A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Monthly Archives: August 2007

Why the New Yorker cartoon caption contest winners are not especially funny

Here’s a QA with the primary gatekeeper to the New Yorker cartoon caption contest:

Q. Did your predecessor or Bob give you any advice when looking through the responses?
A. My predecessor stared me in the eyes and warned me that reading too many captions in one sitting could make a man crazy. Oh, and also to “pick the funny ones.”

Q. After a while isn’t it difficult to decide what’s funny? Do you say to yourself—“#4,347, sort of funny. #4,348—sort of but not quite funny enough?”
A. I’ve developed a system of sorting algorithms that allows a laptop to pick the finalists without any human input.

Q. Really?
A. Yes and no. What actually happens is that when each entry is received it’s sorted by keywords. The keywords are grouped into 5 or 6 categories. Then I sort through all the one-liners, zingers, gags, goofs and gaffes, looking for the very best—which I pass on to Bob.

Q. Uh…you had me, and then you lost me.
A. Take, for example, a recent contest cartoon depicting crash test dummies. All entered captions were broken into keyword groups like “insurance,” “driving,” “crashing.” So at that point it’s easier to read them and make the best choice.

Q. What if I decide to send in a caption in Esperanto?
A. All the unique captions are grouped together in a category we call “Huh?” “Huh?” captions have indeed made the finals. No Esperanto yet, though.

In other words,

  • There are too many entries to sort through,
  • They are sorted by an intern (who also has to do a lot of photocopying, as he says elsewhere in the interview),
  • A keyword based sorting algorithm does the first sorting.
  • Yep, that seems like a recipe for caption mediocrity.

    I wonder if it wouldn’t be better just to randomly select, say, fifty captions and choose the funniest of these.

Changing my name

I was born William Alan Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, of course is my family name, but I don’t have any real connections to ‘William’ or ‘Alan.’ My dad sometimes says I was named after my Uncle Allen, but if so, why isn’t my middle name spelled as he spells it? It doesn’t make sense.

So, as of now, I am changing my name.

I want a name that’s different. Really different. Different all the time. So, from now on, please call me by the whatever the current time is in Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). So, right now, my name is 2007-08-18T22:28:58. And right now my name is 2007-08-18T22:29:05. And right now my name is 2007-08-18T22:29:13. You get the point.

There are a lot of advantages to this name. It’s different, as I said. Anyone can tell what my name is simply by looking at their watch. (Well, by looking at their watch, and adding or subtracting the right number of hours). I’ve always been a bit of a time geek, so this takes the geekitude to the next level.

Plus, I’ve always wanted to have nickname. (Some people used to call me ‘Flash,’ for the same reason you might call me ‘Slim,’ but it didn’t stick.) And since it will be hard for people to get my name exactly right all the time, you can feel free to call me some some approximate time term. So, now I have lots of nicknames. Just imagine:

“Good evening, Evening!”
“Hi, Noon!”
“How are you, Today?”
“Hey, Now!”

I suppose I’ll still answer to ‘Will’ (or ‘Billy’ to my aunts), but feel free to start calling me by my new name.

Sorry, gotta go down to city hall and fill out a *lot* of forms.


— 2007-08-18T22:41:21

P.S. Did you know ‘UTC’ is a compromise abbreviation for ‘Universal Coordinated Time,’ and ‘temps universel coordonné’? Apparently, it really is, even though I learned about it on Wikipedia.

— 2007-08-18T22:45:10

Changing my theme

Accidentally nuked my WordPress theme; here’s a new one.

A as in 'heir'

Phitsjerld’s Fauxnetik Alfabett: (An attempt at the world’s worst phonetic alphabet, on the lines of ‘alpha, bravo, charlie’):

‘A as in ‘heir’, B as in ‘clime’, C as in ‘quire’, D as in ‘guest’, E as in ‘urn’, F as in ‘prophet’, G as in ‘bow’, H as in ‘owe’, I as in ‘synch’, J as in ‘genes’, K as in ‘nob’, L as in ‘torque’, M as in ’em’, N as in ‘en’, O as in ‘barren’, P as in ‘pneumatic’, Q as in ‘cue’, R as in ‘caw’, S as in ‘cent’, T as in ‘tee’, U as in ‘oral’, V as in ‘fifer’, W as in ‘right’, X as in ‘whacks’, Y as in ‘gaze’, Z as in ‘phase’.

