Think Twice

Michael Mauboussin’s short book on the psychology of bad decisions, Think Twice, features an endorsement on its cover from Billy Beane, saying he hopes his competitors don’t read the book. While it doesn’t go into anywhere near the depth on the psychology (and neurology) of decision-making as Daniel Kahnemann’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, Mauboussin’s book covers much of the same ground and does so in a quick, superficial way that might reach more people than Kahnemann’s more thorough but often dense treatise could.

Mauboussin’s book carries the subtitle “Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition,” but I would describe it more as a guide to avoiding decisions based on easily avoidable mental traps. Think Twice has eight chapters dealing with specific traps, most of which will be familiar to readers of Kahnemann’s book: base-rate neglect, tunnel vision, irrational optimism, overreliance on experts, ignoring context, phase transitions (black and grey swans), and conflating skill and luck. Where Kahnemann went into great depth with useful examples and sometimes less-useful descriptions of fMRI test results, Mauboussin writes like he can’t get to the point fast enough – an often desirable trait in the popular business non-fiction section of the bookstore, since the assumption is that business executives don’t have time to read (even if the book might save millions of dollars).

That lightweight approach still gives Mauboussin plenty of space to hammer home the critical lessons of the book. Some of his examples don’t need a lot of explanation, such as pointing out that playing French music or German music in a wine store aisle with wines from both countries skewed consumer choices – even though those consumers explicitly denied that the music affected their choices. (Context matters.) He targets sportswriters directly when discussing their (our) difficulty (or inability) in distinguishing skill from luck – and, in my experience, fans often don’t want to hear that something is luck, even when the sample size is so small that you couldn’t prove it was skill no matter how broad the confidence test. He mentions The Boss going off in the papers when the Yankees started 4-12 in 2005, and writers buying right into the narrative (or just enjoying the free content Steinbrenner was providing). But we see it every October, and during every season; are the Giants really the best team in baseball, or is there an element of luck (or, to use the more accurate term, randomness) in their three championship runs in five seasons? Yet we see articles that proclaim players to be clutch or “big game” every year; my colleague Skip Bayless loves to talk about the “clutch gene,” yet I see no evidence to support its existence. I think Mauboussin would take my side in the debate, and he’d argue that an executive making a decision on a player needs to set aside emotional characterizations like that and focus on the hard data where the sample sizes are sufficiently large.

His chapter on the world’s overreliance on experts also directly applies to the baseball industry, both within teams and within the media. It is simply impossible for any one person to be good enough at predictions or forecasting to beat a well-designed projection system. I could spend every night from February 10th until Thanksgiving scouting players, see every prospect every year, and still wouldn’t be better on a macro level at predicting, say, team won-lost records or individual player performances than ZiPS or Steamer or any other well-tested system. The same goes for every scout in the business, and it’s why the role of scouting has already started to change. Once data trackers (like Tracman) can provide accurate data on batted ball speeds/locations or spin rate on curveballs for most levels of the minors and even some major college programs, how much value will individual scouts’ opinions on player tools matter in the context of team-level decisions on draft picks or trades? The most analytically-inclined front offices already meld scouting reports with such data, using them all as inputs to build better expert systems that can provide more accurate forecasts – which is the goal, because whether you like projection systems or not, you want your team to make the best possible decisions, and you can’t make better decisions without better data and better analysis of those data. (Mauboussin does describe situations where experts can typically beat computer models, but those are typically more static situations where feedback is clear and cause/effect relationships are simple. That’s not baseball.)

Mauboussin’s first chapter describes the three central illusions that lead to irrational optimism, one we see all the time in baseball when teams are asked to evaluate or potentially trade their own prospects: the illusions of superiority, optimism, and control. Our prospects are better than everyone else’s because we scout better, we develop better, and we control their development paths. When you hear that teams are overrating prospects, sometimes that’s just another GM griping that he can’t get what he wants for his veteran starter, but it can also be this irrational optimism that leads many teams to overrate their own kids. There’s a strong element of base-rate neglect in all of these illusions; if you have a deep farm system with a dozen future grade-50 prospects, you know, based on all of the great, deep systems we’ve seen in the last few years (the Royals, Rangers, Padres, Red Sox, Astros) that some of those players simply won’t work out, due to injuries, undiscovered weaknesses, or just youneverknows. A general manager has to be willing to take the “outside view” of his own players, viewing them through objective lenses, rather than the biased “inside view,” which also requires that he be able to take that view because he has the tools available to him and the advisers who are willing to tell him “no.”

The passage on unintended consequences is short and buried within a chapter on complex adaptive systems, but if I could send just two pages of the book to new MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, I’d send these. Mauboussin gives two examples, one of incompetent wildlife management in Yellowstone Park, one of the feds’ decision to let Lehman Brothers fail and thus start the 2008 credit crisis, both of which involve single actions to a complex system that the actors didn’t fully understand (or try to). So when MLB tries to tinker with the draft, or fold in the July 2nd international free agents into the rule 4 draft or a new one, or changes free agent compensation rules … whatever they do, this is a complex system with hundreds of actors who will react to any such rules changes in ways that can’t be foreseen without a look at the entire system.

The seven-page concluding chapter is a great checklist for anyone trying to bring this kind of “counterintuitive” thinking into an organization or just into his/her own decision-making. It’s preventative: here’s how you avoid rushing into major decisions with insufficient data or while under a destructive bias. I can see why Beane doesn’t want other GMs or executives reading this; competing against people who suffer from these illusions and prejudices is a lot easier than competing against people who think twice.

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry.

I’ll be chatting on Thursday this week at 10 am Eastern rather than my usual afternoon slot.

Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry: is sort of an older-young-adults novel, a very superficial, breezily-told biography of a relatively young widower who runs an independent bookshop on a fictional island near Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Fikry, the bookseller, finds his life turned upside down through an absolutely ridiculous turn of events, which eventually leads to him reentering society while Zevin gets to tell us about all of her favorite short stories.

It’s hard to imagine how Fikry was even married in the first place, given his near-misanthropic attitudes; he is the stereotypical bookworm who enjoys books more than people, and who shies away from nearly all relationships, even shunning the eager young female publishing sales rep whose first visit to his store opens the novel. (I bet you can’t guess where she figures in!) But the absurdity of Fikry coming downstairs one night to find a toddler left in his bookstore with a note asking him to take care of her – and then Massachusetts’ social services department, the same idiots who put the Amiraults in jail for over a decade on fabricated charges of child abuse, just going along with it turns the book into something akin to magical realism. Fikry raises Maya with him in the bookstore, cultivating a love of reading in her (if only parenting were so easy) and, as a narrative device, assembling a list of his favorite short stories with a page of explanation about each for her to read.

