Sunday, January 22, 2017

Racing to the End

The last of four Chinese novels on my reading list, 錢鐘書 Qián Zhōngshū's 圍城 Fortress Besieged, is its author's sole piece of long fiction, he having turned his hand to literary history and criticism after the cultural turmoil of China in the 1950s and beyond.  It is also at once the funniest and most tragic of the ones I read, too.

The novel's title shares its second character with another one of the novels I read—邊城 Border Town.  This generally does just mean "town," and the other character, 圍 wéi, generally means "to surround."  So why are the two titles translated so differently?  Because Qian's title is drawn from a Chinese rendering of a French proverb:
Le mariage est une forteresse assiégée, ceux qui sont dehors veulent y entrer, ceux qui sont dedans veulent en sortir.
Roughly translated, that reads, "Marriage is a fortress besieged, which those on the outside want to enter, and those on the inside want to leave."  And that should give you an idea of what the novel is about—but only a little.  Marriage is only one of the themes touched upon in Fortress Besieged, and though it is in the end the dominant one, the first three-quarters of the novel are bursting with other motifs contending for the spotlight.

方鴻漸 Fāng Hóngjiàn is a Chinese-born itinerant international student, spending time at a fair number of schools, but never dedicating himself at any of them.  The start of the novel, in pre-war 1937, finds him at last on his way back to China after his money has run out.  He can hardly return home empty-handed, but with his money mostly spent, he is somewhat at a loss for what to do, until by chance he finds an ad for a correspondence school willing to furnish the necessary credentials—if not the actual education—for a nominal fee.  As it happens, the school is no longer a going concern (even as a for-pay degree mill), the original advertiser having given up after failing to lure any suckers, but an American Irishman living in the same apartment sees an opportunity to make a fast buck.  After a comical exchange in which Fang gets the better of the Irishman in a battle of wits over whose intentions are more insincere, Fang gets his papers and boards a ship for Shanghai.

It is one of the few triumphs for Fang, who spends most of the novel on one end (usually the butt end) of Qian's jokes, whether it's to do with Fang's hunt for a stable university position (on the strength, or lack thereof, of his faked credentials), his talking up of various women on the voyage home or afterward, competitions with other Chinese travellers over whose colloquial English is stronger, or his escape to China's interior from the wartime turmoil in Shanghai.  Ultimately, his tenuous university position as lecturer is not renewed (partly on account of those credentials, partly because of Fang's naiveté), and after rushing into a faute-de-mieux sort of marriage with another lecturer, is forced to return to his hometown with his new bride.  The last chapter is a dazzling depiction of the marriage's dramatic denouement.

Qian's prose is a raucous, rollicking ride with Nabokovian twists and turns, tossing out quick throwaway gags in an offhand measure, as if to show (as Nabokov was wont to do as well) how much cleverer he is than his characters.  And yet it doesn't come off as excessive showboating; indeed, it sustains the novel through to its final conclusion, where he suddenly turns solemn, anguished, and revealing.

The sole translation, executed by Nathan Mao and Jeanne Kelly in 1979—well, that depends on how you like your translations.  This one is copiously researched and endnoted, much like Anthony Yu's translation of Journey to the West, but unlike Yu, Mao and Kelly must contend with a master modern stylist as well, and more often than not, they're simply not up to the task.  There's rarely anything actually wrong with the translation, but Qian's supple prose is alternately rendered sensitively one moment, then woodenly the next.  In my opinion, the uneven tenor of the translation doesn't allow the brilliance of the original to shine through entirely unobscured.  (It's also the only one of the four whose translation is not available in digital format, though that didn't really affect my consideration of it.)

Still, the translation, and its annotations, permit one a rather detailed understanding of the cultural background to Qian's novel, and that's a not inconsiderable benefit, especially for those readers who, like me, didn't grow up in China.  Some people find the incessant endnoting irritating, but not me.  And the translation is essentially always at least competent, giving us a tantalizing hint of the author Qian might have been, if the cultural environment in China had allowed it.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

On the Border

Third on my Chinese novel reading list was 邊城 Border Town, by 沈從文 Shěn Cóngwén.  This slender volume, occupying only seventy or so pages at 16 point Chinese type on my tablet, was the shortest of the four I read, by a substantial margin, and by the time I got to it, I had advanced sufficiently in my literacy that I was able to read through this book in about two weeks.

