Friday LENs

Likeable, Enlightening, or Delightfully Nuts. When I can tell the difference…. 


– National character. John le Carre wrote that a nation’s character is reflected through its intelligence services.  So the difference between the UK and the USA is something like the difference between James Bond and Bill Donovan?

He may be on to something there… Still, I would vote for vacationing habits, if I had to pick a single indicator of national character. Americans stress out over their 10 working days (or less) of vacation per year, and still manage to spend a great deal of their vacation time working instead of refreshing.

Other societies seem to show a more flexible attitude. An Austrian friend of ours worked in the US for a few years, and couldn’t understand how we could function properly with fewer than seven or eight weeks of time off.  The way he saw it, work is just fine, but if you are living in the US there are many other interesting things to see and do, right?  He has a point, but try explaining that to many of the people who live here….

French business activity during August? Forget about it. When it’s hot, what civilized society would work?

Still, my favorite approach to vacationing is that taken by Canadians. They do not go overboard. There is just over one national long weekend per month.  That may not be a lot of time, but it goes a long way to break up the routine of five-days-on and two-days-off.  In the US we have a couple of stretches without long weekends – between Martin Luther King Day (January) and Memorial Day (May), and the brutal long-weekendless US summer, stretching from July 4 to a funereal Labor Day (September) weekend marking the unofficial end of summer, and start of the school year.

The most evocative part of the Canadian system may be that of the Canadian weekends is really unnamed – the August long weekend simply called the “Civic Holiday.” Down here, we wouldn’t be able to accept that there is a Holiday With No Name. But in Canada it’s OK – taking the time off is what counts.

– Ohio State Science Day 2017. The organizers and students always do a nice job at this event, held every year at the Ohio State field house in early May. Our friend Bob Kroshefsky organizes judging for one of the awards, so Joan and I go down to help out. There is always a diverse range of projects, from students helping university research efforts to “garage” projects in which students work with a few dollars and what can be found around the house. All of the projects I saw this year were very good (making judging difficult), but “garage” projects do show an extra ingenuity. There is something quintessentially American about crafting a colorimeter from Legos and discarded LEDs for seven bucks, or creating a crude calorimeter from an aluminum soda can and a candle.  It’s worth the trip, just to see that kind of stuff.

– Speaking of American. Ronald White Jr. has produced two very interesting books about Ulysses S. Grant, and Abraham Lincoln. The tasks are different: in Grant’s case to help complete the rehabilitation of a truly great American, and in Lincoln’s case to assist in de-mythologizing Lincoln, without demeaning him. He pulls it off in both cases. Grant is remarkably misunderstood to this day. A sensitive and modest person who didn’t particularly want to be a general, and certainly didn’t want to be president, he had two capabilities very rarely combined in one person: to see the other person’s viewpoint, and to relentless pursue actions and policy based on principle. So it was one person who expertly executed Civil War campaigns that were nonetheless highly destructive of life and property; offered generous terms to his enemies at Appomattox; proposed liberal policies towards Native and African Americans as president; and trusted his friends and acquaintances implicitly (with mixed results).

In Lincoln’s case everyone already thinks he is was a great president, so the job is a little different. Even with all of the books written on the 16th president, White manages to emphasize some new features that illuminate Lincoln’s personality and evolution. Lincoln was a man who read slowly and out loud, avoided office cleaning to the point that plants would often take root between the floorboards, was indifferent to his appearance regardless of the occasion, and was not the natural master of rhetoric we’ve read about – his views iterated, and sometimes waffled. In a way, showing that Lincoln didn’t come by everything naturally makes his ultimate accomplishments even more impressive.

-Speaking of holidays – if you’re in the US enjoy the long Memorial Day weekend.


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