Thursday, 22 December 2016

Book Review: The Best American Magazine Writing of 2016

If you're the kind of person who demonstrates an iota of interest in The Best American Magazine Writing 2016, this year has probably been a bit rough for you. A lot of famous people you probably liked died, a sovereignty left an occasionally bumbling but ultimately good-intentioned continental trading bloc that you want to stay together, and the American presidential election likely didn't turn out the way you preferred. I'd definitely understand if you wanted nothing more to do with the seventeenth year of the second millennium and any magazine articles written during the period. Thankfully, the series adheres to the "we're just going to inflate the year by 1" Madden-style naming system that confuses grandmas everywhere and these pieces were all published in the relatively halcyon days of 2015. Despite this, the collection tackles some heady and depressing subjects. There are articles about rape, ebola, immigrants getting treated like garbage, devastating earthquakes, and the book can feel unceasingly bleak when it strings together a series of these in a row. Now these are all important topics worthy of plenty of ink and attention, but I feel like they could have been ordered in a way that was a little less wrenching for the reader in the book, and some didn't really seem to do much to advance the discourse on their issues. As is generally the case with these collections, there are a few strong essays surrounded by less captivating fare, but ultimately the standout essays are just enough to justify the price of admission.

The book compiles the best magazine articles written in 2015 as decided by the American Society of Magazine Editors. It is organized by category and includes the top single-topic, feature, and reporting articles as well as the best essays and commentaries. This structure can make the feature and reporting section a bit of an emotionally-draining slog and it would have been nice to intersperse some of the other articles with a smidgen more levity in between them. The major highlight for me were Kathryn Schulz's The Really Big One from The New Yorker which lucidly explains the prospect of an absolutely devastating earthquake hitting the western United States and is a shining example of describing distilling complex scientific and geological concepts into digestible prose that even a harebrained book-reviewing MBA student can understand. I also absolutely loved Barrett Brown's correspondences from prison for The Intercept. Brown is apparently a government transparency rabble-rouser who is down with Wikileaks and was sentenced to 5 years in prison for threatening an FBI officer and some other offenses associated with an FBI investigation into an email leak. The articles riff on a wide variety of topics, from reviewing Jonathan Franzen's Purity to proudly retelling instances of him raising rabble in prison. Brown is wickedly clever and writes with absurd levels of snark and contempt for his current position, while also fully aware of how ridiculous it is that he is surrounded by hardened criminals praying in jury-rigged shrines so that they could be blessed with being served potato wedges for lunch rather than potato chips. I could see some readers finding Brown to be grating, but I really enjoyed the 3 articles by him included in the book. Finding out about articles like these are why I always try to pick up these volumes each year.

There were a few articles that didn't really capture my interest at all and seemed to drag on for a while. Most notable was Paul Ford's What is Code, which did a decent job at arguing why code is important but a far worse at being entertaining and readable. A few of the other articles, such as Meaghan Winter's reporting on abortion clinics touched upon important subjects but didn't convey much new information to anyone reasonably knowledgeable on the topic. Still, the overall reading experience was pleasant and I give the selection panel credit for culling from so many different sources, from Cosmopolitan and Vice to The New Yorker and New York Times Magazine. I recommend you pick this up if you've enjoyed the past volumes or are just a fan of longform journalism in general.

6 / 10 

Friday, 28 October 2016

Advance Book Review: Super Consumers by Eddie Yoon

Marketers are likely already familiar with the Pareto Principle: roughly 20% of consumers of a product account for 80% of sales. Some may think these high-volume consumers are already doing enough to help the brands they frequently purchase, but in Superconsumers Eddie Yoon illustrates how highly-engaged consumers in a category can be effective drivers of sales growth and valuable consumer insights.

The basic premise of Superconsumers is that there exists a type of "superconsumer" that not only buy certain products in massive quantities but also have a deep passion for the category and a certain brand specifically. While a small subset of the overall consumer base for most brands (about 10% according to Yoon), superconsumers can account for up to 70% of sales. They are intensely loyal to the brands, use them in many different contexts, and have the potential to purchase even more of the brand in the future.

Superconsumers begins with several case studies highlighting how companies leveraged superconsumers to solve their business problems and then concludes with chapters on how readers can apply these principles to their own companies. Brands reached out to these consumers for insights to help understand why they are such ardent fans of their products and would often apply these learnings to attempt to move consumers at the precipice of superconsumer-ism status to surpass that threshold. The cases showcase a decent amount of variety, from CPG to dolls, though they are short and a bit shallow when it comes to analysis. A few definitely could have benefited from a little extra material, especially a compelling case about a private label grocery brand trying to compete with major brands and position themselves as a premium product. Yoon then goes into some more practical chapters about how marketers can go about taking advantage of superconsumers at their own companies.

Yoon is a principal at The Cambridge Group, a brand consulting firm that recently became a subsidiary of Nielsen. While this partnership with the market research company allows Yoon to pull from a plethora of proprietary consumer data for his book, sometimes Superconsumers reads like an advertisement of Nielsen's services and gets a bit sales-y. That said, the book still has an interesting premise, and while I'm not totally convinced that a superconsumer-based strategy can succeed outside of CPG (the CPG cases and examples Yoon draws upon are way stronger than his other material) the concepts make for nice food-for-thought for marketers working in the category.


Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Best Books on Hip-Hop

A lot of people listen to hip-hop music. Not a lot of people read books about the genre. This is understandable. Music is an auditory medium that is difficult to translate into the written word, streaming "99 Problems" on Spotify is a lot less of a time investment than reading Decoded, and it's much harder to follow and learn about new and interesting hip-hop books than hip-hop records. 

I can't do anything about those first two issues, but can help a little bit with the latter. I've slogged through my fair share of hip-hop books, and while a good portion of them were complete dreck, some were actually rewarding. This list will highlight the hip-hop books worth the time of any fan of the genre. 

The list is ordered by broad theme (e.g. biographies/memoirs, analyses of rapping and production, etc.). Books denoted with a star (*) are especially recommended. In the unlikely event that you care about my all-time personal favorites (though reading through this list will likely dissuade you from that position) I list my top 10 hip-hop books at the end. 