Central to the story are an old boatman, who ferries travellers both ways across a river, where the old pagoda he lives in sits, along with his daughter and his dog.  The action, such as there is, concerns a love triangle between the girl and two brothers of a wealthier businessmen from the nearby city, but even when the foreground is occupied by the youngsters, lurking in the background, everpresent, is the old man, as constant as the river and the boat he directs from bank to bank.  Meanwhile, the old ways—represented by the time-honored fashion in which the boys make their overtures to the boatman's daughter—are fighting their battle against the intrusion of the modern world, with occasionally tragic casualties.

Shen Congwen grew up, I gather, in the sort of village he depicts in Border Town, and his reverence for the town and the people who inhabit it are palpably present in his prose.  He has been called the Chinese Faulkner, and the comparison is apt, though I also see hints of Hemingway in him.  Although in English comparative literature, the two, stylistically, are likely as not to be contrasted rather than paired, they share with Shen Congwen a common appreciation for duty, and perseverence, and quiet endurance.  At the same time, Shen Congwen draws a stark spotlight on the consequences of the quietness of that endurance, for oftentimes things, and people, are gone before we have had time to appreciate what they have gone through.

The frequently somber tone of the Chinese that Shen produces is mirrored, reasonably accurately, by Jeffrey Kinkley's translation.  Like Howard Greenblatt's translation of Mo Yan's Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, Kinkley's translation makes do without commentary, and the very occasional passages that require some understanding of Chinese language or culture are handled through parenthetical asides that don't distract from the often hypnotic rhythm of Shen's prose.  And that prose does not rely for the most part on obscure references anyway.

Border Town is a story of responsibility, and virtue, and the results of their collisions with chance and fate.  Told in its own unobtrusive way, it worms its way into your consciousness and without realizing it, you find yourself wondering how you would act, thrust into a different world, at a different time.

A Turn of the Wheel

The second Chinese novel in my reading program was Mo Yan's 生死疲勞 Life and Death are Wearing Me Out.  This absurd tale of reincarnation and redemption is the author's own choice for the work that best represents his world outlook.  If so, his outlook is sardonic, dark, and cynical indeed, yet still leaving room for optimism for the future—if only the distant, distant future.

莫言 Mo Yan—literally, "don't speak"—is in fact the pen name of 管謨業 Guan Moye, which derives (he says) from his parents' admonition not to be quite so frank and open in public as he was apparently prone to be at home.  He is the only author of the four represented in my novel-reading project to still be alive at the present time, and he is also the only one to have won a Nobel Prize for literature—even more, the only Chinese winner of that prize, ever.  He is perhaps better known for his maiden novel, 紅高粱家族 Red Sorghum Clan (1986), in large part because it was adapted into the screenplay for the award-winning movie, the haunting Red Sorghum, and perhaps in time I will read that in the original Chinese (I do have it in my library), but for now, it was Life and Death that occupied the second slot in my reading program.

The title is drawn from a Buddhist adage: 生死疲勞,從貪慾起,少欲無為,身心自在.  Loosely translated, this reads: The weariness of life and death arises from greed; when one eschews desire and meddling, the body and mind are at ease.  The title translation—chosen by Howard Greenblatt, who has translated a number of Mo Yan's books—obviously takes a different and more irreverent angle, one that reflects the twists and turns of the main character as he? it? they? trace the evolution of Chinese politics and culture over the latter half of the 20th century.

