Two math anthologies.

My latest Insider post covered scouting notes on Danny Salazar, Kendall Graveman, and others from that same game. My weekly Klawchat transcript is up, and I have a new boardgame review over at Paste for the Kennerspiel des Jahres-nominated strategy game Rococo.

My friend Steve is quite familiar with my affinity for just about all things math – we first met in math class in seventh grade – and for Christmas this year bought me a pair of popular math texts, one new and one classic. (I bought him a lot of tea, as he consumes it even faster than I do.) Both were collections of short pieces, with the unevenness that comes with such an anthology, but with high points making both books well worth reading.

The new title was The Best Writing on Mathematics 2014, a book that opens with a sort of dry exhortation on the apparently declining interest in math among students, a theme revisited later in the book, although I think a large part of that is a function of how we teach math in the United States – something that is in and of itself the subject of a separate essay. The separation of abstract math from its practical uses will only sit well with students who are naturally able to deal with math’s abstractions, to hear the music in numbers and formulas, to understand topics like calculus on an intuitive level; modern American instruction tends to make the majority of students, those who don’t grasp this material as quickly, feel less able or competent in the subject. Math anxiety, the subject of so-and-so’s column, isn’t an innate medical condition like anxiety disorder; it is created by teachers and curricula that quickly tell students they’re just not good enough at this stuff.

I enjoy abstract math – one of the best books I’ve ever read was on the highly abstruse Riemann Hypothesis, called Prime Obsession, one of the great unsolved problems in mathematics and one without any apparent practical applications. Yet I also enjoy writing on the pervasive uses of math in other fields, from physics to probability. One of the best essays in the book, and unfortunately one of the shortest, is from game designer and engineer Soren Johnson, who discusses the uses of probability and controlled randomness in creating successful games, specifically citing the random component in Settlers of Catan that has diminished its standing among the most hardcore boardgaming segment that prefers the less random and more complex style of games like Puerto Rico or Agricola. (My issue with Settlers isn’t the randomness but the length of the games. It’s still a classic and one of the best light-strategy games ever created.)

There are several pieces built around randomness, including a high-level essay from Charles Seife (author of Zero, which I enjoyed, as well as Proofiness: How You’re Being Fooled by the Numbers, which is on my to-be-read shelf) on the nature of randomness and our inability to understand it, and another essay on the power of the random in musical compositions. The essay by Prakash Gorrochum titled “Errors of Probability in Historical Context” should be required reading for journalists everywhere, covering the gambler’s fallacy, reasoning on the mean, and misunderstanding statistical independence (Bayes’ theorem). One essay tackles the problem of the Jordan Curve – defined a simple closed curve in a plane or planar region, dividing it into exactly two parts, thus never crossing itself – and its applicability to some amazing works of art. I alluded to the closing essay on Twitter the other day; it discusses the proposed solution to the abc problem, for which the alleged solver had to invent a whole new kind of mathematics, which means that only a few dozen people in the world might be able to interpret his proof, let alone test or critique it.

The selection of titles seems idiosyncratic, as some have very little to do with math proper, such as the dreadful essay on various ancient tools and devices used for mathematical calculations, or the too-lengthy chapter disproving the contention that ancient Celts in modern-day Scotland knew and understood the features of the five regular polyhedra a millennium before anyone else seemed to catch on. The collection ends on several high notes, however, including Gorrochum’s essay (which you can read in its entirety online) and that abc problem/solution story, the latter of which is almost creepy because of how bizarre the whole backstory is. I’d never heard of this series before Steve bought me this book but the handful of strong essays in it made it a great read.

The other book Steve bought for me was Martin Gardner’s collection Hexaflexagons, Probability Paradoxes, and the Tower of Hanoi, which is the first in the series of books anthologizing Gardner’s many essays on popular math from his long-running column in Scientific American. Gardner’s writing exudes his sheer joy in math itself, yet most of these essays explore tangible questions even when they’re as useless as the hexaflexagons of the book’s title. Those peculiar shapes are formed by folding one or more strips of paper according to prescribed patterns to form regular polygons, in this specific case hexagons, that can be pushed and folded to reveal hidden sides and features, a chance discovery explored by some very famous names from math and science (Richard Feynman was among their earliest practicioners). A similar vein runs through his essays on the games Hex, invented independently by Nobel Prize-winning game theorist John Nash and Danish polymath Piet Hein, a totally nonrandom game of tile placement on a rhomboid board of hexagonal spaces where each player is trying to complete an unbroken chain from one of his sides to the side facing it. The game can’t end in a draw, and on smaller boards there are unbeatable strategies for whichever player goes first, inspiring much mathematical hand-wringing over the search for algorithms to predict perfect plays.

