A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Category Archives: Personal and family

Leroy Herron

When I was in junior high school at Burton Junior High School — that is, grades seven and eight — Mr Leroy Herron was a very important man in my life. He was a school counselor, and a coach for the basketball team. He was also the sponsor of the Human Relations Club, a club created to get black kids and white kids like me to learn more about what I now might call anti-racism, but then we mostly called non-discrimination. If I remember correctly, there were two white boys — Alan Kulevicz and me, and about a half dozen black girls. The school itself had a strong majority of white kids. I remember Mr Herron talking about how his son self-identified as “black,” while Mr Herron felt more comfortable, at that time, calling himself a Negro. If I recall correctly, African American, or Afro-American were also coming into vogue.

We once did a field trip to a school in Detroit where the students were all (or almost all) African American. I remember asking the principal how many of his staff were black, and how many were white. He had to stop and think, and he said that he didn’t primarily think of the teachers in racial terms. Since knowing whether someone was black or white was very important in my family, this came as a shock, and a new way of thinking.

Mr Herron loved sports, and he loved coaching. I wish I had been a decent ball player, but instead I just acted as the team’s manager. I don’t remember much about this experience, except I was at one point asked to keep score for the number of times players in the game showed “hustle,” and I had no idea how to do this, so I got razzed about it. I really was not a good manager — not as bad as I was a baseball umpire, but that’s another story.

One time, I left school crying. I don’t know why now — I was probably being bullied for being smart and weak and unpopular in some way. We lived about a mile away from the school, and I usually walked. And Mr Herron left the school looking for me, and drove until he found me. I think that I refused his help then, but his act of looking out for me is something I remember forty years later.

The Macomb Daily (the local county paper) reported back in February of 2009 that Mr Herron died in a house fire at the age of 75. My youngest brother Steve mentioned this to me over the phone. Mr Herron eventually became an assistant superintendent of the Roseville schools. I assume that he brought his love for students, for sports, and for racial equality to that job as well.

I never caught his love for sports, but he began to open my eyes to the experiences of African Americans, and he began to turn me into a man, for which I will always be grateful.

I am a Wordnik

This week, I started as the lead engineer for Wordnik‘s analytics platform. Except I get a little antsy about the term “engineer,” so I asked them to make my title “Lead, Analytics Platform.” It’s a real pleasure to work with the Wordnik team so far–super excited to be working with Tony Tam and Erin McKean, and also former Powersetters Colin Pollack and Robert Voyer. When Robert joined Wordnik over a year ago, I badgered him into getting me an interview–it’s only now that it’s come to fruition.

There were many good things about working at Bing and Microsoft, especially the large amounts of friendship I found there, and the large amounts of data I got to explore and understand. Still, it was a real joy to fire up a terminal session and start exercising my atrophied Unix muscles.

I’ll be spending most of my time in Silicon Valley/San Francisco with visits back to Michigan from time to time.

Let me end by pointing to Erin’s inspiring TED talk, which was the starting point of my path to Wordnik.

Remembering Miss Mullens

It’s Ada Lovelace Day and we are encouraged to write about women who were significant in getting us involved in Science and Technology.

I remember my Junior High Geometry teacher, Miss Mullens. She was very, very short, kind of shy, but very funny — a classic geek, really, now that I think of it (geek, of course, being a term of praise here, not a negative thing).

Junior High school geometry, for me, was mostly about learning to do proofs — classic Elements of Euclid stuff. This was in the heyday of the “new math” movement, and I think — although this is a long time ago — that they emphasized thought processes over rote memorization. And I loved doing proofs, getting them right. I know I got a “A+” in the class. It was a great encouragement to me. I must have had this class in grade 9, because I didn’t do well in Algebra (8th grade) until the teacher — Mr Perkins — called me out on my laziness. Mr Perkins actually had a paddle and used it on students (this was in the late 60s). Miss Mullens was too small for that of course — but I would have done anything for her; her praise was enough.

Alas, I doubt if she’ll read these words — perhaps, even, her name was Mullins, or Mullen. It’s been a long time. But she was a great teacher, and I remember her fondly.

