Inside Out.

Pixar’s latest movie, Inside Out, lived up to all of the hype and praise it’s received so far, a visually stunning film that hits all of the bittersweet notes that have made Pixar’s best films – especially WALL-E and the Toy Story trilogy – masterpieces not just of animation but of cinema. It’s also, in many ways, one of Pixar’s riskiest ideas, thanks to one of its least conventional plots yet, making the ultimate success of the film even more remarkable. (Full, if obvious, disclosure: Disney owns Pixar and ESPN.)

Inside Out is a metaphysical coming-of-age story that manages to encapsulate a buddy comedy, a psychological thriller, and an Arthur Clarke-style sci-fi story all set inside of the head of eleven-year-old Riley Anderson, whose family has just removed her from her idyllic life in Minnesota so her father can work for a startup in San Francisco. Riley’s personality is determined by a pastel-colored world run primarily by five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear, each voiced and drawn in distinctive fashion (and helpfully color-coded). Riley’s memories each bear one of those five colors, although we learn early on that Sadness (Phyllis Smith) can turn any memory blue (her color) with a touch, a sort of King Midas meets The Old Guitarist-era Picasso. When Joy and Sadness are inadvertently tossed from Headquarters, where the five emotions live and work, along with Riley’s core memories, her whole personality starts to crumble into depression and negativity. Joy and Sadness have to try to find their way back from the archives of Long-Term Memory while the other three emotions try without success to steer the ship.

The five emotionsJoy, voiced by Amy Poehler, is in essence a yellow-skinned, blue-haired, fuzzy Leslie Knope, full of enthusiasm and as much of a leader as the quintet of emotions can have; she was there first, Sadness second, and there’s an uneasy (but not antagonistic) relationship between the two. Their pairing in exile isn’t an accidental bit of plotting, as the film needs the two to play off of each other, even when they run into Riley’s largely-forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) and end up in a series of misadventures as they try to get back to headquarters. (My favorite: their trip through abstract thought, where the three are transformed into cubist images, then deconstructed.) Some of the resolutions are a little obvious – Pixar writers have always taken the maxim of Chekhov’s gun very seriously – but the three writers do an excellent job of managing three disparate plot strands: the Joy/Sadness journey, the three knuckleheads still in HQ, and Riley’s real-world interactions with her befuddled (but never distant or cliched) parents.

The Joy/Sadness adventure – and that’s what it is, a buddy comedy with serious consequences for the other storylines – is the primary plot thread of the movie, and the relationship between the two characters, matched in Poehler’s and Smith’s voicing, is more oil/water than acid/base: Sadness doesn’t want to bring anyone down, but she can’t help it, while Joy remains indefatigable in the face of unfathomable odds. Sadness wants to be more like Joy, while Joy looks on Sadness as a well-meaning nuisance, so you can see who’s going to learn what lesson in the end. It’s how we get there that makes most Pixar movies such memorable experiences for the viewer – if you have a kid, you’ll probably get a little weepy, as I did at a few points during Inside Out – and such great art. The ending is happy, happier than, say, Toy Story 3, but it’s yellow with a few spots of blue.

The great achievement of Inside Out‘s plot isn’t the ending, or the adventure in Long-Term Memory, but the fact that the film works so beautifully without an antagonist. There’s no villain, no Big Foozle, no evil queen, hell, there’s no princesses (not that I’m anti-princess but a change of pace is always welcome). Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust are not set in opposition to Joy, but are depicted as essential elements of human personality. We don’t get the Dragon of Solitude or the Alienation Wraith; when Riley’s emotions have to fight their way back, they’re fighting something fundamental, not an artificial plot-contrivance bad guy whom they have to kill to get to their goal. Inside Out‘s tension is built around time, not threat, yet the film never drags for the lack of a foil for our twin heroines.

Inside Out is full of Easter eggs, as most Pixar flicks are; I only caught a few of them, including the music in the nightmare, the Chinatown reference, and the homage to Steve Jobs’ “reality distortion field.” I didn’t realize the two jellybean-like things guarding the subconscious were actually voiced by Frank Oz and Dave Goelz, longtime Muppet performers. There are apparently several I missed in the classroom scene, although I’m not sure I would have caught any without a remote control in my hand to pause it.

