Stick to baseball, 9/22/17.

I wrote three pieces for Insiders this week: scouting notes on Yu Darvish, more notes on Aaron Nola and some young Phillies hitters, and my annual look at players I was wrong about. I also held a Klawchat on Thursday.

I’m down to biweekly game reviews for Paste, so the most recent one is from last week, covering the great Days of Wonder-published title Yamataï, by the same designer who won the Spiel des Jahres (game of the year) this year for his game Kingdomino.

My book, Smart Baseball, is out and still selling well (or so I’m told); thanks to all of you who’ve already picked up a copy. And please sign up for my free email newsletter, which is back to more or less weekly at this point now that I’m not traveling for a bit.

And now, the links…

Half-Earth.

Biologist E.O. Wilson has won two Pulitzer Prizes for Non-Fiction, including one for, of all things, a textbook on ants, along with numerous other awards for his lengthy bibliography of popular and scholarly works on evolution, sociobiology, ecology, and conservationism. His 2016 book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life falls into the last category while drawing on multiple fields of expertise to make his case that we should preserve half of the area of the planet for conservation to maintain biodiversity and fight climate change, but for a work by a great scholar and professor, Half-Earth feels half-hearted, as if Wilson knows what he wants to argue but couldn’t be bothered to support his side sufficiently to sway the unconvinced.

The idea of preserving half of the planet, land and sea, for conservation isn’t new nor is it Wilson’s; he credits Tony Hiss with coining the term “half-earth” to describe the concept in a Smithsonian magazine article in 2014. And there’s little doubt that man’s impact on the planet – its environment and the millions of other species on it – has been a net negative for everyone but man, with the pace of change only accelerating as we continue to alter the compositions of the planet’s atmosphere, soil, and water supply. Wilson does well when describing what we might lose or have already lost as a result of our mere presence or our industrial activities, talking about habitats we’ve razed or species we’ve driven to extinction deliberately, through the introductions of invasive species, or through other changes to the environment. But he assumes that the reader will see these losses as significant, or even see them as losses, without sufficiently detailing why it matters that, say, we’re wiping out the world’s rhinoceros population, or various island birds and rodents have been exterminated by the introduction of non-native snakes.

What’s missing even more from the work, however, is a consideration of the costs of an endeavor like the one Wilson is proposing. Man is fairly well distributed across the planet, and setting aside 50% of its land mass for conservation would require resettling hundreds of thousands of people, possibly millions, many of them members of indigenous populations who live in the least-altered environments on the planet. Crowding the planet’s seven billion people (and rising) into less of the space will trade some environmental problems for others, as various forms pollution rise with population density, and many large urban areas already struggle under the weight of their people, with third-world megacities paralyzed by traffic and its attendant problems. Relocating people is expensive, difficult, and traumatic. There’s also the very real question of feeding those seven billion people and supplying them with fresh water, which we’re already struggling to do; if you reserve half of the world’s land and half of its oceans for conservation, those tasks become more difficult and likely more expensive – a cost few people will be willing to bear directly. It might be necessary, but Wilson glosses over the practical problems his solution would create.

There is, however, one good reason to read Half-Earth right now, at least in the United States, where the current federal administration is rolling back environmental protections left and right, including cutting funds for wildlife area acquisition and management. But I thought Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer-winning book The Sixth Extinction made the same general case more powerfully and thoroughly, describing the current, anthropogenic mass extinction that could rival the K-Pg event for sheer number of species exterminated if we don’t do anything about it. Kolbert goes into greater depth with more concrete examples of how man’s activity has altered the planet and moved species around to extinguish some species and threaten others, including a lengthy discussion of chytrid fungus, a thus-far incurable ailment that is killing off tropical frog species with alarming speed.

