Archive for the ‘Observations’ Category

Tolstoy Brings Another Horseman Down with a Cannonball: More Thoughts on Translation

Saturday, November 12th, 2016

My last post, “The Sound of a Cannonball to the Gut: A Comparison of War and Peace Translations,” considered several English translations, including my own, from the Russian of a single sentence in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. At the time I wrote it I had no idea that later on in the novel Tolstoy would once again briefly tell of a horseman being hit by a cannonball. As before, when the unfortunate rider was an otherwise unmentioned Cossack, the new victim, a Russian general at the disastrous battle of Austerlitz, plays no dramatic role beyond his cameo appearance as one taking a direct hit to the body by a cannonball while on horseback.

It was the striking description of the first such hit that drew me to look at how different people had translated the passage. I was disappointed in what I found. I thought most of the translations, though giving the basic picture of what had happened, destroyed the effect of Tolstoy’s narrative method and failed to capture the terrible sound of death by cannonball impact.

This post is basically an addendum to the previous one, so I recommend reading that one first. I am not going to go into the earlier description again, though I will have to refer back to comments on the translations now and then. It turns out that the new description clarifies what Tolstoy (and probably the translators) meant in the earlier one.

As before, I am considering five published translations and my own. The 1903 Constance Garnett translation has been the most widely read version. Another by Aylmer and Louise Maude (1922–23) was praised by Tolstoy himself, though I’m not sure how good his English was. The translations by Garnett and the Maudes are in the public domain and widely available. The next chronologically is Ann Dunnigan’s 1968 (Signet) translation. The one by Anthony Briggs (2005) is available in a Penguin edition. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (2007) have been translating all the big Russian novels to widespread, if not universal, acclaim. Theirs is published by Vintage Classics. I should add that all but the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation are available in very cheap or free ebook form, whether Kindle, iBook, or Nook.

The scene of the passage considered here is one where remnants of the Russian army, which has been routed, along with its Austrian and German allies, by Napoleon’s army at Austerlitz, are being slaughtered by cannon fire from the heights recently conquered by the French. A general on horseback has just opened his mouth to speak, but before he can, the following occurs, for which I give the original Russian and the six translations to be analyzed. Anyone who compares this passage to the earlier one will note a great deal of similarity.

“Вдруг одно из ядер так низко засвистело над толпой, что все нагнулись. Что-то шлепнулось в мокрое, и генерал упал с лошадью в лужу крови.”

“Suddenly one of the cannon balls flew so low over the heads of the crowd that all ducked. There was a wet splash, as the general fell from his horse into a pool of blood.”

“Suddenly a cannon ball hissed so low above the crowd that everyone ducked. It flopped into something moist, and the general fell from his horse in a pool of blood.”

“Suddenly a cannonball flew so low over the heads of the crowd that everyone ducked. There was a moist plopping sound and the general fell from his horse in a pool of blood.”

“Suddenly a stray cannonball whizzed across so low over the heads of the crowd that everybody ducked. There was a terrible splashing sound and the general fell from his horse in a pool of blood.”

Pevear and Velokhonsky (P & V)
“Suddenly one of the cannonballs came whistling so low over the crowd that everybody ducked. There was a wet smack, and the general and his horse fell in a pool of blood.”

“Suddenly one of the cannonballs whistled so low over the crowd that they all ducked. Something smacked into wet stuff, and the general fell with his horse in a pool of blood.”

There is pretty close agreement on the first sentence except that Garnett and Dunnigan (following Garnett?) omit the sound of the cannonball in flight, just saying that it “flew.” But how did everyone know to duck? Garnett, Dunnigan, and Briggs all say “over the heads of the crowd,” though “the heads of” is not in the Tolstoy. This is further evidence that Dunnigan and Briggs made use of Garnett. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. P & V and I correctly identify the sound of the ball in flight as a whistling. For some reason the Meades now say “hissed” instead of “whistled,” which they used in translating the earlier sentence. Briggs says “whizzed” this time instead of his earlier use of “whoosh” to translate the sound. He also takes the liberty of saying it was a “stray” cannonball. Since the group of soldiers were under continual bombardment (a cannon shot every ten seconds, had been mentioned a little before), I don’t think this insertion of “stray” is justified. The cannons could not be precisely aimed, of course, but the shot that hit the general was no more stray than the ones hitting privates and sergeants in a field of great carnage. Garnett, P & V, and I have kept Tolstoy’s “one of the cannonballs,” which makes the very point that the cannonade was ongoing. Dunnigan and the Meades just say “a cannonball.” Which is fine, but why not follow Tolstoy more closely?

Tolstoy’s description of the sound of the cannonball hitting the general echoes that of the earlier account of a Cossack horseman hit by a ball, which was the subject of my last blog post. It also, I think, clarifies the point I wasn’t clear on—whether the sound Tolstoy imitated (with an onomatopoeic word) was meant to apply to the impact of the ball in the body or the fall of horse and rider. The Russian word could be interpreted either way. Here, there is almost no doubt in my mind. It is the sound of impact. Since the verb (шлепнулось) used here makes the sound of the noun (шлеп) used before, I conclude that the previous smack or slap or flop was the sound of the ball in the Cossack and not the flop of the victims to the ground, though that is not a logical necessity. In the passage considered in my last post, I went with what I thought to be the majority view in interpreting the sound to be applied to the fall. I noted that Briggs’s intention, while not completely clear, probably was to associate the sound with the impact. Brunnigan’s word placement (of “pl-op”) seemed to go with that interpretation as well, but I doubted that was her intent. Now, I think it probably was, since she uses “plopping sound” in translating the passage being considered here, where there is no question in my mind about what the sound is referring to. Although I hadn’t thought of the Meades’ use of “fl-fl-flop” as describing the impact, I now see they use “flopped” here, almost certainly to describe the impact, so they quite possibly meant it that way in the earlier passage.

While I interpreted the “fffflop” sound (as I rendered it) to be that of the crashing horse and rider to the ground, there is nothing to make that the necessary interpretation in my translation any more than there is in Tolstoy’s original Russian or any of the other translations. Since I was the only one translating the earlier passage without the possible benefit of the hindsight to be gained from seeing the general’s fate, I may well have been the only one attaching the sound to the fall except for Garnett. Maybe I should just change mine to “sssslap,” which sounds more like an impact to me and is much closer to Tolstoy’s word.

Let’s look at the how the translators deal with the impact sound this time.

Garnett: “There was a wet splash, as…”

Meades: “It flopped into something moist, and…”

Dunnigan: “There was a moist plopping sound and…”

Briggs: “There was a terrible splashing sound and…”

P & V: “There was a wet smack, and…”

Me: “Something smacked into wet stuff, and…”

Given the way she finishes the sentence with “as the the general fell from his horse into a pool of blood,” Garnett seems to be taking the sound she calls a “wet splash” as being made by the general’s fall into the pool of blood, rather than the sound of the ball impacting his body. I’m almost sure this is wrong. Everyone else, by keeping Tolstoy’s “and” between the sound and the fall, seems to interpret the sound (flop, plop, splash, or smack) as the sound of impact, an event preceding the fall. Considering also the earlier (Cossack) passage, where there is no mention of a pool of blood, I feel confident that Tolstoy here means the impact sound.

Speaking of the previously analyzed passage, I’m happy to note that there is no trace of a “thud” in these translations. Nor is the impact sound said to be from something “soft.” There is no doubt that it’s something juicy being hit this time. The Russian adjective Tolstoy uses here means wet. That is, it’s much closer to the “liquid” of the first described body than “moist,” which is what the Meades and Dunnigan use. Moist is still much better than soft, since one can at least imagine hearing an impact in something moist and thinking “that’s in something moist”.

I don’t like the way the Meades say “It flopped…”, meaning the cannonball, since Tolstoy once again just relates the impact sound without explicitly ascribing it to the cannonball. Of course, it’s the cannonball, but please follow Tolstoy. All the other translators save me use the construction “There was…” a sound of some kind, which they describe in somewhat different ways.

Briggs once again uses “splashing,” which I think can be justified from the verb, but the “terrible” is all his doing. Briggs seems to believe it is the translator’s job to improve on the author’s original, to make the kind of impression on the reader that the translator thinks a passage should make if properly understood. This is very presumptuous when the author is Tolstoy.

The Meades and Dunnigan make the sound of impact too insignificant in my opinion. “Flopped into something moist” and “a moist plopping sound” both sound more like a cherry dropping into a bowl of applesauce than the high-velocity impact of a twelve-pound iron ball into a human body. P & V’s “wet smack” is much better, despite sounding like a sloppy kiss. It gets both the sound of a violent impact and the wet in, though it doesn’t make the penetration (with in or into) explicit.

I realize that my translation—with its “smacked into wet stuff”—is not beautiful, but I’ll make an argument for it. My goal is to stick to Tolstoy as well as I can because I know he chooses his sentences with a purpose. For both of the descriptions of a cannonball hitting a man (Cossack and general) he avoids specifically saying what either the missile or the target is, telling us instead what the sound of impact was like—what hearing it would make the hearer interpret it as being: something smacking into something wet. In the case of the Cossack’s death, Tolstoy uses the word for “something” for the liquid target. In the case of the general’s, he uses the word for the missile, while the target is only designated “wet.” Russian frequently uses an adjective to stand in for a noun having the characteristic indicated by the adjective, and Tolstoy has done that here with the word for wet. I didn’t want to use “something” twice in the same sentence any more than Tolstoy did, which is why I chose “wet stuff,” as the best approximation I could think of. In both cases Tolstoy uses the preposition which can be translated as in or into to make the point that there is a wet substance being penetrated. Only the Meades and I keep this in our translations explicitly, but I think we did well to. “Smack” seems pretty good for the impact sound, as I now understand it. I mentioned it as an alternative in the previous post’s analysis, and I’ve decided to go with it also.

Now let’s deal again with the “from his horse” or “with his horse” question, which came up in the previous post. Although the grammar is the same as before, both Dunnigan and the Meades have gone over to Garnett’s and Briggs’s “from his horse.” P & V, with Russian native-speaker Volokhonsky sticking to the Russian text faithfully, keeps the “with” sense (they say “and”). I am translating it that way too. I have looked at three Russian texts (two electronic, one paper), and they all have the (instrumental case) ending on the Russian word for horse that mandates the preposition be read as with, not from, so I don’t think it’s a typo. Barring evidence that Tolstoy would break this rule (and I have noted places where he has used the genitive case on other nouns following this same preposition to indicate from), I can’t see how the from the horse reading is justified. There is no later mention of the horse, but the same applies to the general. If one cannonball felled both rider and horse in the earlier example, why not again? It’s certainly not essential to the story, but I see the horse going down too.

