Civil War Christmas Song

The Jackson Homestead Museum has a lot of papers written by Ellen Dorinda Jackson. Most prominently, her diary entitled “Annals from the Old Homestead” describes daily life in the 1860s. It includes a description of how the Jackson Homestead was used as a station on the underground railroad.


The poem below was written by Ellen and is from a collection of poems about the Jackson Homestead.

Christmas Song
(Tune of “Johnnie come marching Home.”)

When Christmas comes with its joy again,
     Hurrah! Hurrah!
We’ll give it a hearty welcome then,
     Hurrah! Hurrah!
The aunts will cheer, the uncles shout,
Each grandchild then will sure turn out,
     And we’ll all feel gay
As Christmas comes round again.

The old porch door we’ll open wide,
     Hurrah! Hurrah!
To welcome home with loving pride,
     Hurrah! Hurrah!
The bravest lads and lasses sweet
That e’er at grandmamma’s you’d meet,
     And we’ll all feel gay
As Christmas comes round again.

Get ready for the Jubilee,
     Hurrah! Hurrah!
We’ll give grandmother three times three,
     Hurrah! Hurrah!
The Christmas cake is ready here,
The pies and pastry too, my dear,
     And we’ll all be gay
As Christmas comes round again.

There’s Henry, Fred, and sisters fine,
     Hurrah! Hurrah!
There’s Fullers three, three Halls; that’s nine.
     Hurrah! Hurrah!
Brave Will Curtis, Kitty the pet,
And Emma, -welcome to the set,-
     And we’ll all be gay
As Christmas comes round again.

Let love and friendship on this day,
     Hurrah! Hurrah!
Their choicest treasures now display,
     Hurrah! Hurrah!
And let each one perform some part,
To fill with joy some other’s heart,
     And we’ll all be gay
As Christmas comes round again.

                         –Ellen D. Jackson

How Flin Flon Got Its Name

There are very few cities in the world that are divided between more than one statoid. You might think of places like Bristol,  Tennessee/Virginia, but that is two cities, each with its own municipal administration. In many countries, the laws regarding municipalities prohibit a city from straddling subdivisions..Flin Flon, Manitoba/Saskatchewan is an exception, thanks to the Flin Flon Extension of Boundaries Act ). What kind of name is Flin Flon? In about 1914, a group of prospectors found a cast-off dime novel titled “The Sunless City”, by J. E. Preston-Muddock. It was a tale of an explorer who discovered a city of gold, engulfed in a bottomless lake. When the prospectors later found an actual deposit of copper-zinc ore near a deep lake, they named their claim “Flin Flon” after the fictional explorer, Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin. The city commissioned “Li’l Abner” cartoonist Al Capp to design a statue of the explorer.flintabbatey-flonatin-flin-flon-mascot-statue-josiah-book-sunless-city-who-town-manitoba-52395097

American Grammar Revolution

When I was working on automated essay scoring, the goal was to simulate human judgments a closely as possible. Some human scorers are prescriptivists. They like to follow the rules they learned in school. Others are descriptivists, They treat grammar as an object of scientific study. Prescriptivists have a set of shibboleths or grammar peeves such as never end a sentence with a preposition or start one with a  conjunction. or split an infinitive. Say “It is I,’ not “It is me.” Modern grammarians call these zombie rules. They originated when someone wrote a book just to criticize someone else’s book. The author would say, in effect, “My taste is so refined, and my ear is so attuned to the patterns of good English, that  I’ve earned the right to promulgate rules.” Their opponents were not ready to roll over and play dead.At the end of the Revolution, Noah Webster’s Spelling Book was an established reference, and Americans were ready for a  reboot. They had fought to get free of the oppressive, outmoded, arbitrary  Old-World forms. Webster reformed his spelling, dropping many unnecessary letters. I just read “Founding Grammars” by Rosemarie Ostler, in which she analyzes the most popular grammar textbooks published in the aftermath of the Revolution. Each new edition was a squib in the battle between prescriptivists and descriptivists which continues to this day. Andrew Jackson was the people’s president, which tilted the scales toward descriptivism. Davy Crockett’s homespun language in his memoirs pushed further. People spoke the way they felt comfortable. Why bend for some self-appointed expert?

On the other hand, some saw the Revolution as their chance for upward mobility (clear the tracks, all you dukes and earls!) Such people were apt to become grammar snobs, avidly reading and memorizing the grammar maxims. Always on guard against letting an ain’t slip out and revealing themselves as parvenus.

When I’m unsure of how an idiom goes, When you make a minor improvement to something ,  do you kick it up a notch or ratchet it up a step? With the Internet’s resources, you can take an actual survey of what people have been saying.And that’s what I do. It just makes sense to me. If I say it the way most people say it, it won’t sound odd. That puts me in the descriptivist camp, functionally.

How does automated essay scoring decide? Tests are always calibrated against human readers, so if a majority of the readers make a prescriptive choice, the system will mimic them.

The Redcoats Are Back

I was getting VIP treatment all weekend long. What did I do to deserve it?

  1. In 1962, I applied for admission to MIT, and was accepted.
  2. I worked hard there for four years and graduated.
  3. Then I managed to stay alive for fifty more years.
  4. Finally, I made the trip to Boston for my fiftieth class reunion.
  5. I bought and wore my red blazer.

The tradition for MIT reunions is that at or after the fiftieth, you get to wear a red blazer and a striped tie in the MIT colors, available by special purchase.  50reunion

Janice and me in front of the Stratton Student Center, after registering, Tues., June 2, 2016. I’m wearing the standard red blazer and striped tie. Straw hats were given to all 50th reunion class members.  There were men dressed that way all over Boston and Cambridge. (There were  a few women in the class, too, with red blazers.)But it didn’t lead to any fortuitous meetings.

