Stick to baseball, 8/20/16.

I discovered that my upcoming book has an amazon page for pre-orders! The tentative title is Smart Baseball (not #smrtbaseball, although we’re playing off that) and the tentative release date is April 27th. I suppose I need to finish writing it soon.

My main Insider piece this week covered the Reign of Error in Arizona under Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart, both of whom should be replaced now that their contracts are expiring. I held a Klawchat here on Thursday afternoon and discussed that piece a little more.

I was the guest host on the BBTN podcast this week, on Tuesday with Jayson Stark and WATERS singer Van Pierszalowski (a big Dodgers fan), Wednesday with Eric Karabell and Tim Kurkjian, and Thursday with Jerry Crasnick and Nick Piecoro.

I’ll be reviewing a boardgame a week for Paste through the end of the year, and the latest review is on Costa Rica, a light family game from the designer of Relic Runners and Elysium. It’s fun for the kids but I think too unbalanced for adults to play on their own.

And now, the links…

  • Juanita Broaddrick was the most credible of all of the women – and there were a lot – to accuse Bill Clinton of sexual improprieties; her accusation that the then-Governor of Arkansas raped her stood up to what scrutiny was possible twenty years after the incident. Buzzfeed talks to Broaddrick about her opposition to Hillary’s candidacy and asks why her case hasn’t gotten the attention today it deserves. (Hint: it might be because pretty much all non-right-wing media want Trump to lose.)
  • Florida’s Duval County prosecutor Angela Corey tried to charge a 12-year-old kid with second-degree murder while appearing to conspire with his public defender to coerce the kid into accepting it – then charging the same kid with molesting his 5-year-old brother after he rejected it. Corey and Jacksonville’s elected public defender, the delightfully-named Matt Shirk, appear to be crossing numerous ethical lines, including frequently charging minors as adults in felony cases. Corey is up for re-election this fall and if you live in Duval County you should examine her record.
  • Forget Zika or Ebola; yellow fever could be the next pandemic, and we are totally unprepared for it.
  • If you have young kids, when they turn 11 get them vaccinated against HPV. Just fucking do it.
  • A year ago it appeared that vaccination efforts had eradicated polio in Nigeria and thus in Africa as a whole, but it’s back thanks to Boko Haram. So vaccine deniers and murderous Islamists have something in common!
  • Why did NASA, an agency of the U.S. government, issue a $1 million grant to study theology? And why is it now refusing to reveal details of the grant?
  • You could see this coming a mile away: The Austin American-Statesman has run a redemption story for Paul Qui, the former Top Chef winner who was arrested for a domestic violence incident in March.
  • The Atlantic looks at the imminent climate change-induced demise of Kiribati after one of its weightlifters does a dance following a lift.
  • A new study published in Nature Communications found more evidence that neonic pesticides are harming bee populations. Neonics probably aren’t safe, and we should curtail their use until manufacturers can prove they are.
  • Gay BYU students who are victims of assault are disciplined for being gay when they try to report the crimes.
  • The 2016 Olympics haven’t had a major disaster, but the Guardian‘s Marina Hyde notes that they’re a disaster for the host country anyway. Her best point: arguing that the IOC itself should build a permanent home for the Games.
  • Arranged marriages are still common in many poorer parts of the world; NPR ran a fascinating story on one father’s campaign to free his daughter from a marriage he helped arrange.
  • Popular Mechanics explains that chemtrails aren’t real no matter what you read on tinfoilhat dot com.
  • I’m 36 and not on Facebook. You probably shouldn’t be either.” doesn’t quite make the case the headline promises, and I don’t agree with the conclusion, but I think it’s a point worth considering especially as social media, especially Facebook, change the nature of friendships in my generation and those that follow.
  • WIRED endorsed Hillary Clinton for President, the first official endorsement of a Presidential candidate in the publication’s history.
  • Those of you aged 35 and up might remember the Gopher internet protocol, which eventually lost out to the world wide web despite some early promise as the first user-friendly way to access information on the Internet.
  • British physicist and professor Brian Cox took on a climate change denier politican from Australia on the ABC (Australia) TV show Q&A, where the politican came off pretty clearly as a conspiracy theorist loon.
  • Physicists at UC-Irvine, building on research by another group working in Hungary, found evidence of a new subatomic particle that may carry an unknown force. The standard model of physics has long held that there are four fundamental forces; three of them, the weak, strong, and electromagnetic forces, appear to have all been unified at the moment right after the Big Bang, but a solution unifying gravity with the other three has proven elusive. This particle, thirty times heavier than an electron, might carry a fifth force previously unknown and unaccounted for in standard or modern models.
  • The “proton radius puzzle,” where the measurements of that subatomic particle’s radius differ depending on what is orbiting the proton, was further confirmed in experiments using deuterium, a hydrogen isotope with an atomic weight of 2 due to the presence of a neutron in the atom’s nucleus.
  • An experimental physicist in Haifa, Israel, created an artificial black hole to test one of Stephen Hawking’s predictions, namely that black holes will emit a type of feeble radiation (now known as “Hawking radiation”) that, over time, will lead to the black holes shrinking and vanishing entirely – taking all information lost in those black holes over their existence with them. These are early results and incomplete ones at that, but the linked piece gets into Hawking’s predictions and the information paradox.
  • The Romanian soccer team recently donned uniforms with math equations instead of numbers to encourage kids learning math, with kids also getting soccer-themed math questions to work on.