An extremely meticulous reader of this post might have noticed that in one place I seemed to favor “slap” for the sound and in another “smack.” “Slap” was just so close to the Russian “shlop” that I had to choose it as my substitute word (sssslap, actually) in the sentence translated in the previous post. For this post’s passage I have gone back and forth between “smack” and “slap.” And between “in” and “into,” for that matter. At some point, you just have to go with one.

Finally, I can’t help wondering how these two brief scenes of a cannonball killing a horseman came to be. Since neither advances the story, I have to think that Tolstoy wanted to get the sound of a cannonball hitting a body into the book, as part of the full experience of what warfare of the time was like. But why twice? A plausible scenario (to me, anyway) has the Austerlitz scene being written first, but then being judged insufficiently arresting, coming as it does amidst a scene of widespread death and destruction, near the end of a battle. So the scene with the auditor, a total novice to the sounds of combat, would have been inserted later (but earlier in the book) as the first example of an attack by cannon ball, with the description of the sound as being something totally new, something to be interpreted by the auditor’s mind, and coming out of the blue as the first sounds of a battle just commencing. Even before this, Tolstoy had described the sound of grapeshot through the mind of Nikolai Rostov, who first came under fire on a bridge and heard what seemed like a lot of nuts being scattered on the bridge, followed by the groan of one who’d been hit. Those sounds also stuck in my mind. Assuming Tolstoy has no other cannonball victim further into the book, one that somehow demands discussion, I will have nothing else to say about these translations unless someone points out a blunder of mine too blatant not to correct.

The Sound of a Cannonball to the Gut: A Comparison of War and Peace Translations

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

My last post was an exercise in closely comparing several English translations of the first sentence of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. I found it enlightening, not having realized just how many subtleties of meaning and chances for mistakes a single short passage could contain. I ended that post saying I might do something like it again. Sooner than I thought, here I am with another sentence analysis, a meatier study in more ways than one. In my current reading of Tolstoy’s War and Peace in Russian (I’m only about 180 pages into its 1200), I encountered a striking passage in a battle description, which led me to to look at a few English versions to see how it had been rendered by different translators. I saw significant differences, which seemed worth writing about.

This time I am considering three published translations (plus two added at the end) and my own. The oldest English translation of the three is the one done by Aylmer and Louise Maude (1922–23). It is in the public domain and widely available. The next chronologically is by Anthony Briggs (2005), available in the Penguin edition. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (2007) have been translating all the big Russian novels to widespread, if not universal, acclaim. Theirs is published by Vintage Classics.

Without going into detail about the part of the book in which the sentence occurs, I’ll set the scene merely by saying that Russian troops fighting a rearguard action in Austria have just come under attack by the French army. Quite implausibly, it seems to me, the commanding general has permitted a curious civil servant, a state auditor, to come ride along the battlefield with military officers to experience firsthand what it was like to be in a battle (an uncommonly dangerous one, at that, given the military situation). At this point in the book I can’t even tell where he is supposed to have come from. The action is occurring in Austria, but the auditor seems to speak Russian. I think the literary purpose of the auditor is to have someone present who is as new to the experience of battle as we the readers are. I should add that I haven’t read much further, so I can’t rule out the auditor’s later having some other role, which more fully explains his unlikely presence.

Right before the passage to be analyzed, the auditor had asked what it was that had just hit the ground ahead of them, and he had been told it was a “French pancake,” a joking way of identifying it as a cannonball shot at them by the French. No mention of the sound accompanying the cannonball’s flight was made at this point, but presumably there had been more than visual evidence of its arrival for the auditor to have noticed it and naively asked what it was. After a few more words were spoken and a description given of what the auditor looked like as he spoke, the following event occurred, for which I first present the Russian text and then the four translations I’m considering.

“Едва он договорил, как опять раздался неожиданно страшный свист, вдруг прекратившийся ударом во что-то жидкое, и ш-ш-ш-шлеп – казак, ехавший несколько правее и сзади аудитора, с лошадью рухнулся на землю.”

He had hardly finished speaking when they again heard an unexpectedly violent whistling which suddenly ended with a thud into something soft . . . f-f-flop! and a Cossack, riding a little to their right and behind the accountant, crashed to earth with his horse.

Hardly were these words out of his mouth when suddenly there came another terrible whoosh ending in a thudding splash into something soft, and with a great squelch a Cossack riding just behind him to the right toppled to the ground from his horse.

Pevear and Volokhonsky (P&V)
He had barely finished speaking when there came again an unexpected, dreadful whistle, suddenly ending in a thud against something liquid, and f-f-flop—a Cossack, riding a little to the right and behind the auditor, crashed to the ground with his horse.

He had barely finished speaking when suddenly again a terrifying whistle was heard, abruptly ending with the sound of a violent impact into something liquid, and fffflop—a Cossack, riding a bit to the right and behind the auditor, crashed to the ground with his horse.

Now let us proceed to examine the translations of this passage phrase by phrase.

Briggs begins with “Hardly were these words out of his mouth…”. Everyone else, including me, says “He had barely [or hardly] finished speaking…”, which is just what the Russian says. I don’t know why Briggs chose to refer to the “these words” instead of the speaker, especially since the immediately preceding sentence talks about the auditor’s appearance, and doesn’t contain the last words he’d spoken at all.

The first cannon ball shot in their vicinity was followed by another, which made itself known by the sound it made flying through the air.

Maudes: ”…when they again heard an unexpectedly violent whistling”

Briggs: ”…when suddenly there came another terrible whoosh”

Pevear and Volokhonsky: ”…when there came again an unexpected, dreadful whistle,”

Me: ”…when suddenly again a terrifying whistle was heard,”

A fair amount of interpretation is required in translating this phrase, but let’s first consider the sound itself. Was it a “whistle” [or “whistling”], or was it a “whoosh”, as Briggs would have it? The Russian word translates as whistle. The word—svist, transliterated—even makes a whistling sound (just as whistle does). A little research online turned up this description of the cannonballs from Napoleon’s guns: “The cannonballs themselves were subsonic, and lobbed slowly through the air, loudly whistling as they approached.” So Briggs’s whoosh (a different sound) is misleading and not true to the reality of battle. By the way, “lobbed slowly” is compared to modern artillery shells. Those cannons had a range of nearly a mile, so the balls weren’t moving slowly by ordinary standards.

Now let’s consider the adverb (неожиданно) rendered as “suddenly” or “unexpectedly” (turned into the adjective “unexpected” by P&V). The word can be translated either way, so we must consider the context. As I see it, when modifying a verb, the word basically corresponds to what we mean in English by out of the blue, which conveys both suddenness and unexpectedness. I checked a number of online Russian language dictionaries, and they had Russian words meaning quickly and suddenly (Быстро, внезапно) as the first definition.

There is not even agreement among our translators as to whether the adverb in question modifies the verb (раздался) coming before it or the adjective (страшный) coming after it in the sentence, however. There is no article in Russian to make the choice unambiguous by preceding or following the adverb. The Maudes say the whistling was “unexpectedly violent.” The Maudes’ interpretation implies to me that a less violent whistling was to be expected. One might argue that, compared to the previous cannonball’s more distant whistling, the new one was unexpectedly violent, but the Maudes say that “they again heard an unexpectedly violent whistling,” as though it were unexpectedly violent for the second time. Or maybe it was just more violent than one could ever expect. But I don’t think the adverb is meant to modify the adjective in this phrase.

Briggs’s rendering of the sudden onset of the sound is similar to mine. We both say “when suddenly.” His “another” and my “again” pretty much convey the same meaning, although my “again” emphasizes the temporal aspect, and his “another” the similarity of the sounds. The other two translators, by using the unexpected interpretation, downplay somewhat the startling effect of the sound, especially P&V, who transform the adverb into an adjective (unexpected) modifying the noun whistle.

Only the Maudes and I actually mention that the whistling missile was heard. The Maudes say “they…heard,” while I, keeping with the passive voice used by Tolstoy, say “was heard.” There’s a difference, and it’s not as though Tolstoy couldn’t have said it the way the Maudes translated it. So I assume he wanted to convey the bursting forth of the sound without the distracting reference to who was hearing it. Below, I will make the point that I think there was one particular hearer Tolstoy had in mind, better left unspecified. Briggs and P&V just say the whistling sound “came,” suddenly in Briggs’s case. P&V don’t exactly say the sound came unexpectedly, just that it was an unexpected sound, which was being repeated.

Was the cannon ball’s sound “violent,” “terrible,” “dreadful,” or “terrifying”? Violent seems to focus more on the physical characteristic of the sound, instead of the feeling it inspired, which the other adjectives point to. To me, terrible and dreadful don’t go far enough, considering the sudden death that the whistling ball could inflict on anyone it hit. I chose terrifying.

Now we come to the part of the passage that struck me so forcefully.

“… which suddenly ended with a thud into something soft…”

“…ending in a thudding splash into something soft,”

Pevear and Volokhonsky
“… suddenly ending in a thud against something liquid,”

“… abruptly ending with the sound of a violent impact into something liquid,”

As I first read (translated) this phrase, it was the “into something liquid” that struck me. What does that mean? What liquid? Horse and rider crash to the ground. Then I remembered how much of our bodies are water. What would a cannonball to the gut sound like? Tolstoy is reporting the sound as he imagined (or perhaps knew from experience or from others’ descriptions) that it would be heard and interpreted by someone, qua sound, before the hearer had had a chance to consider what the impacted liquid might be. The adjective жидкое means liquid, not soft, as Briggs and the Maudes translate it. P&V say liquid, and I note that Volokhonsky is a native Russian speaker. She’s the one of the translating pair that goes through the Russian text first, with Pevear following to polish and clarify her English rendering. Which is to say, I think Volokhonsky is likely to have gotten this word right. I haven’t been able to find any Russian-English dictionary that says the word means soft. Furthermore, the Russian language dictionaries I checked only define it either as liquid (fluid) or as weak or thin, as in watered down.

Briggs gives a nod to the liquid meaning by saying “thudding splash.” Tolstoy did not say splash or describe the actual sound beyond how the hearer interpreted it, however. I don’t know if the sound of a cannon ball hitting flesh or gut would be a splashing sound or not. It’s hitting a body that contains fluids, both in its tissues and, confined within membranes, in organs such as stomach and intestines. It’s not a pleasant thought, but I think Tolstoy means to jar us, as anyone hearing it for the first time would be jarred. In any case, I don’t believe a translator is justified in extrapolating to a very specific descriptive sound like splash when Tolstoy did not write it.

I especially take issue with the use of the word “thud” to describe the impact of the cannon ball on the man’s body. A thud is a loud dull sound, like the sound a heavy book falling flat on a wooden floor makes, to take an example. Hitting a feather bed or a wedding cake or anything else soft (or liquid) does not produce a thud. Thudding splash doesn’t make sense. Thudding “against” makes sense for producing an actual thud, but doesn’t go with the idea of penetration into liquid.

