May 2015 music update.

I think this is my longest music update yet, 21 songs and 73 minutes total. Also, my final ranking of the top 100 prospects for this year’s draft will be up tomorrow for Insiders.

The Chemical Brothers – Go. Ten years after their first collaboration on “Galvanize,” the Chemical Brothers reunite with Q-Tip for this new track, with better lyrics this time from the brother Abstract and an equally catchy bit of electronic music that has Rowlands and Simons seeming in an almost poppy mood.

Metric – The Shade. I’ve never been a big Metric fan, finding their lyrics superficial yet pretentious, as if they felt like they had Really Big Themes to discuss but didn’t have the creative chops to do it. (It’s odd, since the lead singer’s father is a noted poet.) Here the Canadian quartet downshift slightly in their topic, and the song’s imagery, while predictable, works with the whinging chorus to create a deep sense of yearning and an emotional connection I haven’t heard from them before.

The Wombats – This Is Not A Party. The British act’s third album Glitterbug is one of my favorite spins of the year, and this is the third track from that record I’ve put on a playlist in the last four months. Matthew Murphy is a modern-day Morrissey with his wry humor and latent cynicism, but everything’s couched in these infectious musical packages that make this their best work yet.

Cayucas – Moony Eyed Walrus. It’s not quite “High School Lover,” their modest hit from 2013, but the Yudin brothers’ new single has some silly lyrics and a surfer/low-fi pop vibe.

Tame Impala – Disciples. I’m just stunned Kevin Parker could put out a song this short – it clocks in at under two minutes. It’s admirable restraint.

Torres – Cowboy Guilt. I’m not a big Torres fan (although I understand the boardgame is pretty good), but this song is an exception with the lilting riff that backs up the initial verses leading up to a heavier, denser chorus. I can’t quite explain what happens at the two-minute mark, though.

Django Django – 4000 Years. My second-favorite track from their latest album, Born Under Saturn, which is solid all the way through but doesn’t have the huge breakout hits that their debut had in “Default” and “Hail Bop.”

White Reaper – I Don’t Think She Cares. Punk-pop with a little hint of early Vines.

Desaparecidos – Backsell. The first album from this side project of Conor Oberst (leader of Bright Eyes) since 2002 features this song, originally released in 2012 (along with “MariKKKopa,” about Arizona tyrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio). I’ve seen them described as emo and punk, but it’s really just loud alternative, not that dissimilar in style from the Foo Fighters but a good bit smarter.

Tei Shi – Bassically. A recommendation from reader Courtney, who accurately pegs this as something fans of Grimes would enjoy. The video is a fashion nightmare – is she wearing a giant red diaper? – with some highly stoned dance moves.

Joy Williams – Until the Levee. Williams, formerly half of the country duo The Civil Wars, keeps dropping new singles from her upcoming album Venus, each of which shows off her powerful voice in a different motif.

Tanlines – Slipping Away. I miss the darker note from their 2012 song “All of Me,” but this has the sort of effortless sunny tone of a summer hit.

Horsebeach – Disappear. Mancunian, ethereal, jangly indie-pop that sounds like an Inspiral Carpets song covered by Wild Nothing.

The Vaccines – Minimal Affection. I have no idea what to make of the Vaccines at this point; their punk-pop hit “Teenage Icon” was one of my favorite tunes of 2012, while their latest album, English Graffiti, is moodier and draws just as heavily on British new wave and two-tone ska revivalist music as on the punk and post-punk movements that informed their earlier work. Maybe the Vaccines are coming of age an album later than promised.

Total Babes – Blurred Time. I keep reading how these guys are a spinoff or offshoot of Cloud Nothings, but the only direction connection is a shared drummer, and even that is tenuous since Cloud Nothings is really a one-man project. Regardless of their relationship to that other Cleveland act, Total Babes put out music that’s somewhat similar to Dylan Baldi’s output but more focused and less overproduced, noisy punk-pop with a sunnier overtone.

Mourn – Gertrudis, Get Through This! A quartet of teens, three of them girls, from Barcelona, Mourn put out a debut album last fall and just followed it up with a three-song EP, boasting a more melodic but still rough-edged rock sound. There’s definitely a familiar note here that reminded me of Hinds (ex-Deers), another female-led rock act from Spain, but Mourn’s music is far more advanced and they probably deserve some of Hinds’ hype.