Other essays pose specific logic and math puzzles to the reader, many of which can be worked out in your head (and are much worse if you start putting pencil to paper). He explores the history of the “boss puzzle,” also known as the 15-14 puzzle, where the player is presented with a 4×4 grid with 15 numbered tiles on it, all in ordered rows but with the final row going 13-15-14. The player is told to use the single open space to move tiles around to get all fifteen tiles into the proper order. (The puzzle is unsolvable because it has a parity of one, meaning there’s a single tile displacement.) He also discusses several popular math and logic paradoxes, such as the division of a rectangle into several triangular pieces, then the reassembly that makes it appear that some surface area has disappeared. (It hasn’t.) They’re fun to puzzle over for their own sake, but the sleights of math used here or in the card tricks Gardner describes in another chapter expose holes in our critical thinking processes – ways we can miss obvious fallacies because something looks or sounds “right” on its face.

The chapter that might be most familiar to readers in subject matter discusses the Birthday Paradox. Given a group of 24 people selected at random, what are the odds that at least two members of the group have the same birthday? The answer is better than one half, which seems at first rather hard to believe as there are 365 days in the calendar. The odds that the first two people don’t have the same birthday are 364/365; the odds that the third person added to the group won’t have the same birthday as either of the first two are 363/365; and so on. The probability that n people won’t have the same birthday is thus a product of all of these individual probabilities (the formula is here); the 23rd person added to the group drops the probability that there is no birthday match under 0.5. It seems intuitively incorrect that just 23* people could suffice to raise the odds of a match over 50% when the number of dates is 365, and there are many methods of figuring these odds incorrectly, such as multiplying the apparent odds of a match (2/365 * 3/365 * 4/365…) or adding up the same fractions. Gardner’s explanations of such paradoxes were both clear and a pleasure to read, which is why so much of his work remains in print a half-century after he started writing. The chapter doesn’t discuss the Monty Hall problem, but describes a similar question around hands of cards that might illuminate that more famous question if you’ve struggled to understand its explanation.

* Gardner’s chapter uses 24 as the threshold, but I’m pretty sure it’s 23, using both methods to calculate the odds. If anyone can show the magic number is 24, please post it in the comments, because then I’ve got this wrong too.

Gardner also discusses magic squares, which seem to me to be the logical ancestors of the much simpler sudoku; the Tower of Hanoi problem; and some topological oddities that arise from manipulations of a Mobius strip (or two of them together). He gets a little ahead of himself, perhaps a function of the space limitations of the print world, in the chapter on fallacies by presenting two pure math fallacies without explaining exactly why they fail. Both revolve around attempts to prove that two unequal entities are equal; one fails through a disguised attempt to divide by zero, the other by treating i as a real (rather than imaginary) number, but I wouldn’t assume either fallacy was obvious by the way Gardner presents them.

I first encountered Gardner’s work in junior high school through his now out-of-print Aha! Gotcha! book, which took a similar approach to math tricks and paradoxes but was aimed at a younger audience; Hexaflexagons is the more grown-up version, aimed at math-loving kids like me who just refused to grow up.

Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?

Andrew Lawler’s brand-new book Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization doesn’t quite measure up to the bravado of its subtitle – it’s neither epic nor is it a saga – but it is full of fascinating anecdotes on the history and near-future of the bird that is the most important source of animal protein in the world.

Lawler’s story repeatedly takes us back to the modern domesticated chicken’s (Gallus gallus domesticus) ancestral roots in south and southeast Asia, where its distant relative, the red jungle fowl, still lives in remote areas but is under threat from deforestation and human predation. The story of its evolution – yep, I said it – into the tame, flavorless, fast-growing and productive egg-laying creatures we consume today is the strongest narrative thread in the book, as Lawler traces the bird’s move across land and sea, through several crazes of breeding and development, into an industrial revolution that have made chicken popular and cheap. Along the way, however, it’s lost most of its taste and been bred into a bird that suffers greatly during its short life, often unable to stand under the weight of its enormous breasts (stop snickering), as its musculoskeletal system doesn’t grow fast enough to support it by the time it’s shipped off for slaughter.

