Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Divert your attention with an engaging read

The American Psychological Association's 2017 Stress in America survey revealed that stress levels are on the rise. The usual suspects, money and work, made the list of reasons, as did politics. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say the future of the nation is a very or somewhat significant source of stress. Also, this year's survey added to our understanding of the impact of technology, specifically smartphones, on stress levels. Stress is higher, by as much as 20 percent, for those who engage with their devices constantly. 

So with all this stress, what is one to do? Read, of course!

Research reveals all sorts of benefits from reading, including help with stress. Reading can help you relax by engaging the mind and refocusing attention. Even a few minutes can be enough to reduce stress levels by more than two-thirds. And it doesn't matter what you read so long as you enjoy it. So take some time to read a book... or two... or fifty!

Below are the most engaging books I read in 2017:

Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game
by JOHN THORN | 2011 | 365 pages
Baseball in the Garden of Eden is the work of official Major League Baseball historian John Thorn. Thorn explores the origins of America's pastime, both real and imagined. From the minutes of a town meeting in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1791 to the creation of the Mills Commission in 1905 and its mandate to document the provenance of the grande 'ole game, Thorn analyzes the views of those who believed, or had a vested interest in promoting, baseball to be uniquely American with those who asserted its evolution from other bat-and-ball games around the world. Thorn's assiduous synthesis of baseball scholarship contributes to a grander historical narrative than those on both sides of the argument might have imagined.

Washington: A Life 
by RON CHERNOW | 2010 | 927 pages
If the purpose of biography is to deepen understanding of one's character and disposition in historical context, Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life is most worthy of its Pulitzer status. Chernow's exploration of America's most renowned citizen takes the reader to Washington's personal and political world. Perhaps the only American president who can truly claim non-partisanship, Washington's life remains illustrative of the issues facing the early republic as it grew from an idea into an actuality. For readers of Chernow's earlier biography of Alexander Hamilton who thought that book was slow at times, Chernow strikes a balance between detail and delivery in Washington that keeps the pages turning.

Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World
by ERIC METAXAS | 2017 | 416 pages 
The best biographies stand readers next to their subjects as they navigate the trials and tribulations that inspire studying and writing about them. Popular in tone and highly referenced, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World explores the period of The Reformation and Luther's role in it with style and substance. Eric Metaxas, author of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Phrophet, Spy, deftly takes readers through the tumultuous times of 16th century Europe with sanguine, 21st century expression.

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
by REBECCA SOLNIT | 2009 | 353 pages
In A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, Rebecca Solnit synthesizes the scholarship in disaster studies, revealing antithetical beliefs about human nature when calamity strikes; one empathetic, supportive, and heroic, and the other selfish, opportunistic, and savage... each competing to fill the void left when normal life disappears in an instant. Solnit’s work is a vivid disquisition on disaster response, elucidating the memories, stories, conversations, and experiences of those who were there… in San Francisco in 1906… in Nova Scotia in 1950… in New York City in 2001… in New Orleans in 2005. At once history, philosophy, psychology, and sociology, Solnit weaves together a narrative of human behavior that is part revealing, part reassuring, and wholly thought provoking.

The Whiskey Rebels: A Novel
by DAVID LISS | 2008 | 519 pages
The Whiskey Rebels was one of those shot-in-the-dark, pleasant-surprise reads that happens every so often. The novel begins as two stories, riding stridently parallel while ever so slightly merging as the story progresses. Written in first-person, or first-persons, The Whiskey Rebels has a memoir-ish feel, leaving the reader looking out from inside the characters' minds... seeing what they see, hearing what they hear, and feeling what they feel. One also gets the sense of the arduous, heavy nature of life in early America including the hardships of the frontier and the bitter political conflicts that arose in a young nation trying to forge its identity.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Weir serves up another helping of sci-fi filet

As a launching conceit, a heist on the Moon is a meat hook. And for lovers of The Martian, Andy Weir’s second novel, Artemis, serves up another helping of sci-fi filet that pushes readers beyond the horizon but not so far that they can’t find their way home.

People have not yet been to Mars, let alone survived under the circumstances in which Mark Watney found himself, but it sure seems a likely story after reading The Martian. Likewise, there are no cities on the Moon, but Weir provides a percipient account of how Moon life might emerge as a matter of routine... along with a few exceptional haps.

