Inside Out.

Pixar’s latest movie, Inside Out, lived up to all of the hype and praise it’s received so far, a visually stunning film that hits all of the bittersweet notes that have made Pixar’s best films – especially WALL-E and the Toy Story trilogy – masterpieces not just of animation but of cinema. It’s also, in many ways, one of Pixar’s riskiest ideas, thanks to one of its least conventional plots yet, making the ultimate success of the film even more remarkable. (Full, if obvious, disclosure: Disney owns Pixar and ESPN.)

Inside Out is a metaphysical coming-of-age story that manages to encapsulate a buddy comedy, a psychological thriller, and an Arthur Clarke-style sci-fi story all set inside of the head of eleven-year-old Riley Anderson, whose family has just removed her from her idyllic life in Minnesota so her father can work for a startup in San Francisco. Riley’s personality is determined by a pastel-colored world run primarily by five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear, each voiced and drawn in distinctive fashion (and helpfully color-coded). Riley’s memories each bear one of those five colors, although we learn early on that Sadness (Phyllis Smith) can turn any memory blue (her color) with a touch, a sort of King Midas meets The Old Guitarist-era Picasso. When Joy and Sadness are inadvertently tossed from Headquarters, where the five emotions live and work, along with Riley’s core memories, her whole personality starts to crumble into depression and negativity. Joy and Sadness have to try to find their way back from the archives of Long-Term Memory while the other three emotions try without success to steer the ship.

The five emotionsJoy, voiced by Amy Poehler, is in essence a yellow-skinned, blue-haired, fuzzy Leslie Knope, full of enthusiasm and as much of a leader as the quintet of emotions can have; she was there first, Sadness second, and there’s an uneasy (but not antagonistic) relationship between the two. Their pairing in exile isn’t an accidental bit of plotting, as the film needs the two to play off of each other, even when they run into Riley’s largely-forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) and end up in a series of misadventures as they try to get back to headquarters. (My favorite: their trip through abstract thought, where the three are transformed into cubist images, then deconstructed.) Some of the resolutions are a little obvious – Pixar writers have always taken the maxim of Chekhov’s gun very seriously – but the three writers do an excellent job of managing three disparate plot strands: the Joy/Sadness journey, the three knuckleheads still in HQ, and Riley’s real-world interactions with her befuddled (but never distant or cliched) parents.

The Joy/Sadness adventure – and that’s what it is, a buddy comedy with serious consequences for the other storylines – is the primary plot thread of the movie, and the relationship between the two characters, matched in Poehler’s and Smith’s voicing, is more oil/water than acid/base: Sadness doesn’t want to bring anyone down, but she can’t help it, while Joy remains indefatigable in the face of unfathomable odds. Sadness wants to be more like Joy, while Joy looks on Sadness as a well-meaning nuisance, so you can see who’s going to learn what lesson in the end. It’s how we get there that makes most Pixar movies such memorable experiences for the viewer – if you have a kid, you’ll probably get a little weepy, as I did at a few points during Inside Out – and such great art. The ending is happy, happier than, say, Toy Story 3, but it’s yellow with a few spots of blue.

The great achievement of Inside Out‘s plot isn’t the ending, or the adventure in Long-Term Memory, but the fact that the film works so beautifully without an antagonist. There’s no villain, no Big Foozle, no evil queen, hell, there’s no princesses (not that I’m anti-princess but a change of pace is always welcome). Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust are not set in opposition to Joy, but are depicted as essential elements of human personality. We don’t get the Dragon of Solitude or the Alienation Wraith; when Riley’s emotions have to fight their way back, they’re fighting something fundamental, not an artificial plot-contrivance bad guy whom they have to kill to get to their goal. Inside Out‘s tension is built around time, not threat, yet the film never drags for the lack of a foil for our twin heroines.

Inside Out is full of Easter eggs, as most Pixar flicks are; I only caught a few of them, including the music in the nightmare, the Chinatown reference, and the homage to Steve Jobs’ “reality distortion field.” I didn’t realize the two jellybean-like things guarding the subconscious were actually voiced by Frank Oz and Dave Goelz, longtime Muppet performers. There are apparently several I missed in the classroom scene, although I’m not sure I would have caught any without a remote control in my hand to pause it.

