Everything is Obvious.

Duncan Watts’ book Everything is Obvious *Once You Know the Answer: How Common Sense Fails Us fits in well in the recent string of books explaining or demonstrating how the way we think often leads us astray. As with Thinking Fast and Slow, by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, Watts’ book highlights some specific cognitive biases, notably our overreliance on what we consider “common sense,” lead us to false conclusions, especially in the spheres of the social sciences, with clear ramifications in the business and political worlds as well as some strong messages for journalists who always seek to graft narratives on to facts as if the latter were inevitable outcomes.

The argument from common sense is one of the most frequently seen logical fallacies out there – X must be true because common sense says it’s true. But common sense itself is, of course, inherently limited; our common sense is the result of our individual and collective experiences, not something innate given to us by God or contained in our genes. Given the human cognitive tendency to assign explanations to every event, even those that are the result of random chance, this is a recipe for bad results, whether it’s the fawning over a CEO who had little or nothing to do with his company’s strong results or top-down policy prescriptions that lead to billions in wasted foreign aid.

Watts runs through various cognitive biases and illusions that you may have encountered in other works, although a few of them were new to me, like the Matthew Effect, by which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. According to the theory behind it, the Matthew Effect argues that success breeds success, because it means those people get greater opportunities going forward. A band that has a hit album will get greater airplay for its next record, even if that isn’t as good as the first one, or markedly inferior to an album released on the same day by an unknown artist. A good student born into privilege will have a better chance to attend a fancy-pants college, like, say, Harfurd, and thus benefits further from having the prestigious brand name on his resume. A writer who has nearly half a million Twitter followers might find it easier to land a deal for a major publisher to produce his book, Smart Baseball, available in stores now, and that major publisher then has the contacts and resources to ensure the book is reviewed in critical publications. It could be that the book sells well because it’s a good book, but I doubt it.

Watts similarly dispenses with the ‘great man theory of history’ – and with history in general, if we’re being honest. He points out that historical accounts will always include judgments or information that was not available to actors at the time of these events, citing the example of a soldier wandering around the battlefield in War and Peace, noticing that the realities of war look nothing like the genteel paintings of battle scenes hanging in Russian drawing rooms. He asks if the Mona Lisa, which wasn’t regarded as the world’s greatest painting or even its most famous until it was stolen from the Louvre by an Italian nationalist before World War II, ascended to that status because of innate qualities of the painting – or if circumstances pushed it to the top, and only after the fact do art experts argue for its supremacy based on the fact that it’s already become the Mona Lisa of legend. In other words, the Mona Lisa may be great simply because it’s the Mona Lisa, and perhaps had the disgruntled employee stolen another painting, da Vinci’s masterpiece would be seen as just another painting. (His description of seeing the painting for the first time mirrored my own: It’s kind of small, and because it’s behind shatterproof glass, you can’t really get close it.)

Without directly referring to it, Watts also perfectly describes the inexcusable habit of sportswriters to assign huge portions of the credit for team successes to head coaches or managers rather than distributing the credit across the entire team or even the organization. I’ve long used the example of the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks as a team that won the World Series in spite of the best efforts of its manager, Bob Brenly, to give the series away – repeatedly playing small ball (like bunting) in front of Luis Gonzalez, who’d hit 57 homers that year, and using Byung-Hyun Kim in save situations when it was clear he wasn’t the optimal choice. Only the superhuman efforts by Randy Johnson and That Guy managed to save the day for Arizona, and even then, it took a rare misplay by Mariano Rivera and a weakly hit single to an open spot on the field for the Yanks to lose. Yet Brenly will forever be a “World Series-winning manager,” even though there’s no evidence he did anything to make the win possible. Being present when a big success happens can change a person’s reputation for a long time, and then future successes may be ascribed to that person even if he had nothing to do with them.

Another cognitive bias Watts discusses, the Halo Effect, seems particularly relevant to my work evaluating and ranking prospects. First named by psychologist Edward Thorndike, the Halo Effect refers to our tendency to apply positive impressions of a person, group, or company to their other properties or characteristics, so we might subconsciously consider a good-looking person to be better at his/her job. For example, do first-round draft picks get greater considerations from their organizations when it comes to promotions or even major-league opportunities? Will an org give such a player more time to work out of a period of non-performance than they’d give an eighth-rounder? Do some scouts rate players differently, even if it’s entirely subconscious, based on where they were drafted or how big their signing bonuses were? I don’t think I do this directly, but my rankings are based on feedback from scouts and team execs, so if their own information – including how teams internally rank their prospects – is affected by the Halo Effect, then my rankings will be too, unless I’m actively looking for it and trying to sieve it out.

Where I wish Watts had spent even more time was in describing the implications of these ideas and research for government policies, especially foreign aid, most of which would be just as productive if we flushed it all down those overpriced Pentagon toilets. Foreign aid tends to go to where the donors, whether private or government, think it should go, because the recipients are poor but the donors know how to fix it. In reality, this money rarely spurs any sort of real change or economic growth, because the common-sense explanation – the way to fix poverty is to send money and goods to poor people – never bothers to examine the root causes of the problem the donors want to solve, asking the targets what they really need, examining and removing obstacles (e.g., lack of infrastructure) that might require more time and effort to fix but prevent the aid from doing any good. Sending a boat full of food to a country in the grip of a famine only makes sense if you have a way to get the food to the starving people, but if the roads are bad, dangerous, or simply don’t exist, then that food will sit in the harbor until it rots or some bureaucrat sells it.

Everything Is Obvious is aimed at a more general audience than Thinking Fast and Slow, as its text is a little less dense and it contains fewer and shorter descriptions of research experiments. Watts refers to Kahneman and his late reseach partner Amos Tversky a few times, as well as other researchers in the field, so it seems to me like this book is meant as another building block on the foundation of Kahneman’s work. I think it applies to all kinds of areas of our lives, even just as a way to think about your own thinking and to try to help yourself avoid pitfalls in your financial planning or other decisions, but it’s especially apt for folks like me who write for a living and should watch for our human tendency to try to ascribe causes post hoc to events that may have come about as much due to chance as any deliberate factors.

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters.