The Third Plate.

Chef Dan Barber first came to my attention with his 2010 TED talk “How I Fell in Love With a Fish,” where he describes his visits to the Spanish fish farm Veta la Palma in Spain, which defies almost everything we think we know about aquaculture. Veta la Palma is an open, integrated operation that connects its waterways to the Mediterranean and thrives because the fish – primarily bass but also grey mullet, which plays a large role in Barber’s new book – are part of the larger ecosystem of the farm, attracting fish from the outside environment with clean waters rich in food for each of those species. It’s a new paradigm in raising fish for human consumption, one that doesn’t keep the fish in unnatural conditions that would require dosing them with antibiotics or feeding them with artificial products that might keep yields high but are unsustainable (if not damaging) and don’t produce flavorful fish.

Barber’s 2014 book, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, expands on the concept he explored in that TED Talk, reconsidering how to feed the world in a way that’s environmentally sustainable, sufficiently nutritious, and – let’s not forget – produces tasty food. While some of what Barber prescribes, such as reducing the prominence of meat in the American diet, is obvious, much of it is not unless you’ve spent a lot of time on a working farm. (I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Barber himself.)

The basic premise of Barber’s book isn’t new – our food system is broken, disconnecting diner from food source – but his approach to the question is novel. He points out the role that chefs play in determining food trends and consumer awareness, and that merely going “farm to table” is a superficial and ultimately insufficient way to try to fix the broken chain between the grower and the diner. He rightly decries the monoculture approach of modern agriculture – grow a lot of one specific plant or strain over and over, using synthetic nitrogen sources, antibiotics, herbicides and fungicides, and so on to maximize yields and reduce costs. But he points out that simply going organic doesn’t always address the real problems with Big Ag, as organic farms can be monocultures too and may use organic chemicals that aren’t actually any safer or more sustainable than their synthetic analogues.

Indeed, if there’s one common thread through all of Barber’s anecdotes – and he meanders extensively, both on the map and within the book – it’s soil. Traditional agricultural practices centered on soil health: crop rotation, composting, cover crops, plowing under, encouraging anything, even “weeds,” that might benefit the soil. Modern practices, whether “conventional” or organic, ignore soil quality or health, instead using chemistry to provide an artificial supplement to soil that’s been depleted through malpractice. Healthy soil is teeming with microbes that make the soil more fertile and ultimately help produce healthier plants that contain more nutrients for us and can be more flavorful as well, but soil itself is part of a cycle that even what Barber calls “big organic” agriculture tries to circumvent. Whether your nitrogen source is synthetic or organic doesn’t really matter to soil health (although synthetic N is typically derived from petroleum and thus contributes to climate change and ocean acidification), because if you’re not feeding the soil, you’re just going to have to dump more N into it next year and every year after that.

Barber doesn’t limit himself to plants, although that’s understandably the main focus of the book. Barber talks extensively about the practices at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a nonprofit research center that works with chefs and farmers to develop sustainable agricultural practices, including a working farm that supplies Barber’s Blue Hill restaurants, including one on site and one in New York City. Much of what he and his colleagues there discover around the world, such as the rare strain of ancient wheat they found in Aragon, Spain, or the long-forgotten eight-row corn strain that arrived at the farms one day, unsolicited, in a FedEx envelope, become experiments on the farm’s eight-plus acres. They’re raising some livestock now as well, using all parts of the animal on Blue Hill’s menus and using animal waste to supplement the biomass they till into the soil. Everything revolves around soil health and its connection to long-term sustainable agriculture. The farm isn’t just “organic,” because that’s as much a marketing term as anything else (and indeed isn’t clearly better for the environment than conventional ag); it’s searching for the best possible agricultural practices that will satisfy three goals simultaneously: feed the world now, feed it tomorrow, and make the food flavorful and nutritious too.