Destroyer – Dream Lover. Destroyer is Dan Bejar of New Pornographers fame, and if you liked his “War on the East Coast” on Brill Bruisers you’ll like “Dream Lover” as well.

Neon Indian – Annie. Alan Palomo’s first full-length album since 2011 is due later this year, and this first single reminds me of St. Lucia’s debut record, but where the latter’s Jean-Philippe Grobler brings his South African roots to his music, Palomo’s instrumentation (especially the percussion) here sounds more Mexican or Native American.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Can’t Keep Checking My Phone. This song is all about Riley Geare’s percussion lines, which sound like they were lifted from a salsa record and used to create this psychedelic soul-tinged track instead.

Seoul – The Line. Another song that reminds me of Wild Nothing – a band I discovered through a few reader suggestions in 2012 – in its dreampop stylings and hard-to-make-out vocals.

Creepoid – American Smile. The first single from this Philadelphia quartet’s latest album, Cemetery Highrise Slum, calls to mind Titus Andronicus, Mudhoney, and early Nirvana, with a sludgy guitar line and the general feeling of slowly tumbling down the side of a mountain.

Saturday five, 5/30/15.

This week I posted an updated ranking of the top 25 prospects in the minors and my second mock draft for 2015. I also held yet another Klawchat this week, still focusing on the draft.

And now, this week’s links… saturdayfive

Birmingham eats, 2015 edition.

I had to get up at 5 am and connect through Orlando to get to Birmingham for the Vanderbilt-Alabama game on Saturday, so once I got to my rental car I headed straight for Octane Coffee in the Homewood neighborhood, the best coffee place I’ve found in Birmingham. It’s not on par with my favorite small roasters – Intelligentsia, Four Barrel, Counter Culture, Cartel, etc. – but it’s a lighter roast of higher-quality beans than your mass-market chains offer. I hung out for a while to write a few things, including starting the mock draft post for Tuesday, and ended up chatting about SSRIs with a few med school students sitting at my table, then chatting boardgames with a young couple playing Rivals for Catan (who also suggested a newish game called The Duke to me).

I was there long enough that I ended up going next door to the Mexican/BBQ place Little Donkey for lunch. Their midday menu offers plates for $8.75 with two tacos of your choosing, most of which contain large piles of smoked meats, and one of their sides. (You can also get a burrito, a salad, or tamales instead of tacos.) I also added a grilled corn on the cob for $2, and the total was more food than I could consume because the tacos were so much larger than I expected. The pork al pastor was the better option, although I did like the smoked brisket too; the latter probably just had too much meat relative to its toppings. The chipotle slaw was perfectly flavored, with the egg in the dressing cutting some of the sharpness of the pepper, and the elote (corn) was solid-average other than (I’m nitpicking) a very uneven distribution of the paprika on the outside. They make their tortillas by hand, and it was evident as they were worth the trip all by themselves. Reader Aaron, who lives nearby, says dinner isn’t quite such good value, but I thought it was very reasonable for the size and quantity of the lunch.

While I was sitting in Octane, Alton Brown sent out a tweet to his favorite road eats from the southern portion of his national tour, and on it was Steel City Pops, which is located right next door to Octane. Serving large paletas in fruit and dairy options for $3 a pop from five (soon to be seven) area locations, Steel City has a great assortment of straightforward and clever flavor combinations that change from time to time. I went with guava, which tasted like … guava. It was good, though. I wanted to try the caramel or the coffee, but didn’t think I could handle that on top of lunch.

My last meal was a substantial disappointment, due to what I think was a process breakdown in the kitchen. Hot & Hot Fish Club is one of the top-rated restaurants in the city, winning a James Beard Award in 2012, offering a menu full of farm-to-table that reflects seasonal produce as well as any I’ve come across. The menu on Saturday was loaded with spring vegetables across the starters and mains, and I was quite optimistic after seeing the salad, with young lettuce leaves still on the head along with English peas, shaved Parmiggiano-Reggiano, and a tart dressing that might have contained anchovies (although the menu didn’t say so, and that would be an odd omission). Even the breads to start the meal, served with fresh butter and their own green salt with dried herbs, were superb, especially the soft white bread, with the crust of a sponge bread but the tender crumb of a highly enriched loaf.