I include basic (i.e. non-affiliate) Amazon links in case you want to learn more about a specific title, there is no kickback for me or anything. I hope you find something you like, but could care less by how you obtain such books. 

The Art of the Craft: On Rapping and Producing

These selections will provide readers with a stronger understanding of and greater appreciation for rappers and producers by delving into the complexities and craftsmanship of their work. 

There is a lot to take into account when it comes to analyzing rappers. Kool Moe Dee's rapper report card was mainly just an exercise in ego elevation (it's doubtful that anyone besides Kool Moe Dee can explain why he warrants an A+ while Rakim gets an A and Public Enemy somehow only earns a B) but the one/only thing he did get right was scoring on a ton of different categories. There is simply a lot to unpack when it comes to studying rappers. 

And who better to unpack that material than the rappers themselves? This is the basic premise of Paul Edwards' two outstanding "How to Rap" books. They feature a broad variety of emcees (everyone from Chuck D and Big Daddy Kane to Aesop Rock and E-40) offering insights and advice into their work. The content of "How to Rap" runs the gamut from rhyme schemes to vocal delivery to where to write and everything in between. Edwards writes quick introductions to each section and then sprinkles in some additional examples and context but he mainly lets the artists speak for themselves. Everything is well-organized and Edwards does an excellent job weaving in quotes so that they often build off of each other. Works like these are obviously contingent on the participants being open and eloquent, and most of the rappers interviewed, especially Murs and Evidence, had some legitimately interesting stuff to say. 

How to Rap 2 follows the same interview-heavy formula but with a specific focus on flow and delivery. Edwards takes a bit more active role, including a bunch of "flow diagrams" that help break down rappers' verses and some illuminating examples, such as the complex manner in which Nas linked rhyme schemes on "NY State of Mind." The interview list is just as impressive and interesting as the first book in the series. While the subject matter is far more limited than the first installment, there is more than enough meat to hold the reader's interest and the book goes into much greater depth on its topics. 

Again, don't be dissuaded by the instructional nature of the titles. There are no rapping exercises or drills in either book and as long as you are a fan of the genre you will get a lot out of reading them. 

You'll probably notice that there aren't a huge number of books on this list with an academia bent. In generally I find them to be dry and I also think that sometimes ivory tower denizens can read way too much into the rather inane. Like I don't think D4L was making any kind of grand political statement with "Laffy Taffy" and the rap group would probably think any eggheads stating otherwise to be incredibly foolish. 

Making Beats, by Baruch professor Joseph Schloss, thankfully avoids the usual pitfalls of academic books of being overly dry and reading too deeply into shallow things. It's definitely the best production-focused book I've read, period. The result of 10 years of research, the book examines a variety of topics around beatmaking, including the history of rap production, sampling ethics and aesthetics, and crate-digging. Schloss gets to sit down with some obscure producers as well as more familiar names like Prince Paul, Steinski, and Jake One, and all of his interviewees make valuable contributions.  

As an academic book it skews more towards informativeness than pure "beach-read" entertainment, but it's still a remarkably readable and enlightening read. You'll learn about some advanced production techniques as well as the unwritten code governing sampling (which includes not sampling "respected" records, eschewing breakbeat compilations, and not sampling too much from one record). Overall, Making Beats is highly recommended to anyone interested in better understanding rap production. 

The basic premise of Book of Rhymes is that hip-hop lyrics (at least the more thoughtfully written verses) qualify as poetry and can be studied and scrutinized like anything by Whitman or Keats. Bradley is a literary scholar and more than capable guide through the advanced poetic techniques employed by rappers. Now I would reckon that many rappers aren't able to articulate or specifically describe concepts like broken or apocopated rhymes but that's just because they probably aren't familiar with arcane terminology. It just sounds and flows well to them and was still the result of deliberate thought and is worthy of scholarly scrutinizing. Bradley covers the major elements of hip-hop lyrics, including storytelling, rhythm, and rhyme. Written by a poetry expert, Book of Rhymes especially shines in those latter two sections, filled with insightful examples and detailed rhyme and flow diagrams. While penned by an academic, it is an easy read geared towards a mainstream, albeit hip-hop leaning, audience and Bradley does a tremendous job distilling high-level poetic techniques into layman-friendly explanations. 

One could contest that the "hip-hop isn't really poetry and the lyrics are simple and dumb" argument is a bit of a straw man at this point and feel that Bradley is essentially preaching to the choir. It's a valid claim, but I enjoyed Book of Rhymes because it broke down the lyrics of some of my favorite rappers (Pharoahe Monch, Nas and many, many, others) and provided additional tools to understand and appreciate hip-hop lyricism. 

I Am Hip Hop attempts to answer "What is Hip-Hop" through over twenty interviews with a diverse slice of the hip-hop community. I don't think Rausch really accomplishes this goal beyond showcasing that hip-hop is complicated and hard to define, which you probably were well aware of already. However, he does share candid and sometimes profound discussions with some major hip-hop luminaries. The participant list ranges from icons (Chuck D, Eric B) to more obscure members of the old school (Dres, Chip Fu), and more contemporary underground artists (Akrobatik). The interviews all begin with "What does hip-hop mean to you?" but then branch out all over the place, often to some fascinating avenues. You have sections with Big Daddy Kane reflecting on his biggest rap battles and 9th Wonder describing his biggest production influences and the college course he taught on hip-hop. The dialogues cover a nice mix between the culture and the music of hip-hop and you'll learn a decent amount about both topics. Rausch clearly did his homework and is able to ask probing questions and elicit some quality responses from his subjects. Though it doesn't seem like the most popular book, the interview list is outstanding and I Am Hip-Hop is a breezy and compelling read. 

Fat Pockets: The Big Business of Hip-Hop

As stated at the start, a lot of people listen to hip-hop music. The upshot is that hip-hop music has become a lucrative industry. 

