The Gluten Lie.

Alan Levinovitz is, by day, a professor of philosophy and religion at James Madison University, focusing “primarily on the relationship between religion and literature, with particular attention to classical Chinese thought and comparative ethics,” according to his official bio. Yet he stepped way out of his lane in the best possible way with his 2015 book The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What We Eat, which dissects the history of fad diets and the misunderstandings or blatant falsehoods behind claims that foods like flour, sugar, and salt are “toxins” or otherwise harmful.

The gluten lie of the title is the first major food myth Levinovitz tackles, in part because it is so pervasive right now. While some people suffer from a real autoimmune disease triggered by ingesting gluten, known as celiac or celiac sprue, thousands of others have given up gluten for dubious reasons, including the belief in “gluten sensitivity,” a medical condition for the existence of which there is scant evidence. Gluten is not inherently harmful, but it’s blamed for all sorts of current health evils, from obesity to autism to heart disease to cancer to the quack favorite, “leaky gut syndrome,” which isn’t even real. Numerous books excoriating gluten, including Wheat Belly and Grain Brain, have become bestsellers based on questionable or nonexistent science, taking advantage of a gullible public eager for quick fixes and explanations for their health woes. (Here’s the answer no one wants to hear: obesity, autism, heart disease, and perhaps even cancer are at least partially explained by genetics, and there isn’t much you can do to alter that part of your system.)

Levinovitz starts out by giving the history of glutenphobia and the very real celiac disease, explaining along the way how some doctors refused to accept proof that gluten was the cause of celiacs’ illness, generally because it interfered with their profits. He details the criminal behavior of Walter Kempner, whose name is still easily found on Duke’s campus because his “rice diet” was popular even among celebrities, but who operated a de facto cult, convincing women to be his sex slaves and whipping other patients who didn’t adhere to the diet’s strict limits (around 1200 calories/day). He also covers Dr. Sidney Haas, who believed bananas had some magical cure for celiac disease, so that his patients would get better – until they later ate wheat again. Today’s charlatans may not be so violent or obstinate, but they are profiting off the science ignorance of the public by convincing people that one ingredient is making them sick, offering a quick-fix rather than the more difficult treatment of a healthful, balanced, calorie-limited diet and regular exercise. It’s much easier to just blame the bread.

Gluten isn’t the only enemy Levinovitz exonerates; the new food nemesis is sugar, and he describes the war on sucrose and fructose, along with the past wars on fat and salt, none of which was really based in sound science. (The research on sugar is nascent compared to that on the other fields, for political reasons as much as scientific ones, so I’m not quite ready to give sugar a complete acquittal yet – but he’s right that evidence against it is overstated.) The idea that salt is dangerous still persists across a broad swath of the population, especially those my age and older, because it was everywhere in the 1980s and 1990s, from warnings about salt intake to the prevalence of “salternative” products like NoSalt (which contains potassium chloride, safe in low doses but lethal in moderate ones) or Mrs. Dash (salt-free spice blends). The truth is that sodium is necessary for most people – salt is the only rock we eat, and we eat it because we need it – and only dangerous for a narrow subset of the population, like folks with high blood pressure, Meniere’s disease, or other rare disorders around the body’s homeostasis of sodium. It’s unlikely that you’re eating too much salt, and if you cook most of your food rather than eating out or buying it already prepared, it’s unthinkable.

The low-fat craze, which is also still with us albeit at a lower level of intensity, is based on some outdated science and a history of corporate interference and corruption that led to government condemnation of fat in its dietary recommendations. (Don’t eat what the USDA tells you to eat.) Again, your body needs fat; in fact, you may crave it. Fat contains 9 calories per gram, compared to 4 for proteins or carbohydrates. Humans evolved in environments of scarcity, and fat, typically animal fat, was the most calorie-dense food source available. Such cravings may be ‘hardwired’ in our genes – that is, humans carrying genes that rewarded them for eating fats and sugars fared better in natural selection, and thus craving those foods may now be innate.

The word “natural” in there draws special ire from Levinovitz, as most modern diet fads revolve around some misunderstanding of what a “natural” diet means. Some people simply assume anything artificial is bad, as if your body knows whether a molecule you consume was created in a forest or in a lab. The same applies to the fear of GMO foods. Paleo diets are based on a poor understanding of how early man lived and ate, demonizing foods that can be healthful (whole grains) just because Thag the Caveman no eat them. Others claim you should avoid dairy because it’s not “natural” to consume the milks produced by other species. Levinovitz goes after hucksters like the Food Babe and Joseph Mercola, who demonize harmless ingredients with scary names (and, in Mercola’s case, vaccines and real medicines) to convince you to buy their books and supplements.

Science-ignorance is rampant in our society; I find copious examples every week for my links roundup, and it particularly bothers me when it comes to our governments setting policies that put people’s health and lives at risk. The Gluten Lie aims a little lower; if anything, Levinovitz’s main goal seems to be protecting your wallet, and perhaps your taste buds, from falling prey to groupthink and con artists who’ll peddle what you want to hear in exchange for some of your money. If you want to lose weight, reduce your caloric intake. If you have other health problems, talk to your doctor. But don’t deny yourself the glory of Neapolitan pizza or fresh pasta just because someone on your internet told you that gluten was evil.

Klawchat 8/16/17.

I’ll be at GenCon 50 in Indianapolis from Thursday afternoon till Sunday afternoon, signing copies of Smart Baseball Friday at 2 pm, speaking on a few panels, and otherwise checking out all the new titles. If you spot me walking around, please say hello. If you have the book but can’t make the signing, just stop me as I’m walking around and I’ll happily sign it for you.

Keith Law: Took myself a small vacation. Get high on a Klawchat.

Mark: Can you tell me a bit about Danny Jansen’s defence – BP metrics hate him but what do scouts say?
Keith Law: Offense-first catcher, adequate behind the plate, enough to stay there. Biggest issue for him has long been health – I think I had him as a sleeper in their system two years ago (?) but he missed much of that season.

Ben: Did you attend the Under Armour game? If so, when can we expect your writeup?
Keith Law: I did, but probably won’t end up posting on it.

Bryan: Food plans while in Indy?
Keith Law: Probably won’t get to venture out much because I need to stay close to the convention center during the day and have GenCon-related plans two of the three evenings – but I’m open to suggestions.

Michael: What are your expectations for Rhys Hoskins?
Keith Law: Above-average regular. I’m in. He’ll continue to beat expectations.

Clubber Lang: who will end up winning the NL central?? Cubs are the best team on paper but don’t look like they want it??
Keith Law: I’m pretty sure they want it. I also think they will win by just a game or two.

Tim: Do you still hold Byron buxton in as highly of regard as when he was a prospect?
Keith Law: Yes. I think he’s already an average regular and will develop into much more.

Tom: Does Forrest Whitley have ace ceiling? What’s his most probable outcome, in your opinion?
Keith Law: I’ve talked to scouts who’ve seen him – I can’t believe he pitched in Wilmington while I was on vacation! – and no one says ace. Lot of 2-3 reports, which is still very good. But he’s already filled out, and not a great athlete overall, so he’s more of a high-floor guy than you’d expect given the age.

