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.

Company Theme Song

About 1990, the CSX railroad and American Airlines found that they were handling multi-modal shipments together. They each had their individual electronic tracking and tracing systems. It was a natural move to link those systems together. To do so, they formed a joint venture called Global Logistics Venture (GLV). Over the years, it had its ups and downs, and changed its name to Encompass and later BridgePoint. We linked to other carriers, including ocean and trucking.

I was one of the first employees, doing programming and analysis. I was part of a skunk works project. We put together a large database showing all the movements of goods that any of the carriers in the project was able to perform, and used it to generate an itinerary for any shipment.

For the 1994 annual company meeting, my boss, Rick Poff, wanted to put on a dog and pony show.He asked me to write a theme song for it. I said sure, if I could do it on company time.Rick loved it, and asked me for the sheet music again and again. For the  show, he cobbled me a container costume. It was a big box hanging from my shoulders on suspenders.About a dozen of us sang this song:



  1. I’ve got a load of freight to move across the state.If it’s not there tomorrow, There’s  a fine. I’ve got to move this crate, and it can’t get there late, or else my job will lay right on the line. Encompass, tell me where my cargo’s gone, Is it en route or is it on my lawn? Please say it’s almost there, ’cause if it’s not, I’m in a pot of water and it’s getting hot.
  2. . I’ve got a full truck load that should be on the road. It’s due in North Dakota in a week. I sent a brand-new chair to Singapore by air, And when the chair got there it was antique. Encompass, let me see your crystal ball. Let me say, “Mirror, mirror on my wall.” Encompass, let me rub your magic lamp. I’m not a chump if you can help me be a champ.
  3. I’ve got a full container bound for Transylvania on the Lusitania, and I hope She doesn’t hit a reef, she doesn’t come to grief; it’s full of iron bars, not Ivory Soap. Encompass, help me pick which goods to ship, and find the route that’s fastest for the trip.Each carrier summon to a rendezvous, and track and trace and see how good a job they do. If you can do all these, Logistics is a breeze. I want all this and more in ninety-four!
    For the 1995 company meeting, we reprised the song, updating the last line, to go “We’ve got the basics down, it’s time to go to town–the future will arrive in ninety-five!”

The Failure of “Candide”

Voltaire’s Candide is one of the most celebrated philosophical novels of all time. It is generally understood as an attempted refutation of Leibnitz’s optimism. Leibnitz’s position is usually summarized, “All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”
We all know there’s a lot wrong with the world, so what Leibnitz is saying can only mean that if you adjusted something to fix one problem, that very adjustment would cause other problems that might be even worse. In other words, that alternate world is not even as good as this world.

Any debate on this question can only be speculative. We can’t perform experiments. We don’t have the power to make marginal changes to the world that fix specific problems. If we did, and new problems popped up, how would we know whether they were consequences of the changes we made?

Voltaire’s response is not much more than a flat-out contradiction, without supporting evidence. He shows us some truly awful things happening in this world. He expects us to conclude that there must be a possibility of a better world somehow. He just doesn’t give us any details on how that could come about. A world without devastating earthquakes would be an improvement. Is that really possible? (Spike Jones and his City Slickers did a cover of Ghost Riders in the Sky, where they sang “On horses snorting fire!” Slicker: “Is that possible?” Jones: “How would I know?”) Same here. Earthquakes seem to be a consequence of plate tectonics. Is it possible to have a planet teeming with diverse forms of life with a solid unitary crust over a long time span? How would Voltaire or Leibnitz know?
The progressive   mindset is influenced by Darwinism and is based on the assumption that things get better and better over time. That mistakes don’t last long. They die out by natural selection. Candide doesn’t even make that argument. Voltaire seems to make it an article of faith. And I don’t see how natural selection could cause earthquakes to die out.


A Lecture by H.S.M. Coxeter

The eminent geometer H.S.M. Coxeter (not to be confused with a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta) gave a colloquium at Caltech on Feb. 8, 1977. I attended it, and while it was fresh in my mind, I wrote the following account. Coxeter came into the lecture hall amid a bunch of students. They had probably just had a departmental tea. The students were grungier than I expected. At Johns Hopkins, male students were expected to wear a tie to colloquia.

Coxeter looked at the usual empty seats in the front rows, and invited anyone to come closer and get a better view of the blackboard. He was bald on top, fringed with cute curly white hair, not large in stature, and continually grinned in an engaging way. As he paused, no one came forward. He repeated the invitation. One student got up and moved to the front, and the rest all applauded.

He spoke about certain patterns of numbers and their geometric relationships. It was all very easy to follow; he’s a good teacher, as I heard some of the students comment after the lecture. He did absent-mindedly make a few mistakes. He caught some of them. I never correct anyone else’s slip of the chalk, because it doesn’t impede my own understanding, and if it did impede another listener’s, it was up to that other to ask. Nit-picking just slows down the lecture.

At one point he had us all laughing. There is a number that crops up in innumerable ways. It’s φ=(1 +5)/2, about 1.618. It’s called the golden section, mainly because if you take a rectangle whose sides are φ and 1, and cut off a 1×1 square, the remaining piece is the same shape as the original rectangle. That is, (φ-1):1 :: 1:φ.


Φ appears again in the Fibonacci series-the numbers 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, …, where each number is the sum of the previous two. The Fibonacci series developed from the question, if one pair of rabbits produces another pair of (baby) rabbits every month, and baby rabbits are ready to breed in their turn after two months have gone by, how many pairs of rabbits will there be after so many months? But Fibonacci numbers crop up in all sorts of unexpected ways. The number of seeds in one spiral of a sunflower or the number of spines around a pineapple is almost always a Fibonacci number, for instance. Now, it turns out that the ratio between consecutive Fibonacci (“fee-bone-otchy”) numbers approaches φ. The first few ratios are 1/1, 2/1, 3/2, 5/3, 8/5, 13/8, …, which as decimal numbers are 1, 2, 1.5, 1.66666…, 1.6, 1.625, …; the farther on you go, the closer you get to 1.618.

In his talk, Coxeter alluded to the golden section, which is the length of a diagonal of a pentagon whose side is 1. He called it τ (the Greek lower-case tau), even though most people call it φ (the Greek letter phi). I pronounce φ “fie,” but many equally erudite people pronounce it “fee”). The Greek letters ξπφχψ are xi, pi, phi, chi, and psi. I aim for consistency, and rhyme them all with “pie” for π, and I don’t hear anyone calling π “pee.” Coxeter explained that τ is for τομοσ, which is Greek for ‘cut.’ He joked, “People who call it φ are just making a feeble pun on Fibonacci,” and everyone laughed. I remember one other risible moment in a math colloquium. One problem in abstract algebra is the classification and enumeration of groups. The visiting professor strove mightily and concluded, “So there are exactly eleven groups of this type.” The students laughed, because they realized that it had been ages since anyone had mentioned a number lower than twenty in their classes or lectures. As a rule, math grad students don’t deal with specific numbers; they represent them with letters or other symbols. Besides, most classes of groups that we knew had infinite numbers of members: the cyclic groups of order n, for any positive integer n; similarly for the symmetric groups, or groups of permutations on n elements, again for any n.