When it comes to grasping how hip-hop went from a rhyme-biting pizza delivery guy and his friends complaining about the poor cooking skills of friends' parents (among many other things, "Rapper's Delight" meandered like crazy) to its current status as a global economic juggernaut, you only need one book (which is good because I didn't really like Steve Stoute's Tanning of America):

This is a hefty tome (my copy checks in a 645 pages, and that is without endnotes), but The Big Payback is an authoritative account of hip-hop's ascension to a humongous money-making machine. It traces the genre's roots in the late 1960's through the mid-2000's with the proliferation of hip-hop brand extensions like Rocawear as well as the continuing popularity of the music itself. Charnas chronicles this evolution through profiles of some of its bigger and more colorful characters, such as Sylvia Robinson, Rick Rubin, Lyor Cohen, and Jay-Z. The book never drags despite its length (it helps that figures like Rubin and Robinson are absolutely fascinating human beings who did some crazy things) and reveals some surprising discoveries from behind-the-scenes goings-on. 

Charnas is a hip-hop insider (he was a talent scout for Profile Records and was an early writer for The Source, among other things) and he does a superb job balancing his background as a serious journalist and Pulitzer Fellowship recipient with his obvious hip-hop fanaticism. Charnas clearly put boatloads of effort into The Big Payback and his encyclopedic book succeeds completely.  

Thisisme: Autobigraphies and Memoirs

The celebrity memoir/autobiography is one of the more common literary archetypes. A large amount are vapid near-drivel but there are also usually some gems if you're willing to look hard enough. The same goes for hip-hop versions of such books. 

This was a tough one to categorize because much of Decoded features Jay-Z analyzing his songs. But the important thing is just for the book to be included. I'm not a huge fan of Jay's post-Reasonable Doubt catalog, but you don't have to be to enjoy it. On the off chance you aren't familiar with it, Decoded features him reflecting on his career, hip-hop, politics, and his upbringing with some additional musings on success and how hip-hop has changed. He also breaks down over 35 of his songs throughout, following a Rap Genius (I wouldn't be surprised if this book had a lot of influence on how that site is laid out) format with heavily annotated lyrics. The notations are detailed, numerous, and thoughtful and it's a well put-together book, full of plenty of pictures and many from his childhood and neighborhood. Decoded works both as a frank and captivating autobiography and a breakdown of his lyrics and the stories behind some of his songs. 

Mo' Meta Blues features some general hallmarks of the celebrity memoir. Questlove reminisces on his childhood and being raised by musicians and his early influences, how he met Black Thought and founded the Roots, and how the Roots became so successful. That said, there are also dialogues, emails from the editor, and extended digressions on musical minutiae and the timeline jumps around quite a bit. I usually found these devices as clever changes of pace and never thought that they veered into self-indulgent territory. At its core though, you have a music nerd and hip-hop star giving a detailed and compelling account of his life and geeking out over some of his favorite artists and songs along the way. Questlove is clearly an intelligent guy and his well-written memoir is rewarding even if you aren't incredibly familiar with his work (though you should really start on rectifying that). 

Books Listing Things

Hip-hop fans have always enjoyed ordering things and declaring winners and then arguing about how they ordered things and declared winners. Was Biggie better than Tupac? Who won the Jay-Z vs. Nas feud? What is the best album from 1994? We can debate about how long hip-hop music as we know it will endure, but I'm reasonably confident we'll be arguing about hip-hop music (including when it will ultimately dirtnap, if ever) forever. These next two books feed into the genres love of ordering, arguing, and riffing on random topics and sharing trivia. 

I'm going to spoil the beginning of my top 10 list: this one wins. Ego Trip was a short-lived hip-hop magazine that lasted from 1994 to 1998. I was too young to read it while it was active but I found some scans of old issues a few years ago and it seems like it was spectacular stuff. 

As the title would suggest, Ego Trip's Big Book of Rap Lists is a sizable volume that dispenses arcane and often-fascinating hip-hop tidbits and trivia through a random assortment of lists. You have MC Serch listing his favorite concert venues, 21 Little-Known Facts About Popular Hip-Hop Songs (Freddie Foxx was originally supposed to rap over "Eric B. is President" but didn't show up so Rakim stepped in, Ol' Dirty Bastard ended up on Pras' "Ghetto Superstar" because he stumbled into the wrong studio), "6 Seminal Hip-Hop Albums That Were Panned by Rolling Stone" (they once described People's Instinctive Travels... as "one of the least danceable rap albums ever"), a roster of all the artists on the three covers of Midnight Marauders, 12 Sports Lyrics that Lose (quoth the RZA on "Reunited:" "Talk strange like Bjork / Great hero Jim Thorpe") among a ton of others. Some lists have detailed descriptions and justifications for their orderings, some don't, all are engrossing. 

This is not Buzzfeed for rap fans. The book was published in 1999 and is just some insanely knowledgeable and opinionated writers (along with some special guest list-writers like Kool Keith, Dante Ross, MC Serch, RA the Rugged Man, Debi Mazar, and others) dropping science and some fascinating stories and trivia. 

The book has the added bonus of being an excellent source of music discovery. In addition to all the lists, the authors included their favorite 25 singles and albums from 1979 through 1998. While I quibble with some of their picks (there is no way Hell on Earth by Mobb Deep is the 3rd best album from 1996) I do acknowledge that the lists are a phenomenal resource that serve as a valuable guide for my music collecting. 

The Rap Yearbook looks at the most important rap song from every year from 1979 through 2014, dissecting each selection and also explaining its broader significance. Serrano was a former writer for Grantland and brings the wittiness, smarts, and copious footnotes that one would expect from Bill Simmons' sadly defunct website. Serrano uses this format as a springboard to comment on topics like Puff Daddy's legacy, the best rap love songs, and what Rakim has in common with Michael Jordan. While each chapter stands well enough on its own, the total package presents a comprehensive overview of the history and evolution of hip-hop. Catering to the aforementioned fact that hip-hop fans love to argue about everything, Serrano also brings in some of his writer friends to rebut and challenge his picks for each year by arguing for an alternative choice. 

The book is further enhanced by numerous illustrations from Arturo Torres. In addition to "style maps" that highlight the various techniques and themes touched upon in each song, chapters also have other graphs/diagrams and artist portraits. Whether it is imagining the Wu-Tang Clan as blood-drenched kung-fu warriors or a frequency distribution of swear words uttered by N.W.A. on Straight Outta Compton (somehow they only used "goddamn" 3 times over the entire album) the pictures are always outstanding and make the book even more irresistible to hip-hop nerds. 