Five or six years ago, at least, I was at a game in Lake Elsinore when a reader whose name I unfortunately have forgotten recommended a book to me called King Leopold’s Ghost, a meticulous, infuriating non-fiction work on the colonial history of the country now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which for a few decades was the personal property of that king of Belgium. Leo’s abusive misrule was followed by colonial rule by the Belgian government that was only marginally better, with both regimes characterized by plundering of the massive territory’s natural resources, abuse of its natives, destruction of longstanding social and tribal structures, and the failure to establish any foundation for native rule after independence. It’s a great description of how white Europeans gave Africa’s second-largest country no shot at stability or progress once they left and are largely responsible for the failed state that the D.R. Congo has been for the last twenty to thirty years, including the seemingly neverending civil war(s) that have plagued it since late in the rule of Mobutu Sese Seko.

So at some point in 2016, while sharing a table with a woman in a Starbucks in LA, I started chatting with her about books – she was reading something that related to Africa, so I suggested King Leopold’s Ghost, and she recommended two books to me, one of which was Jason Stearns’ Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa. Stearns’ thorough history provides much of the second half of the history of the failed state, explaining how Mobutu came to power, how his regime fell, how the civil war in the Congo was itself an outgrowth of regional tensions and the Rwandan civil war and genocide, and why the country remains one of that continent’s biggest disasters in every definition – political, economic, and humanitarian. (A Human Rights Watch director just wrote an op ed in the Washington Post last week entitled “The crisis in Congo is spiraling out of control”, as the current dictator, Joseph Kabila, refuses to cede power and is backing increased violence against dissidents, which also includes the murders of two UN observers this spring.)

Stearns’ book focuses primarily on the civil war itself, beginning with a detailed description of the collapse of Rwanda after its President, Juvenal Habyarimana, died in a plane crash in 1994 that his supporters claimed (without evidence) was an assassination, touching off the country’s civil war and humanity’s worst genocide since the Holocaust. The post-genocide government in Rwanda blamed Mobutu Sese Seko, who had a long history of supporting rebel movements and terrorist groups in the region, for supporting the Hutu majority who carried out most of the killings. Rwanda’s new government teamed with other regional leaders to form a coherent rebellion against Mobutu, recruiting a semi-retired Marxist revolutionary named Laurent Kabila to lead a new army called the AFDL to topple the Congolese dictator, who had renamed the country Zaire. Mobutu’s forces crumbled quickly under the advance of better-funded and somewhat more disciplined rebels, although the invaders were guilty of massive war crimes themselves, and the new boss proved to be no better than the old boss – true of Laurent Kabila, who was assassinated himself in 2001, and his son Joseph, who took over and showed authoritarian tendencies of his own. Laurent alienated the foreign leaders who helped him to power, leading to yet another attempt to overthrow him, and the two wars together (called the First and Second Congo Wars, although you could argue it’s all just one long ongoing conflict) have led to over five million deaths and over two million displaced persons along with the continued deterioration of the Congolese state.

This history gives more detail than you could ever want on the atrocities of the two wars and the direct causes of the conflicts – Rwanda’s civil war, the involvement of regional powers, the misrule of Mobutu, Laurent Kabila’s fast alienation of his backers. Stearns spent years on the ground in the D.R. Congo and includes numerous first-person accounts of massacres from survivors. There are no “good guys” here; every group appears to have committed crimes against humanity, including rape, torture, murder, even mutilation of the dead, and while it’s easy to handwave it away as racial animus, even that facile explanation seems to fall short under Stearns’ scrutiny. And the bulk of the deaths came not from violence – horrific as it was – but from starvation, malnutrition, and disease caused by the disruptions of the civil war. The total breakdown of the Congolese state, the displacement of millions of Congolese civilians, the inadequate international response to the humanitarian crisis, and the attacks on refugee camps by rebel and foreign armies all led to these preventable deaths. Stearns gives us plenty of stories of abject violence, which will shock and disgust the reader, but the majority of the deaths from the two wars occurred in more mundane fashion, making them less salacious on the page but no less tragic.

Where Stearns’ book falls short for me, however, is in assigning blame for the ongoing failure to establish a functioning state in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the Belgians, because at least one of the major causes of the catastrophe is that the country itself is a European fabrication. Most African borders today are based on European colonial borders, ignoring tribal or ethnic boundaries that dated back hundreds of years, but few nations are as constructed as the DR Congo’s, which still has the shape of “everything King Leopold could claim” and combines 80 million people from over 200 ethnic groups who speak over 240 languages under one national government. The country is also among the world’s richest in mineral resources, with over 70% of the world’s deposits of coltan (columbite-tantalite), the main source of tantalum for electrolytic capacitors found in many consumer electronic devices, and over 30% of the world’s cobalt and diamond deposits. The role of these “conflict minerals” in fueling the wars is debated and probably unanswerable, but their existence and uneven distribution – the country’s “mining capital” and second largest city, Lubumbashi, is over 2000 km away from the national capital, Kinshasa, and sits on the border with Zambia in the relatively well-off Katanga Province – means dividing the country along ethnic or historical lines would create huge economic disparities among the new nations. (Witness the problems with South Sudan, which was carved out of Sudan six years ago and took most of the country’s oil reserves with it – but not the pipeline to the Red Sea, which goes through Khartoum.) Perhaps the D.R. Congo was doomed to failure from before independence because the country itself is a creation of outside, white forces, and because the successful rebellions have taken over the national government rather than carving out independence for specific regions that might have a chance to function because they’re easier to run and combine fewer ethnic or linguistic groups.

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters covers a tremendous amount of ground, literally and figuratively, even without delving into the question of whether this country can ever function properly given its colonial history; there’s enough detail in here on the two Congolese civil wars to give any reader more than enough insight into what happened, a good shot at understanding why, and plenty of despair over the future of that godforsaken country. The book was published in 2011, and nothing has improved in the D.R. Congo since then. A rebellion in the eastern Kivu region continues to roil, and the political crisis that began in 2015 is worsening as Joseph Kabila refuses to cede power and has been cracking down on opposition, a situation that has only further deteriorated since the main opposition leader, Étienne Tshisekedi, who was supposed to oversee a transitional post-Kabila government, died in February. Stearns tries to end the book with a little optimism, explaining at least what the international community might do to try to stabilize the country, but given everything that has come post-publication, I think the D.R. Congo is more likely to become the new Somalia than to become a functioning state again.

Next up: Louis Bromfield’s 1926 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Early Autumn.

The End of Ownership.

Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz’s book The End of Ownership gives a surprisingly strong argument that our rights as consumers are rapidly being eroded by changes both in the law and in technology, so that we no longer own many things we might believe we do. In the era of digital goods from books and music and movies to software, we are still paying for the same content, but when once we purchased, now we merely “license” – even though most consumers probably aren’t even aware of the change.

For most of the history of commerce, if you bought a good, you got the good, and that was essentially that. If you bought a book, you owned that copy of the book. You were free to do with that copy as you wished, so long as you didn’t make unauthorized copies of it. You could lend it to someone, or you could sell it outright. The owner of the copyright on that book could not stop you from doing any of those things, nor could s/he repossess the book from you for any reason. The same is true of a patented good: if you buy a widget, you can resell the widget, even if the widget itself is covered by a patent. This is known as the “exhaustion principle” or the “first sale doctrine.” (I’m sticking with U.S. domestic laws on intellectual property here; the rules laws on international exhaustion are often less clear.) I own a special green-vinyl edition of A Tribe Called Quest’s single “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo;” I still own that record, but I could lend, sell, or donate it as I please, without the group’s permission, and without affecting ATCQ’s copyright to the underlying work.

In the digital realm, however, this principle has been superseded by licensing agreements – those things you’re given when you download a digital good or install a software update, which you don’t read but you click “Agree” anyway because let’s get on with this already. Those licenses say you don’t own the goods you’re paying for, even though you probably clicked on something that said the word “buy,” which strongly implies a purchase, not a license. Those agreements, known as end-user licensing agreements or EULAs, curtail the consumer’s rights in ways that the consumer may not understand or expect, resulting in an imbalance of information between buyer and seller where the former probably believes he’s acquiring more rights than he actually is, including the rights to make copies of the good for his personal use, and the right to retain the product in perpetuity.

Law professors Perzanowski and Schultz argue that this is a three-pronged problem. One, consumers believe they’re getting something they’re not. Two, companies are unilaterally abrogating rights afforded to consumers by federal and state laws. And three, Congress and federal courts have totally dropped the ball on the entire issue, passing laws that favor content creators at the expense of both consumers and the public good, or issuing contradictory rulings that reduce our rights in ways that consumers don’t understand and that help take away any semblance of ”ownership.”

The authors give copious examples, some of which were truly non-obvious to me. As the so-called “Internet of Things” expands to include more devices that don’t obviously need an internet connection but have one anyway – like the microwave in that Conway twit’s kitchen – then our rights of ownership are also affected. You might own the physical parts of the refrigerator, but you’re only licensing the software on it, so you can’t sell the fridge because you don’t own the whole thing. You may not be able to sell your smartphone for the same reason – the manufacturers can argue that you are only licensing the software on it, which means you own the device but not the entire unit to be able to sell it.

Why is this OK? The authors give the example of a hat that is only licensed to the purchaser, not sold, so the purchaser can’t transfer ownership of the hat via any method to anyone else. Would you buy that hat? Would you even understand the legalese that accompanies it? In another example, the authors pose the hypothetical of “single-use” car tires, which your tire license would prohibit you from repairing once they were damaged or worn out. Consumers have a specific expectation when they purchase something, but when you ‘purchase’ a digital good, those expectations exceed the reality, yet for some reason we accept this loss of purchaser rights in the digital realm without any real pushback.

What about libraries in the digital world? Some publishers, including HarperCollins (mine), have created programs for libraries to buy digital books, but with heavy restrictions on how libraries may lend them out; HarperCollins only allows one ‘copy’ of the book to be on loan at any time, and after a fixed number of borrowings (I think it’s 24), the library’s license to the book must be renewed. The publishers argue that such restrictions are necessary to avoid cannibalizing the market for book sales, and that the restrictions mirror the physical decay of books that are repeatedly handled and borrowed. I can understand the former, but the latter doesn’t hold water for me, since I recently borrowed a book, Martin Flavin’s Pulitzer-winning novel Journey in the Dark, from my local library, and the edition – worn, but intact – dated back to the late 1940s.

The authors do an excellent job of translating thorny legal questions into accessible language, and offer some very specific solutions that Congress could enact to solve many of these problems – and if Congress had ever shown an iota of interest in protecting consumer interests over those of copyright holders, well, I might have some hope. The legislative history of copyright law in the U.S. is essentially all anti-consumer, with copyright terms becoming longer and such laws on digital goods reducing consumer rights even further. The mere concept of copyright was to ensure content creators were sufficiently rewarded so that they’d continue to create – if you can’t make money off your creations, you’ll have to do something else to pay the bills. The concept was not intended to provide such legal protections for two human lifetimes, but that’s about where it stands now, because there are some very big companies out there who depend on long-term copyright protections, and they can spend to ensure that works don’t fall into the public domain when they were originally scheduled to do so. The parade of degradations of consumer rights seem unlikely to cease any time soon, and the end of that path could be the end of ownership.

Next up: Upton Sinclair’s novel Dragon’s Teeth, winner of the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Last Train to Zona Verde.

Paul Theroux is a famous travel writer – meaning a writer who travels, and writes about what he discovers, not a writer who tells you to visit this city and eat at these restaurants – whose work never really crossed my awareness until last year, when a stranger I chatted with at an LA-area Starbucks recommended I check out his books, and I found right then that his 2013 book Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari was on sale for the Kindle. It’s not an easy read, and a huge change of pace from any other “western writer goes to non-white country” book or essay I’ve ever read, but the last third or so on the book, where Theroux goes to one of the most closed-off countries in the world, Angola, is edifying and unforgettable.

Theroux writes of Angola, “a country that is so hard to enter makes me curious to discover what is on the other side of the fence,” a sentiment I can certainly understand, but what he finds after a difficult border crossing from Namibia is as dysfunctional a state as you could imagine this side of Somalia, and perhaps worse. Whereas Somalia and Libya are simply failed states, outlines on the map that lack functioning central governments, Angola is an extreme kleptocracy. Despite $130 billion in annual GDP ($6500 per capita) and rapid growth due to oil revenues, there’s widespread poverty and malnutrition, lack of education or basic services, and minimal infrastructure. Seventy percent of Angolans live on $2 a day or less, and one in six children die before the age of five, the worst such rate in the world. But due to corruption – it’s ranked the fifth-most corrupt in the world, according to that link – the massive oil revenues don’t flow to the people; the President’s daughter is worth over $3 billion, and last year became head of the state-owned energy firm after the company’s board was sacked. Her father has been in power for 38 years, looting a country with oil reserves to match Mexico, and while it’s not a police state, it’s a repressive country where the fortunate few live in a world apart from the 25 million poor residents.

