Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
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Clay flowerpots


Here's Melody's art photo of the day. Taken with an LG cell phone.


What the seasons really are
Summer is when the days are getting shorter. Really!

Summer is when the days are getting shorter — really. It starts on the longest day of the year. The days then get shorter until the first day of winter.

Here's a handy chart:


In full:

Spring starts when the days become longer than the nights and continues until the longest day.

Summer starts on the longest day and continues until the days become shorter than the nights.

Fall starts when the days become shorter than the nights and continues until the shortest day.

Winter starts on the shortest day and continues until the days are as long as the nights.

These are the astronomical seasons, starting on equinoxes and solstices (about the 21st of the appropriate months). For some purposes the seasons are reckoned as starting at the beginning of the month, about three weeks earlier. And of course our weather lags behind the sunlight by several weeks, so the hottest weather comes about two months after the most sunlight.

None of this is affected by Daylight Saving Time.

Is it over?

This will be the last Georgia COVID graph that I share with you unless there are unexpected developments. It looks like COVID has almost died out, even after you consider that the drop in recent months is partly due to less reporting. The national graph is very similar to Georgia's.


A conspicuous reporting error in April 2022 has been blanked out here; you can see that part of the vertical grid line is missing.

Is COVID gone? No; people are still getting it; like flu, it's an illness you want to avoid spreading if you get it, so people are still told to stay home until they test negative. (Right now we have more than a dozen home COVID tests in our medicine cabinet, thanks to generous, even over-solicitous, insurance.) And, like flu, it can be serious if the victim has other health risks.

And we still lead a more solitary life than we used to, partly because everyone's habits have changed. The most conspicuous difference is that when I go on campus during the summer, I don't see UGA students; the place is very underpopulated; I think online courses have taken the place of summer school in many instances.



Today we celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation, which was proclaimed in many places, the last of which was Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865.

This CNN editorial points out three widespread misconceptions about slavery in America. Here's my take on them.

(1) That the slaves were completely free after 1865. Not by a long shot. They received a very poor kind of freedom, with oppressive economic arrangements, discrimination, and lower status that has still not been overcome.

Of course, for economic reasons, it was unavoidable that most of them didn't change jobs dramatically the moment emancipation was announced. But that's something that should have been overcome on a timescale of years, not centuries.

(2) That the Africans came to American with little cultural heritage of their own. False. They brought us everything from the banjo to animal stories (Br'er Rabbit), and even an early method of partly immunizing people against smallpox (apparently originally Middle Eastern and transmitted through Africa).

And they probably brought us much of the graciousness of Southern culture. On that point, African courtesy meshed well with pre-existing British culture. In fact, I wonder how much African culture made it to Britain too — such as the tradition of telling stories about talking animals. There had been no such thing in European literature except Aesop's Fables, which were not an ongoing genre. Is Br'er Rabbit (whose story is apparently ancient) a precursor of Beatrix Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia?

(3) That the slaves were kept down by the Christian religion. Quite the opposite — the Bible is where they heard so much about freedom and liberation! There were attempts to feed them a cut-down version of Christianity using "slave Bibles" that left out things like the liberation of the Israelites, but that didn't stick. They got the whole Christian message and thrived. In fact, to a remarkable extent, opposition to racism in modern society has Christian roots. Christians declared from earliest times that people's ethnicity didn't matter.

What was wrong with the Confederacy

The shameful thing about the Confederacy was slavery, not secession.

That is what northerners don't get, and why so many discussions of the Civil War talk past each other. It's also why Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, etc., ended up not being prosecuted for treason.

Those states seceded in order to preserve slavery. Many of them said so in their declarations of secession. That's what made it wrong. A state government seceding from the Union is not necessarily treason. It would be if the federal government ruled by some kind of divine right that states do not possess. But the federal government is not a kingdom. And remember that in the 1800s, western states were still coming in one by one, and the process by which a state joins the Union was very much on people's minds.

Suppose the Union had wanted to force legalization of slavery, and some states had wanted to secede in order to free their slaves. Would that have been treason?