Classic Material: Books About Seminal Albums

There are few higher compliments for hip-hop albums than "classic." Aficionados will still debate about which classic album is the best, but some albums are just unquestionable high points of the genre. These books explore and shed some more light into those classic albums. 

Did you ever read that article in XXL about the making of Nas' Illmatic? Basically everyone involved with the album (Nas, DJ Premier, Q-Tip, Large Professor, MC Serch, etc.) reviews their memories and shares insider stories about each track. As you might expect, it's rather compelling stuff.  

Does the prospect of reading more articles like that appeal to you? If so (and it really should) Brian Coleman's Check the Technique books are for you. They follow the same oral history-ish format for a handful of old school (primarily late '80s and early '90s) albums. 

Coleman writes 2-3 page introductions for each chapter, outlining each album's significance and drawing heavily from artist interviews talking about the record in general. Each chapter then proceeds with a track-by-track breakdown made up of comments from the artists as well as label execs, producers, and other involved parties. Think of this as Song Exploder for classic old-school hip hop albums. And here let me specify that by "old-school" I'm talking about mainly late '80s through the mid '90s.

The brunt of the work is handled by the artists and thus the quality is contingent on how open and engaging they feel like being. Thankfully, almost all of the contributors follow through with quality insights. I was only really disappointed with Slick Rick's take on The Great Adventures of Slick Rick in the first book as he was stingy with his comments and spent too much time complaining about beats he wasn't credited for  If you're familiar with any of the Roots' absurdly detailed liner notes from their old albums you'll know that Questlove and Black Thought goes above and beyond with their chapter on Do You Want More?!!!??! and Evil Dee explaining his production techniques on Black Moon's Enta Da Stage was another highlight. 

Both books feature an incredible lineup of albums. You have De La Soul on 3 Feet High and Rising, Mobb Deep on The Infamous, Mos Def and Talib Kweli on Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star, Company Flow on Funcrusher Plus, and many others. 

If for some reason you still aren't convinced, read this excerpt featuring DJ Premier reflecting on Gang Starr's Step Into the Arena. 

33 1/3 is a series of pocket-sized books that basically serve as liner notes on steroids. Each volume features a music writer focusing on a classic album with an in-depth exploration of the music as well as some biographical information on the artist. I've read several 33 1/3 hip-hop entries and the Donuts and Endtroducing books were my favorites. 

The Endtroducing book is primarily made up of a series of extended interviews with DJ Shadow. Most of the interviews center around how Shadow got into hip-hop and his initial efforts as a producer working with rappers like Paris. The book is more about DJ Shadow rather than Endtroducing but Wilder does pose some album-specific questions and glean some insights from Shadow on that subject. 

Donuts was a meticulously-crafted LP and Jordan Ferguson does J Dilla's masterful album justice with his book on the album. Ferguson's extensively-researched book reveals plenty of details of Dilla's life and producing philosophy that will likely be new to even the producer's biggest fans. The book also dissects the album and elucidates the complex techniques and flourishes Dilla crammed into the album. 

Miscellaneous Books That Didn't Fit Anywhere Else But Are Still Good Despite Being Hard to Categorize

The section title speaks for itself. 

Given the fact that so many rappers appear to be comic book devotees, it is only natural for there to be a comic series chronicling the history of hip-hop. Piksor is an artist and former Harvey Pekar collaborator who is also a huge hip-hop fan. In Hip-Hop Family Tree Piksor tells the story of the music from the late '70s onward. So far he has made it through 1985 and each of the four volumes released thus far have been exceptional, with stunning artwork and perfect and thorough historical accuracy. The books are fun and breezy reads and this is clearly a result of a labor of love on Piksor's part, as his passion is evident on every remarkably-detailed panel. Piksor is gradually working his way through the genre's timeline and it is worth following this project. The late '80s and early '90s volumes should be especially enjoyable for most readers. 

RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan don't have a flawless musical record (just listen to A Better Tomorrow, or re-read RZA's Jim Thorpe line in the Ego Trip book section earlier in this post) but they have been pretty consistently ambitious. The Wu-Tang Manual is literary proof of this ambition: an authoritative tome on the mythology, members and guiding principles of everyone's favorite kung-fu-influenced rap group from Staten Island with over 5 members. The manual is split into four "books," with books reviewing the members and their lyrical and delivery quirks and innumerable nicknames, exploring primary influences (including sections on chess, capitalism, and martial arts), annotating lyrics Decoded-style (sadly in a somewhat shallower fashion), and RZA conducting a deep dive on his personal philosophies around beatmaking and life in general. It can be a bit messy and not every section is equally entertaining but there is more than enough substance here to greatly please any Wu-Tang enthusiast.

Personal Top 10 Favorite Hip-Hop Books

1. Ego Trip's Big Book of Rap Lists 
2. Check the Technique
3. The Big Payback
4. Check the Technique 2
5. How to Rap
6. The Rap Yearbook
7. Decoded
8. How to Rap 2
9. 33 1/3: J Dilla's Donuts
10. Book of Rymes

Monday, 16 May 2016

Book Review: The Only Rule is It Has to Work by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller

While analytics and quantitative analysis have wormed their way into virtually every sport in some capacity, there remains some hostility between stat-heads and major professional franchises. Baseball, consisting of easily-quantifiable discrete events and featuring a plethora of fancy tracking technologies such as PITCHf/x, is no stranger to this intellectual gulf. Even though teams like the Oakland Athletics and Pittsburgh Pirates have embraced data and built up sizable Analytics groups, writers for stats-heavy sites such as Baseball Prospectus still lament managerial decisions such as the proper way to use a closer and create a lineup. Tradition-bound managers and writers scoff at some sabermetric proposals and the two parties remain at an effective impasse until a more forward-thinking manager or owner actually applies them in a real professional baseball game.

In The Only Rule Is It Has to Work, the current (Sam Miller) and former (Ben Lindbergh) Editors-in-Chief from the aforementioned Baseball Prospectus, attempt to serve as that forward-thinking manager/owner. The pair take over the Sonoma Stompers, an independent baseball team in the Pacific Association. While they do try some wacky things during the course of the season, they soon realize that implementing their plans won't always be easy and that their players are more than lab rats. The Only Rule ends up as more of a memoir of a demanding, rewarding, frustrating, and most importantly to the reader, entertaining season in the wacky world of independent minor league baseball team that is a little more data-driven and iconoclastic than its peers.