I’m kind of bummed that my daughter is too old for the Inside Out Box of Mixed Emotions, five books, one per emotion, aimed at 3- to 5-year-olds. It looks like Driven by Emotions is more age-appropriate; I’ll report back if we read that one.

Lava, the short animated feature that preceded Inside Out, is a cute but insubstantial love story, remarkable mostly for the quality of its animation (especially the landscapes on the sides of the two volcanoes) and the film’s song, which reminded me of the late native Hawai’an singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. Known as Israel K., his cover of “Over the Rainbow” is the only version of that song I can stand, and Lava‘s main voice-over actor, Kuana Torres Kahele, even sings in a similar fashion to Israel K.’s style.

The Graveyard Book.

Neil Gaiman won his first Hugo Award for Best Novel for his modern epic American Gods, a masterful blend of pagan mythology and magical realism that breathes some life into the generally-overused Chosen One plot structure, thanks in large part to Gaiman’s prodigious imagination. After withdrawing the related book Anansi Boys from consideration for the same honor in 2006, he won the prize a second time for his young adult novel The Graveyard Book, which brings his same charming prose style and clever world-building mind to a gentler story without most of the violence or sex that populate those two earlier works.

There’s an exception to that last bit, and it’s at the start of the book, perhaps the most overused trope in all of young-adult literature (and not a few Disney movies): The orphaned child protagonist. The toddler to soon be known as Nobody “Bod” Owens wakes in a house where his parents and sister have just been knifed to death in their sleep, escaping only due to happenstance and his own wanderlust, ending up in the local disused graveyard where the deceased denizens protect him from the killer. Bod grows up in the graveyard, raised by the Owens (dead for a few hundred years), watched by the not-quite-dead guardian Silas, forbidden to leave the cemetery grounds for fear it will expose him to his would-be murderer, Jack.

Of course, you know the story has to end with Bod facing Jack one final time, and since this is a children’s book, Bod’s going to come out all right, so the onus is on Gaiman to create tension within each of the episodes leading up to the 80-page chapter where the final confrontation occurs. Gaiman infuses Bod with the curiosity of most children, only partly sated by the attempts of the graveyard’s dwellers to educate him, leading him to various excursions outside of and underneath the cemetery itself, setting up the series of events or points of interest that will all come into play in the last battle.

The core story is straightforward, as you’d expect in a self-contained, 300-page young adult novel, but Gaiman has populated his necropolis with a small cast of eccentrics – I suppose expecting the shades to be simply drawn was unreasonable – that bring to mind everyone from Robert Altman to Jasper Fforde. They’re not weirdos, just dead and a little outdated, and have much to teach Bod (and the young reader) about the value of life and living it with just as much (or little) fear as is necessary.

But the book is just as much for the parent reading with or alongside the child; this is very much a book about rearing a son or daughter and learning to let go the older the child gets. Bod’s search for independence and agency is far from unusual; all things considered, he’s a rather compliant child, curious but only occasionally reckless, bailed out a couple of times by Silas or one of the other spirits who’ve been raising him. He touches something hot (metaphorically speaking), gets burned, and learns not to do it again; no matter how many times you say “don’t touch that,” you know the child won’t really believe you until s/he tests your admonition out in the flesh. And when Bod has to fight the final battle without Silas’ protecting, albeit with lots of help from his noncorporeal family, he comes of age right before us in a satisfying but far from entirely happy ending.

My daughter just turned nine, but I think the traumatic introduction where Bod’s family is killed offscreen might upset her a little too much; she was fine with Lily and James Potter dying, but that occurred before page 1 and it’s a lot less real to read of someone dying via spell than dying via blade. I’ll keep the book and leave it to her own judgment to decide when she wants to tackle it.

Next up: Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.


Whew! I’m glad that’s over. For Insiders, my recaps of the drafts for all 15 NL teams and all 15 AL teams are up, as well as my round one reactions and a post-draft Klawchat.