But I do object to the violent nature of the secession. Reportedly, slave-owning states had been threatening "civil war" since about 1790 if the federal government tried to ban slavery. Civil war, rather than a negotiated political settlement? Was secession really just secession?

As a loyal citizen of the United States, I have no loyalty to the Confederacy, and resent the way that, as schoolchildren, people of my generation and region were taught to identify with the Confederacy as a matter of regional pride.


Father's Day, uh, surprise...

Adventure of the day — I've spent Father's Day nursing a backache! We will celebrate Father's Day tomorrow.

Yesterday evening I was patching concrete in the carport, kneeling down, and my lower back went into spasm and I couldn't get up! We seriously considered calling 911, but instead, Sharon helped me slowly and laboriously crawl into the house to my recliner chair and get into it, aided by a stepstool that she carried along. After about an hour's rest I was able to get around cautiously using a walker. (Thanks to Melody's history of hip problems, we have walkers and other helpful gadgets.) Today I can get around OK provided I avoid certain sudden movements, and life is returning to normal, but the concrete patching won't get finished for maybe a month.

I've had a similar back injury before and know the exercises to do — I just have to do them, quite a lot, for a long time, before I'll be able to trust my back.


I note the passing of Owen Gingerich, Harvard astronomer and historian of astronomy, famous for his expertise on Copernicus. He was a committed Christian like me and often spoke of the compatibility of faith and science. He said he believed in "intelligent design but not Intelligent Design," i.e., creation of the universe by the Creator but not according to any specific Intelligent Design theory presently on the table; he preferred to let the scientific evidence lead the way.

I never met Professor Gingerich but corresponded with him briefly about 15 years ago; I was planning a project to see if Andreas Osiander's anonymous preface to Copernicus was written in Osiander's own Latin style or in a style deliberately more like Copernicus's. I have an idea how to measure this: Latin, through its history, has had a huge number of different ways to mark subordinate clauses (infinitives, cum, ut, quod, quia, and many others). In Renaissance Latin, writers used all of them, showing off their mastery of all earlier Latin literature. But individuals must have different preferences, which can be studied quantitatively. And that's as far as I got, but I may get back to it. Anybody want a Latin stylometry project?

Closer to home, Grady Lacy, one of my mentors in high school, died just a few days ago. He was a professor of foreign languages at Valdosta State College, and I knew him through the Action Trav'lers youth travel club. He was a graduate of the University of Georgia with a master's degree in classics (Latin and Greek) with a thesis on an Egyptian Greek-language papyrus. (At one time his roommate was the legendary Tom Poss, whom I knew later.)

But Valdosta State did not offer Latin or Greek at the time, and somehow Grady was teaching French and German (and was also good at Spanish, and spoke all three with just a bit of a southern drawl). Whether Valdosta originally hired him to teach Latin and Greek, I don't know. Anyhow, he was a good role model for me showing the value and the possibility of learning several languages, and he was the only person with whom I could talk about classical philology while still in high school. All this was around 1972-73, though we kept in touch afterward. In the fall of 1973, fifty years ago, I arrived at the University of Georgia, planning also to major in classics, though I changed to linguistics after the first year.

[Added:] The specific thing for which Grady was a role model is that he showed that a person with the right inclination and talent could and should learn multiple foreign languages. In small-town Georgia, most adults, even teachers, took it for granted that a person couldn't really learn even one foreign language — they had not seen it done — and adults told me foreign languages were a waste of time since you can't earn money with them. They also were reluctant to believe I was really learning the languages, that (for instance) I could speak Spanish well enough to get along in Mexico for a couple of days without using English at all (which I did, while visiting an exchange student). Frankly, I think some xenophobic people were put off by hearing authentic Spanish coming out of my mouth. Those were the days...

May Owen's and Grady's memory be eternal.


On the eve of Trump's arrest

Today I have two commentaries of my own (also posted on Facebook) and a guest editorial from Melody.

A much-needed reality check

I seldom comment about politics, but here is a much-needed reality check.

