Three Revolutionary Mansions

Our 39th wedding anniversary is coming up this Saturday. As part of our celebration, Janice and I took an overnight trip to see some historic places in Virginia.

We visited Gunston Hall, 1958 commemorative stamp showing Gunston Hall, Home of George Masonthe home of George Mason, who wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. This Declaration was a precursor of our Bill of Rights, Amendments 1-10 to the Constitution. Gunston Hall is only a few miles from Mount Vernon. George Mason and George Washington were good friends, and both members of the Pohick Church (which we viewed from outside). The two Georges had a dispute when Mason refused to sign the Constitution in 1787 because at that time it did not have a Bill of Rights.

The preamble to the Virginia Declaration has language that parallels the Declaration of Independence: “… all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” The part about “property,” derived from John Locke’s writings, was left out of the Declaration of Independence, because it might have been used to perpetuate slavery.

As a challenge to visitors, the Gunston Hall Visitor Center had nine cards with purported rights printed on them, and asked which of those nine rights were not included in the Virginia Declaration. The three that were not included were “the right to meet one’s elected representative,” “the right to privacy,” and “the right to bear arms.” It might be worth noting that the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade was based on a right to privacy supposedly concealed in the Ninth Amendment.

The Virginia Declaration also says, in a later section, that “no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people, but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.“

In Fredericksburg, we visited the Kenmore Plantation. That was the home of Fielding Lewis and his wife Betty, George Washington’s sister. Lewis is not considered a Founding Father, but he was a wealthy Patriot who sacrificed to the cause of independence.

Our last historic site was James Madison’s Montpelier. Madison is often called the “Father of the Constitution.” 1986 stamp showing James Madison, president 1809-1817 In the debates of the Constitutional Convention, Madison provided an intellectual foundation, thanks to his extensive studies. He had read the history of prior attempts at self-government, with attention to what worked and what went wrong to cause democratic polities to fail.

Each of the three Georgian mansions displayed a copy of the Fry-Jefferson map of Virginia and Maryland. Co-cartographer Peter Jefferson was Thomas Jefferson’s father.


Taxing My Patience

I’ve just submitted my 2015 tax returns. This was my golden tax return. The fiftieth Form 1040 I’ve filed. I looked in my files, and the oldest 1040 was my 1966 return. Does that make me an expert? Malcolm Gladwell’s criterion in “Outliers” for being an expert at something is spending 10,000 hours on it. So, yes, if I’ve averaged 200 hours per year.

It only seems like 200 hours. It has often been torture. The tax forms ask questions that use recondite accounting terms. I feel like echoing Dr. McCoy on Star Trek and writing on the form, “I’m a computational linguist, not a CPA.” And if I get the questions wrong, I might end up paying too much, or being audited. My father was audited once, and it took a big chunk out of his life. What a dilemma for an obsessive-compulsive.

Listen, even if I am an expert, don’t come to me for tax advice.

For a few years when we were first married, we took our taxes to an accountant. Then I noticed that I was spending just as much time gathering documents for the accountant as I had ever spent doing it on my own. When your situation doesn’t change much from year to year, you can just look at what you filled in last year and use the new numbers from your reporting forms, the 1099s and so on. Especially if you know it was done right last year.

I would get the blank forms from the library, and fill them in with pencil. I remember many times when I thought I had finished, and found a document with tax significance that had been overlooked. That was exasperating, because there’s a cascade effect. I had to go through every form and update all the amounts that depended on that new item. There were times when I had used pen and had to go back to blank forms.

Sometimes, I had to use logic to see where to enter an amount from a reporting form. If the amount was money that we received, it should increase the actual tax paid; if it was an expense for us, it should decrease the tax if anything. To apply that logic, I would have to skip from form to form.