I’m kind of bummed that my daughter is too old for the Inside Out Box of Mixed Emotions, five books, one per emotion, aimed at 3- to 5-year-olds. It looks like Driven by Emotions is more age-appropriate; I’ll report back if we read that one.

Lava, the short animated feature that preceded Inside Out, is a cute but insubstantial love story, remarkable mostly for the quality of its animation (especially the landscapes on the sides of the two volcanoes) and the film’s song, which reminded me of the late native Hawai’an singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. Known as Israel K., his cover of “Over the Rainbow” is the only version of that song I can stand, and Lava‘s main voice-over actor, Kuana Torres Kahele, even sings in a similar fashion to Israel K.’s style.

Saturday five, 6/20/15.

I wrote three new Insider pieces this week: an updated top ten pro prospects ranking, a look at where thirteen 2015 first-rounders rank in their new orgs, and a scouting piece on Jesse Biddle, JP Crawford, and Aaron Judge.

I’ll be back at Lakewood tonight to see Yoan Moncada and Rafael Devers again, with a post going up tomorrow or Monday on those guys.

I haven’t had a chance to review it yet, but I’m enjoying the new Of Monsters & Men album Beneath The Skin; it’s a big change from their poppier debut, shifting to better showcase Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir’s voice.

And now, this week’s links…saturdayfive

  • A great longread on Azerbaijan hosting the “European Games,”, focusing on the authoritarian regime’s corrupt history and misguided attempts to ingratiate itself to Europe. I do wish the piece had discussed the ongoing conflict with Armenia (also guilty of its share of crimes) over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is a massive failure for those who position themselves as international peacemakers. Something like 200,000 people have lived in a rogue state or under the “wrong” national authorities for over a decade.
  • How vaccine deniers are using social media to fight pro-vaccine legislation. The solution is simple: Make your pro-vaccine voice heard. Tell your state and federal legislators that you support mandatory vaccination for all schoolchildren who don’t have medical exemptions. End all philosophical and religious exemptions and you’ll see measles re-eradicated in the U.S. in no time.
  • There’s a raw fish eaten in rural Thailand that gives people liver cancer. The cause is a parasite called a liver fluke that lays eggs in the human liver, yet educating residents has been a big challenge for health officials.
  • Does killing jihadist leaders work? That’s the linchpin of our country’s current strategy against terrorism, and there’s a legitimate debate (with, I think, no clear answer) whether it’s effective enough.
  • I didn’t agree with the majority of you in the recent case of the Maryland “free range” parents scolded for letting their kids walk home a moderate distance from a playground, but I am guessing we can all agree that the Florida case of parents losing their kids for a month for letting their 11-year-old son play in his own yard is a terrifying governmental overreach. The busybody who called the authorities here should face charges, not the parents.
  • An op ed in the Guardian from a former prisoner discussing US prisons withholding menstrual supplies, often by pricing them above what indigent prisoners can afford. Sanitary supplies are a basic human right, not a luxury to be purchased by the well-to-do.
  • The Guardian was one of several publications to profile the victims of the Charleston massacre, an important step given how much ink is dedicated to the perpetrators in these attacks. Jamil Smith’s essay in the New Republic on the particular violation of these murders happening in a church was the best piece I read all week on the subject. Meanwhile, it’s high time that South Carolina remove the Confederate flag from all government buildings.

Thebes.

Thebes is a moderate-strategy game, first published in 2007, that uses an archaeology theme to bring a couple of clever mechanics to the genre without becoming too complex or slow. It also is the rare game that plays as well with two players as it does with more, even though the tenor of the play and your strategy will both vary greatly with the number of players.

(The game is currently unavailable in the US, but if you’re in Europe amazon UK has it as does amazon Germany.)

In Thebes, you’re a lead archaeologist who must gather resources called “knowledge points” before you head off to one of five dig sites (each with a unique color) to try to retrieve valuable artifacts. You gather these knowledge points in seven European cities, so the entire map has just twelve sites and getting around is straightforward, and by taking one of four cards shown on the board at any given time. To draw a specific card, you move to that city and pay the cost to acquire the card – more on that cost in a moment – after which you add it to your hand. Most cards contain one to three books in the specific color of one of the dig sites; those are “specialized” knowledge points, good only for that dig site. There are “general” knowledge points, blank books that count toward any dig site; assistant cards, which you collect in sets to add more specialized knowledge for any dig site; shovel cards, which you collect in sets to draw more artifacts when you dig; and rumor cards, which you count once as specialized knowledge during a single dig and then discard.