The emerging consensus about Artemis seems to be “it’s good, but not The Martian.” I don’t disagree. Weir will undoubtedly have to deal with comparisons, and rightfully so, since Artemis was created in the same near-future, kind-of-plausible-not-yet-possible vein. But while Artemis comes across as sort of a Martian Lite, I thoroughly enjoyed the story. Weir knows how to put characters into acutely stressful situations and let us watch them try to work free, all-the-while integrating complex science with comedic, high-drama. Weir proves again that writers can direct-teach while spinning a good yarn; the learning doesn’t necessarily have to be inferred. But it’s the story, not the education, that makes Artemis worth the time. It’s conflict, tension, suspense, and consequence that keep the pages turning. Weir’s newest protagonist, Jazz Bashara, is eminently relatable. Mark Watney was an extraordinary figure in extraordinary circumstances. I wouldn’t be able to get near him in his time or mine. But Jazz Bashara is an ordinary person with ordinary problems (relationships, debt, petty crime... you know). And it’s those problems that help Weir extract a sophisticated yet accessible story from an environment as inhospitable as the Moon. 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Little Soldiers widens the discourse on public education

It seems at times that Americans don’t quite know what to make of China. And it occurred to me after reading Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve by Lenora Chu that this is perhaps because China doesn’t quite know what to make of itself as it changes and continues to open up to the world. In Little Soldiers, a cultural inquiry that feels like a memoir, Chu, with wry, self-deprecation, recounts her experiences as the mother of a young American child beginning his formal education in the Chinese public school system and as a journalist trying to understand the context in which this system operates. Chu’s cultural dissonance and the Chinese education system’s traditional resolve emerge early in this heart-felt, reflective story in which Chu never quite seems to reconcile her own educational experiences growing up in Texas with those she wants for her children. She does, however, come to respect the discipline that characterizes the Chinese system and even embraces it as an important component of her son’s early education. This realization seems to unsettle her as much as anything, and drives her to learn more.

Chu’s past and present circumstances position her uniquely to tell the story of the Chinese and American educational systems. Chu takes a humanities based approach, compiling observations, perspectives, experiences, and research to produce a thick, context-based synthesis that reveals both the irreconcilable differences and common features of these two systems.

Chu senses a slight Western shift in the Chinese educational system as the country embraces the tenets of capitalism. And she offers the thought that American schools, particularly early on, could benefit from a slight Eastern shift. Chu ultimately advocates for widening the lens through which we view educational practice. While schools are a reflection of the societies in which they operate, Chu finds these systems are capable of change. Indeed, change may be the desired permanent state for both systems… all systems, even.

Near the end of Little Solders, Chu recounts an education conference she attended in Beijing in which one participant noted that “the speed of change in the way we educate is staggering. We will reach 2030 and none of the things we are talking about will be relevant at all.” I am not sure I recognize this speed of change from within the American system but perhaps if not solving the riddle of public education, Little Soldiers’ contribution is to expand the view of the education landscape for readers, allowing them to calibrate their assessment of what defines success in education and think more precisely about how to achieve it.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Electric October magnifies the mortals of the '47 Fall Classic

Joe DiMaggio was there. Jackie Robinson was there. Yogi Berra was there. Pee Wee Reese was there. And I felt like I was there after reading Kevin Cook’s Electric October, an account of the 1947 World Series as seen through the eyes of six men whose names haven’t traveled to the present quite as prominently as DiMaggio, Robinson, Berra, and Reese. DiMaggio was returning to the Fall Classic for the first time since serving in World War II, and Robinson was the first African-American to play in a World Series. But while Cook situates the ’47 Series in its appropriate social context, DiMaggio’s celebrity and Robinson’s courage are not featured. Rather it’s a story of triumph and tragedy for more marginal players whose baseball lives did not become immortal but who provided the moments that made the ’47 Series thrilling and dramatic.

A big hit, a near miss, and a great catch charge the current in Cook’s story. For Dodger third baseman Cookie Lavagetto, it was the biggest hit of his career… and the last. For every big hit, someone served it up. And for Yankees pitcher Bill Bevens, Lavagetto’s was the only hit he surrendered in his one Series start… and one of the last of his career. Finally, Dodger outfielder Al Gionfriddo recorded an out that was the bang at the end of his short run as a Major Leaguer. Also featured are Snuffy Stirnweiss (probably the Series MVP if it had been awarded then) and managers Bucky Harris and Burt Shotton (the last manager to wear street clothes in the dugout).

The subtext to the Series’ defining moments, eloquently captured by Cook’s narrative, is the tremendous surge in baseball popularity after World War II. Cook revives the excitement produced by a record 389,763 fans in Brooklyn and The Bronx that week as well as the sustained tension of each game that only baseball naturally affects.