The Third Plate is a book of anecdotes, not one of research. Barber travels the world – he’s in Spain a lot in this book, poor guy – in search of these best practices. He goes to Veta la Palma, eats fish served with a phytoplankton sauce, visits the site of the annual almadraba bluefin catch, and hangs out in a Spanish dehesa that produces the world’s best cured ham, jamón iberico, as well as a form of natural foie gras that requires no force-feeding. He visits the Bread Lab at Washington State and plays around with cross-breeding wheat strains. He goes to the Carolinas to the farms that supply Anson Mills, the country’s main purveyor of artisanal strains of corn, rice, and other grains, including the story of how its founder managed to obtain some of his seeds from a family of moonshiners on the South Carolina coast. He talks at length about the grain farmers in upstate New York who supply much of the flour used at Blue Hill. But there isn’t a lot of data here. It’s easy to follow Barber’s logic and understand why these practices might be better for the soil, and thus for the planet and the future of our food supply, but the research isn’t cited here, and what I’ve found over the years, while tilted in favor of these practices, is scattershot. Soil health matters, but if there’s a comprehensive study that proves this, or even provides substantial evidence for it, it’s not here and I haven’t found it either.

However, The Third Plate is a compelling enough argument on its own that it should simultaneously change the way we eat and the policies we support. Going to a farmers’ market is great, but far from enough. Chefs who cook “farm to table” menus are helping, but it’s not enough. We need to think about eating the whole animal and, as Barber puts it, the whole farm too, emphasizing less-consumed cuts of meat, less-common fish in the food chain, less-common plants that might be part of a successful crop rotation scheme. Our diet has become highly specific, and only a fraction of what farmers might grow ends up food for people. Barber says that is going to have to change, something he lays out in an epilogue with a potential menu of the future. But it might be a change we embrace if it means we recapture lost strains of foods we consider ordinary now: a variety of wheat that carries notes of chocolate, a carrot with twice the sweetness of even good local carrots, a pork shank from an heirloom pig grilled over carbonized pig bones. Barber manages to make an environmental alarm reminiscent of Silent Spring that promises a food future that’s still appealing to our palates.

Next up: I’m about 2/3 of the way through Richard Price’s 1992 novel Clockers.

Stick to baseball, 7/30/16.

It’s been a busy week already and I assume the next 52 hours will be even more so; here are my three Insider posts on trades from the last seven days:

• The Aroldis Chapman trade
• The Texas/Atlanta trade and the Blue Jays’ two deals
• The Andrew Cashner and Eduardo Nunez trades

I also have a draft blog post up on last week’s Under Armour Game, and I held my regular Klawchat on Thursday.

I’ll be on ESPN’s trade deadline show on Monday from 1 to 4 pm ET, after which I’m taking a few days off to work on my book and on some other personal projects.