Then I waited. It was somewhere between 30 and 40 minutes before my entree arrived, and that only because I finally asked my server (the bartender) for an ETA on it. He later explained that when he asked the kitchen to fire the dish, they hadn’t done so, and when it did arrive less than five minutes after he made the second request, it wasn’t right – edible, certainly, not worth sending back, but not right, either. The dish was duck breast with “crispy” duck confit served with creamy grits, a blueberry gastrique, grilled peaches, and pecans. The duck breast was almost too tough to chew or even cut; the confit thigh wasn’t crispy in any way and its meat didn’t want to come off the bone. The gastrique was absent, although there were maybe a dozen cooked blueberries in two pockets on the plate. I dislike sending food that is edible back to the kitchen; something has to be unsafe to eat or cooked beyond palatability for me to take that step. This wasn’t at that level; it was just done wrong. The bartender had the kitchen send out a small cup of their spring pea soup, pureed with fresh mint and creme fraiche, but that was – and I don’t use this word often or lightly – terrible. The peas tasted both raw and underripe, so the soup was grassy and very bitter. We grow English peas in our backyard every spring, and when ripe they are juicy and sweet and perfect right out of the pod. Sometimes we pick a pod that isn’t ready, and that was the flavor in the soup. The kitchen just had an off night.

Chicken cutlets (The grade 20 cook, part one).

My latest mock draft is up for Insiders, and I held a Klawchat this afternoon to discuss it. I also appeared on the Dbacks Insider podcast (direct link to mp3) with my friend and former colleague Steve Berthiaume to talk about the Dbacks’ options at the first pick.

A friend of mine confessed to me recently that he’s completely incompetent in the kitchen – a “(grade) 20 cook,” in his terms, and asked me for a suggestion on a book or even a few go-to recipes for someone with kids who wants to learn how to cook. I made a few suggestions from my cookbook recommendations post, but was thinking about the most basic, extensible meal I make that most kids would like. The answer kind of came from my own childhood, even though I’ve modified the recipe from the way my mom made them: chicken cutlets. Here’s my recipe, written and explained for someone who has as much experience as a cook as Craig Counsell and Dan Jennings had as managers.

Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are derided by most chefs, for good reason – they have no taste of their own (unless you’re buying heirloom or pasture-raised birds), and because the meat is so lean, it dries out very quickly. Most cooking methods do more damage than good, as the protection provided by the skin and bone is lost. You can marinate it in something strong (citrus works well, like orange-garlic-soy) and grill it, but you almost have to undercook it and let carryover finish. But chicken breast meat fries beautifully, especially if you break the breasts down into a more amenable shape.

Chicken cutlets are thinly sliced pieces of breast meat, ideally pounded slightly to give them even thickness. I season them, dip them in beaten egg, and then press them into panko bread crumbs before pan-frying them. They require no particular skill and no specialized equipment. You don’t even have to measure anything.

Most good supermarkets sell chicken breasts already sliced into cutlets, and any butcher should do that for you on request. If you have a good chef’s knife and a steady hand, you can buy boneless skinless breasts and cut them into cutlets yourself; it’s a horizontal cut, parallel to the cutting board, and therefore more dangerous than most knife cuts you’ll undertake. I typically get three cutlets from a half breast, two the length of the breast half and one smaller one sliced off the top. However you get your cutlets, you want to pound any thicker parts out so that each cutlet is as close as possible to a uniform thickness. I have a metal mallet for this, but a ceramic custard cup or even flat-bottomed mug or glass will work too (cover the meat with plastic wrap before pounding). If you buy whole breasts, however, make sure you pull off the tenderloins, the narrow pieces on the underside of the breasts. You can cook them as you would the cutlets, but you have to do it separately.

Season each cutlet liberally with salt (preferably coarse) and pepper. You can add other seasonings if you’d like; paprika works well, including smoked Spanish paprika, as does cumin. Michael Ruhlman has a similar recipe in his book Egg where he coats the cutlets with Dijon mustard before they hit the egg wash, but I haven’t tried this yet. Any dried spice will work well here because it will get to bloom when hitting the hot oil.

Now set up your assembly line. In a wide-bottomed bowl, beat two eggs until well combined, as if you were going to scramble them, adding a pinch of salt before you beat them. Take a dinner plate and spread a layer of panko bread crumbs over it – you can use other bread crumbs but panko gives a superior texture.