When you go to dig, you move to the city of the dig site and count all of your knowledge applicable to that dig – all your specialized knowledge points in that color, plus all of your general knowledge points up to the number of the specialized points, and then use a wheel to determine how many artifacts you can take from the dig site (a bag of tokens), which is also a function of how many weeks you wish to spend digging. There is no money in Thebes; the currency is time, as it takes one week to move between adjacent cities, one to six weeks for any card you take from the board, and up to ten weeks for any dig. The game takes place over three years for two players and two years for four players, so time is truly fleeting in Thebes and you need to budget carefully.

Those bags are the one truly new mechanic in Thebes, a game without much randomness until you start pulling tokens from a bag. There are 31 artifact tokens in each color, 13 worth one to six points each, two tokens worth knowledge points (one general, one specific to another color), and 16 blanks. At the start of the game, you take a one-point token in each color and place it on the map, so that the first player to dig there gets that artifact as a bonus. Then the digging begins: You use the wheel to determine how many artifacts you can pull (again, a function of your knowledge points and the number of weeks you wish to spend), and then take out that many tokens. You keep any that aren’t blank … and you put the blanks back in the bag. That’s right: The odds of pulling out a non-blank token just get worse as the game goes on. It pays to be the first one into the tomb.

Most of your points (about 75-80% in our experience) will come from artifacts you gain from digging. There are three other ways to gain points in Thebes. Two of them, Congress cards and Exhibitions, are available in the main card deck and will appear in the four card spaces on the board along with the cards described above. Congress cards are simple – there are nine, and you get points based on how many you have, with the point totals rising sort of logarithmically, up to a maximum bonus of 28 points for seven cards. Exhibitions come up in the second half of the game, roughly, and they reward you with four or five bonus points for artifacts you’ve already obtained; if you have the right combination of artifacts, you go to the city on that card, take it from the board, and gain those points at the end of the game. It’s a significant cost in weeks, however, so the payoff isn’t great. The final way to gain points is to have the most specialized knowledge points in any specific color, with the leader in each color getting five points, co-leaders in any color each getting three.

The one other unusual mechanic has appeared in other games, including an even more elegant implementation the wonderful 2010 title Glen More, where one player might get multiple consecutive turns because other players have moved too far ahead. Players count their weeks spent via a track around the outside of the board, and the player whose token is the furthest behind gets to take the next turn. Say you’re playing a two-player game and your opponent chooses a ten-week dig in Palestine; if you can play your cards right, literally, you might get four turns in a row to grab other cards while s/he is busy, because you’ll move around the track but still be behind your opponent.

Games take under an hour and setup is very simple, assuming you don’t do what I did once and confuse the colors of the bags. Thebes is also quite language-proof, with some of the clearest iconography of any game I know, at least among games at this level of complexity; I’d compare it to Ticket to Ride’s simplicity in that one aspect. There’s nothing in here an eight-year-old couldn’t handle, and most of the strategy involved is easy to understand; the hardest part of the game to grasp might be estimating the expected values of digs, especially once players have already been in a bag once or twice but might have yet to discover some of the most valuable tokens. (There are five cards showing the distribution of point-bearing tokens in each bag.) It’s a bright, attractive game with a well-integrated theme that fully ties into and even explains the game’s most notable mechanic, a very solid addition for anyone looking for a family game that kids will like but that has enough substance for the adults.

The Golden Ticket.

Lance Fortnow wrote a piece for Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery in 2009 on the state of the P vs NP problem, one of the most important unsolved problems in both mathematics and computer science. That article led to the short (~175 page) book The Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the Search for the Impossible, which I recently read in its Kindle edition (it’s also on iBooks); Fortnow does a solid job of making an abstruse problem accessible to a wider audience, even engaging in some flights of fancy describing a world in which P equals NP … which is almost certainly not true (but we haven’t proven that yet either!).