And now, the links…

  • Dr. Mike Sonne, an injury prevention researcher and a baseball fan, argues that pitch clocks may increase pitcher injury risk by reducing recovery time for fatiguing muscles. So maybe pace of game isn’t such a huge problem.
  • If you missed this on Twitter you really should read Eireann Dolan’s story about her autistic brother, from how he was bullied as a kid to the nightmare they all just went through with him.
  • Iowa Republican Steve King says racist stuff on a regular basis and keeps winning re-election. The Iowa Starting line blog looks at why.
  • As always, I’m nobody’s expert on these matters, but I feel like the rejection of state “vote fraud” laws, including this week’s invalidation of North Carolina’s law as racist, is the biggest story of this election cycle. One, with African-American voters favoring Clinton in historic proportions, it seems like striking down these laws could help her in several critical states, including the swing state of North Carolina. Two, killing these laws – based on the entirely fraudulent fear of fraudulent voting – will have an effect on many elections to come, and, one might hope, will slow efforts to disenfranchise entire demographic groups.
  • BuzzFeed political editor (and longtime reader of mine) Katherine Miller wrote a great longread on how Trump “broke” the conservative movement.
  • Trump has faced multiple allegations of sexual assault from women over the last several decades, including one from his ex-wife Ivana. Everyone dismissed such claims against Bill Clinton in 1991-92, but a quarter-century later, the climate around rape and sexual assault is, or seemed to be, much changed. Perhaps Hannibal Burress needs to joke about it before it’ll go anywhere.
  • A large Swedish study on the environmental impacts of organic agriculture versus conventional found differences in each direction, with neither side clearly favored. This is especially important for consumers, in that food labeled “organic” isn’t going to be more nutritious or necessarily better for the environment. But there’s a problem within the problem here – the term “organic” has itself been watered down (pun intended) from what the term meant when Lord Northbourne coined it in 1940. So-called “natural” pesticides aren’t going to automatically better for the environment, for example, and dumping organic fertilizers into the soil won’t have the same effect as using compost and working in crops (like clover or legumes) that increase nitrogen content in the soil.
  • Those “recyclable” disposable coffee cups aren’t recyclable at all, not unless you have access to one of the very few facilities capable of doing so. This means tons of cups end up in landfills every year, so why don’t we demand better?
  • Scientific American explains a card trick that relies on a simple cipher and the cooperation of a partner.
  • A tough longread on a 20-year-old unsolved missing persons case on the Isle of Wight. The police seem to have botched the earliest stages of the investigation, which may render the case unsolvable.
  • German scientists found a bacterium living inside human noses that produces a chemical toxic to Staphylococcus aureus, the bacterium that causes MRSA. Now if only it worked against gonorrhea, the bacterium behind which has evolved resistance to all known antibiotics.
  • Joe Biden has to acknowledge the LIQUID SWORDS tweet at some point, right? If I see him around here I’m going to ask him.
  • Why are police officers enforcing Trump’s ban on Washington Post reporters? They’re claiming it’s a security issue, but that’s clearly not the case.
  • I wrote about a year ago about an essay I read on the unsolved abc problem in mathematics and the abstruse proof offered by a Japanese mathematician, Shinichi Mochizuki, who created a whole new branch of math to solve it – which meant no one was sure if he actually had solved it at all. Scientific American offers an update and some new commentary, including criticism of Mochizuki’s unwillingness to travel or work with others on the proof.
  • In a new book, Innovation and its Enemies, Calestous Juma explains why people often hate new stuff, and talks about what variables affect adoption rates or drive opposition.
  • The National Post gave the fraudumentary Vaxxed zero stars and an admonition not to see it.
  • Speaking of fraud, anything that claims it can “boost your immune system” is lying and even they worked, it’s a terrible idea. If you pay for these “enhanced” water products, or for useless supplements like Airborne, you might as well flush your money down the toilet.
  • The elusive DC-area chef Peter Chang is opening what he calls the restaurant of his dreams in Bethesda. I’ve been to his place in Charlottesville, and I thought it was excellent but have very little history or knowledge of Sichuan cuisine to compare it to.
  • Congrats to Pizzeria Vetri, our favorite pizzeria in Philly and just one of our favorite restaurants there period, for winning Philly magazine’s Best Soft-Serve Ice Cream nod for 2016.
  • Seth Meyers on “Bernie or Bust” twits:

Stick to baseball, 7/2/16.

For Insiders, I wrote a preview of today’s July 2nd international free agent class with help from Chris Crawford. I also wrote some thoughts on the Futures Game rosters, although of course they’re already getting tweaked for player injuries. I wrote a free piece on Monday, expressing my disappointment in the Mets’ decision to sign Jose Reyes.

Klawchat resumed yesterday after a week off around my Omaha trip, and my latest new music playlist is up too.

Sign up for my newsletter!