While the history of the bird was interesting, it’s Lawler’s notes on the present state of the chicken and the issues in the near future of poultry farming that formed the book’s most compelling passages. In a chapter that reminded me of Vice’s tremendous mini-documentary on foie gras, Lawler visits a traditional French chicken farm where the birds are raised as they were a century and a half ago, resulting in meat that’s much more flavorful and tender, but at a much higher cost. That ties into interwoven discussions (little in the book is linear) about animal rights and what might constitute cruelty to birds that appear to be much more intelligent than we typically assume; Lawler writes, “Chickens are excluded from US laws regulating humane treatment of animals raised as food, and there are no international regulations,” although he mentions that the EU bans battery cages and refuses to import US-grown poultry for health and safety reasons.

These digressions lead to the most horrifying aspect of the book – Lawler’s descriptions of the conditions of factory-farmed chicken, and how recent changes may not even be as positive as they seem on the surface. Dr. Janice Siegford at the Michigan State University’s Department of Animal Science says that her preliminary research indicates that “cage-free” may not be that much better for the birds than the old-style battery cages that (rightly) earned the ire of animal-rights activists. Cage-free birds are typically reared indoors, in giant aviaries that still keep the birds out of direct sunlight and away from their natural diet, all in the name of encouraging them to lay as many eggs as possible before they wear out after a year or so. Research into hen behavior in various settings seems to point to enhanced cages that grant more room to each bird while still giving them some of the privacy they seem to want while avoiding the violent behavior often exhibited by chickens in close quarters, even in the open environment of the aviary. (Irony alert: Michigan banned homeowners from raising chickens or any livestock in their yards. Gotta protect Big Egg, I guess.)

Lawler’s focus on telling the story leads to some unfortunate choices and mistakes along the way. He gives physical descriptions of the various experts, farmers, and executives he meets – I can’t think of anything less relevant to this story than a description of a professor’s haircut – but then refers to an unnamed paper by “two academics.” He botches an amusing tangent on the myth of the basilisk, which was supposedly born from an egg laid by a rooster (not a biological impossibility, as he later explains), by placing the creature’s appearance in the wrong Harry Potter book, and later misplaces Mali in sub-Saharan Africa when more than half the country is within that desert. The details themselves are unimportant to the whole narrative, but it’s a distraction that, when I’m reading any non-fiction book, makes me worry there are other mistakes I won’t catch.

In all fairness to Lawler, I wonder to what extent a narrative was pushed on him by his editors, as these food-history books don’t typically lend themselves well to that kind of structure; Mark Kurlansky’s Cod and Salt were both very well-received by critics and food-industry folk, but neither has anything resembling a narrative. Dan Koeppel’s Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World has an actual narrative – the fight between man and fungus – but he had the benefit of working with one of the few foodstuffs that has no genetic diversity whatsoever. Trevor Corson’s The Story of Sushi is one of the best food books I’ve ever read, but he wove a separate narrative of a session at a sushi-chef school around his story, allowing him to tie together chapters on different fish or sushi-making traditions that otherwise would have been separate essays connected only by theme. Lawler’s book stands up much better in that light, as a series of diverse commentaries and histories connected by a common subject without a unifying thread. It probably doesn’t need one, given how important the chicken and its eggs are to feeding the world, and if anything Lawler could probably write a Pollan-esque sequel expanding on the last few chapters on the future of poultry farming, explaining where that part of the industry needs to go to remain productive while improving the welfare of the birds themselves.

Next up: Marlene Zuk’s Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live.

Tenth of December.

I wasn’t familiar with the work of American short story writer George Saunders until a friend of mine here in Delaware (the father of one of my daughter’s classmates) recommended Saunders’ collection Tenth of December, which won the 2013 Story Prize and the inaugural Folio Prize, while it was shortlisted for the National Book Award (along with Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland), losing to James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird. Saunders has a clear gift for speaking in tongues, using wildly different narrative voices from story to story, sometimes to the detriment of the story, while the vignettes themselves capture dark emotions through the eyes of ordinary (if a bit off-kilter) narrators.