P vs NP, which was first posed by Kurt Gödel in 1956, is one of the seven Millennium Problems posed by the Clay Mathematics Institute in 2000; solve one and you get a million bucks. One of them, proving the Poincaré Conjecture (which relates to the shape of the universe), was solved in 2010. But if you solve P vs NP affirmatively, you can probably solve the remaining five and collect a cool $6 million for your problems. You’ll find a box of materials under your desk.

Of course, this is far from an easy question to solve. P and NP are two classes of problems in computer science, and while it seems probable that they are not equivalent, no one’s been able to prove that yet. P is the set of all problems that can be quickly (in deterministic polynomial time – so, like, before the heat death of the universe) solved by an efficient algorithm; NP is the set of all problems whose solutions, once found, can be quickly verified by an efficient algorithm. For example, factoring a huge composite number is in NP: There is no known efficient algorithm to factor a large number, but once we’ve found two factors, a computer can quickly verify that the solution is correct. The “traveling salesman problem” is also in NP; it’s considered NP-complete, meaning that it is in NP and in NP-hard, the set of all problems which are at least as hard as the hardest problems in NP. We can find good solutions to many NP-hard problems using heuristics, but we do not have efficient algorithms to find the optimal solution to such a problem.

If P does in fact equal NP, then we can find efficient algorithms for all problems in NP, even those problems that are NP-complete, and Fortnow details all of these consequences, both positive and negative. One major negative consequence, and one in which Fortnow spends a significant amount of time, would be the effective death of most current systems of cryptography, including public-key cryptography and one-way hashing functions. (In fact, the existence of one-way functions as a mathematical truth is still an unsolved problem; if they exist, then P does not equal NP.) But the positive consequences are rather enormous; Fortnow gives numerous examples, the most striking one is the potential for quickly developing individualized medicines to treat cancer and other diseases where protein structure prediction is an obstacle in quickly crafting effective treatments. He also works in a baseball story, where the game has been dramatically changed across the board by the discovery that P=NP – from better scheduling to accurate ball/strike calls (but only in the minors) to the 2022 prohibition of the use of computers in the dugout. It’s Shangri-La territory, but serves to underscore the value of an affirmative proof: If we can solve NP problems in deterministic polynomial time (as opposed to nondeterministic polynomial time, where NP gets its name), our ability to tease relationships out of huge databases and find solutions to seemingly intractable logical and mathematical problems is far greater than we realized.

Of course, P probably doesn’t equal NP, because that would just be too easy. That doesn’t mean that NP-complete problems are lost causes, but that those who work in those areas – operations research, medicine, cryptography, and so on – have to use other methods to find solutions that are merely good rather than optimal. Those methods include using heuristics that simplify the problem, approximating solutions, and solving a different but related problem that’s in P. If Fortnow falls short at all in this book, it’s in devoting so much more time to the brigadoon where P=NP and less to the likely real world quandary of solving NP-complete problems in a universe where P≠NP. He also gives over a chapter to the still theoretical promise of quantum computing, including its applications to cryptography (significant) and teleportation (come on), but it seems like a digression from the core question in The Golden Ticket. We don’t know if P equals NP, but as Fortnow reiterates in the conclusion, even thinking about the question and possible approaches to proving it in either direction affect work in various fields that underpin most of our current technological infrastructure. If you’ve ever bought anything online, or even logged into web-based email, you’ve used a bit of technology that only works because, as of right now, we can’t prove that P=NP. For a very fundamental question, the P vs NP problem is scarcely known, and Fortnow does a strong job of presenting it in a way that many more readers can understand it.

If this sounds like it’s up your alley or you’ve already read it, I also suggest John Derbyshire’s Prime Obsession, about the Riemann Hypothesis, another of the Clay Millennium Institute’s six as-yet unsolved problems.

The Graveyard Book.

Neil Gaiman won his first Hugo Award for Best Novel for his modern epic American Gods, a masterful blend of pagan mythology and magical realism that breathes some life into the generally-overused Chosen One plot structure, thanks in large part to Gaiman’s prodigious imagination. After withdrawing the related book Anansi Boys from consideration for the same honor in 2006, he won the prize a second time for his young adult novel The Graveyard Book, which brings his same charming prose style and clever world-building mind to a gentler story without most of the violence or sex that populate those two earlier works.

