Dominant Species app.

The complex board game Dominant Species has moved up into the top 20 on boardgamegeek’s global rankings despite its high cost (over $60) and one of the most intricate decision trees I’ve come across. Players represent different classes of creatures, exploring and populating the planet by placing hex tiles on the board, receiving points primarily for “dominating” specific tiles. Players have a large number of potential actions but are competing for space on the board and for priority in each type of action. You have a lot to weigh each time you choose which action to take, and the cleanup and scoring in each round also takes a lot of time and effort.

There is an app implementation of Dominant Species for iPad that gives you a fair introduction to the game for $4.99, but still leaves much to be desired. I’ll review it here for completeness, but I don’t recommend it unless you want to try the game out before shelling out for the pricey boxed game.


Evolutionary status: It’s complicated.

In Dominant Species, players will build out the game board as they go, placing different land/water tiles and also putting “element” tokens on the vertices of the hexes, then populating those tiles with their own species. The bottom line is that you want your species tokens on tiles, especially water tiles, that are surrounded by several of the element tokens you also have on your card. Each player starts with two of these element tokens, depending on which botanical class he draws, but can add more as the game goes on.

The board can change in several ways as the game evolves, with tiles changing to tundra (where most species are removed, and eventually all might be wiped out) and elements added and removed frequently. Each player has a specific element type that gives him the potential to “dominate” any tiles where that element appears and he has species, but players can also acquire new element tokens for themselves and adapt to allow them to dominate new tiles on the board. The key to the game, at least in my limited experience, is the Domination phase at the end of each round: There are five Domination spaces for action pawns, and each player who places a pawn there can choose a tile on the board to dominate, where the player who has the right elements (matching those around the tile) and has species there gets a point bonus, and may get a Domination card that gives him more points or the ability to add or remove items from the board. There’s a lot more involved – players have several action pawns to place each turn, and can acquire more as the game goes on – but those are the key points. Players can undertake less significant actions like turning a tile to tundra, claiming points and potentially removing another players’ species; migrating species from one tile to another to avoid extinction; and knocking out a single opposing species token from any tile under “competition.”

The publisher of the physical version of Dominant Species, GMT Games, chose to develop the app in-house, and unfortunately they half-assed the initial release and may have abandoned the project entirely. The AI players are poor, and a promised introduction of a harder AI player remains undone after a year. The UI is also weak, mimicking the physical game rather than taking advantage of what the tablet can offer in different graphics, animation, even stuff like replacing colored wooden cubes with, I don’t know, maybe actual animal shapes? Trying to squeeze everything on to one screen – both the game board and the action selection board – means nothing is clear, and there’s still a lot of info hidden on drop-down screens. It feels rushed and uncreative, rather than an attempt to approach the game from an entirely new perspective. And it lacks online multiplayer.

I’m guessing that playing the physical game with people who’ve played before would be fun, maybe not top 20 overall fun but with enough interaction between players to keep it interesting and social. It is probably a touch too involved for my personal tastes, and I’m still not sure I understand all of the rules regarding some of the less-used phases in each round. A better tutorial, a hard AI opponent, and improved graphics would go a long way to making the app better, and with the boxed game selling for over $60 they could use the promotional boost.

The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry.

I have a new post up on Ryu Hyun-Jin and Yasiel Puig and did a Klawchat as well.

One more negative book review before I move on to one I’m really enjoying, this time on Kathleen Flinn’s flimsy cooking-school memoir The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School, in which the author tells the story of her time at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, which coincided with her engagement and marriage to the love of her life. Unfortunately, the book just isn’t very well written (in terms of prose) and the telling is so superficial that we’re not getting enough of the food nor are we getting enough of the personal anecdotes that could make a book like this a fun read even if it’s light on the cooking.

Flinn’s reason for going to cooking school is easily the best aspect of the book: Laid off from a dot-com job with Microsoft’s sidewalk.com unit (it’s never named, but if you’re familiar with the industry it’s obvious who she worked for), Flinn decided to chase a long-denied dream of attending Le Cordon Bleu, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious culinary arts programs, one she was encouraged to pursue years earlier by none other than Julia Child. Flinn’s then-boyfriend Mike encourages her to do it, even leaving his own career on hold for a year-plus to move to Paris with her and have what I imagine was the adventure of a lifetime.

However, that sense of adventure just never comes through on Sharper‘s pages. There’s a rote sense to Flinn’s days in school – go in, cook, screw some stuff up, take the food home – that we don’t get any of the color of the school itself as we did in Michael Ruhlman’s seminal The Making of a Chef, yet we also get only the slightest feel of life as an expat in Paris, or of the terrific romance between Kathleen and Mike. Side characters are painted in two dimensions, and sometimes one, like their overbearing, freeloading houseguests from Seattle, a lesbian couple who seem to be on the verge of a breakup with every interaction. I closed the book with no clear picture of who anyone was except for Kathleen herself, and even she came through in a faded image, driven by hackneyed life advice more than an abiding passion for food. (I’m sure she has that passion, but it never comes through on the pages.) Flinn’s habit of ending sections and chapters with awful cliches – “Sometimes, the places life takes us can be so unexpected” or “I wonder if graduating higher in the class rankings is worth the price she may ultimately pay” – is grating and indicative of a broader writing style that reads like it was written by someone who hasn’t read enough great writers, who believes that this is how you craft a story.