The title story closes the book, and tells of a chance encounter between an adult man who intends to kill himself by allowing himself to freeze to death, and a teenaged boy who believes or is merely fantasizing that the girl on whom he has a crush has been abducted by the first man. When the boy falls into a frozen lake, the man is forced to abandon his plan if he wants to save the boy, while the reader hears his internal monologue explaining why he wants to take his own life. It takes a while to get going, which is true of most of the stories in the volume, but the pace accelerates once all of the critical elements are in place.

The real centerpiece of the book, both the most complex story and the one with the most irritating narration, is “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” written by a suburban father who’s struggling to provide a middle-class upbringing for his daughters. The story is told as a series of journal or diary entries from the father, who often dispenses with grammatical niceties like subjects, so the whole thing reads like it was written by a three-year-old (with a big vocabulary) or by Cookie Monster. The father has a Willy Loman-esque quality to his yearnings for more material trappings for his kids, especially his oldest daughter, who’s feeling the social impact of being one of the least affluent students in her school, while he and his wife (who don’t seem to be any too sharp with money) slowly rack up strangling consumer debt. An unexpected windfall allows him to splurge on a gift for his daughter, the Semplica Girls, whose plight – I won’t spoil it – should open his eyes to what real poverty and hopelessness are like, but don’t because he’s so caught up in his own internal rat race.

Saunders gets some comparisons to Vonnegut, although I think the latter was more wry and cynical where Saunders finds far more humanity in his characters and shows more empathy for them. “Escape from Spiderhead” describes the experiences of a convict in an experimental prison where the prisoners end up test subjects for a variety of drugs used to stimulate or repress feelings of love and lust. It’s a Vonnegut-esque view of the future, but where Vonnegut would have used the setting as a commentary on our increasing reliance on the pharmaceutical industry or the dangerous intersection of technology and the human condition, Saunders instead uses it as mere backdrop for the central character’s inner conflict when the warden/director administers a drug that delivers horrible mental and emotional pain to another patient while he’s forced to watch.

As in any collection, fiction or essays, one author or many, the quality within Tenth of December fluctuates. “Victory Lap,” the opener, takes a disturbingly distant, antiseptic view of one young boy, whose parents are strict to the point of abusive, facing an internal struggle whether to stop the potential rape of his young neighbor, a girl who appears to have thrown him overboard as a friend as she became more popular and his parents restricted him from any kind of socializing. “Home” may be a highly effective story of a young veteran returning from Iraq, struggling to deal with his own emotional trauma while he encounters an absolute mess in every aspect of his home life, but the story left me thinking I lacked the life experience (as in, I never served) to appreciate or evaluate what Saunders was trying to tell me. The ending of “Puppy” didn’t click with me at all, as it seemed like Marie would have made the opposite choice when confronted with the horrifying detail that turns her away.

Saunders’ facility with language, not so much his vocabulary but his ear for syntax, affect, the sound of words whether spoken or thought, was by far the strongest aspect of Tenth of December, making it easy for me to get lost in a story even if I didn’t find the plot itself terribly compelling. And the fact that he has empathy for most of his characters (aside, perhaps, from the two leads in “Victory Lap”) made it an emotional read as well, given his ability to get the reader into a character’s mind. When Saunders’ stories are more just stories and less with A Point, Tenth of December can match any anthology I’ve read.

If you’re intrigued and want to read a bit of his writing, Saunders’ nonfiction essay “Manifesto: A press release from People Reluctant to Kill for an Abstraction,” which appeared in Slate in 2004, is a marvelous read.

Next up: Andrew Lawler’s Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization, which uses the word “cock” more often than any book I’ve ever read.

Saturday five, 3/7/15.

I’ve had two draft blog posts in the last week, one on Kyler Murray and one on UF shortstop Richie Martin, with some other players included in each piece. I also held a Klawchat on Thursday, my last before heading off to spring training, which will make chat times irregular for the rest of the month.

The University of Chicago Press has published a new edition of the essential baseball book The Hidden Game of Baseball: A Revolutionary Approach to Baseball and Its Statistics, with a foreword by … oh, hey, that’s me. The original came out in 1984, which I know is before many of you were born, but it remains one of the great gateways into understanding the sport on a rational level. I own a copy of the original, but I’m thrilled to get and to be part of this update.