I think Wilson also fell into the trap that William Easterley (among others) has identified in charitable and other “good intentions” efforts – aiming impossibly high, so that you can never meet your stated goal. You want to end world hunger? That sounds great, but it’ll never happen, and the only outcome will be the creation of a giant organization that absorbs donations without ever accomplishing much of anything. Micro-efforts yield more tangible results, and increase accountability for workers and donors alike. So while saying “let’s reserve half the planet to save it” is an admirable goal, and may even be the right strategy for the long term, it ain’t happening, and talking about it doesn’t get us any closer to solutions. If you want to help save the planet, work towards small, achievable goals. And right now, that probably means working for change in Washington.

Next up: Nina George’s 2013 novel The Little Paris Bookshop.

The Windup Girl.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2010 novel The Windup Girl, which won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for the best sci-fi novel of that year, manages to be both fantastical and realistic, with an all-too-believable setting in a world after a series of environmental catastrophes where food supplies are controlled by “calorie” companies and nations have fallen under their extortionary practices. The title character is a genetically modified human, grown in a lab in Japan as a sort of modern servant and concubine, whose mistreatment will lead to the fall of the Thai government and a shift in the area’s ongoing power struggle. Bacigalupi’s story is violent and his worldview bleak, but in a time when the world’s largest economy is pulling out of a worldwide agreement to try to slow man’s effect on the global climate, it seems entirely plausible – and his take on corporate ownership of genes and species doesn’t seem quite so cynical as it might have even seven years ago.

The multifacted plot gives us Anderson Lake, ostensibly an American managing a foreign factory in Thailand but in reality a researcher hunting for unusual genes and species bred or developed by Thai scientists – especially the location of the country’s seedbank, a potential goldmine of new genes for Lake’s employer to use to create new species of grains and other plants to resist the latest waves of diseases and pests. (Bagicalupi has created a rather terrifying-sounding array of these biological threats, including the evocative “blister rust.”) The factory Lake oversees uses animal power to create kink-springs that are used in this post-petroleum world as portable power sources, while also growing species of algae to help generate power to be stored in these springs. He stumbles on Emiko, the “windup girl” of the title, who is now owned by a strip club owner after her original Japanese owner decided to abandon her in Thailand rather than pay the dirigible fare to fly her back to Tokyo. The Thai government’s power is split between two warring factions, Trade and Environment, each of which plays a role in protecting the insular kingdom from outside threats and influences – like the importation of plants carrying new diseases – with each requiring its own sets of bribes and connections before shipments of outside goods can enter the country. When one of Trade’s enforcers, Jaidee, goes too far in punishing an importer who hasn’t paid sufficient bribes, it sets off a chain reaction that will eventually envelop Lake, Emiko, Jaidee’s forces, the heads of Trade, Environment, the army, and the queen’s regent in a political cataclysm that threatens to bring the country down.

The story is violent, especially to Emiko, often way beyond anything necessary for the plot to move forward. While the one major scene where she’s raped and forcibly sodomized leads to a revenge sequence that is integrated into the political storyline, there’s just more detail of her degradation than any reader should need – or than any author should want to offer. It engenders sympathy for her character, but she’s already such a pariah in this society that this is superfluous. Instead it seems like pandering to the worst elements of the audience.

Yet beyond Emiko, is there really a compelling character anywhere in the book? Lake is a blank page; his compassion for Emiko doesn’t fit with the rest of his behavior, and if it’s just sexual attraction, that doesn’t exactly explain the compassion either. There’s no explanation for why he’s one person in his work mode and someone else entirely once he encounters Emiko and ends up saving her from officials chasing her in the street a day or two later. The closest thing to a fully-developed second character in the book is Kanya, Jaidee’s top lieutenant who ends up taking over his squad and finds the agency that Emiko lacks. Their paths don’t intersect – Kanya has a marked disdain for the windup who temporarily helps her hunt for Emiko – but they do represent contrasting sides of the issue of women establishing any sort of control over their lives in a male-dominated world.