Then we started using tax software. Last-minute revisions were easy now. But I had one disastrous experience. I entered all my data, including income from a home business. Then the software asked me to enter my income (again) from that same home business. I thought I saw a possible reason why it asked me twice, so I filled it in again, and filed the return. But when I looked over what I had filed, I saw that the home business income was included twice in my AGI. At that point, I started screaming. My voice took three days to recover. It meant that I had to recompute and file an amended return.

When my children were young, I did their returns for them, but at about high school age, I started explaining their forms to them, so that I could hand the job over in future.

The burden of taxes is not just paying them. Computing them is forced labor for the government, of a particularly unpleasant kind. I wonder if it causes so much mental anguish that it pushes some people over the brink, or leads to divorce.

Congress keeps on teasing us by debating tax simplification. I haven’t seen any simplifications, though.

When I first made this post, I had just filed my return. Now we’ve received four more reporting forms, Schedule K-1 for four accounts. When I ask my tax preparation software how to enter data from Schedule K-1, it gives me detailed instructions that don’t work, because they tell me to click on things that aren’t there. It nonchalantly tells me, oh yes, sometimes the Schedule K-1 doesn’t come until April or May, because the reporting entity has to compute their taxes first. I’ve been crying.


My New Phonemes

You probably know that there are people who have built entire languages from scratch. Some such languages were designed to facilitate international communication, such as Esperanto (1887) and Interlingua (1951). Some were supposed to be more “scientific” than natural language, such as Loglan (1955). Others were for use in a fictional world, such as Qenya (Lord of the Rings, 1954) and Klingon (Star Trek, 1967). There is even an association for people who want to create or work with constructed languages, the Language Creation Society.

In 1961, my brother Steven and I toyed around with our own language, Lawx (as the language of the Isle of Man is called Manx). We didn’t have enough patience to develop a full vocabulary and grammar. Its alphabet is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). As far as I can remember, we only created one complete sentence in Lawx:zikutin

This sentence uses two phonemes that aren’t in the IPA. I don’t know of any language but Lawx that uses them. The one that looks like a ʃ (/sh/) with a circle at the top right is supposed to be spoken by salivating and then saying “sh” while spraying droplets of saliva (symbolized by the circle). Hold your hand in front of your mouth, and if it doesn’t get wet, you’re not saying it right. The one that looks like a merged fx is pronounced by making the guttural throat-clearing sound of /ch/ as in German “ach” or Scottish “loch”, while touching your lower lip to your upper incisors, so that the escaping breath makes an “f” sound at the same time.

I don’t know of any other phoneme that can be traced to the invention of a specific person. Please let me be unique in that regard, too.

Spelling Quandary

At my first programming job, one of the areas I worked on was the parser. The program’s user would type in a command, and the parser would break it up to figure out what the command was saying. Users are fallible, so sometimes they would type something that couldn’t be parsed. Discussing this with my colleagues, I obviously had to use the word “parsable.” I didn’t ever have occasion to write it down, and from the pronunciation, it could have been spelled parsable, parseable, or parsible.

Years later (April 2008), I had to try to determine its correct spelling. My desk/collegiate dictionaries had “parse,” but didn’t list any derived words ending in -ble.

How do other people spell it? With the resources available on the Internet, you can poll spellings. My step 1 was to enter the various spellings in Google. Google gave a hit count of 172,000 for “parsable”, 101,000 for “parseable”, and 2,120 for “parsible.” You can’t rely on Google for this kind of inquiry, because it often treats variant spellings as matches. A lot of the pages returned for “parseable” may actually contain the spelling “parsable”.

Google Ngram Viewer is a tool that permits a more scientific analysis, and it shows that “parsible” was the first spelling to appear in print (1897), but “parsable” has been by far most frequent since 1970.

Step 2 was a corpus search. I had access to the British National Corpus, and the Corpus of Contemporary American English, each of which is a searchable collection of millions of words in writing samples selected to be representative. Between them, those corpora had three instances of “parsable” and no instances of any other spelling. So this is probably not a case where British and American English differ.