And now, the links…

  • Making a Killing: The New Yorker examines the gun business in the wake of the Orlando massacre. Hint: Like any industry, gun manufacturers profit off fear and misinformation.
  • Brian Hooker, one of the biggest proponents of the absolute bullshit idea that vaccines cause autism, lost his 14-year case before the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Hooker’s story is featured in the fakeumentary Vaxxed, and you can bet he’ll keep claiming vaccines caused his son’s autism, not, you know, his own genes and bad luck.
  • A 63-year-old CEO decided to bully and harass a woman on LinkedIn because she posted a Dilbert cartoon he didn’t like. Really.
  • Two good food stories from NPR’s The Salt blog. First, on Purdue improving the quality of life for its chickens, right up to the way in which they’re killed.
  • Second, on the rising popularity of ancient strains of wheat like einkorn, emmer, and spelt.
  • Ah, Mississippi, where a state rep – I’ll let you guess which party – told a mom who can’t afford her daughter’s diabetes meds to just buy them with the money she earns. What an awful person. He eventually met with the mom to try to save face.
  • Former residents of the Chagos Islands, forcibly removed nearly a half-century so the U.S. could build an Air Force base on Diego Garcia, lost their legal challenge for the right to return to their home island. When you read about forced resettlement of Native Americans in the 1800s and think that could never happen today, well…
  • This was a big week for abortion rights, and while the biggest focus was on the trashing of Texas’s HB2, SCOTUS also declined to hear a case where religious pharmacists sued for the right to decline to sell Plan B, the so-called “morning after pill.” This is another win for science as well as women’s rights; the plaintiffs claimed this pill was equivalent to an abortifacient, when in fact the hormone in Plan B, levonorgestrel, prevents fertilization, and is not considered effective after a fertilized egg has implanted on the wall of the uterus.
  • You’ve probably seen Jesse Williams’ speech at the BET Awards, where he accepted the show’s humanitarian award for 2016, but if not, read the transcript and, if you can, watch the video. We may disagree on the content – this was a speech of emotion as much as of reason – but I was most impressed by how well he delivered it. It was a complex speech filled with lines that were clearly intended to serve as quotes or epigrams, and thus filled with landmines for even an accomplished speaker like Williams. It was too clever by half at times (“gentrifying our genius?”) but his delivery was hypnotizing. I could train for years and never do what he did.
  • 107 Nobel Laureates have called out Greenpeace for its anti-science position against genetically modified crops. This rift is only going to grow: Where environmental groups have, historically, been the pro-science advocates, they’re increasingly at odds with the scientific community on genetic modification.
  • Audio link from the BBC World Service’s Witness program on the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969, part of a broader story of urban decline and rebirth in Cleveland.
  • The Rio Olympics are headed for all-time disaster levels, with the Zika epidemic, raw sewage in the waters, unpaid first responders, and, now, soup kitchens closing for lack of funds because the money is going to prop up this shitshow.
  • This 1999 op ed, bylined by Donald Trump, blasts Pat Buchanan as a dangerous proto-fascist who needs to be stopped.
  • Stanton Healthcare is an anti-abortion company that wants to take down Planned Parenthood with a chain of “women’s health” clinics that offers no reproductive health services, not even birth control. Her views are rife with anti-science nonsense, like referring to contraceptives as abortifacients (you keep using that word…) and fearmongering about synthetic hormones.
  • Vaccine deniers like to point to the cases of Hannah Poling and Brian Krakow’s son, but the evidence in both cases turns out to be lacking, especially in the Krakow case, as the boy showed clear signs of autism prior to vaccination. These loons will make anything up to support their anti-science beliefs.
  • Clarence Thomas doesn’t like the idea of restricting domestic abusers’ access to guns. Now, there’s some internal logic in his position: He’s arguing against any gun ownership or access restrictions at all, ultimately, and while I don’t read the Second Amendment that way or believe that was at all the authors’ intent, it’s one possible reading. But given the relatively high rates of homicide committed by convicted domestic abusers, isn’t this a gun control measure that we can all agree would work to keep victims safe without infringing on the law-abiding public’s right to bear arms, to say nothing of that well-ordered militia bit?
  • Quebec City spent nearly $350 million to build a hockey arena that still has no tenant. Cities doing this merely play into the leagues’ hands for extorting better deals out of other cities, sometimes in cities that already have adequate facilities. Meanwhile, I’m going to predict the NHL team in Las Vegas proves a big flop; the city has poor demographics for pro sports anyway, and, of course, no history whatsoever of hockey fandom.
  • An investigative journalist who worked as an English teacher to the sons of North Korea’s elite found herself receiving a torrent of vile criticism for doing undercover work. It’s bizarre and I wonder if a male writer would have received the same treatment.
  • The Koch brothers have gotten a bill through the House that would prevent the IRS from collecting the names of donors to tax-exempt groups, because we definitely want less transparency in campaign financing, not more.
  • The Canadian “naturopath” (read: child-neglecting Dunning-Krugerrands) parents who let their son die of meningitis rather than getting him medical attention were convicted of failing to provide for his well-being, with the father, also an anti-vaccine dipshit, getting four months in prison. I’m stunned they haven’t lost permanent custody of their other children, who are clearly at risk here; if the parents came into court and said aliens from Enceladus were protecting their children, we’d call the parents mentally ill and rescue the kids, but their vaccine-denial views are every bit as bogus.
  • Amy Schumer’s “too dark to air” sketch on gun control wasn’t too dark to release online, and I’m sure the faux-censorship angle gained it more viral traction. It’s quite good, of course, and not least because it features Coach McGuirk.
  • Buzzfeed steals content. It’s not plagiarism, which would be actionable; instead, they’re lifting ideas, outlines, and recipes, things that can’t be legally protected by copyright. It’s legal, but wholly unethical, and made worse by the clownish defenses some of its editors are offering. Apologize, tighten your standards, fire offenders, move on.
  • This New York profile of adult film actress Stoya, including her decision to go public with rape accusations against co-star and ex-boyfriend James Deen – spurring a torrent of similar accusations, none of which has kept him from working in their industry – is quite well done for such a difficult subject. Text NSFW, of course.
  • I enjoyed the Atlantic‘s profile of Black Flag’s legacy but really wanted more.
  • I’ll end on a slightly sappy note – the story of a millionaire, a homeless woman, and the dog that led him to help save her life.