There’s an exception to that last bit, and it’s at the start of the book, perhaps the most overused trope in all of young-adult literature (and not a few Disney movies): The orphaned child protagonist. The toddler to soon be known as Nobody “Bod” Owens wakes in a house where his parents and sister have just been knifed to death in their sleep, escaping only due to happenstance and his own wanderlust, ending up in the local disused graveyard where the deceased denizens protect him from the killer. Bod grows up in the graveyard, raised by the Owens (dead for a few hundred years), watched by the not-quite-dead guardian Silas, forbidden to leave the cemetery grounds for fear it will expose him to his would-be murderer, Jack.

Of course, you know the story has to end with Bod facing Jack one final time, and since this is a children’s book, Bod’s going to come out all right, so the onus is on Gaiman to create tension within each of the episodes leading up to the 80-page chapter where the final confrontation occurs. Gaiman infuses Bod with the curiosity of most children, only partly sated by the attempts of the graveyard’s dwellers to educate him, leading him to various excursions outside of and underneath the cemetery itself, setting up the series of events or points of interest that will all come into play in the last battle.

The core story is straightforward, as you’d expect in a self-contained, 300-page young adult novel, but Gaiman has populated his necropolis with a small cast of eccentrics – I suppose expecting the shades to be simply drawn was unreasonable – that bring to mind everyone from Robert Altman to Jasper Fforde. They’re not weirdos, just dead and a little outdated, and have much to teach Bod (and the young reader) about the value of life and living it with just as much (or little) fear as is necessary.

But the book is just as much for the parent reading with or alongside the child; this is very much a book about rearing a son or daughter and learning to let go the older the child gets. Bod’s search for independence and agency is far from unusual; all things considered, he’s a rather compliant child, curious but only occasionally reckless, bailed out a couple of times by Silas or one of the other spirits who’ve been raising him. He touches something hot (metaphorically speaking), gets burned, and learns not to do it again; no matter how many times you say “don’t touch that,” you know the child won’t really believe you until s/he tests your admonition out in the flesh. And when Bod has to fight the final battle without Silas’ protecting, albeit with lots of help from his noncorporeal family, he comes of age right before us in a satisfying but far from entirely happy ending.

My daughter just turned nine, but I think the traumatic introduction where Bod’s family is killed offscreen might upset her a little too much; she was fine with Lily and James Potter dying, but that occurred before page 1 and it’s a lot less real to read of someone dying via spell than dying via blade. I’ll keep the book and leave it to her own judgment to decide when she wants to tackle it.

Next up: Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.

Saturday five, 6/13/15.

For Insiders, my recaps of the drafts for all 15 NL teams and all 15 AL teams are up, as well as my round one reactions and a post-draft Klawchat.

I don’t have another place for this, but I read Michael Ruhlman’s short autobiographical Kindle Single The Main Dish ($1.99) this week, right after the draft ended, and enjoyed it tremendously. I love Ruhlman’s writing in general, but the insight into how he became a writer – he even uses “accidental” the way I often call myself an accidental sportswriter – seems like it would be very valuable for anyone considering a career in prose.

