As a kid, I was always fascinated by maps, and especially by certain countries or parts of the world. Eastern Europe was one of those areas; the countries there all seemed more “foreign” because they were still behind the Iron Curtain (I’m old). Most of the people there speak Slavic languages that just sounded more different to my young ears, often written in different alphabets. Then you have Hungary, a country of non-Slavic people with a history and language unrelated to anyone else in Europe outside of Finland and Estonia (the latter of which wasn’t independent until I was in college), and its own complicated history of independence and subjugation. You had Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, two made-up countries resulting from international meddling and post-war treaties; neither exists any more, with Yugoslavia, at the time appearing to be the most moderate of Communist countries because its dictator, Tito, led the “non-aligned movement” of countries that declined to take sides in the Cold War. Yugoslavia comprised at least a dozen different ethnolinguistic groups, now split into seven independent countries, two of which have majority Muslim populations, two others of which speak the same language but use different alphabets for it and thus both claim they’re speaking something different. Czechoslovakia has been split into two countries, although there’s a historical third (Moravia) that appears to be gone for good. The Soviet Union itself subsumed at least nine independent countries in eastern Europe and the Caucasus, plus some short-lived entities like the Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus.

And then there was Romania, another oddball in the region, the only language east of Italy where the primary language is from the Romance branch of the Indo-European language family; Romanian has evolved a more complex, Slavic-influenced grammar due to its geographic and political isolation from other Romance languages, but if you’re fluent in any of the latter you can probably gather the gist of written Romanian. Moldova, an independent country on Romania’s border, also has Romanian as its primary language, but they call it Moldovan and insist that it’s a distinct tongue. (To say nothing of the Gagauz.) Transylvania, which is totally a real place, is now part of Romania. They were briefly one of the Axis-allied nations in World War II, along with Hungary and Bulgaria, the latter of which had a real knack for picking the wrong side in world wars. The country featured the most dramatic and violent shift to democracy, executing its dictator and his equally corrupt wife on live television, and at one point appeared to have a nascent software industry that might lead to rapid economic development.

That didn’t happen, and if you wanted to know just how Romanians view their country right now, Christian Mungiu’s latest film, Graduation, paints a grim portrait where corruption is so woven into the societal fabric that nothing would function without it. Mungiu won the Palme d’Or and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film for 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and was named co-winner of the Best Director Prize at Cannes in 2016 for this movie, which Romania did not choose for its annual submission to AMPAS. (His 2012 film, Beyond the Hills, was Romania’s submission that year and made the shortlist but not the final five.)

Graduation, which is streaming on Netflix, tells a small story to explain the big theme of the rot that institutionalized corruption has caused in Romanian society. Romeo Aldea is a successful doctor in a modest city in western Romania who returned from somewhere abroad with his wife in the hopes that Romania was developing into a modern society. Their daughter, Maria, is about to take a critical test to secure her scholarship to Cambridge University in England, but the morning before the exam, she’s attacked by a would-be rapist, injuring her arm (so she can’t write easily) and traumatizing her. Romeo, who was busy with his mistress when he received the call that Maria had been hurt, decides to play the system, moving a patient up the list for a liver transplant in exchange for having his daughter’s exam graded favorably enough to retain the scholarship.

Romeo is an unpleasant fellow who would probably bristle at such criticisms; he’s even praised at one point in the film for his spotless reputation and refusal to take bribes from patients in the past. He clearly thinks he’s doing what must be done for Maria, given that this is how Romania works and that other parents wouldn’t hesitate to call in favors or pay bribes to help their kids – especially to get their kids out of the dead-end cycle the film tells us is trapping everyday Romanians in a lower-class, hopeless life. A western education at a premium university is a ticket out, and even though Maria seems to be waffling in the wake of the attack and her commitment to her shiftless boyfriend Marius, Romeo commits himself to this path, convinced he’s doing the right thing even as the situation starts to worsen around him.

The entire movie seems to take place on cloudy days in a city where every color is some shade of gray and the dominant architectural aesthetic might charitably be described as communist chic. There’s construction, but to no apparent end, and the chaos of it creates the opportunity for Maria’s attacker. A minor subplot involves Romeo’s mistress’s young son, who has a disability and may do better in a specialized public school that has no openings because they’re all reserved for siblings of current students – or for those who have paid their way in. Another thread revolves around Romeo’s affair and how his wife reacts not to the infidelity itself, which she already knew about, but to Maria’s discovery of it. Romeo still seems unfazed by the changing attitudes of everyone around him, including his daughter’s own disdain for his attempts to use the system to benefit her, because he’s so thoroughly convinced of his own correctness. And while it’s easy to condemn him from the other side of the screen, what parent among us wouldn’t bend or break a rule to help our children?

The Snow Queen.

Joan Vinge’s The Snow Queen won the Hugo and Locus Awards for best novel in 1981, a book that is now the first in a series of four novels set on the world of Tiamat, where people are split into two races (“clans”), Summers and Winters, and travel to and from this planet from elsewhere in the universe is interrupted for long periods by the path of Tiamat’s sun around a nearby black hole. This self-contained novel focuses less on the Queen herself than on the two cousins, Moon and Sparks, whose destinies are intertwined with that of the Queen and the impending change in power from Winter to Summer.

Arienhrod is the reigning Snow Queen, but her reign will end with the coming shift to Summers and the close of the portal to the rest of colonized space provided by the black hole (which Vinge treats as a sort of wormhole). To try to preserve her power, she implants various women in the kingdom with embryonic clones, one of which will survive to become Moon. Moon and Sparks are cousins and lovers from childhood, both of whom strive to become “sibyls,” mystics who can tap into an unknown source of universal knowledge by entering a trance state when asked, but only Moon is able to do so, creating the first crack in the relationship between the two. Their paths eventually diverge, where Moon ends up off-world and appears to be permanently separated from Sparks and the rest of Tiamat, while Sparks rises quickly to a position as Arienhrod’s lover and consigliere, known as “Starbuck,” putting him on a collision course with Moon when the latter returns to Tiamat (itself named for the Babylonian sea goddess) and discovers the truth behind the planet’s source of immortality serum.

Based both on the folktale later made into a fable by Hans Christian Anderson fable and on Robert Graves’ book-length essay The White Goddess, The Snow Queen works better on a metaphorical-fabulist level than as a work of straight narrative, as neither Moon nor Sparks feels like a fully realized character, and Arienhrod, whatever she may have been prior to the events of this book, is just a narcissistic villain. The immortality serum is harvested from a sort of sea creature called a mer, and there are obvious parallels there to man’s quest for petroleum, for animal rights, and even for the way in which we dehumanize other races or religions to suit our own purposes. Moon herself is a clear nature versus nurture metaphor, one that I think is more relevant today as we learn more about how our genes determine our personalities as well as our appearances; she’s constantly confused for Arienhrod, but frequently must choose between using the power that confers and doing the ‘right’ thing for the people of Tiamat, even those who would otherwise do her harm.

The other strength of The Snow Queen is the fact that it has female characters at its center, even if they’re not all fully fleshed out; Moon is the real protagonist, a complex character fighting her own nature and ultimately handed the responsibility for the fate of an entire planet. Sparks is less three-dimensional, and unquestionably the weaker of the two cousins, pursuing power for its own sake and surrendering to an easier life that only requires that he ignore the moral questions around his choices. The society Vinge has created isn’t strictly matriarchal, but is egalitarian enough that she can populate it with strong women without lengthy explanation … which, for a sci-fi novel written in the late 1970s, was remarkable in and of itself. (She was the fourth woman to win the Hugo for Best Novel, and hers was just the fifth win for a woman author in the 28 awards to that date.)