The Stompers operate on one of the lowest rungs on the professional baseball totem pole. Certain independent leagues such as the Atlantic League feature a variety of former MLB pros (I remember seeing Jose Canseco and Rickey Henderson play for the league's Newark Bears as a kid) and boast a quality of play similar to AAA. Meanwhile, one of the best players in the Stompers' league and a constant bugbear to the team is eventually poached by a high A affiliate of the San Diego Padres, one of the very few Pacific League players who rises to an MLB affiliate at any level. There is a football goalpost in right-center field of the Stompers' stadium. Jose Canseco played for the Stompers for a brief spell in 2015. And then he played for another franchise in the league shortly thereafter. In short, this is not the big time, the league is viewed as a stepping-stone, and some weird stuff is prone to happen.

The Only Rule covers every aspect of the Stompers' 2015 campaign, from identifying potential players and conducting tryouts to the final game of the season. The player selection process is an early highlight of the book. Miller and Lindbergh, with the help of some statistically-inclined baseball friends with MLB-team experience, create a spreadsheet that measures the performance of undrafted college players and attempts to identify diamonds in the collegiate hardball rough. They not only need to figure out which players are worth signing, they also need to woo these athletes with the very few perks and funds at their disposal. This ultimate fantasy draft is a sabermetrician's dream and one of the few areas where Lindbergh and Miller are able to exert a very high level of influence.

On the subject of influence, the authors are severely hamstrung by a double-whammy of occasionally obstinate managers and frequent Stomper defections to greener pastures without football goalposts in their outfields. The Stompers go through multiple managers in 2015 and they experience some friction with all of them in adopting their strategies. The authors serve more as consultants than dictators, and the final decision is usually up to the manager. Miller and Lindbergh make some convincing arguments backed by sound data but some managers still refused to follow the two's recommendations. Lindbergh and Miller are still able to get their way with certain tests, including some unorthodox fielding shifts with a five-man infield, but they do not have full control over the team or its tactics by any means. This setup likely prevented the two from employing some of their odder plans and shifting fielders or tinkering with pitching roles more often.

Additionally, the Stompers' dominant start to the season is eventually curtailed by losing a huge number of their best players to higher-level independent leagues. While this has a big negative impact on the team's performance, these departures also count as successes. In the epilogue, Miller posits that the primary goal of the Stompers is to develop talent and ensure that the best players are able to advance to higher leagues. Young players on affiliated teams have dedicated and talented full-time coaching staffs which allows them to develop skills far quicker than independent leaguers with part-time coaches of lower quality. Thus, it is crucial for teams to ensure that their strongest players with affiliated potential are able to catch scouts' interests and advance their careers. A large portion of The Only Rule centers around the good (and middling, and bad) players making up the team and a synopsis of the team's performance rather than just the experimental results. Lindbergh and Miller spend a ton of time interacting with the athletes, giving them playing advice, cutting together films of opponents, and bonding over heated games of the original (and best) Super Smash Brothers in the clubhouse. The Stompers are comprised of a diverse and engaging cast of characters, including the first openly-gay professional baseball player (who is warmly albeit slightly crudely accepted by his teammates), a mercurial player-manager with a distaste for analytics and meddling, and of course, a 50-year old Jose Canseco. It all makes for rather interesting reading.

Lindbergh and Miller alternate author duties after each chapter and both are capable writers. The narrative never feels disjointed even with the authors trading off. Both are able to inject excitement into on-field game action and capably elaborate on some more abstruse sabermetric concepts like wRC+ and leverage, as well as some random references to stuff like Wrestlemania 2004 and Twitter baseball memes which resonate with their target demographic. There are no complicated equations and every advanced metric and daunting acronym is distilled to its essence for easy digestion by even the most math-averse.

Overall, The Only Rule was a lot of fun to read. I found myself getting emotionally invested in the Stompers' season and rooting for not only the players but also Lindbergh and Miller. I felt a considerable sense of relief and excitement when the authors' five-man infield shift won over a skeptical Stompers manager by neutralizing one of the league's best hitters. While baseball analytics isn't really the focal point of the book, I did pick up some compelling strategies and concepts and learned a good bit more about baseball. The Only Rule is a worthwhile read for any baseball fans with one iota of interest in sabermetrics. Fans of the authors' Effectively Wild podcast and readers of Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs should especially enjoy it.


Monday, 4 April 2016

Book Review: Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg

Charles Duhigg's first book, The Power of Habit is actually a huge reason why I currently work in marketing (way to go, Chuck). I had always had some interest in the field, but a 2012 excerpt from his first book in the New York Times Magazine about Target's troves of consumer data basically sealed the deal for me. Duhigg presented a fascinating account of how the retailer was able to identify that a teenager was pregnant before her own parents. I read it in the spring of my senior year of college and I yammered on incessantly about it in all of my job interviews.

Despite its considerable (and monetarily-damaging) impact on my vocational choices, I was actually slightly underwhelmed when the proper book came out several months later. The Target section was by far the highlight for me and the rest of the book followed the same general structure of long accounts about the generic subject of habits with some passages that went dangerously close to self-help territory. It was a decent read, but it didn't really meet my admittedly lofty expectations.

Duhigg's new book, Smarter Faster Better explores of the topic of productivity with the same "chapters of long interweaving stories that don't completely form a cohesive whole" template that he employed with The Power of Habit. Borne out of a phone call with the absurdly accomplished surgeon-bestselling author-researcher Atul Gawande about how certain people can accomplish so many things in a day, Duhigg attempts to understand how productivity works and why some people and companies are so much better at it that others. He ends up drawing from everything from poker star Annie Duke to catastrophic airline crashes to the cutting-edge of cognitive science research.

The stories Duhigg draws from are pleasant enough but a few drag on too long. Sometimes they get caught up in minutiae like a rather dull play-by-play of a World Series of Poker final. Others are a bit more engaging but don't feel like they contribute much to Duhigg's major points. The book has a disjointed feel in general and occasionally feels like a collection of disparate magazine articles.