Singing with

This weekend my good friend Samuel Sommers and I traveled south to sing shape note music. It’s Sam’s usual practice to go south on the first Sunday in May and the Saturday before to sing in Huntsville, Alabama on the Saturday and then in Dutton, Alabama for the Dedication Sunday at Shady Grove church, and he graciously invited me along.

The massive storms and numerous tornadoes that hit Alabama changed our plans. We received an email from David Ivey saying that the Huntsville singing was cancelled because people were being asked to cancel meetings and there was no electricity at the venue. I was disappointed not to sing with the Iveys, but it opened up the opportunity to sing at Harrod’s Creek Church in Brownsboro, Kentucky (just outside Louisville). This was first singing there to be held without Bob Meek, the singing’s founder, and it was held in his memory. It was good to be able to see people gathered to remember Bob and sing the music he loved and so deeply supported, and to fellowship with Pat Meek and the other singers who were feeling his loss. Sam and I stayed Saturday only; I understand from others that the memorial on Sunday was very moving.

We weren’t sure what we should do about Sunday. Eventually, though, we got through to Brad Bahler of Indiana, who, along with wife Karen and son John, had gone down to stay with Syble and Bill Adams. Syble insisted that we come, though the church was without electricity. Mark Brown, who leads music at Shady Grove, had pointed out that when the church was built, it didn’t have electricity, so they probably could get along without it. We arrived a little after 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, and, after greeting the Adamses and their families, helped set up–not many people had arrived, and so we assumed there wouldn’t be many come. Decoration Day is the day families gather to clean the gravestones, place flowers on the graves, and sing in memory of the beloved dead. While we waited for Mark to come in to start the singing, we sang a few songs, including Martin with the words by Charles Wesley:

Jesus, Lover of my soul,
Let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high!
Hide me, Oh my Savior, hide,
Till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide;
Oh receive my soul at last.

It was a liminal, holy space, between death and life, between memory and news, between worry and comfort, between safety and loss, between capriciousness and care. Everyone had a story about the storm’s destruction. No one from the church died in the storms, for which all were so grateful. The home of the church’s pastor, Brother Ben, was destroyed, the family having huddled underneath an overturned couch as their home was torn apart around them. One of Syble’s daughters and her son were driving home, in separate cars, but together, when the daughter saw a funnel cloud in her rear-view mirror. Her son, a new driver, was ahead of her, and stopped at a red light, which he didn’t run, because he was afraid what his mother would think. She finally signaled to him to go, hoping to outrace the tornado. Fortunately, the funnel went up into the sky, and hopped over them, and they were saved. People testified to the goodness of neighbors and the providence of God. One man deeply felt a survivor’s guilt for coming through without damage.

The memorial singing was shorter than usual, just the morning, but deeply felt. The usual “dinner on the grounds” was minimal, by Southern standards, but more than amply adequate, featuring ham sandwiches and peanut butter cake (Syble found time to make a cake sometime between when the electricity went on at her house around ten p.m. the night before and the start of the singing). Most people did not stay, but went back to their homes and neighbors. About a dozen of us ate together, the Adamses kindly showing us their hospitality, but also, I believe, glad to have us there, both as a respite from the storm terrors, but also as a reminder of the love that many felt for them.

Computer-assisted friendship

Computer-assisted friendship
Will Fitzgerald

A response to “Faux Friendship,” by William Deresiewicz [1]

Deresiewicz decries social networking sites, especially Facebook, especially in the way that relationships between users of Facebook are called “friends.” Writing a status message is “like pornography.” We have no time for stories. Our relationships are commercialized. We are overwhelmed with the number of false friends. Facebook “seduces” us. It’s a “mirage.” Facebook friends are simulacra of friends. These sites “have falsified our understanding of intimacy itself.” Friendship is devolving.