Charles Seife’s Proofiness: How You’re Being Fooled by the Numbers is a beautiful polemic straight from the headquarters of the Statistical Abuse Department. Seife, whose Zero is an enjoyable, accessible story of the development and controversy of that number and concept, aims both barrels at journalists, politicians, and demagogues who misinterpret or misuse statistics, knowing that if you attach a number to something, people are more inclined to believe it.

Seife opens with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s famous claim about knowing the names of “205 … members of the Communist Party” who were at that moment working in the State Department. It was bullshit; the number kept changing, up and down, every time he gave a version of the speech, but by putting a specific number on it, the audience assumed he had those specific names. It’s a basic logical error: if he has the list of names, he must have the number, but that doesn’t mean the converse is true. He rips through a series of similarly well-known examples of public abuse of statistics, from the miscounting of the Million Man March to stories about blondes becoming extinct to Al Gore cherrypicking data in An Inconvenient Truth, to illustrate some of the different ways people with agendas can and will manipulate you with stats.

One of the best passages, and probably most relevant to us as the Presidential election cycle is beginning, is on polls – particularly on how they’re reported. Seife argues, with some evidence, that many reporters don’t understand what the margin of error means. (This subject also got some time in Ian Ayers’ Super Crunchers, a somewhat dated look at the rise of Big Data in decision-making that has since been lapped by the very topic it attempted to cover.) If done correctly, the margin of error should equal two standard deviations, but many journalists and pundits treat it as some ambiguous measure of the confidence in the reported means. When Smith is leading Jones 51% to 49% with a margin of error of ±3%, that’s not a “statistical dead heat;” that’s telling you that the poll, if run properly, says there’s a 95% chance that Smith’s actual support is between 48% and 54% and a 95% that Jones’ support is between 46% and 52%, with each distribution centered on the means (51% and 49%) that were the actual results of the poll. That’s far from a dead heat, as long as the poll itself didn’t suffer from any systemic bias, as in the famous Literary Digest poll for the 1936 Presidential election.

Seife shifts gears in the second half of the book from journalists to politicians and jurists who either misuse stats for propaganda purposes or who misuse them when crafting bad laws or making bad rulings. He explains gerrymandering, pointing out that this is an easy problem to solve with modern technology if politicians had any actual interest in solving it, and breaks down the 2000 Presidential vote in Florida and the 2008 Minnesota Senate race to show that the inevitable lack of precision even in popular votes and census-taking mean both races were, in fact, dead heats. (Specifically, he says that it is impossible to say with any confidence that either candidate was the winner.) Seife shows how bad data have skewed major court decisions, and how McCleskey v. Kemp ignored compelling data on the skewed implementation of capital punishment. (Antonin Scalia voted with the majority, part of a long pattern of ignoring data that don’t support his views, according to Seife.) This statistical abuse cuts both ways, as he gives examples of both prosecutors and defense attorneys playing dirty with numbers to claim that a defendant is guilty or innocent.

For my purposes, it’s a good reminder that numbers can be illustrative but also misleading, especially since the line between giving stats for descriptive reasons can bleed into the appearance of a predictive argument. I pointed out the other day on Twitter that both Michael Conforto and Kyle Schwarber were on short but impressive power streaks; neither run meant anything given how short they were, but I thought they were fun to see and spoke to how both players are elite offensive prospects. (By the way, Dominic Smith is hitting .353/.390/.569 in his last 29 games, and has reached base in 21 straight games!) But I’d recommend this book to anyone working in the media, especially in the political arena, as a manual for how not to use statistics or to believe the ones that are handed to you. It’s also a great guide for how to be a more educated voter, consumer, and reader, so when climate change deniers claim the earth hasn’t warmed for sixteen years, you’ll be ready to spot and ignore it.

Next up: I’m way behind on reviews, but right now I’m halfway through Adam Rogers’ Proof: The Science of Booze.

The Broad Fork.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tale for the Time Being.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Invisible Gorilla.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


My annual list of the top 25 big leaguers under 25 is up for Insiders, as is a draft blog post on Dansby Swanson and Carson Fulmer, both of Vanderbilt.

