A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Monthly Archives: August 2006

Abraham Lincoln visits Kalamazoo

150 years ago (on August 27, 1856), Abraham Lincoln made his only visit to Michigan; he spoke in Kalamazoo’s downtown park as part of a rally for John C. Fremont, the first Republican nominee for President. There are a number of events taking place in Kalamazoo this weekend, sponsored, in part, by our local state senator (a Republican, natch, and against whom my brother-in-law Sandy Lipsey is running this fall).

I attended one session today, an informative talk by Weldon Petz on “The Musical Note In Lincoln’s Life,” basically a talk connecting anything musical with Lincoln. Lincoln played the harmonica and Jew’s harp; enjoyed both ministrel shows and the opera; probably sang out of the Missouri Harmony (pictured here in its modern revision); liked both “Dixie” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic;” and has been a popular subject of music for a long time.

One thing I learned was that it was common to publish “songsters,” or small song books, for the presidential campaign, for example this digitized copy of the 1864 Republican Songster of Lincoln’s second campaign, which includes songs as well as the Republican platform (“Resolved, That the foreign immigration which in the past has added so much to the wealth and development of resources and increase of power to this nation–the asylum of the oppressed of all nations–should be fostered and encouraged by a liberal and just policy.”)


With the demotion of Pluto to a dwarf planet, there are reports that a new mnemonic is required to recall the order of the nine–er, wait, only eight–planets. In fact, Jason Kottke sponsored a mnemonics contest. Kottke is one of the first generation bloggers, along Meg Hourihan. They were the subject of a New Yorker article early on, as well as an update recently when they got married. Kottke doesn’t write very much about himself, though, so I was pretty sure my entry wouldn’t win, but I still like it very much:

Meg Very Enthusiastically Married JSUN

Liberty Caskets: Lease or Buy

I’d meant to get a picture of this, but thankfully, someone posted one at This is Broken.

Rachel Miller Jacobs

Rachel Miller Jacobs

Rachel Miller Jacobs, of Kern Street Mennonite Church in South Bend, Indiana, was ordained yesterday. Rachel is one of the Goshen, Indiana Sacred Harp singers, and it was with great pleasure that some of us were able to sing as a prelude to her ordination service, which was marked by good prayers, lovely singing, an excellent call to ministry by one of her seminary professors, and much obvious love for Rachel by the congregration she serves as the minister of spiritual formation, and by Rachel for the people she serves and from whom she has learned.

First Powerset writeup?

I think this is the first writeup of the company I work for, Powerset, that I’ve seen: Spying an intelligent search engine. Barney Pell, our CEO, is interviewed.

Search engines try to train us to become good keyword searchers. We dumb down our intelligence so it will be natural for the computer,” said Pell, whose company, Powerset, is based in Palo Alto, Calif.

“The big shift that will happen in society is that instead of moving human expressions and interactions into what’s easy for the computer, we’ll move computers’ abilities to handle expressions that are natural for the human,” he said.

Powerset, which hasn’t divulged its launch date yet, is using AI to train computers not just to read words on the page, but make connections between those words and make inferences in the language. That way a search engine could think through and redefine relevance beyond the most popular page or the site with the most occurrences of keywords entered in a search box.

More and more frequency statistics

Wonderful Chris Thorman has published a beautifully designed page showing frequency and rank statistics for tune selection from the Denson Sacred Harp conventions–for all years with on-line data (1995-2005) at Fasola.org. I’ve been playing with the data.

  • The distribution of frequency to rank is an almost perfect lognormal curve for the 11 years (98% correlation).
  • I was surprised to see that Liberty (137) has the biggest downward trend over the 11 year period — it’s ‘batting average’ dropped from .514 to .220 from ’95 to ’05. I’m Going Home (282) is the biggest gainer, essentially the opposite of Liberty (from .223 to .581).
  • The correlation between order-in-the-book and frequency overall is -.21; that is, there is a slight tendency for later tunes to be choosen less.

Living with a computer

Way fun: The Atlantic has posted James Fallows’s essay, Living with a computer as part of their Tech & Innovation “Celebration of 150 Years” tour. It was written in 1982, and describes his using an early word processor program, the Electric Pencil, running on 48k of memory (carefully described: “each K represents 1,024 bytes of information—each byte representing one character or digit—the machine can manipulate more than 49,000 items of information at a time.”) on an Intel 8080 non-DOS machine. I remember reading this when it first came out, or perhaps in a book of essays; and I’m glad I remembered this part correctly, because it’s a story I often tell:

For a while, I was a little worried about what they would come up with, especially after my father-in-law [who was working with the developer] called to ask how important it was that I be able to use both upper- and lower-case letters. But finally, for a total of about $4,000, Optek gave me the machinery I have used happily to this day.

I just love the idea of asking how important lower-case letters were.

Watermelon toothpaste

A confession: my wife bought some watermelon-flavored toothpaste for our daughter. She didn’t like it particularly, but I did. It’s a very strange translucent green, and it’s quite sweet; I suspect it’s the sweetness, not the strange color that I like.

When I was thinking about moving to San Francisco to work for the startup, I began to suspect that the toothpaste would run out about the same time as when I might come to the Bay Area. And so I made up this rhyme:

When the toothpaste stops its flow,
To California you must go.

And this one:

When the toothpaste tube runs dry,
To California you will fly.

And several other improvisations. And you know what happened, right? The day I left for California, the toothpaste tube did run dry, and to California I I fly, leaving my family behind. Things have been, for the most part, quite wonderful out here–good colleagues, good friends and companions at the Church of the Sojourners where I have been staying, deepening friendships with the Sacred Harp singers here, especially those from the weekly Berkeley group. But, of course, I’ve missed my family, and some recent changes have made it important for me to be back in Kalamazoo, at least most of the time. The kind management at Powerset have been especially considerate, and are allowing me to try telecommuting from Michigan most of the time, with a week or so in California every month (this is more or less the same arrangement I had when working for NASA, and that worked very well for me and for the team). Tomorrow morning, assuming the planes are flying, etc., I’ll be leaving for Michigan to start this.

And I don’t have to worry about packing the tube of watermelon toothpaste I bought when I first arrived here in April: there’s one more squeeze, and it’s finished.

Leopard announcements

Apple has posted some details of the upcoming version of the Apple OS. Two little things of note that will make me want to buy it: A new speech synthesis voice, Alex, that sounds quite good. And boolean operators in Spotlight, the full-text searching tool; plus search on file attributes. The later should have already been in Spotlight, in my humble opinion, but that’s one way Apple keeps getting my money…

Harmonia Sacra CD update

John Lamb wrote:

Hi Will,

An update on the Harmonia Sacra cd — in production as we speak.  Should be in the mail by the end of the week.  My apologiees for the long delay!

As I’m writing this, samples from yesterday’s Hamburg, VA singing are playing in the background.  A disc with 8 samples of “valley” style singing will be on their way to June Melton shortly for her Pilgrim Productions site.  As time and resources permit, a cd of this singing will be created.

Thought you and your readers would be interested in the above.

John Lamb

This is an update on my post about ordering John’s recording of the New Year’s Day Harmonia Sacra singing in Goshen, Indiana.