Charlie: I know you think Domingo Acevedo is a reliever because of the delivery. That said, do you think he can become an elite closer type?
Keith Law: Tough to say; I haven’t seen the huge second pitch that you might expect but he does have the elite fastball for it.

Jon: Has Bryse Wilson always been this good or is he more of a pop-up prospect? I know it’s hard to get pub in the Braves’ loaded system.
Keith Law: I wrote him quite positively back in March, because they had cleaned up his delivery and he was throwing a better breaking ball. That’s improved even more since then.

Matt: What’s your opinion on Corbin Burnes? He’s dominated at every level he’s pitched at so far, but is not on anybody’s top 100 list.
Keith Law: He was on my top 50 a few weeks ago.

bartleby: As America circles the drain, my question is… “why aren’t athletes en masse protesting the current political reality”?
Keith Law: Maybe they see how Kaepernick et al have been treated.

Devin: Who would you rather have for the next three seasons: paul goldschmidt, nolan arenado or corey Seager? Thanks
Keith Law: Seager.

Robert: Now that Bryan Reynolds has cut his K% below 20%, is he more in line with the player you thought he would be coming out of the draft? Thanks.
Keith Law: I expected more power. It is certainly in there, but he hasn’t shown much this year (bearing in mind that San Jose isn’t a great hitter’s park).

Josh: If you were the White Sox, would you have Giolito up and working out of the pen for these last few weeks, and have Cooper working with him directly or would you keep him in Charlotte and continue to work on his issues there?
Keith Law: I’d only bring him up if I could get him regular work – you don’t want him in a short relief role, but if you make him a tandem starter or otherwise a long reliever who goes every Nth day, that’s a good way to bring him up and get him working with Cooper. The Nats really did a number on his mechanics.

Zirinsky: Hi Keith. What’s your take on Judge: simple reversion to the mean?
Keith Law: Yes, mostly or completely that. His BABIP was unsustainable. Still a great player, but I’ll bet someone else wins MVP – Altuve or sale.

Al: You’ve said before that what Tatis is doing at low A is special. Do you think the power or speed will translate better into the majors? Thanks
Keith Law: Power more than speed, although I think he’s a complete player who’ll do some of everything.

Darren: If you so desired, would it be possible for a company to produce a pod cast for you to encompass anything you want to talk about? Or would ESPN have issues with you discussing baseball for another company?
Keith Law: My contract prohibits me from discussing baseball (sports, really, but there are no other sports) for another outlet. I think that’s perfectly reasonable.

Krupcake: You tweeted you thought the Red Sox kept the right prospects in their recent big trades – was this to mean just Benintendi and Devers? Or would you toss other names into that “glad we kept em” list
Keith Law: Those two in particular. And they did trade some good prospects, especially Kopech, but you trade a guy like that for Sale. I was specifically thinking about the two you mentioned.

Kevin: Would splitting season into 2 halves have any benefit to baseball and injury treatment ?
Keith Law: It would probably kill my fandom. Some folks might call that a benefit.

G: Is Ronald Acuna a baby Trout in the making?
Keith Law: I’m going to go with ‘no’ on that one.

ssimo02: Rumor has it Giancarlo Stanton cleared waivers. Given his recent performance (and setting aside any no-trade clause), do you think the contract is untradeable?
Keith Law: I do, not unless the new owners decide to pay some large portion of the remainder. Loria backloaded all his deals so he could do just this – pay very little of his own money and stick the next owner with the bill.

Mickey: hey keith – congrats and great job on “Smart Baseball” — looking forward to a sequel! Knowing you enjoy cooking, I wonder: do you have an herb garden?
Keith Law: We do have a garden, herbs, some vegetables, and a pumpkin vine that grew out of the compost that has already yielded one giant fruit with more coming.

Will: Why does Twitter continue to let Dick Spencer and Davey Duke use their service? Are they fucked in the head?
Keith Law: It’s a good question. I’m pretty sure that whole neo-Nazi contingent violates Twitter’s ToS every time they take a breath.

Jack: How would you compare Hunter Greene to Sixto Sanchez?
Keith Law: I wouldn’t. Greene’s taller, more athletic, with a better chance for plus secondary. Sanchez is 5’10” and a more polished pitcher but lacks projection. They’re not terribly comparable at all.

Sterling Mallory Chris Archer: Have you heard any updates from scouts on JP Crawford? You sent a ripple in the fandom with your comments last time. Also, what’s it like knowing that you can singlehandedly change the public outlook on one player?
Keith Law: It’s incredibly unfortunate – even more so because they weren’t MY comments, but comments from scouts and executives. And a local Philly news outlet used that content and some comments from John Manuel at BA in blog posts that were comically biased, cheering Crawford on and acting like this should be bulletin-board material. FWIW, I haven’t heard anything different on him in the last month. I’m glad he’s playing better, but scouts aren’t seeing anything different yet.

The Average Sports Fan: Has Moncada been pretty much what you expected since his promotion?
Keith Law: I guess, although in such a small sample you could expect anything and still be within reason.

Steven: Keibert Ruiz: (barely) 19 yr old C in A+, 12% K rate across two levels and has hit .300+ at every stop in his, albeit, short career. Stat line and age-level case looks strong, can you offer the scouting take?
Keith Law: Saw him in March. Big strong kid, looks like he can hit (good swing, feel to hit), did not get much of a look behind the plate but folks tell me he’s a bat-first guy.

Young Hoss Radbourn: Greetings, Klaw. If you had to hang your hat on one guy becoming a star, who would it be out of Fernando Tatis, Jr, Forest Whitley, Juan Soto, or Bo Bichette?
Keith Law: Tatis Jr.

addoeh: Many Republicans may be blind to problems of climate change, and anti-vax, and a host of other issues, but at least they are smart enough to see that neo-Nazis are the fucking worst. It’s a low bar, but it’s something. Shame our President doesn’t see it that way.
Keith Law: Shame so many officials in government only feel that way in private conversations, instead of going on the record.

jim: Afternoon Keith. Finally finished Smart Baseball and loved it. Do you think this season for the Mets is just a bump in the road or the start of another down turn? They seem to have the makings of a really solid core with Conforto, Cespedes, Rosario, and Smith but the rotation, outside maybe deGrom and Noah, and bullpen are still question marks. Thanks!
Keith Law: I agree the rotation needs help. You could argue they had bad luck with health, and some of that (Thor with a non-arm injury) is true, but Harvey isn’t reliable, Matz has no history of health, and even deGrom is probably less consistent than you want. But the offensive core is coming together really nicely. Szapucki getting hurt and Dunn scuffling so badly in A-ball both hurt their depth badly.

Tommy: How have Michel Baez’s secondary pitches progressed this season?
Keith Law: Well. Have heard the CH has shown plus and the breaking ball above average.

Aiden: Okay, let’s start with a difficult one for our president to answer: Nazis, good or bad?
Keith Law: Gotta hear both sides, Aiden.

JD: Odds that Devers keeps up the Sanchez-esque (Sahchezque?) late-season debut?
Keith Law: I wouldn’t predict he keeps this up, but I have long contended that Devers will be a superstar and I’m not budging.

Brian: Javier Baez has a 5.3% walk rate. Which, not great. Hides the more concerning thing that 11 of his 19 walks are IBBs (10 in front of pitchers). What are the chances he can become more than this? And what he is now isn’t a disaster as a guy that can play fine defense anywhere on the IF….but it leaves me wanting more.
Keith Law: This is probably what he is – 90% chance this is it. Useful, not a regular.