Where The Snow Queen lacks something is in the story itself, which felt disconnected in several ways, and never really left me in any doubt about what would happen to Arienhrod at the end of the book. The event that puts Moon on a spacecraft heading off Tiamat and through the portal is a bit of a ridiculous coincidence, given how important that event and her newfound colleagues become in the later stages of the book. There’s a subplot around a female police officer who becomes commander on Tiamat for dubious reasons, creating a professional and personal journey that would have benefited from some expansion but that felt a little under-told because it was inherently secondary to the Moon-Sparks-Arienhrod plot thread. It moves, as Vinge’s writing is crisp enough to keep the story flowing, but I was never gripped or wrapped up in what might happen to the cousins.

Next up: I’ve just begin Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar, the second book in the Vorkogisan Saga and the first of her four Hugo-winning novels.

Stick to baseball, 2/10/18.

My one new piece for Insiders this week covers the Cubs signing Yu Darvish to a six-year deal. I also held a Klawchat on Thursday.

I reviewed the new, light strategy board game Majesty: For the Realm for Paste this week.

I’ve been sending out my free email newsletter a bit more regularly now that the prospect work is over. Also, Smart Baseball will be out in paperback on March 13th; you can pre-order it on amazon or elsewhere, although at the moment the hardcover version is about $1 cheaper.

And now, the links…

On Body and Soul.

On Body and Soul (Testről és lélekről) is one of the five nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the tenth time a Hungarian submission has made the final cut since they began submitting films in 1965. A film that alternates shockingly brutal imagery with a lyrical, otherworldly story about two of the shyest people you could imagine, the movie is a starmaking performance for actress Alexandra Borbély, who won the Best European Actress award in 2017 for her work here. It’s exclusively available on Netflix.

Borbély plays Maria, the new health inspector at a Hungarian cattle slaughterhouse, replacing the unseen Bori, who left early for maternity leave and appears by implication to have been a fairly lenient inspector. Maria is shy, lacks the ability to read social cues, and often seems emotionless to the workers at the facility, who make halfhearted attempts to connect with her. The factory’s CFO, Endre (Géza Morcsányi, a playwright in his first film role), is also shy and awkward, a well-meaning man who has lost the use of his left arm and keeps most of his colleagues at arm’s length. We realize before they do that the two of them are sharing the same dreams night after night, where each is a deer in a snowy forest, a fact that only becomes apparent to them when a theft at the factory leads to psychiatric interviews with all of the possible culprits. The discovery changes both of them, driving Maria to try to figure out how to relate to another person, while Endre rediscovers the sense of empathy he seems to have lost through years of disappointment.

Director/writer Ildikó Enyedi is unafraid to jar the audience with images of cattle being chained, killed, and bled, although many of these images have parallels to the strange journey of Maria and Endre, especially Maria. She has many aspects of a person with Asperger’s Syndrome or who is somewhere on the autism spectrum, although her condition is never named; these facets of her personality include extreme organization and cleanliness, which makes her perfect for her job … as long as she doesn’t have to interact with other people. Borbély, who had some TV experience and just three or four previous film roles, is marvelous in every way in this role, giving Maria both the affect-less expressions and intonations of a person who can’t read social cues or sense emotions in others, as well as the innocence, trepidation, and wonder of a child seeing or experiencing things for the first time. The role requires her to walk a tight rope to avoid Rain Man-like caricature without giving Maria too much emotion or sensibility, as if a relationship could ‘cure’ her. Even when the story hits its dramatic climax near the end, Borbély does not veer outside the character’s boundaries, reacting at one point in a matter-of-fact way to something awful that it became a darkly humorous moment instead.

Enyedi’s script offers a meditation on loneliness, especially for people who were, perhaps, not made for this world, like Maria, or who have grown tired of its letdowns, like Endre. Even with this utterly improbable link between them, the two find it difficult to communicate with or understand each other, and that disconnect threatens to leave them lonelier than they were before they discovered their shared experience. The script does lose steam a little in the final quarter of the film, because the setup is so strong – two people with no apparent connection are simultaneously dreaming the same dream, in an otherwise rational world where such a thing should be impossible. Resolving that story in an interesting way, other than simply having Maria fall into Endre’s arms, is difficult, and Enyedi gets it about halfway right. The big twist is also a bit predictable, and yet honest at the same time, because one character’s reaction to pull away from the other is understandable in the context of the film. I thought this would end up happening, but I also couldn’t tell you a more realistic resolution, either.

On Body and Soul won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival, as did Spirited Away, A Separation, and the 2016 documentary Fire at Sea; like A Separation, it also took the Grand prize at the Sydney Film Festival, so in theory it should have a reasonable chance at the Oscar. Instead, the betting site GoldDerby gives it the worst odds of the five nominees, with A Fantastic Woman considered the favorite – although neither that nor Loveless has played anywhere but New York or Los Angeles so far. Having seen four of the five Best Actress nominees, however, I will say Borbély more than deserved a nomination – it’s not unheard of, with Isabelle Huppert getting a nod for the French-language film Elle just last year – and I’d vote for her over both Meryl Streep and Saoirse Ronan.

Klawchat 2/8/18.

My latest game review for Paste covers Majesty: For the Realm, the newest board game from the designer of Splendor.

Keith Law: I’ve lived a thousand years and it never bothered me. Klawchat.

Bob W.: Curious: for your analyses, do you keep it simple with basic spreadsheet functionality only, or do you also use specialized analytical and statistical packages, as in B-school stats courses?
Keith Law: I don’t use any specialized software; if I had access to Statcast or Trackman data, then I would need to because of the sheer quantity of data involved.

Bill G: Thanks as always for your excellent work on the prospects. I am interested in your take on Jorge Lopez, who made your top 100 2 years ago and now has fallen completely off your lists. Do you believe he has a future in MLB, in what role? Thanks again!
Keith Law: Still think he’s a big league starter, maybe more of a back-end guy than I once believed. He had family issues that probably contributed to his 2016 season – a sick kid, I think? – but also I hope the Brewers learned not to send pitching prospects to Colorado Springs. No good comes of pitching there.

Rob: A couple months back in a chat you said ” I like music that’s interesting, that boasts something like strong melodies, intelligent lyrics, technical proficiency, new sounds or textures.” Have you ever done a deep dive on Regina Spektor? She’s got it all. Her middle albums are especially spectacular.
Keith Law: Deep, no, mostly because I haven’t loved enough of her singles for that. She does write great lyrics, though.

BE: Do you find the “you hate my team” comments more amusing or irritating? As a Tigers fan, its amazing how much negativity I read about you, even though you spent 5 pages of Smart Baseball supporting Tram and Lou.
Keith Law: Any fan, reader, or Twitter follower who accuses me of hating his favorite team is telling me one thing: He’s dumb. (It’s always men, BTW.) It’s truly a lack of intelligence – there’s no way I could do this job effectively if I carried actual biases against any organizations. And now, with nearly 12 years on the job, I have a sufficient body of work to point to positive and negative things I’ve said about every team. A bunch of Padre man-babies got all mad online because I said, repeatedly, that Trevor 28 WAR Hoffman was not worthy of being a Hall of Famer, and many accused me of anti-Padre bias, which 1) is silly as I’ve praised their farm system incessantly for two-plus years and 2) who the fuck would even bother to hate the Padres?
Keith Law: Ah, that felt good.