Chimamanda Ngoza Adichie is one of my favorite living novelists, and I say that having read only two-thirds of her total output (she’s written three). Her ability to craft realistic characters, especially black female characters, and to have all of her characters engage in thoughtful, intelligent, unpandering dramas built around race and ethnic identities is second to none right now; she’s even passed Toni Morrison, whose recent output hasn’t matched her Beloved/Song of Solomon peak. Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, which won the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) in 2007, made my last top 100 novels update at #92.

Her most recent novel, 2013’s Americanah, once again begins and ends in Nigeria, but this time follows two people as they emigrate to the west, one legally and one illegally, to escape a limited economic future in their native country, one that deprives them of hope. Ifemelu and Odinze are high school sweethearts, bonded by their intelligence and refusal to submit to a grey future, but the expectation that they’ll marry is lost when Ifemelu is allowed to enter the United States legally but Odinze, a single foreign male from Africa, is rejected due (we assume) to U.S. immigration crackdowns post-9/11. While Ifemelu encounters financial difficulties and humiliations as a student in the U.S. who lacks money or worldliness, even finding that her brand of English isn’t much use in understanding the American idiom, Odinze enters England without papers and aims for a sham marriage with a citizen to allow himself to stay and work. Ifemelu, ashamed by her situation and depressed by her isolation, ceases contact with Odinze and only resumes it when she returns to Nigeria over a decade later, finding the love of her life now married with a daughter.

“Americanah” is a derogatory term in Nigerian slang referring to someone who has moved to America and come back a changed person, especially one affecting an American accent or an excessive affection for American customs and culture. Ifemelu tries to assimilate early in her time in the U.S. because she’s told repeatedly that she won’t receive job offers if she’s too “ethnic,” but eventually sheds her American façade in favor of her own accent, her own hair, and her identity as an African woman. She adapts rather than assimilating, eventually advancing in her education and career thanks to a blog she writes under a pen name, called Raceteenth Or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes), that documents her thoughts on the racial divide in the United States from the perspective of someone who was not conscious of race before she arrived in this country. (Adichie has since brought Ifemelu’s second blog, written after the character’s return to Nigeria, to life online as The Small Redemptions of Lagos.) Odinze’s story is shorter, as was his stint abroad, working dicey jobs under someone else’s National Insurance number, before he’s discovered and shipped back to Lagos.

Ifemelu is the star of the book, as Odinze, while a well-defined character, is rarely in the spotlight, while his story in England seems like a plot contrivance to contrast with Ifemelu’s experiences as a legal emigrant from Nigeria. Her story has global aspirations which largely succeed, coming through her series of jobs (including nanny to a definite White Privilege family) and relationships, including one with Progressive White Guy and one with Earnest Black Intellectual. We get some pretentious dialogue along the way, especially when Ifemelu starts to travel in increasingly academic circles, but Adichie avoids turning the book into a sermon by keeping Ifemelu’s emotions at the center of the book rather than driving us toward some Big Conclusion via plot tricks. The book describes the emigrant/immigrant experience, the desire to return home for its own sake (rather than to change the world), the emotional pull of a romance that one can’t fully separate from its environment, instead of trying to tell us one country or culture or path is better. This is Ifemelu’s story, just one tale that has its metaphorical implications but doesn’t feel in any way like Adichie is trying to tell every immigrant’s story at once.

Adichie’s strengths in characterization and avoiding predictable plot lines cover some of her weaknesses in portions of the dialogue and nearly all of the sample blog posts included in the book. The posts she includes are far too short and superficial to garner the kind of audience Ifemelu is supposed to have collected through her writing, not enough in a real world that has Ta-Nehisi Coates and Tanzina Vega and Jamil Smith and too many others to name who produce statement pieces that bring examples and evidence to the table. Ifemelu’s blog posts from the book wouldn’t find an audience because they’re not saying much of anything we haven’t heard hundreds of times before. Adichie says more about race when she’s not talking directly about it, putting characters into situations that force them to confront questions of racism and identity, than she does when she tries to blog through Ifemelu’s lens.