Step 3 was the unabridged dictionaries. I found “parsable” (and not “parseable”) in the OED and in the unabridged Random House Dictionary of the English Language.

Step 4 was to find which spelling was most compatible with other similar words. I searched a machine-readable dictionary of over 100,000 words. In it, I found that the ending -eable occurs in 78 words. Of those, 40 end in -ceable or -geable. The silent -e is retained so that the preceding c or g will be pronounced soft. In 11 more, the e is not silent, as in “agreeable” and “malleable.” All of the remaining 27 end in the pattern <long vowel><consonant>eable. Not one of them has a short vowel or two consonants before the ending, as “parseable” would if it were the chosen spelling. What’s more, all 27 of them are accepted variant spellings for words that don’t have the silent -e, as in “movable,” “moveable”. If English spelling were consistent, there would be no doubt that “parsable” is the correct spelling.

I concluded that “parsable” was the best choice from all viewpoints. Since I was staking my bets on “parsable,” I wanted to back that choice in any way I could. I didn’t have any clout with the dictionary publishers, but there is a reference source that anyone can edit: Wikipedia. I went to the Talk page for the Wikipedia article on Parsing, and found that the spelling question was already under discussion. I posted my investigations. Then I set about changing “parseable” to “parsable” in every Wikipedia article that contained it.

Conclusion: English, like all languages, has mechanisms for forming new words as needed. These mechanisms may or may not fully determine the spelling, pronunciation, definition, and part of speech of the new word.


What Is an Island?

Here’s another borderline case that challenges the categories we take for granted. An island is a body of land completely surrounded by water, smaller than a continent.

The Orinoco River splits into two branches near Tamatama, in Amazonas state, Venezuela. One branch flows north and disembogues in Delta Amacuro state. The other (the Casiquiare canal) flows south and joins the Rio Negro, which meets the Amazon near Manaus, Brazil. In this way, all of the Guianas (Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana) and substantial parts of Brazil and Venezuela are surrounded by river-waters and the Atlantic Ocean, in effect forming a kind of island. If geographers actually considered it an island, at over a million km.², it would be the second-largest in the world. A convenient, but misleading, name for it would be Guianas Island.

How about Goat Island, which separates the American Falls from Horseshoe Falls in the Niagara River? In bird’s-eye view, it is indeed surrounded by water, but at drastically different elevations. The same can be said of Guianas Island.

In 1964, when the Prudential Tower in Boston was completed, some wise guy pointed out that it was the tallest building in North America at the time. It wasn’t as tall as the Empire State Building, but that one is on an island-Manhattan. A wiser guy would have pointed out that the Prudential Tower was on a kind of island. The Charles River and the Neponset River flow to Massachusetts Bay on the north and south sides of Boston, respectively. In 1641, a canal called Mother Brook, connecting the upstream parts of those rivers, was opened, turning Boston and its environs into an island.


Abner and Daisy Mae’s Courtship

The comic strip Li’l Abner debuted in 1934. Almost from the start, Abner Yokum was being pursued for matrimony by Daisy Mae Scragg. The reading public found it quite a tease that the two were clearly destined to get together, but Abner was too much of a lout to do his part.

Sadie Hawkins Day originated in 1937, in the third year of Li’l Abner. The six panels explaining the custom were reprinted every year. To give just the highlights: “Sadie Hawkins was the daughter of one of the earliest settlers of Dogpatch, Hekzebiah Hawkins. She was the homeliest gal in all them hills. Her pappy, in desperation one day, called together all the eligible bachelors of Dogpatch. ‘Ah declares t’day “Sadie Hawkins Day” – When ah fires – all o’ yo’ kin start a-runnin’! When ah fires agin – Sadie starts a-runnin’. Th’ one she ketches’ll be her husband!’ The other spinsters of Dogpatch reckoned it were such a good idea that Sadie Hawkins Day was made an annual affair.” The legality of this ultimatum is not explored.