Thomas: Assuming he’s their starting third baseman, what should Tigers fans realistically expect from Jeimer Candelario this season?
Keith Law: High average, mediocre OBP, more doubles than homers, below average defense. Dude can put the bat on the ball, though.

Greg: Hi Keith,
Would be interested what players you would have on top of a list of hitters with the highest ceiling at least 2 plus years away from the majors. Yasel Antuna? R Rojas? Gabriel Arias?
Thanks for your work, only reason I just renewed insider.
Keith Law: That list would be dominated by guys on my top 100, though. You’re looking for deeper names than that, for which I’d suggest looking at the Sleeper I listed for each org. Those are usually players 2+ years away with big upsides; if I list someone closer, or with a more modest ceiling, it’s because the org is devoid of the type of player I’d prefer.

Greg: Which player would you Wander to if you had a choice?
Keith Law: Greg, even if I Wander, I’m keeping you in sight.

Rocky Mountain High: Whom do you expect to give more of a push to Arrenaudo in the future, Welker or Vilade? Not saying they take the job from him, but the guy that gives management thought about the next Rockies 3B.
Keith Law: Vilade. He might be a stud. Team USA staff loved him as a player and a person. I have generally gotten negative enough reports on Welker’s defense to think he at least has a chance to move off that position.

Scott : With the Mets making every possible roster move to banish the newly sculpted Dominic Smith to Vegas where he has already proven he can rake (and get himself out of shape), if you were running a rebuilding team would you be aggressive and make them an offer they can’t refuse?
Keith Law: Yes. I think he’s an obvious guy to target.

Dana: Would you hit Judge/Stanton/Sanchez 2-3-4 or break them up somehow with a lefty?
Keith Law: I think inserting a LHB for its own sake just ends up costing a better hitter at bats. If they were L-L-L, that would be a different story.

Kyle Tucker: Am I on the opening roster or do I come up in June? What should Astro fans expect of me ?
Keith Law: I would be surprised if you were up before September.

Philadelphia resident : Can you explain why people ruin their cities when they win a championship ?
Keith Law: Or when they lose. That’s the part I don’t get – they were going to riot and burn the city down either way. Oh, excuse me, they were going to overzealously celebrate the city down. We only call it a “riot” when it’s people of color.

Ben: Headed to Chicago in a couple weeks to see NGHFB. Any must-hit spots for food that one person can get into on short notice? Or any Chicago pizza recommendations?
Keith Law: New Girls Hit the Fuckin’ Block? Monteverde is my favorite restaurant in Chicago. Publican & their lunch offshoot are great. Any Rick Bayless place (Frontera is the flagship) will be excellent. They don’t serve pizza in Chicago – they serve bread with stuff on it.

Archie: I get the frustration of agents, however, how many of them would buy a Camry today because that is all they could afford without going into debt, instead of waiting until next year when they can buy a Ferrari with cash?
Keith Law: You have kind of hinted at the principal-agent problem, though.

Chris: Can the Mets get anything for Nimmo or Cecchini? I don’t see how their values improve with glut of players in majors at their positions for Mets.
Keith Law: Maybe a comparable fringe big leaguer – trade one of them for a useful bullpen piece or fifth starter?

Logic: I think the sports media is missing the actual dynamics of this years free agent market. If there is collusion, it’s with the agents not the owners. Agents, primarily Scott Boras have decided to let their players sit if they don’t get their customary irrational owner driven contracts. In addition, by doing this they can suggest collusion by owners due to the inactivity the agents are creating. Quite smart. Your thoughts
Keith Law: Disagree. Agents do talk – they’re allowed to – but I don’t think there’s this grand conspiracy either.

Evan: What do you think of the Todd Frazier deal?
Keith Law: Yawn. Really didn’t make much sense for the Mets, unless they just wanted to find another way to limit Dom’s playing time. And I don’t think Frazier’s one-year walk-rate spike is sustainable.

Amy: If the redsox sign JDM, when Pedroia is out, would it make sense to play JDM is LF, Benintendi in right (or center), and Mookie at 2nd? Hanley DH.
Keith Law: I legit thought you were going to suggest playing JDM at second. I may need some caffeine. (Also, Brock Holt probably ends up on the field somewhere there.)

Aaron C.: With the release of PECOTA projections this week, I have a *general* question: How should fans view projections? “For entertainment purposes only” or is there some underlying value for fans and/or analysts such as yourself?
Keith Law: Projections come with error bars, and PECOTA has long been explicit about things like best- or worst-case scenarios – here’s a stat line for this player that would be in the top 10% of outcomes for him, so it’s not likely, but an analysis of his past performance, physical details, and whatever other inputs they use says this is possible.

Gregory: Any suggestions on what to look for in a pressure cooker and in a kitchen scale (for cooking, coffee)?
Keith Law: My pressure cooker is nothing fancy – stovetop model, old-fashioned. I own two kitchen scales – one for larger measurements, and this smaller one for more precise measurements where a gram either way might matter (coffee grounds, yeast for baking):

Aaron C.: With the Padres’ prospects pail overflowing, are there decent odds that you’ll be making a trip to Lake Elsinore this year (where I can get my copies of “Smart Baseball” and Warren G’s debut album signed?
Keith Law: Probably not. That’s a cross-country trip now and I don’t generally do those for pro prospects. I’ll see some of their top guys in Peoria next month.

JJ: Keith, you seem bullish on the Red Sox’ Jason Groom, ranking him as your #30 prospect. However, the Red Sox have done a pretty lousy job in recent years when it comes to developing starting pitchers (where have you gone, Trey Ball?) — does that organizational weakness affect your view/ranking of Groome at all?
Keith Law: I say at the top of the rankings every year that they are team-agnostic. Any player can be traded at any time, and his ranking would not change. BTW, Ball’s issue wasn’t really on player development; he was projectable at 18 and just never got any extra velocity.

JJ: Like you, I’m not thrilled with the idea of Trevor Hoffman in the HOF, but that’s a moot point now. Mariano will undoubtedly coast in on his first ballot next year, but after that, who’s the next reliever to get in? Lee Smith, via Veterans’ Committee? Craig Kimbrel?
Keith Law: I am not supporting this in any way, shape, or form, but K-Rod has a pretty good case with Hoffman in, and so will Joe Nathan. Even if K-Rod doesn’t pitch again this year, he’ll still be 4th all time in saves, and we heard ad nauseum how impressive it was that Hoffman was 2nd. There’s a difference of about 100 IP and 4 WAR between Hoffman and K-Rod right now. I would never, ever vote for Rodriguez, but his argument became plausible with Hoffman in.

Dan: Pirates made some retooling type trades instead of reloads, but there doesn’t seem to be enough talent in place to compete in the short or medium term. What do you think? I feel like they’re counting on more guys stepping up than is reasonable to assume.
Keith Law: I felt like they went more towards rebuild, but the two guys they traded were seen as flawed assets in the market.

Ben: When you’re on the road and eating on your own do you make a reservation or just try to walk-in places? I always wonder how you get into all the best spots!
Keith Law: I walk in and tell the maitre d’, “Do you know who I am?” Then s/he usually says, “Do you know who *I* am?” and I ask meekly if there’s a seat at the bar.

Rex: Hey Keith, thanks for doing this chat. To what degree do you consider the federal deficit to be a problem? If you could decide how to address, what are some measures you’d take?
Keith Law: The growth of the deficit is a major problem, but a truly balanced budget is both unrealistic and perhaps a poor policy decision anyway. Eventually, however, we will lose some of our seemingly infinite borrowing power.
Keith Law: And that could have all sorts of nasty consequences, including stagflation or economic contraction.