For the cooking vessel, I use a 12-inch cast-iron skillet; both iron and oil are poor conductors of heat but excellent insulators, so once hot, they’ll hold their heat well. You can use any skillet or saute pan that is deep enough to keep the oil from splashing or spilling over the sides. Pour about ½ inch of oil into the skillet – olive oil is the best for flavor, but anything would work, even shortening or duck fat or beef tallow if that’s how you roll although I admit I’ve never tried the last two – and heat it over medium to medium-high heat until you can see the surface of the oil shimmering and perhaps even catch a wisp of smoke. (It’s about 350 degrees F.)

Once the oil is at temperature, you’ll need to work quickly, so you want all of that setup ready before you turn on the stove. Take each cutlet, dip it in the egg wash, hold it up for a few seconds to let the excess drip back into the bowl, then press each side into the bread crumbs. Lay it gently in the pan – don’t let it drop unless you enjoy getting hot oil all over you. You should hear sizzling immediately; if you don’t, the oil isn’t hot enough. Fit no more than three cutlets in the pan at once, often stopping at two, because each cutlet you add drops the oil temperature, and crowding the pan will result in the chicken steaming rather than frying. If the oil is at the right temperature, the cutlets will require about two minutes per side; at 90 seconds, check by lifting up a corner with tongs or a spatula, flipping them (gently!) if the bread crumbs are a deep golden brown.

Tongs are ideal, but if you use a spatula, the safe way to flip anything in a saute pan or skillet is to use a fork or second spatula on the other (raw) side to hold it up against the first spatula. Just don’t confuse the utensils: Once something has touched raw chicken, it can’t touch anything that’s cooked.

When you remove the cooked cutlets from the skillet, you have two options. If you’re serving them immediately, move each cutlet to a plate lined with paper towels to drain off some of the excess oil, then serve. You can also hold them in a warm (200 F) oven on a sheet pan if you need to wait a half-hour or so before serving. They keep well as leftovers; reheat them in a 350 degree oven rather than the microwave to restore the crispness of the exterior. One serving suggestion of many: Top them with fresh mozzarella, basil leaves, and some crushed red pepper and serve them on a crusty baguette.

The Broad Fork.

My updated ranking of the top 25 prospects in the minors is up for Insiders.

Hugh Acheson’s newest cookbook, The Broad Fork: Recipes for the Wide World of Vegetables and Fruits, is the book that’s been missing from my shelf for years: a book devoted to all manner of fruits and vegetables, ranging from simple recipes to involved ones, that’s largely but not exclusively vegetarian. I’ve tried seven recipes so far, and they all worked on the first try and produced results that made me want to make them all again. (Disclaimer: I’ve met Hugh and he sent me a copy of the book with a signed card that said he hoped this would be “the knuckleball” of cookbooks – weird, but it works. I’d say that’s accurate.)

Acheson writes that his inspiration for the book was a friend who received some kohlrabi (a member of the Brassica family, like broccoli and cabbage, but with a larger stem and sweeter flesh) in his CSA allotment and asked Hugh what the hell he could do with such an odd and uncommon vegetable. Acheson has organized The Broad Fork by season, to align with those of you in CSAs or folks like me who prowl local farmstands for whatever’s in season, although some of these recipes will work just fine with out-of-season items because of the preparations or seasoning involved. He also includes numerous preservation recipes, including pickling and fermenting, so that you can taste the bounty of one season well into the next one.

The two biggest hits so far have been recipes that star one fruit or vegetable but build it up with a sauce or other accompaniment that works in many other dishes as well. Acheson’s take on the classic Italian dish prosciutto e melone (cured Parma ham, which is very salty, along with half-moons of cantaloupe) adds a blended charred-onion vinaigrette that bridged the gap between the salty-fatty meat and the sweet fruit … and also turned out to be an ideal accompaniment for a grilled New York strip steak the following night. The griddled asparagus with pipérade and creamy grits and poached eggs would make a complete meal at brunch, and I used the remaining pipérade – a spanish preparation of onion, garlic, tomato, red pepper, and sherry vinegar – on my fried eggs the next day at lunch. (The grits in the main recipe came out too thin, but I found stirring a little flour and baking powder into the watery leftovers made an excellent savory pancake batter to have with those eggs.)

