Standardizing Chinese names

From the NY Times:

Name Not on Our List? Change It, China Says

BEIJING — “Ma,” a Chinese character for horse, is the 13th most common family name in China, shared by nearly 17 million people. That can cause no end of confusion when Mas get together, especially if those Mas also share the same given name, as many Chinese do.

Ma Cheng’s book-loving grandfather came up with an elegant solution to this common problem. Twenty-six years ago, when his granddaughter was born, he combed through his library of Chinese dictionaries and lighted upon a character pronounced “cheng.” Cheng, which means galloping steeds, looks just like the character for horse, except that it is condensed and written three times in a row.

The character is so rare that once people see it, Miss Ma said, they tend to remember both her and her name. That is one reason she likes it so much.

That is also why the government wants her to change it.

For Ma Cheng and millions of others, Chinese parents’ desire to give their children a spark of individuality is colliding head-on with the Chinese bureaucracy’s desire for order. Seeking to modernize its vast database on China’s 1.3 billion citizens, the government’s Public Security Bureau has been replacing the handwritten identity card that every Chinese must carry with a computer-readable one, complete with color photos and embedded microchips. The new cards are harder to forge and can be scanned at places like airports where security is a priority.

The bureau’s computers, however, are programmed to read only 32,252 of the roughly 55,000 Chinese characters, according to a 2006 government report. The result is that Miss Ma and at least some of the 60 million other Chinese with obscure characters in their names cannot get new cards — unless they change their names to something more common.

… By some estimates, 100 surnames cover 85 percent of China’s citizens. Laobaixing, or “old hundred names,” is a colloquial term for the masses. By contrast, 70,000 surnames cover 90 percent of Americans. …

There are several sub-stories here, but I’d like to focus on the problem of not being able to represent some names on government ID cards (or phone books, though who really cares?). How very exotic. Until you consider the problem of naming your American son after his great-grandfather Søren. Or Simón. Or José.

Update: Victor Mair at Language Log proposes a solution to Ms Ma’s problem:

As a matter of fact, Ms. Ma really doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on (no jokes about the twelve legs of the three horses in the character for her given name!). The reason for this is that the 馬馬馬 character is listed in unabridged lexicons as simply an old form of 騁, which means exactly the same thing (“gallop; indulge in”) and sounds exactly the same (CHENG3). This 騁 is a fairly common character and is found in all modern dictionaries and computer fonts, so the government should kindly but firmly tell Ms. Ma to use 騁 instead of 馬馬馬 for her given name. No harm done (she still even has one of the three horses to race along with). I’m actually surprised that they haven’t already made this suggestion to Ms. Ma, though perhaps they were unaware of the connection between 馬馬馬 and 騁.

Households without children

Matthew Yglesias has a post on The Declining Demographics of Suburbanism, which by all means read, but what caught my eye was this graph:

Households with children

The change isn’t quite so dramatic as it appears at first glance (it’s based at 40%), but it’s dramatic enough. There are two relevant trends, say the Census Bureau.

Increases in longevity — The average numbers of years of life remaining at age 30 increased about three years, comparing those age 30 in 1960 with baby boomers who turned 30 in 1980 (Table 11 [PDF], U.S. Life Tables, National Center for Health Statistics). As adults live longer, a larger proportion of married couple households will be those who are older and either childless, or whose adult children live elsewhere. In 1968, 29 percent of married men were age 55 and over, as were 22 percent of married women. In 2008, 38 percent of married men were 55 and over, as were 33 percent of married women.

Increases in childlessness — The percentage of women age 40 to 44 who were childless increased from 10 percent in 1976 to 20 percent in 2006. (Supplemental Table 1 [Excel], U.S. Census Bureau).

Our local school district’s enrollment has declined steadily since 1996; I figure there must be some relation. Of course, the percentages shown are of an increasing population, so again the absolute numbers are less dramatic as well. Still.

NPR names

Via Arnold Zwicky at Language Log, an explanation for “NPR names”, which I’ve heard mentioned in passing, and for the explanation if which I’m grateful.

NPR names
Here’s how it works: You take your middle initial and insert it somewhere into your first name.  Then you add on the smallest foreign town you’ve ever visited.

Unfortunately, “Jonathan Ken” is an awkward starting point for this particular formula. And as for the “smallest foreign town”, well, how would I know? If we take “visit” to mean “stayed the night”, then perhaps Ölmstad (Sweden, near Gränna) may qualify; I spent a few days there with my father visiting my fourth cousin Sigvard Jarl and family. But the “K”, no, I’m sorry, I simply don’t find room for it in “Jonathan”. Perhaps if I discard a few letters? “Konath Ölmstad”? “Kathan Ölmstad”?

Digressing a bit, as a school child I truncated my first name to “Jon”, more out of laziness than any real purpose. I took back “Jonathan” later in life, when I worked in a company with several Johns. But … is it too late for “Jona”?

A further digression: “Jonathan Lundell” doesn’t scan, at least not in English, where we say “JONathan lunDELL”. The dactyl-iamb combination doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. In Sweden, it’d be “JONathan LUNdell” (well, “YOH-nah-tahn LUNdell”, LUN as in PUT), which is an improvement. (Update: but see comments for a corrected view.) “Jona”, on the other foot, is more versatile.

(Goodwife Jo, sadly, has no middle name. No NPR name for her, either.)