The Russian word in question is удар, which means a blow or violent collision, or the sound produced by such, which is the case here. By no means is thud the required translation of the word. My two Russian-English dictionaries have a couple or three inches devoted to the word in various phrases, and the word thud never appears as the translation. My English-Russian dictionary does not take thud back to удар. What the English translation should be depends on the context. If thud is rejected, what’s the alternative? I chose “sound of a violent impact.” That’s not as succinct, but it’s accurate and gives the reader a chance to take the meaning in. There isn’t always a single word to convey a meaning. Within the sentence, my choice sounds fine to me. I would add that, while I can imagine sounds that would make me think a projectile had penetrated something very juicy, I have trouble thinking of sounds that would make me think one had penetrated something “soft.”

Note that a key word here is the “something” that is impacted whether it’s described as soft or liquid. It is presented this way to express a hearer’s interpretation of an unknown phenomenon, in which something has whistled past and evidently hit something else violently, something liquid. The explanation for the sequence of sounds (and realization of what the impacted “something” was) only comes when the attention turns to the crashing fall of Cossack and horse.

It seems clear to me that there is one particular hearer in whose mind we are placed to hear the sound of impact and whose mind rushed to explain it as “the sound of a violent impact into something liquid” without at first realizing what that something was. Who else but the one who along with us, the readers, had never heard the sound a cannon ball makes upon hitting a human body, probably in the guts?

The auditor! The hearer! To make things clear, I note that the Russian word used for auditor by Tolstoy (аудитор) is really the same as the English word (Latin root, of course), just with a Russian accent. This seems so obvious that it may have been remarked upon before, but I just discovered it on my own, so I’m enjoying it. The Maudes chose to render the word as “accountant”, thus missing the “clue.” Of course, I may find out that later in the book there is some additional need for the civil servant to have been an auditor in order to fulfill some role in his later brief appearance, which I can see is coming by use of the search feature in the iBooks app.

Now we come to the end of the sentence.

“…f-f-flop! and a Cossack, riding a little to their right and behind the accountant, crashed to earth with his horse.”

“… and with a great squelch a Cossack riding just behind him to the right toppled to the ground from his horse.”

Pevear and Volokhonsky
“… and f-f-flop—a Cossack, riding a little to the right and behind the auditor, crashed to the ground with his horse.”

“… and fffflop—a Cossack, riding a bit to the right and behind the auditor, crashed to the ground with his horse.”

Let’s take care of the very last part of the sentence first. Three translators say “crashed to the ground [or earth] with his horse.” The other, Briggs, says “toppled to the ground from his horse.” How do we know which translation is correct? The Russian preposition by itself doesn’t tell us. But the ending of the Russian word for horse in the phrase puts it in the instrumental case, which unambiguously means with his horse. Had it been in the genitive case (different word ending), then from would have been correct. It’s a crashing down and not a mere toppling also. The fact that both man and horse must have been hit by the ball is made clear later, when the auditor sees the Cossack dead and the horse still writhing.

Tolstoy indicates drawn out sounds by repeated letters, separated by hyphens. This is clear from other examples in the book. What does he mean to convey by ш-ш-ш-шлеп? Transliterated, this is shlop (or shlep), with a long drawn-out sh. It has to be the sound of something, but what? Is it also a recognized onomatopoeic word? Is it meant to be the sound of the ball passing through the Cossack’s body or the sound of the crash of horse and rider to the ground? I think the punctuation “…, and shlop—a Cossack…crashed…,” makes it natural to think that shlop is the sound of the crash to the ground. All the translators, except probably for Briggs, I think, have interpreted it that way. But why is it such a drawn out sound? Is the dash meant to indicate that the crash to the ground followed the shlop sound? Knowing what shlop means should help nail the interpretation down.

Is shlop (шлеп) a word in Russian? Neither of the big Russian-English dictionaries I use have it, but they do contain two suggestive verbs and a noun that begin with shlop or schlep. The intransitive verb is translated as to fall with a plop or thud. We seem to be getting close here. Russian language dictionaries online do contain шлеп, and one of the definitions is the sound of such a fall, the other being the sound of a slap or smack. I’m about ready to say the case is closed, but I think there’s still a small amount of room for a different interpretation, which I believe Briggs has made.

Briggs has the Cossack toppling “with a great squelch.” I was not familiar with squelch as a sound. One dictionary defines it as “a squishing noise,” which might suggest that Briggs was talking about the sound of the ball passing through the body. But listen to this other definition I found for squelch: “a sound of or as if of semiliquidmatter under suction — the squelch of mud.” Would a slap or smack describe a squelch? Briggs may well be meaning to express the sound of the ball exiting the body of the Cossack. Can we be sure that Tolstoy didn’t use the drawn out sh to express the passage through the body and the final shlop to be the sound of its emergence on the other side? Squelch doesn’t fit with crashing, or even toppling. So I’m guessing Briggs had in mind the sound of the cannonball emerging from the Cossack, since he has acknowledged the juiciness of the sounds by describing the impact as splashing.

The rest of us decided to interpret the shlop as describing the fall and used an English onomatopoeic single-syllable noun ending in p. The Maudes and P&V presumably mean to use the same convention as Tolstoy for indicating drawn out sounds in writing “f-f-flop.” But to me that looks more like stuttering than drawing out the f. I went with “fffflop,” which I think anyone would interpret as drawing out the f. I was tempted to use fffflump (a dull heavy sound, as of a fall), since flop makes me think of soccer and basketball players flopping. But the rhyme of flop with shlop proved irresistible.

There is a small puzzle associated with this analysis of the sounds. How did the horse get hit too? Did the ball hit it first but only with a glancing blow? Or did it pass through the Cossack and then hit the horse? Since the horse is later seen writhing on the ground, it must have received a substantial hit.

Even if my interpretation of Briggs’s intent is correct and that interpretation of Tolstoy’s scene is correct, I would still find him to be greatly at fault for inserting his own specific description—“splashing thud” and “great squelch”—in place of Tolstoy’s way of presenting the events. It’s as though Briggs views the translator’s job to be rather like that of a writer adapting a novel to a screenplay, in which specific instructions have to be made on sound effects etc. At least the other translators are trying to stick to Tolstoy.

I didn’t have access to the 1903 Constance Garnett translation when I started writing this, but now I do. It has been the most widely read version. I don’t think it’s worth rewriting the phrase-by-phrase analysis to include it, but I will say a few words about it.

“He had hardly uttered the words when again there was a sudden terrible whiz, which ended abruptly in a thud into something soft, and flop—a Cossack, riding a little behind and to the right of the auditor, dropped from his horse to the ground.”

I think Briggs may have consulted the Garnett translation while making his. Garnett also refers to the auditor’s “words,” and she is the only one except Briggs that incorrectly has the Cossack toppling from his horse instead of crashing down with his horse. Briggs also follows Garnett in reversing the order of “to the right and behind” from how it’s written in the Russian. Garnett, like Briggs, also was unaware that cannonballs whistled. She says “thud into something soft,” about which I have already expressed my opinion. I do like her “ended abruptly,” and had already chosen similar wording before I saw hers. As usual, I might add, Garnett’s translation flows well, which is nothing to sneeze at, even when it contains mistakes and deviates from the style of the original.

Now I also have Ann Dunnigan’s 1968 (Signet) translation, which I’ll briefly mention.

“He had hardly uttered the words when again there was the sudden, terrifying whistling sound, abruptly ending with a thud as something soft was struck—pl—op!—and a Cossack riding a little to their right and behind the auditor fell to the ground with his horse.”

Dunnigan probably consulted Garnett’s translation, as her beginning “He had hardly uttered the words when again there was…” is word for word the same (and at variance from the literal Russian). She substitutes “the sudden terrifying whistling sound” for “a sudden terrible whiz.” The “whistling” is an improvement, and she chose “terrifying” and “abruptly ending” just as I did. She also makes it unanimous for the use of thud to describe the ball’s impact sound. Dunnigan, unlike Garnett and Briggs, has the horse correctly falling with the Cossack. Her placement of “pl—op!” makes it seem she intends to associate the sound with the impact rather than the fall, but the word doesn’t fit that interpretation.

About that thud. Is it possible that all the translators considered here just followed Garnett in using this word, thinking perhaps that the common idea of a thud must be too limited? I’m just baffled by splashing thud, thud into something soft, and thud against something liquid. It’s like a placeholder word that never gets replaced. Am I wrong about what a thud is? Cannonballs could literally knock a person’s head off. Are we to suppose they would make a thud against a human body? I think the word thud destroys the intent of the author by introducing an inappropriate sort of sound (one that imparts a note of finality) into the reader’s mind. When followed by “into something soft,” which adds nothing one can imagine hearing, the supposed thud is logically negated, and the reader’s mind must jump to information (soft target) that is not in the domain of the senses, instead of taking in the sound of an “impact into something liquid.”

Now I’m trying to imagine the sound a cannonball hitting me in the breastbone, as opposed to the gut, would make. Wouldn’t that make a loud crack rather than a thud? Even if we could think of a way a cannonball hitting a human being would make a thud, which I doubt, that doesn’t mean that thud should be used in translating this particular sentence. OK, I’ll say no more about it.

Let no one be under the illusion that I spend this much time on every sentence I read. It would take me years to read War and Peace in Russian at that pace, assuming I could ever finish. I read as fast as I can, while always looking up words I don’t know, of which there are almost always several on a page, and trying to make sure I’ve connected the adjectives and pronouns to the right persons etc. I also rely on having translations to refer to. I’d be embarrassed to recount some of the dumb misreadings I’ve made and corrected after consulting a translation made by one of the translators mentioned here. I value their work. Translation is hard! Now I need to get back to my reading before I lose track of who all the many characters in War and Peace are.

You Can’t Judge a Translation by Its First Sentence, Can You?

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016

A few weeks ago I finished reading Brothers Karamazov in Russian. Only took me a year. But I’m a patient man, never lost the thread, and I was reading a lot faster toward the end. Naturally, I consulted my Russian-English dictionaries constantly. Yesterday, I thought I’d take a look at what kind of selection I’d have had in translation. Below you will see the original Russian, my translation, and five translations in books currently available. I was surprised at what I found just in this first sentence.