John: Focusing only on defense, how worried should a Red Sox fan be about a left side of the infield with Devers and Bogaerts? I feel like the defensive stats have been all over the map for Bogaerts.
Keith Law: Bogaerts is an enigma to me – he had power as a teenager, but makes relatively poor contact; he has good hands and instincts, but generally grades out poorly by advanced defensive metrics. Devers will be fine, but they may need a better glove at short.
Keith Law: Which puts X … nowhere.

Tommy: With Reynolds crashing back to Earth, is McMahon going to take the long side of a 1B platoon in COL rest of season?
Keith Law: Would love to see that.

BE: Enjoyed the book. Thanks for touching on the caught stealing. Is there a way to quantify GIDP or is there too much RBI type noise?
Keith Law: Fangraphs tries to value it, but you nailed the problem (opportunities vary). It’s a skill in that a certain player type – slow runner, hard contact, too many balls hit on the ground – will hit into more of them.

Danny: Still very early but has Nick Williams performance thus far exceeded your expectations?
Keith Law: Nope.

Lenny: Let’s say Kopech turns into a #2 (too many walks or something keeping him from being a true ace) and Moncada plateaus into something like a league-average guy, perhaps a tick more. Would the White Sox be happy with an outcome like that – even if they hoped for more? (not saying this is the likely outcome at all, just speculating on how blockbuster trades like that are viewed later on)
Keith Law: They should be happy with that, but I would guess White Sox fans would be disappointed in that outcome because both players have the potential to be more.

Rob K: Some BP prospect writers seem to be down on Dom Smith (relative to others) because the hit tool is hard to evaluate. I guess my question is: is the hit tool hard to evaluate?
Keith Law: The hit tool is hard to evaluate. Smith’s hit tool is not hard to evaluate. You won’t find many scouts, if any, who question his ability to hit. He’s been showing it since he was 16.

Nick: Acevedo is know to have a really good changeup why do you say he has no secondary stuff?
Keith Law: Because I’ve seen him multiple times.

Steve: Duplantier is a bit old for A+, but since he’s dominating in the CAL League, does that mitigate his age relative to league a bit?
Keith Law: Less worried about age than lack of a clear out pitch. Like the delivery, the overall repertoire, wish there was a clear 60 or betterthere.

Chet: If Stanton hits 60+ HR’s, do you think he has a realistic shot at the NL MVP? (I’m sure he wouldn’t get your vote, but would he get others)
Keith Law: Don’t think so. Goldschmidt, Seager, Rendon in some order. Any would be worthy.

JR: In the recent Mets trades, do you think they were focused more on dumping salary then maximizing return (thanks, Wilpons), or did they do the best they could given the circumstances and the lack of market for guys they were looking to trade?
Keith Law: I think 1) they wanted to dump salary and 2) no one really wanted these players.

Chet: How surprised would you be if Dane Dunning is the best pitcher that the White Sox acquired in there rebuild?
Keith Law: Very. That would mean he was better than Kopech, Giolito, and Lopez. Hard to see that happening.

Jake: I know Willie Calhoun has some defensive flaws–can he still be a valuable player at DH?
Keith Law: It depends on your definition of valuable; I think his upside there is an everyday player. He’s very strong for his size, and he can definitely hit. I don’t know if there’s a position he can play adequately.

Bob: Enough data on Kevin Maitan for a better read at this point?
Keith Law: I don’t think so – bumping him up to the Appy League at 17 clouds the data.

Mike: We all know Eloy’s bat will play anywhere, but what about his defense? I’ve seen reports that he’s going to be above average right fielder than others that say he will be below average in left.
Keith Law: Above average for me. I’ve seen him plenty.

Kevin: Trey Mancini: you buying or selling?
Keith Law: I guess selling, in that I think he’ll regress from this, but will be an everyday player.

Mike B: Tim Beckham? Obviously he won’t keep up the pace he’s set since he joined the O’s, but do you think he’s finally putting it all together? Is he a “needed a change of scenery” guy?
Keith Law: I don’t think anything has changed but the randomness of a small sample; he does this same thing in Tampa and no one notices because the stats aren’t broken out from the rest of his season. I thought it was a decent pickup for Baltimore, but also really like the arm Tampa got back.

Nate: Keith, are there 5 names to keep an eye on for the 2018 draft?
Keith Law: In no order, Ethan Hankins, Kumar Rocker, Brice Turang(arang), Jackson Kowar, Seth Beer. I don’t know if those are the top 5, but they’re 5 to watch.

Ryan: I know how you feel about Tebow the player but – marketing, etc. considered – does he retire with over/under 0.5 at-bats at the MLB level?
Keith Law: I think someone will give him at bats for the publicity. He’s not doing anything to merit it – he didn’t even deserve the promotion to high-A – but money talks.

Ortho Stice: I see lots of people trying to decipher Miguel Cabrera’s “down year”, but hardly a mention of what it must be like to try and focus on baseball with the turmoil in Venezuela. Isn’t that a fairly plausible explanation?
Keith Law: Possible, but he’s also a 34-year-old player at the wrong end of the defensive spectrum. He could just be getting old, too.

Harvey Dent: How much has Michael Chavis restored his prospect stock? It seems like he’s tailing off a little bit after a blistering run, but still solid overall
Keith Law: I’m inclined to write off 2016 completely because he was playing hurt – like Eric Hosmer’s bad year in low-A when he had a broken metacarpal in his hand.

Mas: Jen-Ho Tseng was not on your Cubs top 10 prospect list but seems to be doing really well in AAA. Is he potentially starter-worthy, and what’s his ceiling?
Keith Law: Don’t think he’s a starter in the long run; fastball is pretty flat, doesn’t have a definite out pitch. Strike thrower though with a lot of average stuff so I do think he’ll pitch in the majors.

BJ: Any chance Padres’ Enyel de Los Santos can crack rotation in ’18?
Keith Law: I get the sense he’s more like two years away than one.

Bret: Has your future outlook for Dansby Swanson changed at all based on his struggles this season?
Keith Law: No. Plenty of good players struggled in their first time through the majors. I try to always avoid that kind of recency bias, because it’s so easy to fall into that trap.

Sterling Mallory Chris Archer: Has your thoughts on Moniak changed due to his struggles in his first year or was this to be expected?
Keith Law: I mentioned in July after I saw him that I don’t like how poor his recognition of breaking stuff is – especially vs lefties. And there isn’t going to be power with that narrow stance and lack of weight transfer. I think there’s untapped physical ability there, but right now he’s definitely behind where I expected him to be – and IIRC I only had him 5th in the draft class to begin with.

Jon: Does Aaron Nola have the ceiling of an ace?
Keith Law: With that new changeup, he might. I’d probably put my money on a #2 rather than a #1.

Nick: Does Devers stick at 3B long term? If not where does he move to?
Keith Law: I have never had any doubt about him at 3b.

Ray T R: Is there another gear for Eduardo Rodriguez? Seems like he is slipping into the Buchholz void of frequent injury and tantalizing but too inconsistent of results
Keith Law: The knee issues are a real concern.