His pickled hot pepper recipe is simple and extensible to pickling other vegetables (although he has numerous pickling recipes throughout the book), and it leads into the next recipe, a salad with sliced pickled peppers, chickpeas, olives, oranges, mint, and feta cheese, which had a fantastic panoply of flavors but was too difficult to eat with a fork. (A tablespoon did the job just fine, though.) His carrots Vichy are simple and quick and complement the fresh spring carrots we’re getting around here right now without overwhelming them with butter or cream, including just a small amount of each in a recipe that cooks a pound of the roots. Even the honeydew agua fresca, which balances the sweetness of the melon with a cup of lime juice, was an immediate hit around here, one I’ll save for when east coast melons start to show up at our markets later this summer. He does call for the occasional hard-to-find ingredient – bonito flakes, Espelette pepper – although their availability is increasing thanks to Whole Foods and amazon.

Acheson includes a lot of kohlrabis – vegetables you might barely recognize, much less know how to prepare – in the book, including sunchokes, salsify, fiddlehead ferns, yacon (the tuberous root of a type of daisy; I’d never heard of it), endives, okra, and more. He doesn’t limit himself to fruits and vegetables either, with sections on pecans and various mushrooms (by season!), and the book includes numerous asides on subjects like poaching eggs, curing yolks, making vin cotto and citrus ponzu sauce, preparing a roux, preserving lemons, and making dashi and chicken stock (two ways – pressure cooker and slow cooker). He gives us a photo of his cookbook collection and a note on how he uses old books to develop new ideas, and lots of the dry wit that has made him popular as a judge on Top Chef. I’m always looking for new ideas for cooking vegetables, and the fact that Acheson has covered so many plants with easy to understand and easy to modify recipes (because the underlying ratios or concepts are so clear) make this cookbook a new essential.

Saturday five, 5/23/15.

My first “mock” draft for 2015 went up for Insiders on Wednesday night, although I’d already change a few things (e.g., the Red Sox’ pick). There’s also a new Insider minor league scouting roundup, with notes on Dylan Bundy, Luis Severino, Reynaldo Lopez, the Royals’ Cody Reed, and more. I held my regular Klawchat on Thursday.

Over at Paste, my latest boardgame review covers the highly anticipated Elysium, from the designer of Relic Runners. The game, which comes out on the 28th, has a great concept and theme, but I thought it was too short to let the mechanics play out.

And now, the links…

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

Anthony Marra’s debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, won substantial acclaim, with rave reviews in the New York Times and Washington Post, and winning a slew of minor awards and earning nominations for several major ones, including a finalist nod for the National Book Award. It’s a meticulously crafted tragedy, offering painstaking and painful detail on its setting in the ruins of Chechnya (in the Russian-controlled portion of the north Caucasus), telling the story of unexpected connections between a suddenly orphaned girl, her “disappeared” father’s best friend, and the female doctor at the barely functioning hospital who reluctantly harbors them. It also left me completely cold, which is hard to believe given how easily I find myself sucked into emotionally-driven stories, especially ones featuring children.

The eight-year-old girl, Havaa, manages to hide herself according to her father Dokka’s instructions when one night the secret police arrive to arrest him. His best friend, Akhmed, rescues her the next morning and, knowing of no other possible safe haven, takes her to the local hospital. Sonja is one of only two doctors remaining in the damaged facility and its de facto director, running it thanks to a black-market connection that provides just enough supplies to handle the births and landmine injuries that keep her busy. Akhmed, the proverbial doctor who graduated last in his med school class, is grieving the mental decline of his wife, who is bedridden with an unknown malady and suffers from memory loss even though she’s only in her 30s. Sonja, meanwhile, grieves the disappearance of her sister, Natasha, who left twice, once for a traumatic experience in white slavery, the second time for reasons to be revealed later. Their stories are connected, like constellations, by faint lines that appear drawn by fate. Their lives are always under threat by Ramzan the snitch, who has ratted out so many townsfolk that his own father denies him, although Ramzan himself has a tragic (and disgustingly graphic) backstory that has led him to this point.