I think there should be an investigation about risky or impermissible handling of secret documents by other high officials leaving office. Things need to be tightened up. If there was malice or deliberate deception, people need to be punished.

But Trump is not being prosecuted for the documents he willingly gave back (just the way Pence and Biden willingly gave documents back). Those documents are not part of the case.

Trump is being prosecuted for refusing to give documents back, showing documents to unauthorized people, hiding documents from their rightful owner (the government), and lying about documents.

He is, of course, innocent until proven guilty. Maybe he didn't do quite what is alleged. That's what the trial is for. But it makes no sense to say he did it and should get away with it — unless you think Trump is a higher power than the United States and ought to have what he wants despite the laws he's breaking. Some people talk as if that is indeed what they believe. It's nonsense.

How Trump voters should feel

If you voted for Trump, you should be disappointed and angry at him now. You didn't vote for documents to be mishandled, lied about, and shown to unauthorized people. You voted for a conservative platform that had nothing to do with all that. Trump has betrayed you and given conservatism a bad name.

If you are unable to feel angry at Trump — if you still feel that you owe him "loyalty" — then I beseech you to look into your soul and ask what kind of spell you are under. Is it really true that he could stand in Times Square and shoot people and get away with it? That sounds like something only the devil would say.

Trump has already been protected by the Grand Jury
By Melody Mauldin Covington, who has served on a Grand Jury in Georgia

I notice there’s a great deal of confusion right now, mostly coming from Donald Trump himself, when he says that he is being “persecuted” by the Special Prosecutor Jack Smith, by the Department of Justice, even by President Biden and others in our government. However, there has been something standing in the way, to protect former President Trump, that he may not be fully aware of. Those charges could not be brought until they had been voted on by a group of normal citizens called a Grand Jury.

Our Grand Jury system protects us all from overzealous law enforcement. When the appropriate law officer, usually called a District Attorney (or DA), wants to bring a citizen to trial for perceived wrongdoing, the DA must call together a group of local citizens to review the case to make sure that there is indeed enough evidence for the matter to go to trial. Grand Juries usually consist of 16 to 23 people and they meet once weekly for an entire morning, hearing case after case. Their term is for three months. There are both local and Federal Grand Juries. And as we have seen recently, there are both Charging Grand Juries and Investigative Grand Juries. But in all of these cases, the juries are composed of ordinary citizens who are serving their communities by offering their time and wisdom.

In the case of what Mr. Trump calls the “Boxes Hoax,” it sounds like the Special Prosecutor called a special Grand Jury. Or, perhaps, Mr. Smith was allowed to present to the current standing Federal Grand Jury. I’m not sure which is true — the important thing is that ordinary citizens have heard the evidence presented by Mr. Smith. After deliberating in private, they took a vote and said that, yes, there is enough evidence to go to trial. This is called a “True Bill.” If they had any doubts about the evidence they had heard they could have voted a “No Bill.” They voted a True Bill and tomorrow, Tuesday, June 13, 2023, Donald Trump will be formally indicted at the Miami-Dade Courthouse in Florida.

This is how Grand Juries protect us all from persecution.

I’m writing here today to ask you to keep an open mind and to think very clearly about what you are hearing and reading about this case. To say it has become politicized is an understatement. A great deal of the evidence the Grand Jury heard has already been reported by the news and we sometimes feel we should have a jury vote as well. We should remember that we haven’t heard all the evidence and we have not yet heard the defense. It’s only fair to wait and withhold our judgement.

But the last thing I want to leave you with is this: Those charges came from ordinary Florida citizens, not directly from Trump’s political enemies. If they had seemed unfounded, they would already have been filtered out.


Star Trek or Star Wars?

I am one of those who appreciate both Star Trek and Star Wars but am not a dedicated fan of either one. Some people like one of them much more than the other. Here are some thoughts that emerged from a conversation about why.

Many people don't realize that the two aren't very much alike. They originated at different times for different purposes.