AtownAA: any chance chris taylor is this for real? like the swing change made him that much better ala justin turner previous changes?
Keith Law: Not buying. No one can sustain a .396 BABIP.

Nick: Aaron Hicks’ breakout this year has been something to watch. He looks like a true 5 tool player with a high .OBP Is this the player you expected him to become as a prospect?
Keith Law: Yep, maybe a year or two after I thought he’d get there.

Matt : Did you read that article last week (I forget who wrote it) about how Jeter doesn’t like the shift (and sabermetrics in general) and may not allow the manager to use it. The dude is gonna hire Dave Stewart as GM and Dusty Baker as the manager isn’t he?
Keith Law: I didn’t, but if so, holy cow is that great news for the media.

Kody: are the Republicans really the anti-vaxers? I tend to see that being the one anti-science point of the far left.
Keith Law: I think you’ll find anti-vax stuff at both extremes (a lot of it in fringe religious groups, like Christian “Scientists”), but if you want to find anti-science nonsense on the left, it’s the anti-GMO looney toons.

JR: Withe Rosario and Smith now at MLB, who would you rank as Mets top prospect still in minors?
Keith Law: Ummmmmmmmm …. probably Peterson. Maybe Dunn. Dunn has higher upside, but he’s clearly not as far along as I thought.

Chet: Who is better: Jorge Soler or Rusney Castillo?
Keith Law: Ouch.

Tim: When you say “regular” when referring to a player – are you thinking a regular on a playoff team or a regular for any team that can hold his role multiple years? 1st and 2nd tier regular gets thrown around a lot.
Keith Law: If I say “regular” I mean someone right around league average over a couple of years, but rarely if ever so far above-average that we call him “above-average” or “star.”

Matt : Can you scout from home and watch on TV or is it something you need to see in person?
Keith Law: For what I do, I need to be at the games or to get video from a scout friend of mine (since I mimic what they do).

Adam: Has Christian Pache’s lack of power output affected his prospect status in any major way? Has his realistic ceiling dropped because of it?
Keith Law: He’s 18 years old in the Sally League, and he looks about 16. Not only is the question – or I guess the implication? – an overreaction, I think that Pache will end up a 20 HR guy in the majors. He still has to grow into his body.

NYTT: Joey Wentz has been getting great results in Rome. I know you spoke weeks ago about wanting to see better pure stuff, but is he a guy that already has realistic MOR upside and can be more if he adds a couple mph through natural projection?
Keith Law: No, I’d probably drop a half-grade on everything you said there. He’s fine, but doesn’t have Wilson’s upside.

Brian: Is the hit tool hard to evaluate because the level of stuff and control/command at the MLB level is so much better than in the minors that you’re kind of guessing if the hit tool maintains or if it’s just good enough to hit lesser stuff?
Keith Law: That’s part of it. Stuff is less consistent pitcher to pitcher in the minors. And certainly you can see guys make solid contact over a multiple-game stretch despite a below-average hit tool.

Nick: Yeah and you’ve seen Severino multiple times and he apparently had no chance to start…..
Keith Law: I’ve said before I could be wrong on Severino – I could be wrong on ANY player. But he’s been a good starter for 2/3 of a season, after he was awful last year. If a pitcher has poor mechanics that may lead to a breakdown, it may not happen in year one or two. Maybe it’ll never happen. But perhaps you should consider dialing back on the recency bias yourself.

Jim Bankoff: What is your take on the Deadspin SBN piece?
Keith Law: The SBN model is common, it’s probably unethical, I have no idea if it’s illegal, but it is one of many serious problems facing the media as a whole. The proliferation of free content provided by unpaid or very poorly paid writers creates unfair competition for larger media outlets. The benefit, however, is that outlets like SBN provide opportunities for writers who might otherwise have been shut out of the market because they lacked access or contacts, because their writing didn’t fit a conventional role or format, or because of discrimination. So … it’s complicated.

Jackson: Is Florial a top-50 guy at this point?
Keith Law: Nope, not with those contact issues.

Brian: Recently read The Stranger and The Plague by Camus. Wondering if you’d read and if so, if you had any thoughts.
Keith Law: I read the Stranger maybe a decade ago. I just can’t get on board with that sort of nihilistic worldview. I understand what he was saying, but it doesn’t click for me at all.

Wilmer Fan: Pence cuts his trip short, is it finally happening? Also you can build around Conforto or Rosario, who would you pick?
Keith Law: Probably Conforto, just because we’ve seen how good he is.

Tom Allen: Related to your question above, do you think Giolito will still be a 1 or 2 in a major league rotation?
Keith Law: I do.

Tom: Speaking of MVPs, just wanted to point out that Andrelton Simmons is second overall in WAR (behind Altuve), and his offense is higher than his defense. He got no All-Star consideration and may get like a 7th place MVP vote. Heck, I’m not even mad, that’s amazing.
Keith Law: And is there any doubt that the value on his defense, which is the most common complaint about WAR, is valid? He’s the best defensive shortstop of the last 20 years. He might be the best *ever*. He should appear on a lot of MVP ballots, maybe all of them.

Brett: What is the scouting report on Thyago Vieria? Destined to be a reliever? Could he be a potential closer?
Keith Law: 80 fastball, up to 102, and a trash breaking ball every time I’ve seen him.

Wade: Now that Loria is out, who is the worst owner in baseball?
Keith Law: Angelos and the Wilpons can duke this one out.

Jon: Where would be the best place to find you at GenCon 50 on Saturday?
Keith Law: I’m speaking on two panels that day – one at 10 am, one at 1 pm – so right before or after those would be your best bet. The first one is in a room called Cabinet, the second Causus, but I don’t know yet where those are.

Mark: Have you ever played Magic: The Gathering? I ask because you’re such a big fan of board games and your ol’ running mate Longenhagen is an avowed fan.
Keith Law: I haven’t. In general I don’t do collectible card games.

Jung the philly fan.: Do you like any other young pitchers in Philly besides Nola?
Keith Law: I would guess he’s the only one who’s in their rotation when the team gets good. They have a lot of pitching depth in the system, though.
Keith Law: I saw Elniery Garcia last night – 88-93, mostly 89-91, flashed average CB and CH, just back from an 80-game suspension. Maxed out physically but definitely a prospect, looks like a starter but didn’t show the plus pitch last night.

Lance: Is Trout MVP worthy this year?
Keith Law: He is, but I don’t think he’ll end up more valuable than all of Sale, Altuve, and Judge.

Andrew: Is Posey the most successful mega contract over the past decade?
Keith Law: Define “Mega.” Longoria’s first deal was pretty absurd for the team. Sale and Quintana have been raging steals too.

Tim: Should the Cubs resign Arrieta? Looking like the stuff has returned recently.
Keith Law: Getting Q should allow them to let Arrieta walk.

Tim: Senzel looks about ready for the big leagues – would you move Suarez off 3B for him (given the season he’s having) or would you ask Senzel to learn 2B or OF to make him more versatile?
Keith Law: Senzel came so far to become an average defender at third that i would hesitate to move him again.

Adam: Cal Quantrill’s first season back from TJ has now reached the 100 innings mark. Hi-A and AA are two difficult levels to pitch at, and he’s been solid if not spectacular. Has a larger body of work affected your opinion on him as a prospect at all?
Keith Law: After I put him fairly high on my top 50, I got more feedback from within the industry that I should have had him a bit lower. Solid but not spectacular is a perfect description. I’d like to see if one more year off the surgery gives him any more stuff, especially on the breaking ball, but at this point it would be realistic to assume this is it and treat improvement as just one scenario.