Marra has constructed his novel beautifully, working through flashbacks without losing the plot line of the present, linking the stories in slight but realistic ways, relying just barely on coincidence to complete the segments. But I felt totally detached from the story, and the only explanation I can come up with is that I did not relate to or even sufficiently empathize with the main characters. Marra’s cast includes characters who are either too pathetic to accept, like Akhmed, a sad-sack in every aspect of his life who undertakes this one (likely last) heroic act to give his life some meaning; or too walled-off, like Sonja, to allow the reader (or this reader) to feel an investment in the character’s development or outcome. Even Ramzan just goes from an object of scorn to an object of pity once we find out what exactly turned him from man to rat.

I may just have whiffed on this book, despite its careful crafting and often beautiful prose – the descriptions of the scenery around the Chechen village are the best phrasings in the novel – because I couldn’t connect to the story. There’s so much cruelty, much of it the result of Marra’s research on the two brutal wars Russia waged to reclaim control of the largely Muslim breakaway republic, that perhaps, while real, the story was too foreign to me, although I did not have the same experience with Chimamanda Ngoza Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, set in Nigeria during the Biafra conflict. But I also have a bit of a conspiracy-theory hypothesis, that A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a book written by a highly trained and educated writer who has expertly implemented the lessons he learned, producing a novel that earns a perfect technical score but loses points on artistic impression. If writing a good novel were merely a matter of painting by numbers, many more writers could do it.

Next up: Still plowing through Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow.

A Tale for the Time Being.

I get book recommendations from lots of places, many from all of you and many from friends who are bookworms like I am, but Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being came to me via a new route – call it Strangers on a Plane. I was on a flight at some point last year, I think heading to the AFL in October, and the guy sitting next to me was reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterful dystopian novel Never Let Me Go. I mentioned that it was among my favorite novels, and asked if he’d read any Murakami, which he had, spurring a brief and very rapid-fire chat about modern Japanese (including Japanese expats) literature. He mentioned Ozeki’s novel, which I’d never heard of, recommending it very highly given what else I said I liked. It’s not quite like Murakami or Ishiguro – both of whom are idiosyncratic enough to make it hard for anyone to be “like” either of them – but Ozeki, a Zen Buddhist priest who lives in British Columbia, has a similar knack with magical realism as Murakami does: A little bit goes a very long way.

A Tale for the Time Being is two stories woven into one, a duality even reflected in the book’s title, as a “time being” is a Buddhist concept (uji) developed by the writer D?gen Zenji, who believed that all time is being and all beings are therefore time. (Whether time is a flat circle he did not say.) Time is a flow, comparable to a river, and all beings exist within time, even though our lives here are momentary. The protagonist of the first story, named Nao (pronounced “now,” another allusion to time and temporality), narrates her own story through entries in a diary she intends to leave for someone else to find at random, a story she refers to as “for the time-being.” Her diary does indeed make its way to someone, a woman on a remote island in British Columbia named Ruth, who lives with her husband Oliver and their idiot cat Pesto. The diary washes up after the 2012 earthquake and tsunami, spurring speculation among the 50 or so residents of the island, but discusses events from over a decade earlier, including Nao’s father’s repeated attempts at suicide and her own intention to do the same when she finishes the diary.

And then it gets really weird: Although the two stories are separated by time and geography, they begin to bleed into each other in ways that don’t quite add up, eventually culminating in the disappearance of text from the last few pages of the diary – a lack of resolution in Nao’s story that Ruth herself has to fix. Saying more would spoil the book’s denuouement, but Ozeki employs this one instance of magical realism (everything else is hyperrealistic, but not actually impossible) to tie her main story and the quasi-metafictional diary story together.

That connection itself lends itself to many interpretations. There’s a crow who keeps appearing on Ruth’s island who may be spiritually connected to Nao or her family. Ozeki alludes to several quantum concepts, including Schrodinger’s cat paradox and the many-worlds interpretation of the effect observation has on quantum phenomena, and may even be teasing the concept of the ‘quantum soul,’ itself an odd marriage of hard physics and the metaphysical. While there’s nothing as cataclysmic as Ray Bradbury’s “The Butterfly Effect,” I found the similarity between the classical statement of this effect – a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa leads to a hurricane in the Americas – and Nao’s struggles to find her own wings eventually affecting Ruth across another vast ocean to be improbably coincidental.