Told through frequent moves back and forth in time and across an ocean, Americanah marks another hugely compelling and intelligent novel from Adichie and her biggest seller to date, even though it lacks the gravity of Half of a Yellow Sun, which was set in Nigeria during the Biafra conflict and resulting genocide. Her eye for detail is sharper in the sections of Americanah where her characters are still in Lagos, growing up among ambitious economic strivers, religious zealots, and co-opted concubines whose fortunes are only secure as long as the current regime stays in power. When she transitions to America and England, Adichie’s writing becomes less nuanced and the stakes are largely lower (especially since we know from the first chapter that Odinze gets back to Nigeria safely). The strongest scenes of Ifemelu’s time in America come in an African hair salon she visits, somewhat resentfully, in Trenton, because she can’t find a place that knows how to braid hair properly in Princeton. The reactions she receives there from women who might share some of her background but clearly want very different things from life – and are largely appalled that she would return to Africa of her own volition – drive not just Ifemelu’s own memories but the overall narrative of the book, as well as its strongest symbol (hair) of race and identity.

Next up: I knocked off The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage’s brief history of the telegraph, over the weekend, and have since started Anthony Marra’s novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

Broadchurch, season two.

This week’s Klawchat had lots of overreactions to early-season stats. For Insiders, my latest draft blog post covers first-rounders Donny Everett and Mike Nikorak, with word on a pop-up arm in El Paso and some early top ten gossip.

The British series Broadchurch originally aired as a one-and-done season of eight episodes built around a murder mystery, with the real focus of the writing on the effects of the crime and the investigation on the residents of the small town of the show’s title, many of whom would end up suspects at one point in the season. The show was so well-received by British audiences and TV critics that ITV has now turned it into a recurring series, with season two just completing its first American run on BBC America this week and season three to begin filming this summer. (I reviewed season one while contrasting it to the inferior U.S. remake, Gracepoint.

The formula of the first season no longer applies, as the two detectives assigned to the case, outsider Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and Broadchurch lifer Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), solved it in somewhat shocking fashion in the last episode. That presented several challenges to the writers: how to restart the narrative greed that an unsolved murder brought to the show, and how to continue to push the various characters into uncomfortable situations that could provoke the dialogue that is the show’s greatest strength?

An American series would just kill off another character and start over, of course – has anyone thought about the spike in the murder rate of Naval officers and midshipmen with every new NCIS spinoff? – but Broadchurch went a less traditional route: The murderer, who confessed in season one, pleads not guilty, leading to a trial that enmeshes the town in more scandal, while Alec gets a second chance to solve the old case that wrecked his marriage, career, and nearly his life. The resulting eight episodes of season two moved more quickly and were more involved, with a half-dozen new and significant secondary characters, but they never slacked on the incisive dialogue that powers the show. (Of course, at some point they will likely have to kill someone else off, just to give Alec and Ellie something else to do together.)

The trial itself is the framework for the season, but its outcome isn’t in much doubt, with many of the steps – notably the exclusion of the confession, without which season two would have been about an episode and a half long – easy to see coming. A reader mentioned on Twitter that the writers took many liberties with the British judicial process, none of which were evident to me as an American. But viewing Broadchurch as a crime drama misses its point: The writers develop complex, fascinating characters and put compelling words in their mouths to reveal truths about how we live in small communities where everyone knows everyone else and someone else probably knows that thing you think is secret. Finding out who was guilty was critical to season one, but we already know he’s guilty, and the trial’s outcome was both justified by what we saw of the court proceedings and because of the opportunities it presented for the plot.

Meanwhile, the Sandbrook case brings the man Alec believed committed both murders, Lee Ashworth, into Broadchurch, the result of what might be a long con of Alec’s designed to get Ashworth, acquitted when a critical piece of evidence was stolen from a detective’s car before trial, to confess. Ashworth, his wife Claire, their neighbor Ricky (father to one of the victims, uncle to the other), and his wife Kate had a convulted web of interrelationships, jealousies, and possibly infidelities that give the investigation itself layers of intrigue beyond ordinary investigation. Having just read the first Philo Vance novel, I was reminded of his axiom that physical evidence is useless and true detection should be the result of deduction, as the solution the Broadchurch writers have given us here barely relies on any evidence at all, and one of those bits – the floor – itself indicates nothing at all without Ellie’s reasoning.