Theroux actually starts his journey in Cape Town, South Africa, and works his way up the west coast of Africa, stopping in Angola for practical reasons (crossing the Congo River would have required a long trip inland) and emotional (his conclusion that seeing more countries would not illuminate anything beyond what he learned in Angola). Each of the three countries he does visit provides its own education, or a sort of lesson, but at least the first two have some glimmers of hope. South Africa’s cities have grown to absorb some of the impoverished shantytowns that surround them, as services expand towards the slums and provide at least some level of mobility – not what we expect here, by any means, but at least a possibility out of extreme poverty, yet one always held back by the increasing numbers of squatters arriving to expand the slums that surround all South African cities.

Namibia is often considered one of the few African success stories, as it has followed a century of oppression (first by Germans, then by the Afrikaner government of South Africa) with 25 years of a stable, multi-party democracy. It’s sparsely populated, with a significant mining industry, but an increasing reliance on European tourists who come to visit certain beaches or indulge in safari and wildlife tourism of a sort Theroux experiences and disdains. He detours inland to speak at a small conference at an isolated town in northeastern Namibia, seeing how the colonial governments and now the Namibian federal government have both ignored the Ju/’hoansi people of the interior, and then crosses into Botswana’s Okavango Delta region to visit a luxury resort and elephant preserve, eating five-star meals and riding an elephant along with the tourists paying thousands of dollars a day to be there.

In the Namibian section of the book, Theroux comes off as a bit of a crosspatch, because while he’s identifying clear socioeconomic problems, Namibia is far from a hopeless case. There’s misused foreign aid here, as in all of Africa – he cites some of the research showing that foreign aid to developing countries often does little or no good for those populations – and certainly poverty beyond what we see here, but there is a functioning government and some economic activity that could provide the foundation for growth. There are not enough jobs, and there’s not enough education, but the raw materials are here.

Angola, however, is an absolute basket case, and this is where Theroux seems to lose his faith in Africa. The government’s elites are looting the country in as venal a way possible – most of the country’s oil actually comes from the exclave of Cabinda, which is the small section of Angola located on the north side of the Congo delta and thus separated from the rest of the country by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (ex-Zaire), itself a failed state looted by a series of dictators (including my friend Mobute Sese Seko) and essentially ungoverned in the way Angola is. The former Portuguese colony is flush with cash, but roads are unpaved, schools lack books, public servants might be paid once a year, and the people are starving. It is a country completely without hope, and Theroux talks to one local who believes it’s simmering towards a revolution – a population of desperate young people with nothing to lose, aware of the money made by the tiny elites and the handful of foreign nationals, including a growing number of Chinese expats. Angola was wrecked by a war for independence and then a quarter-century civil war that has still left the land full of mines, and could quickly devolve into Somalia-like anarchy if Theroux’s friend is correct. (That friend, however, was one of three men Theroux spent time with on his trip who died soon afterwards – one was killed by an elephant at the preserve, one was murdered in his home, and one died of a heart attack. The moral of this story is that if Paul Theroux visits your country and wants to hang out, don’t.)

It’s a depressing end to the story and, in Theroux’s case, to his lifetime of travel to and time spent in Africa. You can hear him washing his hands of the continent, not as a lost cause per se, but as a problem the West helped create but can’t solve. No one is stepping in to fix Angola now, because Angola is a stable country that sells oil. China is investing in the country, but sending its own undesirables (including criminals) to work there, not employing locals, and thus props up the kleptocracy the way we do in the Middle East. It’s a warning of sorts – this could be the African powder keg – but Theroux brings no hope that anyone, the Angolans or the West, is about to fix anything.

Next up: My favorite food writer, Michael Ruhlman, published a book of three novellas called In Short Measures a little over a year ago, and I’ve had it on my Kindle since February but never read it until now.


I’m a bit surprised that Philip Tetlock’s 2015 book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction hasn’t been a bigger phenomenon along the lines of Thinking Fast and Slow and its offshoots, because Tetlock’s research, from the decades-long Good Judgment Project, goes hand in hand with Daniel Kahneman’s book and research into cognitive biases and illusions. Where Kahneman’s views tend to be macro, Tetlock is focused on the micro: His research looks at people who are better at predicting specific, short-term answers to questions like “Will the Syrian government fall in the next six months?” Tetlock’s main thesis is that such people do exist – people who can consistently produce better forecasts than others, even soi-disant “experts,” can produce – and that we can learn to do the same thing by following their best practices.

Tetlock’s superforecasters have a handful of personality traits in common, but they’re not terribly unusual and if you’re here there’s a good chance you have them. These folks are intellectually curious and comfortable with math. They’re willing to admit mistakes, driven to avoid repeating them, and rigorous in their process. But they’re not necessarily more or better educated and typically lack subject-matter expertise in most of the areas in the forecasting project. What Tetlock and co-author Dan Gardner truly want to get across is that any of us, whether for ourselves or for our businesses, can achieve marginal but tangible gains in our ability to predict future events.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Superforecasting is the need to get away from binary forecasting – that is, blanket statements like “Syria’s government will fall within the year” or “Chris Sale will not be a major-league starting pitcher.” Every forecast needs a probability and a timeframe, for accountability – you can’t evaluate a forecaster’s performance if he avoids specifics or deals in terms like “might” or “somewhat” – and for the forecaster him/herself to improve the process.

Within that mandate for clearer predictions that allow for post hoc evaluation comes the need to learn to ask the right questions. Tetlock reaches two conclusions from his research, one for the forecasters, one for the people who might employ them. Forecasters have to walk a fine line between asking the right questions and the wrong ones: One typical cognitive bias of humans is to substitute a question that is too difficult to answer with a similar question that is easier but doesn’t get at the issue at hand. (Within this is the human reluctance to provide the answer that Tetlock calls the hardest three words for anyone to say: “I don’t know.”) Managers of forecasters or analytics departments, on the other hand, must learn the difference between subjects for which analysts can provide forecasts and those for which they can’t. Many questions are simply too big or vague to answer with probabilistic predictions, so either the manager(s) must provide more specific questions, or the forecaster(s) must be able to manage upwards by operationalizing those questions, turning them into questions that can be answered with a forecast of when, how much, and at what odds.