Post-environmental catastrophe novels have been around a long time – A Canticle for Leibowitz, set after what appears to have been a nuclear disaster, won the Hugo over forty years earlier – but Bacigalupi manages to fold a number of current problems or concerns into his setting that make it seem immediate where others in the subgenre have been remote. Global temperatures have risen with predictable consequences like higher sea levels. Food insecurity is a political destabilizer in this world, and food shortages are exacerbated by more tumultuous weather patterns and new plagues that evolved around monocultures foisted on the world by GMO food monopolies. Petroleum is gone, presumably exhausted, and methane use is tightly regulated. That means airplanes are gone and cars are luxury items. Air conditioning doesn’t seem to exist, which is particularly relevant to Emiko, who has been designed with smaller pores that mean she can’t sweat properly to cool her body. None of this seems that improbable or that far off, especially with our current government backpedaling on virtually all initiatives to protect the environment.

This novel winning major awards makes sense given the themes it tackles and the level of detail Bacigalupi has invested in his world, but I don’t think it’s that great of a novel in a literary sense due to the lack of compelling central characters. It’s thought-provoking, as many of the great sci-fi novels are, and there’s an immediacy here that stories of interstellar travel or time-shifting can’t bring. After I finished, however, I found the characters had completely vanished from my mind – the setting stuck, but none of the individuals did. That keeps it from the top echelon of sci-fi novels I’ve read in my run through the Hugo winners.

Unrelated, but “Bacigalupi” sounds like something the Hoobs would say.

Next up: I’ve run through three short books since finishing this, including Fritz Lieber’s Hugo-winning novella The Big Time, which is free for the Kindle because it’s in the public domain but which I found boring, and am now reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.

Stick to baseball, 6/10/17.

I’ve been busy this week, with a top 100 draft prospects “Big Board” up for Insiders, and a free article profiling top draft prospect Hunter Greene, who gave me some really thoughtful answers on the topics of preparation, being a two-way player, and baseball’s declining African-American audience. I also held a Klawchat on Friday afternoon.

I’ll have a new mock draft up tomorrow (Sunday) and my editors and I will update that file until the draft begins Monday evening. I’m also planning to do a chat Monday afternoon as the draft gets closer.

In non-baseball content, BBC America asked me to to rank the main clones on the show Orphan Black, which returns for its fifth and final season tonight on the cable channel. The first four seasons are all available on Amazon Prime, and I highly recommend it.

Over at Paste, I reviewed the cooperative puzzle game Unlock!, which is actually a series of modules that mimic the escape-room experience by asking players to solve riddles on cards and enter codes into a free app on their phones. The publisher sent me four of the modules; I played three before the review, and they’re all difficult but worth playing. The fourth, The Island of Dr. Goorse, was too abstruse, and that’s not just my opinion but the opinion of all five of us who played, including my father, the (retired) electrical engineer and one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 5/27/17.

My one Insider piece this week was on Luis Robert, his deal with the White Sox, and the poor history of Cuban position player free agents. I did not hold a Klawchat, and will have another mock draft up on Tuesday.

Smart Baseball continues to sell well and I am very grateful to all of you who purchased it. I have about 100 signed bookplates that I can send out to readers who’ve bought the book, and I’ll get that info to everyone soon – probably in my next email newsletter.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 5/20/17.

My one baseball post this past week was the annual ranking of the Top 25 MLB players under 25, which causes more “read the intro” violations than anything else I write every year. I also held a Klawchat on Thursday while in Minneapolis; I will do a quick eats post from there soon, but I’m about six topics behind here due to travel and lack of sleep.

For Paste, I reviewed the new puzzle game Shahrazad, which has a solo version and a two-player mode, both pretty clever with fantastic artwork and very few rules to learn.

My book, Smart Baseball, came out on April 25th from HarperCollins in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook formats. I traveled to Atlanta and the Twin Cities for readings/signings this past week, and am very grateful to all of you who came out to buy the book, have yours signed, or just say hello; we had 50+ folks at each event and Moon Palace Books sold out of the book Thursday night. Smart Baseball also got a very positive review from an unexpected source, the political site The Federalist.

I’m still sending out my email newsletter when I can, and the last edition, about some recent troubles I’ve had with my anxiety disorder and the medication I take for it, got the strongest response yet – so many replies and comments, in fact, that I haven’t been able to respond to the majority of them. I did see them all, though, and I really appreciate all the kind words.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 4/22/17.