If this subject interests you, I can’t recommend Ruhlman’s book highly enough, as it balances the food and the educational experience very well against the fascinating personalities with whom he went through the school. I just found Flinn’s book paled in comparison and was much harder to push through given the weakness of the prose.

Next up: I’m just 50 pages into Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter and it’s amazing, extremely well-written and, thus far, a compelling story.

Loving Frank.

Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank falls in one of my least favorite categories of fiction – historical fiction written about real, well-known personalities, where the author is putting words in the mouths of people who likely never said or did anything of the kind. Frank of the title here is Frank Lloyd Wright, and the novel tells the story of his affair with Mamah Borthwick, a married woman who was friends with Wright’s first wife and eventually ran off with Wright, living with him until her murder at the hands of one of the family’s servants. Little is known of their affair’s details beyond scurrilous reports in contemporary newspapers, which pounced on the controversy, stalling Wright’s career in the States for years; Borthwick left few letters behind, leaving little direct evidence of her character and personality. The result is that Horan has fabricated two impossibly good characters in Borthwick and Wright, building a romance between them that feels antiseptic for its simplicity while glossing over the very real matter of both parties abandoning their young children for several years while they pursued their relationship and careers in Europe.

Borthwick and her husband, Edwin, hired Wright to build them a house, and during the process she and Wright developed a relationship around their shared interests; in Horan’s retelling, both were married unhappily to spouses who could not satisfy them intellectually, so the affair is primarily one of thoughts and emotions rather than physical attraction. Horan depicts Wright as demanding and somewhat temperamental, but also incredibly sensitive, a hard-driving boss who is tender and loving when he leaves the office – surely an idealized version of the actual Frank Lloyd Wright, who couldn’t have just left his haughty nature at work when it suited him. Borthwick was, in reality, a translator for the early European difference feminist Ellen Key, a secondary relationship Horan also explores in the book, similarly endowing Key with so many positive traits (and a way with words that just sounds artificial on the page) that she is hard to accept as a real-life character. Borthwick’s feminism contrasts with her desire to follow Wright, and eventually she must make small albeit significant choices between her affair and her wish to have an independent identity and career, but Horan can hand-wave these away because the pair did end up residing together at the origianl Taliesin in Wisconsin, a home Wright built specifically for the two of them.

The false tone of the text poisons it from the beginning of the book, unfortunately, and Horan seems to have too much affection for these superficial characters to recognize that, by lionizing them, she ends up demeaning them instead. Borthwick leaves her children far too easily – leaving her husband, an amiable provider who only wants a homemaker rather than an independent thinker, is much easier to understand – with too little remorse or guilt or even plans to maintain relationships with the children while she’s traveling with Wright and eventually studying on her own in Europe. An emotionally evolved woman like this fictional Borthwick would realize the deleterious effects of abandoning her two young children at their ages, and, more to the point, she’d miss them so powerfully that leaving with Wright and staying with him for months would have been excruciating choices. Horan needs to get Borthwick on that boat with Wright and almost dismisses Borthwick’s maternal instincts because they’re inconvenient. I found it difficult to avoid judging both characters harshly for leaving their children like that; I cannot imagine a situation where I’d leave my daughter for a year or more with barely any contact beyond an occasional letter. When you’re a parent, your child comes first. Even if the marriage is unhappy, you don’t have to flee the continent and forget your children to pursue a separate romance.

Borthwick’s murder by a Barbadian servant who never explained his “motives” (although, given the nature of the crime, he must have had some sort of psychotic break) provides Horan with a comfortable out for her story as well – it almost feels like the visitation of a divine judgment on Mamah for her abandonment of her family, and if it hadn’t actually happened, I’d be criticizing this as a needless and small-minded morality play. Instead, it’s just one false note after another, characters built around real people who were probably nothing like what Horan wanted them to be. It’s bad enough that Mamah and her children died such a horrible death; don’t spit on their graves by using them to project your own personal fantasies as well.

Next up: I’ve finished Kathleen Flinn’s The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry and have just begun Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef.

Trouble with the Curve.

Trouble With the Curve opens with a scene of Clint Eastwood’s back as he struggles to urinate and has a conversation with his uncooperative apparatus before it finally complies with his demands. The film is all downhill from there. It’s manipulative, anachronistic, sentimental claptrap that would make Ken Burns blush and is an insult to anyone who works in the baseball industry, including the very scouts it purports to defend through a staunchly Luddite point of view that would have seemed quaint a decade ago.