His argument runs something like this: in the good old days, we had real friends; you know, like Jonathan and David. Then, a lot of things changed—Democracy! Capitalism! Equality! Industrialization! Mass Media! Friendship wasn’t just between male non-homosexuals anymore. And now Facebook is changing things again. It has disadvantages—it affords shallow communications more than deep ones, it’s built for commercial purposes, and so our social relationships are deformed toward commercial ends—and therefore, friendship is doomed. “We have given our hearts to machines, and now we are turning into machines.” (As further proof: a “recent book on the sociology of modern science” notes that at a networking event (that is, an event whose main purpose is to make social connections), “There do not seem to be any singletons—disconsolately lurking at the margins—nor do dyads appear, except fleetingly.” In other words—at an event created so people could meet other people, people were meeting other people instead of being alone or with one other person.

It is unfortunate that Deresiewicz took out the reactionary essay template, and started filling in the blanks. I think he could describe the advantages and disadvantages, the risks and opportunities of social networking sites. He could help us mitigate against the bad and amplify the good. Instead, he crafted a classic rant, full of guilt-by-association logical fallacies and arguments from silence. He could have helped us understand better what it could mean to be a friend—its limits and extents, instead of just looking backward to the days of “10-page missives.” (You know, in the happy days before universal literacy and a 40-hour work week. Hmm, I’d actually be willing to wager a significant sum of money that the per capita production of the modern equivalent of 10-page missives—what, about 2000 words?—is greater now than in even the days of the Bloomsbury Group.)

I have a few more than 500 “friends” on Facebook. Like many people I know, I would call some of them friends and some of them Facebook friends. By calling someone a “Facebook friend,” I am signaling some attenuation in the meaning of “friend.” Many of these people are co-workers or former co-workers. These people I call co-workers or former co-workers. A few, I am glad to say, I can also call friend.  A few are former students; these I call former students. Many of these are people I sing with throughout the country (avocationally, I enjoy Sacred Harp singing); these I call people I sing with. Some of them are also my friends. Some are members of my family; these I call my wife, my son, my daughter, my niece, my brother, etc. A few are  people who I know through work, colleagues or potential clients or employers, or people whose career I might be able to further, or who might be able to further my career. Most of these I would call a Facebook friend, but probably not a friend.

You see what I am doing, I think. That Facebook decided to call this connection friend does not imply that I adopt these connections as friendships. Facebook’s adoption of the term friend has more to do with some of the social and cultural factors which Deresiewicz, in his calmer moments, describes well, than with Facebook friend changing the very nature of friendship. And I don’t think I am especially aware; the existence of the expression Facebook friend in and of itself signals this, as I stated previously.

Some have argued strongly that social networking sites like Facebook should have a more nuanced public ontology of relationships; a teacher’s primary school students are not “friends” like the teacher’s co-workers are, and they shouldn’t have access to the same pictures, statuses, etc. [2]. Fair enough; this is a real issue. In point of fact, Facebook, has recently announced a revision of the user profile [3], including something called “Featured Friends”:

You can now highlight the friends who are important to you, such as your family, best friends or teammates. Create new groups of friends, or feature existing friends lists. I opted to feature my Ultimate Frisbee teammates, giving the rest of my friends a way to learn more about that part of my life.

Also included are more structured ways to describe one’s work and school history, and other facets of one’s life. But, one must say, this is likely mostly to benefit Facebook; most of the people in my social network either already know or do not care that Dan Fitzgerald is my brother, for example; and that Daniel E Fitzgerald is the Facebook account he has. But the people who do care are Facebook itself and the companies to which it sells advertising and other network data. Knowing that this account belongs to my brother instead of just my friend is of great economic value to them—of course, by this I mean the social network, now annotated with relationship labels.

I suspect there will be, and perhaps should be, a pushback against this further structuring of relationship labeling. I suspect we may even long for the day when we just labeled people as (Facebook) friend, bleached of the depth of meaning I have in my real friendships and other relationships.

I entitled this essay “computer-assisted friendship,” because, in general, I am very glad that networking and computer technology has made it easier to maintain friendships and relationships with a wider variety of people, from my past and my present, who live near me and who far away from me, at levels ranging from transactional, to superficial, to amusing, and to deep engagement, in ways not so easily supported by the technologies of paper, pen, highway transportation systems, and a postal service.

