Tag Archives: Roger W. Smith

generic writing (or how to say nothing in 430 plus words)

 

Reflections on This Moment

This is an unprecedented moment in our history; we all feel it. The pandemic continues to be deeply challenging for everyone, and tragic for too many. Now, the horrifying death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the protests that have followed are weighing heavily on all our minds. COVID-19 has magnified and exposed our most deeply embedded failings and fault lines. We stand with the Black community, our hearts aching for a country so divided by racial injustice, arrogance, and hatred. It’s hard not to be sad, not to be angry, and to remain hopeful.

In the face of cruelty, fear, and anxiety, we need to search for what we can still hold on to, what we can still believe in. We can all be proud that the mission of the Library—to educate, welcome and respect all perspectives, convene safe and productive conversations, and offer opportunity to all—directly combats divisiveness, ignorance, hate, and racism. It is and remains our founding idea: that everyone can learn and contribute, and must be respected. And in learning about others we learn about ourselves and hopefully find ways to live together, to embrace and better understand each other.

Our varied backgrounds and experiences within our city and society are our greatest source of strength: bringing new ideas and perspectives, teaching empathy, and shining a light on how we falter. But not if we close our eyes and ears to the lessons of diversity, rejecting the validity and equal value of experiences and lives other than our own. When we fail as a society to respect learning and each other, we become inhumane and untold tragedy follows.

We all have a responsibility to actively participate in our democracy as informed citizens, to collectively refine, demand, and enact justice. Educating ourselves further about the legacy of racial injustice in this country is a key piece of this.

The Library, your Library, is committed to enabling that learning. We will offer every tool, book, and collection we can, welcome and serve all, and encourage all to respect each other, learn together and from one another. All the accumulated knowledge we hold reminds us that we are capable, yes, of horror, but on balance, we are still capable together of imagining and achieving better.

For 125 years, whether in person or for now only online, we have led the fight against ignorance to support understanding, empathy, and solidarity. In this difficult moment, we reinforce our mission, and stand with all of our communities against injustice and racism.

Thank you, and please stay safe.

Yours,

Tony

Anthony W. Marx

President, The New York Public Library

June 1, 2020

 

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I am a devoted New York Public Library patron.

This message came in the form of an email.

I was hoping that Mr. Marx might say something about library services and plans for or the possibility of reopening.

If I may be permitted to do so, I ask what has Mr. Marx said here? Perhaps we have had similar thoughts in our private musings. But what is his purpose in writing this message? To library supporters and patrons. What has he said that might affect our views on anything one way or the other? And what does any of this have to do with the library, or Mr. Marx’s role as its president?

 

posted by Roger W. Smith

   June 1, 2020

 

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addendum, June 2

There have been similar posts this evening from other cultural institutions in the City such as the Park Avenue Armory and Queens Public Library.

It has occurred to me that what Mr. Marx and the other executives of these institutions are doing amounts to preening. They are using the tragic death of George Floyd to get credit for THEMSELVES and perhaps increased support for their institutions. Should I, should I be so inclined, put a post here stating the obvious: that I am greatly distressed about George Floyd’s death — to perhaps show myself in a good light as someone who cares? Should I, could I afford it, take out an advisement in a newspaper for the same purpose? What would the point be? All decent people feel the same way. Should I tell everyone that I do? Do they need to hear that? Would it do them good to hear it?

 

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addendum, June 10

 

The following are recent messages sent by email to alumni and members of the Brandeis University community by Brandeis University President Ronald D. Liebowitz.

 

June 1, 2020

Dear Members of the Brandeis Community,

George Floyd’s killing was cruel, inhumane, and contemptible. The injustice of violence against black people must stop.

The history of our great university is intertwined with the pursuit of justice. Brandeis was created in response to antisemitism and bigotry. We cannot tolerate discrimination, hatred, or violence against another person based on their race, religion, or background. These values are as important today as they were at our founding.

These are not just words or noble ideas. These are principles that inspire us at Brandeis to educate, to learn, and to act.