Tetlock only mentions baseball in passing a few times, but you can see how these precepts would apply to the work that should come out of a baseball analytics department. I think by now every team is generating quantitative player forecasts beyond the generalities of traditional scouting reports. Nate Silver was the first analyst I know of to publicize the idea of attaching probabilities to these forecasts – here’s the 50th percentile forecast, the 10th, the 90th, and so on. More useful to the GM trying to decide whether to acquire player A or player B would be the probability that a player’s performance over the specified period will meet a specific threshold: There is a 63% chance that Joey Bagodonuts will produce at least 6 WAR of value over the next two years. You can work with a forecast like that – it has a specific value and timeframe with specific odds, so the GM can price a contract offer to Mr. Bagodonuts’ agent accordingly.

Could you bring this into the traditional scouting realm? I think you could, carefully. I do try to put some probabilities around my statements on player futures, more than I did in the past, certainly, but I also recognize I could never forecast player stat lines as well as a well-built model could. (Many teams fold scouting reports into their forecasting models anyway.) I can say, however, I think there’s a 40% chance of a pitcher remaining a starter, or a 25% chance that, if player X gets 500 at bats this season, he’ll hit at least 25 home runs. I wouldn’t go out and pay someone $15 million on the comments I make, but I hope it will accomplish two things: force me to think harder before making any extreme statements on potential player outcomes, and furnish those of you who do use this information (such as in fantasy baseball) with value beyond a mere ranking or a statement of a player’s potential ceiling (which might really be his 90th or 95th percentile outcome).

I also want to mention another book in this vein that I enjoyed but never wrote up – Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions, another entertaining look at cognitive illusions and biases, especially those that affect the way we value transactions that involve money – including those that involve no money because we’re getting or giving something for free. As in Kahneman’s book, Ariely’s explains that by and large you can’t avoid these brain flaws; you learn they exist and then learn to compensate for them, but if you’re human, they’re not going away.

Next up: Paul Theroux’s travelogue The Last Train to Zona Verde.

TV (The Book).

I’ve never met Alan Sepinwall but I certainly feel like I know him, having read his TV recaps and reviews for years now and watched many of his “Ask Alan” videos, so I thought I had a pretty good idea of what would be in his TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time, which he wrote with fellow critic Matt Zoller Seitz. I was right in that I had a sense of what shows would come in for particular praise in their ranking of the medium’s 100 greatest shows, but I think I underestimated the depth this book provides on so many titles, with tremendous essays on shows’ merits, flaws, influence, and cultural legacy. It’s so good that I could even get caught up in summaries of shows I’d never heard of before – a Novel 100 for scripted, fictional TV programs.

SepinSeitz set some ground rules down before delving into their list, and I’ll repeat them here because, as you know, no one ever reads the intro (or, in this case, The Explanation). The list is limited to U.S. shows only – so no Fawlty Towers or Upstairs, Downstairs – and to narrative fiction, eliminating anything like sketch comedy. They eliminated most shows that are still airing, with a few exceptions for shows with large bodies of work already in the can, and included shows that only aired for one season but penalized them in their scoring system. That system weighs a lot of critical considerations like influence, innovation, and consistency along with what you might consider the show’s contemporary entertainment value. It works in the end, however, as the list they’ve produced is going to start a lot of arguments but at least puts all of these shows in the right buckets to get those debates going.

Since I watch very little TV now, I’m totally unqualified to question anything these guys wrote about shows from the last 15 years or so; I’ve got a few disagreements with shows from earlier in TV history, but by and large I read this book as someone just generally interested in what I missed that was worth seeing. My favorite U.S. show of all time, The Wire, makes their top 5, and several other favorites of mine, including Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation, and Homicide: Life on the Street, all appear in their top 50. They break the list down into chunks – the top ten are “The Inner Circle,” the next forty are “No-Doubt-About-It Classics,” followed by twenty-five “Groundbreakers and Workhorses” and twenty-five “Outlier Classics” – that provide some structure to the list, although I didn’t think the labels were necessary given the depth of the essays on each program. Sure, Police Squad! was a groundbreaker, and Law & Order was a workhorse, but the review for each makes that clear. (SepinSeitz’ ranking of all seventeen L&O cast combinations is a highlight of the book, although I think I disagree with them on “Invaders,” the episode where Borgia is killed, one of the most harrowing of the series.)

Some other scattered observations on the essays and rankings:

• The essay on The Cosby Show is one of the book’s absolute highlights; the authors co-wrote it (many are credited to AS or MZS specifically), and cover everything, including the sheer impossibility of watching the show today given what we know now about the star. It was, however, a cultural milestone in its era, a highly-rated, critically-acclaimed show that anchored NBC’s Thursday night programming for years, and put an African-American family into TV territory that previously had been reserved for white characters. We’d seen upper-middle-class white families on TV that encountered modern problems, but if there were characters of color, they were the neighbors, or one of the kids’ best friends, never at the center of the show. For adults of a certain age today, The Cosby Show contributed to our understanding that there shouldn’t be any differences between families just because of skin color. Unfortunately, Bill Cosby the rapist has destroyed his legacy as a comedian and a silently progressive TV star, and the authors don’t shy away from that problem.

• My one disagreement with the authors here – and with Michael Schur, who knows a thing or two about sitcoms – is the placement of Cheers in their top five. I did watch Cheers pretty regularly for the first half of its run, and somewhere post-Diane, the show turned into a shell of itself, replete with repetitive one-liners, overreliant on lowbrow humor, populated with characters who became parodies of their former selves. (Friends did the same thing after the ‘big’ Ross and Rachel breakup, turning Ross from slightly nerdy but socially functional to awkwardly, annoyingly nerdy and “how is he even friends with these other people?”) I found the show’s last few years cringeworthy enough that I gradually stopped watching, and only returned for the finale and the cast’s drunken appearance on The Tonight Show. They never recaptured what made them a hit – few comedies can sustain anything that long anyway, but I couldn’t put Cheers in the Inner Circle given what it became.

• I was thrilled to see the one Miami Vice episode I remember clearly from when it first aired, “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run,” earn a mention in that show’s writeup. It was stylish, ’80s noir, and I have often felt like I’ve seen its influence pop up in other, lesser cop shows since. (Including, weirdly enough, a Diagnosis Murder episode with Perry King.)