The confusion over the proper pronoun in that last sentence stems from the structure of the novel, which is divided into five parts.  西門鬧 Ximen Nao is a benevolent landowner (or so he believes), wrongly executed by Chinese communists on the opening day of the year 1950 for the crime of owning land and exercising domination over his fellow citizens.  He feels so strongly that he has been wronged that Yama, the lord of the underworld, agrees to send him back to the world of the living to give him a chance to right the wrong—though not as a human, but as a donkey under the care and stewardship of his erstwhile hired hand, 藍臉 Lan Lian (literally, "Blue Face," a reference to the birthmark on one side of his face).  As a donkey, he earns partial redemption, but only at the cost of his life.  Still unrepentant, he compels Yama to send him back again, and again, and again, each time (rather against Ximen Nao's will) as a different animal: an ox, a pig, a dog, and then at last—but that would be telling.

Because I grew up on English literature, of course, I feel a compulsion to draw an analogy between any of the Chinese authors I have read so far and familiar English-language authors.  When I read the short stories of 魯迅 Lu Xun, for instance, I saw a strong similarity to Joyce—in particular, his collection Dubliners.  Both authors have a hankering to expose the decay and inertia at the core of the culture in which they grew up, and both do so via the unremitting disillusionment experienced by some of their characters, and the callous disaffection felt by others.  In the case of Mo Yan and Life and Death, the analogy I draw is to Kurt Vonnegut and works such as Breakfast of Champions; the often impotent outrage of characters, faced with an outrageous, illogical world, is common to both.

Mo Yan has a tendency to the caustic, which works in his favor, but also, at times, to the verbose, which doesn't.  Ximen Nao's life as a pig, in particular, seems to drag on occasionally, to little end it seems beyond the reinforcement of his position as Pig Number One, Chief Porker, the Boar D'Oeuvre.  Howard Greenblatt's capable translation actually helps a little here, because although he translates Ximen Nao's life as a donkey in nearly its entirety, about 20 percent of each of the remaining sections of the novel are left out.  Mo Yan revised his novel somewhat, after Greenblatt completed his translation a year or two after the novel's original publication date, so that may account for some of the discrepancy, but it seems unlikely that those edits represent all of the difference, especially as some of the omitted passages rely on peculiar aspects of Chinese language and history, which are very difficult to translate.  In contrast to Anthony Yu's translation of Journey to the West, which is almost half endnotes, Greenblatt avoids all endnotes and footnotes altogether, instead occasionally interpolating an interpretation as a parenthetical aside, but more generally leaving tangential observations along entirely.

In the end, Mo Yan inserts himself into the story, albeit a distorted image of himself (à la Vonnegut again, I suppose).  Mo Yan the character apologizes for having to relate the pain and sorrow experienced by the characters in the novel (and created by Mo Yan the author).  But the author himself has nothing to apologize for, minor longwindedness aside, for he has created a uniquely Chinese vision of redemption and rebirth in a few hundred pages of unforgiving prose.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Monkeying Around

As I mentioned previously, my first Chinese novel reading project was 西遊記 Journey to the West (1592).  Attributed to 吳承恩 Wú Chéng'ēn, it is considered one of the four great classic novels of Chinese vernacular literature.  Serious Chinese literature was not to be written in Vernacular Chinese, or 白話 báihuà, which literally means clear speech, but in Classical Chinese, or 文言文 wényánwén.  Classical Chinese is to Vernacular Chinese what Classical Latin (e.g., what Virgil wrote in) was to Vulgar Latin, the ancestor of all the modern Romance languages like Spanish, French, and Italian.  That is to say, if you wanted to be taken seriously, you wrote in the Classical form, which was terse and dignified; if you wanted to reach the masses, you wrote in the Vernacular form, which was what the people spoke and could read—the literate people, at any rate.

Journey to the West is so famous, as a result, that there's almost no point in critically assessing it.  No critique takes place in a vacuum; it all relies on some aesthetic basis as a foundation.  In this case, though, Journey to the West is part of that foundation, so firmly that judging it is tantamount to judging Chinese literature as a whole.  I won't even bother.