With that in mind, I join with Mark Brimhall-Vargas, chief diversity officer, in calling for us to come together, even if virtually. In the message Mark sent on Friday, he mentioned two different events happening this week. The Heller School is hosting a conference, “Co-Constructing Racial Justice through Life and Work.” And Mark will host “Coming Together to Face Systemic Racism.” I hope you will join me in attending both.

As Brandeisians, not all of our experiences are shared ones. We come from different backgrounds and have different perspectives. But I know that there are some things we have in common. This includes an unwavering commitment to justice, equity, and inclusion. It includes respecting other people, no matter their background.

I hope to see you at one of the events tomorrow or the next day. Let us come together to express our commitment to ending racist violence.

Sincerely,

Ron Liebowitz

 

June 9. 2020

Dear Members of the Brandeis Community,

Black Lives Matter.

Last week, I wrote to all of you saying violence against Black people must stop. The killing of George Floyd by police was inhuman, contemptible, and tragic. We gathered together virtually, and I heard many of you express outrage, fear, and the exhaustion of living with cruel racism in your lives and on our campus.

I said then that we must do more; we must do better.

In that spirit, I am announcing an initiative that will transform our campus and address systemic racism. I have asked key administrators to develop and submit action plans in the next 90 days.

• These action plans must include ongoing, significant engagement with members of the campus community. We must listen, and understand the kinds of systemic racism, bias, and ill-treatment experienced by Black members of our community. But we must go further than dialogue and understanding. We must rapidly move toward concrete change.

• The action plans I am calling for must be transformational, including new approaches regarding the roles and responsibilities of Public Safety, the Department of Community Living, Human Resources, Athletics, the Academy, and all of us who are charged with creating and sustaining a safe, respectful environment for learning and living.

• Action plans must be developed with broad input from diverse constituencies. Black students, Black student organizations, other students of color, other student organizations, faculty, members of each of the aforementioned departments, and other staff should all be invited to be part of the drafting process.

I am asking the following administrators to develop and submit these action plans by September 1:

• Executive Vice President Stew Uretsky, Vice President of Campus Operations Lois Stanley, Vice President for Human Resources Robin Switzer, and Director of Public Safety and Chief of Police Ed Callahan for the plans for Public Safety and Human Resources

•Vice Provost for Student Affairs Raymond Ou, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Tim Touchette, and Director of Athletics Lauren Haynie for the plans for Community Living, Residential Life, and Athletics

• Provost Lisa Lynch, Dean Eric Chasalow, Dean Dorothy Hodgson, Dean Katy Graddy, Dean David Weil, and Vice President Lynne Rosansky for the plan for the Academy and its constituent Schools

Despite concerted efforts to address past incidents on campus, discrimination and bias continue to be issues for us at Brandeis. While we have piloted a number of initiatives, most of them voluntary in nature, across the university, we are committed to a more comprehensive approach to addressing racism in order to build stronger, more respectful relationships within the community.

Our university was founded on principles of inclusion that are as relevant today as they were in 1948. As I said at the community virtual gathering last week, we have not always lived up to our ideals, but those ideals — our values — point us in the right direction. The administration and I are committed to moving beyond “business as usual” and requesting voluntary efforts for change. We must work together to build a community that is diverse, welcoming, and free from bias and discrimination.

Sincerely,

Ron Liebowitz

 

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These communiqués are similar to the above email sent by Anthony W. Marx, President of the New York Public Library, on June 1.

I am a Brandeis University alumnus. The school has always been a liberal, forward looking place, in terms of views on the issues and the university community. University President Liebowitz feels it is incumbent upon him — he has taken upon himself, as have administrators of all sorts of educational and cultural institutions — to articulate his views at this time as the voice of the university.

But what has he said? What do these communiqués tell us? Why is he writing?

Because he feels he ought to say something.