Tony: Do you think Andujar will be good enough to prevent the Yanks from going after Machado next year?
Keith Law: I love Andujar, but he’s not Machado good.

Adam: If you did a Top 150, which team do you think would have the most prospects on the list?
Keith Law: Atlanta had the most on my top 100; I would not give a different answer here without doing the entire exercise.

David: Does any data exist indicating the value of splitting up handedness of a starting rotation or is any perceived benefit strictly anecdotal?
Keith Law: Anecdotal. And likely bunk.

Noah: Will there be a strike? Feels like there is so much momentum towards one
Keith Law: They just signed a new CBA a year ago. There isn’t going to be a strike until that’s over.

DealsDealsDeals: What are Blue Jays fans to make of Danny Jansen? Being anointed the Jay’s Catcher of the Future is a lot like being Spinal Tap’s drummer.
Keith Law: Good chance he really is their catcher of the future, everyday guy with more bat than defensive skills, biggest flaw has been trouble staying healthy (at a position not conducive to keeping oneself off the DL).

Andy: Say you’re given the power to fix baseball. You can’t abolish the draft, get rid of commercials, or fire any owners into the sun. What actual changes can be made to even out the power dynamic between players and owners or improve the game? Is it as simple as just calling a better strike zone, granting free agency earlier, and getting rid of spending caps?
Keith Law: Still think you can reduce the time required for pitching changes, perhaps running ads on the screen without breaking completely for commercials. Players used to fight for earlier arbitration and/or free agency, but seem to have dropped or deprioritized that in this last round. Perhaps that was their big mistake.

John: I recently finished your book, and enjoyed it very much. Question – if statcast allows us to measure how far a player travels from crack of the bat until the out, wouldn’t that fail to capture a Ripken-style skill?
Keith Law: I’m not sure what the skill here is.

Nick: Hey Keith, I really enjoyed the new prospect coverage. I’m curios about a guy I did not see on there…what are your thoughts on Rays catcher Ronaldo Hernandez? What’s the upside? Is there breakout potential?
Keith Law: He’s outside of their top 20. One of many interesting, check-back-in-a-year types, but not someone I would tab as a breakout candidate or that the org themselves pushed as a top 15-20 guy. (I talk to people from every club to get their own thoughts and sometimes internal rankings of players.)

john w: i know you don’t compare your lists to that of competitors (and that is totally fine and understandable!). but i was wondering what your thoughts on the value of computer-driven prospect lists, like dan’s at espn. not asking you to attack him or anything, just wondering how you see a list like that and what you take from it. thanks for all the great stuff.
Keith Law: I think they’re useful because they’re different.

Jay: based on what you saw last year is Miguel Cabrera done or was he injured?
Keith Law: Probably hurt.

Jimmy: Cubs win Central fairly easily this year?
Keith Law: No, Jimmy from Chicago

Erich: I am curious as to your position on meat consumption and big business agriculture in the world. We could make as big of an impact regarding climate change and emissions by changing the way we eat compared to changing our energy and transportation, yet we only ever hear about the energy/transportation. This isn’t even considering the rain forest destruction. Why do you think this is? Would it be viewed as an attack on farmers if someone said “we need to eat less meat and dairy to help sustainability feed a planet that will soon have 10 billion people?”
Keith Law: That might be the most unrealistic proposal of all. If we solve our climate change problems, and there’s a damn good chance we don’t, it’s not going to come from convincing 2-3 billion people who are accustomed to eating meat once or twice a day to give it up while also convincing another 2-3 billion people who rarely eat meat but view it as a symbol of wealth or prosperity that they didn’t really want it after all.

Tyler: What would you say is the breakdown of how you get evalutations players? e.g. 50% in person, 30% talking with other evaluators, 20% stats/metrics? Apologies if you’ve given this breakdown before.
Keith Law: There is no answer to that. It differs for each player.

Jaipur rules: Rather than a six year $150 million offer to Darvish/Arrieta do you think someone like the Cubs should look into trading a decent prospect to the Dbacks and take on Greinke and say 75% of his remaining contract? Arizona could potentially resign JD then. Not sure how much Greinke has left in the tank.
Keith Law: If the Dbacks want to contend again this year, they have to keep Greinke. I don’t see them being competitive without him, because any trade would likely be one to shed his salary rather than bringing back talent.

Jesse: Your thoughts on the game Broom Service? I love the cowardly/brave mechanic but it has never gone over well when I bring it out on a games night.
Keith Law: I think it’s fun and very clever, but we find its length is a little tough for weeknight play.

Sparhawk: What does Joey Wentz need to do in order to establish himself as one of the best LHP prospects?
Keith Law: He made my top 100. He’s already one of the best LHP prospects.

mike sixel: I understand that long term deals stink at the end, generally, but they are often good for the team at the beginning…..from a $/WAR stance. If teams are really going to balk at long term deals, which we’ll see probably isn’t true still this spring and next year, won’t they almost “have” to pay more on an AAV basis? If I was an agent, that would be my argument.
Keith Law: The $/WAR stuff is so overblown – getting a ‘good deal’ is nice, but if your team isn’t in a position to capitalize on those marginal wins, then … you got a nice deal, congrats? If I were running a team within range of a wild-card spot or division title, I’d be less concerned about getting the most efficient deal specifically and more about getting the marginal wins I need to get into the playoffs. So I’d be fine overpaying on an AAV basis – and if anything I’d overpay in the short-term to try to get one or two fewer years at the end of the contract, when, as you said, most of them have long gone bad.

Andrew: Can you explain what is meant when a pitcher is described as athletic?
Keith Law: It means he’s a good athlete. I am a bit befuddled by your question. There’s no secondary connotation here – some pitchers are good athletes, some are not. I like good athletes in general because I think they can repeat their mechanics and have more physical potential to make adjustments.

JJ: You’re understandably down on Ray and Rutherford”s prospectness. What do you think they need to do to get back on course/do you think they can make those corrections?
Keith Law: Ray needs a stance/setup overhaul. Rutherford just didn’t impact the ball at all last year. Not sure how to fix that one.

Kay: Frazier at $8.5 million is a steal right? The average has to come up some and he seems to have no other obvious flaws as a player.
Keith Law: Why does the average “have to come up some?” He didn’t hit for average at all in 2016 and was only a little better in 2014. I think there’s a good chance he’s just a sub-.240 hitter now.

Tyler: I’ve been wanting to get into board games for quite awhile and finally convinced my friend group to try Catan. We all loved it! I know you put out your list of top board games, but what are 2-3 other “beginner” games like Catan?
Keith Law: Carcassonne, Splendor, Ticket to Ride are all good ‘gateway’ games that still hold up even though I’ve probably played 200+ other games since I got into the hobby.

Eric: Keith, loyal insider subscriber here. I know the draft is far off and nobody knows this but do you think Nolan Gorman makes it to the Padres pick at 7? I would love to see them add another impact bat to go with all of the developing arms. Thanks for all your work.
Keith Law: He’s a great prospect but nobody has any idea where players are going.

Tom: Assuming Moniak returns to Lakewood, would you advance Haseley to keep him in CF?
Keith Law: I would, but I don’t know if Moniak is returning to Lakewood. I think it would help him, and keep Haseley on track, and if Haseley rakes in Clearwater you just move them both up.

Tom: Have you used Chris Bianco’s cookbook? Do you have any thoughts on it?
Keith Law: I own it – I received an advance copy from the publisher – and it’s beautiful with some very fun writing (if you’ve ever heard Chris talk, you can ‘hear’ him while you read it), but the non-pizza recipes have not worked out well for me at all. I don’t think they were sufficiently tested.