My comments follow the selections. [AK] and {FK] stand for the names Alexei Karamazov and Fyodor Karamazov. Initials of translators are used to identify them in the discussion. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that all of these translators know Russian better than I, but I only had one sentence to work on (with their renderings before me), while they had to deal with something over 800 pages. I was able to access some of these translations using the “Look Inside” feature for books on

Dostoyevsky, Russian original
[AK] был третьим сыном помещика нашего уезда [FK], столь известного в свое время (да и теперь еще у нас припоминаемого) по трагической и темной кончине своей, приключившейся ровно тринадцать лет назад

I. Andrew MacAndrew (AM), Bantam
[AK] was the third son of [FK], a landowner in our district who became a celebrity (and is remembered to this day) because of the tragic and mysterious end he met exactly thirteen years ago

II. Constance Garnett (CG), various editions (public domain)
[AK] was the third son of [FK], a land owner well known in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago

III. David McDuff (DM), Penguin
[AK] was the third son of a landowner in our district, [FK], so noted in his time (and even now still recollected among us) for his tragic and fishy death, which occurred just thirteen years ago

IV.  Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (PV), Farrar, Straus and Giroux
[AK] was the third son of a landowner from our district, [FK], well known in his own day (and still remembered among us) because of his dark and tragic death, which happened exactly thirteen years ago

V. Ignat Avsey (IA), Oxford World Classics
[AK] was the third son of [FK], a landowner of our district, extremely well known in his time (and to this day still remembered in these parts) on account of his violent and mysterious death exactly thirteen years ago

VI. Me (BE)
[AK] was the third son of [FK], a landowner of our district who was notorious in his time (and still remembered here even today) for his tragic and murky demise, which occurred exactly thirteen years ago

The first thing I would like to call attention to is that two of the translators (III-DM and IV-PV) follow the word order in the original Russian in the first part of the sentence:

III-DM says “[AK] was the third son of a landowner in our district, [FK], so noted in his time …”,


IV-PV say “[AK] was the third son of a landowner from our district, [FK], well known in his own day …”

I believe this is a case where something is to be gained by changing word order. In the Russian there is no ambiguity about who was “noted” or “well known,” because of the word endings which distinguish the cases. In English, I think there is a slight ambiguity with this order. Is it [AK] who was well known etc. or [FK]? It was certainly [FK], and the other translators change the word order to eliminate or greatly reduce ambiguity.

Perhaps some slight ambiguity remains n V-IA’s rendering, despite the changed word order.

V-IA says “[AK] was the third son of [FK], a landowner of our district, extremely well known in his time …”

II-CG changes the word order and eliminates the possible ambiguity, but she doesn’t stop there. She alters the sentence further, thereby introducing a problem.

II-CG says “[AK] was the third son of [FK], a land owner well known in our district in his own day,…”

This change by II-CG alters the meaning, restricting the landowner’s notoriety to “our district,” a restriction not found in the Russian, and which, as it turns out in the story, was far from the case. Even without that foreknowledge, the parenthetical mention of [FK]’s memory being alive among the locals, even thirteen years after his death, would seem to imply that his fame has not lasted elsewhere, but had spread beyond his district “in his time.” But this contrast is not present in II-CG’s rendering, which presents [FK]’s fame as a local phenomenon in the first place.

I think the versions of I-AM and VI-BE eliminate the ambiguity without doing any damage in the process.

I-AM says “[AK] was the third son of [FK], a landowner in our district who became a celebrity…”.

I may be making too much of the possible ambiguity of reference in these translations. How many people would be confused? Even more relevantly, how many readers of this first sentence will not already have some knowledge that the story involves the murder of the father of the brothers Karamazov? Still, the fact remains that in the Russian there is no possibility of getting confused about who died, so I think that total certainty should be maintained in the English version, and it’s easy enough to do.

All of the translators, save II-CG, keep the parenthetical remark in parentheses, which brings up another point. The narrator of the novel claims to be someone who was around for the events he describes. Part of the time he is writing as an actual witness. Part of the time he is passing on what he has been told. Part of the time he has completely evaporated to become an implausible “omniscient observer” without a personality, all depending on Dostoyevsky’s whim. But, at the start of the novel, as in the story of the trial, there is no doubt. This is supposed to be a real person, relating a history of events in his district. In that sense, he is a character himself, and his idiosyncratic writing style is something the translation needs to convey. II-CG rides roughshod over this idea.

OK, let’s pick a couple of nits.

I-AM says “… landowner in our district who became a celebrity…”

There’s nothing in the Russian text about becoming. He just was. Celebrity? Maybe, but that makes me think of someone gaining fame while still alive, which isn’t the case here. It also sounds like something more positive than being murdered, probably by your son.

Worse than that, in my opinion, I-AM makes the opposite mistake from II-CG by not implying the ongoing memory of [FK] is restricted to the narrator’s locale.

I-AM just says “(and is remembered to this day)”

All of the other translators restrict the continued memory in some way.

IV-PV say “(and still remembered among us)”, using the same wording as II-CG, but in a way that I think contrasts the local nature of the ongoing memory to the notoriety in [FK]’s time. III-DM uses “among us” also.

V-IA goes even further in stating the local nature of the memory by saying “(and to this day still remembered in these parts).”

I suppose the Russian “у нас” could mean among us Russians, not just those of us “in these parts,” but I think the fact that the ongoing memory is placed in parentheses argues for the local memory interpretation. I went with “here,” which is similar to “in these parts,” but with room for a bigger “here.”

Now we’ve come to the phrase that every translator rendered differently, describing the reason for [FK]’s notoriety. Here they are:

I-AM “because of the tragic and mysterious end he met”

II-CG “owing to his gloomy and tragic death”

III-DM “for his tragic and fishy death”

IV-PV “because of his dark and tragic death”

V-IA “on account of his violent and mysterious death”

Vi-BE “for his tragic and murky demise”

First let me note that all of the translators save one include “tragic” as one of the adjectives. V-IA chose “violent” to render that word. I’m sure he would make a case for for it, but based on the narrator’s choice of a word (трагической) that cries out to be translated “tragic,” instead of other available words he could have chosen to say violent, I can’t accept it. I think “tragic” conveys the idea of suddenness, and the notoriety already mentioned would lead a reader to guess it was not an ordinary accidental death. There is also the factor of maintaining the narrator’s voice to be considered. He said tragic. Beyond that, the story of Dmitri Karamazov can only be seen as a tragedy, notwithstanding the attempt to mitigate it in the epilogue, so [FK]’s death was especially tragic for Dmitri.

The other adjective (темной) is subject to interpretation. It indicates a lack of light or clarity, literally or figuratively. Four translators, taking into account the details of the story, chose a word that carries the notion of uncertainty in the circumstances of [FK]’s death, which was indeed what gave it such widespread interest. “Fishy” it was, but somehow that word just doesn’t sound right to me. “Mysterious” to me introduces the notion of there being doubt as to what caused the death, which was not the case, the only thing in question being the identity of the murderer. I submit that “murky” is perfect, given the uncertainty in the details of the murder, and I expect all future translations to use it (no royalties required).

“Gloomy” is terrible in my opinion. What makes a violent death gloomy? “Dark” is not as bad, and it carries with it the idea of an evil deed, but it does miss the notion of uncertainty which all the other translators picked up on. It is perhaps not a coincidence that these two translations felt the need to invert the Russian word order, making “tragic” come last. Maybe “tragic and dark” and “tragic and gloomy” would have left the weakness of dark and gloomy more exposed.

Four translators note that [FK]’s death occurred “exactly thirteen years ago.” III-DM says “just” instead of “exactly.” I assume he meant that to be the equivalent, but “just thirteen years ago” is more likely to be interpreted as “only thirteen years ago,” which wasn’t meant, as far as I can tell. II-CG just ignores the word, thus modifying the narrator’s voice once more.

Finally there is the word most translators rendered as “death.” I-AM chose “end,” and VI-BE chose “demise.” Obviously, they all leave [FK] dead as a doornail, but I would argue that “demise” is best in keeping with the narrator’s voice, just based on the evidence of my Russian dictionaries. The Russian word is translated “demise” in both my dictionaries, not “death.” My English to Russian dictionary maps “demise” back to the Russian word in question, but not to the usual word for death. There are other words the narrator could have chosen, and I think he characteristically chose the one we call demise.

I would not have imagined that translations of a single opening sentence would have so many differences. I also hadn’t thought about all the ways a translation could go wrong, especially in subtle ways. It was fun to compare the translations and try to better them. I have a feeling I may do some more of it.

A Short Tale of Twitter Hostility with a Glimmer of Hope

Friday, March 25th, 2016

I imagine just about everyone has at least heard of Twitter and has probably heard it can be a pretty nasty place, where people exchange insults and incite others to join in hateful online attacks on their adversaries. I’ve seen the transcripts of some ugly interactions. But my Twitter community is quite civil, and I don’t go looking for trouble. Recently I got involved in a relatively small tussle, though, and I’m sharing the story in this post. If you’re not on Twitter, it may not make sense to you without some explanation of how Twitter works, so I’ll start with that. If you don’t need it, you can skip the next four paragraphs.

I have a Twitter account, which allows me to post short—140-character maximum length—messages (called tweets) to the “twittersphere.” I also “retweet” (RT), i.e., pass on others’ tweets that I think worthy of note, though—as many say in their Twitter bios—“RT doesn’t = endorsement.” I used to sometimes mark tweets as “liked,” until Twitter changed the star that indicated a like into a red heart, which I refuse to use. Everything I tweet is public. Anyone, even someone without a Twitter account, can go to my Twitter page and read all my tweets. So a person’s tweets are essentially posts on a miniblog. This is true for anyone on Twitter that hasn’t opted for a private account, which is not the norm and sort of defeats the purpose.

Tweets are of three types. There are tweets with no particular reader in mind. There are retweets (RT). And there are tweets addressed to particular persons. Everyone on Twitter is identified by a Twitter handle that starts with the @ character, as well as by a name, which may or may not be the person’s real name. If a tweet is meant for someone in particular, then it will begin with that person’s Twitter handle (@that_particular_person). While I can go to anyone’s Twitter page and read all their recent tweets, there is a better way to follow what they’re tweeting, namely to “follow” them. This is basically subscribing to their tweets, which will automatically appear, along with the tweets of all those I follow, in my Twitter timeline, as they are tweeted, most recent on top. Anyone can follow anyone else (not private) on Twitter, excluding the case where one user has blocked another. On Twitter I’m @onscrn. (Feel free to follow.) Not everyone I follow follows me, and vice versa.

All tweets that aren’t addressed to anyone in particular will be automatically seen by the tweeter’s followers. A tweet addressed to @addressee will appear in the timeline of @addressee whether or not @addressee follows the tweeter. Don’t count on @POTUS actually reading your tweets, but they will be delivered to his Twitter timeline. If anyone mentions @onscrn in the text of a tweet, I also get notified about that. Probably the main way a tweet directed to a particular person gets sent is when someone chooses to reply to a tweet. That automatically puts the Twitter handle of the person whose tweet is being replied to at the beginning of the reply. If someone replies to a RT, then the both @original_tweeter and @retweeter are addressed in the reply. The address part with the @ can always be edited before the tweet is sent. If a reply is made to a tweet that was addressed to two people, then the reply tweet goes to the sender of the tweet and the other recipient of the tweet being replied to. It’s like a reply-all email. I mention these details to make sense of the Twitter exchanges below.