There were Sadie Hawkins Days in the strip on October 4, 1938; November 4, 1939; November 2, 1940; November 7, 1942; November 6, 1943; November 15, 1947; and November 26, 1955 (a Tuesday and six Saturdays). Basically, the rule was, Sadie Hawkins Day fell whenever it suited the convenience of Al Capp’s story line.

In the 1950s there were a lot of Sadie Hawkins Day dances on college campuses. The gimmick, of course, was that girls could ask guys.

Abner and Daisy Mae finally did get married in the strip, in 1952. Because of the years-long tease, public interest was intense, and Life ran a cover story.

It’s tempting to assume that Daisy Mae finally caught Abner on Sadie Hawkins Day. That’s not what happened, though. She did catch him several times, but each time, something happened to forestall the wedding, or invalidate it, at the last moment.

After teasing readers with the one-sided courtship for about 17 years, Al Capp was finally induced to marry Li’l Abner to Daisy Mae. This is how he did it. Fearless Fosdick was a strip-within-the-strip, a parody of Dick Tracy. Abner joined a Fearless Fosdick fan club, consisting mostly of little boys. The members all vowed to do whatever their “ideel” did. Pretty soon, Fosdick married his perennial fiancee Prudence Pimpleton. Abner was reluctantly compelled to keep his word and marry Daisy Mae. The next day’s Fearless Fosdick revealed that Fosdick’s wedding had been a dream. Abner thought he was off the hook, but his own wedding was, of course, real. A very interesting interplay of levels of reality, especially considering the media coverage Li’l Abner’s wedding got.

Despite its unromantic start, the marriage proved solid and enduring.

[This post is patched together from some posts I made to
rec.arts.comics.strips in the 1990s.]

What Makes a Home Town?

I lived in Cortland, NY from age 7 to 18. I consider it my home town. When I watch a movie set in a small town in America, it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to identify it with Cortland. What makes a home town?

For one thing, the few childhood friends that I am still in touch with were friends I made in Cortland. Another point is that I can still visualize all the parks, street corners, and stores that I used to frequent, and could direct you to them.

Cortland was incorporated as a city in 1900, but it’s a small city. Its population was around 18,000 when I arrived. It is still under 20,000.

When I was 14, it celebrated a sesquicentennial, Civic groups urged men not to shave, and sold “shaving permits,” pin buttons that supposedly authorized you to go around bare-faced. My father, resistant to the crowd impulse, shaved but didn’t buy a button. I don’t think he suffered any repercussions.

The biggest employers in my time were in the manufacturing sector. Those have not prospered since then. Our next-door neighbor was a foreman at the Champion Sheet Metal Company. He sometimes brought home waste metal pieces. There was a Smith-Corona typewriter plant. The Wickwire family made wire cloth, i.e., screens. There was a Brockway Motor Company that made trucks, later bought by Mack Trucks to make parts. My father worked in the knowledge sector, as a professor at Cortland State Teachers’ College, which has become SUNY at Cortland. Supported by the government, it still thrives.

When I was young, it still had a central business district. You could park downtown or take the bus there, and walk to any kind of store the city offered. In the same few blocks were the Post Office, the Courthouse, the high school, and some of the biggest churches. Only around 1958 did some shopping centers spring up with their ample parking lots.

We lived about a mile away from the C.B.D. Whenever I had any business there, I could easily walk or bike to it. On school days, I would just make a stop during lunch break or on my way home.

The highways in the county had broad paved shoulders, safe for bicycling. I would sometimes ride to Homer, Truxton, Little York Lake, or Fillmore Glen State Park.

The city’s elite tended to live on College Hill, in Victorian houses with a view, some of them turreted.

We all felt pretty safe from the human element in Cortland. Nature was more of a threat. Cortland gets lake-effect snow every winter blown over from Lake Erie, and every winter our house would be sitting amidst snow three feet deep or more. When the snow thawed in the spring, ice jams would form in a creek nearby, and our cellar often filled with water spillage. We also got flooded in Hurricane Hazel.