There’s a second plot strand running through the novel, eventually merging with Fikry’s own story in a moderately surprising way. Fikry’s late wife’s sister and her philandering author husband (talk about stock characters – he teaches writing and sleeps with some of his students) weave in and out of Fikry’s life, with their failed marriage and inability to conceive hovering in the background. Zevin’s picture of Alice Island is somewhat paradisical and sanitized – these are nearly all upper-class white folks (Fikry is half-Indian, a fact mentioned once and essentially discarded) who really love to read. The one non-white character is an interloper. That’s not to say anything about Zevin’s writing is racist – that’s a pretty accurate depiction of the racial makeup of Cape Cod and the nearby islands – but the lack of ethnic diversity in her characters seems to contribute to the lack of character depth.

The book truly flew by, as Zevin, who has written for younger audiences before, carries the vocabulary and sentence structure of YA novels into The Storied Life. Unfortunately it comes with the same clumsy, predictable plotting; it was clear early on in the book that it would end with the death of one of the three central characters, both from the content itself and because there was no other obvious direction to the narrative other than the mere passage of time – and it was quick, skipping huge chunks of Maya’s childhood, including the formative years that might have told us something more about Fikry’s evolution from a solitary, insular widower into a loving parent capable of entering another relationship with an adult. It’s book-club fodder, written to make us all feel good about books, but if you love books like I do, you should read something better.

Next up: I’m behind on my writeups, but the next one will be on George Saunders’ short story collection Tenth of December.

Austin eats.

Getting to Austin even for just a couple of days was a huge treat for me, as it’s one of the country’s great food (and cultural) centers, yet my travels have rarely taken me there, since UT has produced just one pick in the top five rounds since 2011, and the high school talent in the area has been relatively weak. I think I made the most of my time there, hitting the country’s best barbecue joint, the restaurant run by one of the most dominant Top Chef competitors ever, and a fantastic third-wave/direct-trade coffee roaster all in one twelve-hour stretch.

Franklin BBQ has earned vast acclaim as the country’s best barbecue joint, first coming to my attention in 2011 when Bon Appetit gave it that title, although BBQ guru Daniel Vaughn was a few months ahead of BA. Vaughn, who tweets as @BBQSnob, still rates it as the best Q in Texas (which, by his definition, makes it the best Q in the country).

Franklin’s brisket is the best I’ve ever had, in every aspect. It’s salty, smoky, peppery, and most importantly, fatty, so it’s moist throughout and each bite just melts when it gets the heat of your mouth to break it down. I’ve had very little brisket that’s even close to Franklin’s – Little Miss in Phoenix and 4 Rivers in Orlando are the only two that might come close – but this is on its own level. There’s plenty of bark on each slice, and a thin but clear layer of fat underneath it, but the fact that the meat itself was still so moist was the great separator. Once smoked brisket dries out, you might as well skip the meat and go for tofu. Franklin’s brisket was perfectly moist and yet still hot when it was cut.

At Franklin BBQ with @lanaberry

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

Lana Berry (@Lana) was my dining buddy for the day, so we split an enormous platter of more food than we asked for – we had the “Last Man Standing” paper from our two-hour wait in line, signifying that we were the last people guaranteed to get served, which somehow ended up with us getting a lot more food than we ordered – including four different meats. The sausage, made to pitmaster Aaron Franklin’s recipe by an outside vendor, was suffused with smoke flavor, deep pink throughout, seasoned with some black pepper but not so much spice that it overwhelmed the smoke. The gigantic pork spare ribs – seriously, those had to be some mutant hogs – are more aggressively seasoned with salt and black pepper, and the meat still had some tooth to it even though it slid right off the bones. Lana and I agreed that the turkey was the meat to skip on the tray – it can’t hold up against everything else we tried. (Franklin also serves pulled pork, but it was gone before we reached the counter.)

The sides are all strong, although I can’t say I’d go wait two hours for any of them. I thought the potato salad was the best of the three, as it was lightly sauced with a mustard/mayo combination, and the potatoes still had some tooth to them. The beans aren’t the sickly-sweet BBQ beans I’m used to seeing at Q joints; they’re served with chunks of meat in a spicy broth, a much better match for salty smoked meat … but my subconscious kept looking for rice to go with it. The cole slaw was freshly made and crunchy, probably best served in the “Tipsy Texan” sandwich that puts the slaw right with the brisket. And then there are desserts, four different options of single-serving pies, including a banana bourbon pie in a vanilla wafer crust and a Texas pecan tart in a true shortbread-style tart crust, both excellent although I’d favor the pecan tart even though I’m not normally a fan of pecan pies (they’re usually too sweet).

Lana got in line for us both around 10:15 am on a cool but sunny Thursday morning, and we waited over two hours to get our food, so you need to line up pretty early even on a weekday. My suggestion would be to go with friends and share a lot of brisket with a few sausage links and some pork ribs as your main sides, with some potato salad just to pretend there’s a vegetable involved.

After a hard afternoon of watching Kyler Murray DH for Allen HS in 40-degree weather, Lana and I went for an epic meal at Qui, the ~40-seat restaurant run by Top Chef Season 9 winner Paul Qui. (Sarah Grueneberg, the runner-up to Qui that season, is opening her first restaurant, Monteverde, in Chicago this summer.) Qui, pronounced “key,” has just two menu options, an omnivore’s tasting menu for $65, and a vegetarian one for $55, each of which has seven listed courses and can come with wine pairings for another $45 or so. We both did the omnivore’s menu (without booze), and it was among the best meals I’ve ever had anywhere, and might have been the best value when you consider the quality of the inputs and the execution.

The first course was a gazpacho with cured curls of foie gras, PX sherry gelee, chunks of diced pear (I think), and house-made marcona almond milk as the liquid, an outstanding combination of flavors and textures when you got every element in one spoonful, particularly as the finely shaved foie melted into the almond milk to provide a huge hit of umami without the slight yet distinctive liver flavor of foie. (I say this as someone who’s never quite warmed to foie gras the way most food lovers have.) The second course was a finely diced bluefin tuna tartare with cucumber curls, smoked trout roe, and beef bone marrow, where the cucumber surrounded the roe and sat on the tuna to resemble a cross-cut bone with marrow in it, with the actual marrow served on the side like a condiment to the main dish – although bluefin tuna is so luxurious that it needs little but salt to bring out its flavor. That was my least favorite dish of the night, which isn’t a criticism considering how good the rest of the courses were.