President Liebowitz says in his first communiqué: “We cannot tolerate discrimination, hatred, or violence against another person based on their race, religion, or background. These values are as important today as they were at our founding.” And, in the second, he writes: “We gathered together virtually [after the murder of George Floyd], and I heard many of you express outrage, fear, and the exhaustion of living with cruel racism in your lives and on our campus.”

This is so vague as to be meaningless.

If there are racial injustices embedded in university policies — or in present campus realities — President Liebowitz could have said what they were, without necessarily going into detail. Then, we could see what they were; what problems he feels the university should address; and steps he is contemplating or undertaking. No such problems or injustices are mentioned. They are conspicuous by the absence of any mention of them.

So why should one read these communiqués? President Liebowitz did mention that the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis was hosting two conferences on addressing the problem of systematic racism. They don’t sound interesting to me, but at least this is informative.

Here, in essence, is the letter I would have written: We deplore the murder of George Floyd. We deplore the racism endemic in our society and the murder of our black citizens. We are ever mindful of these issues and are holding two virtual conferences this week that you may wish to attend. …

 

— Roger W. Smith

   post updated June 10, 2020

Mx.

 

From today’s New York Times:

For Laura Campbell, a manager at Half Price Books in Renton, Wash., being laid off was an emotional blow but not, at least in the short term, a financial one. Because of the extra $600 per week being paid to unemployed workers right now, Mx. Campbell — who uses the gender-neutral title “Mx.” and plural pronouns — is making more than the $16.05 hourly wage at the bookstore.

“I have been able to pay off two credit cards,” they said.

Still, the experience has exacerbated Mx. Campbell’s longstanding concerns about the future of retail. Even before the pandemic, workers often asked one another how long the business could continue in the Amazon era. And while not expecting physical retail to disappear overnight, Mx. Campbell doesn’t plan to wait to find out: They will start a new job, at a local tech company at the end of the month.

— “When Shoppers Venture Out, What Will Be Left? A 16.4 percent sales decline in April may signal the bottom for retailers, but the climb back will be hard, and some companies may not make it,” by Ben Casselman and Sapna Maheshwari, The New York Times, May 15, 2020

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Despite my dislike of language engineering by the language police.

I do feel the advisability or necessity of observing certain conventions in language use dictated by present day rules that have somehow been promulgated and are now accepted and expected as the norm in polite discourse.

For example, when I was in high school, black people were referred to as Negroes — not only by whites but, ordinarily, by blacks, including civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. I would not be so obstinate or misguided to continue using Negro in speech or writing.

I have a distaste, to put it mildly — as does former New Yorker proofreader Mary Norris (author of Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen) — for the ugly sounding and unpronounceable Ms. — yes, it (Ms.) looks on the page like Mr., but the time honored “Mister” sounds just fine to me.

But I am not going to try to buck the trend, so to speak. If I am writing to a woman (especially a woman I don’t know well) whose last name is Simmons, it’s “Dear Ms. Simmons.”

 

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I love studying languages (as I have written before), both foreign ones and my own. Like a boy poking his head under the hood of a car to see how the engine works, or opening up a watch, I love to examine details and how they vary from one language to another.

How Russian and other Slavic languages lack the definite and definite article and there is no present tense verb to be in Russian. How nouns designating inanimate things in most European languages have a gender, while in English common nouns (with a few exceptions) don’t.

I don’t like to contemplate meddlers mucking around with or dismantling basic grammar.

It has occurred to me: will the officious language purifiers (as they view their self-appointed role) be calling any day now for the eradication of gender in languages such as the Romance ones and German? It’s a frightening thought: el mano becomes x- mano. Or maybe just mano. But then one loses the distinction in meaning conveyed by definite versus indefinite article.

Believe me, the language police won’t care.

The “problem,” which is to say the key issue, here is that languages are fine tuned for a reason. Obviously, they were not designed or constructed a priori, top down. They evolved. But most grammatical features convey information (often making fine distinctions), such as gender. In the case of pronouns, we do this with he versus she. (In Cantonese, this is not possible because there is only one third person singular pronoun.)