Most of Duhigg's observations don't break much new ground. One of the reasons why I was so captivated by the Target article was because this was something I had never known about before and was largely new territory for mainstream pop social science writing. Smarter Faster Better probably won't really alter your world view in a similar fashion if you've been reasonably current with major findings and books in the field. Basically, motivation is good, having a sense of being in control helps, and setting realistic goals makes a difference as well. 

While this review might come off as a bit harsh, I definitely enjoyed parts of the book. If you liked The Power of Habit I see no reason why you wouldn't get just as much out of Smarter Faster Better. My biggest issue is that the only thing I got out of the book is a few random interesting tidbits and amusing stories. So if you want a few hours of stories along with a smattering of references to relevant academic studies, you can give Smarter Better Faster a read. It's decently entertaining but just bear in mind it doesn't completely succeed with its goal of providing deep and novel insights on productivity.

6.5 / 10

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Advance Book Review: The End of Karma by Somini Sengupta

Amazon / Goodreads

It's almost hard to believe now, but only several years ago India and China were deemed equally likely to be the economic "it" country that would be crucial to driving future global growth. India saw nearly double-digit growth in the mid-2000's and was even projected to see faster economic growth than China beginning in 2020. Today, India has largely taken a backseat to China, with the latter being seen as the global economic force and getting its own standalone section in The Economist. India is still likely to be a major player in the future, as the country has over 300 million citizens under 15 years old is set to pass the graying China as the world's most populous country around 2022. In The End of Karma, journalist Somini Sengupta chronicles how India's massive youth population is transforming the country and shaping its future through a handful of representative stories. The book is equally parts engrossing and illuminating and will leave the reader with a firm understanding of India and its future.

Sengupta's central thesis is that the gradual dismantling of India's state run economy in 1991 helped India's youth break free from the country's past and determine a new future for themselves. Caste and social standing no longer circumscribe Indians to a small geographic and occupational niche, as people can rise from a poverty-stricken caste to engineer in Bangalore or Silicon Valley. Sengupta illustrates her points through seven profiles of Indians from a variety of different social standings and Indian states. There is Anumpam and Verish using education to escape from their lower-caste upbringings, Varsha, a young woman from a caste of cleaners who is aspiring to be a cop in a country that can be dangerous for women, and Rahki who associates with Maoist rebels despite growing up in a decently prosperous household.The common thread between all of these stories are that the subjects are shaping their own destinies, a decently novel concept in a culture that has largely been bound by tradition in the past.

The End of Karma reads like 7 New York Times Magazine articles. While each story stands alone fine on its own, Sengupta will occasionally note similarities between her profiles and how they showcase similar themes. Sengupta covers the United Nations for paper and previously served as its New Dehli bureau chief. She writes with an eye for vivid details and helps bring settings ranging from the slums of Bihar to the gleaming luxury skyscrapers of Gurgaon alive to the reader. She also frequently points out how these individual stories showcase broader macro trends across the entire country and while the personal stories stand very well by themselves (I frequently found myself emotionally invested in the characters and rooted heavily them to succeed), the broader insights help leave the reader with a strong understanding of the major trends currently impacting the country, such as the sorry state of education, rise of Narendra Modi, and spate of urban violence against young women.

Overall, The End of Karma is a compelling read to anyone curious about India. It is well-written and insightful and serves as an excellent primer to the issues that will shape India's future. Sengupta seems to be aiming for a foreigner audience and some of her material may already be familiar to native Indians or those who have closely been following the country for the past decade or so, but if you fall outside of that camp there should be a lot to learn and enjoy from The End of Karma.

8 / 10 

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Advance Book Review: Boys Among Men by Jonathan Abrams

Release Date: March 15, 2016

This April will mark the 10th anniversary of when the NBA set their current age limit of 19, effectively banning the practice of players jumping directly from high school to the pros. Unless Gerald Green has a late-career renaissance or something we all have a decent idea of how these prep-to-pro players have generally panned out in the pros. The route has yielded some major hits (Moses Malone, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James) and misses (Lenny Cooke, Taj McDavid), though a 2004 study conducted by Michael A. McCann of Harvard Law School found that such players enjoyed longer careers and larger contracts than their (at least semi-)college educated counterparts. While we can debate about whether this age-limitless-era was good or bad for basketball and the players that took advantage, these players undoubtedly had a huge impact on the game. In Boys Among Men, Grantland alumnus Jonathan Abrams chronicles the history of the prep-to-pro movement, from trailblazer Moses Malone in 1974 to Amir Johnson, the final high schooler selected in the 2005 Draft. Abrams' accounts of the players that took the plunge and how they influenced and were influenced by the evolution of the business and strategy of the sport make for remarkably compelling reading.

Abrams mentions in the acknowledgements that his interest in the subject was peaked while working the Los Angeles Clippers beat right out of college. He was curious as to how these young players four years his junior handled playing in the NBA and handling the pressure and business of the sport (especially given that financial hardship is often one of the biggest reasons for high schoolers forgoing college). This curiosity frames his approach to Boys Among Men. While Abrams clearly possesses encyclopedic knowledge of the game and is adept at describing on-court happenings (his account of a matchup between cautionary tale Lenny Cooke and Lebron James at an all-star camp for prep stars is one of many such examples), the focus is more on how the players handled themselves off the court. What made them consider and eventually opt to skip college, how did they handle the pressure of performing for scouts in pre-draft workout sessions, and how did they acclimate to the NBA and what hurdles did they encounter? Agents such as Arn Tellem and apparel marketing executives such as Sonny Vaccaro also feature prominently, as they were instrumental in raising salaries to stratospheric levels and making it more appealing for players to declare early. The book also traces some of the developments that helped lead to the age limit, such as the Malice in the Palace brouhaha that severely harmed the league's image.

Abrams devotes most of his book to the second wave of prep-to-pro in the mid-90s (there was a 20 year gap between Bill Willoughby taking the plunge in 1975 and Kevin Garnett in 1995), especially Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O'Neal, and Tracy McGrady. The less successful flameouts such as Korleone Young and Taj McDavid receive almost equal coverage, and learning about what went wrong almost makes for better reading. After proceeding chronologically through the high-school-to-pro era, Abrams concludes with analysis on how the pro and college game has adapted to the age limit, including a look at John Calipari's efforts to build a one-and-done assembly line at the University of Kentucky.