Third was the fried chicken you may have heard Lana raving about – it was marinated in a Thai-style green curry, sliced very thinly, and came to the table smoking hot, served on a smoked oyster aioli with dots of egg yolk and a sprinkle of sal de gusano, a blend of sea salt and dried, toasted, ground agave (maguey) worms. It was like no fried chicken I’ve ever had before, tasting very little of chicken and more of all of the potent seasonings around it, with grade-80 crunch to the breading and a bright, herbaceous, lightly spicy kick from the curry paste.

The fourth course was the stunner – yellowtail seared tableside on binchōtan wood, served with a midorizu (Japanese green vinegar, made with rice wine vinegar and grated cucumber) and edible flower dressing. The server said the yellowtail was “cured,” but I think she meant lightly aged as the fish had no discernible seasoning; it was simple, incredibly high-quality fish, which just kissed the coals briefly on one side to get a touch of char and ash and then moved directly to the dressing. The presentation is amazing – there’s something unreal about seeing a miniature grill with glowing logs arrive at your table, then to have your fish cooked on it for a few seconds – and the results kept the flavor of the fish at the front, using the acidity of the dressing to accentuate that flavor. As much as my cynical side tried to tell me that the binchōtan was for show, the fish benefited greatly from the smoky (yet smokeless, as the wood used for this type of grill lets off virtually no smoke at all) notes added by the dusting of ash on each slide. If you enjoy food as experience, this was your course.

Somewhere in here we received a “gift from the kitchen,” an unlisted course that I think everybody gets, a “broken rice porridge” (that is, congee, or jok) with egg yolk and little cubes of crispy pork, which I think was cheek, as well as black vinegar. It’s apparently comfort food in southeast Asia, but on a very cold night in south Texas it hit the spot with its temperature and the sweet-savory hits from the pork. The fifth course was maitake mushrooms coated in a pork blood sauce with red onions, pickled garlic, seared Brussels sprout halves, and henbit, an edible weed native to Europe, highly savory but a little overshadowed by the slightly metallic taste of the blood (and I do like some blood dishes, like black pudding). Next up was the final savory course, the ‘burnt ends’ of braised Wagyu short ribs served in a kimchi broth with bits of kimchi, nori (toasted seaweed), leek, and turnip; as a person who’s never met a decent short rib he didn’t like, I was shocked to find the best part of the dish was the kimchi broth, which did more than just complement the beef but brought out its meatier notes with a combination of sour and umami flavors.

The dessert course had a quenelle of goat milk ice cream served over a coffee-cashew semifreddo (like a frozen mousse) with a thin layer of chocolate genoise underneath, with a huckleberry compote and bits of shaved chocolate over the top. Lana was considering asking the server to send about six more to the table. The most impressive aspect of the dish was the way nearly all of the elements worked together to create the sense of other flavors that weren’t on the dish – for example, a stronger cocoa flavor than you should have gotten from the minimal chocolate involved, or the peanut butter-and-jelly nod of the huckleberry with the nutty semifreddo.

That was a $100 or so meal in a larger city, and Qui could probably charge more and still get it in a wealthy mid-sized city like Austin; I’m glad he doesn’t, as it makes the meal accessible to a few more folks than it otherwise would be, even though $65 is still out of the price range for many folks. It’s an amazing value for a splurge meal that is as much an experience as an a culinary tour de force.

Cuveé Coffee is a third-wave, direct-trade roaster that serves several outlets around Austin and also operates its own coffee shop on 6th just east of downtown and down the street from Qui; they offer two espressos each day, their Meritage blend and a rotating single-origin offering, as well as various pour-over options, teas, and pastries. I tried espressos from both their Meritage and their Laguna Las Ranas beans from El Salvador, each very different from the other but both superb, lightly roasted to preserve the distinct characteristics of the beans. I preferred the Laguna because it was more idiosyncratic, but that’s just a matter of personal taste – I like single origins because they’re always a little different. The peculiar bit was the tag in front of the espresso machine making the Laguna, which identified one of the coffee’s notes as “kale.” I like kale, but I don’t think that’s a flavor I want in my coffee, nor did I get that from the beans at all.

I went to College Station and Bryan the next day and only had one meal while out there, at Fargo’s Pit BBQ, another recommendation from Daniel Vaughn. I recommend the smoked chicken, which changed my sense of what smoked chicken could even taste like, taking on a flavor profile more like game meats and less like boring old chicken (that’s from the dark meat). The brisket was moist and tender but had little flavor from the rub or smoke, while the baked beans were solid, sweet but not saccharine. It’s worth a stop if you’re in the area, but I wouldn’t drive to Bryan from Austin or Houston just to try it.

February 2015 music update.

I’ve got a new draft blog post up on Kyler Murray, Ke’Bryan Hayes, and AJ Minter.

February started weakly for new music, but I ran into a number of new releases towards the end of the month that gave me enough to fill out an hour-long playlist, which is usually my goal for each of these posts. March should be very strong, with new albums due from Purity Ring, Modest Mouse, Lower Dens, and Death Cab for Cutie.

Saint Motel – My Type. Definitely my song of the month, as it’s this wildly exuberant funk-infused pop gem that just appeared on my radar a few weeks ago (thanks to increasingly heavy rotation on Sirius XM’s Alt Nation) but that hit #2 in Italy at some point in 2014. They’re an American quartet from LA with an album and a few singles/EPs to their credit, but this was my first exposure to them. The follow-up single “Cold Cold Man” isn’t up to this level but is also solid enough to be a hit in its own right.

Rose Windows – Glory, Glory. Psychedelic rock with a hint of doom metal that reminded me of early Trouble (the Metal Blade/Def American years), but with a female lead singer and more of a rock stomp to the chorus. I’m not sure there’s enough of a market for this kind of music any more, as it sits somewhere in the grey space between several different subgenres, but there certainly should be.

The Wombats – Greek Tragedy. Somehow these Liverpudlians keep churning out hilarious, poppy singles that avoid grating like the novelty songs they would otherwise appear to be, from “Let’s Dance to Joy Division” to “Your Body is a Weapon” to this track, which comes from their upcoming April release Glitterbug. Their hooks are their main strength, but the wry lyrics of all of these songs elevate them above the field of generic songwriting even within indie pop.

