This weblog has moved to

September 9th, 2009

I got tired of baking my own bread, or better, perhaps, emptying my own garbage, so I’ve moved my Will.Whim to Please update your links, RSS feeds, etc.

The new address is:

The RSS feed is:

I do not expect to update this weblog any further.

Driving while using a cell phone

August 31st, 2009

There are two questions: Is driving while talking on a cell phone safe? and Is it as dangerous as driving while drunk?

After reviewing some earlier studies, and looking at a new Virginia Tech study, I’d say the answer is a definite yes to the first question; and a probably not to the second question (not as dangerous as driving drunk, but maybe “only” 1/4 as dangerous.)

Details follow. All of the papers below are available online, and discuss (for the most part) their methodologies and metrics. I used to look at this pretty carefully when I worked for a startup company that hoped to put voiced-activated controls in cars.

Is driving while talking on a cell phone safe?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) answers the question “Does cell phone use while driving cause traffic crashes?” by stating:

Research shows that driving while using a cell phone can pose a serious cognitive distraction and degrade driver performance. The data are insufficient to quantify crashes caused by cell phone use specifically, but NHTSA estimates that driver distraction from all sources contributes to 25 percent of all police-reported traffic crashes.

A epidemiological study (Redelmeier and Tibshirani 1997) indicated a quadrupling of a risk of collision, having tracked 669 drivers and their calling habits.

Strayer and Drew 2004, in a driver simulation task, showed decreased reaction times, increased following distance and slower recovery times. They compared younger and older drivers and noted:

Interestingly, the net effect of having younger drivers converse on a cell phone was to make their average reactions equivalent to those of older drivers who were not using a cell phone.

The most recent large scale study I found, by Virginia Tech Transportation Institute this year engaged in several “large-scale, naturalistic driver studies” which looks impressive methodologically. They reports

In VTTI’s studies that included light vehicle drivers and truck drivers, manual manipulation of phones such as dialing and texting of the cell phone lead to a substantial increase in the risk of being involved in a safety‐critical event (e.g., crash or near crash). However, talking or listening increased risk much less for light vehicles and not at all for trucks. Text messaging on a cell phone was associated with the highest risk of all cell phone related tasks.

Is driving while talking on a cell phone about as dangerous as driving while drunk?

Strayer, Drews and Crouch 2003 used a “high-fidelity driving simulator” to compare driving while using a cell phone and driving while drunk, measuring six performance variables (brake onset time, braking force, speed, following distance, recovery time). They conclude “when controlling for driving difficulty and time on task, cell-phone drivers may actually exhibit greater impairments (i.e., more accidents and less responsive driving behavior) than legally intoxicated drivers.”

The same Virginia Tech Transportation Institute 2009 Study reports “For example, talking and listening to a cell phone is not nearly as risky as driving while drunk at the legal limit of alcohol.”

Ted Kennedy and the Civics Lesson

August 26th, 2009

In 1970, when I was in eighth grade, I took a Current Events class. During the previous summer, Ted Kennedy drove his car into the Chappaquiddick, leaving his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, in the car; she was found dead the next day.

The case came up in Civics class. I defended Kennedy. My case, if I recall correctly, was that he was a Very Important Man–the brother of Jack Kennedy, our dear assassinated president, and of Robert Kennedy–hadn’t his family suffered enough?

My Current Events teacher asked me if I really thought important people were above the law, and didn’t have to follow the same laws as the rest of us. I’m sure I mumbled something, but her point was made.

The irony, of course, is that Kennedy wasn’t treated just the same as the rest of us; he almost assuredly escaped the punishment a poorer and less well-known person would receive. And the further irony is that Kennedy has always been a fighter for the rights of those who are left out.

Kennedy epitomizes the American dilemma: wanting to keep its privileges, and yet to share them; fighting for an idealized equality, but taking the personal advantage. Still, I appreciate honest and disinterested judges.

First mention: first use of “Ms” in print

June 23rd, 2009

There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill. Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss. Yet it is not always easy to know the facts. When an author puts on the title page of a book Marion Smith, it is not even possible to be certain of the sex of the writer, and it is decidedly awkward for a reviewer to repeat the name in full over and over again. It would be a convenience if explanatory titles were added to the signature, but it seems to be regarded as “bad form.” Signatures to letters also cause no end of trouble to correspondents. The “Miss” or “Mrs” sometimes added in brackets are but an awkward makeshift, and often it is taken for granted that the recipient of the letter will remember the proper style of the writer, when, as a matter of fact he does nothing of the sort. Now, clearly, what is needed is a more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expression any view as to their domestic situation, and what could be simpler, or more logical than the retention of what the two doubtful terms have in common. The abbreviation “Ms” is simple, it is easy to write, and the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances. For [??] use it might be rendered as “Miss,” which would be a close parallel to the practice, long universal, in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs alike.

Springfield (Mass.) Sunday Republican, November 10, 1901. Via Ben Zimmer.

Third person singular human

June 23rd, 2009

It has often been noted that English is deficient because it lacks a third-person pronoun that can refer to any person, without respect to sexual gender. Although some claim that “he” can refer to anyone in sentences like (1), most linguists agree that maleness is much more salient in these cases than a generic sense.