There are some engaging anecdotes too, like how the Grapefruit League got its name, why players left their gloves on the field while they hit, and who started what would become the sabermetric revolution in baseball. Well researched and written, Electric October folds the time between today’s game and its forerunner, revealing that what made the game shine in 1947 still energizes baseball 70 years later. Nearly 19,000 players have worn a Major League Baseball uniform in the league’s 142-year history. Most are mortal, and like stars, they arrive on the scene, sparkle for a little while and then fade away. Electric October is a powerful telescope that lets us see some of the game’s mortals as they once were in their brightest moments.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Killers of the Flower Moon reminds, if not resolves

The devil, they say, is in the details. In the case of the Osage Nation, he was in the tribe's midst in the 1920's, unleashing a Reign of Terror in which dozens of tribal members were killed for their rights to the mineral money flowing from the tribe's underground reservation in the wild west prairie of Oklahoma. One man, one plan.

At least that's the official story.

In is new book, Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann delves deeper into the details, revealing perhaps a larger scope to the terror that consumed the tribe after it began reaping the benefits of its oil-rich land.

Grann tells the story of the federal investigation into the murders of Osage head-right holders and the small degrees of separation among conspirators, opportunists, and politicians that set the stage for the insidious schemes devised to separate the Osage from their land and wealth. If not a microcosm of the larger Native American experience, it's certainly an exposé of the potential for human depravity. It also expatiates the cultural disorientation of Native Americans "straddling not only two centuries but two civilizations."

While most of the elements of compelling drama are present in Grann's narrative - ego, mystery, conflict, escalation, discovery - the sad truth is that resolution has eluded the tribe. Time and tombs have locked away the full truth. However, Grann's research relates remnants of the historical record to an abiding Osage consciousness that the Reign of Terror was not just the concerted scheme of one bad actor, and a few lost souls, but a systemic culture of killing that began earlier and ended later than justice avowed.

In Killers of the Flower Moon, Grann is attentive to his subject, emotionally, but also in the intellectual rigor of his research, his engagement with the culture, and his commitment to fully telling a story that can no longer be fully told.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Smart Baseball gets a win (even though wins are "an inherent failure of logic")

Baseball is often derided as being stodgy, stuck in the past, clinging to how it’s always been done. But Keith Law's new book, Smart Baseball, reveals just how progressive the grand old game has become. Law shows how Major League Baseball teams have embraced the information revolution, changed the nature of work in front offices, and transformed decision-making; all fascinating, informative, and, in Law’s view, indicative of the right way to think about baseball.

But there is more to the story, and Law ignores too much of it to call this story smart. Law makes three broad assertions in Smart Baseball, one of which stands up, one of which doesn’t, and one of which you should run from as fast as you can.

First, Law makes the case that sabermetrics is now the driving force behind player evaluation and game strategy. On the surface, it’s an easy case to make. The saber-driven Red Sox and Cubs have both, with great acclaim, broken generations-old championship droughts. The analytically-minded Cleveland Indians nearly did the same last year, and the extreme moneyball Houston Astros have emerged as one of the best teams in baseball. Even casual fans can tell it’s more than intuition leading teams to deploy dynamic defensive strategies, rethink small baseball, and increasingly buck what Law calls the “Proven Closer” system. But Law effectively, and with humor, takes the reader beneath the surface, insightfully comparing old and new game statistics and illustrating how the evolution of sabermetrics has provided teams increased descriptive and predictive tools. His analysis shows how the information age has created new thinking and new jobs in baseball. Law is well-versed and convincing in this discussion, and, as an experienced saber-minded insider, he has credibility.

On the other hand…

Law’s argument that old game statistics are ruining baseball is less convincing. He tears at the game's traditional statistical fabric with acerbic diligence, snarky in his dismissal of those, especially media, who still talk about the game traditionally. I get this to an extent. Law’s success with Smart Baseball is in revealing statistical flaws that have probably contributed to bad game strategy, player contracts, and even Hall of Fame selections. And Law’s chapter on the Save statistic is a must-read essay that is probably the most convincing part of his ruination thesis.

But, statistically speaking, most traditional measures, if somewhat predictively weaker, still correlate strongly with success in baseball. Hitters with the highest On Base Percentages tend to fare well in Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA). Starting pitchers with the most Wins are usually among leaders in Wins Probability Added (WPA). I’m not missing the point that competitive advantages are earned in the margins. I’m just making the point that old game statistics aren’t destroying baseball.

