Voyaging through baby names

Have you seen the Baby Name Wizard’s NameVoyager yet? It’s the product of the prolific and masterful Martin Wattenberg and his wife and baby name consultant Laura Wattenberg (she maintains an entertaining baby name blog). Martin is a scientist/artist at IBM Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We were actually lucky enough to have him give a guest lecture at our company about, among other things, the NameVoyager. One of the things he mentioned in his talk was that this work, more than any of the official research he was doing, resonated with people throughout the company, including the folks in the executive suite. This collaborative work between him and his wife helped IBM VPs understand more than anything else before it the value of effective data visualization.

The NameVoyager perfectly encapsulates that golden rule of entertainment: if you want to fascinate your audience, put them in the show. Show me me, and you’ve got me by the eyeballs. Naturally the first thing anyone does with the NameVoyager is try their own name. And then it’s off to the races: spouse name, sibling names, and parent names in short order. Then you start to notice the cultural trends. My favorites are names you might imagine on a woman’s bowling shirt. Betty. Carol. Barbara. Joan. They were all teenagers together in the mid-century, and then they faded from view.

My friend and amateur genealogist Jay Czarnecki recently sent me some of his own observations on the NameVoyager. Here’s what he has to say.

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What’s in a name?

Are you ordinary or odd? And how does that make you feel? My friend Jay Czarnecki (you remember Rambles regular Jay by now) has an unusual name. At least in this country he has an unusual name. But this spring, for his 40th birthday, he decided to go to a place where his name is not at all unusual. It’s easy to see how edifying this can be, this swimming upstream, salmon-like, to see where our names spawned. I know a woman whose last name is Myslik, and she described how wonderful it was to visit Prague and flip through the phonebook. “Look!” she recalled saying, “Pages and pages of people like me!” Her name, at that moment, gave her the peculiar pleasure of being ordinary. As for Jay, his last name goes beyond ordinary; it is heroic. But I’ll let him tell the story.

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The guy in the red Civic

Today my good friend Jay Czarnecki (who has guest-blogged here before) joins us once again with some rambles of his own about rambling across the Maryland countryside in a red Honda Civic. Leave a comment for him and tell him what you think. Here’s what he has to say…

These days I have an hour-long morning commute to work, but since it runs from one Central Maryland suburb to another, I travel through open farmland for much of the drive. There are places where it is quite scenic, although the sharp boundaries between green pasture and gleaming white housing developments can be jarring. The ascendant real estate market has made it inevitable that most large tracts of land will eventually be sold to developers. I imagine that each successive generation of the land-owning family must make the choice whether to keep and pass on the land or to convert it into an exorbitant amount of cash. The growing number of shiny new single-family homes dotting the landscape like dots on a scatter diagram tell me which outcome has the upper hand over the long term. Sometimes I wonder about the owners of these old homesteads I pass by – often set far back from the road at the end of a long driveway – I wonder if they watch me from behind their windows as I drive to work, just passing through, clearly not of this place. I wonder if they curse me and my fellow passers-through for clogging up their backcountry roads, so clearly not designed to deliver commuters from one part of the state to another. Do they blame me for driving up the cost of living with my high-tech job until they are forced to cash out because they cannot afford the tax assessments? Or instead, do they smile upon me as the benefactor who turned their patch of arable land into a gold mine, freeing them from it. I confess I never thought much about this until I occasionally began to see one of these unseen people, outside, an old woman with a large-brimmed white hat – and of course this sighting changed how I perceived that particular place. Before it was just the farm with the winding driveway that I zipped past each morning, and the idea of associating it with a real live person or persons was a vague notion at best. Just like any other of the landmarks that pace my morning routine – the crooked barn, the brick house unusually close to the road, the mini-mansion with ostentatious pillars marking the entrance – you just don’t focus on the fact that real people live there. It’s not unlike the way you perceive other cars while driving: always the vehicle, never the occupant. It’s the white Chevy that is going too slow, or the green minivan that didn’t use it’s blinker before turning – until you hit one or one hits you, and the driver emerges and you discover that the green minivan is actually a fat man with a New York accent in an ill-fitting suit. Who would’ve thought? I suppose it’s the same for him looking at me and thinking, “This guy is the red Honda Civic?”

So I begin to spot this woman outside on her property, the one that used to be labeled in my mind as the ‘the farm with the winding driveway’, but now is ‘the farm with the old lady with the white hat.’ I see her walking, slowly, down the long gravel driveway (it looks to be a quarter mile long) toward the road, or sometimes heading back toward the house if I’m running late. There is a mailbox at the street, but it is early in the morning, too early for rural mail delivery. And I also begin to see an old man out there as well, and of course I make the logical leap that they are husband and wife. But oddly, they never are walking together: one is always a good twenty or twenty-five feet ahead of the other. So I wonder: why wouldn’t a husband and wife, who have toiled together their whole lives to reap the Earth’s sweet fruits from the soil, why wouldn’t they share their morning constitutional together, side-by-side? Are they estranged? After many sightings, I have a theory. One of them wants to give in to the inevitable and sell the land to a developer who will fill their fields with cul-de-sacs and ftwo-story Colonials while the two of them head south with their windfall to Myrtle Beach or St. Petersburg. The other can’t bear to let go and will never leave. They used to take their morning tour together, but this irresolvable argument has come between them and now they walk separately as if connected by a long unbending pole, keeping them joined forever but at a fixed distance apart. I wonder who is whom – which one wants to cash out and head south, and which one wants to stay and be buried in the family plot out back? I am tempted to stop someday and ask, but I never will. I’ve already been intrusive enough, clogging up their backcountry roads on my way to work. Besides, I know they’d look at me and say, “This guy is the red Honda Civic?”