It has become an annual event that commencement is accompanied by Tech Night at the Pops, a special program of the Boston Pops Orchestra in Symphony Hall. Janice and I went to the concert in 1991 for my 25th reunion. An insert in the program said, “Thank you for attending the 199th annual Tech Night at Pops!” That would imply that the first one was in 1818.

The show at the Pops began with a bit of a retrospective. It said that in 1916, the president of AT&T, an alumnus, set up telephone hookups to major U.S. cities, so that alumni groups there could hear the proceedings and speak to the assemblage. At this concert, 2016, there were some audience polls conducted by texting, for another technological note. We voted on what color the conductor, Keith Lockhart, should wear. The concert was mainly Russian music.A graduating student, Julia Cha, had been invited to play Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The program ended with a sing-along, where we could vote for the pieces to sing. The picks included “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I Want to” and “American Pie”.

MIT was founded in 1861, and its campus was in Back Bay on Newbury St. By 1916, it was feeling a crunch for space. It acquired land in Cambridge on the north bank of the Charles River Basin. The move took place in 1916 with great ceremony. Students made a huge papier-mache beaver mascot. A barge called the Bucentaur (from Venetian history) crossed the Charles River with the MIT charter. There were pageants and fireworks. Commencement in June 1916 was the dedication reunion. To celebrate the new campus, the red jackets were introduced.  I entered  MIT in 1963 and graduated in 1966. I don’t remember much about my graduation; I even considered being absent.



A Visit to the Ancestral Homestead

When I  first set up our genealogical wiki,  I just had a list of names. Some of them with dates, parents, spouses, and children. To make sure they were really related to us, I searched for each one online. One of them, Edward Jackson,  was mentioned in a Wikipedia article.I was thrilled to find that his house, built in the 17th century, has been preserved as a historic landmark. Since  I was going to be in Boston for my class reunion, I started making arrangements  to visit the house with my brother Steven, who is also a descendant.Our line of descent, according to my records, is from Edward Jackson to his daughter Hannah Jackson Ward, to her son Jonathan Ward, to his daughter Remember Ward Richardson, to her son David Richardson, to his daughter Hannah Richardson Moore; to her son Jonathan Moore, to his daughter, Sarah Grey Dennett Moore, to her daughter Emma Augusta  Moore, who lived to be over 100, and who lived with my grandparents, so my father grew up knowing her.

G and S Jackson Homestead

It’s an amazing feeling to walk into a house where your six-times-great ancestors lived and played .  We got to look at one of the most precious exhibits: a handwritten diary by one of the daughters, Ellen, who titled it “Annals from The Old Homestead“, dated 1895.  It provides documentary evidence that the house was a stop on the Underground Railway.

A diagram on the wall showed slaveholding homes and Underground Railway houses in the neighborhood. Steven noted with poignancy that some of the slaves could easily have slipped away from their owners in the night. But what Jackson was doing was illegal. And if too many took advantage of it, it would be discovered.

In colonial times, John Eliot was held in high honor as “apostle to the Indians” (Puritan missionary) He was a peacemaker between Indians and colonists. Edward Jackson was one of his strongest supporters. Eliot began his mission to “civilize and Christianize” the Nonantum Indians on October 28, 1646.   In 1896, the town of Newton appropriated $250  for a commemorative 250th anniversary celebration of Eliot’s mission. The program for the event and the transcripts of the addresses show a sectarianism that would  have the ACLU tearing its hair out today.


How Many Parts of Speech Are There?

In school, we learn that there are eight parts of speech: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, preposition, conjunction, and interjection. Modern grammarians recognise a couple of others: determiners and particles.
Phrasal verbs are idioms combining a verb and a particle. Some examples are “slow down,” “stand up,” “turn over.” Those particles (down, up, over) all look like prepositions, but that’s not how they function.
In “Jack and Jill went up the hill,” “hill” is the object of “up”. In “Stand up when a lady enters the room,” there is no object of “up.”

Determiner is a useful basket category that includes articles, and many types of adjectives, such as demonstratives (this, that, these, those), and quantifiers (some, many, all). The reason for making them a separate category is to simplify the statement of some grammar rules. In my computational linguist job, I found that I could get more precise and significant parses of sentences by using those parts of speech. The determiners that you can use with mass nouns (such as milk, patience, and time, are not always the same ones you can use with count nouns (such as book, event, and second). For us, part of speech was just a convenient arbitrary label, to be used in whatever way improved the analysis.


Hey, Google! Pick me!

In one of my several periods of unemployment, I dabbled in SEO (Search Engine Optimization). One of my neighbors had an e-tail website. He asked if I would help him raise his site’s prominence on Google. I read everything I could find
on the subject. One rule is to provide the best content. If you build it, they will come. The search engines have developed very sensitive ways to measure the respectability and authority of a site, and how well it satisfies their users, based on the search terms. It’s like a courtship between the search engine optimizers and the search engines. The website tries to put on its most attractive face. The search engine doesn’t want to seem “easy.” A search engine optimizer has to be aware of the tricks that other SEOs are using, and that Google has learned about and taken countermeasures against.

At that time, my own site,, had the very respectable PageRank of 5, sometimes straying as high as 6. The PageRank is based on how many other pages link to yours, and how respectable those pages are. So one effective SEO strategy is to persuade lots of other webmasters to link to your site.

You can pay a search engine to boost your site in the returns. I rejected that approach. I felt that offering superior content was more honorable and probably more sustainable. A pitfall to avoid for this site was that he was selling a skin care product. If he made any health claims, the FDA was poised to come down on him like a ton of bricks.