Also, the game is healthy. Despite the haters’ hopes that baseball is in decline (and Law is clearly not a hater but a lover of baseball), overall participation in baseball was up nearly 8% last year while baseball and softball had nearly 25 million combined participants in 2016, more than any team sport in the country. The last 13 MLB seasons are the most attended seasons in baseball history, and last year’s World Series was the highest rated Fall Classic in 15 years with 40 million viewers for Game 7 alone. It doesn’t seem like baseball is on the road to ruination to me.

Finally, Law’s assertion that his way is the only way to think about baseball makes me shudder. I am skeptical of anyone claiming to be the keeper of a one-stop shop. Life’s not that easy. Complex problems require complex thinking, and anything involving people tends to be complex and not as predictable as one might infer from Law’s work. Getting to the endgame usually requires hacking through a thicket of tangled, interdependent variables where both quantitative and qualitative heuristics are necessary. While sabermetrics makes the decision-making context richer, it’s an additive not a substitute.

Taylor S. | Flickr
Law writes that baseball “isn’t particle physics (yet!) but has followed a similar path of hypothesis to discovery” in that the information revolution has revealed about baseball at the micro level what “we knew to be true at the macro level.” But in particle physics, scientists have learned that even with complete information, outcomes remain generally unpredictable. Baseball’s Statcast technology certainly provides more, if not all, possible information on the field. But it won’t provide a baseball theory of everything.

In Smart Baseball, Law uses Orioles manager Buck Showalter as a punching bag to train for his bout with the Save statistic and the larger fight against what he perceives as stubborn resistance in baseball. Showalter’s failure to use the sabermetrically most appropriate pitcher available late in the Orioles extra-inning loss to the Blue Jays in the American League Wild Card game last fall was viewed with wide derision (and I agree deserves criticism).

But by making this one managerial mistake a fulcrum for the sabermetric argument, Law ignores the complexity of managing people. He attempts to bypass the thicket. Anyone observing Showalter over a 24-year managerial career should also recognize his dexterity with less measured, yet no less critical aspects of leadership required for success in baseball, or anything for that matter.

Showalter’s leadership style considers emotional intelligence and self-determination; and finesse with how confidence and perseverance also correlate with performance. Psychology is not an exact science and not perfectly predictable. Neither is particle physics. Neither is sabermetrics. Showalter is 25th on the all-time Wins list, still the most important statistic in sports last I checked.

Smart Baseball is enlightening, entertaining, and well worth the time for baseball fans. I laughed. I yelled. I learned. And… if not the one right way to think about baseball, it gave me some additional ways to think about and enjoy my favorite game.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

A story to learn

It was a 1980’s political strategist working for George H.W. Bush that coined the phrase... perception is reality. While Lee Atwater gave this concept packaging in helping to elect the 41st President of the United States, politicians throughout history have utilized its premise to seek advantage. In Ron Chernow’s masterful biography, Washington: A Life, the first President’s instinctive application of this political maxim shines forth.

From his military strategy of diversion and improvisation during the Revolutionary War… or his resignations from power only to be drawn back to it by duty and ambition… to his habit of mounting a white steed to project strength and majesty before entering a town on official business… or his publicly regal lifestyle hiding struggles with cash flow and debt, Washington was a master of messaging. He also thought a great deal about posterity. Compelled by love of country, if not an eye toward reverence, he was meticulous in recording his life and managing his papers. And when it came time to exit the stage, he wanted to leave a lasting impression.

In his new book, Washington’s Farewell: The Founding Father’s Warning to Future Generations, John Avlon adds dimension to the impressions left by the first President through his farewell message and makes the case that Washington still has much to offer to America’s political discourse.

A highly accessible, fast-paced narrative, Washington’s Farewell was an excellent chaser to Chernow’s expansive examination of the President’s life. In unpacking Washington’s 6,000 word treatise on American citizenship, Avlon walks the President’s final message backwards from his time in office, then forward through the 19th and 20th centuries, showing how Washington’s experiences formed his perspectives on self-government and how the farewell has lived on long after its author.

Avlon’s readers also discover that the farewell message should not be disaggregated to support narrow propositions, as has often been the case since its publication. Its various components are not built upon mutually exclusive ideas but derive value through interdependence. It should be interpreted holistically to glean the guiding principles upon which the original work was based.

In calling for a reconsideration of Washington’s farewell, Avlon is arguing for a need to “reflect on first principles” rather than a return to political or social norms of the day. The first President’s final words on the American experiment, he suggests, can still serve as a broad model for discourse and direction. But you have to take its full measure to minimize the gap between perception and reality and apply its wisdom to the current challenges facing the republic.