50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice

Geoff Pullum has for some time now led the charge against Strunk and White’s “horrid little book”. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of The Elements of Style, Pullum pulls his criticisms together in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

April 16 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of a little book that is loved and admired throughout American academe. Celebrations, readings, and toasts are being held, and a commemorative edition has been released.

I won’t be celebrating.

The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students’ grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.

It’s sad. Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write “however” or “than me” or “was” or “which,” but can’t tell you why. The land of the free in the grip of The Elements of Style.

So I won’t be spending the month of April toasting 50 years of the overopinionated and underinformed little book that put so many people in this unhappy state of grammatical angst. I’ve spent too much of my scholarly life studying English grammar in a serious way. English syntax is a deep and interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don’t-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can’t even tell when they’ve broken their own misbegotten rules.

There goes the spacetime neighborhood

Who is IOZ?

I See A Bad Moon Risin’
Gaymarriage will take away my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Gaymarriage will make hockey players skate on gravel. Gaymarriage will create weakly godlike artificial intelligences that will destroy you, soft, weak human. Gaymarriage will disassemble all of the planets and non-stellar matter in the solar system and create a matrioshka brain of infinite computational power that will achieve demiurgic godhead. Gaymarriage will alter the Planck Constant reordering the physical structure of spacetime itself and causing baryonic matter to cease to exist.

Flat, flat river

Red River

I grew up, in part, near the Red River, in Kittson County MN, closer to Winnipeg than Fargo. My chief memory of the terrain: flat. But I never realized just how flat until I read this in the NY Times this morning.

…the Red River, though fairly modest compared with some more famous rivers, [is] devilishly hard to predict, partly because of its shallow channel. The Colorado River has been carving out the Grand Canyon for millions of years. The Red, by contrast, dates back to perhaps only a few thousand years before the Pyramids. That means it has not had that long to cut deep channels that can contain water during floods.

On top of that, the river flows very slowly across a pancake-flat landscape. Imagine raising an eight-foot-long sheet of plywood just enough to slip a single sheet of paper under the raised end. The resulting minuscule tilt of the board represents the average slope of the Red River’s bed.

What that means is that the river, when it goes awry during a flood, spills every which way across the countryside.

Kennedy MN, where I lived, is about 15 miles from the river on US 75, and it wasn’t uncommon for the spring thaw to spread the river as far as that highway and beyond. The farmers in that direction, with heavy gumbo soils and late, wet springs, needed Caterpillars to draw their plows, where my uncles and cousins to the north and east of town employed conventional wheeled tractors on their lighter, sandier and better-drained fields.

Sunday Godblogging

…Tuesday edition. Because sometimes, you know, God just can’t wait.


Mormon beefcake

From the Chronicle of Higher Education

Brigham Young University has rejected an appeal from a student who had completed all the requirements for a degree but saw his diploma withheld last year after he published Men on a Mission, a calendar of buff Mormon missionaries without shirts, the Associated Press reported.

The student, Chad Henry, was excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns the university, over the calendar last July. In September he was told that, to receive his degree, he would need to be reinstated as a member of the Mormon church.

Which reminds me that anyone who hasn’t read Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s wonderful account of how she came to be excommunicated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints really doesn’t know what they are missing.

Sunday Godblogging

A little TLS tease from Andrew Brown.

Sisters, not parent and child

An interesting and important point from John Barton’s essay on conceptions of the afterlife in the current TLS (not online):

Jews and Christians do not of course believe the same things, but the structures of the two faiths are much more similar than people think. This is not surprising, since they are siblings (rather than parent and child), both deriving from the religious culture of Israel in the last few centuries BC (the so-called Second Temple period) with influences from the surrounding Greco-Roman world and its philosophies. The impression that the two religions are so vastly different derives partly from the tendency among Christians to think that Judaism is the same as the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament, as they call it) – whereas in fact the religion of the Second Temple period had changed markedly from that of the ancient Israelites who are the source of the Hebrew Bible; and among Jews, to think of Christianity as a Greek religion only marginally related to Hebrew culture.

Wine Tasting Datapoint of the Day

Felix Salmon.

Wine Tasting Datapoint of the Day

Robert Hodgson has a paper out entitled “An Examination of Judge Reliability at a major U.S. Wine Competition”. He had the ingenious idea of serving up three identical glasses of wine — poured from the same bottle — to groups of judges; only 10% of the judging panels managed to rank the three identical wines even in the same medal group, even though the wines were served in the same flight. And, as Peter Mitham reports:

One panel of judges rejected two samples of identical wine, only to award the same wine a double gold in a third tasting.

I’m beginning to think there’s really no such thing as a really good wine: there’s just really bad wine, and everything else.

In the shadow of Saturn


In the shadow of Saturn, unexpected wonders appear. The robotic Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn recently drifted in giant planet’s shadow for about 12 hours and looked back toward the eclipsed Sun. Cassini saw a view unlike any other. First, the night side of Saturn is seen to be partly lit by light reflected from its own majestic ring system. Next, the rings themselves appear dark when silhouetted against Saturn, but quite bright when viewed away from Saturn and slightly scattering sunlight, in the above exaggerated color image. Saturn’s rings light up so much that new rings were discovered, although they are hard to see in the above image. Visible in spectacular detail, however, is Saturn’s E ring, the ring created by the newly discovered ice-fountains of the moon Enceladus, and the outermost ring visible above. Far in the distance, visible on the image left just above the bright main rings, is the almost ignorable pale blue dot of Earth.

…I think we should all be as happy as kings.