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Archive for the 'Miss Sellany’s Stuff' Category

A Computer Story

Thursday, January 8th, 2015

Larry Brady sent me a picture today, which I pass on to you here. It drove memories to the forefront of my mind. Here they are for all to see.

I once punched these cards in the Psychometric Laboratory at UNC where I did my undergraduate work. I used mispunched cards for class notes, which relieved me of the expense of purchasing 3x5s.

When I found errors in the transcripts I worked from, I corrected them. However, the people who were running the project, not realizing the things I corrected were not only errors but inconsistencies in their own system, required that I stop editing the cards, so I allowed the inconsistencies to pass. They were psychologists after all, not linguists.

That was at a time when the 16k computer required approximately two weeks between jobs for technicians physically to change all the wires, which they did manually. There were no executable software programs in 1956 that could complete that task so easily as they do today.

The Lab received a grant to increase the size of the computer, bringing it up to, I think, 64k. They had to add several rooms to the two-story mansion in which the 16k computer was located to accommodate the upgrade. Remember, back then computers ran on vacuum tubes about the size of my fist, one for each gate (0 or 1).

I came to the office one day to find much consternation. In their grant application they had forgotten to add the air conditioning. As you probably know, vacuum tubes were just fancy light bulbs that produced a lot of heat. The additional air conditioning would take up space equivalent to at least one large new room. I don’t know how they worked that out; I graduated before that problem was resolved.

New Games at alphaDictionary

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

I have added two new games about idioms and adages to the growing supply of word games on alphaDictionary. The first consists in matching idioms and adages with an prose description comprising arcane vocabulary, e.g. neophyte serendipity = beginner’s luck:

The other new game–my favorite–is matching idioms and adages with a picture of their literal meaning. For example, a picture of people climbing walls = climbing the walls. It may be found at

Have fun.

Remainder Reminder

Monday, January 21st, 2013

Oddvar Jakobsen pointed out (from the shores of Lake Tanganyika) a logical error in my interpretation of the word pilgrim this past Thanksgiving. In particular he wrote:

“It gives a non-English speaker some consolation to notice the occasional stumbles a word professor may experience. Or am I wrong in finding it funny that those of the pilgrims who did not survive the first winter in America, actually survived and multiplied and built a nation.”

He goes on to quote the offending passage from the Good Word as it was mailed out: “Only half the 102 original Pilgrims survived their first winter at Plymouth. The remainder, with strong support of local Native Americans, survived to multiply and, joined by many others over the succeeding years, spread across the continent to build a nation.”

He goes on to say, “What I mean to say is that, if a portion of a population survives, the word remainder would logically refer … to the portion that does NOT survive. That population that did not survive, has NOT multiplied, but nevertheless been joined by very many others who died in quite different circumstances, but they did most likely NOT build a nation.”

Point well taken. I confused remainder with “those remaining” which, of course, is not the meaning of the word. I have since corrected the error as a result of Mr. Jakobsen’s keen sense of logic.

Fun: Lookalikes

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

Julie Dunn surprised us with this note today:

Andrew Shaffer“Your Andrew Shaffer looks a lot like the new guy, Nicholas David, on Ceelo’s team on The Voice (see picture on the left). Nicholas DavidI was searching for online dictionaries to show my classes for a reliable sources lesson when I saw the picture of Andrew on your About Us page.”

Is it just the beard? Whatever. If you must look like someone, better to look like someone famous (I always say).


Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

Fun becomes more tiring the older you get.

Train Milk

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

Today’s Marketwatch website carries a story that contains the following sentence:

McGill said, “They’re going to ride the train and milk it for all it’s worth.”

How much is train milk worth these days?

Stroke Recovery

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

I am 95% myself six weeks after the operation on my noggin. It involved the left hemisphere which controls the right side of the body and all language functions. As you can see, most of them I have recovered.

I will be back writing on language themes soon.


Sunday, August 21st, 2011

I have suffered a stoke. I will be back in 2-3 week as sharp as ever.

A Perfect Snow

Monday, February 21st, 2011

The light peeping around the edges of the shades in my room woke me up at 3 AM. I was amazed at what I saw outside. The full moon enlightening the snow-covered garden reminded me immediately of the lines in “The Night Before Christmas”:

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below, . . .

I managed to get back to sleep despite the brightness and my excitement, and awoke to what seemed to be a perfect snow. The first sign was that it is falling straight downward—no wind. The other was that it was heavier than a flurry but far from a blizzard. A gentle snow but a snow, not a dusting.

Those signs invited me out into it. I’m from the south, North Carolina. I saw snow only once growing up there. Moving to Pennsylvania introduced me to the grace of this kind, heavenly downfall and I’ve always found it more relaxing than music.

The first thing I notice about this perfect snow was the silence it cast about everything. The chilled stillness of perpendicular snow is entirely different. Snowy stillness is unique, somehow, like the petrichor after a rain. One of those mysterious pleasures we enjoy, far too often without realizing it.

Air filtered by snow is also different. Breathing rises from a necessity to a pleasure. It is as though it is clearer, more transparent. It become more crystalline, fragile, and brittle. It comes in and goes out more playfully, somehow, on the very edge of reality. The usual aromas aren’t there: no motor oil, no manure on the farm fields around my house, none of those smells we learn to ignore. Snowy air is air in its purest form, air enervating, bolstering the spirit, driving the mind to a new level of consciousness.

No one else seems to think much about snow in Pennsylvania, except to worry about too much of it. I hope I’m not the only one who enjoys the pleasures of the perfect snow.

A fête worse than death

Monday, December 13th, 2010

In response to my treatment of fête recently, George Kovac commented:

“Hmmm. With all the tedious, obligatory holiday parties this time of year (departmental, church group, school group, office, professional association, volunteer organization, client, vendor, neighbor, the in-law you never liked), I sometimes refer to such an event as a fête worse than death.”