Chris: Vimael Machin, SS in the Cubs’ system, is he anything more than just an org guy?
Keith Law: He’s not a shortstop – only played 6 games at short last year – and was 23 in low-A. Just an org guy.

Darren: Hello Keith,
Sorry to hear you and your daughter had to quit red meat, but hopefully you will be better for it. My wife and I stopped eating meat months ago and now we are both off medications, lost weight without trying, have less pain and just feel better in every way. I found quitting meat was much easier than I expected. For people that have time to cook and prepare good healthy food it is well worth it. As for money, you may spend more on healthy food but we save money and time on medication and doctor visits. Best decision I ever made, even better than getting Acuna for a buck last year in my roto league.
Keith Law: We couldn’t trace eating beef (which is what we gave up, not all red meat) to any specific medical issues, but given our metabolic disorder, it seemed worth trying to see if our shared sense that we felt lousy after eating it was real and not just psychosomatic (or guilt-induced). I miss it sometimes, but less than I expected. Mostly when I go to Shake Shack.

Drew: If the Twins were to opt for a trade as a way to get SP help would a Kepler/Gordon package for Archer be enough and/or a good use of their resources?
Keith Law: My guess is the Rays would insist on more, probably Romero too. Although Gordon fits the Rays’ m.o. of acquiring shortstops who don’t project to stay at shortstop.

Eric: Tirson Ornelas turns 18 in March and he would likely be a high school senior if he had grown up in America. If he was in this year’s draft class, how would he stack up against this year’s class and what round do you think he would go in?
Keith Law: First rounder. Billy McKinney was a first-rounder even though he was a fringy runner limited to LF, because everyone loved his swing. Ornelas can play RF and has more pop, plus one of my favorite swings in the minors.

Darren: How would you rank?
Brent Rooker Peter Alonso Lewin Diaz
Keith Law: Just like that.

Benjy: For someone who says they weren’t going to watch the Super Bowl, you sure had a bunch of tweets about it.
Keith Law: Virtually none of which were about the game, Lassie. And my wife wanted the game on; I don’t dictate what other family members get to watch just because I might prefer something else.

Justin R: Is it fair to say regardless of how free agency shakes out that the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, Astros, Nationals, Cubs, and Dodgers are playoff locks for 2018?
Keith Law: Anyone discussing “playoff locks” right now is probably asking for fate to prove them very, very wrong. If you give me that prop bet on those seven teams making the playoffs I will gladly take the other side of it.

Moltar: I know you’re “out” on the show but I miss your top chef recaps.
Keith Law: Thank you – I appreciate the kind words from folks who say they miss them, but I do not miss losing the 2-3 hours a week those posts required.

Darren: Hey Keith,
Thoughts on Richard Urena? Even if Tulo wasn’t signed into the next millennium do you see him being a starting SS? Thanks.
Keith Law: He’s in my Blue Jays org report. Plenty of detail there.

Karolyn: If you were Theo, what would you offer Darvish or Jake? At some point they are going to have to accept a 3-4 year deal, right?
Keith Law: I would take either guy on a 4-year deal; I wonder if GMs are holding especially firm on pitcher contracts because there’s been such a bad history of longer deals, and everyone has known this for a while now, but there would always be one or two GMs (or owners) who would come and Leeroy Jenkins the whole market by saying “SEVEN YEEEEEEEEEARS!”

JD: A number of evaluators, including yourself, have tagged Forrest Whitley’s weight at 240. About a month ago he tweeted that he hadn’t been 240 in years and was 195. Because his size and conditioning has been part of the discussion of him as a prospect, does it make a difference? If he’s 195 does that mean he’s taking conditioning seriously? Or does it just take forever to recalibrate when a player loses weight. Joe Musgrove is still listed at the 265 he was when i saw him in short season A but clearly changed his body which made a big difference when he started rising up the Astros system.
Keith Law: I go with official heights and weights from the teams themselves. As long as Whitley is in good shape, I don’t really care if he’s 195 or 235. He’s 6’7″; “fat” for him is going to be a bigger number.

Jeff: Agents never dump clients. What did Puig do?
Keith Law: Nothing would surprise me with that guy. The rumors have been … hard to believe over the years.

Azam Farooqui: Have you read Nicholas Taleb’s tweet’s about skin in the game? He seems to be very critical of academics, do you have any thoughts?
Keith Law: Taleb the Assad-supporting, pseudoscience-touting racist? Yeah, hard pass on that one. I don’t follow him. It’s a shame, as The Black Swan was an entertaining read.

TJ: How was no one able to beat 2 for 17 for the Toddfather? Do you think the Yankees will seriously roll the dice with Andujar?
Keith Law: No one wanted to beat 2 for 17, understandably so given his low batting averages and age.

Eric: So the Braves didn’t trade their upper level SP depth again this offseason. At what point have they missed the opportunity and some of these arms will blow out or lose value?
Keith Law: I think some of them would gain value if they got closer to the majors/pitched better in the majors.

Justin: Klaw,

Non-spoiler Top Chef note. On an episode last week they highlighted a chef that kept “charged” crystals in his pockets as an energy source. It’s not bad enough that people actually believe this crap but they have to include it in an episode so some people can just accept this as fact?
Keith Law: I have heard – but not seen – that this season also featured that Youtube clown Logan Paul as a guest judge, and that one episode featured nachos as a winning dish. I feel like I might have picked a good season to skip.

John Liotta: What are the most well-known books/authors that you have yet to read? I would guess, based on comments over the years, one would be Ayn Rand (good choice). Beyond a reading challenge, what will eventually compel you to finally breakdown and read any of these?
Keith Law: Never read Rand, never will. Never read any Stephen King, either. Some famous novels I haven’t read: David Copperfield, Daniel Deronda, Clarissa, Pilgrim’s Progress, The Plague, Finnegan’s Wake. Probably more non-fiction classics I haven’t read, especially those that tend toward academic/reference work rather than narrative style.

TJ: You have been very open on your support for board games – are you a chess player at all?
Keith Law: I know how to play, but I play it very poorly.

Jay: Enjoyed your book! I’ve always been a stats person but was able to see things in a different perspective. Do you see Michael A. Taylor as a legit RF option for 2-3 years if Bryce leaves and they keep Soto? The defense could be incredible with Robles in CF and Eaton in LF.
Keith Law: Don’t think MAT has the OBP skills for RF. Agreed on defense, though.

John: In years past, I would try to measure who was the best defensive CF in the game, and it would vary from stat to stat. This past year, it kinda looks like Buxton stands out above all of them. Is that your assessment?
Keith Law: Yes, I think he’s the best. An 80 defender, 80 runner, huge arm strength, and not bad at the plate.

John S: it seems that if Franchy Cordero resolves his contact/pitch recognition skills he should be an above-average regular. not that the development is likely, but where do you think the experiment should take place SD or El Paso? it’s not as if the Padres are harming their chances of winning by playing him every day in LF.
Keith Law: I agree it’s unlikely, but I’m hoping he becomes part of that outfield rotation this year. El Paso probably won’t do much to advance his approach.

Yinka Double Dare: You must hate my team, I didn’t see a top 10 prospects for Mystery Team.
Keith Law: They wouldn’t take my calls.

TomahawkCruiseMissile: Does Rhys Hoskins have a chance to be as good of a LF as Kyle Schwarber?
Keith Law: I would say yes. Low bar, though.