Live from Mesopotamia

The war correspondent for the Rambles weblog is good friend and Renaissance man Jay Czarnecki. Almost exactly a year ago he filed a report from the front lines of the Washington D.C. metropolitan area just as the snipers were being put behind bars. He’s back this week with a timely report on developments in Mesopotamia, also known as… well, I’ll let Jay take it from here. What was it George Santayana said about history? I forget.

I just finished working my way through “A Peace to End all Peace” written in 1989 by David Fromkin and subtitled “The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East.” I had wanted to understand the historical antecedents for the various stuggles occurring in the Middle East, especially Iraq. I really was surprised to see how directly connected today’s troubles are to the post-World War I arrangements imposed by the Great Powers.

I use the phrase “working my way through” because it was a bit of a chore for a layman like me – but worth it. Although the book emphasized British political and diplomatic activities, it’s analysis was very even-handed. I would recommend it for the determined reader who has a hankering for both the broad sweep of history – and how random events or individual decisions can change its direction. For example:

– The ultimately disastrous Allied attempt to take Constantinople in 1915 came within a few hundred yards of victory. The Ottoman army was practically out of ammunition as the Allied navy steamed up the straits of Dardanelles. Constantinople was being evacuated, the treasury’s gold bullion dispatched to safety, and gasoline was stockpiled to burn the city rather than surrender it intact. The British Navy’s minesweepers had cleared all the mines that lay across the narrows – except for a single line of mines running parallel to the shore. With uncanny accuracy, the attacking naval force hit them, however, and a number of ships were lost. They still could have continued the next day, but the British commander deferred, thinking the way was impassable. You can view the immediate tragic aftermath in the decent 1981 film about the ensuing land battle, “Gallipoli,” co-starring a young Mel Gibson.

– In 1920, at a delicate time in the maneuvering over the land of Asia Minor, the King of Greece was bitten by a monkey and died of the resultant infection. The next Greek government aggressively pursued a war against the Turkish remnant of the Ottoman Empire – with devastating results for both sides. “A quarter of a million people died of this monkey’s bite,” wrote the British Colonial Secretary at that time, Winston Churchill.

Here’s another gem:

“[They] either were not aware of, or had given no thought to, the population mix…The antipathy between the minority of Moslems who were Sunnis and the majority who were Shi’ites, the rivalries of the tribes and clans, the historic and geographic divisions of the provinces…made it difficult to achieve a single unified government that was at the same time representative, effective and widely supported.”

No, that’s not from the editorial page of yesterday’s New York Times criticizing the Bush Administration’s approach in post-war Iraq. It is describing the British Empire’s struggles there in 1917 (it was then called Mesopotamia – the name Iraq made it’s debut in a few years later). And by the way, the book’s title comes from a quote by an officer who said of the post-war Peace Conference in Paris: “After the ‘War to end all War,’ they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making a ‘Peace to end all Peace.’ ”

Guest Rambles from Maryland

My good friend Jay is, in addition to his many other diverse interests from military history to birdwatching, an amateur genealogist. He recently sent me a hot tip that the 1880 U.S. census is now online courtesy of the Mormon Church. It took 17 years for church volunteers to transcribe all the handwritten documents and put them online at FamilySearch, but you can now read about your obscure relatives or famous people like Frederick Douglass.

My friend Jay, in addition to his interest in genealogy, also happens to live in Maryland near the erstwhile sniper’s hunting grounds. I asked him what it was like these days, and this is what he wrote.

My wife woke me at 6:30 AM Thursday morning, crying. She had been watching CNN. I was expecting to hear her tell me about the next victim of the D.C. area sniper. Is this one closer to our home, I thought. Instead, she said “They caught them.” It was over.

I work in Rockville, but live near Baltimore, so the everyday impact of the three week reign of the sniper had not been as acute as it was for those who lived in Montgomery County and Bowie in MD, and Virginia along I-95. But it had certainly seeped into our mundane everyday activities. A low fuel gauge in my car would propel me into unfamiliar decision-making terrain. Where do I gas up? The characteristics that made my usual station preferable – easy access to the major highway – was now a disqualifier. I brought a brown bag lunch to work to avoid going out at mid-day. Intellectually, you know that statistically the odds are extremely low that you will be a target. And, normally, people take a measure of re-assurance at some subconscious level by rationalizing, often a touch judgmentally — oh, that bad thing will not happen to me because I don’t associate with those types of people, or I don’t go into that bad neighborhood, or I don’t engage in that risky behavior. But these rationalizations clearly didn’t apply here, and that is why your intellectual side fought a slow losing battle against your growing anxiety. The slow losing battle turned into an outright rout when the young schoolboy was shot and when the sniper put us on notice that he was coming after our children.

More generally, during the three week period, I caught myself taking grim stock of each day’s top stories. Killer on the loose. Terrorists re-grouping. Steadily increasing drumbeats of war in Iraq. Economy is down the tubes. Boy, remember the late 90’s? Clearly, the naive optimism (and, I daresay, smugness) of those heady days when the Cold War was a memory and we were ‘safe’ within our protective and speculative bubble was not warranted and a correction was due. And, excepting the tragedies that refocused us, that change in perspective is not unhealthy. It’s just that it seems the pendulum has swung way too far. Now every day we have to worry about threats to us from ‘failed states’ on the other side of the world and ‘failed individuals’ on the other side of Main Street who lash out at people going about their lives. I can’t express the relief that the culprits in the sniper shootings were caught. But that same day, the government announced now-familiar vague warnings based on intelligence concerning terrorist actions against American railways. One danger is removed, another takes its place.