And now, this week’s links…saturdayfive

  • Dr. Paul Offit, who invented the rotavirus vaccine and is one of the most ardent and erudite advocates for universal vaccination, on how the modern vaccine-denial movement is putting our children at risk.
  • Meanwhile, Representative Barry Loudermilk of Georgia, who chairs a House science subcommittee, didn’t get his kids vaccinated. There’s no justification for having him anywhere near a science policy-making body, and he just feeds right into the whole children-as-property fallacy with his comments.
  • From the New York Times: Is most of our DNA just junk? It turns out the question of whether noncoding DNA serves any useful purposes is tied up in debates over genetics research and has even drawn in the cranks who push creation “science.”
  • Speaking of creationism, the irreducible complexity fallacy gets a good slap upside the head at the National Center for Science Education’s blog in a post tearing up that misconception. Evolution doesn’t favor increasing complexity, and, as the post asks, what exactly do you mean by “complexity” in the first place?
  • Radley Balko, who keeps churning out great investigative pieces, on as bad a case of police and DA corruption as you’ll see. A process server who served papers to a police officer ended up arrested and charged with assaulting the officer, with seven corroborating witnesses, most or all cops, backing it up … but the alleged assault never happened. And as far as I can tell, none of those cops has been charged or suspended in the case.
  • The man credited with bringing farm-to-table to Dallas long before that was even a term passed away last week at 58. Tom Spicer supplied produce to many of the Metroplex’s finest restaurants.
  • What purpose is served by a law that prevents a woman whose baby is almost certainly nonviable from terminating the pregnancy? That’s the very real case of a North Carolina woman, Whitney, who had to head two states away to have an abortion because North Carolina has banned all abortions past twenty weeks. This seems to me to be a medical issue, not a right-to-life vs. reproductive rights question, and therefore one best determined by the patient and her doctor.

Downton Abbey, season five.

In case you missed it, check out this week’s Klawchat transcript.

Season five of Downton Abbey was, to put it kindly, a bit bland. After the previous season, which found the series’ soapier qualities often ramped up to unwelcome levels, the most recent season saw very little of consequence happening at Downton until the final two episodes (including the Christmas special), so while we still had plenty of the dry wit that is typically sprinkled throughout the dialogue, there was little of compelling interest to bring me back from week to week.

The two most significant storylines, at least when viewed by the weight of the issues they covered, were the investigation of the murder of Mr. Green and Lady Edith’s ongoing attempts to maintain a relationship with her daughter, Marigold, who’s been taken in by a tenant family at Downton. The former storyline took the major dramatic twist from season four, a storyline that won Joanne Froggatt a Golden Globe Award in January, and stretched it out in what I thought was the worst way possible, wringing it for extra drama with no consideration of the human costs. In season four, at least, she showed the kind of post-traumatic reactions you might expect from a rape victim, especially in an era where victims were often seen as deserving blame, but here it’s as if nothing ever happened to her – her character seemed fully restored to her season three form except when Mr. Green’s name was directly broached in her presence. Using a rape storyline to give an actress whose primary role before that had been to stand around and be cute felt tawdry, but at least served a higher purpose of adding drama to the series while touching on a social issue that remains important; discarding most of it, saving only the part that allows for a nonsensical murder investigation storyline that had only one possible ending feels venal.

Lady Edith’s storyline followed a similar if less culturally important arc, where a real issue (single motherhood, the “shame” of bearing a child out of wedlock in that era) became fodder for a plot thread that largely disappeared once it became inconvenient. The child she bore on the Continent last season, then brought back to place with the Drewes, was clearly going to end up with her because the writers of the show seem to have largely eschewed unhappy endings for any character since the public outrage over the deaths of two characters (both because the actors portraying them declined to renew their contracts) in season three.

And that is the crux of the Downton problem, at least at the moment. Julian Fellowes has created such a broad cast of largely likable characters that no one wants to see them come to any (more) grief; I’d compare it to the wonderful, sentimental finale of Parks and Recreation last month, where we saw the futures for all of the main characters and even a few side ones, and everyone lived happily ever after (although Tajikistan is off). But Downton Abbey isn’t a sitcom, so avoiding anything too dreadful happening to any of the characters can lead to a season that’s entertaining in bits but overall rather bland. And the apparent trend toward rehabilitating Thomas’ character to imbue him with some humanity, where he’s starting to show real empathy for other servants, responding to Ms. Baxter’s selflessness by doing a few good turns for others, means we’re losing the lone true antagonist in the house. If Spratt is to be the one awful person on the show, I’d just as soon do without a bad guy.

