it into their catalog. It’s been decades since your library — and each and every one of its 9,000 peers in the U.S. — had to enter the record from scratch and figure out what subject headings to assign. Grabbing a record from one of those big databases and adapting it (or not) suffices. Thus, you don’t need a full time professional cataloger in each and every library because technology facilitates sharing the work. There’s still a lot to be done with library metadata, so library cataloging (viewed broadly) isn’t about to disappear.

However, that can be cold comfort to somebody whose job actually does disappear or gets radically changed because of a new computer system. Computerization, if nothing else, leads to change. Sometimes that change is good, but often it is indifferent or negative for somebody who just wants to work their way to a dignified retirement.

Thus, the ambiguity: computerization doesn’t necessarily lead to destroying entire occupations (though sometimes it does), but it is often the cause of change, or at least the avatar of it. And that means that the computer technologist is sometimes not the friend of labor, whatever other public benefits their work may provide.

Some reading:

  • Erik Loomis is a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island. Sometimes frustrating, but always interesting, he regularly blogs at Lawyers, Guns, and Money. I recommend his “Erik Visit an American Grave” series.
  • Barbara Ehrenreich passed away this week. Her book Nickel and Dimed remains essential.