Aside from a host of baseball-related mistakes, the film is just too superficial to take seriously, probably better interpreted as a wishful fable than a serious story – built around the idea that good things will come to good people if they’re patient and keep their minds and hearts open. That’s cute if the film is aimed at kids, but it’s a little insulting in an adult movie that’s trying to play it straight, hitting every cliché and predictable plot point it can along the way, like the kid in driver’s ed who thinks the goal is to knock over every cone. When you see the young peanut vendor is left-handed, you know what’s coming. When you see Eastwood’s character’s daughter, Micki (the always adorable Amy Adams), play pool in a bar and humiliate the stranger she’s opposing, you know what’s coming next. When Micki is up against a glib, ambitious colleague for a potential promotion to partner at her law firm, you know where we’re going. When Micki and the younger scout Johnny, with whom she’s tentatively been flirting, end up at a lakeside in the middle of the night, you know what comes next. When Micki’s boyfriend at the start of the film says their relationship is “perfect on paper,” your eyes should roll back far enough that you can see the inside of your skull. Absolutely nothing in this film should surprise if you’ve ever seen another movie in your life.

The shame about Trouble with the Curve is that it could have been an interesting film if it weren’t so busy trying to beat us over the head with Feelings: A long-widowed scout facing his mortality not just through age but through disability (declining eyesight) and technological changes that both threaten the loss of the career to which he’s been married for thirty years reconnects with his estranged daughter as they jointly go to evaluate a candidate for the second pick in what could be that scout’s last draft. Unfortunately, the script is so busy trying to convince us what these characters are that it gives us no time to learn it organically. The scout, Gus Lobel, refers to the “Interweb” and “fang shmei,” while referring to yoga as “voodoo.” Micki’s a vegan, because a gorgeous 30-year-old woman isn’t sufficiently distinguished from grizzled 60-year-old scouts as it is. The main antagonist in the film, the office stat geek (played by Matt Lillard like he’s got a sinus infection), never goes to see players and seems to think there’s value in high school stats, while thinking nothing of insulting Gus to his face. Gus crying at his wife’s graveside while mumble-singing “You Are My Sunshine” might have looked good on paper, but in practice it is so blatantly manipulative even a Lifetime executive would send it back for rewrite.

Adams’ performance as Micki was one of the few bright spots in the movie, bringing some semblance of reality to a thinly-drawn character and delivering the best lines of the film in the diner-booth soliloquy to her father, providing at least something of a backstory to explain both her character and her estrangement from Gus. She’s magnetic enough to pull a strong performance from Justin Timberlake, whose job otherwise is to stand around and be likable, something he’s pretty good at doing. There’s a smattering of good baseball in here, including some of the lingo used (dead-red hitter, quick hands, using hips and legs for power), and the fact that the other main candidate for the draft pick in question goes to Arizona State. Micki knowing the hotel housekeeper’s name showed the kind of subtlety too absent in the script, showing she’s the kind of person who’d take the time to find that out and then remember it. But don’t ask me to believe that her law firm, which has no female partners, is seriously considering promoting another white male over her just because she’s tending to her ailing father.

A number of you asked on Twitter if the film was even worth seeing just because of its baseball content, but I’d say no, it’s not. Even aside from the baseball errata, it’s just a maudlin father-daughter story melded with an awkward romantic comedy involving the daughter and the younger rival scout. The emotions in the film almost never rang true for me, aside from a few moments where Adams gives the shaky script her best efforts, and the story is so predictable that there’s no narrative greed to keep you engaged.

As for the baseball stuff, this film really could have used a basic fact-checker, a consultant somewhere along the way to just say, “hey, this stuff is dead wrong, and someone on that Interweb is going to call you out on it.” Here’s just a list of stuff I wrote down that was absurd, in rough chronological order.

* Maybe the biggest error of all is the idea that nine days before the draft, Atlanta’s area scout (Gus) hasn’t seen the player in his area who’s a candidate for the second overall pick – and no one else in the organization has seen him either. That player would have been seen more than a dozen times by the area guy, every regional and national cross-checker, and the scouting director (an underutilized John Goodman), and possibly by a front-office exec or two since the player is within driving distance of Atlanta. The idea that this huge pick is hinging on one look less than two weeks before the draft is necessary to feed into the film’s mythologizing of old scouts, but in fact, it’s insulting to scouts of all ages by making their process seem more whimsical and less methodical.

* Gus’s resume is an impossibility. He’s a lifelong area scout in the Carolinas who signed Dusty Baker (Sacramento), Chipper Jones (Jacksonville), and Tom Glavine (Massachusetts)? He’s “only signed three guys in four years” … and that’s a bad thing? Some scouts go a year or two without signing any players because that’s how the draft goes. But the geography thing bothers me more – just pick players from the same region. It’s not that hard.

* Scouts don’t stay at rundown motels like the one where Gus, Johnny (Timberlake), and the others stay. We all like our frequent guest points way too much for that.

* The actor playing the phenom, Bo Gentry … I hate to say it, but for a baseball player, the kid is fat. The only legitimate prospect I can think of in the last five years to look like that is Dan Vogelbach, and he’s probably a DH who was never a consideration for that spot in the draft. When they refer to Gentry as a “five tool” player, they conveniently decline to list those tools, one of which – speed – is clearly not in Gentry’s toolbox. We never even see him field. Just find a more athletic actor and this issue goes away. I did love seeing Cocoa Carl from Good Eats playing Gentry’s dad.