• Shows I was thrilled to see ranked and to earn writeups: Police Squad!, WKRP in Cincinnati, NewsRadio, Moonlighting, Firefly.

• Shows I either didn’t know, or knew but hadn’t considered watching, but will add to my list of shows I would like to watch but might never get to: In Treatment, Terriers, K Street. I’d add Frank’s Place, but it seems unlikely to ever appear due to music licensing issues.

SepinSeitz don’t stop after ranking 100 shows, however, with multiple sections after that to keep you reading and well-informed on the state of TV. There’s a long section of shows currently airing that they recommend and cite as possible entrants to a future re-ranking of the top 100 (or they could do what Daniel Burt did when he updated The Novel 100, extending the ranking to 125 titles). There’s “A Certain Regard,” citing shows that had one great season (Homeland) or did something particularly notable (Little House on the Prairie). They also rank mini-series, which ends up an amusing mixture of big-budget network event programming from the late 1970s (Roots, of course, is #1) and 1980s with HBO mini-series from the current era, and TV movies and even TV airings of plays, the latter two lists by Zoller Seitz.

I could absolutely see someone using TV (The Book) as a viewing guide – maybe not starting at 1 and working your way down, but certainly picking and choosing shows to binge-watch from their rankings and breakdowns. I doubt I’ll ever have that kind of time, but as someone who likes great television and loathes the rest, I just loved the ebullient writing, the joyful praise of shows that entertained and sometimes astounded these two guys who can’t seem to get enough TV.

Next up: I’m slogging through The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1970.

Gödel’s Proof.

My latest Insider post covers eight top 100 prospects who took a step back this year. I’ll also hold a Klawchat here at 1 pm ET.

I read Rebecca Goldstein’s biography of Kurt Gödel, Incompleteness, last summer, and I believe it was within her book that I read about James Newman and Ernest Nagel’s book Gödel’s Proof that attempts to explain the Austrian logician’s groundbreaking findings. The 114-page volume does a great job of building up to the final proof, but I have to concede that the 19-page section near the end that reveals the fatal blow Gödel delivered to Bertrand Russell, David Hilbert, and others who believed in the essential completeness of mathematical systems lost me in its nested language and ornate symbols. (The newest edition includes a foreword by Douglas Hofstadter, who wrote about the proof in Gödel, Escher, Bach, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-fiction.)

Gödel was himself a fascinating figure, a philosopher, mathematician, and logician who wrote a paper with two theorems at age 25 that stunned the world of mathematics in their method and conclusions, proving that any axiomatic system of arithmetic that is consistent cannot be complete. Completeness here means that every true formula that can be expressed within the system can be proven within the system. Gödel’s trick was to create an entire system of expressing logical formulas via what is now called Gödel numbering, and then to craft a formula that says itself that it is unprovable within the system. His proof further stated that even if you could add an axiom to this system of mathematics to cover this new exception, the formula could always be rephrased to pose a new exception, and thus the system is essentially incomplete.

Nagel and Newman do a great job of getting the reader – or at least in getting this reader – to the edge of understanding by building up the history of the question, giving a lay explanation of Gödel’s basic method of numbering and delineating what a simple axiomatic system like that of Russell’s Principia Mathematica (the system Gödel targeted in his proof) would look like. Russell and other logicians of the time were convinced that systems of mathematics were complete – that we could define any such system in terms of a finite number of axioms that would cover all possible formulas we could craft within that system. Any formula that could be proven true at all could then be proven true using only the axioms of that system. Gödel’s proof to the contrary was scarcely noticed at first, but when it spread and others in the field realized it might be true, it blew apart a fundamental assumption of number theory and of logic, while also making Gödel’s name as a major figure in the history of mathematics and logic.

All of which is to say that I just couldn’t follow the nested statements that constitute Nagel and Newman’s explanation of Gödel’s proof. I haven’t read Gödel’s original paper, because it is a truth universally acknowledged that you’ve got to have some serious math background to understand it, so I will accept the claim that Nagel and Newman made it much easier to grasp … but I still only get this at a superficial level. When the authors compare this to Richard’s Paradox, an earlier device that Gödel cited in his paper, I could understand it; these are all descendants of the “This statement is false” type of logical trick that causes an inherent contradiction. Gödel appears to have done the same thing for arithmetic. I just couldn’t quite get to the mental finish line on this one. I guess you could say my understanding of the topic remains ….


Next up: I finished and will review Laurent Binet’s HHhH, and have begun Clifford Simak’s Hugo-winning novel Way Station.

The Elegant Universe.

My latest column at ESPN looks at five potential callups for contenders.

Brian Greene’s 1999 bestseller and Pulitzer Prize finalist The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory is more like two books in one. The first half to two-thirds is a highly accessible history of the two main branches of physics, the macro world perspective that culminated in Einstein’s discovery of general relativity, and the micro (I mean, really micro) perspective covered by quantum mechanics. The two theories could not be unified until the advent of string theory, which Greene lays out in still somewhat easy to follow language. The last third of the book, however, delves into deeper topics like the nature of spacetime or the hypothesis of the multiverse, and I found it increasingly hard to follow and, unfortunately, less compelling at the same time.

String theory – more properly called superstring theory, but like the old basketball team in Seattle, the theory has lost its “super” somewhere along the way – is the prevailing theoretical framework in modern physics about the true nature of matter and the four fundamental forces. Rather than particles comprising ever-smaller subparticles that function as zero-dimensional points, string theory holds that what we perceive as particles are differing vibrations and frequencies of one-dimensional “strings.” String theory allows physicists to reconcile Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity with the explanations of three of those four forces (strong, weak, and electromagnetic) provided by quantum mechanics, resulting in a theory of quantum gravity that posits that that fourth force is the result of a massless quantum particle called the ‘graviton.’ Gravitons have not been observed or experimentally confirmed, but other similar particles have been, and all would be the result of those vibrating strings, open or closed loops in one dimension that, under the framework, are the most basic, indivisible unit of all matter and energy (which are the same thing) in the universe.

Strings are far too small to be observed, or to ever even be observed – you can’t observe a string with a particle, like a photon, larger than the string itself – but physicists believe string theory is accurate because math. And that’s one of the biggest challenges for Greene or anyone else writing about the topic: the proof isn’t in experimental results or great discoveries, but in equations that are too complicated to present in any text aimed at the mass audience.