Stick to baseball, 3/5/16.

My one Insider piece this week covered the Ian Desmond deal with Texas. I also held my regular Klawchat.

I have two pieces up on Paste this week too: my review of the cool, quick-playing deckbuilder Xenon Profiteer, plus a recap of games I saw at Toyfair. The price has varied a bit, but Xenon Profiteer is $26.49 right now on amazon.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 1/16/16.

I traveled to Puerto Rico this week to see the MLB draft showcase in Cayey, featuring likely top-5 pick Delvin Perez, so I haven’t written much anywhere, with just one Insider post, on the Wei-Yin Chen and Gerardo Parra signings. Klawchats will resume this upcoming week, and no, I haven’t seen this week’s episode of Top Chef yet. I did finish The Executioner’s Song on the flight home, and that has to be one of the most addictive books I’ve ever read.

And now, the links…

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

Saturday five, 10/27/12.

I’ve been tied up this week working on the top 50 free agents ranking, and will probably be doing the same most of this upcoming week. I will be at Salt River Fields next Saturday for the Arizona Fall League’s Rising Stars Game, and hope to see some of you there.

* Adding to my link from two weeks ago about GM crops and California’s Prop 37, check out this French study that claims that rats fed Monsanto-modified corn developed tumors and died earlier than other rats. They found similar results with rats fed amounts of the herbicide Roundup that are permissible under U.S. law. (EDIT: Reader Dennis points out why this study might be a load of crap. And here’s a somewhat balanced look at the problems with the study and the need for follow-up.)

* Don’t buy or eat shrimp from Vietnam. Or any seafood from there, really. Or from China. Maybe this is why Bruce and his fellow sharks say fish are friends, not food.

* Former minor league pitcher John Dillinger comes out of the closet. I remember his name well, for obvious reasons, but never saw him pitch. This is a great read, especially his belief that an active player who chose to come out would meet with a friendly or at least non-hostile reception.

* Not that I want to be kind or gentle to the troll by giving her attention, but I thought this response from a man with Down Syndrome was spectacular.

* “The Island Where People Forget to Die” tells of the remarkable longevity of residents of Ikaria. One of their secrets is a heavily plant-based diet with virtually no processed foods, heavy on olive oil, legumes, and wine.

Folks, This Ain’t Normal.

I’m not a big fan of polemics in general, since, regardless of subject matter, they all tend to share two traits: They are poorly written and lightly evidenced. Joel Salatin’s Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World fits that description perfectly, with a complete lack of footnotes and scant detail even in anecdotes that should, in theory, help prove his points, and while Salatin is clearly a bright guy, he’s no writer, and whoever edited his book didn’t do him many favors. Yet despite those glaring flaws, and the clear bias with which he writes (one to which I’m sympathetic), there’s still a fair amount of value to be had from reading Folks… because of the questions his arguments on agriculture and our modern, unsustainable food supply will raise in your mind.

Joel Salatin is a self-described “environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer,” as well as a libertarian, a Christian, and to some degree a bit of a chauvinist, so 350 pages of his thoughts will inevitably contain something to aggravate any reader – a tactic, however, that can have the positive effect of causing readers to investigate Salatin’s claims further to try to debunk them. He runs an extensive, traditional farm in rural Virginia called Polyface, pasture-raising livestock; eschewing the use of pesticides, antibiotics, and genetically modified crops; and employing a holistic approach to land management that relies on natural processes and diets to maintain soil quality, limit water usage, and minimize his carbon footprint.