If you’re particularly interested in some subject or event, you can search for it on Twitter via keywords (or “hashtags” marked with #). This is a search of the vast ocean of tweets. In this way you can find tweets that contain these keywords tweeted by people you have no prior knowledge of. You can read the tweet, and you can go check out the authors of the tweets, see all of their recent tweets.

Below, I’m using Twitter handles of @protrump (a woman in Texas, according to that Twitter account’s bio) and @antitrump for the people involved, while keeping my own name of @onscrn. There didn’t seem any point in using the others’ real Twitter names, since the story doesn’t depend on who they are exactly.

One thing that has especially disturbed me about Donald Trump’s campaign is how casually he can speak of murder, which I’m pretty sure is a first for Presidential candidates, and which is enough, by itself, to convince me that I really don’t want to see this man in a position of governmental power. I’m assuming my original tweet, which started the interactions, was the one that follows, though I can’t be sure because @antitrump retweeted a couple of others.

ME: “Why does Trump keep saying he could murder someone & not lose support? Not bothered by Putin’s murders. Gave Kim Jong-un credit for murders.”

Since @antitrump wasn’t following me, he would have seen my tweet only as a result of searching on Twitter for “Trump”. I assume @protrump wasn’t following @antitrump on Twitter, so she would have also come across his RT by virtue of a search. In both cases, they would have had a whole lot of tweets to read through, as Trump is undoubtedly one of the most frequently used words on Twitter.

@protrump saw at least one of @antitrump’s retweets from me about Trump and responded. So both I and @antitrump had this tweet from @protrump show up in our Twitter feed:

PRO-TRUMP: “@onscrn @antitrump Oh shut the hell up. It was a metaphor.”

I guess I’ve been lucky, but that was the first out-of-the-blue aggressive tweet I’ve ever had directed at me, so it was a bit startling. It was nothing compared to the rather disturbing vile insult thrown at me years ago in the comment section of someone’s blog, which had linked to my blog post, written at the time of Obama’s first inauguration, about the depth of racism in the recent past: “Thoughts of Water on the Eve of Obama’s Inauguration” . That comment was evidently from a virulent racist. Blog comment sections are well known for bringing out the worst in people, or attracting the worst people. I don’t have a comment section on my blog.

Anyway, the next tweet I saw in this exchange was from @protrump, but it was preceded by a response by @antitrump just to @protrump, of which I was unaware at the time. I think @protrump would have had to explicitly include me as an addressee in her response, so it was probably directed to me as well as @antitrump.

ANTI-TRUMP: “@protrump Same with punching protester in face, or megyn kelly’s ‘whatever’, or fiorina’s ‘persona’ .. He likes (is) despots”

PRO-TRUMP: “@antitrump @onscrn Who cares?  Grow a set you delicate little flower”

Then came this reply (in which I am clearly just being CCed):

ANTI-TRUMP: “@protrump @onscrn speaking of flowers, don’t u have weeding to do in the tub outside ur trailer?”

Now, admittedly @protrump had insulted us (as unmanly, presumably in contrast to Trump), in her “grow a set” response. But that was at least somewhat generic and based on an insulting interpretation of why we’d failed to appreciate Trump’s murder references. @antitrump’s retort was thoroughly ad hominem and based on a stereotype of what a Trump supporter is like. Beyond that, it showed a contempt for such people (poor, White, uneducated, non-coastal) as being the only members of our society who can be insulted for being who they are without violating the code of political correctness. I think there’s a good deal of truth in this analysis of Trump’s appeal by Clive Crook: “Donald Trump, Class Warrior”

For good measure, @antitrump added this.

ANTI-TRUMP: “@protrump @onscrn dont worry #trump loves the poorly educated.. They’re loyal. [link to picture of a cartoon dog]”

I didn’t want to be part of this, so I just tweeted to the two of them:

ME: “@protrump @antitrump Leave me out of this. I’m not getting into any personal insult contest.”

Right away, @protrump responded in agreement.

PRO-TRUMP: “@onscrn @antitrump Deal.”

And @antitrump both retweeted and “liked” my tweet.

I was kind of surprised. Is it that easy? As far as I can tell, @protrump and @antitrump also ceased firing at each other. So, I think they were open to a call to end hostilities, maybe even relieved to have an end. These interchanges were actually pretty mild compared to many that happen, but they were bad enough for me. I’d like to think I’d called them to their better selves, but I’m not fooling myself into thinking they’ve abandoned the fray. Totally missing from these exchanges was any attempt to change the mind of the other person, or of anyone sharing that person’s opinion who might have seen the tweets, so I can’t help feeling that the sole motivation was the desire for combat against representatives of the “other side,” to whom no amount of respect was due. This is a temptation that should be resisted. It’s Good Friday. Love your enemies. It doesn’t require agreement.

RTFRB: The Obstruction Rule Should Not Have Ended Game 3

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

I am posting this even as I hope it will be of little interest after tonight’s Game 6 of the World Series, since I’m pulling for the Red Sox to win and make the unfortunate end of Game 3 just an oddity with no lasting effect on the outcome of the Series.

Still, I want to counter the prevailing idea that, while it was a shame to have such an important game decided in such an unusual and unsatisfying way, the decision of third base umpire Jim Joyce to call obstruction on Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks, and thus award the winning run to the Cardinals in the bottom of the ninth inning, was the correct call and really a clearcut enforcement of the rule on obstruction, which made no allowance for any consideration of the fielder’s intent.

The widespread feeling that something was nonetheless wrong about having the game end this way has led to talk that “Major League Baseball” might want to revisit the rule to make it more flexible, so, that in the future, the umpire would have more discretion in deciding whether true obstruction (with intent, as opposed to unavoidably) had taken place. Here’s a link about that. The writer of that article, Ken Rosenthal, argues against making such a change, for the simple fact that it will probably never come up again, and, moreover, that explicitly including “intent” in the rule would only make things worse. According to my argument below, a careful reading of the rule shows that likely (not provable) intent is already in the rule implicitly, so that what is needed is not a change to the rule but a more reasonable enforcement of it.

I did not know the rule on obstruction of a runner by a fielder by heart before this event. However, I was able to read it, as anyone else can, online. What I see in the rule is not at all a vindication of the umpire’s call.

The rule, without consideration of its accompanying Comment, might seem clearcut: “OBSTRUCTION is the act of a fielder who, while not in possession of the ball and not in the act of fielding the ball, impedes the progress of any runner.”

But the Comment cites as an example the case where a fielder has dived for a ball and remained lying on the field in the path of the runner. There is room for reasoned judgment in making the call in such a case. Here’s what the Comment on the rule says about a case very similar to what happened (ground ball instead of thrown ball the only difference): “For example: an infielder dives at a ground ball and the ball passes him and he continues to lie on the ground and delays the progress of the runner, he very likely has obstructed the runner.”

I want to call attention to a couple of phrases in that sentence. First, it says “and he continues to lie on the ground.” I think the reasonable reading of this is that the fielder does not promptly get up off the ground, with the strong implication that he is deliberately staying on the ground to be in the runner’s way. This implication of intent is strengthened by the ending “he very likely has obstructed the runner.” Very likely! Now he clearly has obstructed the runner in the strictest sense of the word if he has impeded the progress of the runner, so the “very likely” can only point to the fielder’s likely intent. Intent cannot be proven, of course, so the obstruction rule can be invoked when it seems likely that deliberate obstruction was involved, or that what has happened is essentially indistinguishable from deliberate obstruction.

Now if the fielder is trying to get up, but is prevented from that by the runner being on top of him, how can the fielder be blamed for not getting up? How long must the fielder stay on the ground to say he “continues to lie on the ground”? It is clearly a judgment call about whether the fielder has probably impeded the runner on purpose, without, of course, requiring the umpire to be a mind reader. There is no automatic call based on the mere fact of contact with a runner having been made by a fielder lying on the ground.

The common sense call would have been that the impeding of the runner’s progress was inadvertent, since the play happened so fast with both players in the same small area from the start. Contact occurred almost immediately after the ball got past the fielder. It was not the case of a shortstop continuing to lie in the base path to slow down a runner rounding second after the ball had gotten through the infield.

A judgment call based on the probable intent of the fielder, which should have been made, would have left the runner free to advance at his own risk (to be tagged out at home in the case in question). Instead, what should have been an extra-inning World Series game with uncertain outcome became another game made memorable by Jim Joyce, who seems to have a knack for spoiling games of great interest with bad calls.

Of course, I don’t know any more than anyone else whether Middlebrooks was trying to impede Craig. I also don’t know if Craig’s decision to go over Middlebrooks instead of around him was based on the hope of getting an obstruction call. But based on the wording of the rule, including its significant appended Comment, the play should have been allowed to continue without umpire interference. It may be that umpires are taught to enforce the rule the way Joyce did, despite its wording. If so, that needs to be changed, but it doesn’t take a rule change for that to happen, for the rule is reasonable as it stands.

Coming Back for More Or Just Stumbling In?

Monday, November 1st, 2010

I doubt if I have any regular readers by now, so I won’t waste a lot of time apologizing for not having written about anything but my iPhone and iPad apps for a long time—or anything at all, for over a month. Not wanting to overdo it on my first blog post not devoted to apps in so long, I will keep this post short. And easy to write, I might add.

This will be another in my series on what brings people to this blog, based on search strings they have used in Google, which I can see in the log for this web site. Previous posts in this vein were “What Brings You Here?”, “More Searchers Arriving at a Place They Never Imagined”, “Some Google Search Examples to Start Off July”, and “More Google Follies.”

It’s gratifying to see indications in a search string that someone has returned to the blog to read something a second time, or perhaps to finish reading a post. I’m going to mention a few of those, which, though they are not as amusing as the ones that show the searcher had something totally different in mind, may be of some interest as indications of the kind of details and words that can stick in a person’s mind sufficiently to serve as keys to finding a blog post. Perhaps the examples will interest a new reader or two in the old posts. As always, I’m keeping the original spelling of the search strings.

Of course, most of the time it’s not possible to know for sure what the Google searcher’s real target was, or if there even was a specific target. I’ll start with one that is far from certain to have been aimed at finding anything on this blog. “Animal fight cat and night creature” isn’t a perfect fit for my blog post “Cries in the Night,” but if you read that post you’ll see why I suspect it might have been meant for it, especially since the searcher did actually come here, or I wouldn’t know about it. It doesn’t seem the sort of phrase one would throw out without something specific in mind.

Just to follow with one I feel more confident about: “mac book pro boil water” fits so well the posts “Vista on My MacBook Pro is Hot—Boiling Hot!”, “Boiling Temperature—Not Just for Vista Anymore”, and “Can’t Boil Water With Vista on My MacBook Pro Anymore” that I’m claiming it as a definite.