Chromatics – Just Like You. Chromatics have changed their sound so often that I don’t know how to characterize them; this particularly track, available as a free download (at least right now) on soundcloud, is sort of ambient synth-pop that’s light on the pop and heavy on the ethereal elements, like a quiet monk’s chant over a faint electronic beat.

Blur – Go Out. Britpop is dead, but Blur will release their first album in twelve years this April. I wouldn’t say I love this song, but I’m cautiously optimstic that we’ll get something akin to the classic Blur sound now that Graham Coxon is back in the fold.

The Little Secrets – All I Need. Another Liverpool act, this one a duo, The Little Secrets just put out this debut single, a bright and shiny bit of classic pop with a vocalist who sounds quite a bit like Sarah Shannon of the ’90s power-pop act Velocity Girl.

Life in Film – Get Closer. I thought these guys were from Australia between the lead singer’s accent and the band’s peculiar sound, but they’re actually from Hackney, England, so I guess you could call them hackneyed. This track reminds me a bit of classic English Beat right down to the lead singer’s vocal resemblance to Dave Wakeling.

The Bots – Blinded. A couple of brothers who haven’t even reached legal drinking age, The Bots just put out their debut album in October, an eclectic mix of stoner and garage-rock tracks that often sounds very young in its lack of discipline. Lead single “Blinded” is more focused than most of the album with a heavier groove-metal feel behind the vaguely White Stripes/Drenge-ish aesthetic.

ELEL – 40 Watt. The newest project of Ben Elkins, formerly of Heypenny, the eight-piece ELEL released this debut single late last year, with a promising, unusual sound that incorporates some faintly Caribbean rhythm elements behind an earworm chorus.

Speedy Ortiz – Raising the Skate. Speedy Ortiz is an acquired taste with their deliberately dissonant noise-rock sounds, but their music particularly appeals to me because it alludes heavily to a style that became very popular around the time I was in college, especially the band Helium.

Wolf Alice – Giant Peach. It’s grunge-ish, but simultaneously heavier and poppier than most of that genre, with heavy guitar riffs that wouldn’t embarrass Tony Iommi in the song’s tremendous outro. Wolf Alice’s debut album, My Love is Cool, is due on June 22nd and is already one of the LPs I’m most looking forward to hearing this year.

BOOTS – I Run Roulette. I missed this track when it came out in November, one of the first singles from singer/producer Jordan Asher, whose biggest musical contribution to date is his production of most of the album Beyoncé in 2013. “I Run Roulette” has an industrial feel to the music, but the vocals are almost gentle in contrast, resulting in a more accessible song that sounds like it could have come from Trent Reznor’s mind but not his mouth.

The Mowgli’s – I’m Good. Not as good as “San Francisco,” their debut single and best song to date, but if you like their general sound, sort of a hippie revivalist vibe where all seven members seem to be singing at once but without the depth you’d expect from that many voices in harmony.

Waxahatchee – Under a Rock. Everyone seemed to love her previous single, “Air,” but me; this song is more my speed, a mid-tempo jangle-folk track that uses her voice’s softer qualities (think Alexandra Niedzialkowski from Cumulus or Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir from Of Monsters & Men) to create contrast to the amped-up guitar lines.

Hot Chip – Huarache Lights. They’re never going to create another “Over and Over,” a single to which all of their other world will inevitably be compared (by me, at least), but this is a step up from 2012’s “Don’t Deny Your Heart,” due to both a slightly heavier instrumentation and more layering, producing a more sophisticated sound that’s still accessible but less cloying.

Purity Ring – Begin Again. Their second album, another eternity (iTunes), comes out on Tuesday the third, with lead single “Push Pull” already one of my favorite songs of the year. “Begin Again” isn’t as strong, lyrically or musically, but makes great use of Megan James’ waif-like voice over undulating electronic beats that wax and wane over the song’s three and a half minutes.

Apocalyptica – Cold Blood. I love Apocalyptica because they’re so bizarre – a metal act with three classically-trained cellists that began its existence as a Metallica cover band and now produces highly melodic hard rock. They’re almost too commercial for me, but there’s something unapologetic about their sound that I like even when I don’t like the songs themselves. I suppose if this isn’t hard enough for you, Napalm Death’s thirteenth studio album, Apex Predator – Easy Meat, which came out in late January, might be more your speed. (I found it totally unlistenable, but your mileage may vary.)

Saturday five, 2/28/15.

My ranking of the top 20 prospects for 2015 impact went up on Tuesday for Insiders. I also wrote some words about Boston signing Yoan Moncada.

Over at Paste, I recapped what I learned about recent and upcoming boardgame releases from my visit to Toyfair.

saturdayfiveAnd now this week’s links, heavy on the anti-science as it was a good week to be stupid…