The season also brings two new characters into the fold in the lead prosecuting attorney, Jocelyn Knight, and her former protegee, Sharon Bishop; the two have a testy, unfriendly relationship, and each is fighting her own private war. Those side stories were too isolated from either of the main plot threads and seemed to exist solely to give the characters some depth and/or to set up subplots for season three, but the character of Jocelyn, played superbly by Charlotte Rampling, OBE, is one of the most well-developed female characters past the age of 60 I can think of on TV. Her integration into the fabric of the show was smooth and sets her up to become more central next season, possibly working together with her quondam rival to free the latter’s son from what might be aun unjust conviction. (Bishop is played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, shorn of her locks and the convincing New York City accent she wore on her days on Without a Trace.)

The season narrowed its focus on the holdover residents of the town primarily to the Latimers, the parents and daughter of the murdered boy, whose lives are ripped open anew by the killer’s plea and the resulting trial. Mark’s evisceration on the stand in particular puts new strains on a marriage that was never strong to our eyes yet appears ready to tear apart with a gentle breeze once his latest secrets come out for everyone to see. While the daughter, Chloe, remains mostly a prop – hey, someone had to hold the baby in court! – Mark and Beth benefit from the added screen time, with Beth showing greater strength in tragedy while Mark’s grief manifests itself in unexpected ways. Of the other denizens of Broadchurch, only Paul, himself a cipher much of the season, gets a big moment, as he becomes the moral center of the town in the final sequence of the season.

The writers have dropped enough seeds into Broadchurch’s soil to harvest plenty of new storylines in season three, even without introducing another crime to investigate, but there are a couple I’d most like to see them pursue. Alec and Ellie have zero sexual tension between then, yet Alec’s ex-wife was visibly jealous of the bond he’s formed with his new partner – and Ellie, meanwhile, shows herself how much Alec’s friendship, bizarre as it can be, has meant to her in her own time of emotional turmoil. Her own evolving relationship with her son Tom and perhaps Alec’s with his daughter Daisy, overtly mentioned as a priority for him in the closing scenes of season two, should also come more to the fore. I imagine we’ll see Susan Wright and Nigel again, and Becca Fisher seems to just be a paperweight, but screen time spent on them takes it away from these other characters or Ellie’s gambling-addict sister or Jocelyn in her reemergence from self-imposed isolation. There are probably too many stories here to tell, which is a testament to how rich and full a town that Broadchurch‘s writers have created.

Atlanta eats, 2015 edition.

My Atlanta trip was much better for food than it was for scouting, with a washout on Friday and one of the players I went to see drawing three walks in four times up to the plate. As for food, though, I couldn’t have done much better: I met Hugh Acheson at Empire State South; saw my friend Eli Kirshtein at his new spot, the Luminary; met a reader and diehard baseball fan, Kaleb, behind the bar at Holeman & Finch; and went to one of Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurants of 2014, Lusca.

I went to Empire State South once for lunch and twice for breakfast and coffee; if there’s a better coffee spot in Atlanta, I’d love to hear about it, as ESS uses beans from some of the best roasters in the country, including Counter Culture and 49th Parallel. They usually have three options for coffee brewed via Chemex – barista (and coffee sommelier of sorts) Dale Donchey treated me to a pair of coffees from the same mountain in Colombia but different roasters – and they do excellent espressos. Their breakfast menu is strong, with healthful options (their house-made granola with yogurt and honey is excellent) and less healthful ones (fried chicken on a biscuit with bacon and egg and OH MY GOD), and various pastries that seem to change daily. For lunch, I had the pork belly sandwich you saw on my Instagram feed, with just the right amount of pork, balanced by a very lightly spicy salsa de arbol and what amounts to a slaw of cabbage, radish, and cilantro with “crema” (which had the texture of mayo but a thinner consistency), served on a roll that had a texture like English muffin bread. I’ve now had four meals at ESS, including breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and have never had anything but outstanding food and service.