In fact, the equations underlying string theory require a universe of not four dimensions – the ones we see, three of space and one of time, which Einstein treated simply as four dimensions of one thing called spacetime – but ten or eleven. These “missing” dimensions are here, at every point in the universe, but are tightly curled up in six-dimensional forms called Calabi-Yau manifolds, as if they exist but the universe simply chose not to deploy them. They must be there, however, if string theory is true, because the calculations require them. This is near the part where I started to fall off the train, and it only became worse with Greene’s discussions of further alterations to string theory – such as higher-dimensional analogues to strings called 2-branes and 3-branes – or his descriptions of what rips or tears in spacetime might look like and how they might fix themselves so that we never notice such things. (Although I prefer to think that that’s where some of my lost items ended up.)

The great success of this book, however, is in getting the reader from high school physics up to the basics of string theory. If you’re not that familiar with relativity – itself a pretty confusing concept – this is the best concise explanation of the theories I’ve come across, as Greene uses simple phrasing and diagrams to explain general and special relativity in a single chapter. He follows that up with a chapter on quantum mechanics, hitting all the key names and points, and beginning to explain why general relativity, which explains gravity in a classical framework, cannot be directly coupled with quantum mechanics, which explains the other three forces in an entirely different framework. Building on those two chapters, Greene gives the most cogent explanation of superstrings, string theory, and even the idea of these six or seven unseen spatial dimensions that I’ve come across. We’re talking about objects smaller than particles that we’ve never seen, and the incredible idea that everything, matter, energy, light, whatever, is just open and closed one-dimensional entities the size of the Planck length, 1.6 * 10-35 meters long. To explain that in even moderately comprehensible terms is a small miracle, and Greene is up to the task.

This was a better read, for me at least, than George Musser’s book on quantum entanglement, Spooky Action at a Distance, which covers a different topic but ends up treading similar ground with its descriptions of spacetime and the new, awkwardly-named hypothesis “quantum graphity.” Quantum entanglement is the inexplicable but true phenomenon where two particles created together maintain some sort of connection or relationship where if the charge or spin on on of the particles is flipped, the charge or spin on the other will flip as well, even if the two particles are separated in distance. This appears to violate the law of physics that nothing, including information, can be transmitted faster than the speed of light. How do these particles “know” to flip? Musser’s description of the history of entanglement, including Einstein’s objection that provided the title for this book, is fine, but when he delves into new hypotheses of the fabric of spacetime, he just completely lost me. Quantum graphity reimagines spacetime as a random graph, rather than the smooth four-dimensional fabric of previous theories, where points (or “nodes”) in space are connected to each other in ways that defy traditional notions of distance. This would provide a mechanism for entanglement and also solve a question Greene addresses too, the horizon problem, where disparate areas of the universe that have not been in direct physical contact (under the standard model) since a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang currently have the same temperature. I didn’t think Musser explained quantum graphity well enough for the lay reader (me!), or gave enough of an understanding that this is all highly speculative, as opposed to the broader acceptance of something like string theory or absolute acceptance of quantum theory.

Next up: Back to fiction with Eowyn Ivey’s Pulitzer Prize finalist The Snow Child.

The Most Dangerous Book.

James Joyce’s Ulysses stands today as one of the most critically lauded novels ever written – despite the fact that it’s difficult to read and more difficult to understand – which has, to some extent, papered over its tortuous path to the marketplace. When Joyce was first writing the novel, it was serialized in parts in a literary periodical called The Little Review, which then ran afoul of U.S. obscenity laws, leading eventually to the book’s banning before it had even been published. In 1933, Random House, at the time a relatively new publisher founded by the owners of the Modern Library imprint, decided to publish Ulysses and force a judicial hearing on the book’s legality. In the resulting case, United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, Judge John Woolsey ruled that Ulysses was not obscene, marking one of the first big victories against U.S. obscenity laws, including the Comstock Act, which made sending materials deemed obscene through the mails a federal crime.

Kevin Birmingham recounts the legal battles over Ulysses in The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, weaving that story into one about the book’s original authorship, including Joyce’s health problems and eccentricities. The book may have gone a bit overboard in detailing Joyce’s personal life – I really didn’t need to hear excerpts of the dirty letters he and his partner Nora sent to each other – but the details around the book’s history and the Puritanical extremes of American laws at the time are indispensable to anyone who’s ever read a banned book.

Joyce is a giant among authors today for all four of his major works, but had difficulty finding a publisher for his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or his collection of short stories, Dubliners, each of which also ran afoul of authorities but also lacked any obvious commercial appeal. Even when published, the works languished on the market for several years, leaving Joyce, obsessed with his novel and spending what money he had on drink, financially dependent on various patrons who wished to see Ulysses completed. He began writing the book in 1914, published the first episode in The Little Review in 1918, and saw the novel published as a whole in 1922 by Sylvia Beach, the owner of Paris bookshop Shakespeare & Co. (The Paris bookshop by that name today is named for Beach’s shop, which closed in 1941 after Beach was sent to an internment camp.) Copies of the banned book circulated for nearly a decade, with multiple seizures and burnings by overzealous authorities, until the 1933 ruling that cleared the way for its publication and unlikely status as a bestseller.

Joyce received some money from the serialization but wasn’t always aware of the self-censorship of his sort-of friend and advocate Ezra Pound, who looms large in the book for his role in spreading the gospel of Joyce while appearing to hold a sort of professional jealousy of the Irishman. Even the first full edition of Ulysses was rife with mistakes – Wikipedia cites Joyce scholar Jack Dalton as saying it contained “over two thousand errors” – and its publication history has always been complicated by Joyce’s deliberately obscure prose and the messy handwritten manuscript he handed over to a series of typists as he was writing. The attempts of Pound and others to soften the parts of Joyce’s work deemed “offensive” were futile, as Joyce wanted the book to offend, both because he wrote much of this novel (the first major work of modernism) to resemble thought in the mind before it became formal speech, and because he had a puerile obsession with bodily functions.