Magical realism and the specific ribbon Ozeki uses to interlace her two narratives aren’t the source of the book’s narrative greed, however, nor is it her fictional version of herself, especially since Ruth’s conversations with Oliver veer into pretentiousness too often. It’s Nao herself, precocious rather than pretentious, a bright teenager who is at-risk due to a disastrous home life, a suicidal father who’s lost his career and self-respect, a mother largely turning a blind eye to her husband’s abdication of his duties, and schoolmates who scorn, taunt, bully, and physically abuse her. She’s a fragile teenager who doesn’t want to show a fragile side, and who’s asked to be stronger and more mature than any teenager should have to be. Her story is the compelling one, and Ruth’s story is more about her own connection to what she reads in Nao’s diary and her attempts to unlock some of the riddles Nao herself couldn’t solve than it is about Ruth herself.

The resolution relies on the collapsing of space and time into a temporary singularity, a metaphorical bridge Ruth can cross to get to Nao’s story and provide her with the resolution she can’t give herself. It’s sweet without becoming maudlin, although it abandons the largely realistic tone of the preceding 300-odd pages. Along the way, Ozeki gives brief introductions to basic concepts of Zen Buddhism, notably zazen, the type of seated meditation that is at the heart of the practice (and may have real physical health benefits as well), but to her credit it never overwhelms either of the core stories. She even has the brief stomach-churning passage of the violence of Japanese soldiers during World War II that marked Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. If you like that novel or Murakami’s work in general, take my seatmate’s advice and pick this book up too.

Next up: I’m bouncing around in my reviews, but I’m currently reading Wizard of the Crow, the 766-page opus from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, one of the greatest post-colonial writers to come out of Africa, less well-known than Chinua Achebe but writing with greater depth and a biting satirical slant. It’s set in a corrupt African dictatorship, where allegiances change with the wind and a new power emerges in the form of an inadvertent charlatan calling himself the Wizard of the Crow.

Saturday five, 5/16/15.

My Insider content this week includes my redraft of the 2005 class as well as a recap of the first round picks who didn’t pan out. I also held my weekly Klawchat on Wednesday. My first mock draft will go up on Tuesday.

And now, this week’s links…saturdayfive

The Invisible Gorilla.

I’ve got two posts up for Insiders looking back at the 2005 draft, one redrafting the top 30 picks and one examining the sixteen first-round “misses” from that loaded class. I’ll be chatting today at 1 pm ET.

Since reading Daniel Kahnemann’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow about this time last year, I’ve been exploring more titles in that subgenre, the intersection of cognitive psychology and everyday decision-making, particularly in business settings. Kahnemann discusses the phenomenon of inattentional blindness, which was first demonstrated in the experiment by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris that you can take here. That experiment gives The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, the book by Simons and Chabris that explores six “everyday illusions” that distort our thinking and decision-making, its title, but the scope goes well beyond inattentional blindness to expose all kinds of holes in our perception.

(Speaking of perception, the short-lived TNT series of that name, which just ended its three-season run in March, devoted an episode called “Blindness” to two of the cognitive illusions discussed in The Invisible Gorilla, inattentional blindness and change blindness, even reproducing the experiment I linked above. It’s worth checking out when it reairs, even with its hamhanded crime story.)

The Invisible Gorilla is one of the best books of its kind that I’ve encountered, because it has the right balance of educational material, concrete examples, and exploration of the material’s meaning and possible remedies. The authors take a hard line on the six illusions they cover, saying there’s no way to avoid them, so the solution is to think our way around them – to recognize, for example, that just because we don’t notice our inattentional blindness when we talk on the phone while driving, we’re still prey to it. Yet the book remains instructive because forewarned is forearmed: if you know you’re going to fall for these illusions, you can take one more step back in your decision-making processes and prepare yourself for the trap.