And now, this week’s links…saturdayfive

  • Bill and Melinda Gates have given away over $29 billion, and Warren Buffett is dedicating another $70 billion of his fortune to their Foundation. Buried within this piece: There hasn’t been a new case of polio in Africa in nine months, a remarkable change given the continued violence perpetrated by Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria. Polio is now only endemic in the undergoverned region that joins Pakistan and Afghanistan.
  • The House of Representatives voted to repeal the Country of Origin Labeling Act that required packaged meat indicate where the animals came from, because it conflicts with WTO rules. I’m of two minds on this: I favor more labeling that tells consumers about what they’re buying, but I also believe in free trade and don’t like the idea of us flouting our trade agreements when we rely on them for fair access to other markets. That said, there’s nothing that says meat vendors can’t tell you where the meat is from … and if you buy local meat, you’re covered.
  • In some local schools in England, teachers are confiscating Scotch eggs from lunchboxes as well as other foods deemed unhealthful. This strikes me as an outrageous overreach, and one likely based on very bad science that holds that dietary fat is bad for us.
  • Comedy writer Ben Schwartz wrote a fantastic essay on comedy and the “PC” response, although much of what he says applies to our culture as a whole.
  • Two great examples of people being misled by statistics, both stories from NPR: One on bluefin tuna selling cheaply in San Diego, because fishermen say it’s plentiful when in reality it’s not; and a possible link between some heartburn medications and heart disease, but from a study that doesn’t explain causation while ignoring potential confounding variables.
  • OK, one more great NPR link: How fad diets are merely pseudoscience wrapped in a veneer of ancient religious memes. I love the fake fad diet piece at the end.
  • Downton Abbey is filming its final season and Maggie Smith is glad it’s coming to an end.
  • I believe I linked to the New Yorker story from last year about Kalief Browder, a man held in Rikers for three years without ever being convicted of a crime. He was eventually freed, but took his own life last week. Browder was 22 years old.
  • I don’t remember the original Chip’s Challenge game, but this story on the arduous process of getting a sequel released was still fascinating.
  • This excellent New York Times profile of Gawker and its founder Nick Denton also discusses the important First Amendment ramifications of Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the company for posting a clip of him having sex with his friend’s wife.

No Orchids for Miss Blandish.

For Insiders, my recaps of the drafts for all 15 NL teams and all 15 AL teams are up, as well as my round one reactions and a post-draft Klawchat.

David Hadley Chase was a prolific British author of American crime fiction, writing numerous novels (under this pseudonym) that were, for the time, controversial for their graphic violence and implied sexual content. His first novel, the grim No Orchids for Miss Blandish, remains his best-known work, and it’s just $1.29 for the Kindle through that link (or just £4.99 in the UK). It’s gripping despite an almost nihilistic view of its characters, the rare story where the venal criminals are more compelling characters than the hard-boiled detective attempting to find them. George Orwell was a fan of the writing, but Raymond Chandler was not, calling it “half-cent pulp writing at its worst” in a letter to Cleve Adams. (Chandler later won a lawsuit against Chase, accusing the latter of plagiarizing a section of a later book.)

Miss Blandish is the heiress at the center of a theft and ransom kidnapping plot that involves two different groups of crooks, the latter, the notorious Grissom Gang (reminiscent in many ways of the Australian Pettingill family), run by a sociopathic matriarch and her mentally challenged, ultra-violent son Slim. Their plan is to steal her new diamond necklace, collect a ransom for her from her wealthy father, and then dispose of her rather than risk her identifying them … but then Slim takes a fancy to her, complicating their plans even after they get their money and try to use it to run a slightly more legitimate business.

Miss Blandish’s father hires reporter-turned-private detective Dave Fenner to try to track his daughter down several months after he’s paid the ransom without any word on her whereabouts or even whether she’s alive, and Fenner – about as cliched a detective character as you’ll ever find – uses his knowledge of the town’s underworld to find the one lead police didn’t uncover. Chase spends most of his energy and the bulk of the verbiage on the interactions between Slim Grissom, his mother, and the other dissolute members of their gang, including how they respond once it becomes clear that their faĉade of respectability in their new venture has been cracked.

The violence in the book is par for the course for the era, although No Orchids was apparently one of the first to raise the violence to this level; I don’t enjoy violence for its own sake, but to paint the picture of the Grissom gang as unrepentant and likely sociopathic killers, the violence serves a literary purpose. Less necessary and much harder to stomach is the largely off-screen rape of Miss Blandish by Slim, repeated over a period of months. When Fenner finally finds her near the end of the book, however, all of the dialogue seems to indicate that there is no recovery from this sort of trauma, both from the extent of the crimes committed and from the shame of being a victim of kidnap and a presumed rape. It’s true to its era, but fortunately we live in an era that is both more enlightened and better equipped to help trauma victims recover from their ordeals, which gave the novel’s resolution a very antiquated and somewhat misogynistic flavor. A female author would never have written this ending – or at least I’d like to think one wouldn’t. (For the record, I don’t agree with either of Orwell’s interpretations of the ending; I think he’s ignored or dismissed a third possibility, that the motive was shame.) However, for fans of noir fiction, No Orchids offers a swift, exceptionally dark take on the genre, one where the payoff is less important than the way there.