Glory to rival the sun

This past weekend, Bess, Jane and I attended the 50th anniversary of the founding of Reba Place Church, the church we attended in the 90’s when I was in graduate school and for a few years afterwards. Saturday was spent going though a decade by decade retrospective. Reba began as, essentially, a commune in the 50’s and experienced explosive growth through the 60s and 70s. They allowed non-communal members in the 80s and there were many aftershocks of many of the communal members becoming everyday variety congregational members. The 90s, our decade, were full of angst for Reba, as it struggled to let new leaders emerge, dealt with–or didn’t deal with–its own racism and desire to be an anti-racist church, radically different views on many things, especially the role of women in leadership and the role of the Spirit in the church’s direction. Various betrayals of trust and adulteries didn’t help. The past decade, with (I think) able leadership of pastor Ric Hudgens, the gospel choir led by Helen Hudgens, and a cadre of leaders and members who stuck it out when many left, has been much better, in both the congregational and communal parts of the church.

The current and former members of Reba, to their credit, were able to name the good and the bad throughout these decades, and joyously celebrated the music and liturgical dance for which it has become justly known. We were hosted by the always gracious Shelly family, and it was wonderful to see so many old friends (and a few bête noires), although, really, I’d rather spend a day with one friend than see 100 friends and not get a chance to talk with each one more than a few minutes. (I’m confident enough in heaven that I know there will be plenty of time to catch up).

Jim Croegaert‘s song Changes captures it all well:

Changes coming upon us
It keeps moving, moving around us
Got to keep dancing knowing God loves us
Got to keep joy in our hearts
God knows all of our needs and
God will meet them following God’s plan
Even the changes turning in God’s hand
Soon will be part of it all
So we enter a new time
There are places where it’s a hard climb
But there are faces carrying sunshine
Warming our path as we go
Sometimes we may be lonely
It’s a hard job making us holy
But in the long run there will be glory
Glory to rival the sun.

I am Thesaurus!

Synonyms and antonyms
and matching terms and words that share a meaning.
All these alternate words to choose or substitute
why write ‘crying’
when you could write ‘weeping’
or ‘shedding a tear or two,’
‘blubbering’, ‘wailing,’
‘choking up and balling,’
‘sobbing both your eyes out,’
‘turning on the waterworks.’
I am the Roget
I’m Dr. Roget
I am Thesaurus

Vocabulary dictionary wordy little Frenchman that I am.
See how many phrases the Beatles could have made
if they’d asked me.
Why write ‘Eggman’
They could have written ‘Person
with an omelette for a head,’
‘Sunny side up boy,’
‘Separated yolk guy,’
‘Scrambled on toast lad,’
‘Poached homo sapiens,’
‘The free-range Earth’s man,’
‘The hard-boiled shell man,’
I am Thesaurus!

This song’s concluding,
ending, ceasing, stopping,
terminating, drawing to a close,
finishing, arresting, wrapping up, retiring,
halting and completing,
shutting down and calling quits
This song’s expiring,
It is desisting!
It is …
Sh**, I can’t think of any more words.

Interview with Steve Newcomb at Folksonomy

There’s a great interview by Sian Liu with Steve Newcomb, Powerset’s COO (and ultimately my boss). He describes life and work at Powerset, some of the risks, the culture of openness at Powerset,  and why we don’t see Google as the enemy. Granted, it’s not a hard-hitting interview (Liu even says “I am looking forward to … exploring long-term career opportunties in Powerset,” which blunts one’s objectivity), but it gives a good picture of what Powerset is like. One of the things I like best about working at Powerset is being able to work with Steve, and this gives a flavor of why, too.  

Unrelated to this completely, but today I learned that a coulter is “a sharp steel wedge that precedes the plow and cuts vertically through the soil.” Is it possibly true that “Coulter” is Ann Coulter’s  real family name?