Adam: Maybe I’m just being a brat, but has the Padres 2016 draft just been “meh” considering the quantity of picks and pool amount?
Keith Law: I think that is really premature. You’re talking about a lot of 19- and 18-year-olds already in full-season ball. Hudson Potts probably should have started in extended, for one example.

Tim: Do you think Chicago asked for Devers instead of Moncada or did they just like Moncada more?
Keith Law: Truly don’t know. Neither would surprise me.

Steve: There has been discussion that the Orioles’ lack of participation in the international draft is due to Angelos’ belief that the process is corrupt due to the predatory practices of buscones. Is there merit to this argument?
Keith Law: He’d be right that there is corruption in that market. They should still be participating in the July 2nd market. All he’s doing is putting his team at a needless disadvantage.

Nick: Yankees drafted Steven Sensley this year and ever since he has absolutely ripped the cover off of the ball. What do you see in him?
Keith Law: I don’t know anything about him offhand – 12th rounder out of UL-Lafayette, a young college senior who’ll turn 22 next month, that’s all I got – but I did want to point out that he has spent almost his whole summer in short-season ball, and he’s way too old for those levels (GCL and Appy). He’s now in low-A Charleston, which is at least close to appropriate, but with just 53 AB. He’s even a shade old for low-A, but if he rakes there, I’d take him much more seriously.

Chet: I know all prospects are different, but I’m skeptical to believe in any Astros 1B prospect because of Singleton and AJ Reed. But, should I believe that Yordan Alvarez is going to be good?
Keith Law: I think so. Think he’s got a plus hit tool, not sure what to think of the power.

HugoZ: If you’re a gm whose contract ends in say, 2019, do you much care about holding back a prospect like Acuna so that team control is through 2024 instead of 2023?
Keith Law: You might not – I’ve talked about moral hazard for GMs before, where you might sign a player to a long-term deal, knowing if it doesn’t work out, you’ll be fired way before you have to clean up the mess. But there’s also risk in promoting a top prospect too soon and having him flop out of the gate, which might color your boss’s opinion of you as a GM if you’ve been saying all year how good this kid was going to be.
Keith Law: OK, I think that makes up for the abbreviated chat earlier today. Sorry about the technical difficulties. I’ll be back next week for another chat. Hope to see you some of you at GenCon this weekend.

Not a Scientist.

Dave Levitan’s 2017 book Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science couldn’t have come at a better time … or a worse one, I guess, if you’re at all rational-minded and believe that science is real and should inform policy decisions on science. Levitan’s book looks at the various ways our elected officials – really, our elected Republican officials in nearly every example in this book – either ignore science to suit their goals or twist it to justify bad decisions. He wrote the book last year, but it was published this spring, so while our Dear Leader doesn’t figure much directly in the meat of the book, Levitan has added an introduction to at least address the topic of anti-science, which is only growing in importance as the United States continues to cede any leadership role on global issues like climate change and ocean acidification.

This quick read will be pleasant enough for right-minded people who accept facts as they are, but it won’t tell you much you don’t already know. Levitan identifies about a dozen different tricks pols use to ignore scientific realities that interfere with their plans, and you won’t be surprised at the names that appear or the topics under discussion. Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe – I’d identify these guys as Republicans, but you know they all are – makes various appearances for his climate denial, since he’s in the pocket of the oil and gas industries and gladly ignores the evidence that man-made activities are warming the planet or that fracking is harmful. Trump and Michelle Bachman both appear for their vaccine denialism. Marco Rubio and Mike Huckabee also appear on climate denial. Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell both pushed the “global cooling” hoax – which was never a scientific consensus or proven hypothesis of any sort – as part of their denialism. Mo Brooks (Alabama) pushed some anti-science nonsense about immigrants spreading deadly diseases to justify his xenophobia. Rick Santorum appears for his bogus arguments against an EPA standard aimed at reducing mercury pollution in the water and air. George W. Bush gets quite a bit of ink here for the reasons he used for cutting funding for basic research. There are, to be fair, a couple of Democrats in here, including former DEA head Chuck Rosenberg, who threw out some serious bullshit on the topic of marijuana to try to rationalize the government’s treatment of it as a drug as dangerous as cocaine or meth. Even Barack Obama gets a little smackdown, although in his case, his error was overstating the benefits of a scientific endeavor, the Human Genome Project.

The readers who would really benefit from Not a Scientist are the folks least likely to read it: The politicians I just mentioned and all of the people who vote for them. Science is not subject to your personal approval. Vaccines work, life evolved from a single common ancestor, the climate is warming and it’s our fault, GMOs are safe, chemtrails are fake. You don’t get a vote on any of this – but you do get to vote every November, and many people (probably not many of you specifically) vote for candidates who publicly disavow or attempt to discredit settled science, all in the name of pursuing other policy goals. Their words and actions put everyone at risk – literally everyone, when it comes to climate change, and more than just humans, but coral reefs, tropical frogs, even many microorganisms whose roles in the global ecosystem we don’t even yet understand. This stuff matters, much more than whether two men living 2500 miles away from you get a piece of paper that says they’re married, but the Republican Party of 2017 has got everyone convinced that gays and ISIS are the real threats and climate change is some sort of progressive hoax. People who don’t get this, who vote for Inhofe and McConnell and Brooks and Rubio and of course the guy in the White House, need to read Not a Scientist. But they won’t, and their celebrations last November and this past January were just another nail in our collective coffins.

If this stuff bothers you as much as it does me, check out 314 Action, a new nonpartisan science-advocacy group that encourages more STEM professionals to run for political office so that we get voices in Washington DC and every state capital who speak out in favor of science and fact.

The Blue Sweater.

Jacqueline Novogratz is the founder and CEO of a non-profit called Acumen, which funds and encourages poverty-reduction efforts that work like business endeavors rather than aid dumps. Foreign aid itself is, in general, not very useful, and often nothing more than a way to prop up corrupt third-world regimes; the U.S. is slated to send out $42 billion in foreign aid in FY2017, but there’s little to no information on how well it works – something like an ROI, for eample. Novogratz has spent over three decades working in the developing world, including substantial time in Rwanda both before and after that country’s civil war and genocide, and her 2009 memoir, The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World, chronicles some of her work – but also has an unfortunate tendency to show her inability to escape her own privilege when describing the people she’s met and places where she’s worked.

The book works as part memoir – Novogratz has lived an incredible life, not least of which is the incredible story of the titular sweater, which she gave away to a donation outlet while in high school only to find a boy wearing the sweater ten years later in Rwanda – and part plea for a more sensible, rational approach to helping alleviate poverty. Novogratz details projects in multiple countries, from creating jobs for women in central Africa to developing mosquito nets that don’t lose effectiveness to expanding access to cataract surgery in India, where a small upfront investment coupled with some expertise led to a substantial return, particularly in economic growth for people who had no opportunities beyond subsistence farming and in improving health and sanitation conditions. (If you’re poor, and you’re not healthy or don’t have access to clean water, you’re much more likely to stay poor, since you can’t work if you’re sick and then can’t pay for the care to get well.)