The final two episodes did at least have their share of big moments, including the seriocomic leadup to Rose and Atticus’s wedding with a few touching examples of the lengths to which a loving parent will go to secure the happiness of his or her child, along with the preposterous arrest of one character, a plot twist that seemed more like a convenience to allow Moseley and Baxter to do one of the kindest turns anyone’s done on the show so far. That’s exactly where we’ve come through five seasons of this show, though: It’s just a really nice group of people, mostly doing nice things for each other, trying to cope with a society that’s changing quickly in a direction that is outmoding their entire way of life. Perhaps season six will see new characters replacing Branson or Lady Rose (as actress Lily James seems set for stardom now that she’s playing Cinderella), but I found myself wondering if Fellowes was setting the show up for a victory lap, one more season where they settle Lady Mary’s storyline and wrap up the series. After a season like this last one, it’s hard to imagine him going back in for the kind of drama that drove the first three seasons to such critical and popular acclaim.

What did you think? Did I miss the excitement this season?

Reiner Knizia’s Age of War.

I have a draft blog post on Richie Martin, Walker Buehler, and Mike Matuella. This morning’s Klawchat transcript is also up. Definitely a different mix of questions when I hold a chat that early.

Reiner Knizia’s tiny boardgame Age of War is one of the smallest and simplest games I’ve encountered yet; the whole game comprises seven custom dice and fourteen square cards. Its rules are similarly short and elegant, fitting on both sides of one small page, even with room for some images and explanations to avoid potential confusion. It’s lightweight due to the moderate randomness involved in gameplay, but there are also clear strategic decisions for players to make, ones that my eight-year-old daughter could grasp and that give the game good replay value.

Age of War plays two to eight, although we’ve only played it with two and three so far. The fourteen cards are all laid face-up on the table and show one to four “battle lines,” rows of images that match the symbols on the dice. Each die has six different sides: one sword, two swords, three swords (those are all infantry units), a horseman, a bow and arrow, and a “daimyo” unit. On a turn, a player rolls all seven dice, then tries to match one complete battle line row on any card. The player places the matching dice on the card, after which s/he is committed to trying to finish that card for the remainder of his/her term, rolling all remaining dice, matching a battle line, then continuing to roll and attempt to match until either all lines are filled or s/he fails trying. The catch: If the player rolls the remaining dice and can’t match any line left on the card, s/he has to discard one die for the rest of the turn before rolling the remainder. Thus the player eventually will match all lines or be left with fewer dice than open spaces on the card.

When a player completes a card by matching all battle lines on its face, the player takes that card and places it in front of him, still face-up. Each card has a point value, and the cards are part of sets that include one to four cards each, with a higher bonus for collecting an entire set. However, another player can steal that card by rolling to match all battle lines plus the one extra battle line that shows a single daimyo character on it – making it more difficult but not impossible to steal. Once a player completes a set, s/he flips all cards in that set over, making them impervious to attacks from another player.

Reiner Knizia's Age of War, a new light strategy dice game from Fantasy Flight.

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

The game ends once all fourteen cards are claimed, after which players simply add up points from complete sets and points from other cards in front of them, with the highest point total the winner. The game took us 15-20 minutes with two or three players; with more than four players you’d almost have to try to steal cards from opponents, which would likely stretch the game out further, although there’s still the gating factor of the game-end condition to limit how long you’ll be rolling.

The decisions you have to make are fairly simple – choosing which set of cards to try to collect, and then choosing once you’ve made your first roll on a turn which card and which lines to fill. The yellow set contains four cards, the hardest to finish but the most valuable (ten points, three more than the sum of the cards’ individual values). There’s just one green card, so you can’t lose it once you win it, but the bonus for taking it is smaller. And watching what your opponents are collecting is important from the second turn onwards.

It’s a light game, both in mass and in rules, very easy to pick up and a great travel game like Love Letter, Jaipur, or Coup (which I own but need to play more to review). It’s also very reasonably priced, which I think is a new(ish) trend in boardgaming – gateway games $25 and under that can grab people who see the $40-plus price tags on the best German-style games and won’t take the plunge, which I can’t blame one bit. I’m hoping Age of War can be another gateway game to get more folks into the hobby.

Think Twice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austin eats.

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

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

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

At Franklin BBQ with @lanaberry

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 2015 music update.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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