Rick C: There’s some video on Twitter of Kyle Muller hitting 95mph off the mound, working with Driveline Baseball. Do you have any concerns with pitchers putting in the type of offseason work they might be doing?
Keith Law: I don’t have enough information or knowledge to be concerned. I know Driveline has posted videos of guys throwing very hard but in non-baseball conditions (different ball, for example).

sage: Most racist city you’ve personally visited?
Keith Law: Tough to say with visits, but I spent two academic years in Pittsburgh in the late 1990s and was floored by how segregated the city is and by the casual if subtle racism of the residents I encountered. There was no chance I was staying there after graduating – too grey, really – but that did not help.

Dr. Bob: Don’t know if you saw this, but I loved Derrick Goold’s simple answer to the question as to why the FA market is so slow: “Math.”
Keith Law: He’s not wrong.

Jshep12: Do you watch any college baseball? If so what are your thoughts on their continued use of metal bats? Is it just to expensive for them to use wooden bats or is the skill level there just not high enough?
Keith Law: That’s part of my job, yes. The bat manufacturers make sure the colleges use metal bats, even though wood bats would improve the product and help players get ready for pro ball.

Danny: Do you expect the Yankees to move Loasigia somewhat aggressively through the system (AA ball by season’s end?) because he’s already on the 40 man and does that necesitate a move to the bullpen?
Keith Law: Yes to the former, no to the latter. Starter potential there. You have three years before he has to be on the 25-man, and that should be plenty of time.

John S: any interest in going to Monterrey to see the Dodgers – Padres series? I feel like I’m the only one going which makes me wonder about the site selection.
Keith Law: In theory, sure, although it’s probably outside the scope of my job. If they play overseas again, I’d be more interested because I think there are non-baseball angles to cover.

Kay: Is is odd that I’m kind of encouraged by the raw talent in the Mets minors still? Desmond Lindsay and Justin Dunn are still young, raw, talented prospects who had rough years. Szapucki coming back from TJ, three legit LHP starter prospects…and a high pick this year. Not so bad
Keith Law: It’s just not that bad a system if they get everyone healthy. Lindsay had a vision issue, and then got hurt about six weeks after he got new goggles and started hitting. Considering how little they’ve gotten back in trades, I think the system is fine. They could just use some better luck this year – them and Colorado, who also had a ridiculous year of dudes getting hurt.

SJ: Do you see Zach Granite ever hitting enough to be a starter? If so, is his ceiling Kevin Pillar or more Kiermaier/someone else?
Keith Law: I don’t.

Joey Bagodonuts: Will you be doing a writeup of the Lincecum showcase? Seriously, though, if his velocity is back in the low 90s, he can be a decent pen option, can’t he? As long as he doesn’t face anyone more than once?
Keith Law: Sure, but I’d be shocked if he were throwing that hard.

SJ: Seems like Amir Garrett’s rough 2017 is attributed to pitching through a hip injury. If he’s healthy, how do you see him performing going forward?
Keith Law: Very good reliever potential, fourth starter-ish if he stays in the rotation.

John: Suppose Edgar and Trammell get into the Hall. Who do you suppose is the next cause celebre for the analytically minded?
Keith Law: Trammell’s in. Whitaker for the Vets committee clownshow, Mussina for the BBWAA.

SJ: Do you think Teoscar Hernandez ends up outplaying Grichuk/Granderson/etc to take a starting job at some point this year?
Keith Law: I think he has the best chance to become a full-time OF of that group.

Germolene: Following up on the Bayless eateries, were you able to try Frontera Cocina at Disney? We went last year, and it was amazing.
Keith Law: Yes, limited menu compared to Chicago but everything was excellent. Went twice. Even the margaritas were excellent and that’s not usually my drink of choice.

Jebby: As a vet, the worst thing about dog-and-ponies like parades is the opportunity cost. Even ignoring the explicit $ cost, all of the time sucked away from training and put toward rehearsals, inspections, and meetings…great way to convince airmen/marines/soldiers/sailors that the mission is secondary.
Keith Law: I would have given the same answer six months ago, but after reading The Body Keeps the Score, I’m even more incensed at how poorly we treat veterans who come home with PTSD. Trauma physically alters the brain. We asked these kids to go overseas and we owe them every possible medical resource to help them recover from the trauma to which they were exposed. You can keep your jingoistic, Leni Riefenstahl-inspired pomp and circumstance. I say put the same funds into training and deploying mental health specialists here for the veterans and around the world for soldiers on assignment.
Keith Law: That’s all for this week – thank you all as always for all of your questions. Sorry I didn’t get to more of them. I’m starting some early draft work, including a top 30 ranking for some time in the next two weeks, and of course will be busy cranking through Oscar nominated films before the awards next month. I should be back for another chat next Thursday as well. Enjoy your weekends!

Phantom Thread.

Phantom Thread is a meticulous film, by turns grim and grinning, featuring a tour de force performance from Daniel Day-Lewis (his final role, if you believe that sort of thing) where he’s matched line for line by the two actresses playing against him. It’s also kind of bonkers, as the three characters move in unconventional ways, forging subtle alliances with each other only to surprise the viewer with reactions that shred the clichéd plot devices we’ve all come to expect, even from ‘smart’ films.

Day-Lewis plays the hilariously-named fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, who makes the highest of high-end dresses for the elites of London in the 1950s, operating the House of Woodcock with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), to whom he refers as “Old So-and-So.” When the film opens, we see the two of them at breakfast with a third woman, who is clearly in love with Reynolds but who is exasperated with him ignoring her in favor of his art. While en route to a house in the country, he stops for breakfast and is taken with the waitress who serves him, Alma (Vicky Krieps), inviting her to dinner and quickly moving to install her in his house as his muse. When he tries to run roughshod over her as he apparently has with previous women in her station, however, Alma gives as good as she gets, creating a seesawing battle of wills between the two of them, Cyril, and the ever-present spectre of Reynolds’ late, beloved mother. Alma reaches the point where, presumably, her predecessors have left the house or been steered out by Cyril, but instead takes the initiative in drastic fashion, making Reynolds depend on her while shifting both the balance of power and the audience’s perception of her as the ingenue under the thumb of the great master.

There is enough going on beneath the surface of this film to fill a joint thesis for a psychology and English literature degree. Reynolds sews ‘secrets’ into the linings of his dresses, and reveals to Alma early in the film that he keeps a lock of his mother’s hair sewn into his jacket – over his “breast.” He’s a manipulative bully to Alma, and speaks to everyone in tightly clipped tones that imply some deep repression. His fastidious nature may not be affect, but where everyone around him treats his idiosyncrasies as the mercurial nature of the great artist, Alma pierces his armor and even tells Cyril that he’s “too fussy,” which understates the matter just a bit. I can’t imagine that Woodcock’s surname was some accidental reference, nor do I think the choice of Alma (which means “soul” in three Romance languages, deriving from the Latin word almus, meaning “kind” or “nourishing”) was inadvertent. Cyril bears a man’s name that means “lord,” and she certainly rules the House of Woodcock and her brother’s life while brooking no dissent. And do we need to go into detail about the symbolism of the asparagus in one of the movie’s most pivotal scenes?