Salatin follows three main tracks, ignoring some of the extraneous rants in the book such as his thoughts on child-rearing, that are relevant to the consumer:

  1. He explains why industrially-produced food is inferior in quality, safety, and environmental impact to food from individual farmers practicing his style of agriculture.
  2. He blames government regulators, generally in cahoots with large-scale industrial food producers, for masking the true costs of industrially-produced food, making it less cost-effective for small-scale farmers to start and grow their businesses, and limiting those local farmers’ access to markets through suffocating regulations. He even saves some ire for the government’s relationship with Big Oil, since cheap fuel distorts the market for local food, to say nothing of cheap fertilizers.
  3. And he ends every chapter with advice to the consumer on how to improve his/her impact on the food supply, including many admonitions to grow as much of your own produce as you can, as well as to raise chickens in your backyard for their eggs*, feeding them kitchen scraps and using their manure for compost.

* One of our daughter’s best friends in kindergarten has chickens in her backyard, and her mom gave us a half-dozen of the eggs last week. I have never come across any egg with shells that strong, and it was the first time I’d ever seen a greenish egg, which apparently means the hen was an Araucana. The yolks were also very well-defined. If my daughter and I weren’t both so allergic to feathers, I’d set up a coop right away.

As I mentioned earlier, however, Folks, This Ain’t Normal ain’t a great read. He backs up virtually none of what he says unless he can discuss a specific experience at Polyface; at one point, he mentions a centrally-planned city in China that grew up practically overnight, with 250,000 people and gardens on nearly every rooftop, but never mentions one minor detail – the city’s name – without which the story is much tougher to verify. You may nod your head at first to his arguments about corrupt regulators, market externalities, nanny-state policies, or the hijacking of the term “organic,” but his arguments consistently lack evidence. I think most of what he says is right – our government is way too involved in the food supply, and our policies on food and oil have led to poor land usage, soil mismanagement, the inevitability of water crises, and substandard products at the grocery store* – but it would be tough for me to carry out any of these arguments myself based solely on his book.

*Another rant: Have you ever had a truly pasture-raised chicken? The chicken breasts are small, while the legs are larger, because the chickens are more active, building muscle in the thighs and drumsticks (well, what eventually become the drumsticks), while burning off the calories that, in a caged bird, would otherwise lead to larger breasts. (Stop snickering.) I happen to prefer dark poultry meat anyway, since it has more fat, leading to better texture and less dryness, but it’s also a lot more natural; industrally-raised birds’ organs can’t keep up with the muscle growth in the breasts, so they must be slaughtered earlier so they don’t die of organ failure. And, as it turns out, pasture-raised cows and chickens produce more healthful milk and eggs than feedlot or caged livestock does, just as compost-raised produce contains more nutrients than fertilizer-raised produce.

Folks, This Ain’t Normal at least encouraged me to continue what I’ve started in our yard, composting and growing regionally and seasonally appropriate crops, and to be smarter about what I buy and where I buy it. Salatin mentioned The Cornucopia Institute, which ranks organic dairies and organic egg producers on how true their claims of organic practices are. (In Arizona, the executive summary is: Organic Valley and Clover = good, Horizon and Shamrock = bad.) They’ve also led the fight on behalf of almond farmers who want to sell raw almonds to the public, winning a lawsuit allowing California almond farmers to challenge a USDA regulation that forbids the sale of almonds that haven’t been treated with a toxic fumigant or at very high heat, a regulation in response to a salmonella outbreak at one of the nation’s largest industrial nut producers. This kind of policy – where the sins of a large corporation lead to regulations with fixed costs that crush smaller producers – is exactly what Salatin targets when he rants about intrusive, anti-farmer regulations. I had never heard of the Cornucopia Institute before picking up his book, or many of the other books he mentions (such as Gene Logsdon’s memorably titled Holy Shit: Managing Manure To Save Mankind), so Salatin’s book did at least achieve one goal – forcing me to reexamine the food my family eats, from how it’s grown to where we get it. But had he researched and supported his book with more hard data or secondary sources, Folks, This Ain’t Normal might have become a classic in its narrow field.

Next up: As I mentioned on Twitter, I’m working my way through Raymond Carver’s short story collection Where I’m Calling From – and yes, I’m aware of the controversy over his editor’s role in changing some of the text.

The Story of Sushi.

My most recent piece on ESPN.com went up yesterday – a preview of the major amateur free agents available in Latin America this summer.