So, I’m grateful for all these “friends” and friends: The girl from my high-school Christian band lives on a farm not so far away. Interesting. The singing friend with whom I share jokes, car rides, and nurturing wisdom. I’m grateful. The singing friend from a red state with whom I never discussed politics, but who posts anti-tax and pro-America messages. We’re learning how to engage and disagree respectfully. The woman whom I have barely met, but who is a recent widow and who posts long and heart-breaking weblog posts as well as Auburn University football fandom. A call to prayer, and a new team to know about. The artist whose work in on our walls. I’m glad to know about her trips to Africa and where she’s selling her art. The pastor in San Francisco who worries that technology will destroy friendship? I hope this essay will lessen his worries.

[1] Deresiewicz, William, “Faux Friendship,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, December 6, 2009, http://chronicle.com/article/Faux-Friendship/49308, accessed December 9, 2010.

[2] Adams, Paul, “The Real Life Social Network v2,” http://www.slideshare.net/padday/the-real-life-social-network-v2, accessed December 9, 2010.

[2] Wiseman, Josh, “Introducing the New Profile,” December 5, 2010. http://blog.facebook.com/blog.php?post=462201327130 , accessed December 9, 2010.

Were children again: Report from Camp Fasola, 2009, Session 1 (Adults Emphasis)

At nearly the last minute, Tom Malone suggested that we drive down to Camp Fasola on the Sunday before Camp began in the evening, and return on Thursday, the last day of Camp. I had to work on Friday (“Work—the curse of the singing class,” quipped Richard Schmeidler at dinner one day), and Tom is in the midst of a move back east. So, it was convenient to do this—as if driving 13 hours one way is anyone’s idea of ‘convenient.’ Still we jabbered away and then were blessed to run into Joyce Walton at the memorial marker to Seaborn and and Thomas Denson at the Winston Country Courthouse in Double Springs, Alabama (near camp), and things just keep getting better.

Camp McDowell is surprisingly posh. The “cabins” contained a large (air conditioned) common area with a fridge, sink, tables, and (most importantly) a coffee maker with coffee provided. The rooms had two beds, their own washroom with shower, and an in-window air conditioner (not really needed during our stay, we still appreciated its promise). Unfortunately, much of this requires electricity, and major storms had moved into the area earlier in the day; so, all the lights and air conditioning and water were off. The undefeatable Camp staff still managed to pull together food for us. We had an evening singing in the beautiful chapel, which was cut a bit short so we could walk back to the cabins before dark descended. Just before “lights out,” the lights came on, so all was well.

During the three days of class, many of us started the day singing out of the words only Lloyd’s Hymnal with Eugene Forbes, most of us sitting in comfortable rocking chairs. It was a delight to see Eugene at Camp; I’d met him two years previously, but neither he nor I were able to attend Camp last year. Then a hearty breakfast (note to northern singers: when eating grits, think “polenta,” not “cream of wheat,” and you will be delighted). And then, on to classes. Oh, there were so many good ones! You can see for yourself by looking at the schedule. My only regret this year was several programs I was unable to attend.

I’d say a major theme of the Camp was paying attention to the Rudiments, the teaching (found in the beginning of our tunebooks) of the basics of time, tune and accent. There were some very new singers there (one man, I believe, had never sung this music at all), and others had been singing for years. But under the leadership of the Camp teachers, we “were children again” and learned to sing better. I don’t have time to describe all of what we learned, but here are two vignettes. Several teachers described the importance of accent: that is, the “stress of voice or emphasis on one part of a sentence, strain or measure, more than another.” Familiar tunes became new again as we began to sing them with the accenting principles described in the rudiments. A second class highlight for me was Aldo Ceresa’s session, “And then I’ll be at rest,” where we paid close attention to the rests in the music: resting where we’re instructed to rest; starting and stopping those rests together; and singing when we’re instructed to sing. Several tunes came alive to me in new ways. Others will have different favorite learning moments, but these are a couple of mine.