Smart Baseball comes out on Tuesday, so this is the last stick to baseball post before its official release. If you haven’t preordered yet, you can still do so here, or by, you know, walking into a bookstore and asking them to preorder it for you.

The media push for Smart Baseball has begun, with my hourlong chat with Joe Posnanski on his podcast, including talk about the book, boardgames, and how Mike Schur is dead wrong about pies. The Baltimore County Public Library interviewed me about the book and asked about time management. I also answered some questions in an interview for AM New York.

I currently have signings/appearances scheduled for Philadelphia (May 8th), Atlanta (May 16th), Minneapolis (May 18th), Toronto (June 26th), and Miami (July 8th). There are a few more in the works, including a likely signing at GenCon in Indianapolis, but if you don’t see your city on there, contact your local bookstore and ask them to contact HarperCollins. It’ll depend on my travel schedule, of course, but I do have time for a few more of these.

I wrote one draft blog post this week on Vandy’s Kyle Wright and Jeren Kendall, with notes on some Florida players as well. For Paste, I reviewed the epic boardgame The Colonists, which is actually a good game but punishingly intricate.

As always, you can get even more Klaw by signing up for my email newsletter.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 4/15/17.

I updated my ranking of the top 50 prospects in the minors this week; there’s minimal reranking in there, just status notes on players, with guys moving up to replace those already in the majors. (Jesse Winker was promoted after the piece ran.) I wrote a long draft blog post on Hunter Greene, Brian McKay, and other draft prospects I’ve seen so far. I also held a Klawchat on Thursday.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon, or from other sites via the Harper-Collins page for the book. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