It will suffice, instead, to give a general sense of the novel.  I don't have a firm handle on its character count, but it's probably in the neighborhood of half a million characters, which puts it firmly in the "lengthy epic" category.  It spans a hundred characters, and is a highly fictionalized account of the exploits of 唐玄奘 Táng Xuánzàng, known in Buddhist lore as Tripitaka, after the Buddhist scriptures that he went from China to India to gather.  In the novel, he is accompanied by three mythical creatures, the homely and sincere 沙悟淨 Shā Wùjìng, a river-dwelling sand demon; the avaricious 豬八戒 Zhū Bājiè, a pig-human; and the star of the show, the trickster hero 孫悟空 Sūn Wùkōng, the monkey king.  Though Tripitaka is the nominal main character, he appears in the novel as so ineffectual and so cowering that he needs his three attendants just to get through each day.  (The real Tripitaka was in contrast well educated, not flighty, and was of course not accompanied by three mythical creatures.)  Sun Wukong is so much the real main character that when Arthur Waley published in 1942 what for a long time was the only substantial English language translation of Journey, he called it simply Monkey.

In fact, Waley's translation covers only about a quarter to a third of the novel.  The first section of the novel, a sort of prologue that covers the background of Sun Wukong, is translated almost in full, but the rest of the novel, which is a long sequence of adventures of mostly supernatural character, is translated only selectively.

In some sense, this is justified, because the episodes (lasting a few chapters each) are self-contained and somewhat repetitive.  Nonetheless, the novel could stand to have a complete, unabridged translation, if only because of its historic place in Chinese literature.  Thus it was that Anthony Yu, born in Hong Kong and eventually to become a professor of Chinese literature (among other things) at the University of Chicago, made it his life project to produce the definitive translation of Journey.

Make no mistake about it; this is a monumental task.  The novel is mostly prose, but contains hundreds of poems in various forms, all of which were elided by Waley (because he was not really that well grounded in Chinese literature); Yu made sure to translate all of them faithfully, which mired him in all of the usual challenges involved in translation, plus the unique obstacles imposed by the brevity of classic Chinese poetry.  The novel is so long that Yu's translation is published in four volumes, each of which is rigorously researched and copiously annotated.  He also includes a lengthy introduction in which he discusses the publication history of the novel, and the specific textual issues he contended with while translating it.

Because this was my first really substantial reading project, I read both the original Chinese novel and Yu's translation on my tablet, with the original in the Pleco app, and the translation in the Kindle app.  I would go back and forth between the two, at first alternating almost sentence by sentence, and then, as I steadily became more proficient, a few sentences at a time, and finally paragraph by paragraph (they're long paragraphs) or even passage by passage.

It took me quite a while to get going, and at first, it took me perhaps a week or two (or three) to get through a single chapter.  By the end, with growing facility at reading Chinese and an increased familiarity with the characters and the flow of the story, I was able to get through a chapter every day or two.  In all, it took me about a year and a half to read through the entire book.

Wu's prose—assuming he really is the author—is puckish, but dated, a feel that I'm sure I have only a partial sense for.  He uses turns of phrase that are evidently out of step with current usage.  Some of that was apparent even to me, but other parts I could only detect because Pleco called them out as dated, or because I asked native speakers.  Still, enough of the playful nature comes through that I could feel it, if a little hesitantly.  I would liken it to Don Quijote (which I haven't read in the original Spanish, so I'm going by a translation).  Yu captures the cavalier style of writing quite well.  From time to time, there are a few stilted turns of English phrase, which I attribute to him not being quite a fully native English speaker, but these are truly few and don't really detract from the overall feel of the translation.  Of the four novels I read, this one probably has the best translation.

Friday, December 2, 2016

A Novel Way to Read Chinese

For me, anyway.

This is, likely, the first in a series of posts, and ironically, one I'm writing as I come to the end, temporarily, of a reading program that has covered a couple of years.  You see, over that time, I've read four Chinese novels of varying era, genre, and style, in the original Chinese: 西遊記 Journey to the West (1592), 生死疲勞 Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (2006), 邊城 Border Town (1934), and 圍城 Fortress Besieged (1947).  I'll be discussing those works in later posts.