43 players have jumped directly to the NBA from high school. In the wrong hands, an authoritative account of the prep-to-pro era would turn monotonous well before the reader got to Lebron James and Dwight Howard. However, Boys Among Men benefits greatly from Abrams' abilities as a writer and exhaustive research and interviews and the fact that some very colorful and varied characters involved in the story of the movement. From the laconic Moses Malone contending with recruiters such as an Oral Roberts coach that promised committing to the evangelist-founded school would heal his mother's tumors to the charismatic Kobe Bryant to the boisterous Lenny Cooke, the only common thread between high school draft prospects is their roundball skills. This diversity helps keep things from getting stale as there is no typical archetype for such players. Similarly, there is no typical "high-school-to-pro-rookie" experience, as while some players benefited from "Team Moms" and substantial support networks others were largely left to fend for themselves. Additionally, Boys Among Men is remarkably well-crafted and will undoubtedly be one of the best-written sports books of 2016. Abrams wrote the book over four years and this effort is evident on every page. he draws from numerous interviews with primary actors such as Tracey McGrady, Jermaine O'Neal, and even former NBA commissioner David Stern. This means there is plenty of new insight for even die-hard basketball fans, and the book is greatly enriched by insider tidbits such as how ridiculously close the Nets came to selected Kobe in 1996 and the actors that eventually quashed the pick (and as a result the Nets' success for the next few years) and quotes from Kevin Garnett's high school teachers about his diligence and personality.

Boys Among Men will likely go down as my favorite sports book of 2016. It's well-written, objective (Abrams acknowledges that the lack of an age limit had a complicated impact with pros and cons, this is not a hatchet job or rhapsody to the halcyon days of prep-to-pro draftees), and never drags despite its decent length. There is definitely enough original analysis and insights to appeal to even the biggest basketball fans, but anyone remotely curious about the the sport or the business around it will greatly enjoy Boys Among Men. Because at its core it's the stories of a bunch of wildly different players brave enough to take the leap from high school to the pros, and whether it's Kwame Brown trying to take his whole family out of poverty or the tragic story of Lenny Cooke or Kobe Bryant's 5 am shooting sessions and 100 point half-court games, these stories make for excellent reading.

9 / 10

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Advance Book Review: Better Living Through Criticism

Release Date: February 9, 2016
Amazon / Goodreads

Critics have it rough right now. Those at major old media institutions are seeing their employers scrambling for revenue, aggregators are diluting their individual influence, and artists of all mediums continue to skewer them, especially when they get lambasted by the critical establishment. As a blogger with a Lilliputian viewer count (especially when you take away the Russian referral spambots) who generally just doesn't review books I dislike, I'm largely shielded from/oblivious to such problems. That said, I'm still interested in A.O. Scott's Better Living Through Criticism, which details what "criticism" actually means and the purpose and societal value of such a thing.

Scott is currently the chief film critic at The New York Times and one of the most-respected and blurbed critics in film today. His book covers major topics of criticism: is there an objective standard for quality or is enjoyment subjective to individual preferences, what makes someone a "good" critic, should everything be subject to intellectual incrustation, and so on. Scott examines all of these with an abundance of support from essays, works, and thought experiments. It should be noted that Better Living Through Criticism is concerned with criticism as a whole, not film criticism specifically. Scott has a literature degree from Harvard and started out at The New York Review of Books practicing the honorable craft of book reviewing. He's clearly a very well-read guy. Besides drawing examples from Ratatouille in his concluding chapter, Scott's sources rely less on Pauline Kael and her ilk and more on thinkers such as Kant and Aristophanes. Many of his cultural examples are from plays, poems, and literature. There are of course a few mentions of films and an interesting fictional dialogue (one of several throughout the book) of what initially got Scott interested in film criticism specifically) but this is by no means a book about film criticism specifically. If you're only interested in learning what it's like to review movies and Scott's criteria for what makes a good movie and so on you will not really find that here.

I found Scott's strongest argument on the role and value of the critic to be the critic serving as a guide to what works are worth a busy person's time. When I was younger I had tons of time but non-tons of money, and as an adult these factors have been (relatively) reversed. In both cases, professional reviewers ranging from Electronic Gaming Monthly as a kid to The Quietus (and yes, Pitchfork too) as an adult were vital to identifying what cultural works I might like to consume with my allowance/hard-earned money. The best reviewers are able to articulate what makes a book/album/movie/video game etc. unique, what the consumer can expect, and the quality of such works, and Scott additionally notes how some of his favorite reviews imbued the reader with a vicarious sense of actually experiencing the content through prose. Critics never/rarely serve as the be-all and end-all to such decisions, but I consult them on a regular basis to see whether they can turn me onto some new media I'll probably like, and given the fact that sites like Rotten Tomatoes draw tons of traffic and Pitchfork effectively launched bands like the Arcade Fire through laudatory reviews I'm not alone in this sentiment. That is the same function I'm trying to serve on this ad-less blog (not driving tons of sales for authors or web traffic but that whole "I'm going to read a ton of books so you don't have to/because my subway commute is terribly long and let you know about the really good ones and some stuff I don't like as much").

Getting back to that aforementioned function on the non-ad-supported blog, Better Living Through Criticism is a heady read and will likely appear in quite a few college syllabuses in the future. This is both a testament to the fact that the book is thoughtful and well-articulated and also that it's a a pretty heady tome. The book is not an easy read, and I had some flashbacks to college lit classes and there were some parts that I struggled with. However, if you are a huge fan of dense and deep discussions on the nature of criticism and have a huge pre-existing knowledge of and interest in art of all kinds then there is a lot to like in Better Living Through Criticism. It's well-written and smartly constructed that will likely leave you with more respect for critics (thanks A.O.).