  • Jimmy Kimmel and a bunch of actual medical doctors have something to say to vaccine deniers. Meanwhile, look at these idiots in Arizona who exposed a whole town to measles after all three of their unvaccinated kids caught it at Disneyland … and the mom still can’t take full responsibility for her actions. How is denying your children essential medical care like vaccinations anything but child neglect?
  • Meanwhile, there’s a vaccine out there that can largely prevent several forms of cancer, and lots of parents aren’t getting it for their children. It’s Gardasil, which provides immunity to most strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is transmitted through sexual contact and can cause cervical, anal, vulvar, oral, and oropharyngeal cancers. Gardasil also protects against strains of HPV that cause genital warts. Yet we have vaccine deniers claiming it’s unsafe (it’s quite safe, thank you science), and I think we have a lot of parents refusing to acknowledge that their daughters are sexually active.
  • Senator Sheldon Whitehouse puts the smack down on the Senate’s most anti-science member, Jim Inhofe, over the latter’s climate change denial (and ignorance, really). This is on the heels of the Idaho lawmaker who thought the vagina was connected to the digestive system and the Nevada lawmaker who said cancer is caused by a fungus and can be cured with baking soda. Science literacy matters, folks, especially among people who might be making laws and such.
  • A rather harrowing blog post from writer Desi Jedeikin about a childhood memory of seeing her father nearly kill her mother. It’s a repost from xojane in 2012, but she put it on her tumblr this past week, which is where I first saw it. She’s also one of the only comedians/comedy writers I’ve ever encountered who can do very crude humor well.
  • Also from the Harrowing Links Dept., a long read from the Wichita Eagle on the struggles of the daughter of Dennis Rader. You might remember Rader as BTK, the serial killer who terrorized Wichita over the course of about two decades and ten confirmed murders. The piece does contain some disturbing details of the murders.
  • A new study says that babies who eat peanut-containing foods are 80% less likely to develop peanut allergies. Another study, this one in Sweden, found that children in households where people hand-washed dishes are about 40% less likely to develop allergies, a little more evidence in favor of the “hygiene hypothesis,” the idea that we have more allergies today because everything is too clean and our immune systems aren’t challenged by enough germs when we’re little.
  • I’m not going to link to her page, since she’s an anti-science fraud, but the self-styled “food babe” is now targeting the food additive cellulose (and various derivatives of it), which is generally made from wood pulp. Although that sounds weird – and that’s just the fallacy TFB is exploiting here, the argument from personal incredulity – there are two significant problems with her “argument.” One is that cellulose is among the most common chemical compounds in the plant world. If you eat celery, you eat cellulose. The fact that the food additive version comes from wood shouldn’t matter any more than you should care that cochineal and carmine come from bugs. The FraudBabe’s second problem is that we all eat wood already: Cinnamon and its knockoff cassia come from the barks of two trees found mostly in south and southeast Asia, and that wood isn’t processed to be un-wood to anywhere near the extent that industrial cellulose is.
  • Finally, also in the science-fraud department, the guy behind the junk-science juggernaut NaturalNews posted this gem late last week:

    That’s right: A seven-year-old leukemia survivor is just a shill for Big Pharma. Welcome to the fantasyland of science deniers.

Chicken with bitter orange marmalade.

This recipe happened largely because of Paddington.

I’ve been reading my daughter one chapter of Paddington a night for the past few weeks – we’re about to start book four, Paddington At Large – and she kept asking about marmalade, since she’d never had any. Of course, I read a book set in London that involves marmalade and I think true English marmalade, which is made with bitter oranges (like Sevilles), so I pick up a few blood oranges (also bitter, but I think less so than Sevilles) and make some gorgeous but definitely bitter orange marmalade, which my daughter, of course, does not like. So now I have nearly two pints of the stuff and no idea what to do with it.

My first thought was duck breasts, but I’m the only one in the house who’d eat those, but I know orange and chicken go quite well together too, so I bought a whole broiler-fryer (which usually means a bird between three and five pounds; this one was about four and a half) and decided to somehow put the orange marmalade and the bird together. I took some inspiration from Richard Blais’ lemon curd chicken recipe (from Try This at Home) and an old Jamie Oliver recipe that put a compound butter with herbs and lemon zest under the chicken skin and made a compound butter with orange marmalade.

This recipe is a little rougher than most of mine, for which I apologize but, for better or worse, this is how I cook these days. You may choose to brine the chicken first, a process that I find helps the white meat a bit but does nothing for the dark meat; pulling the chicken at or before the breasts reach 160 degrees will still result in moist white meat without requiring that extra step.

1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter at room temperature
¾ cup to 1 cup bitter orange marmalade
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves
½ tsp ground black pepper
½ tsp ground coriander
1 tsp kosher salt or more as needed
1 chicken, 3-5 pounds, without which this recipe would not make much sense

1. Make the compound butter: Combine the butter, marmalade, thyme, pepper, and coriander in a food processor until well-mixed. If the mixture is too soft, chill briefly in the refrigerator; you want it to be soft enough to rub over the chicken, but not pourable.

2. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Clean the bird and pat dry with paper towels. Loosen the skin gently with your hands, down to the joints that connect the thighs to the drumsticks.

3. Season the bird liberally inside and out with salt. No salt = no taste.

4. Place the chicken in a roasting pan. Rub the compound butter all over the chicken, mostly under the skin and over the breast and thigh meat, saving about a fourth to a third of the butter to rub over the outside. If you get any butter on the sides of the pan, which I do every single time I roast a whole chicken and put butter or lemon curd in it, wipe it off with a damp paper towel, unless you enjoy scrubbing with steel wool. Pour a cup of water in the bottom of the pan to avoid smoke from the drippings. You can also stuff an aromatic like half an onion or lemon in the cavity of the bird.

5. Roast the chicken for 30 minutes at 450 degrees. Turn the heat down to 325 and continue roasting until the breast meat measures 158-160 degrees. You’ll get a few degrees of carryover when you pull the bird from the oven. If the bottom of the pan becomes dry at any point during the roasting, add a little more water – you don’t want that stuff to burn because it’s the foundation for a good, quick gravy.

6. Optional: If you want to make a gravy or sauce, deglaze the pan with white wine or brandy, then boost it with some chicken stock and simmer hard until reduced by about half. You can thicken this with any starch you like; I love tapioca starch because it’s clean on the palate and easy to integrate. For any starch but flour, just dissolve 1 tsp or so in 2 tsp of water, then whisk into the hot liquid. Flour is best integrated with fat, so knead it into some softened butter and whisk it in. Add lemon juice, 1-2 tsp, and salt or pepper to taste.

Let the Great World Spin.

My ranking of the top prospects for 2015 impact is up for Insiders, and I held a (somewhat hard to read) Facebook chat about that piece on Tuesday. I also have a piece up for Paste from my visit to Toyfair NYC earlier this month, talking about recent and upcoming releases from major boardgame publishers.

Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin won the National Book Award (a prize I’ve always found to be even more eccentric in its choices than the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) in 2009, and the book is saturated with praise from critics and other authors for its scope, its structure, its characters, everything about it. I almost feel inadequate as a reader saying I thought it was a nice* book, but I just did not connect with it on any of those other levels.

*I’m using “nice” here somewhat sarcastically, sort of like saying it was “interesting.” It’s a very good book, just not a life-changing one for me.

McCann’s gambit here is to use the day that Philippe Petit walked the tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center as the central event that links all of the stories in the novel, stories involving a set of characters whose lives are improbably connected by tiny threads that strain credulity. It’s a short story novel, but far better structured and plotted than Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, one of the more perplexing Pulitzer winners I’ve read (which is a bit more than half of them). The first story introduces us to the Corrigan brothers, two Irishmen living in New York, one a monk (of sorts) whose mission is to help the various prostitutes who work under the Deegan Bridge, near his apartment in the south Bronx, a character at once incredibly compelling yet also drawn in impossibly sharp lines without enough graying around the edges. One of the prostitutes has two babies, who end up in foster care with a mother who’s lost three sons to the Vietnam War, who is in a social/support group with other mothers who’ve lost sons to the war, including Claire, the slightly neglected Park Avenue wife of a successful judge who happens to be the one who draws both the case Petit and of the aforementioned prostitute and her mother, arrested for robbing a john a year or so prior. Each of these characters takes a turn at the center of the narration, although only some get the first person treatment.