Her individual anecdotes tend to be pretty compelling, in part because Novogratz has worked in some areas that were either desperately poor or were caught up in conflicts. One of Novogratz’ close colleagues in Rwanda was killed, perhaps assassinated, for pushing women’s rights, and another, mentioned above, ended up a leader in the genocide. She runs into surprising interference from women in Africa who resent her presence – that local men will listen to her, a white woman from the west, but not to local women, even if they boast some western education. Getting money isn’t a problem per se; it’s getting it from donors who are willing to think small, who’ll accept modest goals that people on the ground can achieve, rather than lofty goals (let’s end hunger! Let’s cure AIDS!) that are unattainable. It’s the idea behind sites like GlobalGiving, where the projects are small but the objectives clear and reasonable.

Novogratz speaks of her work in these countries with two voices, one of which tends to undermine the other. When speaking about the actual plans and execution, she sounds like a businessperson, keeping others accountable, asking questions that an investor in a startup might ask, and ensuring that money is going to where it will do some lasting good. But when she starts to talk about the locals in Rwanda, Pakistan, Brazil, and elsewhere, or to describe the places themselves, she sounds like a tourist. Everyone is beautiful, every color is radiant, everyone is so nice, even the ones who turn out to be corrupt or, in one case, associated with the genocide (and later imprisoned for her role). There’s a strain in travel literature where the white westerner fetishizes the natives of developing countries, and that’s on display here. I can’t doubt Novogratz’ sincerity, and it sounds like she’s tough on locals who come in for microloans with half-formed plans, but she appears to have met a long string of perfect and handsome people while traveling the world. The stories themselves are interesting, and I salute the sacrifices she’s made to live this life and try to improve the world, but The Blue Sweater doesn’t do enough to convince the reader that this is the right way to help the world’s poor.

Next up: I’m still several books behind in reviews, but I’m currently reading Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven.

American Honey.

American Honey was the last movie on my to-watch list from 2016 that I hadn’t seen, put off by its running time (163 minutes) when there were so many other, shorter movies to see. It’s too long, which almost goes without saying, and the story doesn’t really gel until the final twenty minutes, but this is a star-making turn for neophyte Sasha Lane, and the meandering script still has some cogent points to make about the American teenaged underclass, enough that you might still want to tough this one out through the slow parts. The movie is available free on amazon prime or to rent on iTunes.

Lane, who was discovered by director Andrea Arnold while on spring break and then won the part after her audition, plays Star, a possibly 18-year-old girl who scavenges dumpsters for food, is regularly molested by her (step?)father, and watches two (half-)siblings because their mother is too busy getting drunk and line dancing to bother. A van of young adults traveling the country selling magazine subscriptions door to door stops in a parking lot right in front of her, when team leader Jake (Shia Laboeuf) flirts with her and recruits to join them. Star runs away the same evening, foisting the younger kids on their disinterested mother, and the remainder of the film follows the van of misfit boys and girls across several stops, focusing on the incipient relationship between Star and Jake – and the ongoing one between Jake and their boss, Krystal (Riley Keough, the daughter of Lisa Marie Presley).

Lane is a revelation in this role, stepping into it like a child actor who’s been on screen for years, switching effortlessly from false bravado to childlike neediness, emanating an inner strength shackled by her lack of any life experience or the self-confidence that comes from it. Lebro is convincing as Jake, but the character is so unlikeable – manipulative, greedy, amoral – that it’s hard to see why Star would remain attracted to him or desirous of his attentions after he has repeatedly taken advantage of her, lied to and in front of her, stolen, and even threatened several people with a gun (in the least believable scene of the film). If we’re just rehashing her childhood – girl from an abusive environment is attracted to abusive men – then we need some sort of growth for Star, character development she doesn’t really get from the script. And Krystal is as one-note a character as they come, a mere plot convenience who’s there to throw a wrench into the Jake-Star relationship.

The other fundamental problem with this movie is how joyless it is until the last couple of scenes. Even when the kids are supposed to be having fun, there’s nothing fun about these scenes; there’s often a Lord of the Flies vibe just under their surface. You can tell a story about kids with no direction and little hope yet still show their quotidian lives as having moments of happiness that eventually lose out to the bigger despair, but there just isn’t much of that here. Only when Star bottoms out and then runs into a family that reminds her of her own home life does she have a small epiphany that propels her forward even as the other characters remain the same. That may be the point – that for most of these kids, the same is all they’re going to get, and maybe we should pay more attention to this underclass so they don’t end up selling possibly-fake magazine subscriptions while riding around the country in the back of a van singing bad rap songs – but the story needs to go somewhere, and it doesn’t really get enough of an ending.

(One detail that bugged me: The van was full when Star joined, but later we see the crew picking up more recruits. So did they just dump some of the others? Or is the van actually a sort of clown car?)

Water recurs as a motif throughout the film, including in the final scene, in a way that I think was intentional, a symbol of rebirth but also of a primal need that ties everyone, regardless of wealth or poverty, together. (Thirst comes up several times in the movie, which I’m including as the same symbol as the water.) Star ends up taking a ride with a trucker – she’s too trusting – and they end up discussing how neither has ever seen the ocean. She slips into a puddle and has a momentary meltdown. And when she hits her nadir, she’s surrounded by oil, with no water in sight.

Will Leitch and Tim Grierson often refer to an old line of Gene Siskel’s, asking whether it would be more enjoyable to watch the movie or have dinner with the cast and crew. (At least, I think that’s the quote. If not, just go with it for now.) There is no question in my mind that dinner with the actors who play the kids in American Honey would be a more interesting, even educational experience. Arielle Holmes plays Pagan, but she herself spent several years as a homeless heroin addict on the streets of New York, eventually writing a memoir and starring in a movie about her own life. Arnold cast several other non professionals in the other roles; I can’t believe they wouldn’t collectively have a more interesting set of stories to tell me than the one told in this movie. Maybe she should have given us fewer characters but told more about the ones she shows, instead of using them as backdrop for the Star-crossed lovers’ broken romance.

A Feast for Odin.

Well, boardgamers, I think that with A Feast for Odin we have finally achieved Peak Uwe.

Uwe Rosenberg is one of the most acclaimed designers in this golden era of cardboard, the man behind Caverna (ranked #10 on BGG’s global rankings, which skew towards longer and more complex games), Agricola (#14), Le Havre (#30), Patchwork (#45), Fields of Arle (#53), and Ora et Labora (#77). A Feast for Odin, itself ranked #38 on that list, is his latest title of long, intricate engine-building games that take the general feel of Agricola and make it fussier and more involved. Agricola grew on me with repeated plays, thanks in part to the incredible app version of the game, but at heart the rules of that game are pretty simple; you have a lot of choices to make and several factors to manage, but what you’re asked to do isn’t that difficult. Le Havre and Caverna increased the complexity in different ways, but A Feast for Odin is over the top, turning a boardgame into real work, both in managing the accounting and in figuring out what you want to do.