* Gentry is a right-handed hitter, so why are all the scouts sitting on the third base side to scout him? You can’t see his hands from there – scouts want to see a hitter’s open side more than his closed side.

* Are there only five scouts in the whole industry, and only one of them under the age of 60?

* The draft-room scene mentioning a “draft and trade deal” … come on. You can’t trade draft picks in baseball.

* Gus mentions seeing a “hitch” in a player’s swing, which is a real thing – but it’s something even non-scouts can notice, and I didn’t see one in the movie. Besides, it’s not an automatic kill on a player – Hunter Pence has a hitch so big it looks like he stole it off a tractor-trailer and he’s done fairly well for himself.

* I’m okay with a film embellishing the drama of the draft room by implying that the decision on the second overall pick is being made in the final seconds before it’s made, but just for the record, no team operates like that. Reality probably isn’t dramatic enough for fiction in this case, though.

* I don’t think there’s any team that would say no to giving a left-handed teenager with an average fastball and an average (or better) curveball a tryout. It costs them nothing. And when the kid is good, no GM in the universe is going to be concerned with finding an agent for the kid – he’d try to sign the player before any agent got wind of it.

* A struggling minor league hitter gets better because his family came to visit him? That might be the film’s most insulting moment – and the entire thread is superfluous anyway, other than to further aggrandize Gus’ character at the expense of those evil computers.

* I’ll end with a point I’m not sure about. Gus mentions at one point the possibility of “putting a bullet in my head” when he can’t scout any more. I don’t know if that was a deliberate reference to Tony Lucadello, a longtime Phillies scout who did just that at age 77 when the team let him go, but I hope that it was, as Lucadello’s story is one worth remembering, even if the reference is a little morbid.

The Golden Ratio.

Some recent ESPN links: Analyses of the Jays/Astros ten-player trade and the Brett Myers trade, as well as a big post on players I’ve scouted in the AZL over the last week, including Jorge Soler. The Conversation under the Myers piece has been rather bizarre, as a few (presumably male) readers are saying I shouldn’t have brought up Myers’ 2006 arrest on domestic violence charges. Needless to say, I think these complaints are spurious.

I’m a big fan of mainstream books about mathematics, most of which would probably be best classified as “history of math” even if they’re discussing a currently unsolved problem, such as John Derbyshire’s excellent book on the Riemann Hypothesis, Prime Obsession. (And yes, I’m aware of Derbyshire’s political writing, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Riemann book is very well done.) Mario Livio’s book The Golden Ratio: The Story of φ, the World’s Most Astonishing Number was on my wish list for a long time because it seemed like a perfect blend of the academic and applied branches of mathematics, as the irrational number φ appears in numerous places in nature and (I thought) art. Unfortunately, Livio’s book spends more time talking about where φ is not than about where it is, making this more of a book of mythbusting than of math.

Livio does provide a solid introduction to φ, an irrational number equal to (1 + √5)/2 = 1.6180339887… that has several interesting properties, including:

* φ2 is equal to φ + 1, or 2.6180339887…
* 1/φ is equal to φ – 1, or 0.6180339887…
* If you take any line segment AB and place a point C on it such that the ratio of the longer half to the shorter half is equal to the ratio of the entire segment to the longer half, the ratio in question will be equal to φ
* The ratio between consecutive terms in the Fibonacci sequence – the series 0, 1, 1, 2, where each successive term is equal to the sum of the two terms before it, thus continuing with 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, ad infinitum – approaches φ. The ratio between the 17th and 16th terms is already 1.61800328…
* φ is also the result of the peculiar expression

The golden ratio also appears in many polygons and polyhedrons of interest not just to mathematicians but to artists, architects, and even botanists, as it appears in the spacing of leaves around the stems of many plants. But interest in the ratio has spurred no end of specious or outright fictitious claims about its appearance, including an oft-repeated one about its inclusion in the dimensions of the Parthenon (obtained by gaming the measurements to achieve the desired result) and another claiming Leonardo da Vinci used it in the Mona Lisa (similarly bogus). Livio devotes so much of the book to debunking these and other claims that by the time he gets around to discussing the golden ratio’s actual appearances in art, architecture, and nature, he’s devalued his subject by spending too little time explaining where φ is and too much time explaining where it ain’t.

Next up: I’m a bit behind here, having already finished Michael Ruhlman’s superb The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America, the book that first established him as one of the best writers on food and cooking today.

Moneyball.

Moneyball, the movie, is an absolute mess of a film, the type of muddled end product you’d expect from a project that took several years and went through multiple writers and directors. Even good performances by a cast of big names and some clever makeup work couldn’t save this movie, and if I hadn’t been planning to review it, I would have walked out.