My lunch was better than yours: pork belly sandwich at @essouth

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

The Luminary is Kirshtein’s new place, open less than a year, mimicking the food and feel of a French brasserie. (If Eli’s name isn’t familiar, he was a contestant on season 6 of Top Chef along with the Voltaggio brothers, and you can see him with his hand up a dead fish in Richard Blais’ Try This at Home.) It’s located in the very cool Krog Market space along with other restaurants, food stands, and shops; on Wednesday night around 9 pm the place was still buzzing. I let Eli order for me and went with four small plates rather than a main. Three were outstanding, especially the catfish brandade, which read to me like a twist on southern fish fritters that also put them to shame. A brandade usually contains a mixture of bacalhao (dried salt cod) and olive oil, whipped to an emulsion, then mixed with or served on bread or potatoes. The Luminary’s version whips the catfish into whipped potatoes, then breads it tempura-style and fries it. Where fritters tend to be dense, heavy, and greasy, these were much lighter and smoother, without any grease; if I had a complaint it’s that they held their heat too well, so the last one was still steaming when I broke into it. (Not an actual complaint.) The seared octopus with fava beans is so new it hasn’t made their online menu yet; octopus is one of the few proteins I avoid, just because bad octopus is like galvanized rubber and most octopus I’ve had has been bad octopus, but this was not at all like that. The sear from the plancha gave it a depth of flavor I haven’t had on octopus before. The gnocchi came with cheese curds and a mixture of wild local mushrooms, giving the sauce a rich, earthy flavor (disclaimer: I fucking love mushrooms) that contrasted well with the light, airy texture of the pasta. The only dish I wouldn’t call plus was the crispy pig ears, which were just a little thicker than I like them, so they had more chew and less crunch than the ears I’ve had at crudo in Phoenix or the Purple Pig in Chicago. (That’s a dish I will always, always order when I see it.) I had to forgo dessert because I was over-full by that point, and that’s without finishing the pig ears or the gnocchi plate, although the Queen Batch – a twist on a gin and tonic that adds Campari and dill – probably didn’t help matters either.

Holeman & Finch is famous for their burgers, in part because it was once a scarce item: they’d make just two dozen a night, and when they were gone, they were gone. That gimmick is over, but the burger remains a staple of the menu: two patties with a slice of cheese on each, bread and butter pickles, steamed onions, and a soft (I’m guessing milk-based) bun. In texture and flavor it is a lot like a Shake Shack burger, cooked a little more than I like, on the medium side of medium well; it held together much better than Shake Shack’s burgers do (with a better bun), and H&F’s fries are hand-cut and fried till deep golden brown, as fries should be. I don’t see what the cheese added, but I also don’t like cheese on a hamburger in general. Kaleb made an off-menu cocktail for me that he calls the Rebirth of Slick, with rum, Foro (an Italian amaro), lime juice, dry orange bitters, and a spray of rosemary essence. Full disclosure: I did not pay full price for this meal, dinner at the Luminary, or the lunch at ESS. As always, there was no quid quo pro or expectation of a positive writeup or any writeup at all.

Lusca is a weird place: There’s a raw bar and they serve sashimi, but otherwise the cuisine is modern Italian, not Japanese or Asian or even seafood-centric. The best thing I ate didn’t have any seafood at all: a braised lamb neck starter with olives, chilis, and a thick slice of grilled sourdough. The meat itself had the texture of perfectly cooked short ribs, maybe even a little more tender, and while I would call lamb my least favorite animal protein, this was superb and didn’t have that odd gamy taste that put me off lamb several years ago. For a main dish, I had their house-made cavatelli with clams, mushrooms, tiny square lardons of bacon, and shallots; the pasta was perfectly al dente, even toothsome, and the mushrooms and bacon balanced out the clams so the latter didn’t overwhelm the dish. I was also amazed at how tender the clams were as, like octopus, they are often overcooked. Dessert was a chocolate tart with a layer of salted caramel under the dark chocolate custard or pudding, with chopped pistachios on top; the flavors were there but the presentation was a little off, as the custard was so soft that it started to slide out of the thin tart crust when I broke into it.