There were three thematic sessions. On Monday, Harry Eskew commemorating the 200th birthday of William “Singing Billy” Walker (who was born the same year as Lincoln and Darwin). On Tuesday, Tom Malone did a eulogistic lesson on the songs of Hugh McGraw, who gave us the gift of his presence at Camp. There was also a slideshow of Hugh McGraw’s life at lunch immediately before the lesson, including high school pictures of the young man anointed “cutest boy” by his class. It was a good thing to be able to pay our respect to Hugh, and many heartfelt words were said during the lesson by Richard DeLong, Joyce Walton and others. On Wednesday, Tom Malone and Sandra Wikinson also did a eulogistic lesson on the Kitchens family, especially the life and music of Elder J.E. Kitchens (1912-1979), a Sacred Harp singer and composer, and former president of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company. Several members of the Kitchens family, including his four daughters, were present. There are three tunes by Kitchens in the Denson book (279, 512, 568), and we sang from these as well as other tunes, including the very delightful God-given tune “Oh, Come With Me,” a baptismal meditation on Song of Solomon 4:8 and other scriptural images.

And the evening singing sessions. David Ivey promised us that our singing would get better over the three days, and his promise was kept. Everyone will have his or her own favorite moments, but watching Miss Josie Hyde lead 507 (Sermon on the Mount) on Wednesday night was surely a lesson. (There is a YouTube video of Miss Josie leading 507 at the Aldridge Memorial Singing right before Camp).

Other highlights including singing on the porch with Cheryl and Rick Foreman (in the dark because of another power outage); the interesting tunes and amazing sight-singing ability of the others at Jesse Pearlman Karlsberg’s “Composium” (new compositions singing); and “The First Annual No Book Rocking Chair Convention,” about which perhaps little should be said, except that I’ll never think of David Ivey in quite the same way again. And you might think that Jeff Sheppard could not jig, but you might be surprised.

I will fail if I try to do my thank yous properly, but I am grateful for David Ivey’s leadership in putting Camp together, and Karen Ivey’s yeowomanly efforts to make Camp a welcoming and comfortable place. I’m thankful for the Camp McDowell staff who literally guided us through storms. I’m thankful for the excellent teachers and the willing students. And I’m thankful for the composers and authors and compilers and teachers of this music.


I’m sitting in the airport at O’Hare after the longest plane taxi ride I can remember. It doesn’t really matter how long it took since the flight left late, arrived late, and I have even longer to wait to get on a flight to Seattle. I was supposed to be in Seattle this morning, but a mix-up on tickets (that was my own fault) meant I couldn’t leave until this evening. If things go very well, I’ll get to sleep by midnight Pacific time. Plus someone called me on the phone today to ask a favor and started yelling when I didn’t say yes.

This is as bad as my life gets.

Meanwhile, in Mumbai …
Meanwhile, in the Congo …
Meanwhile, in Sudan …
Meanwhile, in Detroit …

I don’t want to sound maudlin, but I feel like I have to record this to get out of my snit. Maybe I’ll be able to sleep on the plane, and maybe I’ll feel great tomorrow.

Kalamazoo to Sitka?

I’ve been thinking about traveling to Sitka, Alaska using my frequent flyer miles. But here’s what Northwest suggests a trip would look like there-and-back-again:

And that’s just to get to Juneau! I guess I won’t be going to Sitka. Unless Sarah Palin is offering rides.

A few personal notes …

It’s been too long since my last update, but life has been busy, especially with the Microsoft purchase. But a few notes:

  1. I enjoyed singing Sacred Harp at the Michiana and Kalamazoo annual singings this weekend, and James Nelson-Gingerich gave me the *first* copy of the print version of 26th edition of the Harmonia Sacra for my work on the Harmonia Sacra website.
  2. I’m looking forward to a family reunion of all my brothers (five of us!) this coming weekend.
  3. I’ve been off to California a couple of times to meet about the Microsoft purchase, and I got my first “Microsoft Live!” tee-shirt
  4. Summer in Michigan is a wonderful thing this year.
  5. We just had our one-year anniversary of living in ‘the new house.’ So I guess it isn’t the new house, especially since we finally sold the old one.

Who acquired Powerset?

microsoft acquires powerset