As the name implies, we’re talking vikings now, and apparently vikings were big-time farmers. A Feast for Odin has, I believe, 36 different resource types, four of which are used like currencies with the remainder used as crops or food or for scoring. Each player starts with a player board that is covered with tiny squares, some of which are blank, some are worth -1 (yes, negative) point if uncovered at game-end, some of which can award you a bonus resource, and some of which, those on the x=y diagonal, represent potential income for you in each round. You take green and blue resources and place them on your board to cover as many squares as you can; there are eight different shapes, so you’re playing a little light Tetris (or Patchwork) and trying to cover the board as efficiently as you can. If you cover everything below and to the left of a specific income square, then that’s your new income, from 0 coins to +18 coins, with the potential for even more if you expand to other islands … but we’re going to just set that aside for the moment. There are also a handful of higher-value, unusually-shaped special items that cover lots of squares but which you can only get via a couple of actions you’ll reach later in the game, if at all.

A Feast for Odin. This is way over the top.

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You also have to feed the multitudes at the end of each round, and while it’s not as difficult as in Agricola or Le Havre, you still have to pay attention to it. There’s a “banquet” track on your board, and you have to have orange and red food tokens to fill the track, but can’t have two tokens of the same color touching each other – there are a lot of placement rules like that, one of the game’s worst features – and can use silver coins instead of food if you don’t have enough.

AFfO takes place over seven rounds, and in every round, each player uses his/her viking meeples to claim action spaces on the shared action board – which has, no shit, 61 different options for players on each turn. The action board has four columns, and each column as you move to the right requires more meeples to use it, so it’s one meeple in the first column and four in the fourth one. You can use actions to upgrade resources, to ‘harvest’, to buy and sell, to collect wood/stone/ore/silver from the mountains, to buy boats, to go raiding, to go pillaging, to hunt game, to go whaling, to plunder (whom, they don’t say), to add occupation cards that give you more benefits, to add islands, to build sheds or additional houses, and so on.

Needless to say, I wasn’t a fan of AFfO – it’s the fussier Le Havre, if that’s even possible, with more rules and more things to track, and a whole lot of “why can’t I do X?” or “how can I get this resource I need?” I’m sure it’s balanced, because Uwe is certainly a smart and careful designer and his games always ‘work’ in that sense. But I also don’t know who the target audience is for this game, which retails for $90+, weighs 7 pounds, and will probably take 90-120 minutes for 3-4 experienced players. (It plays with two and there’s a solo mode, but I haven’t tried either.) If you love Uwe’s games, and the whole idea of games that require obsession to detail with long-term planning and short-term demands, sure, this is probably right up your alley. I think it’s beyond the pale.

Stick to baseball, 8/12/17.

I’m back from a week of vacation in Aruba, which was lovely, not least because I turned my phone off when we took off from BWI and didn’t turn it back on until we landed on US soil seven-plus days later. That means my last Insider posts were at the trade deadline, including breakdowns of the Yu Darvish trade, the Sonny Gray trade, and the Justin Wilson/Jeimer Candelario trade.

I’m back at Paste with a new boardgame review, this time of the two-player variant of Uwe Rosenberg’s massive Caverna, Caverna: Cave vs. Cave.

I appeared on the Ringer’s Achievement Oriented podcast, co-hosted by Ben Lindbergh, to discuss the current golden age of boardgames and how that might be affecting videogame funding. I also spoke with Jeff Krushell, who worked for the Blue Jays for some of the same years I did, about my book, Smart Baseball, and the role of analytics in the sport.

While I was away, the Washington Post ran a favorable review of Smart Baseball.

I’ll be at GenCon 50 in Indianapolis starting on Thursday, appearing on a few panels, signing copies of Smart Baseball on Friday at 2 pm (or if you see me walking around), and trying lots of new boardgames. I hope to see a bunch of you there.

And now, the links…


Onirim is a solitaire card game app from Asmodee Digital, based on a solo or cooperative card game previously published by Z-Man (now part of Asmodee’s growing empire). It’s simple to learn and very quick to play, but calibrated to be reasonably challenging through several plays, especially with the Glyphs expansion. It’s available for free on iTunes and Android with in-app purchases of expansions for $0.99 apiece.

Onirim is played with a single deck of cards that, in the base game, contains cards of in four different colors with three shapes apiece on those colors (sun, moon, key), as well as eight door cards (two in each of the colors) and ten “nightmare” cards. Your goal is to unlock the eight doors before the deck runs out of cards, working with five cards in your hand at any given time. Every time you play or discard a card, you replenish your hand by drawing from the top of the deck.

You can unlock a door by playing three consecutive cards with the same color but different symbols – sun-moon-sun is fine, but sun-sun-moon is not – or by playing the correct color of key card from your hand when that color door appears from the deck. You can also choose to discard a key card to look at the next five cards in the deck, rearranging any four of them and restoring them to the top of the deck while trashing the remaining card. When the next card you draw to refill your hand is a nightmare card, however, the trouble begins, and you can dispense with it in one of four ways:

* You can discard all remaining cards in your hand.
* You can discard the next five cards from the top of the deck. Nightmare and door cards are ‘recycled’ rather than discarded, but color cards of any shape are gone from the game.
* You can discard a key from your hand.
* You can recycle a door card that you’ve already unlocked.

When you unlock a door, the remainder of the deck is reshuffled, so if you played a key and knew what was coming, well, now you odn’t.

The game is balanced enough that I could win comfortably more than half of the time, but rarely won by much (going by the number of cards remaining in the deck, which is one of the ways the app determines your score). Onirim requires sacrifices; it gives you enough ways to unlock doors that you can plan around the nightmares, but have to make tough choices, often discarding cards you were about to use because a nightmare appeared. There are more sun cards than moon cards, and more moon cards than key cards, so you’ll probably find yourself ditching sun cards to get something better in your hand, or playing a moon card just to ‘reset’ the board, since the last card you played in the preceding triple (to unlock a door) still factors into the rule that you can’t play two consecutive cards of the same shape.

So far I have only tried the Glyphs expansion, which adds a fourth shape, glyphs, to the deck, but also requires you to unlock twelve doors rather than eight. You can use a glyph as you might any other shape card, but you can also discard a glyph card to reveal the next five cards in the deck. If one of them is a door, you can unlock it immediately, regardless of color. All non-door cards then go to the bottom of the deck, which can be good (nightmares!) or bad (that moon card you were waiting for!). Unlike the rules for doors unlocked with keys or card triplets, the deck isn’t reshuffled after you open a door with a glyph. Playing a key card and then a glyph can be powerful if the key shows you a door in the next few cards, but doing so knocks out two cards that might otherwise have been useful in completing sets of three. The expansion makes the game a few minutes longer, but I think it’s better; there are more decisions to make and the challenge of completing that many doors is harder, while recycling an unlocked door becomes a much more reasonable choice than it is in the base game.

There aren’t many good solitaire boardgames out there, and only a few I know – Friday is another, and I’ll review that soon – so Onirim would be an easy recommendation even if it weren’t free for the base game. The screen layout is different on the iPhone vs iPad, but both work – the iPhone makes good use of the space and I preferred having the doors laid out along the topic so they were always in sight. The publisher really could get away with charging a buck or two for this given the amount of time I’ve already spent playing it.

Lab Girl.