I’m inclined to rank as almost definite the search strings “athiest breaking habits” and “Search for dawkins smoking” as having been motivated by a desire to come to my post “On the Breaking of Bad Habits Acquired in One’s Youth: Smoking and Atheism.” For all I know Richard Dawkins, the prominent atheist, has been trying to quit smoking, or perhaps there is another Dawkins associated with smoking in some way. But the referenced post, which talked quite a bit about Dawkins and his stated reasons for rejecting God, has been one of the most read of mine, so my guess is that those strings point to a purposeful search for it.

Also coming to that post was someone who entered the long direct quotation from Dawkins: “the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference.” Since it was a direct quotation, it could have come from anywhere, but it’s at least a possibility that someone copied it from the blog post mentioned in the preceding paragraph, having been impressed by it there and then wanting to return.

It’s a little disconcerting to see one’s own name in a search string, or it is to me anyway, but my name followed by “on screenscientist isaiah” was used to come to that same blog post on atheism, in which I quoted the Biblical verses Isaiah 55:8-9, so I assume that that text made an impression somehow, just as the Dawkins quote may have. I wonder if it was someone I know?

“Rest in piece roonie” probably was looking for “Ronnie Knox, Rest in Peace,” since the searcher did come here, but I can never know for sure. Kudos to Google’s spell guessing algorithms again.

The Googlers behind either or both of the search strings “drag racing going too fast” and “dragracing providence” could have had in mind “Times I Might Have Died” (the post they arrived at), though it didn’t recount an actual drag race.

Last Days of Chestnut, Guinea Pig” brings people to this blog every day. They are usually looking for advice about what to do with a sick, dying, or dead guinea pig. “Prayer for a dead guinie pig” might fit into the looking-for-advice category, but it could also have been entered by someone wanting to read the piece again, as you will understand if you read it.

It seems interest in my post “Large Hadron Collider: What’s the Risk?” has waned now that the LHC has been running for months without even the whisper of universal annihilation, but I’d like to think that the search string “otto roessler wacky” was inspired by my personal contribution to the defense of the LHC, in which seeing a video of Rössler led me to write “as I viewed his smiling face, this thought came into my mind: I wonder what the German word is for wacky tabacky.”

More Google Follies

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

Now and then I like to share with my vast readership some of the amusing Google search strings that have led people to this blog, as well as some of the mysterious or gratifying ones. Previous posts in this line are “What Brings You Here?,” “More Searchers Arriving at a Place They Never Imagined,” and “Some Google Search Examples to Start Off July.”

The search string that told me that it was definitely time to compile this post was one that brought someone to this site today, which coincidentally is the day after St. Patrick’s Day. This classic search string was “real pitcher of a leprechaun.” Now the use of “pitcher” in place of “picture” brings so many people here (where posts about Little League and the OnScreen Pitch Count iPhone app are plentiful) that I’m starting to think of “pitcher” as a candidate for alternative spelling. It is actually the way many people around where I live pronounce “picture,” which has confused me more than once when the topic was Little League team photos. But what about the leprechaun? Well, that word was used to describe a person in “A Rocky Little League Start,” which naturally enough also included the word “pitcher.” I have to assume that the person that handed that search string to Google believes in leprechauns, or at least thinks there just might be an actual photo of one on the internet somewhere. So far I’ve resisted the temptation to see what might turn up with the proper spelling of “picture.”

My post “Last Days of Chestnut, Guinea Pig” seems to bring at least one reader to this blog every day. Most of these, as I’ve noted before, are evidently people searching for veterinary or pet euthanasia advice. The desperation of these googlers comes through in the way they phrase their searches, not just in key words, but as questions or plaintive statements about their pet’s symptoms. These are often sad, as in “my guinea pig is whimpering like a baby.” An exception was one I found funny, as it was obviously the coincidence of our guinea pig’s name that brought the searcher here: “are guinea pigs allowed chestnuts.” Note that this search string is expressed as a question, which follows the letter to an advice column format so often adopted by google users, at least those with pet concerns.

I’m almost sure I’ve run across “my cat cries when we fight” twice as a search string that pointed to this blog, presumably to “Cries in the Night.” I think it’s fascinating that someone would just hand that fact (based on experience, I assume) over to google for an internet search. Perhaps they were trying to locate a first-person account they had read in the past but couldn’t remember where. I imagine they were searching for others with similarly sensitive cats though. If so, this blog would have disappointed them. Yet they came here, so perhaps something else piqued their curiosity.

I don’t have a clue how a search with “bugs bunny pulverizing pitch” led someone here, unless “pitch” alone sufficed. But that must have been on page 100 or later of the finds, after many “bugs bunny” matches. Maybe I have a reference to programming bugs somewhere.

As a more detailed example of how mere word occurrence can lead to google matches I’ll cite the google search for “bible significance of crow.” which turned up

On-Screen Scientist » Jim Crow
Jan 19, 2009 … Posts Tagged ‘Jim Crow’ … but it is also completely beside the point as regards the significance of Obama’s election. …. Yet Barack Obama is about to be sworn in as President with his hand on the Lincoln Bible. …

Yep, “Thoughts of Water on the Eve of Obama’s Inauguration” does contain the words “crow,” “significance,” and “Bible.” Nothing about Biblical significance of the crow though.

That same Obama inauguration post was evidently matched to a search on “effects of thoughts on water,” the meaning of which is puzzling, but could be about some imagined telekinetic effect I guess.

I have written (“Ronnie Knox, Marcel Proust, and I” and “Ronnie Knox, Rest in Peace“) about a certain Harvey Knox, stepfather of Ronnie Knox, the gifted quarterback who led a strange and fascinating life, but I have no knowledge whatsoever of “The Harvey Knox Pig Figurine Collection.” Sorry.

In the gratifying search category I’ll put “onscreen scienstist japense surrender,” since it leads me to believe that my post “August 6, 1945: Just Another Day in the War?” stuck in someone’s mind along with this blog’s title, even though the searcher is an even worse typist than I am.

Belichick Is Not a Gambler: He Played the Percentages Last Night

Monday, November 16th, 2009

What got into Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, last night to make him suddenly become a reckless gambler? That’s the question stunned New England Patriots fans have been asking themselves after he seemed to throw caution to the winds by deciding to go for a first down rather than punting in a key situation last night. The Patriots had the ball on their own 28 yard line in a fourth and two situation with about two minutes to play and a six-point lead in their game against the Indianapolis Colts. The Patriots went down to a crushing defeat when they failed to make the first and the Colts then scored 7 points to win 35-34. Naturally, Dan Shaughessy of the Boston Globe was pulling out all stops to express the monumental stupidity of the coach’s decision, saved from eternal ignominy (perhaps) only by its not having been made in a post season game.

I was as surprised as anyone when I saw the Patriots were going for the first down, but on further review, I am going to argue that Belichick made the right call. The timing of the call is crucial because the first down will be decisive if made. With lots of time to play, of course you punt. And for a random game picked out of a hat, this situation would seem to require a punt without a second thought. Get the ball away from your goal line and play prevent defense. What are the odds the other team can move 75 yards in two minutes in a high pressure situation? What are the odds you’re going to pick up two yards against a team geared to stop a short gain?

But this was not a random game between random teams. First of all, the two best quarterbacks in football were playing in it, and that has a strong bearing on the likely outcomes of different scenarios in the last two minutes of a game. One has to consider all the specific personnel of the teams and their current state of exhaustion, the crowd factor, and that real psychological edge people called “momentum.” No, this is not a question that has a universal answer, though Belichick may be one of the few coaches who would realize that.

In addition to Brady, the Patriots have other veterans of Super Bowl Championship teams, including the invaluable Kevin Faulk. These are players that actually get better in pressure situations. The starting point in a decision has to be what are the odds that Tom Brady will be able to complete a two yard pass to Kevin Faulk on third and two from the Patriots’ thirty? From what I’ve seen of these two clutch performers, I’d say about 80%. I’m sure Belichick has a better estimate. What if it’s fourth and two? The odds could go up a little because the Colts have to be thinking that the whole thing may be just a ruse to draw them offside. The Colts must be holding back until they are sure of the snap, thus giving Brady a fraction of second more time to make a decision and an unhurried throw. On the other hand, they aren’t going to be worried about deep coverage. Lets say the odds are that the Pats make the first down 75% of the time.

If they make the first down, the victory is basically cinched, game over. Thus the pass play gives the Pats a 75% chance of winning the game. True, if they don’t make it, based on the way the Colts have been moving the ball, the odds are great that they will lose the game. But of course that is not the comparison to make at this stage of the game with only two minutes to go. The chance of winning if the Pats go for the first down has to be compared with the chance of their winning if they give the ball back to the Colts, at say (best case scenario of negligible runback) the Colts’ 25 yard line. But what had just happened? The Colts had taken the ball 79 yards in 1:44. Manning had been sharp as could be. That means as sharp as anyone could be. The receivers had been sure-handed and were getting open. The Patriot pass rushers seemed tired. The game is in Indianapolis.

The decision formula is simple. Let the probability of making the first down be F, and the probability of a Colt touchdown after a punt be T. Then if F > (1-T), the Patriots should go for the first down. What were the odds that Peyton Manning would be able to get a touchdown in 2 minutes with 3 timeouts and the 2 minute warning to play with? Were the odds of a Colt touchdown greater than 25%? That’s the calculation Belichick had to make on the spot in a short time. If the answer to that question is a definite yes, then the Patriots should go for the first down.

One may argue about the chances of success with Brady throwing to Faulk to pick up a 2 yard first down. I think 75% is a reasonable number. I also think that the odds of Manning getting the Colts into the end zone after a punt were over 50%, which means Belichick’s decision, far from being crazy, was in fact the reasonable one. The main point is that the odds to compare are the odds of the Patriots making the first down and thus assuring the victory versus the odds of Colts scoring after a punt (not after getting the ball on downs). The decision formula F > (1-T) would still say go for the first down even if the chance of success was 60%, so long as the chance of the Colts scoring after a punt was greater than 40%.

Did Brady choke and overthrow Faulk? No, the pass was perfect. Did Faulk drop the ball even when hit? No, but he did take a split second to gain full possession of it after being hit right at the first down spot. Just enough to make the spot short of the first down marker. The Colts defense did just enough to get the ball back. But it was a close as could be, and the call could have gone the other way. Home field advantage may have helped there. The fact that it was so close just points out to me how likely success was.

Would I as coach have gone for the first down? No, like all normal human beings I would have punted and hoped. I wouldn’t have thought to make the proper analysis in the excitement of the game in the first place, and I wouldn’t have had the guts to go against what first glance intuition said if I had. But I now see that Belichick was both smart and courageous. It’s not as though he didn’t know the consequences of failure. He wanted to win more than he feared what the media and fans would say if he didn’t. Yep, the guy is one of a kind.

This is my first (and probably last) topical sports post, but it’s been so long since I’ve posted anything (tied up with iPhone app development again) that I thought I’d better go with something that caught my attention. Back to “normal programming” soon. Maybe.