The precision of these narratives and the spidery fabric that connects them is itself impressive, but more from the perspective of respect for the craft than from a readability or even a literary point of view – ultimately, if those stories weren’t connected, this wouldn’t be a novel at all, but a story collection. Where McCann succeeds most is in varying his voices to put the reader inside the minds of the diverse cast of characters he’s assembled; the prostitutes and the socialite and the monk and his more temporally-minded brother all have to have different voices, even if it’s a third-person narrator and McCann manages to do that well and craft each character with great empathy, without ever coming off as overly sentimental or, given the racial mixture he’s describing, prejudicial. It would be too easy to turn his black prostitutes into blackface caricatures of a very real underclass, but McCann avoids that trap with great skill.

But by shifting its focus Let the Great World Spin also avoids your grasp; it’s hard to feel an emotional connection to any character or to the story when they change so frequently, but also because McCann keeps them at arm’s length from the reader, with the exception of the Park Avenue mother Claire, who misses her son and yet wants more than anything to find a kinship with other grieving mothers who begin to separate themselves from her when they see her home and assume she’s far wealthier than they are. Her husband, Solomon, was one of the book’s most hackneyed characters, yet she pulsed with life, with her grief intertwined with her social anxiety, her desire to be just one of the gals, each of whom has also lost a son in a pointless war. She felt so real that I could picture her gait on the expensive carpet, her expressions, her tiny movements and gestures, all because of how McCann depicted her inner monologue. If all of his characters had lived and breathed on the pages the way she did, I would probably be banging the table for all of you to read this book. Instead, I found it a skillfully written work, an enjoyable read, but not one I was rushing to finish due to narrative greed or a deep emotional connection with the characters.

Next up: I’ve already finished The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry and begun George Saunders’ short story collection Tenth of December.


My thoughts on Boston’s deal with Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada is up for Insiders.

Game designer Uwe Rosenberg is best known for Agricola, consistently one of the highest-rated board games in the world since its 2007 release, and for his similar titles Le Havre, Caverna (a bargain at $88!), and Ora et Labora (out of print), all of which are acclaimed and highly complex games that require lengthy rulebooks and a two-hour or so commitment to play. That makes his latest game, the two-player delight Patchwork, a huge surprise for its elegance and simplicity, easy enough to play with my eight-year-old and straightforward enough for its rules to cover just four small pages.

Patchwork is Tetris played with a wallet instead of a clock: Each player has a 9×9 board and must purchase scraps of fabric, paying in buttons, and place those pieces on his/her main board. The fabric tiles cover two to eight squares each and come in various shapes, each bearing two costs – one in buttons, one in spaces the player must move on the central board that functions like a timer – with some also returning buttons as income over the course of the game. The object is to cover as many of those 81 board spaces as possible before both players reach the end of the track on the central board, earning points for buttons left over and for becoming the first player to completely cover any 7×7 square on his/her own board, losing two points per uncovered square at game-end.

The pieces themselves are arranged in random order in a circle around the central board, with one neutral token sitting between two pieces in the circle at all times. On his/her turn, a player can buy any of the next three fabric pieces (going clockwise) in front of that token, paying the cost in buttons and then moving his/her piece on the central board – a spiral track that ends in the center, after reaching which the player is done taking turns – the number of spaces indicated on the piece of fabric; after that piece is removed, the token moves into the vacated spot. If the player chooses not to buy any of those pieces of fabric, s/he may move on the central track to the spot one space ahead of the other player, earning one button per space moved in that turn.

The player further back (from the finish) on the central track goes next, so a player may take consecutive turns if s/he buys fabric pieces that don’t advance his/her token ahead of the opponent’s; if one player lands on the space occupied by the other player, she puts her token on top of his and takes one more turn before her opponent goes. The central track has nine button symbols on it; when a player reaches or crosses one of those symbols, s/he earns income, one button per button symbol on the fabric pieces on that player’s own board. There are also five one-square fabric scraps located on the central track; to claim one of those, a player must land directly on one of those spaces.

Players must place any acquired fabric pieces immediately, and can’t move them for the rest of the game, so there’s a spatial-relations component to the game to go along with the resource-management decisions involved in purchasing fabric pieces. Despite the random element to the order of fabric pieces in the circle and the movement of the token, it’s easy to plan out some rough strategy based on what pieces you might be able to purchase over your next turn or two, and you always have to consider what pieces are still available as your board begins to fill up. Games took us 30-45 minutes, with winning scores usually in the teens but, in one instance, all the way up to 33 points:

A 33-point winning game in Patchwork, from @mayfairgames and Agricola designer Uwe Rosenberg

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

It’s been an instant hit in our house because it’s so quick to learn and set up and because the balance of strategy and randomness or luck is just enough to level out the field no matter who’s playing. My daughter took to it immediately, understands how to play it well, and seems to particularly enjoy the tile-placement aspect, figuring out how best to fit pieces on her board. Strong two-player games are such a rarity – the best games out there are nearly all designed for three or more players and play best with four – that it’s a huge treat to have another Jaipur-like hit in the house.

Saturday five, 2/21/15.

My only new baseball post in the last week was last Saturday’s post on draft prospects Kyle Funkhouser, Kyle Tucker, and Jake Woodford; my trip this weekend didn’t happen because USAirways cancelled my outbound flight and couldn’t get me to Santa Barbara in time. I did hold a Klawchat on Thursday.

saturdayfiveMy latest boardgame review for Paste was on Evolution, one of the bigger Kickstarter boardgame success stories (non-Exploding Kittens division). I’ll have another piece for them next week, summarizing my afternoon at Toyfair NYC earlier this week.

I’ve also been thrilled by all of your reactions and responses to my essay on my peculiar, obsessive reading habits. I’m still wading through them all, but please know that I’ve at least seen your comments even if I haven’t replied directly.