Recently, on Facebook, I saw the following. It confused me for a second. (I or anyone fluent in English shouldn’t have to be confused.) “Anne Kelleher [a Facebook friend of mine] updated their cover photo.”

Whose cover photo? Anne’s? Or some relatives or people she knows? Did she do someone not conversant with Facebook a favor?

Well, I can guess the answer, but why should I have to stop and think? Facebook’s language engineers have gone politically correct. Of course, it’s convenient for them in this case.

Instead of THEY will start a new job — since non-binary gender people don’t want to be spoken of with gendered pronouns — how about Mx. Campbell will start a new job? It doesn’t matter if Mx. Campbell is repeated a few times.

I was actually confused, momentarily, when I read this. I thought the Times writers were by way of example talking about the difficult work experience of an individual. Why should I have to be confused by a story in The New York Times , which prides itself on clear, straightforward, factual reporting, just so some self-appointed wordsmith/overseer doesn’t get offended? Just who is writing the piece anyway?

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 15, 2020

another brilliant lead

 

In journalism school it was called the lede.

“If you’re lucky when you report your sexual assault, you’ll become known as a person who was sexually assaulted. If you’re unlucky, you’ll become known as a person who lied about being sexually assaulted.”

— “Democrats, It’s Time to Consider a Plan B: Tara Reade’s allegations against Joe Biden demand action.,” by Elizabeth Bruenig, The New York Times, May 3, 2010

]

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   May 3, 2020

“This pamphlet is published to prove what nobody will deny.”

 

See my post about Samuel Johnson

“This pamphlet is published to prove what nobody will deny.”

at

“This pamphlet is published to prove what nobody will deny.”

the workings of a writer’s mind (and from whence one gets fodder)

 

‘why I like the game of baseball’

My essay “Why I Like the Game of Baseball”

Roger W. Smith, “Baseball: An appréciation”

 

is, in my humble opinion, up there with some of the best writings done on the sport. It amounts to a sort of appréciation of the game.

And to anyone who accuses me of boasting, I would say: Show me a better piece.

It has not gotten much readership. I submitted it to a couple of journals for publication without success. Recently, I started to try to get it in the hands of some well known sportswriters.

I have proofread and polished it many times, and think I have perfected it. Yet today, an inspiration for a slight addition came to me in a “tactile” fashion.

 

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I was walking in a local park. A man and a boy who looked to be a teenager were engaged in a batting practice session, the coronavirus epidemic notwithstanding.

The boy could hit! There was a screen behind him. With each pitch, he coiled himself and swung, and would launch a ball into the air that seemed to get lost. I could sense the adult, who was pitching, sort of sucking his breath in in admiration. A kid in the outfield was giving chase.

The boy had a metal bat. It was so satisfying to hear the ping each time he connected.

Right then and there, I changed the following paragraph in my baseball essay, adding the words in italics:

A baseball. The ball itself. Holding one in your hand. Idly tossing it. The shininess and hardness. The stitching. The delight of boys in having a new, white, shiny, unscuffed ball. The crack of a wooden bat (or the ping of a metal one) connecting with a ball and sending a fly well past the infield.

An auditory experience — something experiential and non-verbal — led to this tweaking of my piece.

 

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Writers derive inspiration from all sorts of places: things thought about, read, conversation, experience, and minute observation.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   March 26, 2020

flawed premise; a weak lead

 

“At least Emperor Nero supposedly only fiddled while Rome burned; he didn’t tell the Romans that the fire was no big deal.”

— Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times, March 12 2020

 

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Yes, we get the point. But, a flawed premise and a weak lead.

That Nero fiddled during the Great Fire of Rome is merely a legend, not reported in ancient historical sources; and these sources differ about many aspects of Nero’s tyrannical reign. Kristof’s “supposedly” is required, but weakens an already weak lead.

— Roger W. Smith

   March 2020

sacrilege

 

1

2

 

Gloria in excelsis Deo
et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.