Some details in Phantom Thread don’t quite ring true on their own, and Anderson relies on the immersive nature of the world he’s created to help the viewer skate past some of those moments. Reynolds’ order at the restaurant where Alma works is hilariously long and detailed, especially since we’ve just seen him getting dressed and thus seen how slight he is, almost looking gaunt. But Anderson manages to make some of these less than credible details work because of the compelling, three-dimensional characters he’s created at the heart of the film. Would Alma truly take that diabolical step to bind Reynolds to her? Would he then make the choice he does at the end of the film when he realizes what’s happening? Is this actually love between the two of them, or some sort of mad obsession – not with each other, at least not in the traditional romantic-sexual sense, but with their pursuit of a shared ideal of life and work and a union where all boundaries between the two of them are utterly erased? (If you’ve already seen the film, check out The Cut’s excellent Q&A with a psychotherapist about the Reynolds-Alma relationship.)

Day-Lewis is superb, as he always is, infusing this perplexing, often childish character with an undeniable charisma that helps explain the way women fawn over him throughout the film. There’s no surprise here, given his body of work to date, but Manville (nominated for Best Supporting Actress) and Krieps both deliver stellar performances that allow their characters to stand against him. Either was worthy of a nomination, but Manville does a bit more with less dialogue than Krieps gets, and by the end of the film, Cyril remains the most impenetrable character. Manville likely has zero chance of a win – her competition includes Laurie Metcalf for Lady Bird and Allison Janney for I, Tonya – but I wouldn’t count Day-Lewis out completely, given that some voters may hold favorite Gary Oldman’s anti-#MeToo comments against him. Similarly, Anderson seems like an underdog in the Best Director category, but he’d be more than deserving, and only Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk) seems to have had more influence as a director on his film than Anderson did here.

As for Best Picture … I’d have a very hard time choosing among the nine nominees. The best movie I saw from 2017 remains The Florida Project, which did not receive a nomination, losing out to the blank space the Academy always leaves in the tenth slot. I’d put Phantom Thread in the top three of the nominees, along with Dunkirk and The Shape of Water, just ahead of Call Me By Your Name. Just don’t hold me to that opinion yet.

The Hidden Brain.

I’ve become a huge fan of the NPR prodcast The Hidden Brain, hosted by Shankar Vedantam, a journalist whose 2010 book The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives spawned the podcast and a regular radio program on NPR. Covering how our subconscious mind influences our decisions in ways that traditional economists would call ‘irrational’ but modern behavioral economists recognize as typical human behavior, Vedantam’s book is a great introduction to this increasingly important way of understanding how people act and think.

Vedantam walks the reader through these theories via concrete examples, much as he now does in the podcast – this week’s episode, “Why Now?” about the #MeToo movement and our society’s sudden decision to pay attention to these women, is among its best. Some of the stories in the book are shocking and/or hard to believe, but they’re true and serve to emphasize these seemingly counterintuitive concepts. He discusses a rape victim who had focused on remembering details about her attacker, and was 100% sure she’d correctly identified the man who raped her – but thirteen years after the man she identified was convicted of the crime, a DNA test showed she was wrong, and she then discovered a specific detail she’d overlooked at the time of the investigation because no one asked her the ‘right’ question. This is a conscientious, intelligent woman who was certain of her memories, and she still made a mistake.

Another example that particularly stuck with me was how people react in the face of imminent danger or catastrophe. Just before the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the sea receded from coastal areas, a typical feature before a tidal wave hits. Vedantam cites reports from multiple areas where people living in those regions “gathered to discuss the phenomenon” and “asked one another what was happening,” instead of running like hell for high ground. Similar reports came from the World Trade Center after 9/11. People in those instances didn’t rely on their instincts to flee, but sought confirmation from others nearby – if you don’t run, maybe I don’t need to run either. In this case, he points to the evolutionary history of man, where staying with the group was typically the safe move in the face of danger; if running were the dominant, successful strategy for survival, that would still be our instinct today. It even explains why multiple bystanders did not help Deletha Word, a woman who was nearly beaten to death in a road-rage incident on the packed Belle Isle bridge in Detroit in 1996 – if no one else helped her, why should I?

Vedantam’s writing and speaking style offers a perfect blend of colloquial storytelling and evidence-based arguments. He interviews transgender people who describe the changes attitudes they encounter between before and after their outward appearances changed. (One transgender man says, “I can even complete a whole sentence [post-transition] without being interrupted by a man.) And he looks at data on racial disparities in sentencing convicted criminals to death – including data that show darker-skinned blacks are more likely to receive a death sentence than lighter-skinned blacks.

The last chapter of The Hidden Brain came up last week on Twitter, where I retweeted a link to a story in the New York Times from the wife of a former NFL player, describing her husband’s apparent symptoms of serious brain trauma. One slightly bizarre response I received was that this was an “appeal to emotion” argument – I wasn’t arguing anything, just sharing a story I thought was well-written and worth reading – because it was a single datum rather than an extensive study. Vedantam points out, with examples and some research, that the human brain does much better at understanding the suffering of one than at understanding the suffering of many. He tells how the story of a dog named Hokget, lost in the Pacific on an abandoned ship, spurred people to donate thousands of dollars, with money coming from 39 states and four countries. ( An excerpt from this chapter is still online on The Week‘s site.) So why were people so quick to send money to save one dog when they’re so much less likely to send money when they hear of mass suffering, like genocide or disaster victims in Asia or Africa? Because, Vedantam argues, we process the suffering of an individual in a more “visceral” sense than we do the more abstract suffering of many – and he cites experimental data from psychologist Paul Slovic to back it up.

The Hidden Brain could have been twice as long and I would still have devoured it; Vedantam’s writing is much like his podcast narration, breezy yet never dumbed down, thoroughly explanatory without becoming dense or patronizing. If you enjoy books in the Thinking Fast and Slow or Everybody Lies vein, you’ll enjoy both this title and the podcast, which has become one of my go-to listens to power me through mindless chores around the house.

Downbelow Station.

I have a new board game review up at Paste, covering Majesty: For the Realm, the latest game from Splendor designer Marc Andre.

C.J. Cherryh was one of the last Hugo-winning authors I hadn’t read – it was just her and the two authors of The Forever Machine, widely considered the worst novel to win that award – before I cracked Downbelow Station, her 1981 book that opened her ongoing Company Wars series. I believe there’s an interesting story somewhere buried in this novel, but the atrocious writing and generic characterization just ruined the work, making it one of the most difficult novels in this series for me to finish.

Set in the years 2352-53, after an entity known as The Company has set up a network of space stations in various solar systems beyond our own, mostly orbiting planets without intelligent life. The action in the book takes place entirely on the planet Pell, both on the planet’s surface, known as Downbelow, and its space station, known by Pell’s native species, the hisa, as Upabove. The stations beyond Pell are in revolt against the Company, and Pell embarks on a futile course of neutrality between the new federation, called simply Union, and the Company, aided by a group of merchanter ships called the Fleet. The War itself has been ongoing for some time before the book opens, although we get very little of its history, other than the arrival of several ships packed with refugees on Pell, where they’re put in Q (for quarantine) and kind of left to fend for themselves because the station can’t handle this volume of new residents.

Pell is run by the Konstantin family, including Angelo, his invalid (but very alert) wife Alicia, and their sons Damon and Emilio, all of whom are opposed by the Lukas family, led by Jon, who has run operations on Downbelow for some indeterminate period. Jon Lukas is Alicia’s brother, but plots to work with Union to save his own skin in exchange for control of Pell. Meanwhile, a soldier from the Fleet ship Norway, Josh Talley, shows up on Pell and demands the treatment known as Adjustment, which wipes a person’s memory and is usually used as punishment for severe crimes. Norway itself is captained by Mallory Signy, the closest thing this book has to an interesting character, and one of the only women of any consequence within it – perhaps because Cherryh took a dim view of the pace of progress in equal rights back in the 1980s. The intrigues between the Konstantins and Lukas’ team of mutineers, the Company and the Union, the Fleet among itself and against Pell, the Fleet against Union, Talley against who-knows-who, and then the Union commander Azov against the Fleet leader Mazian except Mazian doesn’t know he’s being played.