(1) Everyone should do his own work.

There are at least six common solutions proposed:

  1. Use he or she (or she or he). (Everyone should do his or her own work.) This includes everyone, but at the cost of more words.
  2. Use impersonal they. (Everyone should do their own work.). This includes everyone, and there is ample practice (both contemporary and historic) to support its use, but the plural sense is still somewhat salient.
  3. Use she. (Everyone should do her own work.) This “makes it fairer” by compensating for past male pronoun use, but the femaleness is even more salient (the ‘female’ tending to be more marked than the ‘male’–and, of course, some will say this is the point). I see this frequently in philosophical writing, sometimes combined with a strategy for alternating between ‘he’ and ’she.’
  4. Use a newly invented term, such as e and ir. (Everyone should do ir own work.) This potentially solves the problem, but has never caught on; nor do I suspect it will.
  5. Assert forcefully that ‘he’ includes ’she’ and deny there is a problem. (Everyone should do his own work.) This is just wishful thinking.
  6. Rewrite to remove the generic construction. (Our motto should be: Do your own work! or You should do your own work.) This is nothing wrong with this solution; it takes more effort, though, and sometimes the result is awkward. (Work must be done only by the person who is responsible for said work.—Is that awkward enough to prove my point?

I had the mad idea last night of another solution: Start using he/him/his to only refer to the generic third person, and invent a new series of pronouns for male references (for example, e/im/is). At one grammatical swoop, we fix all the generic third person problems, and force saliency on the marked gender case (Everyone should do his own work./Each girl should do her own work./Each boy should do is own work.). This solution is no more likely to achieve consensus than (4) above. But just in case the English Academy dictates this use, I want credit for inventing the Fitzgerald pronoun.

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

June 20th, 2009

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.

Renewing Mennonite communal worship

June 13th, 2009

A response to R Dean Hudgens’s Tongues and Tribes: Musical Change in a Mennonite Congregation.

I am very, very grateful for the time I spent at Reba Place Church (1990-1996, 1998 or so), and loved the music there. I was very grateful for the intentional way that the call to anti-racism worked itself out in music and worship. This included being part of the gospel choir, which developed my spirit and my musical abilities and helped me on an anti-racist path.

Still, I think it is fair to say that Reba Place Church, and the Mennonite Church as a whole, has missed important opportunities to provide space for people to worship in community.

Worship has turned more into a performance with some audience participation than the people of God worshipping together. In my experience, this is true in many Mennonite (and non-Mennonite congregations), even when the worship team is not very talented. You have, at the center, a choir, or worship team, or a talented soloist, which is the focus of the whole audience/congregation. (This is somewhat exacerbated at Reba, which attracts many talented people, including talented musicians.) I think that even the humblest of God’s servants cannot withstand the pressure to perform well for the audience rather than their stated goal of *leading* worship.

But other models are available. One is reclamation: reclaiming the a cappella heritage of European Mennonites and African-American heritages of camp meeting music, “Dr. Watt’s music” and spirituals. Another is engaging with contemporary shape note practitioners who also have a long history in community singing and practical pedagogy. Another is engaging with African and African-Mennonite communal singing and worship practices.

Unless music worship leaders of a church see as the major responsibility of their leadership to help the community to worship and to develop the community’s ability to worship through music, churches will naturally accept the performer/audience model. It is the model of popular culture, and it is the model accepted by almost all music education (including Mennonite musical education). It is a Power.

But Mennonites used to teach one another to sing. Mennonites used to have singing schools. Mennonites used to think it important to sing together. I think it is time for Mennonites to reclaim this as an active, living spiritual practice. I could hope that Reba would be a leader in doing this in a ‘catholic’ and anti-racist way.

Zipf’s law and city size

May 21st, 2009

Olivia Judson writes a column for the New York Times, and she had a guest column by mathematician Steven Strogatz, a math professor at Cornell, “Math and the City.”

Strogatz writes:

One of the pleasures of looking at the world through mathematical eyes is that you can see certain patterns that would otherwise be hidden. This week’s column is about one such pattern. It’s a beautiful law of collective organization that links urban studies to zoology. It reveals Manhattan and a mouse to be variations on a single structural theme.

The mathematics of cities was launched in 1949 when George Zipf, a linguist working at Harvard, reported a striking regularity in the size distribution of cities. He noticed that if you tabulate the biggest cities in a given country and rank them according to their populations, the largest city is always about twice as big as the second largest, and three times as big as the third largest, and so on. In other words, the population of a city is, to a good approximation, inversely proportional to its rank. Why this should be true, no one knows.

When Strogatz means by “about twice as big” here isn’t “almost exactly,” but what he says in the restatement, “the population of a city is, to a good approximation, inversely proportional to its rank.”

He comes into a lot of criticism in the comments from people in different countries pointing out that (for example) New York isn’t almost exactly twice as big as Los Angeles. But that is not what he is saying; he is saying that if you know that San Francisco is the 41st biggest city, you can ‘to a good approximation’ estimate its population. Specifically, you can find a good regression equation of the form population = c + r^n, where c is a constant, r is the rank, and n is an estimated power. He suggest that n will be “between 0.7 and 0.9″.