  • The one great longread I saw this week was from Backchannel on what’s happened to Google Books, the tech giant’s stated effort to scan every book, ever, to make them all searchable. I’ve used this feature quite a few times, including during the research for Smart Baseball, where I could search for certain terms or keywords in books I couldn’t get my hands on.
  • California passed a tougher law on childhood vaccinations, and, lo and behold, inoculation rates went up about 3 percentage points.
  • The handful of loonies who opposed the law largely claimed “parental choice” as a reason why they should be allowed to deny their children a safe, effective treatment that can prevent debilitating and sometimes fatal diseases. It’s a terrible argument, because those “choices” affect everyone, not just your children. (Also, that choice isn’t for you – it’s for your child, who can’t choose for him/herself, and depends on you to take care of his/her medical needs.)
  • If you’ve seen a vaccine denier point to measles outbreaks in China as evidence the MMR vaccine doesn’t work, well, the outbreaks occurred among unvaccinated groups. Facts may not carry the day with deniers, but it is on the rational among us to make sure the truth is still out there for people who might be on the fence.
  • A Utah judge praised a convicted sexual abuser during sentencing, with at least one of the victims present. This kind of behavior will only discourage victims from coming forward in the future. Utah judges may be removed from the bench via a judicial conduct commission censure or a 2/3 vote of the legislature, so if you live in that state, get on the phone.
  • I think my new least favorite food buzzword is “clean.” Panera, which is a decent chain choice if you want something vegetarian while traveling, claims its food is 100% “clean,” which means absolutely nothing unless previously they were rolling their bread dough out on the floor. It’s also a buzzword for people who eat weird, ultra-restricted diets that probably don’t provide enough nutrition because so-called “clean eaters” often skip dairy or wheat, foods that are often demonized without scientific basis. I’ll keep eatin’ dirty, thanks.
  • Dr. David Dao, the passenger beaten and dragged off a United flight last week, has filed court papers in preparation for a lawsuit and compared his treatment to what he experienced while fighting in the Vietnam War. Tim Wu of the New Yorker wrote about why he stopped flying United after it merged with Continental. Deadspin’s Albert Burneko discussed the absurdity of backing the corporation in such cases.
  • An American doctor has been charged with mutilating the genitalia of two girls under the age of 10, a barbaric practice common in eastern African countries and in Indonesia known as female genital mutilation.
  • New Mexico has banned “lunch shaming,” the cruel practice of embarrassing children whose parents have unpaid school meal debts.
  • I listened to the entire seven episodes of the podcast S-Town, and I’m not sure if I think the time was well spent. Did I really get anything out of it? Was John B. McLemore, who was most likely a manic depressive on top of the later medical issues revealed in the final episode, someone worthy of a seven-hour biography? The Atlantic also asks about the ethics of revealing so much of his life after his death, and the details of other characters in the play. The Guardian went to Woodstock, Alabama, to interview the locals about their sudden bit of fame, and most didn’t seem to mind the portrayals.
  • I was apparently behind the times, as I was unfamiliar with the Twitter replies-to-retweets ratio until this past week.
  • Paul Krugman wrote that publicity stunts aren’t policy and then Trump ordered (or simply handwaved along) the dropping of the ‘mother of all bombs’ on Afghanistan. It’s working, though: Compare media coverage of the Russian connection, or of GOP rollbacks of Obama policies, to coverage of the Syria and Afghanistan bombings and now our taunting of North Korea. (For what it’s worth, the North Korean government has always been the one that worried me, because it’s essentially sociopathy in government form, and they’re well-funded enough to do mass damage to someone, South Korea or Japan or us. But I would prefer to see a long-term policy solution to the issue, not threatening to Pyongyang to wag the dog.)
  • There can be no beatings and imprisoning of gays in Chechnya because there are no gays in Chechnya, say Chechnyan authorities. This Guardian report says otherwise.
  • I enjoyed this interview with Dana Cree, pastry chef for Chicago’s Publican restaurant group and author of the new cookbook Hello, My Name Is Ice Cream: The Art and Science of the Scoop. Within the Q&A she discusses which ingredients serve as stabilizers to minimize the size of ice crystals in ice cream, providing a smoother texture. I personally do not like the eggless ice cream known as Philadelphia-style, which is just dairy, sugar, and flavors, for that very reason. I prefer frozen custard, sometimes called New York ice cream, which includes egg yolks – often a lot – and less butterfat, because the yolks contain lecithin, which emulsifies the fat and the water in the base and thus prevents large crystals from forming. Lecithin can break down at subzero temperatures, however, so vegetable gums may be better if you’re going super-cold, if you can’t eat eggs, or if you don’t want that slight eggnog note in a delicate flavor like vanilla bean.
  • The first part of this NPR Fresh Air interview with author David Owen, about the Colorado River, is interesting and particularly relevant to me, because one of the main reasons I did not want to remain a long-term resident of Arizona was that the state has no strategy for dealing with the coming water crisis in the region. The Colorado River is overtaxed, badly, and Arizona’s idea of coping is storing a few years of water in underground reserves. He has a new book out on the topic, Where the Water Goes, and discusses some of it in the Q&A. Then he talks about golfing with Donald Trump and I moved on with my life.

Stick to baseball, 1/28/17.

My ranking of the top 100 prospects went up this week, and my org rankings went up last week, so ESPN set up a landing page that links to all my prospect content. When the individual team top tens and reports go up next week, you’ll be able to reach them from this page as well.

ESPN split my top 100 ranking into five posts this year, twenty prospects per page, so here they are from the top to the bottom:

I held a Klawchat Friday after the whole list was up.

And I even got another boardgame review up, this one of the new edition of the 2000 game Citadels, which is actually designed for 4 to 8 players, with rules variants included for 2 or 3. It’s definitely best with four or more, though.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon, or from other sites via the Harper-Collins page for the book. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 9/10/16.

No Insider content this week, as I was working on my book – including an interview with an executive the other day that ran over two hours and took forever to transcribe – but I did hold a Klawchat because I’m such a nice guy.

My latest game review for Paste covers the five-minute card game 3 Wishes, a very fast-moving with a deck of just 18 cards in a similar vein to Love Letter or Coup.

And now, the links…