This program is something that I could not realistically have considered more than a few years ago, because at the start of this reading program, my Chinese reading skills were not to the point where I could have attempted to even begin any of these novels.  To explain that, and the evolution of my literacy since then, I have to explain a little about my own background, as well as a remarkable little application called Pleco.

I call myself, among other things, a first-generation Chinese American, by which I mean that I was born in the United States, but my parents immigrated here.  (Some people call that second generation, but I think it's somewhat more common to call it first generation.)  As is common in children with my background, my parents spoke to me in Chinese, and I spoke to them in Chinese...and English.  Technically, in fact, Chinese is my first language, but it has been a long time since it was my best language, and my parents have stories of me speaking in a kind of pidgin with Chinese vocabulary but English grammar.

As is also common, my parents shuttled me off to Chinese school every Saturday morning (as a matter of fact, they and their friends started the darned thing), which was a real hardship, you had better believe, because (a) cartoons were better then (they reran all the theatrical shorts they used to show before movies in the theatres), and (b) this was before DVRs or even VCRs.  Time shifting was not even a twinkle in any commoner's eye yet.

For two hours every weekend, rather than watching Bugs Bunny, my friends and I learned to read and write Chinese and a smattering of Chinese culture as well (we also got that at home, to be sure).  I don't want to make it seem as though it was some kind of prison camp, for we enjoyed the company and I, at least, always found the idea of being bilingual in English and a totally different language such as Chinese rather interesting.

I went to this Chinese school—which is still a going concern, by the way, forty years later—from age six all the way through high school, and finished with a vocabulary of maybe 1000 to 1500 characters.  To give that some context, a child growing up in China or Taiwan has that kind of written vocabulary probably by the age of about eight or so.  Since Chinese characters have to be more or less memorized one by one, as opposed to spelled with an alphabet of tens of letters, this is no mean achievement, at age eight or eighteen.

I should add, incidentally, that this does not mean that I had the fluency of an eight-year-old.  A native eight-year-old Chinese speaker would have spoken circles around me.  Chinese characters, though perhaps the most outwardly obvious representation of the challenge of Chinese fluency, are only one aspect.  The grammar is another, and plain practice using the language is another.

Then, too, the 1000 to 1500 characters I knew were not necessarily those that a native eight-year-old would know.  There were some interesting gaps that I now attribute to the sometimes inconsistent attention of the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (I think?) who issued the teaching materials we worked with.  It's a little as though you learned how to write "chocolate" but not "however"; both are common words, but "however" as a function word is more important than "chocolate" is as a concrete noun.  (And in fact, although I knew how to say it, I didn't learn how to write "however" until later, and partly in consequence, rarely used it in conversation.)  What's more, although Chinese looks like a long sequence of distinct characters, it is actually organized into words of mostly two or more characters, and there are some tens of thousands of those, and I knew a much smaller fraction of them.

The bluntest indication of my limited literacy was that I simply could not read a newspaper, which in Chinese as well as in English requires the vocabulary of about a twelve-year-old—about 2500 or so characters and probably ten to twenty thousand words.  It had taken me (and my teachers) about twelve years of fairly dedicated effort to get me halfway there.  On my own, it would take much longer than another twelve years to get the rest of the way there.  I considered taking Chinese language courses at college, but they met for an hour once a day at eight in the morning, and even I, who found the idea of becoming literate in Chinese more than a little intriguing, was not quite ready to make that level of commitment.

So at the end of college, I still had more or less those same 1000 to 1500 characters in my vocabulary when I went on the Taiwan Study Tour, which is known informally (and rather hoarily) as the Love Boat, for all of the extracurricular activities that go on there.  I don't really know about that, because in line with my rather generally nerdish outlook, I went there to learn Chinese and so I did.  I might have picked up a hundred or two hundred additional characters, but what really changed was my broadened awareness of Chinese literature.