The six illusions the authors cover are easy to understand once you hear them explained with an example. Inattentional blindness occurs when you are so focused on one task or object that you don’t notice something else happening in the background – for example, the gorilla wandered across the basketball court while you’re counting shots made by players in white. Change blindness is similar, but in this case you fail to notice the change in something or even someone when you’re focused on a different aspect of the person or image – which is how continuity errors end up in movies and escape the notice of most viewers, even when somewhat glaring once they’re pointed out. The illusion of memory revolves around our false confidence in what we remember, often to the point of being convinced that a story we heard that happened to someone else actually happened to us. The chapter covers the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, including a compelling (and awful) story of a rape victim who actively tried to remember details of her attacker’s face and still identified the wrong man when police arrested a suspect. The illusion of confidence involves overrating our own knowledge and abilities, such as the oft-cited statistic that a wide majority of American drivers consider themselves to be above-average at the task. (I’m not one of them; I dislike driving because I know I’m not good at it.) The illusion of knowledge is our mistaken belief that we know more than we do; the authors give a great test of this, pretending to be a child who keeps asking you “but why?” to show that, for example, you may think you know how a toilet works until someone actually asks you to go into detail on its operation. The sixth illusion, the illusion of potential, seems a bit forced in the context of the first five, even thought I enjoyed the authors’ attacks on pseudoscience crap like using Mozart or other classical music to raise your IQ (shocker: it’s bullshit) or the use of subliminal messages or advertising to change your thinking (the original subliminal advertising stunt in a movie theater was faked). It encapsulates the belief that we can improve our cognitive skills more quickly and easily than we actually can, or that improvements in a small, specific area result in more generalized improvements than they actually do.

The two “blindness” illusions make for the best stories, and are even applicable at times in baseball (how often have you been at a game, focusing on a particular player, and not realized that the pitcher had changed or another player had changed positions?), but the illusions of knowledge and confidence resonate more with the work that I do for ESPN. I’ve accepted and even embraced the fact that I will be wrong frequently on player evaluations, especially of amateur players, because that’s just inherent in the job: there’s far too much unpredictability involved in the development of individual players, so scouting relies on heuristics that will often miss on outliers like the Dustin Pedroias of the world. It’s also why, at a macro level, projection systems like ZiPS beat individual guesses on standings or overall player performances. (Projection systems can miss outliers too, like pitchers with new pitches or hitters with new swing mechanics, but that’s a different and I think more easily addressed deficiency.)

Even understanding the illusion of knowledge puts scouts in a quandary, as they’re expected to offer strong, even definitive takes on players when it would be more rational to discuss outcomes in probabilistic terms – e.g., I think Joey Bagodonuts has a 60% chance to reach the majors, a 20% chance to be an everyday shortstop, a 30% chance to end up at another position, etc. No one evaluates like that because they’re not asked to do so and they’re not trained to think like that. I’m in a similar boat: I tell readers I think a certain pitcher is a fifth starter, and if he has a few good starts in a row I’ll get some trolling comments, but when I call anyone a fifth starter I’m giving you a most likely outcome (in my opinion, which is affected by all of the above illusions) that doesn’t explicitly describe variance over shorter timeframes.

The illusion of confidence comes into play just as frequently, and to some extent it’s almost a requirement of the job. How could you offer an evaluation of a potential first-round pick or pull the trigger on a trade if you had an accurate view of your own limitations as an evaluator or executive? Would a proper system of safeguards to cover this illusion just lead to “paralysis by analysis?” I don’t know that I could ever have enough information to make me feel properly confident (as opposed to the illusory sense of overconfidence that the authors describe here) to decide who to take with the first overall pick in this year’s draft; I think Houston’s predraft process last year led them to take the right guy, and they still ended up with nothing because of a sort of black swan event with Aiken’s elbow. The authors express the need for readers to recognize their confidence in their own abilities is often exaggerated, but taken to its logical end it seems like a persuasive argument against getting out of bed in the morning, because we’re just going to do the wrong thing. In my position, at least, I’m better off pretending I’m a slightly better evaluator of baseball talent than I actually am, because otherwise my writing would be peppered with conditionals and qualifications that would make it unreadable and probably not very helpful to those of you looking for information on the players I cover.

Simons and Chabris present a very compelling if sobering case that the human mind, while highly evolved, has some serious holes in its approach, and that we need to understand five of the six illusions (or failures of intuition) to make better decisions, whether it’s improving our awareness to avoid hitting a motorcyclist on the road or dismissing misplaced self-confidence in our investing acumen to make better choices with our retirement accounts. It seems applicable to just about any line of work, but reading it from the perspective of my thirteen-plus years working in baseball – perhaps now I’m subject to the illusion of independent thinking – I found it immensely applicable and valuable as a reminder of how easy it is to fall into these traps when trying to evaluate a player or a team.