Yet the Nausicaa episode, the one at the heart of the eventual trial, is also one of the book’s most literary and most abstruse to readers. Leopold Bloom masturbates as he watches a young woman sitting on the beach, exposing her legs and bloomers to him deliberately when she realizes he’s looking at her, but Joyce couches it in obscure language and makes it unclear how much of the episode is real and how much is happening in Bloom’s mind. Similarly, the final episode, Penelope, is a fifty-page internal monologue from Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife, broken into just eight sentences (and with only two periods at that), where, among other things, she admits she was “fucked yes and damn well fucked” by another man, yet the “obscenity” is so thoroughly buried within the long, hard-to-follow text, that arguments around its offensiveness had to isolate the “dirty” parts rather than considering them as a whole – because, in reality, if you read the work straight through to try to get to anything salacious you’d be too exhausted to be titillated by the handful of descriptions of sex. Those arguments eventually carried the day in Woolsley’s oft-reprinted opinion on the matter.

Birmingham gives great detail on the business end of Ulysses, from its publication history to smuggling efforts to get it around censorship in the U.S. and eventually Great Britain, as well as much information on the fundamentalists in various anti-vice societies who helped write and enforce the draconian laws that could ban a book on the basis of a single complaint. The founder of the New York Society of the Suppression of Vice, Anthony Comstock (later U.S. Postal Inspector), and his successor, John Sumner, abused powers they should never have been granted, trampling on the First Amendment to censor and destroy any materials they found objectionable, including early works on contraception and abortion. While Comstock died before the first episode of Ulysses appeared in print, he set up the regime that allowed Sumner and others to suppress the book in part or whole for fifteen years, even though by 1923 it had been widely praised (and panned) by well-known authors, poets, and literary critics. These passages end up some of the strongest in Birmingham’s book, better than the details of Joyce’s life with Nora, as is the brief section on the beginnings of Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s last novel and one of the most difficult reads in English literature (or so I’m told, since I never got past page one).

Around the same time I listened to Birmingham’s book on audio, I read Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, winner of the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and a book so heavily inspired by Joyce’s Ulysses it felt highly derivative to me. McBride writes in a style that mimics Joyce’s pre-speech efforts – McBride herself has said she wanted to voice thought before it became thought – to tell the story of a girl whose brother undergoes a drastic surgery to remove a brain tumor when he’s still a toddler (before she’s born), an event that shapes her entire life as well. The narrator’s destructive relationship with her born-again mother (the book has a strongly anti-religious bent) leads to her having sex with her uncle at 13, going to college, becoming a promiscuous alcoholic, being raped twice, and pulling an Edna Pontellier. Beyond the aggravating prose, the book is one-note, dismal and hopeless, the story of a path determined before birth, a girl who can only gain agency by destroying herself. It may be realistic, but that doesn’t make it something I’d want to read.


I saw a woman reading Gaston Dorren’s Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages at the Philly airport in early March and, since she said it was worth reading, grabbed the audio version for my spring training drives around Florida (which has some seriously boring highways). I haven’t had time to devote to language-learning in years – something to do with having a kid – but my lifelong obsession with foreign languages hasn’t abated; I find everything about them fascinating, even the ‘boring’ stuff like grammar and syntax. Lingo could have been written just for me, as it skips a lot of the linguistics stuff and instead flits around sixty of Europe’s languages, with goofy anecdotes and brief histories on each to keep the book moving.

There is no central narrative at work in Lingo; this is a dilettante’s work and a book for the peripatetic mind. You don’t have to speak any of the languages Dorren covers to appreciate some of the stories of how languages morphed, or hidden similarities between languages, or the ways languages have defined peoples and borders in Europe. Dorren starts off with Lithuanian, a language that bears many clues to what the forerunner of most European languages, clumsily called Proto-Indo-European, may have looked like, before an immediate tangent on the main oddballs of Europe, the Finno-Ugric languages (Magyar/Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian), which bear no resemblance at all to their geographic neighbors. Portuguese owes much of its existence to Galician. Dorren describes the “linguistic orphanage” of the Balkans, where Serbian and Croatian are kind of the same language written in different alphabets while the people who speak Macedonian and live in Macedonia have to call their country something else because the Greeks might get mad. (Speaking of which, shouldn’t one of the conditions of the bailout of Greece been that they leave the Macedonians the hell alone?)

Tiny languages like Luxembourgish, Sorbian (from the NBC Saturday morning cartoon show The Sorbs), Sami, and Gagauz get their own chapters, illuminating the battles languages with small populations fight to survive. Some don’t make it; Dalmatian’s brief life and quick death gets a chapter, but the rebirths of Cornish and Manx, two Celtic languages that are two of the only success stories in that department. (The fact that both are spoken in the United Kingdom, a highly developed country, is probably not a coincidence.) Basque, the language isolate spoken in Spain, gets its own chapter, although I think Dorren gave it short shrift; its linguistic origins are unknown despite lengthy efforts to try to connect it to various language families, and its survival despite the lack of a state and its enclave status within Spain’s panoply of dialects make it one of the language world’s most fascinating stories.

Dorren had to face a huge challenge finding something interesting to say on all of these languages, but succeeds more than he fails by finding surprising angles. Turkish, the primary member of the Turkic language family, gets a chapter devoted to its alphabet; the official shift to the Roman alphabet in the 1920s carried enormous political and religious significance. He accurately dubs Esperanto “the no-hoper,” and the chapter on Albanian becomes a story of a few lonesome Albanologists. Hungarian’s chapter is presented as a conversation between the language and its therapist, shortly after the chapter on the variety of European sign languages; I profess my ignorance at just how many sign languages there are worldwide. And he ends with English, which he calls “the global headache,” the universal language that Esperanto (and Volapük and other pretenders) will never unseat, a language with maddening internal inconsistencies in grammar, spelling, and pronunciation that make our complaints about conjugating irregular Spanish verbs seem trivial in comparison.

The lack of any common thread through all the chapters makes Lingo a bit choppy to read, with no story beyond any one language, almost like reading a sort of half-serious reference work rather than the kind of narrative non-fiction I tend to favor. But Lingo also made me nostalgic for when I did have the time to learn bits of other languages, whether in school or on my own, and wonder when I might get another chance to do something like that – maybe spending a few weeks abroad at some point in my life so I can learn via immersion. The sheer diversity of languages in Europe and the aesthetic and literary beauty of many of those tongues comes through in Dorren’s book, even with all of his flitting from one to the next.

Next up: Angela Carter’s highly acclaimed novel Nights at the Circus, which won the Best of the James Tait Black honor in 2012 as the best of the 93 previous winners of the annual award, and was also on David Bowie’s personal top 100 books list.