A lot of links this week…

  • First, an actual baseball piece: My friend Alex Speier has an outstanding article on Boston’s use of “neuroscouting” tools, like a computer program to measure a player’s hand-eye coordination. I’ve heard about this tool before, and I know a few other teams that use it or tools in the same vein, and while their competitive advantage is temporary (soon everyone except the Phillies will adopt it), it’s quite significant.
  • A fantastic BBC interview with actress Jamie Brewer, now the first woman with Down Syndrome to walk the catwalk at Fashion Week. Termination rates for fetuses diagnosed with Down Syndrome range from an estimated 67% in the US to over 90% in Europe, and of course that issue came up in the news recently with the story of the Armenian woman who divorced her New Zealand-born husband rather than keep their baby, born with Down Syndrome, although the precise details of that are unclear.
  • A longread from the New Yorker on the Apple industrial designer who might be the most important person in the company.
  • How Parks and Recreation got Bill Murray to play Mayor Gunderson. The final season has had its misses (the Johnny Karate episode), but the way they’ve circled back to every significant side character and still added more amazing guest appearances like this one has made it more than just a cursory victory lap, but a season worth remembering. If you’re a fan of the show, or just enjoyed the #humblebrag phenomenon, you should also read Aziz Ansari’s tribute to writer/comedian Harris Wittels, who died of an apparent drug overdose this week. Wittels, who also played Animal Control Brett on P&R, was just 30 years old.
  • This week in vaccination: Jeb Lund (aka @Mobute) has a superb piece in Rolling Stone on how vaccine deniers’ bad decisions hurt others, not themselves. Meanwhile, here in Delaware, my representative in our lower house is introducing a bill to tighten the “religious exemption” loophole in vaccination requirements. I think we should repeal that exemption entirely, but this is at least a good first step. Also, Forbes ran a great three-part piece debunking myths about vaccine deniers. I disagree with one thing – these people are pretty much all delusional idiots – but her points are crucial in the fight against such ignorance. One thing we can’t forget, though: Those of us who understand the facts that vaccines are safe and effective must keep speaking up, telling our representatives in government, our school boards, our principals, everyone in a position of authority that we want our children protected.
  • Oliver Sacks wrote a difficult-to-read (and probably more so to write) piece on learning his cancer has returned and metastasized.
  • Also from the NY Times, an op ed on how added vitamins paper over the low quality of our food supply.
  • Settlers of Catan: The Film! This is going to be terrible.
  • Two good pieces from the Washington Post. The first, from earlier this month, on how it’s never too early to teach children about boundaries, which I think might help not just with preventing abuse and molestation but might also reduce the pervasiveness of rape culture among young men. On a related note, the second piece, from this Thursday, discusses the abuse that’s driving some feminist writers offline. You know who’s a major culprit in this? Twitter. Their lack of enforcement of their own harassment policies is by far the worst thing about the site. You can quite literally threaten to rape or kill someone, directly @ their account, and face no consequences even just within the confines of the site itself. Come on, Twitter. Be better.
  • I agree wholeheartedly with this message, which refers to the movie The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend):

Too Many Books; or, A Lifetime of Obsessive Reading.

My mom likes to joke that I was the easiest kid to keep occupied during any activity – shopping, doctor’s appointments, church – that might have bored me: She’d give me a book and I’d be fine for hours. I would truly read anything I could get my hands on; if I didn’t have a kids’ book handy, I’d read the encyclopedia, the dictionary, my dad’s chemistry textbook, a book of Pogo comics (I understood everything except for that one), whatever. The Moby Books “Great Illustrated Classics,” abridged versions of classic novels, were popular in the late 1970s – even sold at Toys R Us, which is kind of hard to fathom at this point – and I read maybe 30 of them. (None stuck with me more than their collection of four of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories, Tales of Mystery and Terror. The Amontillado! That hideous heart! The cipher in “The Gold Bug!”) I can think of only one movie adaptation of a book – Joanne Harris’ Chocolat – that I enjoyed more than the book itself. (The book is virulently anti-Catholic, but the film recast the priest character the secular mayor.) I was – okay, I still am – Henry Bemis, just without the glasses.

There was never any plan to my reading when I was younger; I’d find something I liked, and I’d keep reading. I started reading at two, with Eric Carle’s The Mixed-Up Chameleon; apparently an aunt of mine was convinced I’d actually memorized the book and tried to test me with something else, only to have me read that too. I remember reading part of The Hobbit in church when I was about ten. I stumbled on Asimov’s first Foundation novel when I was 15, while in a Walden Books at the Smith Haven Mall with a friend of mine, and ended up reading the whole series, then the whole extended fourteen-novel sequence set in the Foundation universe. I picked up Dune one summer in college, loved it, then read every sequel, each of which was logarithmically worse than the previous one, in some vain hope that the series would recapture the glory of the first title. (No such luck.) I’d read pretty much anything on math or science that I could handle; when I was in sixth grade and my junior high school decided to place me in eighth grade math, I went to the library, got Asimov’s Realm of Algebra, and taught myself the subject over the weekend. I remember my father being annoyed with me because I took a lengthy novel, Moris Farhi’s The Last of Days, while going to an academics summer camp because he was concerned (rightly, if I’m to be totally fair about it) I’d get lost in the book and not pay enough attention to the classes. I’d sit in the back of the classroom in high school and read whatever novel I was into at that point, which was almost never the book we’d been assigned to read in English class. (I didn’t appreciate most of those novels until later in life, and I often think about how the curriculum seems calculated to ruin teenagers’ interest in reading, ignoring some far more accessible classics and offering some very peculiar choices among more modern literature.)

I always tell young or would-be writers who ask me for advice that you can’t be a great writer unless you are first a great reader, and part of why I say that is because I’ve lived it, at least the “great reader” part. I was assigned Catcher in the Rye twice in junior high school, the first time when I was just ten years old, and still to this day remember two vocabulary words I gained from it: qualm, which was simple enough, and prostitute, which confused the hell out of me even after I looked it up in the dictionary. (I also failed to grasp Salinger’s expression “giving her the time,” because, you know, I was ten when ten-year-olds didn’t know about that stuff.) I still write down new words I encounter when reading, most of which are uselessly obscure, with the occasional gem popping up – limicolous, sciamachy, obverse, arrogate, scapegrace, quondam, peroration. (The first two were from The Recognitions; the last two from A Dance to the Music of Time.) But it’s more than vocabulary; if you read a lot of writers in a lot of genres, you will learn through experience (or osmosis) how the language can be used for different ways of expressing similar concepts. English is malleable, adaptable, and you can twist it and bend it to do and say all kinds of things, sometimes to the point where you might lose some readers – ask James Joyce or Gertrude Stein – but to create beauty, or evoke laughter, or invite the reader into a select club of those who catch an allusion. I don’t know if reading so much has made me a great writer or even a good one, but it’s made me the writer I am.