The movie failed first and foremost for me as a movie, not just as a baseball movie. (I’ll get to the baseball parts later.) The general plot here is that the A’s lose their 2001 ALDS to the Yankees and are about to lose three major players to free agency, so Billy Beane goes hunting for a new way of doing business. He runs into a stats geek working in Cleveland’s front office named Peter Brand, hires him, and Brand brings the sabermetric philosophy that we now associate with the early 2000s Oakland teams. This causes friction with Oakland’s scouts, who are all idiots, and Art Howe, who was a stubborn idiot (this is the movie, not my opinion), and Billy might even lose his job until the A’s get hot and win 20 games in a row. Meanwhile, we are to believe that this is all so Billy can purge the personal demons created by the failure of his playing career.

Billy is the only fully realized character in the entire movie, and even at that his disparate pieces don’t tie all that well together. Peter Brand, a.k.a. Paul Antipodesta, is a mousy number cruncher who looks like the lay viewer would expect a stat geek to look – unathletic, dressed in dull collared shirts and ties, intimidated by the players, with no complexity to the character. Howe is nothing but a holier than thou obstacle for Beane whose entire motivation for his stubbornness is his desire for a contract extension – a hopelessly tired plot device that makes for a one-dimensional character. Even Casey, Billy’s daughter, who is shoehorned into this weird plot strand about him possibly losing his job, is nothing more than the plot strand requires her to be.

The lack of multi-dimensional characters is exacerbated by the languid, aimless plot and stop-and-start pacing. The film mopes through Opening Day and the beginning of the A’s season, races through their midyear turnaround, then jumps through most of the winning streak until the twentieth victory, at which point we’re handed slow motion views of the A’s blowing an 11-0 lead … and of Art Howe thinking, with no sound at all. Even the paces of conversations are strange and often forced; one of the “action” scenes, if I could call it that, involves watching Billy juggle three GMs (Shapiro, Phillips, and Sabean) to try to acquire Ricardo Rincon. All three GMs come off as stooges, but more importantly, it’s boring as hell to watch anyone, even Brad Pitt, talk on the phone.

Pitt is very good with the stilted material he’s given and clearly made an effort to look and act the part, from his hair to his tone of voice to his facial expressions. He’s also frequently eating or drinking, which he seems to do in every movie in which he appears. Jonah Hill, as Peter Brand, is very good when he can use his character’s dry, monotonous delivery for comedic effect, drawing laughs from lines that aren’t inherently funny because his timing is so good. Chris Pratt has several funny moments as Scott Hatteberg, very recognizable if youve seen his work as Andy on Parks and Recreation, although he really only has two scenes of any significance in this movie. Philip Seymour Hoffman was wasted as Howe, unfortunately, playing a one-note character who would like you to know he doesn’t care what you have to say about baseball. Robin Wright Penn is also wasted as Beane’s ex-wife who is apparently married to a closeted gay man.

I could have tolerated a lot of flaws if Moneyball had just given me a good baseball movie, with some real tension to it, or perhaps a strong character study of Billy Beane. But the film provides neither, and I spent most of the movie wondering what was really on the line here. The A’s don’t win a playoff series in 2002, so the script can’t set that up as a goal or use the playoffs as a climax. Beane took a $39 million team to the playoffs the year before; he wasn’t going to be fired in May for taking a few risks that his owner more or less told him to take (and if he had been fired, he would have been hired by someone else in a heartbeat, despite the character’s later claim to the contrary). His daughter is worried about him because she doesn’t see the big picture, but neither she nor her father is in any real jeopardy at any point in the film. We’re not playing for anything here.

Then there’s the baseball stuff, which is not good. For starters, the lampooning of scouts, which draws from the book, isn’t any more welcome on screen (where some of the scouts are played by actual scouts) than it was on the page; they are set up as dim-witted bowling pins for Beane and Brand to knock down with their spreadsheets. It’s cheap writing, and unfair to the real people being depicted. Current Oakland scouting director Eric Kubota also gets murdered in a drive-by line that depicts him as a clueless intern given the head scouting role after Beane fires Grady Fuson in April after a clubhouse argument (that never really happened). I’ll confess to laughing at the scout referring to “this Bill James bullshit,” although the A’s bought into that bullshit years before the film claims they did – and, in fact, hired Paul Depodesta three years before the movie-A’s hired Brand. (In the film, Fuson refers to Brand as “Google boy,” a term applied to Depodesta by Luddite beat writers in LA three years later.)

The film also relies on some pretty gross misrepresentations or oversimplifications of the business. The idea of a GM getting on a plane and flying two thirds of the way across the country to meet another GM to discuss a trade for a left-handed reliever is so absurd that it should set off alarm bells in even the casual fan. Do you really think that GMs only talk trades in person? That they fly to meet each other for tete-a-tetes before consummating any deal? Similarly, teams don’t sign injured players to guaranteed contracts by flying out to their houses (on Christmas Eve, apparently) without having them go through physicals.

I wasn’t as concerned with the script having Beane trade Carlos Pena to Detroit for a reliever and some money (as opposed to the actual three-team, seven-player deal including Jeff Weaver and Jeremy Bonderman) as I was with seeing Pena, an intelligent, gregarious person, depicted as a sullen Latino player. I also find it hard to believe Beane would ever say he didn’t care about pitchers’ platoon splits. And the film’s emphasis on Beane not making it as a player seems to point to questions about his makeup, especially his confidence, which hardly ties into a film about how makeup is overrated.