Glory to God in the highest.
and peace to his people on earth.

 

— “Gloria,” Beethoven, Mass in C Major; translation, Carnegie Hall program notes; performance by Orchestra of St. Luke’s, March 5, 2010

 

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NO — “to his people on earth” is deliberately wrong.

How can one — why would one — mistranslate unambiguous words from the Latin mass? It is

Glory to God in the highest.
and peace on earth to MEN OF GOOD WILL.

Men of good will is not a “generic” phrase. It means something. To men (yes, men) of good will.

Words have a literal meaning and a connotation. Here it is the literal meaning that is in question. In my mind, these beautiful words always have evoked the thought of a community of well-meaning people, of benevolent spirits. But the anonymous translator here (read, verbal axe-wielder) has substituted the anodyne “his people on earth,” e.g., earthlings. Presumably for the sake of political correctness. This strips the phrase of its meaning.

I am offended, deeply so, that someone would change the text of a beautiful mass by Beethoven, the text of the Latin mass which has existed for over four centuries.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 6, 2020

descriptive passages; active versus passive

 

“Use the active voice.”

— William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, Third Edition

 

I came across the following clause in Chapter XI of The Sun Also Rises, which I am currently reading: “There were cattle grazing back in the trees.”

As opposed to “Cattle were grazing back in the trees.”

I thought about Strunk and White’s dictum to use the active voice where there is a choice between active and passive. Ernest Hemingway was known for direct, vigorous writing. Why did he choose to use a passive construction? With a writer like Hemingway, you know it was a deliberate, conscious choice.

What I would say in regard to questions (choices) like this, is that it is often a matter of ear. Sometimes the passive voice is desirable, preferable. Hemingway was conveying the idea that cattle grazing on the side of a mountain was something perceived passively, so to speak, by the narrator. The cattle were there.

 

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Let’s look at the entire passage (from The Sun Also Rises).

The bus climbed steadily up the road. The country was barren and rocks stuck up through the clay. There was no grass beside the road. Looking back we could see the country spread out below. Far back the fields were squares of green and brown on the hillsides. Making the horizon were the brown mountains. They were strangely shaped. As we climbed higher the horizon kept changing. As the bus ground slowly up the road we could see other mountains coming up in the south. Then the road came over the crest, flattened out, and went into a forest. It was a forest of cork oaks, and the sun came through the trees in patches, and there were cattle grazing in back in the trees. We went through the forest and the road came out and turned along a rise of land, and out ahead of us was a rolling green plain, with dark mountains beyond it. These were not like the brown, heat-baked mountains we had left behind. These were wooded and there were clouds coming down from them. The green plain stretched off. It was cut by the fences and the white of the road showed through the trunks of a double line of trees that crossed the plain toward the north. As we came to the edge of the rise we saw the red roofs and while houses of Burguete ahead strung out on the plain. and away off on the shoulder of the first dark mountain was the gray metal-sheathed roof of the monastery of Roncesvalles.

This is a beautiful passage and an excellent example of descriptive prose (in a novel). Sometimes less is more, as readers of Hemingway well know. I was reminded of the visual and other arts (e.g., music) of Hemingway’s time. And, for example, of the woodcut prints of Utagawa Hiroshige.

Compare the following paragraphs from Book Two, Chapter V of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy:

It was thus that, strolling west along River Street on which were a number of other kinds of factories, and then north through a few other streets that held more factories–tinware, wickwire, a big vacuum carpet cleaning plant, a rug manufacturing company, and the like–that he came finally upon a miserable slum, the like of which, small as it was, he had not seen outside of Chicago or Kansas City. He was so irritated and depressed by the poverty and social angularity and crudeness of it–all spelling but one thing, social misery, to him–that he at once retraced his steps and recrossing the Mohawk by a bridge farther west soon found himself in an area which was very different indeed–a region once more of just such homes as he had been admiring before he left for the factory. And walking still farther south, he came upon that same wide and tree-lined avenue–which he had seen before–the exterior appearance of which alone identified it as the principal residence thoroughfare of Lycurgus. It was so very broad and well-paved and lined by such an arresting company of houses. At once he was very much alive to the personnel of this street, for it came to him immediately that it must be in this street very likely that his uncle Samuel lived. The houses were nearly all of French, Italian or English design, and excellent period copies at that, although he did not know it.