August 6, 1945: Just Another Day in the War?

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

Freeman Dyson is a man I admire as one of the physics greats from the early days of quantum electrodynamics and as an original thinker and writer on diverse subjects. I recently heard him speak at Tufts University, or rather read, as he announced he would do at the beginning, in order, as he put it, to avoid going on for two hours. Such is the effect of his physical presence and his economical, straightforward writing and reading style that I have a feeling I wasn’t the only member of the rapt audience thinking: “This may be the smartest person I’ve ever encountered.”

Dyson’s talk was divided into two basically unrelated sections. The first part was devoted to the topic of abolishing nuclear weapons and some of the obstacles, particularly psychological obstacles based on misconceptions, to achieving that desirable end. The second part provided a glimpse into a dangerous but exciting future in which home biotechnology is as wide-spread as home computing today. There would be no point in my trying to summarize the many thought-provoking ideas Dyson presented. I saw a video camera, presumably for the benefit of the overflow crowd mentioned to be in another room, so I’m hoping Tufts will make the talk available to the public. I will only mention one of the ideas from the second part: bio-engineered plants with silicon-based, black leaves to serve as living solar cells, ten times more efficient at solar energy conversion than natural, chlorophyll-utilizing plants.

Much of the first part of Dyson’s talk was devoted to the task of exploding a number of widely believed “myths” that, according to Dyson, stand in the way of progress in eliminating nuclear weapons. One such important myth being that unilateral actions of disarmament are to be avoided and that only multilateral agreements with cheat-proof safeguards should be pursued, Dyson cited a number of significant unilateral steps to limit or eliminate weapons taken in the past by American Presidents (all Republicans, as it turns out, perhaps not surprisingly), which were later reciprocated. I confess that I didn’t remember them all, and the list was quite impressive.

While I share Dyson’s belief that the continued existence of large nuclear arsenals by major world powers is a great danger, probably the greatest danger, to the world’s future, I have to question the importance of some of the “myths” he enumerated. If all Dyson’s myths must first be overcome, I am not optimistic, for not all his myth-busting arguments were to my mind convincing. The one that struck me as least plausible when he made it was his claim that Hitler’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would not have enabled Germany to win the war. As a counter to this Dyson just asserted that had London and Moscow been leveled in nuclear attacks, then the allies would have been motivated to reach Berlin all the faster, possibly triumphing sooner than they actually did. I would hate to have the case for getting rid of nuclear weapons depend on that argument.

The shakiness of that argument made me start to wonder about Dyson’s ability to objectively analyze historical questions of this type. I’m not sure why he feels that dispelling what he sees as a false belief about a hypothetical outcome to past history is essential, though I suppose he thinks it necessary to correct the idea that the development of nuclear weapons was ever in any sense a good thing and to expunge whatever prestige they may retain from having possibly served a useful purpose in the past.

One of Dyson’s myth-busting arguments did in fact make me question what I thought I knew about what had prompted the Japanese surrender in World War II. I of course had read and wondered about the question of whether the nuclear bombings had been necessary to bring about the surrender, leaving aside the moral issue involved in deliberately destroying whole cities. Dyson’s assertion went well beyond arguing that Japan would have surrendered without the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He maintained that, contrary to the accepted view, the bombings had not been seen at the time as significant enough to initiate a crisis, or even special concern. He presented some historical evidence for the view that it was the Soviet Union’s entry into the war, and especially its invasion of Manchuria, that had prompted the Japanese surrender, with the nuclear bombings essentially being viewed by Japanese leaders as tolerable and not particularly noteworthy, only coincidentally having taken place at about the same time as the Soviet invasion, which had actually prompted a rapid surrender.

I don’t agree that destroying the belief that American nuclear weapons were taken to be a serious new threat by the Japanese war leadership is a prerequisite for convincing people of the undesirability of nuclear weapons today. The truth or falsity of that belief is certainly of historical interest, though, and Dyson’s surprising assertion that Japanese leaders had basically shrugged off the Hiroshima bomb led me to do some research on the topic. Yes, my “library” was Google.

I found that Dyson credits his current view on the Japanese surrender to the argument presented by Ward Wilson in an article called The Winning Weapon? Rethinking Nuclear Weapons in Light of Hiroshima published in International Security (Spring 2007) and available online as a pdf file. Dyson read his “myth-busting” argument about the Japanese surrender to the Tufts audience, and I believe what he read was very similar to the text of an earlier piece by him posted on the internet, though in his presentation at Tufts he elaborated much more on the psychological significance of the similarities of historical situations fifty years apart alluded to in point 5 below. I am going to discuss the way in which I think Wilson and Dyson have stretched and “cherry-picked” the evidence they present to fit their conclusion. I will bring in some outside evidence gleaned from my online research now and then.

Here follow Dyson’s basic (numbered) points from his online article along with my responses.

1. Members of the Supreme Council, which customarily met with the Emperor to take important decisions, learned of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945. Although Foreign Minister Togo asked for a meeting, no meeting was held for three days.

I can’t see how any firm conclusion can to be drawn from this. It may be that Togo was just more perceptive than others. The singular nature of this attack, which had come as a complete surprise, not to mention President Truman’s promise to continue dropping atomic bombs until Japan capitulated, may have taken time to sink in. And of course the second attack of August 9 on Nagasaki, which demolished the wishful thinking which held the Americans couldn’t have made more than one atomic bomb, had not yet occurred. I read elsewhere that the meeting requested by Togo did not take place because the military members of the Council were unavailable. Given the split on the Council between advocates of peace and hardliners, there was perhaps some deliberate stalling involved.

Togo made an urgent personal report to the Emperor on the Hiroshima bombing on August 7, and came away feeling he had convinced Hirohito that surrender with only one condition (maintenance of the Imperial throne) was now a necessity. This in itself would seem to be sufficient proof that the Hiroshima bomb was being viewed as qualitatively different from conventional bombing raids.

2. A surviving diary records a conversation of Navy Minister Yonai, who was a member of the Supreme Council, with his deputy on August 8. The Hiroshima bombing is mentioned only incidentally. More attention is given to the fact that the rice ration in Tokyo is to be reduced by ten percent.

The diary that records the conversation is that of Takagi, the deputy, not Yonai’s. In it occurs the following (Takagi speaking), quoted by Wilson:

“I used to think that by September or October the domestic situation would rapidly deteriorate while you said it would start deteriorating in mid-August. Actually, the situation is getting steadily worse in many respects during these couple of days, especially after Hiroshima.”

“Especially after Hiroshima” seems more than an “incidental” mention. Rather it seems to be an acknowledgment by Takagi that the Hiroshima bombing may have been a tipping point in the populace’s willingness to continue the war. Yonai replies, “Bad news continues and the ration of rice in Tokyo will be reduced by ten percent after the 11th of this month.” Yonai, already convinced that surrender was necessary, and living in fear of a popular uprising if the war went on much longer, may have been less attuned than Takagi to the significance of Hiroshima, but I wouldn’t call this exchange one that gives “more attention” to the rice rationing, which came up in the context of discussing the ever worsening popular mood, Yonai’s ongoing concern.

Perhaps post-war recollections are not to be trusted as much as wartime diaries, but I did note in my online reading that Kido, Emperor Hirohito’s most trusted adviser, related that on August 7, after it had been confirmed that the Hiroshima bomb was indeed an atomic bomb, the significance of which was not lost on the Japanese, Hirohito had told him, “No matter what happens to my safety, we should lose no time in ending the war so as not to have another tragedy like this.”

3. On the morning of August 9, Soviet troops invaded Manchuria. Six hours after hearing this news, the Supreme Council was in session. News of the Nagasaki bombing, which happened the same morning, only reached the Council after the session started.

Let me quote the opening remarks of Prime Minister Suzuki at this meeting:

“We have been hit hard by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Now we have the Soviet entry into the war. It has become almost impossible to continue the war any longer.”

So the first words out of the Prime Minister’s mouth in this first meeting after Hiroshima refer to Hiroshima, putting the atomic bombing on a par with the Soviet attack. In other words, it is the combination of these two heavy blows that has brought them to the point where surrender is necessary. This was indeed before news of the Nagasaki bombing came.

The meeting time may have been changed as a result of the news of the Soviet attack, but we read in Wilson’s article that Yonai spoke of this meeting with his deputy the day before it occurred, thus it had been scheduled before the Manchurian news, I think it is clear that Hiroshima would have been a topic of serious discussion in any case.

4. The August 9 session of the Supreme Council resulted in the decision to surrender.

Here is a concise statement, which could make it appear that the Council came to quick agreement due to the startling development of the Soviet invasion. In fact, as I learned in my online history reading, despite news of both the Nagasaki bomb and the Manchurian invasion, the vote split 3-3 with three military members of the Council voting to go on fighting unless several unrealistic conditions were agreed to by the Americans. Unanimity was not reached by the Council until they were invited along with the rest of the Cabinet to an extraordinary midnight session by the Emperor, who did not, as point 1 implied, regularly meet with them.

It should be noted that HIrohito stepped far beyond his normal role and used his prestige to gain reluctant agreement to sue for peace with only the condition of maintaining the Emperor on his throne, which makes Hirohito’s reason for choosing surrender most important.

5. The Emperor, in his rescript to the military forces ordering their surrender, does not mention the nuclear bombs but emphasizes the historical analogy between the situation in 1945 and the situation at the end of the Sino-Japanese war in 1895. In 1895 Japan had defeated China, but accepted a humiliating peace when European powers led by Russia moved into Manchuria and the Russians occupied Port Arthur. By making peace, the emperor Meiji had kept the Russians out of Japan. Emperor Hirohito had this analogy in his mind when he ordered the surrender.

There are a number of things that need to be said about this point. First of all, it deals with what Hirohito said in the rescript to the military issued on August 17, 1945. True enough, this rescript makes no mention of the atomic bomb attacks, and it does refer to the Soviet Union’s entry into the war, though not to the invasion of Manchuria, which according to the analysis related by Dyson is supposed to have had a special resonance with an earlier historical event in the minds of those in the Japanese military. One can of course speculate on the significance of Hirohito’s approach, and I will join in the speculation below.

Now I want to mention a very important event which Dyson’s point 5 and Wilson’s article fail to take into account, which might be called an inconvenient fact for their theory. On August 15, two days before his rescript to the armed forces, Hirohito had caused to be broadcast to the nation a recorded radio address announcing his decision to surrender. In that message there is no mention of the Soviet Union, except in passing as one of the allied countries to which Japan was surrendering. But within that address occurs the following justification for surrender:

“…the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest.

Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, it would not only result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.”