If you do end up seeing the film, and I imagine most of you will, there is one scene towards the end that stood out for me as incredibly spot on, so much so that it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the film. Beane is sitting in what was then called the .406 club at Fenway Park with John Henry, who is about to offer him a record-breaking deal to become the Red Sox’ new GM. Henry expounds on how Beane’s method of doing things is going to sweep through the industry, and how critics within the game weren’t just trying to protect the game, but were expressing their own fears about their livelihoods. That speech applies just as well to any industry undergoing the kind of creative destruction ushered in by Bill James, Sandy Alderson and Billy Beane. Remember that when you see the next written attack on “stat geeks” who are ruining the game along with a defense of RBIs or pitcher wins.

If you haven’t already done so, go read the book before thinking about seeing this movie, and maybe go watch Brad Pitt steal every scene he’s in in Snatch instead.

Up in the Air.

The more I thought about Up in the Air after watching it, the more I realized what a terrible movie it is. It was pleasant enough for the first two-thirds or so, mostly because the three principal actors are all excellent in their roles, but one insanely stupid plot twist just exposed how many other holes there were in the script to that point.

George Clooney – who seems to be morphing into Cary Grant as he ages – plays Ryan Bingham, a consultant who flies around the country and fires (or, really, lays off) employees whose bosses are too cowardly to do it themselves. He’s also a straight-up mileage whore who has set a life goal of becoming the seventh flier ever to reach ten million mileages in American Airlines’ AAdvantage program. (The film doubles as an extended infomercial for American, Hilton Hotels, and Hertz.) And Ryan moonlights as a hired motivational speaker, praising a life of independence from both physical possessions and interpersonal relationships. Then, of course, he meets the perfect woman and has to change his entire philosophy, all while toting around an overconfident and highly naïve 23-year-old Cornell grad (love the stereotyping of the Ivy Leaguers – remember, kids, it’s bad to be smart!) while they teach each other Big Important Lessons about life and love and psychology.

Clooney, Anna Kendrick (as the Cornell grad, Natalie), and Vera Farmiga (as Ms. Perfect) are all superb, extremely convincing even when their roles turn out to be paper-thin (Kendrick’s) or internally contradictory (the other two). There’s an effortless chemistry between Clooney and Farmiga that makes his transition from one-night-stand to budding romance not just believable but almost invisible – before you know it, he’s falling for her, even though we’re missing a bunch of steps in the story. You might watch the film just to see these three actors, all nominated for Academy Awards for their performances, do their thing, but I think you’ll want to punch the screen before it’s over.

And the reasons are many. One is that we never learn why Ryan is so afraid of commitments. He came from small-town Wisconsin, but this isn’t the budding urbanite in search of culture beyond his homogenous, provincial upbringing. His sisters are his only family, and he’s mostly abandoned them until one of them gets married, but there’s no obvious reason why – both characters, in bit parts, are sweet and care for him even though they don’t seem to have much in common. Another is that Natalie ends up something of a prop for Ryan to play off rather than a fully-developed character in her own right – she changes as the plot needs her to change.

(This movie was, on some level, ruined for me beforehand by Will Leitch. Will’s become my go-to movie reviewer for after I’ve seen a film, because I find his observations are often so spot-on that they influence my interpretation of the movie. He nailed Up in the Air, especially on the glaring inconsistencies in the script, although I think he went easy on the plot twist, which I’ll get to in a moment. But you’ll notice I’m saying a lot of the things he said, and I’m sure that’s not an accident: He set me up. So now I read him after I’ve seen a movie and want an expert’s opinion, using Roger Ebert as my go-to guy before I choose to see a film.)

That plot twist – big spoiler alert here – is a killer, though. Alex (Farmiga, who by the way looks like what I expected Claire Forlani to look like at this age) is Ryan’s female analogue, another road warrior looking for NSA sex in high-end Hiltons but not much more than that, until the two start meeting up a little more often and then spend more quality time together at a conference, where he asks her to be his date for his sister’s wedding, to which she agrees without much debate. There they have the classic Hollywood falling-in-love weekend, and you might think they’re headed for happily ever after … until he surprises her at her house in Chicago, only to discover she has a husband and two kids, after which she berates him as if it’s his fault that she hid this significant life detail. (“I’m a grown-up.” No, sister, you’re a raging narcissist, and possibly a sociopath as well.) Alex is two completely different characters that have virtually no crossover, and the idea of this independent, too-perfect paramour also being a loving mom who also is willing to abandon her kids for a romantic weekend with the guy with whom she says she only wants casual sex is such a farce that it blew up the whole movie and made me realize how badly I’d been bamboozled by everything that had come before it.