It was never clear to me what the point of any of this was – what larger story or theme Cherryh might be trying to express here. The characters could not be less interesting; everyone is either unequivocally good or bad, with the possible exception of Signy. The hisa themselves are impossibly kind and sweet beings, less technologically advanced than humans but capable of similar levels of cognition; because they’re all so good, however, there’s no distinguishing between any of the hisa (or “Downers,” as some of the humans call them) who play significant roles in the plot. And you can easily figure out which humans are bad by how they treat the hisa – Lukas and his myrmidons treat them like something akin to slaves, less-than-human laborers whose inability to understand hate or violence just makes them inferior. The Konstantins treat the hisa with empathy and kindness, and the hisa reciprocate – mild spoiler, that relationship becomes very important near the end of the book – so you know the Konstantins are the good guys.

The other major problem with Downbelow Station is Cherryh’s leaden prose; for a book that had a fair amount of dialogue and action, it moves incredibly slowly, in part because Cherryh writes in a stilted, clipped style that often dispenses with critical parts of speech or lapses into the internal vernacular of the book without warning or any kind of explanation. The space station around Pell is apparently the size of a small city, and has a secondary network of tunnels used by the hisa who work on the station, but the descriptions thereof are so lacking that even after completing the book, I don’t have a good picture of how it looked or how the structure might have been organized.

Cherryh won the Hugo for another novel in the series, Cyteen, about another station in her universe where embryos are grown in a lab and ‘manufactured’ to be soldiers capable of undertaking specialized operations. I can only hope her writing improved by the time she wrote that book.

Next up: I’m reading David Brin’s Startide Rising, which won the Hugo two years after Downbelow Station.

Darkest Hour.

Darkest Hour seems to have made a late push in awards season, landing a Best Picture nomination that I think would have been a total shock to reviewers back in November, as the consensus was that Gary Oldman was great as Winston Churchill but the movie itself was just fair. That might even be generous – this is kind of a bad movie around a good performance boosted by great makeup, and utterly hokey in so many spots that I’d warn anyone unfamiliar with the true history of that period away from the movie because it’ll give them the wrong idea.

The story takes place in May of 1940, as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the champion of the appeasement policy that handed the Sudetenland to Adolf Hitler because dictators are always satisfied with modest gains, loses a vote of no confidence in Parliament and resigns his position, creating a vacuum that is filled by the adipose, sodden Winston Churchill, a choice that seems to satisfy nobody. The King is terrified of Churchill’s unpredictable mouth, while members of Churchill’s own party doubt him based on his own history of questionable policy choices. Churchill takes the reins just as Belgium is about to fall, as is France’s Maginot line, which leads to the events that begin the far superior film Dunkirk. Over the course of Darkest Hour, Churchill must decide whether to negotiate terms with the Nazis or to resolve to fight, knowing that the Germans would likely attempt to invade Britain, all while dealing with duplicity from within his own party, including a very British coup attempt by Lord Halifax.

You know how it ends – Churchill declines to negotiate, arguing that Hitler would never adhere to any terms; he orders the civilian effort to evacuate the British troops trapped at Dunkirk, which succeeds beyond any expectations; and the Germans begin the bombing of London known as the Blitz. It was a decisive point in the war, and given Hitler’s decisions to wipe his ass with other treaties and agreements he’d made with the Allies, the right one in hindsight. What we get here, though, isn’t true or even particularly fair to anyone, including Churchill, whom Oldman portrays as addled enough by liquor that you could wring him out. The process involved in getting to this decision may have been ad hoc, as portrayed in the film, but the climactic scene, set in a subway car, is a complete fabrication, dripping with British jingoism and seasoned with a heavy dose of political correctness as well. It’s as subtle as a children’s story, and less reliable too.

Oldman is very good as Churchill, and truly unrecognizable under the prosthetics, makeup, and accent – he disappears into the role in a literal sense, as well as a figurative one. Oldman is a very talented actor whose work I’ve long admired, including his turn as the iconic George Smiley in 2011’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and, of course, his creation of an iconic film character in his role as Sirius Black. Here, though, it’s hard to separate the impression from the performance; he’s so busy doing the voice, the walk, the bug-out eyes that I found myself questioning whether the praise heaped upon him was more a function of how much he looks and sounds like the modern impression of Churchill. (If you can’t picture any of this, think “drunk Alfred Hitchcock” and you’re about 90% of the way there.)

The generally incredible cast here is otherwise wasted on silly or trivial roles. Kristin Scott-Thomas plays Churchill’s too-perfect wife and seems to be here primarily to look old and humanize the Prime Minister. Lily James plays a real person who was Churchill’s assistant, but didn’t take that job until well after the events of the movie, and seems to be here primarily to look cute and give the audience some cheap emotional moments. (There’s a shot of her walking that begins at her shoes and works up to her face that came off as leering; there’s absolutely no reason to show her in that light unless the intention was to remind viewers that, hey, Lily James is an attractive woman.) Samuel West, who was excellent in the TV mini-series Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell*, is one-note as Anthony Eden, Churchill’s Secretary of War. The one supporting performance that stood out in a positive light was Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI; if you don’t know Mendelsohn’s name, you might know his face; he played the worst of the various sociopaths in 2010’s Animal Kingdom and has made a career of playing villains, but here gives ol’ Bertie a bit of humanity and providing one of the film’s accurate subplots, the growth in the King’s relationship with Churchill from mutual distrust to a sort of professional friendship, some needed credibility.

(King George VI was known for having a speech impediment, and Mendelsohn does his best to reproduce it. Lord Halifax couldn’t pronounce the letter ‘r,’ and Stephen Dillane incorporates that into his speech as the character, while also seeming to pronounce everything from somewhere two feet behind his face. And Oldman is also doing an impression for the entire movie. The end result, while perhaps true to the characters’ actual speech, is that I had a devil of a time understanding everybody; it’s one time where less accuracy might have made for a better film.)

I’ve seen eight of the nine Best Picture nominees, and this is easily the worst movie; the fact that this got a nomination, and the Academy left one spot open, while The Florida Project was not nominated is absolutely galling. If you want some rah-rah history, and don’t mind being taken for a ride along the way, Darkest Hour is superficially entertaining. It’s just not very good history, and once you leave the theater, the ecstasy of the film’s resolution will fade all too quickly.

* One of the trailers before the film was for the upcoming movie, 7 Days in Entebbe, retelling the famous 1976 Israeli military operation in Uganda, where IDF commandos rescued over 100 hostages who’d been taken by pro-Palestinian terrorists and German idiots. Shimon Peres is portrayed in the film by Eddie Marsan, who played Mr. Norrell in the above-mentioned mini-series. Trailers can be very misleading, but this at least made me want to see the film, as everything except the choice of music looked spectacular.

Stick to baseball, 2/3/18.

My org reports and top ten prospect lists for all 30 teams are now up for Insiders, which concludes this year’s prospect rankings package:

NL East
NL Central
NL West
AL East
AL Central
AL West

I also held a Klawchat on Wednesday.
I’ve been selling some of my board game collection and donating the proceeds to charity, including the Food Bank of Delaware and hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

With the prospects project done, I resumed my free email newsletter this past week. Also, the paperback edition of Smart Baseball comes out on March 13th; you can buy any of the editions through HarperCollins’ site.

And now, the links…