When I read books, it’s nearly always for pleasure, which means I opt for books in which I can just get lost, either in a great plot or in a strong non-fiction narrative. I don’t read baseball books, because baseball is my job, and reading is a hobby, and I don’t like to let my job bleed into my hobby even though a former hobby ended up becoming (or at least informing) my job. I see a six-hour flight to California as a chance to read a 300-page book cover to cover, leaving a little time for a nap too. On a flight from LAX to Taipei in 2004, I slept for seven hours, ate two meals, and read the whole fifth Harry Potter book. (Then I had to carry it around for the rest of the trip.) Traveling the way I do means I eat a lot of meals by myself, yet I never quite feel like I’m by myself if I’m in the company of a great story. I’ve been known to disappear in Bristol during some dead time between the production meeting and the first BBTN of the night to meditate and read. Anyone looking for me can take solace in the fact that I’ve gone to a better place.

The Harry Potter series actually spurred me to begin reading again for pleasure after a lull in my early 20s where I fell out of the habit, particularly out of reading fiction. J.K. Rowling reminded me what it was like to be completely absorbed in a cracking good story – to this day, hers are the only novels I’ve enjoyed so deeply that I’ve dreamed I’ve been in the books – and sent me back to the used bookstores of Arlington and Cambridge and Boston, where I’d gladly pick up even some shorter classics at which I would have scoffed as a teenager. When I started traveling more in 2002, my first year with the Blue Jays, I started keeping a list of the books I was reading, getting to 70-something by the end of the season before I burned out on Hemingway’s The Son Also Rises (sorry, Papa, I just didn’t like it). I’ve always been a listmaker anyway, but something about recording what I’ve read, the ability to look back and see it like I accomplished something tangible (if meaningful to no one but me), has driven me to keep up the habit to this day.

The following year, my wife bought me a copy of Daniel Burt’s The Novel 100, the literature professor’s ranking of the hundred greatest novels ever written, as a Christmas gift. I assumed I would have read half or more of them, but not only was I off by a factor of about four (I think I’d read just fourteen), I’d never heard of thirty or forty titles on the list. This made me irrationally angry, and I started reading with purpose, hunting down anything on the list that was under 1000 pages, because it bothered me that I’d read so little of the western canon even though I don’t think there was a person on the planet who gave a damn that I’d read so little of the western canon. No one had ever accosted me to ask if I’d read Vanity Fair, but dammit, I was going to read it just in case. (Still waiting.)

That led me to more lists – someone on an old cooking-related message board that I frequented and that often veered off-topic posted the TIME 100 with a “how many have you read?” topic title that read to me like an accusation. Someone else bought me the Bloomsbury list of 100 Must-Read Classic Novels. I found the Modern Library’s list of the best novels from the 20th century, which is a hot mess, and then the Radcliffe Course’s response list, which is a different but equally hot mess, but still read three-fourths of the titles from each anyway because I’m stubborn. (I draw the line at Ayn Rand, who appears twice on the Radcliffe Course’s list, because if that’s what passes for “literature” we might as well just revert to oral traditions.) This striving led me to start some books I might never have started yet ended up enjoying, like Bleak House and Middlemarch, and to finish some books I might have abandoned, although whether that latter point is a good thing is a matter of much debate (which occurs entirely in my head).

The prompt for this was a personal milestone, one towards which I’d been working for about the last decade. A chiropractor I’d used in Massachusetts about that long ago noted that I always had a book in hand when I visited her office, and mentioned that her sister was also an avid reader who claimed to have read a thousand books in her lifetime. She asked me if I thought such a thing was possible, and I said it probably was, although you’d have to read somewhat obsessively. (I don’t think the irony in me calling another person’s reading “obsessive” was lost on either of us.) And that led me to try to list all the books I’d ever read – novels, non-fiction works, collections of short stories – to see how far short I was of that number. I figured if I kept up my regular pace of 60-70 books a year, I’d hit a grand sometime around my 42nd birthday; I’ll turn 42 in June, and I read my thousandth book earlier this week.

Three-quarters of the books I’ve read have been novels, with a bunch of narrative non-fiction filling in the rest. For all the classics I’ve read, I’m still very much a fan of genre fiction. I’ve read more works by P.G. Wodehouse than any other author – 34 novels and five short story collections – followed by Agatha Christie (29 novels plus Poirot Investigates), Isaac Asimov (19 plus 3, but none since 1995!), and Graham Greene (18). I’ve got another thirty by the holy trinity of detective writers: Chandler, Hammett, and Stout. I’ve read everything Jasper Fforde (11), J.K. Rowling (10), and Alan Bradley (6) have seen fit to publish, and eagerly await more by each. Then I look at my list and see how much more I could read by Bradbury and Le Carré and Richard Stark, and I know I’ve got some more Dickens and Hardy to tackle and could spend the next two years reading Balzac (no umlauts). I’ve still yet to read Parade’s End or Stranger in a Strange Land or The Jungle or The Stories of John Cheever. Should I even think about tackling Finnegan’s Wake given what an effort it was to get through Ulysses? Isn’t life short enough as it is?

I think now that I’ve reached so many of these arbitrary goals I’ve set for myself – hitting 1K, finishing the TIME and Bloomsbury lists – I’m back to reading for pleasure and only for pleasure. I’ve still got thirty-odd books on the to-be-read shelf, but I look at that queue just as books I’m dying to get to, some I’ve wanted to read for years but put aside in favor of classics that I needed to read to finish some list. My goal is usually to read for an hour a day; my daughter has to read for twenty minutes each day as her primary homework assignment, so I sit next to her and we read together, and then I work in more reading as I want a break during the rest of the day. (It’s a better choice for me than arguing on Twitter.) Sometimes I make that into more of an obligation – oh my God, I didn’t read my usual 60 pages today! – than it should be, which is just another manifestation of my anxiety plus, I assume, a bit of lingering Catholic guilt. Maybe that needs to be my next big reading goal. After all, a great story is one that tells you when you’ve read enough for the day.