Proofiness.

Whew! I’m glad that’s over. For Insiders, my recaps of the drafts for all 15 NL teams and all 15 AL teams are up, as well as my round one reactions and a post-draft Klawchat.

Charles Seife’s Proofiness: How You’re Being Fooled by the Numbers is a beautiful polemic straight from the headquarters of the Statistical Abuse Department. Seife, whose Zero is an enjoyable, accessible story of the development and controversy of that number and concept, aims both barrels at journalists, politicians, and demagogues who misinterpret or misuse statistics, knowing that if you attach a number to something, people are more inclined to believe it.

Seife opens with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s famous claim about knowing the names of “205 … members of the Communist Party” who were at that moment working in the State Department. It was bullshit; the number kept changing, up and down, every time he gave a version of the speech, but by putting a specific number on it, the audience assumed he had those specific names. It’s a basic logical error: if he has the list of names, he must have the number, but that doesn’t mean the converse is true. He rips through a series of similarly well-known examples of public abuse of statistics, from the miscounting of the Million Man March to stories about blondes becoming extinct to Al Gore cherrypicking data in An Inconvenient Truth, to illustrate some of the different ways people with agendas can and will manipulate you with stats.

One of the best passages, and probably most relevant to us as the Presidential election cycle is beginning, is on polls – particularly on how they’re reported. Seife argues, with some evidence, that many reporters don’t understand what the margin of error means. (This subject also got some time in Ian Ayers’ Super Crunchers, a somewhat dated look at the rise of Big Data in decision-making that has since been lapped by the very topic it attempted to cover.) If done correctly, the margin of error should equal two standard deviations, but many journalists and pundits treat it as some ambiguous measure of the confidence in the reported means. When Smith is leading Jones 51% to 49% with a margin of error of ±3%, that’s not a “statistical dead heat;” that’s telling you that the poll, if run properly, says there’s a 95% chance that Smith’s actual support is between 48% and 54% and a 95% that Jones’ support is between 46% and 52%, with each distribution centered on the means (51% and 49%) that were the actual results of the poll. That’s far from a dead heat, as long as the poll itself didn’t suffer from any systemic bias, as in the famous Literary Digest poll for the 1936 Presidential election.

Seife shifts gears in the second half of the book from journalists to politicians and jurists who either misuse stats for propaganda purposes or who misuse them when crafting bad laws or making bad rulings. He explains gerrymandering, pointing out that this is an easy problem to solve with modern technology if politicians had any actual interest in solving it, and breaks down the 2000 Presidential vote in Florida and the 2008 Minnesota Senate race to show that the inevitable lack of precision even in popular votes and census-taking mean both races were, in fact, dead heats. (Specifically, he says that it is impossible to say with any confidence that either candidate was the winner.) Seife shows how bad data have skewed major court decisions, and how McCleskey v. Kemp ignored compelling data on the skewed implementation of capital punishment. (Antonin Scalia voted with the majority, part of a long pattern of ignoring data that don’t support his views, according to Seife.) This statistical abuse cuts both ways, as he gives examples of both prosecutors and defense attorneys playing dirty with numbers to claim that a defendant is guilty or innocent.

For my purposes, it’s a good reminder that numbers can be illustrative but also misleading, especially since the line between giving stats for descriptive reasons can bleed into the appearance of a predictive argument. I pointed out the other day on Twitter that both Michael Conforto and Kyle Schwarber were on short but impressive power streaks; neither run meant anything given how short they were, but I thought they were fun to see and spoke to how both players are elite offensive prospects. (By the way, Dominic Smith is hitting .353/.390/.569 in his last 29 games, and has reached base in 21 straight games!) But I’d recommend this book to anyone working in the media, especially in the political arena, as a manual for how not to use statistics or to believe the ones that are handed to you. It’s also a great guide for how to be a more educated voter, consumer, and reader, so when climate change deniers claim the earth hasn’t warmed for sixteen years, you’ll be ready to spot and ignore it.

Next up: I’m way behind on reviews, but right now I’m halfway through Adam Rogers’ Proof: The Science of Booze.

Saturday five, 6/6/15.