6.5/ 10

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Advance Book Review: Streetfight by Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow

Release Date: March 8, 2016
Amazon / Goodreads

While his mayoral reign was by no means perfect, Michael Bloomberg did some cool things over his three terms as Mayor of New York City. Many of these aforementioned low-temperature initiatives made lives easier for pedestrians (car-free plazas and curb islands in busy intersections), bikers (tons of designated bike lanes and a huge bike-sharing program) and even bus riders (select bus service).  Janette Sadik-Khan, commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation from 2007 to 2013, was the major architect behind such projects. In her (and co-author Seth Solomonow's) new book Streetfight, Sadik-Khan chronicles her tenure in the Bloomberg administration and offers a practical guide to implementing her sustainable and human-scale planning initiatives in other cities.

Streetfight is equal parts memoir and overview of major topics in planning. The book is structured thematically, with each chapter touching upon an aspect of transportation planning, including bike lanes, bike-sharing, and infrastructure maintenance. It begins with some background on transportation planning in New York City and a primer on the theories of urban planners such as Jane Jacobs. Streetfight draws its ideas from around the world, looking at innovative programs in other cities and countries and including a passage on how New York's Summer Streets program was inspired by a similar program in Colombian cities. Sadik-Khan is remarkably fair in her analysis throughout, which is refreshing given that some urban planning books exhibit a decent amount of intellectual inflexibility. Streetfight has no agenda to ban all cars from the island of Manhattan or lead some kind of cycler/pedestrian uprising. The book's assertions are largely driven by data, and she shares some fascinating studies from New York City and the rest of the world, including research from London showing that shoppers arriving from non-car modes of transportation considerably outspend those coming by automobile. At the same time, she understands that regardless of what the data and academics say that these ideas need to be politically appetizing in order to succeed. A considerable portion of Streetfight details how Sadik-Khan brokered political compromises such as removing portions of a bike lane in a Hasidic part of Brooklyn to help win a new larger path on a major thoroughfare and the book also recounts the endless public hearings around her policy proposals. Such political concessions are vital to getting policy wins in today's governing environment, and sometimes even public support isn't enough, as was the case with Sadik-Khan's ill-fated congestion charge proposal for parts of Manhattan.

The strongest parts of Streetfight are when Sadik-Khan goes into detail on methods she used to improve biker/rider/walker and yes, even driver (some of her fixes improved traffic flow and/or got other cars off the road and onto other modes of transportation) welfare. Streetfight is filled with diagrams and pictures illustrating concepts and some jarring before-and-afters of how the city brought about some substantial changes with little more than a can of paint and some chairs. The authors are able to present these concepts in a coherent fashion an clearly outline how solutions such as how pedestrian curb refuges function and help calm car traffic. Moreover, while the book offers practical solutions, it is geared towards a general audience and anyone interested on the general subject can take away a lot from reading it.

Transportation policy may no sound like the sexiest topic in the world (and admittedly it isn't), but Streetfight is a remarkably readable volume that manages to provide practical transportation solutions for cities as well as a peek inside the data-heavy and orthodoxy-eschewing Bloomberg administration. There is some repetition and occasionally the largely triumphalist tone (albeit mostly deserved) got grating, but these are both small nits. Overall, Streetfight is an informative and illuminating look at major street transportation-related developments in New York City over the last several years and any reader looking to learn more about how cities work should give Streetfight a look, regardless of whether they are New Yorkers or not.

8 / 10

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Book Review: Fox Tossing by Edward Brooke-Hitching

When reading through books I plan on reviewing, I often jot down a few tidbits that I find interesting enough to at least consider mentioning in the final review. And I started this practice with Edward Brooke-Hitching's Fox Tossing but quickly abandoned it after tiring out my wrists barely twenty pages in. There was at least one duel conducted in hot air balloons? Aerial golf, featuring one player dropping golf balls out of an airplane for his golfing teammate on the ground to sink, was not only once a thing, but played by the likes of Ty Cobb and former New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia? A tour through odd sports that have been long-forgotten by contemporary society, Fox Tossing is well-written and packed with fascinating trivia that will keep any margin jotter quite occupied. Unfortunately, it is also essentially a well-written and fascinating-trivia-packed alphabetical list of items, and this format gets a little monotonous after a while.

The book was spurred by Brooke-Hitching stumbling upon an article on fox tossing (which is basically what you think it is, for all their ridiculousness, some of these sports are rather sensibly named) while he was conducting other research. This discovery led the author stumbling further down the rabbit hole of preposterous pastimes as he searched for more absurd games of yore. Fox Tossing is the result of his findings, with Brooke-Hitching offering brief descriptions of some of his best finds. Each entry goes for about 3-4 pages and there are a good amount of pictures and diagrams, which can be remarkably helpful as some of these sports are so illogical that they are effectively incapable of being described with the written word. There is no greater thematic organization or more macro sections on larger trends or the evolution of sports through the years; Fox Tossing reads like a superlong version of a drier and wittier Cracked article on "The 100 Dumbest Sports Time Forgot."

As Brooke-Hitching explains in his introduction, there are three factors that caused these sports to go extinct: "cruelty, danger, and ridiculousness." Some pastimes, such as octopus wrestling and donkey boxing even managed the entire trifecta. There are some mentions of freakish mutations of major sports like Stoolball and Baby Boxing, but the majority of Fox Tossing's selections concern the mean and/or strange things humans used to do to animals, including tortoise racing and a ton of ways to incite anger and occasionally injury to bears and foxes. These are absorbing themes to be sure, but the repetition will likely wear on readers. Still, Brooke-Hitching is a more than capable guide through these inane sports. He's clearly done his homework, leaving no strange sporting stone unturned and trawling through Florentine manuscripts from the 1300s and the 1794 edition of The Kentish Gazette for his information.

Despite being packed with some absolutely stellar factoids about ridiculous oldentime behavior, Fox Tossing did begin to lose steam for me about two-thirds of the way in. It's not that tortoise racing or ski ballet were any less interesting than auto polo or bow and arrow golf, but simply because the list structure format wore a little thin as things got more repetitive. The content would probably best be served as a longform magazine article where Brooke-Hitching can cherry pick the most intriguing sports and group things thematically with a bit more broader reflections on such sports. I still enjoyed myself and am glad I read Fox Tossing, but I wish the content was organized differently.

7 / 10