Star Trek started in 1966 and appealed to people who were bored with the low intellectual level of American TV. It explores philosophical issues, usually one per episode, and could almost be described as a Western run by Stoic philosophers. It managed to encourage deep thinking while being completely unpretentious. People saw it as interesting, not highbrow. And that was a breath of fresh air.

Star Wars came out in 1977 and appealed to people who were tired of the pretentiousness and cynicism of 1960s-1970s drama. It was basically an entertaining story that was refreshingly free of cynicism — a positive movie in which life is worth living (and saving), heroism is an unambiguous virtue, and effort on behalf of a good cause pays off, and all of this is handled elaborately enough to entertain intelligent people.

Neither one has much to say about space travel, astronomy, or cosmology; for that you want 2001: A Space Odyssey. In their content, Star Trek envisions a more sophisticated future version of our own culture, while Star Wars resembles ancient mythology.

Star Trek and Star Wars grew more alike in the sequels, but originally, they were so different that it's almost surprising that so many people are fans of both. Yet each was a breath of fresh air at the time, and each upheld virtues about which other people were cynical. May they both live long and prosper.

How old is artificial intelligence?

Having retired from the Institute for Artificial Intelligence ten years ago, I'm startled to see people saying that AI is a new invention and that some recent researcher or entrepreneur invented it. Here's some background.

Artificial intelligence is not something that was invented (or "achieved") last month or last year.

Artificial intelligence is a wide range of computing technologies that are derived, one way or another, from the study of human thought. Serious AI research and many fundamental concepts go back more than 50 years. Turing's famous paper is dated 1950. Since then, mostly, we've been waiting for computer power and access to big data. That's why we've seen big performance increases recently.

Artificial intelligence does not mean the computers are consciously thinking for themselves. That is as fictional as the Star Trek transporter (which is also not a real machine, although not everyong realizes that!). Rather, artificial intelligence is yielding a set of powerful tools to help us do mental tasks, extending computers beyond routine calculation.

I get confused when I see people being hailed as creators or inventors of AI, who have been active only 10 or 15 years. It's a lot older than that. Including neural networks, which were proposed by Turing in 1948 based on neuropsychological theories from the 1890s.

Oral examinations

I just helped conduct an oral comprehensive exam for a UGA graduate student (who passed with flying colors). Some thoughts about oral comprehensive exams:

  • Borderline cases are, in my experience, rare, Almost everyone clearly passes. If we don't think you're ready for the exam, we'll tell you beforehand.
  • We do these exams partly to find out how well we are teaching.
  • We are certainly going to ask you a question you can't answer. We're probing for the limits of your knowledge.
  • We'd much rather hear you say "I don't know" than be given blarney. Knowing that you don't know something is a sign of intelligence. Let us move on to another question.
  • The biggest thing I look for is evidence that the student remembers all of the courses and has put the knowledge together into a coherent whole.

Forgiveness and business ethics

A point of ethics that will interest my fellow Christians and also others:

On LinkedIn, a colleague said, in essence, "Someone did something seriously unethical to me in the workplace (that affected the trustworthiness of his work, not just a personal offense). He apologized and I forgave him and moved on. Now he wants me to recommend him for a job. I don't want to."

Some replied, "So you didn't really forgive him."

I replied: "On the contrary, you're right not to recommend him. Even after forgiving him, you cannot lie. You cannot say his behavior has always been ethical and trustworthy when it hasn't. He shouldn't want you for a recommender, precisely because people might ask you about the incident and you would have to answer truthfully."

Forgiving something means you will no longer exact a penalty for it. It doesn't mean saying it wasn't wrong. On the contrary, it's like absorbing a debt; it implies a real debt to account for. Forgiveness certainly does not mean you have to falsify facts or condone or facilitate future misbehavior.

(I added later that I'm not talking about "keeping a potentially-useful-dirt file." I consider doing that to be seriously unethical. If you have "dirt" on someone, take it to the proper authorities right away; don't keep it for possible future use; that's essentially blackmail. But do preserve records of unethical behavior incidents that have been handled, even if personally forgiven, because there may be good reasons that the information is needed in the future.)


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