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The Secret Sign Language of 1970’s Sawmill Workers were expressed through Gestures?

About three-quarters of their language overlapped with those of the British Columbia and the American Sign Language.

A sawmill in the interior of Australia, circa 1900. Image source: Wikipedia
  • The history of sign languages inside American mills dates back to centuries
  • The language was also used to exchange bulks of technical information and instructions
  • The automation in industries drastically reduced the usage of sign languages among workers

“You crazy old farmer!”
“Full of crap”
It’ll be easy for anyone to guess that the above words must be that of a conversation between two high school hipster kids. However, pondering over the usage of ‘farmer’ would surprise many of us like it surprised the researchers Martin Meissner and Stuart Philpott when they visited sawmills in British Columbia in the 1970s.

Another fact of surprise is that the above words were not spoken by the mouth, but expressed through gestures and sign languages. As unbelievable as it might seem, the workers inside sawmill factories communicated with each other through signs and symbols as late as the 1970s. They were so well versed in the system that one could even tell when a foreman was “f**king around over there.” Not only this, the language was also used to exchange bulks of technical information and instructions on how to cut wood, and so on.

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Linguists and researchers Meissner and Philpott studied a particular factory where they found about 157 signs ranging from communication of their trade work to passing crude comments or teasing colleagues. “Ingenuity and elegance” of the hand signs struck both the researchers who were equally fascinated by the owner’s oblivion of the entire language system.

The history of sign languages inside American mills dates back to centuries. In the present day scenario, people often develop “alternate sign languages” to communicate what words cannot. In religious places, especially monasteries were talking is disliked between sermons, monks use sign language to pass important messages. In textile, steel or engine industries where noise predominates the surrounding, workers have always found ways of communicating through gestures or signs.

A lumber Industry. Image source: Wikipedia
A lumber Industry. Image source: Wikipedia

It was Popular Mechanics in 1955 to cover industrial symbolic languages with a record depletion in the practice. It was only in the 1970s with the findings of Meissner and Philpott that a particular factory was found to be practising the same. Mainly standard numerical systems were jotted down in a technical notebook, as the researchers noted in their study, “in the view of the management, that was about all there was to the language.”

Through the system, quitting time, lunch time, bets placed on games, or cigarette breaks could be communicated. The workers also talked about cars, wives, colleagues or joke about things going on without the knowledge of their bosses.

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“Big shot there,” as a worker pointed to the boss was interestingly noted during the study. Later, it was discovered that the boss was sitting with three women, one of who had a great figure, said the worker. The worker “then drew a rectangle with his index finger and pointed to the head sawyer’s operating cubicle, wanting to liken the woman he described to the calendar nude behind the sawyer,” the researchers wrote. “She’s my girlfriend,” he told the others.

Tapping the wrist was a gesture to ask the time, clutching the bicep to indicate “weak” or “week”, up-and-down movement suggested a woman’s breast, recorded the researchers.
The technical signs were generally learnt by workers within six months but to learn more linguistic terms for everyday conversations, was more the kind of thing among older workers. It was popular among men who were open to everyone knowing what they shared with their friends.

Machines replaced workers. Early 20th-century sawmill, maintained at Jerome, Arizona. Image source: Wikipedia
Machines replaced workers. Early 20th-century sawmill, maintained at Jerome, Arizona. Image source: Wikipedia

About three-quarters of their language overlapped with those of the British Columbia and the American Sign Language. Another linguist, Robert Johnson met a retired sawmill worker at Oregon a few years after Meissner and Philpott published their research. “When it comes to feelings, you have real problems…You can say you’re angry…But other feelings are so subtle and complex….”, says the wife of the retired worker who had gone deaf and used to communicate with his family through the sign language. The family had signs for mirror, shave, quiet, fish, church, etc. In case of difficulty in expressing emotions, his wife asked him to simply write down what he wanted to say.

During their study, Meissner and Philpott had observed that automation in industries drastically reduced the usage of sign languages among workers. Despite the practice of using sign languages in less noisy industries like those in radio stations, the system is rare to be found today.

-by Maariyah, an intern at NewsGram. Twitter: @MaariyahSid


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Microsoft Lays Off News Production Workers; Replace Them With AI

A report suggests that Microsoft has cut off its editorial staff and replaced them with AI

Microsoft cuts off staff and replaces them with artificial intelligence. Pxabay

Microsoft is reportedly laying off at least 50 news production workers and replacing them with artificial intelligence (AI)-based algorithms to perform their editorial duties.

According to a report in the Seattle Times on Saturday, the roughly 50 employees contracted through staffing agencies Aquent, IFG and MAQ Consulting have been notified “that their services would no longer be needed beyond June 30”.

These news production contractors work with Microsoft News, the company’s news content arm that operates MSN.com and other properties.

A Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement that like all companies, they evaluate business on a regular basis.

“This can result in increased investment in some places and, from time to time, redeployment in others. These decisions are not the result of the current pandemic,” said the Microsoft spokesperson.

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All the work, duty and tasks of the workers will be performed by AI. Pixabay

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Some employees told Seattle Times that “MSN will use AI to replace the production work they’d been doing”.

