A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Monthly Archives: May 2008

America the Subjunctive

America the Beautiful has interesting linguistic properties. In particular, it uses verbs in the subjunctive mood, which is quite unusual in modern English, except in fixed expressions (such as “God forbid.”). The subjunctive is usually used to describe a condition that doesn’t exist, or a condition that one wishes to exist, such as “if I were a rich man.”

The interesting thing about the subjunctive in English is that it often indistinguishable from the simple past tense or a request/command form. In “http://www.powerset.com/explore/go/God-bless-America,” you can tell it’s not the past tense (that would be “God blessed America, of course), but it’s a bit ambiguous about the command: does it mean “May God bless America” (the subjunctive) or “God, (please) bless America!” (the command form). From the context, it’s clearly addressed to God directly: before the chorus, Berlin’s lyrics say, ‘we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.”

America the Beautiful” is not addressed to God; God is explicitly in the third person:

America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.

Does it mean that God has shed grace on America, or is a hope that God may shed grace on America? Only by looking at the second line can we tell: “And crown thy good…”. If it were the past tense, it would be “And crowned thy good…”, but it’s in the bare form, and so must be the subjunctive.

Interestingly, the second verse changes into the past tense (a verse rarely sung):

O beautiful, for pilgrim feet
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!

In theory, this is ambiguous: it could mean “May pilgrim feet beat across the wilderness,” but it’s clear that when Katharine Lee Bates wrote “America the Beautiful” in the 1890’s, she wasn’t hoping for a new pilgrim exodus across the continent, but was expressing a manifest destiny already fulfilled. The second chorus returns to the subjunctive, though–it’s not “mended” and “confirmed,” but “mend” and “confirm:”

America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw;
Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law!

The second is somewhat similar (gratitude for “heroes proved in liberating strife” and a subjunctive hope in the chorus that “God thy gold refine, ’til all success be nobleness”–two subjunctives in a row there!

The last verse has always confused me. How could anyone in the 1890’s thing that:

Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!

But in context, it’s a subjunctive-like dream:

O beautiful, for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years,
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!

In other words, patriots dream of a future where American cites gleam and are without tears.

Well, may God bless America, may God mend its every flaw, and continue to shed us with grace. And may our cities be clean and full of justice, and a sense of unity grow among all its people–from sea to shining sea.

Michigan: A Primer

Fun Michigan poem in the May 19, 2008 issue of the New Yorker by Bob Hicok, entitled “A Primer.”

You never forget
how to be from Michigan when you’re from Michigan.
It’s like riding a bike of ice and fly fishing.
The Upper Peninsula is a spare state
in case Michigan goes flat…

The entire poem: A Primer.

ACLU links Rice, White House to torture, as early as 2002

ACLU report:

NEW YORK – The results of an internal Justice Department investigation released today reveal that officials at the highest level of government — including the White House — received reports on the abuse of prisoners in U.S. military custody overseas as early as 2002. Congress called on the department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) to conduct the investigation after documents made public through an American Civil Liberties Union Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request revealed FBI agents at Guantánamo had raised concerns about methods used by military interrogators. Today’s government report is the first to identify that then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice received complaints of torture.

More later, perhaps.

Mainstream media, are you paying attention yet?

You ain't seen nothing yet

Figures from Nathan Stubblefield's patent application for a wireless telephone

Who invented the wireless telephone?

It’s been 100 years since “American inventor and Kentucky melon farmer” Nathan B. Stubblefield received the patent for the first wireless cell phone (UK Telegraph article, via Mirabilis).

Today, the company I work for, Powerset, launched its search product for general public use at powerset.com. It’s a really cool search and browsing engine for Wikipedia, with lots of information gleaned from the Freebase project as well.

Reading about Mr. Stubblefield made me want to know about other inventors who were melon farmers. Searching for “inventors who raise melons” does, in fact, return Powerset’s republished Wikipedia page about Mr. Stubblefield, with its first sentence helpfully highlighted. And, as it turns out, lots of other inventors who raised melons, including (of course) melon researchers, with nice results about watermelon, muskmelon, and galias.

Most people agree, even Peter Norvig (Google’s head of research), that search is in its early days. Google, Yahoo!, Live, Ask, and the other search engine companies have led the way, and Powerset is adding a new set of signals, based on principles from natural language understanding and knowledge representation, to the mix. (And, note, these are additional signals; no one from Powerset has ever claimed that current search signals, such as the presence of keywords or page rank, were unimportant.) These are relatively early days for Powerset, and early days for search. Early, and exciting, days.

And that makes me wonder: Who said, “You ain’t seen nothing yet?”

Powerset is here!

Powerset is coming soon

Powerset is coming soon

New compromise plan to seat Michigan delegates

The Detroit Free Press is reporting on a new plan to seat Michigan delegates at the Democratic convention. The idea is to give Clinton 69 regular delegates, and Obama 59. “The proposal also would seat the state’s 29 superdelegates.”

I suspect the hidden (Clinton) agenda is to seat the superdelegates.

Since these superdelegates were responsible for the mess we’re in, it would make more sense to me to split the delegates 64/64 between Clinton and Obama, and leave the superdelegates at home.

Bush personally approved meetings to arrange torture

Bush personally approved meetings to arrange torture, which were led by Cheney.

If you consider what the government did to be torture, which is a crime according to U.S. and international law, Bush’s statement shifts his role from being an accessory after the fact to being part of a conspiracy to commit.

Psalm 131

See it full size for the best effect, I think: Psalm 131.
I made this slide show for worship this past Sunday, using CC photographs from Flickr, and music from Lindsay Phillips. It was prompted by Psalm 131:

Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.

Canoeing the Kalamazoo River: Goose Lake to Twin Pines Campground

Bess has this Grand Plan: to canoe the Kalamazoo River from its headwaters (more or less) to Lake Michigan, and to do it in parts. Yesterday, the Grand Plan commenced. She and I drove to the Twin Lakes Campground near Pulaski Michigan, waking the attendants at 10 am, who dropped us off up river. Our river canoeing skills are rusting (well, mine were never very good to start with), but we managed to stay dry.

It was a perfect day to canoe: not too hot or cold, and early enough in the season that there were no bugs. The river at this point is technically the South Branch of the Kalamazoo River, and seemed clean and clear, and free of major snags (we did get snagged up once, and though it was touch and go for a moment, we freed ourselves and never got wet).

And lots of wildlife: lots of deer (technically the South Branch of the deer–mostly we saw their white tails as the ran away); nesting geese and goslings including several pairs of domestic geese gone wild; an owl (that we think later was being attacked by a murder of crows); yellow warblers;a very flashy redwing; turtles; and (we think) muskrat dropping to the water from their sunning spots.