I took population estimates for the 480 largest metropolitan areas in the world (from and plugged them into that advanced scientific calculation engine, Excel.

Here is the equation I got (population in millions):

population = 110.98r^-0.744

The estimate is not very accurate for the very biggest cities (the top ten, including NYC and LA), but after that, the equation estimates the population from the rank within a million or so. For example, it estimates that the population of San Francisco (the 41st largest city) to be 7 million instead of the actual population of 7.35 million — only off by 350,000 based on rank alone!

Interesting weblog: Aristotle’s Feminist Subject

April 26th, 2009

Aristotle’s Feminist Subject: interesting weblog:

This blog has been a way to interact with some of you around “subjects” that Aristotle has taught too many of us in the west, even today, to disparage: females, rhetoric, and translation. Until we’ve recovered, I guess I’ll blog a bit more .

Also: The WOMBman’s Bible

Language Identification: A Computational Linguistics Primer

April 25th, 2009

Slides and results from a talk I gave at Kalamazoo College on language identification.

My co-worker at Powerset, Chris Biemann, has a nice paper on Unsupervised Language Identification

Everything you need to know from Strunk and White

April 11th, 2009

Geoffrey K. Pullum’s tirade about the 50th anniversary of William Strunk’sThe Elements of Style as edited by E.B. White is deliciously correct.

So, I want to tell you everything you need to know from Strunk and White, and save you the bother and expense of reading it yourself. Here it is; one simple sentence:

Omit needless words.

Yes, that’s all you need to know. Take these deep into your writing, and you will be a better writer. “Omit needless words” does not mean to text your message, eliminating words just to have a shorter message. It is not a recommendation for text compression.

Rather, “Omit needless words” means something rather different. You’ll probably always have more to say than you can possibly say. Don’t try to say it all; try to say just what you need to in order to get your point across.

“Omit needless words” means this too: you’ll want to edit what you write. It’s not (usually) enough to write what you want to say once; you’ll have to go back and rewrite — trimming here; editing there.

“Omit needless words” means writing is as much about editing as it is about the initial creative part of writing; editing requires time and attention. We who write computer software have the advantage over creative writers in that the need for debugging is immediately obvious as soon as a program is run. A writer has to imagine what will succeed and what will fail.

“Omit needless words” means that you care about your readers, and how they will perceive and understand your message, so you’ll get rid of stuff that gets in the way so that the good stuff is more evident.

You might learn one other thing from White’s essay: writing can be a delight, and language can be a passion. But you’ll probably be better off by reading White’s other work such Charlotte’s Web (in which aptly chosen words play such an important part).

Strunk and White’s grammatical prohibitions will be, and should be, ignored by good writers. But their love for language (as wrong-headed as they were in describing their own craft) is well worth emulating.

Things you can get down in …

March 19th, 2009

I saw the expression “get down in the wheat” for the first time today.

Epoch success

February 13th, 2009

The 1234567890 Epoch captured on the web!

Things that are wrong with Python (3): destructive functions

February 12th, 2009

Pythons’s sort and append functions mutate the sequence they work on.

This is wrong. Rather than write x = list.append(1).sort() you have to write:
x = list[:]

Things that are wrong with Python (2): return values

February 12th, 2009

Python doesn’t return values by default.

This is wrong. The last value should always be returned.

Things That Are Wrong with Python (1): True and False

February 12th, 2009

The following values are all false in Python programming language.

  1. None
  2. False
  3. numbers equal to 0: 0, 0L, 0.0, 0j
  4. empty sequences:e.g., ‘”", (), [], array.array(’i')
  5. empty maps: e.g., {}
  6. any object that defines a __nonzero__ or __len__ method (returning False or len=0, respectively

This is a Thing that is Wrong with Python.

(The Right Way: false is None or False; everything else is true.)

(Note: I really do disagree with this design decision, but I’m mostly writing this down so I will remember not to write code like this:

if object.table: print 'table was initialized'

but instead remember to write:

if object.table and len(object.table)>0: print 'table was initialized'

Epoch odometer

February 12th, 2009

My epoch odometer.

Last use?

January 27th, 2009

I got discussing the idea of Gemütlichkeit with a friend today–actually the Danish expression “hygge”–but I was connecting it to Gemütlichkeit–and I made the claim that “homely” used to mean something like gemütlich.

And so it seems: the OED reports several senses of “homely” with gemütlich connotations. For example, “Become as one of the household; familiar, intimate; at home with”, now rare or obsolete. The first citation is from 865 ad. (”þis mane, þat vas hamely Vith hyme”/”this man that was homely with him.”)

But of course “homely” is only use as a synonym for “ugly” these days, I think; though “homey” is still used in certain contexts. I can say your house is homey, and I can even call you my homie (from homeboy), but I can’t say “this man that was homey with him” either.

It does make me wonder–do lexicographers ever try to find the last use of a term?

Leap second 2009

December 31st, 2008

Leap second 2009


December 1st, 2008

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.