My third first-round mock for Monday’s draft went up on Thursday for Insiders. I’ll do one more on Monday morning. My final ranking of the top 100 prospects in the draft class is also up.

My latest boardgame review for Paste is on the D&D-themed miniatures and tile-laying game Temple of Elemental Evil.

Fewer links than normal this week because I’ve got this other thing going on… saturdayfive

Incompleteness.

My final top 100 draft prospect ranking for 2015 is up for Insiders, and my latest review for Paste covers the Temple of Elemental Evil boardgame.

Rebecca Goldstein’s Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel, part of the same “Great Discoveries” series that includes David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, takes the abstruse topic of Gödel’s two incompleteness theorems and folds it into a readable, compelling biography of both the man and his ideas. Using the logician’s friendship with Albert Einstein as a hook, Goldstein gives us about as intimate a portrait of the intensely private Gödel as we can get, while also laying the groundwork so the non-metamathematicians among us can understand the why and how of Gödel’s theorems.

There’s very little actual math involved in Incompleteness, because the two theorems in question revolve around the nature of mathematics, notably arithmetic, as an axiomatic system that mathematicians and philosophers of the early 1900s were trying to use as a basis to describe arithmetic as a formal system – that is, one that can be fully described via a system of symbols and syntax, used to construct well-formed formulas (wffs, not to be confused with wtfs), some of which are the axioms that define the whole system. If such axioms can describe the entire system in a way that an algorithm (which is probably easiest to conceive as a computer program) can use those axioms and only those axioms to prove all truths or assertions about the natural numbers, then arithmetic would be considered a complete system, something Gödel proved was impossible in his first theorem. His second theorem went even further, showing that such a system of arithmetic also could not be consistent within itself by demonstrating that a statement of the system’s consistency would generate an internal contradiction.

Gödel imself was an incomplete figure, a hypochondriac who degenerated into outright paranoia later in life, and a socially awkward man who would likely have been diagnosed in today’s world of psychiatry and medicine as a depressive or even somewhere on the autism spectrum. He formed few lasting friendships, feared that no one could understand him (and given the meandering paths of his mind, I don’t doubt this was true), and was often shockingly aloof to what was happening around him. He fled his native Austria before World War II, even though he wasn’t Jewish, because his association with the secular Jewish scholars of the Vienna Circle (most of whom were logical Positivists, arguing that anything that could not be empirically proven could not be considered true) cost him his university position. Yet he remained unaware of the state of affairs in his native country, once (according to Goldstein) asking a Jewish emigré who had fled Nazi persecution for the United States, “What brings you to America?”

Goldstein does a superb job setting the scene for Gödel’s emergence as a logician/metamathematician and as a figure of adulation and controversy. The Vienna Circle was, in Goldstein’s depiction, somewhat insular in its unwavering acceptance of Positivism, and as such certain that Hilbert’s second problem, asking for a proof that arithmetic is internally consistent, would be proven true. Gödel’s second theorem showed this was not the case, leading to his own intellectual isolation from thinkers who were heavily invested in the Positivist view of mathematics, a bad outcome for a man who was already prone to introversion and diffidence. G&omul;del found it difficult to express himself without the use of logic, and while his station at Princeton’s illustrious Institute for Advanced Study – a sort of magnet think tank that became a home for great scholars in math and the sciences – put him in contact with Albert Einstein, it also deepened his solitude by limiting his orbit … although that may have been inevitable given his late-life delusions of persecution. Goldstein did encounter Gödel once at a garden party at Princeton, only to see him at his most gregarious, holding court with a small group of awestruck graduate students, only to disappear without a trace when his spell of socializing was over. He was, in her description, a phantom presence around campus, especially once his daily walks with Einstein ended with the latter’s death in 1955.

While giving a basic description of Gödel’s theorems and proofs, focusing more on their implications than on the underlying math, Goldstein does send readers to the 1958 Gödel’s Proof, a 160-page book that attempts to give readers a more thorough understanding of the two theorems even if those readers lack any background in higher math. Incompleteness focuses instead on the man as much as it does on his work, producing a true narrative in a story that wouldn’t otherwise have had one, making it a book that I could recommend to anyone who can stand Goldstein’s occasional use of a $2 word (“veridical”) when a ten-cent one (“truthful”) would have done.