The program spanned six weeks, of which most of the mornings and the early part of the afternoons were spent in language and culture classes.  In the latter part of the afternoons, and the early evenings after dinner, we were pretty much free to do what we liked.  I liked to play basketball, so I tried that once or twice, but Taiwan is in the tropics and the court was outdoors, and it was both hot and humid, so that was a no-go.  I already felt like I had to take a shower every four hours as it was.

So instead, I went out onto the street and browsed in stores, especially bookstores.  I've always loved going into bookstores and just browsing, from the time that my dad would take me to a department store and leave me in the book department while he went to do errands, back when you could do such a thing without having child services pick you up.  It was no different now, even though I couldn't read most of the books.  I just liked the look of the books—the typefaces (much more creative than for English, generally speaking), the arrangement of the text, even the cheap flimsy paper that many books used to save on cost.

It did irk me, though, that I couldn't read most of the books.  I finally found a book, however, that had pronunciation marked in for some of the text—not pinyin, which is used on the mainland, and more recently now in Taiwan as well, but zhuyin fuhao, which was the Taiwan standard at the time.  I still didn't know a lot of the characters, but it still helped that I could sound the characters out.  I didn't recognize it at the time, but this was the first time I really felt the benefit of having grown up hearing a lot of Chinese.

The book looked like it was a compendium of a few hundred mostly short poems (short helped!) with some explication after each one: a glossary and a synopsis, neither of which, notably, came with pronunciation keys.  Anyway, it looked interesting, so I bought it.  Only later, after I brought it home and showed it to my father, did I discover that it was possibly the most famous collection of Chinese poetry, 唐詩三百首 Three Hundred Tang Dynasty Poems.  (There are actually 310 in this edition, perhaps on the same principle as the baker's dozen.)  The poems are from the Tang Dynasty, from the seventh through ninth centuries.  These people were writing over a thousand years ago, and through the accident of my selection in some minor bookstore in Taiwan, I was touched by them.  I still have that same book on my bookcase right now, not ten feet to my left as I write this.

Learning to read through them, however, was still a daunting challenge.  A lot of this has to do with the process of looking up a Chinese character in the dictionary.  Looking up an English word is straightforward once you learn the alphabet; words are assembled in alphabetical order, which is sort of like numerical order for letters.

Chinese, not being an alphabetic language, has no such easy method for looking up characters.  There are dozens of ways to look up characters, some of which require you to know how to pronounce the character, which is useful if you're already literate but just want to know some fine nuance of definition, but useless for a learner like myself.  The rest are based more or less on some notion of how to break the character down into parts and looking the character up by those parts, but since characters are organized every which way, it's still not straightforward.  Someone in my position would take a couple of minutes to look up a single character.

Enter, at this point, Pleco.  At this stage, ten or so years ago, the earliest smartphone were just then making it onto the market, which was still dominated by the personal digital assistant (PDA).  These had touch screens but no phone.  It occurred to Mike Love, Pleco's founder, that that touch screen could make looking Chinese characters up a lot easier for language learners.  The one thing anyone knows who's trying to look up an unfamiliar character, is what that character looks like.  The touch screen made it possible to enter that character in directly into the device.

I downloaded the free app onto my Palm Pilot (remember those?), and bought the handwriting recognizer and a couple of the (inexpensive) dictionary packs, and for the first time, looking up a character took seconds rather than minutes.  I decided to start learning Chinese anew, and within a couple of months had added a couple of dozen more characters to my vocabulary.

But the real sea change happened when Pleco added a reader to their dictionary.  By this time, I had gotten an iPad (Pleco has used iOS as its flagship platform for several years now) and the larger screen made it more comfortable to use Pleco.  The new Pleco reader also made it possible to read online newspapers and books in Chinese, and if one encountered a new character, one simply tapped it on the screen, and Pleco popped up a definition, so that looking characters up was now essentially instantaneous.  What's more I didn't need to read something on one device or book, and look it up in another.  I was not interrupted in the process of reading beyond the minimal step of apprehending the meaning of the new character.