I will give Up in the Air credit for one thing, however: Someone involved in writing the story at least grasped the world of frequent flyer/guest point accumulation. Ryan is absurd in that regard, and his underlying motivation is murky, but the absurdity of the portrayal is the source of its humor. Either you’ve been a heavy traveler and understand using every trick possible to max out your points, or you know someone who has. I’ve never traveled as much as Ryan has – I’ve never been above the first level of “elite” status on any airline – but I do it enough to make me a mileage junkie, with affiliated credit cards and one eye always on promotions that might boost my miles or bump me up in status. That nod to people who fly as part of their jobs was a cute touch – but it added virtually nothing to the strange, unfinished plot about Ryan Bingham’s life choices, and when Sam Elliott makes his Coen-esque cameo as the pilot on the flight where Ryan reaches the ten million mile threshold, it’s like we’ve been airlifted into a separate film entirely. The worthwhile parts of Up in the Air could have been aired on a flight from Chicago to Milwaukee, but I like to get a little farther off the ground than that.

Edward Trencom’s Nose.

I’ll be writing up every significant trade or signing over on ESPN.com, including Adrian Gonzalez, Jayson Werth,, Marcum/Lawrie, Mark Reynolds, and
J.J. Putz.

Before moving on to the last two thirds of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, I read the first novel by Giles Milton, whose nonfiction works include one of my favorite books in that genre, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg. The novel, Edward Trencom’s Nose:, looked right up my alley, promising in its subtitle a tale “of history, dark intrigue, and cheese.” A historical mystery/detective story revolving around food, by an author I’ve read and liked? Sign me up.

You might infer from the introduction that I did not care for Edward Trencom’s Nose. That is an incomplete inference. It might be the worst novel I’ve read in the last five years. Milton’s sins are many. The book has zero suspense – you don’t find out what’s going on until the final few pages, and the way Milton unfurls the story yields no dramatic tension. The relevance of the food to the plot is minimal, and it seems more like a chance for Milton to flex some cheese knowledge than anything else. The protagonist is an aloof, self-centered idiot, and there is no three-dimensional character to be found in the book’s pages. And while the book’s jacket and reviews promised a funny book – the marketing copy on the back calls it a “mouth-watering blend of Tom Sharpe and P.G. Wodehouse,” for which the Wodehouse estate should sue – the book is terribly unfunny, crowded with obvious, futile attempts at humor and some of the worst descriptions of sex I have ever seen in any book. (Sex in Milton’s world appears to be a foul, violent act; he actually uses the word “pummeled” to describe one particular bout of coitus.)

So, since that book sucked, let me use this space to talk a little about Milton’s Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History, a book I can actually recommend to you without hesitation. The book is the history of that titular spice, one that was once the most expensive foodstuff in the world (an honor that I believe now falls to saffron, at least on a per gram basis) and that played a heavy role in European colonization of the western hemisphere and southeast Asia. When doctors in seventeenth-century England claimed that nutmeg was the only reliable cure for the plague, the spice – itself the dried seed of trees of genus Myristica – became more valuable by weight than gold, spurring a rush to obtain and trade in it … if only anyone could figure out where it came from.

Nutmeg at the time was found only in the Banda Islands (in the Maluku archipelago) of present-day Indonesia, and its best source was a tiny island called Pulorin (or Puloron) by its natives but just called “Run” by Europeans of the time. It was hard to reach, hit twice yearly by powerful monsoons, and populated by unfriendly locals. The Portuguese visited the Spice Islands nearly a century before the English reached Run, but had no luck with the natives and could do little more than trade with middlemen. Beginning around the year 1600, the English and Dutch – who came to Indonesia loaded for bear, and stand accused in this book of some unspeakable acts of violence in the name of securing their nutmeg supply – began a decades-long dispute over Run Island, one that wasn’t settled until the 1660s.

Nathaniel Courthope was a factor in Borneo who led an expedition in 1616 to Run to try to break the Dutch monopoly on nutmeg. The islanders warmed to Courthope and the English, only to find themselves subjected to a brutal siege by the Dutch that lasted nearly four years, a feat Milton credits largely to Courthope’s cunning and bravery. The Dutch won the battle eventually – I won’t spoil how – but lost the larger war, eventually securing their hold on Run and all of the Banda Islands in an agreement with the English that ceded New Amsterdam to the occupying English forces. That is, we speak English today in large part because the Dutch wanted a 3 km long island in Indonesia that was the world’s main supply of nutmeg. And, in a bit of a last laugh on the Dutch, to recapture Run after the British briefly held it in 1664, the Dutch pulled a General Sherman on the island, nearly killing their own golden-egg-laying goose.

Courthope makes an ideal hero for a nonfiction book, right up to his hero’s demise, and the story of Dutch brutality against Englishman and native alike should not be lost to history just because now they’re nice people and cheer really loud for their long track speed skaters. Milton sprinkles the story with the history of nutmeg itself (and a little on its poor sibling, mace, the dried aril that covers the nutmeg seed, lacking the potent flavor of the nutmeg proper) and the prior history of the Banda Islands, but the star of the show is Courthope, giving the book some of the narrative greed that I particularly like in my nonfiction reads.

So start with Nathaniel’s Nutmeg and skip the cheese course entirely.

The Unconsoled.

New blog entry on some Red Sox and Mets prospects in the NY Penn League is up. My hit from this afternoon with Colin Cowherd is also online. I’ve filed my reaction to the Blue Jays/Braves trade, so it should be along shortly.