The work includes using algorithms to identify trending news stories from dozens of publishing partners, rewrite headlines or adding better photographs or slide shows.

Besides the production work, the contract employees also planned content, maintained the editorial calendars of partner news websites and assigned content to them. (IANS)

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40.7 Million American Workers Seek Unemployment Benefits

Unemployment has increased worldwide as bussinesses remain shut due to COVID-19 pandemic

People who lost their jobs are reflected in the door of an Arkansas Workforce Center as they wait in line to file for unemployment following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Fort Smith, Arkansas. VOA
By Ken Bredemeier


Applications for unemployment compensation eased again in the U.S. last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday, as some employers started to reopen businesses after the coronavirus pandemic forced their closure.

Even so, another 2.1 million more workers sought cash benefits after being laid off as other businesses curtailed their operations in the face of the continuing threat from the virus and less demand for their products.

In all, since mid-March, 40.7 million workers have now sought unemployment compensation, nearly a quarter of the U.S. labor force of more than 164 million.

However, the current actual number of jobless workers is unknown since some who sought unemployment benefits in previous weeks have now been called back to work by their employers. All 50 state governors have begun to ease restrictions on businesses opening in a patch-work array of directives that varies widely throughout the country.

The U.S. death toll from the virus topped 100,000 on Wednesday and health experts predict tens of thousands more will die in the coming months. But President Donald Trump, facing a November re-election contest against former Vice President Joe Biden, is predicting the country will have a robust economic recovery.

“States should open up ASAP,” Trump said on Twitter this week as the stock indexes advanced sharply. “The Transition to Greatness has started, ahead of schedule. There will be ups and downs, but next year will be one of the best ever!”

But the coronavirus has had a major effect on U.S. commerce, with 27 companies already filing for bankruptcy protection in May and some companies announcing they were closing permanently.

The official April unemployment rate was 14.7%, with Trump economic advisers acknowledging that the May figure, when it is announced in early June, is likely to be 20% or more. They say the rate could remain in double digits on Election Day Nov. 3 and could still be about 10% at the end of 2021.

White House chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow talks to reporters. VOA

The government at first said the national economy dropped 4.8% in the first quarter, but that was before the full impact of the pandemic became apparent. It raised the figure to 5% on Thursday and economists expect a further decline in the April-to-June quarter.

Larry Kudlow, director of the White House National Economic Council, told the Washington Post recently that there are some “small glimmers of hope” in the economy. But he also acknowledged the ongoing difficulties the coronavirus pandemic poses to the world’s largest economy.

“Look, it’s really hard to model a virus, a pandemic, the likes of which we have not seen for 100 years,” Kudlow said. “The numbers coming in are not good. In fact, they are downright bad in most cases. But we are seeing some glimmers, perhaps … there’s a lot of heartbreak here. There’s a lot of hardship here. There’s a lot of anxiety here. It’s a very difficult situation.”

Numerous states still require social distancing of at least two meters between people in stores and some major retail outlets are requiring their employees and customers to wear face masks. Some governors are limiting restaurants to half capacity.

But in other states, the restrictions have been significantly lifted and crowds have quickly emerged to resume life, shopping or enjoying a day at Atlantic and Pacific beaches, often ignoring the admonitions of health experts to maintain a safe distance from others or to wear a face mask.

Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell has warned that the American economy could endure a multi-year recession if more aid is not authorized for workers. He said that 40% of American households earning less than $40,000 a year lost jobs in March.

In a few states, the restrictions have been significantly lifted. VOA

But Trump and Republican lawmakers are balking at approving more government assistance until it can be determined how much effect the already-approved funding is helping the economy.

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U.S. workers filing for jobless benefits normally are paid slightly less than half their normal salaries. But these payments are currently being augmented during the pandemic with $600-a-week supplements from the federal government for four months, through July.

The peak of the unemployment benefit claims likely came in late March with 6.9 million workers filing for the jobless compensation.

The weekly pace of claims has diminished each of the last 10 weeks since then, but the millions of claims have still been unparalleled over decades of U.S. economic history, reaching back to the Great Depression in the 1930s. The number of claims has far exceeded those made during the Great Recession in 2008-2009. (VOA)

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NASA, SpaceX Postpone Historic Astronauts Launch Due to Bad Weather

The launch was delayed due to unfavourable weather in the flight path according to SpaceX

astronaut NASA
NASA and SpaceX postponed historic launch of two astronauts to space. Pixabay

NASA and SpaceX postponed historic launch of two astronauts to space from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday due to bad weather.

“Due to the weather conditions, the launch is scrubbing,” NASA tweeted, Xinhua reported.

SpaceX said the launch was delayed due to unfavourable weather in the flight path.

The next launch opportunity is scheduled on Saturday, May 30. Pixabay

The next launch opportunity is scheduled on Saturday, May 30.

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will carry the Crew Dragon spacecraft and veteran NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station (ISS).

It will be the first time since 2011 that American astronauts launch on an American rocket from American soil to the ISS. (IANS)