What followed was simply an explosion of new characters added to my vocabulary, at an average rate of dozens of characters per week, to the point that I probably now have a vocabulary of about 3000 characters, and I can (at last!) read a newspaper without needing to look something up more than pretty occasionally—not because I don't recognize a character, but because its use in a word is something I can't figure out on its own.  It's a bit like seeing the word "prevaricate" and knowing the Latin roots pre- "before" and varicari "straddle" and not being able to recognize the meaning "to lie".

At any rate, I got to the stage where I could reasonably attempt to read a novel, and the first one I tried (because it was available for free online) was the sixteenth-century Journey to the West.  Understandably, the language has a dated feel to it (sort of like reading Shakespeare has for English readers), which made it possibly not the best first choice, but it was still an instructive project.  I'll discuss this in my next post in this series.

But before I end this rather long article, I want to make one more plug for Pleco.  It's really an outstanding dictionary.  The app is still free (though the handwriting recognition costs a small fee), and I've spent probably over a hundred dollars on the dozen or so dictionaries and extra features I've added to it over the years, and I don't regret any of that.  The founder, Mike Love, is incredibly responsive and listens to all of the user feedback.  The user base is tremendously loyal and that's returned by the Pleco team.  If you're at all interested in learning Chinese, and you have a supported device, I can't recommend Pleco highly enough.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Rating the Droughts

Although I live in California, this actually has nothing to do with rainfall.

Earlier this month, the Chicago Cubs ended a century-long drought—that is to say, they hadn't won the World Series since 1908, a span of 108 years.  (I suppose it's really 107 years without a title, since there's a span of a year even between consecutive titles.)  In so doing, they defeated a team that has now gone 68 years without a title, the Cleveland Indians.  The combined droughts of those two teams was a large part of what made the 2016 World Series matchup so compelling (not to mention the twists and turns of Game 7, one of the all-time great baseball games in history).

Joining them in Major League Baseball's version of the Final Four were the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Toronto Blue Jays.  The Dodgers have now gone 28 years without winning the title, and the Blue Jays have gone 23 years.  Those seem like long-ish times, although obviously nothing like the waits the Cubs endured and the Indians continue to endure.

Consider, though, that there are currently 30 teams in MLB, and if they each had an equal chance of winning each year (which they obviously don't), you'd expect each one to win one out of every 30, which also means that the expected wait between titles, for any given team, is 30 years.  So, by that measure, the Dodgers and Blue Jays haven't yet waited as long as they should expect to, the Indians have waited over twice as long as they should have, and the Cubs waited about three-and-a-half times as long as they should have.


But wait!  That assumes that there have always been 30 teams in MLB, which there certainly hasn't.  The major leagues started out with just 16 teams in 1901, which is when modern baseball is reckoned to have started: eight in the National League, and eight in the American League.  There were 16 teams still when the Cubs last won in 1908, and also when the Indians last won in 1948.  In those days, teams should have won the title every 16 years, on average, not every 30.  When assessing the severity of title droughts, years in the early days of baseball should count for nearly twice as much as they do now.

We can reflect that insight by adding title expectations per year, rather than years.  Presently, for instance, each team can expect to win 1/30 of a title each year.  Of course, that's on average.  What happens in reality, of course, is that 1/30 of the teams win one title, and the other 29/30 of the teams win no title.  But the magic of mathematics is that by adding the average, you get a measure of how long you've waited for a title, compared to how long you should wait.  In the early years, you would have added 1/16 of a title, and in intermediate years, the value would also be intermediate—more than 1/30, but less than 1/16.