Impressed by their beauty and spaciousness, however, he walked along, now looking at one and another, and wondering which, if any, of these was occupied by his uncle, and deeply impressed by the significance of so much wealth. How superior and condescening his cousin Gilbert must feel, walking out of some such place as this in the morning.

Then pausing before one which, because of trees, walks, newly-groomed if bloomless flower beds, a large garage at the rear, a large fountain to the left of the house as he faced it, in the center of which was a boy holding a swan in his arms, and to the right of the house one lone cast iron stag pursued by some cast iron dogs, he felt especially impelled to admire, and charmed by the dignity of this place, which was a modified form of old English, he now inquired of a stranger who was passing–a middle-aged man of a rather shabby working type, “Whose house is that, mister?” and the man replied: “Why, that’s Samuel Griffiths’ residence. He’s the man who owns the big collar factory over the river.”

At once Clyde straightened up, as though dashed with cold water. His uncle’s! His residence! Then that was one of his automobiles standing before the garage at the rear there. And there was another visible through the open door of the garage.

Dreiser is not painting word-pictures, It’s all basically exposition. The ‘descriptive” details serve one purpose, and one purpose only.

River Street was in the poor part of town with factories and slums. Clyde’s uncle’s residence was in the rich section. He was “charmed by the dignity of this place [his uncle’s], which was a modified form of old English.” This tells us really nothing about what the place looked like. He made an inquiry of “a stranger who was passing–a middle-aged man of a rather shabby working type.” This could describe any number of working class men; it tells us nothingabout what the man looked like.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2020

with thanks to my brother Pete Smith for encouraging me to read some more Hemingway; and for pointing out stylistic differences between Hemingway and Dreiser

 

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Addendum:

To be fair, it should be noted that Strunk and White also say that the active versus passive rule “does not … mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.” But the examples they give of sentences where the passive is desirable are of academic-type writing, not of narration and pithy sentences such as one would see in fiction. They state:

The habitual use of the active voice … makes for forcible writing. This is true … in narrative concerned principally with action. …

They give as an example “Dead leaves covered the ground.” and state that “[W]hen a sentence is made stronger [through use of the active voice], it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.”

 

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Addendum:

In a recent post of mine

“a red cord thing”

“a red cord thing”

I wrote:

English is a marvelously fertile and flexible language, rich in nuance. New ways of saying things in non-formal speech are always being come up with.

The concluding clause was remarked upon by a reader of the post, who found it to be awkward. In response to a comment, in an exchange we had, I wrote:

I could have written something like “People are constantly coming up with new ways of saying things,” but I wanted to avoid there being a subject-actor, so the passive construction works. “New ways of saying things” is the subject of the sentence and is at the beginning, emphasizing this (new says of saying things), and “being come up with” is at the end (passive construction).

hiroshige_travellers_on_a_mountain_path_along_the_coast

a Hiroshige print

What is the difference between downtrodden and downcast?

 

In the courtroom, Weinstein, leaning over his walker, looked downtrodden after conferring with his lawyers about the developments. Later, in the hallway, the once-powerful movie producer shrugged and stayed silent as reporters shouted questions about the jury indications.

— “Harvey Weinstein jury suggests it’s deadlocked on two counts, unanimous on others in sexual assault case,” by Shayna Jacobs, The Washington Post, February 21, 2020

 

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downtrodden

oppressed or treated badly by people in power.

EXAMPLE: Christian churches had a custom of placing metal boxes outside their doors on this day to collect cash and gifts for the downtrodden.

 

downcast

low in spirit, dejected

 

The reporter should have used downcast.

 

— Roger W. Smith

  February 2020