Is there any doubt what this passage in the Emperor’s message is referring to? Is there any mincing of words about the results of continuing to fight? No, no nation without nuclear weapons could stand against one that had them. The Emperor saw the reality and spelled it out plainly, in his own voice, thus undercutting any future attempt to rally a defense to the last person of the homeland, before he’d even addressed the military.

At the very least Wilson and Dyson need to discuss this message to the Japanese people. Wilson acknowledges (though only in a footnote) that the nuclear bombs were “mentioned” in the Emperor’s message, failing to note that the Soviet entry into the war was not mentioned there or that the rescript to the nation preceded the one to the military by two days. Nor does the word “mentioned” do justice to the decisive way in which the new weapons were described in their “incalculable power” as making resistance futile. Dyson ignores the Emperor’s message to the people entirely. I suppose Wilson and Dyson might say that the common people wouldn’t have understood the argument about the Soviet Union, so that something closer to their experience, as the ones subject to bombing, had to be used as justification for surrender; but the fact remains that Wilson and Dyson chose to avoid the issue, as it clearly doesn’t fit their thesis that the atomic bomb attacks were barely noteworthy within the context of many devastating conventional bombing attacks and the paramount importance of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria.

The question Hirohito and others must have asked themselves was would the message of surrender broadcast to the nation be enough to induce the laying down of arms by the military, which for many months had been gearing up for a last-ditch defense of the Japanese Islands, with death before national dishonor the mind-set and with kamikazes already a major part of the defense effort? Here is where the Soviet entry may become very significant from the psychological standpoint. The Japanese military could still take pride in its initial successes against the Americans and the British and French empires, and it had made the Americans pay dearly for every small island they captured. But add to the forces already arrayed against them those of the Soviet Union, how could they be expected to win? They had started the war against the others, and so couldn’t surrender to them without admitting the war to have been a mistake from the start. Surrendering to the Americans after such a long and bitter struggle must have seemed particularly odious. Here is the Emperor’s reference to the Soviet Union.

“Now that the Soviet Union has entered the war against us, to continue the war under the present internal and external conditions would be only to increase needlessly the ravages of war finally to the point of endangering the very foundation of the Empire’s existence.”

That’s it. Contrary to what point 5 all but declares there was no allusion of “the historical analogy between the situation in 1945 and the situation at the end of the Sino-Japanese war in 1895.” Whether or not this historical analogy was really something the Japanese military would have seen and found soothing or is only a fantasy of this particular analysis, I can’t say. Barring some testimony from the Emperor that I haven’t seen, I think it is going beyond what is known to say “Emperor Hirohito had this analogy in his mind when he ordered the surrender.” In any case, this only speaks to the words chosen to get the military to comply with the surrender order.

There is certainly material in this history for a Rashomon sort of story about how the war really ended. I can imagine Truman’s telling, Hirohito’s telling, Stalin’s telling, just for starters. Obviously there are open questions. With the Soviet Union about to enter the war, why couldn’t Truman wait and see what impact that event had before dropping the bombs? Was there a rush to make sure the bombs ended the war and at the same time send a message to Stalin?

Would the two atomic bombs (or just one) alone have been sufficient to have ended the war without Soviet entry into the war? That is impossible to know since the bombing and Soviet declaration of war occurred so closely together. But had the Soviets decided to let the Americans continue the war alone, is there anyone (except perhaps Wilson and Dyson) that believes Japan would have held up long against still more nuclear bombs? Let us all be thankful that the end came when it did.

6. The Japanese leaders had two good reasons for lying when they spoke to Robert Butow. The first reason was explained afterwards by Lord Privy Seal Kido, another member of the Supreme Council: “If military leaders could convince themselves that they were defeated by the power of science but not by lack of spiritual power or strategic errors, they could save face to some extent”. The second reason was that they were telling the Americans what the Americans wanted to hear, and the Americans did not want to hear that the Soviet invasion of Manchuria brought the war to an end.

Well, I suppose some leaders may have lied to Butow (who interviewed many after the war and wrote a gripping history of the events leading to the surrender in Japan’s Decision to Surrender), though Kido only speaks here of military leaders convincing themselves that they were not at fault, which can be taken as an interpretation of events as much as a falsification of history. Where is the quote from the Japanese leader that the atomic bombs entered not at all into the decision for Japan’s capitulation? Is there not a single such truth teller? Speaking of Kido, quoted by Dyson above, he is also the source of my earlier quote about Hirohito having decided on August 7 that the war must now end as a result of the Hiroshima bombing.

The continued intransigence of the military members of the Supreme Council all through the events of August 9, would seem to make it clear that Hirohito’s intervention was essential to the decision for surrender, and from what I have now read I believe that what finally pushed this man to act in a decisive way was the threat of continued atomic bombing of his country. While this is speculation, it is a fact that the Emperor gave the atomic bombs as the reason in his message of surrender delivered directly to his people.

Back when I was a physics student there were certain kinds of arguments in physics that were called “swindles” because they skipped over difficulties to arrive at a desired result without really having proved what they claimed to. I doubt Freeman Dyson has ever had recourse to a swindle in a matter of physics, even by accident, but I feel he has let his worthy goal of eliminating nuclear weapons lead him into accepting and now promulgating a significant swindle on the question of the importance of the atomic bombings in the minds of the Japanese decision makers at the end of World War II.

Some Google Search Examples to Start Off July

Monday, July 6th, 2009

“I’m shooting for one entry a week.” That’s what I stated when I first put this blog on the internet. The past couple of months I have fallen pathetically short of this. The main reason is that I have been spending time and mental energy programming an iPhone (and iPod Touch) “app.” It’s neither earth-shaking nor a potential fortune-maker, but I think it will be useful to baseball coaches (and the parents of pitchers) at all levels and to fans who might like to keep better track of how a pitcher is doing than they can from the statistics typically displayed during a game. The app is a pitch counter that allows one to record, not just balls and strikes, but also the kinds of strike (swinging, called, foul, or ball hit in fair territory), as well as the number of strikeouts (and what kind of strike the third one was), base runners (and how they reached base), runs allowed, batters faced, outs recorded, and of course total pitches thrown; all for any number of pitchers in a game. I’ll have more to say about it later when it’s finished. Anyone interested in being notified when it’s done should send me an email (address in upper right).

In lieu of writing one of my usual long posts, I’m going to share with you a few more of the Google search strings that have led people to this tiny spot in the great blogoverse. They will illustrate comical misdirections, obvious intention to come here, and ambiguous intention; sometimes giving me a glimpse into how the blog is perceived. I enjoy seeing them.

Even more so than before, the people coming here for advice on how to get their Macs to run at a lower temperature greatly outnumber all others combined. I’m just happy that I finally have a solution for most of these frustrated seekers of relief, as I related in “What a Relief! MacBook Pro Overheating Problem Cured—Really” and “Too Good to Be True? My MacBook Pro: First Cool, Now Quiet.

As an example of a mistaken visit, I’m pretty sure the person that searched Google for “pulled pork lowell ma delivery” was a Lowell, Massachusetts, resident who wanted barbecue brought to his or her door. Yet Google, a word matcher without the ability to judge intent, just noticed that I had recorded buying a pulled pork sandwich at a Lowell Riptide pro softball game where I had also noted a peculiarity in a pitcher’s delivery, and thus suggested this blog as a possible destination; which suggestion was, surprisingly enough, taken.

The writeup of that softball game (An Evening in Lowell: Mixing in a Changeup) also brought to this blog someone looking for “jocelyn forest left power line.” Not remembering who Jocelyn Forest was, I at first drew a total blank on the meaning of the phrase. I had to do the Google search myself to solve the mystery. Google put the Lowell Riptide game post at the top with:

‘On-Screen Scientist » National Pro Fastpitch Jul 30, 2008… effort to learn how to coach softball pitching, Jocelyn Forest, the Riptide pitcher, instead of landing with her stride foot on the “power line” … always landed well to the left of it—yet another example of someone …’

So the match was a good one, and it had been a technical comment on that particular pitcher’s delivery that had stuck in someone’s mind. Had it been Ms. Forest herself, worrying much later that she might need to change her pitching form a little if a casual observer was making comments about it?

The story of the dying and death of our guinea pig named Chestnut (Last Days of Chestnut, Guinea Pig) continues to bring a few people here every week. Some are looking for information on pet euthanasia or guinea pig health, but a few must have somehow learned of the specific story, as witness their searches for “chestnut the guinea pig” and (probably) “guinea pigs last days.”

It’s hard to guess what the searcher for “ginipig war pitchures” had in mind; really hard, unless he or she remembered having read both the story of Chestnut and another of my posts called “Souvenirs of the Pacific War” and just wanted to find the way back here to the blog. I give Google a good deal of credit for coming back with “Did you mean: guinea pig war pictures?” That searcher did come here or I wouldn’t know about it. Still I have trouble reconciling the spelling in that search string with the act of reading either of those two rather long pieces. Maybe the searcher meant “New Guinea” instead of “ginipig” (plausible) and had no inkling of this blog’s existence.

Some Google searches seem to be clearly aimed at a particular post of mine. “Dante’s Heavenly Vision and the Physics of the Proton” is almost certainly what the people looking for “protons god,” “holy trinity hydrogen atom,” “dante paradisio dark matter,” and “dante’s quantum physics” had in mind. On the other hand, a Presbyterian minister came to it after some sort of search on the Trinity and (perhaps) physics without prior knowledge of it. I know this because she emailed me to ask permission to quote from it in a Trinity Sunday sermon she was preparing. I’m still hoping to read the sermon.

There’s no doubt what the string “on screen scientist perfect italian woman” was meant to find, as there is a post archived here called “The Perfect Italian Woman.” However, “dna of italian women” is a puzzle to me, even though I can see how Google might suggest this blog, given the DNA software I sell, in addition to the presence of the post about my Italian experience previously mentioned. If the searcher for “italian woman are not good looking” was hoping to find confirmation here for his mistaken idea, he was disappointed. However, the search string “the perfect american woman” is actually pretty good, even if the searcher probably didn’t tarry here long enough to read the post and see that. I won’t rule out the possibility that it was a deliberate search for the Italian Woman post by someone who had already read it and just got mixed up on the name.

I can’t deny that it’s gratifying to see that a few people have sought this blog out using the phrase “on screen scientist” explicitly. Whether they were returning or had somehow heard the name from someone else, I’ll never know. Those that mention the name seem mainly to be interested in questions of science and religion. For example, I have noted searches for “theist on screen scientist,” “on screen scientist moral non religious,” “on screen scientist god no bible,” and “on screen scientist recognize god.” I’m a little surprised that I’ve come across to some as being irreligious or rejecting the Bible, because I wouldn’t characterize myself that way, though I am certainly not a Biblical literalist, and I would have some difficulty in saying exactly how my belief in God translates into Christian terms. Finally, I can’t imagine where the deluded searcher for “famous on screen scientist” got his or her information. If there were another one out there, and famous to boot, wouldn’t I know about it?