To make things a bit more manageable, let's narrow our focus to those teams that haven't won in the last 50 years (and to give a basis for comparison, we'll depict the situation as it was this fall, before the Cubs won):

Chicago Cubs: No titles in 1909–
Cleveland Indians: No titles in 1949–
Texas Rangers: No titles in 1961–
Houston Astros: No titles in 1962–

Now, let's take a look at the expansion history of baseball, setting aside situations where teams just moved from one town to another:

1901–1960: 16 teams
1961: 18 teams (American League added two teams)
1962–1968: 20 teams (National League added two teams)
1969–1976: 24 teams (Both leagues added two teams)
1977–1992: 26 teams (American League added two teams)
1993–1997: 28 teams (National League added two teams)
1998–2012: 30 teams (Both leagues added one team, but the Milwaukee Brewers moved from AL to NL)
2013–present: No change in total team count, but the Astros moved from NL to AL

Thus, the Astros have played seven years with title expectations of 1/20, eight years with title expectations of 1/24, 16 years with title expectations of 1/26, five years with title expectations of 1/28, and 18 years (remember, we're looking at the situation before the Cubs won) with title expectations of 1/30.  Add those all up and you get about 2.08; the Astros have waited more than twice as long as they should have.  We might call this the waiting factor.

The Rangers are almost in the same boat, but they played a single extra year with a title expectation of 1/18, so their waiting factor is just a little bit higher, at about 2.13.  The Indians have played 12 more years without a title than the Rangers, all with a title expectation of 1/16, so their waiting factor is 2.88.

And the Cubs, those grand old lovable losers, had, as of this October, played an extra 40 years, all with title expectations of 1/16, so their waiting factor was a whopping 5.38.  They had waited, effectively, nearly twice as long as the Indians have, and compared to the average team, over five times as long as they should have.  To put it another way, if you had substituted a merely average team for the Chicago Cubs back in 1908, those alternate-universe Chicagoans would have won an extra five or so World Series.  By comparison, the Yankees won all 27 of their World Series during that time.

Holy cow indeed!

Actually, it's just a little more complicated than that, even, since (as you can tell from the brief expansion history above) the two leagues have on occasion had different numbers of teams.  The World Series always pits one National League team against one American League team, and if the National League had 12 teams that year, the chances of any given National League team winning should be 1/24, no matter how many American League teams there were.  If we take that into account, the numbers change ever so slightly:

Astros waiting factor = 2.10
Rangers waiting factor = 2.12
Indians waiting factor = 2.87
Cubs waiting factor = 5.41

For the Cubs, of course, their waiting factor has reset.  For everyone else, the wait continues.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A Few Thoughts on the Election and Exit Polls

Whether you're pleased or dejected this morning, I think there's very few of us who aren't stunned by the result in the general election yesterday.  In particular, polling was way off—even exit polls, which are supposed to take the pulse of voters as they leave the booth.  How did they get the result so badly wrong?  (Pre-count models showed Clinton with an average of about 300 electoral votes, and winning about 80 percent of the time.)

I'd guess that there are a number of factors (aside from the conspiracy theories, GOP or Dems):
  1. People were embarrassed to admit voting for Trump (i.e., he was viewed as the less respectable candidate), but that shame didn't translate to the actual ballot. That doesn't mean that people voted for Trump on a whim; it just means that they weren't keen on admitting that to someone else, even a pollster they'd never see again.
     
  2. Exit polling was not done at all locations, for obvious reasons. So projections were based on a regression analysis that fits estimates to the sampled locations. That regression assumes, among other things, a certain degree of polarization between demographics. It looks like that polarization was even more extreme than expected (which was already significant).
     
  3. Trump was simply a higher-variance candidate than the traditional Republican. This strategy makes sense in any contest where you're the underdog (as Trump was for most of the time)—if he were to play a low-risk strategy, he was almost guaranteed to lose. Employing a high-risk strategy increases the probability of a blowout loss, but it also increases the probability of a close win, which is what happened. We're seeing this all the time in sports, where endgame strategies by the trailing team are becoming more aggressive. That increase in variance translated to the polls. Five thirty-eight was very open about this—they pointed out that their model, though predicting a Clinton win, had about three times more variation (by some metric) in it than in past years.
I don't think fraud played any significant role in this election. We're seeing real disquiet with the state of the nation. Whether that disquiet has a basis in fact is immaterial as regards the result of the election.

I may have more to say about the election results themselves, but I'll save that for another post. 

[Most of this post was drawn from a Facebook comment.]