I recommend a lot of books around here, but I’m not sure the last time I said that any you must read a particular book. If you like sushi, or just seafood in general, however, you need to get yourself a copy of Trevor Corson’s The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice (published in hardcover as The Zen of Fish), a tremendous read that blends the history of what we now refer to as sushi in the U.S. with a surprisingly interesting subplot around a class going through a sushi-chef academy near Los Angeles. Corson’s integration of the two threads is remarkable, but for me, the value was in hearing him subtly say to American diners: “SUSHI: UR DOIN IT WRONG.”

Corson boils sushi down to its core components – the rice, the vinegar in the rice, the seaweed – and even dabbles in some food chemistry by explaining why we particularly like those ingredients as well as raw fish, discussing umami and the chemicals that deliver it (glutamic acid and inosine monophosphate in particular) and why we like the flesh of sea creatures raw but generally don’t like uncooked meat from land creatures. He discusses why certain types of fish make better or worse sushi, and of course discusses wild fish versus farm-raised (wild is better, but farm-raised does have some advantages) as well as the dangers overfishing present to natural fish populations. There’s even a chapter on uni, a paste comprising the gonads of sea urchins, which I recently learned is also consumed raw in various Caribbean cuisines as well.

Those sections were interesting, but didn’t do too much to change the way I thought about sushi, since I already knew I liked the stuff. Corson also discusses the various traditions around sushi and the etiquette of eating it (use your fingers for nigiri; never rub your wooden chopsticks together; miso soup should be eaten after the meal), as well as the logic for eating certain pieces in certain ways. A good sushi chef will, if you allow him, consider the order in which you’re eating your fish, moving across a continuum from milder flavors to stronger ones, or from softer textures to firm ones. Stirring wasabi (which, you probably know, isn’t actually wasabi at most U.S. restaurants but American horseradish dyed green) into soy sauce reduces the flavor of the wasabi, because the heat is partly deactivated in liquid. The fish used in spicy tuna rolls – a thoroughly American creation – is generally refuse, scraped off the skin of the tuna after the best pieces have been removed and used for nigiri or other dishes that require better flavor and texture. In fact, most rolls are inauthentic and used to hide inferior-quality fish under ingredients that are strongly flavored, like chili oil, or that coat the tongue with fat, like mayonnaise or avocado.

I’ve never been a huge fan of complicated rolls, since they tend to layer lots of ingredients together and come with sticky-sweet sauces, and I’m not a fan of mayonnaise so I generally avoid spicy tuna anyway. Having a rich, fatty, sweet roll can burn your palate for the delicate flavors of the fish-and-rice nigiri. But Corson’s book, without ever explicitly saying, “don’t eat the fancy rolls,” presents three arguments – one based on authenticity, one on the quality of the ingredients, and the fact that sushi becomes rather unhealthy when you load it up with fats and sugars – for at least limiting your consumption of those rolls, if not eliminating them altogether. And the teachers and sushi chefs who appear in the book all share his disdain for the fancier rolls, even while they teach them at the academy because customers want them – and they’re very profitable. (Another good reason not to order them, actually – you usually get more bang for your buck with nigiri.)

A book that just discussed sushi’s history, traditions, and science would have been worth reading without an actual plot to carry it along, but Corson built his book around the story of a class at The California Sushi Academy, a school run by a longtime sushi chef named Toshi whose restaurant (adjacent to the school) is struggling and who is himself recovering from a fairly recent stroke that has sapped his energy. Corson focuses on a few specific students in the class, including Kate, the nominal star of the book, a young woman struggling to find a career while fighting depression who nearly quits the school a half-dozen times; Fie, the Danish model/actress who decided she’d rather be the bombshell behind the sushi bar; and Takumi Nishio, the former Japanese boy-band star who quit the music business to study first Italian cuisine and now authentic sushi; while also devoting some time to Zoran, the Yugoslavia-born/Australian-raised head instructor who is a True Believer in traditional sushi even as he teaches the students American-style rolls. Their stories are interesting, as are their struggles – except for Takumi, who, in the book at least, seems to be a complete natural at whatever cuisine he tries, so he’s fascinating but without much drama. Corson follows them on assignments outside the classroom, like feeding the cast and crew on a movie lot, or watches them work a shift in the back room of the restaurant, using each episode as a segue into some note on the history or components of sushi.

If you like sushi, The Story of Sushi is $10 well spent. You can simultaneously learn the history of the California roll – its inventor is actually known, and there’s a good reason why there’s an avocado in it – and why you shouldn’t really bother with it when you’re in a quality Japanese restaurant.

For more from Corson, check out his official site, which includes some notes on the people in The Story of Sushi and other links and articles about seafood.

Next review: Richard Russo’s The Whore’s Child and Other Stories.