Botanist Hope Jahren’s memoir Lab Girl, winner of the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for the best autobiographical work of 2016, is a wildly compelling, inspiring read, the story of a woman who has fought mental illness, institutional sexism, and the indifference of a country that would rather fund wars than basic science to become a successful researcher and professor. It’s full of observations on the lives of plants, processes largely beneath our awareness because plants aren’t sentient or, in most cases, particularly mobile. But more than anything else, Lab Girl is the story of Jahren’s unusual, decades-long friendship with a lab partner and co-conspirator named Bill, who threatens to overtake Jahren in her own life story.

Jahren grew up in a small town in southern Minnesota where most of the local economy revolved around the town’s hog slaughterhouse, the lone daughter of a scientist father and frustrated-scientist mother, and was drawn to science from an early age. She chronicles her meandering path to her current post at the University of Hawai’i by way of undergraduate work at the University of Minnesota (where she also worked in the hospital’s pharmacy, filling bags and running them to patient rooms) and graduate work at Georgia Tech and Johns Hopkins.

The heart of Jahren’s story, however, is this quixotic relationship she has with the itinerant Bill, whom she first encounters while they work at a research lab in California and then takes with her to Atlanta, Baltimore, and now Honolulu. Bill appears only in anecdotes and his dialogue revolves largely around a certain Anglo-Saxon gerund, but he comes across as a character right out of Inherent Vice – witty, gifted, cutting, loyal, poorly dressed, and a stoner. Jahren has some career ambition, driven in part by the sexism she meets at every stop – some overt, most just subtle enough to not get every one of those assholes hauled in front of HR – but also by lessons of her childhood. Bill, on the other hand, wants to be in the lab. He wants to work in the lab, yes, but also to inhabit the lab, which he actually does at a few points over the course of their shared history. His limited personal needs become fodder for inadvertent humor, such as the time he cuts most of his shaggy hair off … and stores it in the trunk of a nearby tree so he can go visit it. Every time Bill shows up on the page, the book goes from good to great.

Jahren manages to wrest the spotlight back from Bill a few times, especially in her descriptions of her bipolar disorder, which she depicts as occasionally useful for her work but also disastrous for her life and a major problem for the first 26 weeks of her one pregnancy. (I didn’t get the sense she intends for there to be a second.) Bipolar disorder, often misnamed as manic-depressive disorder, is still a widely misunderstood mental illness, even as we creep toward greater societal acceptance of the most common diseases like depression, anxiety, and panic disorder. Jahren’s story doesn’t revolved around her illness, but it is a shining example of how much someone can achieve in spite of that obstacle.

Lab Girl won as an autobiography, and it is much more that than it is a science book. Jahren explains her love of plants (and soil – you can’t separate the two) with concise lessons on topics like leaf structure, plant sex (fertilization), or how plants survive in the desert. She also takes us to some widely varying settings and depicts them with evocative, bright language, from the greenery of Ireland to the barren terrain of a nearly plantless Arctic island north of Nunavut. As someone who reads and enjoys popular science books, I was hoping for a bit more of this, and given the book’s length (under 300 pages), there was certainly room for that. For one important example, Jahren talks at length about the scarcity of funds for basic science research like hers – research that won’t help us in war or directly lead to a cure or a product – but climate change gets the drive-by treatment in the last two chapters. In an era when one of our two political parties has embraced climate change denial, and has recruited swaths of the religious right to join them in this delusion, we need more voices like Jahren to speak out about the truth.

I sell, share, or donate a lot of the books I acquire, because if I stored them all, I’d need a second room just to shelve them. (Also, books are heavy, and I’ve made two cross-country moves in the last seven years.) I’m going to keep Lab Girl for a few years; my daughter is eleven and enjoys science, so once she’s ready for the book’s vocabulary, she’ll devour it.

Next up: Fritz Lieber’s Hugo-winning novel The Wanderer, which is just $3.82 for the Kindle.

The Sense of an Ending (film).

I adored Julian Barnes’ Man Booker-winning novel The Sense of an Ending, a spare and unsparing look at how one impetuous act could ruin multiple lives yet leave the actor unscathed until he discovers the consequences decades later. Barnes’ protagonist, Tony Webster, is bright and can think critically except where he’s involved; his lack of self-awareness is the central theme of the work, and Barnes unfurls the history to Tony as he does to the reader, allowing us to share in the main character’s befuddlement, denial, and rationalization in a sort of literary real time.

The film version of The Sense of an Ending came out earlier this year and is now available to rent/buy on amazon or iTunes, and it is excellent but falls just short of the book. The acting is superb, and the story largely hews faithfully to Barnes’ concepts, but alters a few key details in ways that muffle the impact of various revelations – and utterly alter the meaning of the book’s ending.

Jim Broadbent plays Tony, a divorced, very slightly grumpy old man who runs an antique camera shop in his semi-retirement, maintains good relations with his ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Wheeler), and is on call for the imminent birth of his first grandchild to his unmarried daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery). Tony gets a certified letter saying that a woman he knew decades earlier, Sarah (Emily Mortimer), has died and left him an object, but it turns out that Sarah’s daughter, Veronica (Freya Mavor), whom Tony briefly dated, refuses to part with the object – the diary of Tony’s friend and later Veronica’s boyfriend Adrian. Tony becomes obsessed with obtaining the diary, largely because it’s legally his (rather than any expressed interest in its contents), and his efforts to acquire it lead him to an encounter with Veronica (now played by Charlotte Rampling) and revelations from their shared past that will discolor Tony’s entire understanding of his own actions and character.

This is in so many ways a very British movie, from the way almost everything in it is so understated and even under the surface to the murderer’s row of a cast all delivering sparkling performances. The filmed Tony is less self-aware than the literary one, and Broadbent infuses him with aloofness in manner and accent, as if he is constantly flummoxed by the existence of other people and their feelings. Rampling absolutely seethes in her few appearances in the film, an angrier Veronica than the one in the book, who holds herself above Tony in word and deed because it is the only victory available to her this late in the match. Mortimer also gets limited screen time, only in flashbacks, but the subtlety of her performance as Sarah is more evidence once Sarah’s role in the events that followed becomes clear.

The novel on which this is based is only about 165 pages, but it felt like the film still rushed past some of the book’s flashbacks to Tony’s time in school with Adrian and his dalliance with Veronica. It also changes several major details from the story, not least of which is dispensing with Barnes’ structure, where the book starts with the school days, and the bequest doesn’t happen until about a third of the way into the book, starting part two and causing Tony to reevaluate the story he has narrated in part one. Tony follows Veronica from one of their meetings, somewhat creepily, whereas in the book Veronica shows him what he discovers by stalking her in the movie.

The most unforgivable sin of the film’s script, however, is the ending, which is much kinder to Tony than the book’s conclusion – and kinder than the film version of Tony deserves. He set this all in motion, but the movie’s ending doesn’t make his culpability sufficiently clear, and concludes his story on a somewhat hopeful note – even as we hear the text of a new letter he has sent to Veronica that left me thinking that even after he’s learned the truth, he still doesn’t get it, and at this point, he probably never will.

I don’t usually give grades or ratings of movies, especially since I often write about them months after their release, but in this case I’ll make an exception. This is a good movie that falls short of a great book – a 55 film from a 70 novel, in scouting terms – buoyed by a tremendous cast and that very British way of letting the audience work out a lot of details on its own. If you’ve read the book and enjoyed it like I did, however, you may find the deviations distracting, especially as they’re all to the bad.