I met up with my former colleague and frequent partner-in-food-crime Kiley McDaniel for lunch at Leon’s Full Service, a suggestion from Kaleb, in fact, and a good one at that. Located right near Cakes & Ale in Decatur, Leon’s is located in a former service station and at least some of the staff had attendant-like uniforms. The sandwich menu has two staples (a burger and a brisket sandwich) while the remainder are subject to change; I had a fantastic cornmeal-crusted trout sandwich with a cabbage slaw and a side of Brussels sprout hash (bacon, apples, and cider vinegar) on the side, while Kiley went the lamb burger and kale salad with cotija, although really it was obvious he was jealous that I out-ordered him. We split the chocolate-nutella candy bar with toasted hazelnuts and sea salt, and thank God we did because eating that whole thing might have killed me.

Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.

My latest boardgame review for Paste covers NanoBot Battle Arena. I also have an updated top 50 prospects ranking up for Insiders.

Courtney Barnett’s two singles from 2014, “Avant Gardener” and “History Eraser,” were both on my top 100 tracks of the year primarily for her clever, witty lyrics, which told complete stories with inventive wordplay and a willingness to break out of standard meters and rhyme schemes. Her first true full-length album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, more than delivers on the promise of those earlier songs, with better hooks and more upbeat rock sounds while maintaining the high standard of wordsmithing she’d already set for herself.

Led by two stomping tracks, “Elevator Operator” and lead single “Pedestrian at Best,” Sometimes I Sit… is a tour de force of finding humor in despair and setting it to a guitar-rich soundtrack; it harkens back to the halcyon days of the Smiths, where Johnny Marr could get you off the couch and Morrissey would send you to the therapist’s. The opener tells the story of a disaffected white-collar worker who has had enough of cubicle life and reveals that all he ever wanted was to be an elevator operator; the second track comes at you like a shouted-word (rather than spoken-) statement of purpose, with a chorus that candidly offers, “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you/Tell me I’m exceptional and I promise to exploit you.” Barnett has no use for the typical tropes of the female pop artist, and instead asserts herself in juxtaposition with statements of insecurity or even occasional self-loathing.

Barnett is too young to remember the ’80s but there are hints of that decade’s strain of British new wave artists who built their hooks around guitars rather than synths and employed wry irony that often went over listeners’ heads throughout the album. “Debbie Downer” sounds like the descendant of an Aztec Camera tune, shockingly upbeat for its title (where, indeed, she’s told by a somewhat older woman to quit frowning, only to inform her target, “Don’t stop listening, I’m not finished yet”). “Aqua Profunda!” revisits a common theme in Barnett’s lyrics, that of the embarrassing incident, this one where she’s swimming in a lap pool, notices the guy in the next lane, and tries to impress him, only to have the whole thing go awry. “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party” is true.

Barnett’s slower songs have always fallen short of the mark for me because she’s not a singer; she talk-sings, and her lyrics would largely work as spoken-word offerings anyway, but without solid music behind her the unmusical nature of her voice is exposed. Sometimes I Sit has two long, meandering bluesy tracks, “Small Poppies” and “Kim’s Caravan,” that clock in at just about seven minutes apiece and couldn’t hold my attention that long. When she reduces the tempo, it works better with more storytelling; “Depreston” starts out as an ennui-scented trip to buy a house in the suburbs, only to turn dark when she sees signs of the previous owner’s life in some of the house’s features and décor. The story evolves so that the languid pace of the song never becomes an obstacle for the listener. Plus she points out in the lyrics that by making coffee at home she’s saving $23 a week; we should all admire such thrift. “Dead Fox” is one of the album’s catchier songs, but it’s a rare case of Barnett’s lyrics – a critique of consumerism (including the feel-good variety) – feeling forced.

Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit is the best debut album I’ve heard so far this year, and one of maybe a half-dozen albums I can think of so far this decade that I’d recommend on the basis of its lyrics alone. Barnett’s ideas threaten to spill out of the speakers, and the quality of her music is already improving. She’s probably destined to remain on alternative stations because of her quirky delivery and too-cerebral lyrics (you have to pay attention to them), but she deserves a wide enough audience to keep her producing this kind of art for many more albums.