One of you warned me about Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, but I believe I already had it on my shelf at the time and I’m pretty stubborn about at least trying books once I’ve obtained them. And it was a pretty quick read given its heft. But not only is it my least favorite of the four Ishiguro novels I’ve read, it’s just a conceptual mess that takes an interesting premise reminiscent of Philip K. Dick and forgets to flesh it out into a complete story.

The plot revolves around Mr. Ryder, a renowned concert pianist who has just arrived in an unnamed Central European town for a performance, only to find himself sidetracked by an endless series of errands and other unfinished business, because the town is populated by people he’s met before, even including a girlfriend and a sort of stepson, but he doesn’t remember any of this. Time bends in odd ways, people act and react strangely, and monologues go on for pages and pages. And the town seems to define its identity by the status of its best musicians, having cast one aside when his style fell out of vogue and a new star arrived, only to find the latter to be a broken man and a drunk.

It seemed clear to me from early on in The Unconsoled that Ishiguro was writing a realistic novel within the world of dreams – the abrupt transitions from scene to scene, the fact that two buildings on opposite sides of the town turned out to be one and the same, the way items could change within a room over the course of a conversation, and the frequent situation that should be familiar to all of you of Ryder’s inability to get to someone he’s left behind or forgotten about or just needs to reach. If that was the author’s intent, he was successful, as I was off balance almost the entire novel because various conventions of the realistic novel no longer applied.

But the execution suffered in two ways: One, Ryder’s actions became extremely frustrating. He’d fail to say or do obvious things to alleviate bad situations, such as the time a childhood friend wants to show him off to her snobby friends who doubt she knows Ryder, only to have him come along but do nothing to reveal his identity. He’s rude and even cold to the boy, Boris, to whom he is something of a father figure, and often leaves Boris on his own inappropriately. It was maddening, even more than in a novel where the main character is simply unlikeable. In this novel, he’s unreadable.

Two, the end of the novel does not answer the key question: If this is all a dream for Ryder, what on earth does it mean? Are all of these people real, or merely manifestations within his brain of stages of his life? Stephan, a young pianist, can’t seem to satisfy his parents through his music, as they insist on seeing him as a disappointment; is that Ryder’s own experience as a young man? Why does Ryder spend much of the novel fretting over the arrangements for his parents, who are coming in to see the performance, only to find out (or be reminded) that there’s no evidence they’re coming at all? Why are there at least four or five of his friends from his youth in England living in this small Central European town, all acting like little time has passed? I read the book expecting some kind of a resolution at the end, either an explicit one (e.g., Ryder wakes up) or an implicit one (e.g., Ryder starts to identify some of the parallels between the dream-world and his own past), but I got nothing, not even hints at Ryder’s pre-visit life to help me make the connections myself.

I love Ishiguro’s prose, but in The Unconsoled his dialogue was out of control, with the aforementioned long monologues (one lasted at least five pages, with not so much as a paragraph break) and very frequent repetition of phrases or meaningless points. His prose was far more in control in The Remains of the Day, and after The Unconsoled he wrote another altered-reality novel that was tighter and much more compelling, Never Let Me Go.

Next up: Geraldine Brooks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning March.

Island.

About to leave Arizona, but my parting shot was an appearance on Bill Simmons’ B.S. Report podcast today, talking about the upcoming season, some interesting rookies and young starts, and why RBIs and pitcher wins suck.

Island was Aldous Huxley’s last novel, his own counterpoint to his most famous novel (#72 on the Klaw 100) Brave New World. The latter was a classic dystopian novel, while Island follows the model of utopian novels by laying out its author’s personal philosophies for a greater, more progressive society in the most stilted, boring way possible.

In Island, journalist Will Faranby is part of a conspiracy that revolves around a coup on the peaceful island of Pala, where a utopian society has grown over the previous 100 years with little interference from the outside world. Faranby ends up on the island by accident, and ends up in the Palanese medical system, meeting most of the local leaders, and learning about their classless society, their community-based economy (socialistic, but not purely socialist), their Buddhist-influenced spirituality, and their use of the psychedelic drug moshka (the book’s analog for LSD, which Huxley used in his later years and promoted for its “mind-expansion” benefits). Along the way, Faranby compares and contrasts what he finds in Pala to what he remembers of Britain, and Huxley is unsparing in his criticism of all aspects of modern British life, such as its system of education:

“You never saw anybody dying, and you never saw anybody having a baby. How did you get to know things?”
“In the school I went to,” he said, “we never got to know things, we only got to know words.”

Utopian novels are, as a rule, difficult reads because they’re so busy describing their utopias that they dispense with plot, and Island is no different, as there is virtually no story and absolutely no tension. Huxley set up the coup story but largely drops it until the last five pages of the novel, which read as an afterthought added because he had to end the book somehow. If you’re interested in a 350-page sermon on Huxley’s idea of a paradisiacal society, I would recommend Island, but I found the book a chore, and for the rest of you I’d recommend Brave New World instead.

Next up: James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection, Tales of the South Pacific, later adapted into a famous musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein.