Archive for the ‘Books’ Category


Amphibians evolving into reptiles

September 7, 2022

Among the books I sort of remember from my childhood are the Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel. As I recall, one of these books was among the very first books I ever got to choose at a school book fair — pretty exciting stuff for a 1st grader. I also recall being haunted by the story “The Dream,” in which Toad performs on-stage while Frog slowly shrinks away to nothingness.

Upon rediscovering these books as a parent, I’ve been really impressed by Lobel’s use of simple text to suggest nuanced ideas and emotions. In particular, the story “Alone” from Days with Frog and Toad touches upon a problem common to people of all ages: if treasured friends or loved ones want to be alone for a while, does that mean they are growing apart from us?

Last year my Aunt Beverly gave my youngest son, Ben, a plush tortoise, which got me thinking about green-and-brown animals and ultimately inspired me to try to conjure up some of that Frog-and-Toad magic. The resulting tale, “Turtle and Tortoise,” included a bit of music, so I thought it would be nice to make a video, featuring illustrations from Ben’s cousins and the voices of his grandparents.


Confessions of a grinch, part 1

December 27, 2016

My son and I just read Ellen Raskin’s mystery The Westing Game, a Newbery Medal winner. We really liked it, but that is not the point of this post.

The point of this post is that the book includes a strong, admirable character who articulates a perspective on smiling that I agree with.

Basically, we’re against it.

Long before becoming a judge, Josie-Jo Ford had decided to stop smiling. Smiling without good reason was demeaning. A serious face put the smiler on the defensive, a rare smile put a nervous witness at ease. She now bestowed one of her rare smiles on the dressmaker. “I’m so glad we have this chance to become acquainted, Mrs. Baumbach. I had so little time to chat with my guests last night.”

Like Judge Ford, I tend to treat smiles as capital to be spent sparingly. The air of neutrality is a good match to my sense of myself as introverted and studious. But it’s not necessarily optimal for my family and friends.

I am lucky to be married to someone who smiles more than I do. Perhaps in 2017 I will return the favor more frequently.

The Westing Game cover


“Wheat Belly” by William Davis, MD

December 11, 2013

This post is for my dad, who bought me Wheat Belly so that I could read it and tell him what I thought of it.


1. Just as Born to Run questioned (in its entertaining but overblown way) whether we should trust shoe companies to tell us what our footwear needs are, this book advocates a healthy skepticism regarding agribusiness-influenced nutritional guidelines.

2. The book may help some people understand celiac disease and gluten-free diets. I hadn’t previously read much about gluten and was pleased to discover details about the gliadin and glutenin proteins which comprise it.

3. Likewise, I was pleased to read about wheat’s history of genetic and morphological changes, which author William Davis discusses in detail. Even if the health implications of these changes are debatable, it’s interesting to contrast the ancient einkorn wheat (14 chromosomes) and emmer wheat (28 chromosomes) with modern dwarf Triticum species (42 chromosomes).

4. There may be some truth to at least one of the author’s provocative assertions, i.e., that the breeding of wheat for more optimal baking properties may have contributed to the rise in celiac disease (van den Broeck et al. 2010).


1. The central message — that wheat is evil — is irrationally and offensively simple-minded. There are a few surprising nuances in the book, such as the admission that the wheat hybridization work of Norman Borlaug helped solve the problem of world hunger. Yet Davis continually returns to his “wheat is evil” rhetoric without apparent hesitation or irony.

2. The language is often hyperdramatic at the expense of clarity and accuracy. For example, Joe Schwarcz (2013) bemoans the way wheat is blamed for osteoporosis because of its production of (tiny amounts of) sulfuric acid. “Davis panics readers with totally irrelevant statements about sulphuric acid causing burns if spilled on skin,” Schwarcz says. “Get it in your eyes and you will go blind. True, but what does that have to do with traces formed in the blood from cysteine?” Melissa McEwan (2011) accuses Davis of “anti-technology scare-mongering, preying on the agricultural ignorance of the average consumer.” She notes, “Telling me … that wheat has ‘undergone extensive agricultural genetics-engineered changes’ is hardly terrifying to me, as this describes almost all seeds on the market today.”

3. Davis writes with smug confidence about the devastating effects of wheat on human health, yet the scientific evidence for many of his claims is weak, misrepresented, or nonexistent. Pete Bronski (2012) dissects three examples of Davis’s misuse of the biomedical literature; additional examples are below.


Wheat Belly makes numerous claims. Below are five that I personally consider important, along with some comments about their validity.

1. Wheat is unique in elevating blood sugar to unhealthy levels.

There are two issues here.

First, wheat products do not have an exceptional, uniformly high Glycemic Index (GI), the standard measure of glucose release into the blood. As McEwan writes, “If there is something special about wheat spiking blood sugar, why do some wretched coarser breads measure in the low thirties and forties (lower than many fruits and sweet potatoes), and so many gluten free breads measure so much higher? Davis mentions that the latter is often made from extremely refined processed rice, tapioca, and corn. And thus we have the answer — highly digestible carbohydrates, no matter what their provenance, are high glycemic.”

A second issue is that the GI of any carbo-rich food, including wheat, can be reduced by eating it with protein and fat. Davis describes a personal experiment in which he ingested four ounces of organic whole-wheat bread, and, sure enough, his blood glucose rose a lot. But who (other than my Uncle Scott) eats large quantities of low-fat bread, all by itself, in one sitting? It’s a pretty artificial situation, and one that is easily remedied by the addition of some peanut butter or meat or whatever.

2. Wheat is addictive.

There are multiple reasons to question this claim, which is based on the idea that wheat protein gets broken into peptides known as exorphins, which act on the brain as opioids.

First, exorphins released from wheat cannot exit the gastrointestinal tract without being further digested into non-drug-like molecules. Fred Brouns et al. (2013) explain: “Gliadorphin consists of seven amino acids (Tyr-Pro-Gln-Pro-Gln-Pro-Phe) and, as such, cannot be absorbed by the intestine. This is because the intestine peptide transporter PepT1 transports only di- and tripeptides (Gilbert et al., 2008) and transporters for larger peptides have not been identified. Gliadorphin is therefore not present in intact form in the human circulatory system and cannot reach and have an effect on the cells of the central nervous system.”

Second, as covered by Julie Jones (2012), proteins from milk and other sources yield exorphins too, so wheat is not unique in this respect (Jones 2012).

Third, Jones (2012) also points out that gluten stimulates the release of the hormones cholecystokinin and glucagon-like peptide 1, which contribute to a feeling of fullness or satiety. This is contrary to the vicious cycle proposed by Davis, in which ingesting some wheat leads to a craving for more.

3. Wheat causes obesity. Eliminating it leads to weight loss.

Michael Casper (2012) summarizes the evidence as follows: “We have to take Davis’s word that his anti-wheat diet works, because most of the cases of weight loss and recovery from illness are from his own practice.”

Jones (2012) and Brouns et al. (2013) also cite a paper from the Framingham Heart Study (E.A. Molenaar et al., Diabetes Care 2009) showing a negative correlation between whole-wheat consumption and risk of obesity. While this finding of a correlation is not a smoking gun, it is the opposite of what Davis would predict.

If wheat itself was a cause of weight gain, replacing wheat with an equivalent number of non-wheat calories would lead to weight loss. No controlled peer-reviewed study along these lines is cited by Davis; perhaps he should use some of his book royalties to finance one.

4. Wheat contributes to many other diseases besides diabetes and obesity (autism, schizophrenia, etc.).

Davis devotes full chapters to wheat’s effects on the body’s pH (Chapter 8), advanced glycation end-products (AGEs) (Chapter 9), heart disease (Chapter 10), the brain (Chapter 11), and skin (Chapter 12). There is no concise way to address all of these, but, as examples, Chris Masterjohn (2011) pokes many holes in Davis’s stories about pH and AGEs, and Jones (2012) notes a lack of strong links between wheat and autism, ADHD, or schizophrenia.

Casper (2012) adds, “Davis’s claims about wheat and schizophrenia are based on very old papers -– nothing within the past 25 years -— and this is another example of an abuse of definitions in order to further an anti-wheat agenda.”

5. Modern wheat is the product of science crossbreeding experiments. Its safety has never been tested.

Davis does not define the safety tests that he thinks are absent but needed. Apparently he considers observational studies inadequate and would prefer clinical trials (i.e., much stronger evidence than he uses to support his wheat-is-evil hypothesis). In any case, he misleads us with his implication that crossbreeding leads to radical, unpredictable, likely-to-be-dangerous changes.

For example, Davis says, “Analyses of proteins expressed by a wheat hybrid compared to its two parent strains have demonstrated that, while 95 percent of the proteins expressed in the offspring are the same, 5 percent are unique, found in neither parent.” However, his reference (Xiao Song et al., Theoretical and Applied Genetics 2009) simply reports that parents and offspring differ in the amounts of some of the proteins they produced, not changes in which proteins were present. Davis: “In one hybridization experiment, fourteen new gluten proteins were identified in the offspring.” Reality: the 14 proteins were slightly mutated versions of parental proteins, not completely new ones, and the study cited (Xin Gao et al., Planta 2010) involved somatic cell hybridization, a complicated laboratory technique not typically used by wheat breeders (NWIC 2012). Davis: “The genetic modifications created by hybridization for the wheat plants themselves were essentially fatal, since the thousands of new wheat breeds were helpless when left to grow in the wild.” Reality: yes, a plant that once grew in the wild has been adapted for domestic food production. The varieties now optimized for food production are no longer optimized for surviving in the wild, and thus do not thrive outside farms. This is neither surprising nor worrisome nor unique to wheat.

Finally, while other grains have also gone extensive optimization, Davis does not comment once upon the changes to the genomes of corn, rice, etc. In Casper’s (2012) words,

Davis argues in the second chapter of Wheat Belly that wheat has been genetically modified in the past few decades beyond all recognition, and this modification is somehow the source of the danger that wheat poses to us. It is a cunning argument, because it is certainly the case that genetic modification has taken place, and it is difficult to disprove that such changes have been harmless. But why stop at wheat? Corn, for instance, has certainly been subjected to dramatic genetic modification, as discussed in a 2003 article from the journal PLOS Biology. Why single out the genetic modifications of one crop, and not consider the implications of all the others? Or is Corn Belly intended as a sequel?


Wheat Belly offers a simple, seemingly research-based solution to a myriad of ailments. It has proven tremendously popular, especially among low-carb advocates. However, its narrative is based on “cherry-picked data, inflammatory hyperbole, misused science, irrelevant references and opinion masquerading as fact” (Schwarcz 2013). As such, it is hardly the slam-dunk case against wheat that it purports to be.


Pete Bronski. Wheat Belly, busted. No Gluten, No Problem (blog), March 20, 2012.

Fred J.P.H. Brouns, Vincent J. van Buul, and Peter R. Shewry. Does wheat make us fat and sick? Journal of Cereal Science 58: 209-215, 2013.

Michael Casper. Wheat Belly, a book review. Caspersfarm’s Blog, September 13, 2012.

Julie Jones. Wheat Belly — an analysis of selected statements and basic theses from the book. Cereal Foods World 57(4): 177-189, 2012.

Chris Masterjohn. Wheat Belly — the toll of hubris on human health. The Daily Lipid (blog), October 12, 2011.

Melissa McEwan. Wheat Belly. Hunt Gather Love (blog), October 8, 2011.

National Wheat Improvement Committee (NWIC). Wheat improvement: the truth unveiled. (website), 2012.

Joe Schwarcz. Wheat Belly gives me a belly ache. McGill Office for Science and Society (blog), June 29, 2013.

Hetty C. van den Broeck et al. Presence of celiac disease epitopes in modern and old hexaploid wheat varieties: wheat breeding may have contributed to increased prevalence of celiac disease. Theoretical and Applied Genetics 121(8): 1527-1539, 2010.


The Best of Times, exemplified

August 15, 2013

I’ve previously described a first-line-of-a-novel game that I call “The Best of Times.”

Here now are some examples from my family’s most recent competition, in which my dad narrowly defeated Leila, with Leila’s brother Murray placing 3rd in the field of 8.

Can you identify each book’s true first line?

Book 1: Pale Kings and Princes by Robert B. Parker

Back cover blurb (read aloud before fake first lines are composed): “A young hotshot reporter was dead. He had gone to take a look-see at ‘Miami North’–little Wheaton, Massachusetts–the biggest cocaine distribution center above the Mason/Dixon line. Spenser’s job was to find out if the kid died for getting too close to the truth…or to a sweet lady with a jealous husband. But when he showed up in Wheaton, he faced both crooked cops and the kind of muscle only money can buy.”

Possible first lines:

(1A) “Newsroom — this is Mark.”

(1B) Spenser had once dated a girl from Wheaton whose father had found him wanting.

(1C) “Where the hell is Robinson and his story?” — the copy editor was unpleasant at the best of times, and now was on the warpath.

(1D) Tuesday, June 16: Woke up a little before 8:00 and had a light breakfast.

(1E) The phone tip sounded unbelievable — that was all there was to it.

(1F) Matt Barker didn’t want to make the mistake of trying to hustle Spenser twice.

(1G) To tell the truth I never cared from working class towns — too many dismal stories waiting to be played out.

(1H) The sun that brief December day shone weakly through the west-facing window of Garrett Kingsley’s office.

Book 2: Idaho! (Wagons West #13) by Dana Fuller Ross

Back cover blurb: “It’s the wild lawless region beyond the River of No Return. Overrun with gold-crazed prospectors, money-hungry outlaws, and bloodthirsty tribes of Shoshoni and Nez Perce, the Idaho Territory is no place for a family to settle down. Which is why two battalions of cavalry troops are enlisted by the U.S. government to bring law and order to this untamed land. Led by Toby Holt, son of legendary wagon master Whip Holt, and his friend Rob Martin, a new generation of brave men and women are prepared to face whatever dangers lie ahead: hardened criminals overrunning the saloons and bordellos of Boise; marauding tribes spreading murder and mayhem across the mountains; and deadliest of all, an enemy from Toby’s past seeking ruthless revenge. Nothing can stand in the way of a pioneer’s spirit, a nation’s dream, or America’s future…”

Possible first lines:

(2A) The scout gazed south toward what is now Twin Falls.

(2B) Cartwright’s Winchester leapt from its scabbard and found his shoulder as fast as a trout will take a mayfly.

(2C) By the late summer of 1869, people who lived within sight of the railroad tracks that now spanned America, from the cities on the Atlantic Seaboard to those on the Pacific Coast, had grown sufficiently accustomed to the trains rushing past that they no longer raced outside to watch them.

(2D) In this country, a broken wheel was cause for grave concern.

(2E) “The River of No Return” — just the name was enough to make Jonah’s hair stand on end.

(2F) The High Lonesome Range in the Sawtooths was not a hospitable place in January.

(2G) A bit of sinew clung to the rough bark and sent shivers down his spine.

(2H) The mountains and river streams seduced us to head toward her and claim the lands of Idaho.

Pale Kings and Princes

Actual first lines: 1H, 2C.


Life on the shelf

May 16, 2013

How much can my bookcase tell you about my life?

my life on the shelf


“Run Simple”: a conversation with author Duncan Larkin

March 2, 2013

Last November, a Taiwanese woman interviewed me about trail running. That was the ostensible topic, anyway; four of the five questions addressed the clothing, gear, and cross-training equipment that one might use in becoming a trail runner.

Concerned by this focus on “running stuff” rather than the actual act of running, I recommended that the interviewer read the book Run Simple by Duncan Larkin.

Then I decided that I should probably read it too.

“Run Simple” is a good, provocative title, but it doesn’t mean exactly what you think. I was surprised, for example, to find that one full chapter is devoted to cross-training exercises, and another contains detailed 8- to 16-week training schedules. Wanting to ponder the nature of simplicity a bit further, I conducted an email interview with the author.


1. The title “Run Simple” reminds me of Apple’s colloquial-sounding “Think Different” slogan. Was that parallel intentional? Would an adverb (i.e., “Run Simply”) have been too sophisticated or elegant for a book about simplicity? Chapter 6 advises runners to wear cheap clothing, even if it looks a bit shabby; did you want the title to have a rough-around-the-edges feel too? Or am I overthinking this?

The parallel between Steve Jobs’ brilliant philosophy of simplicity in terms of design and my own vis-a-vis running was not intentional. Originally, I wanted to call the book ORGANIC RUNNING, and even suggested MAO’S LITTLE RED BOOK FOR RUNNERS, but those titles were rejected by my publisher, who kept seeing the word “simplicity” in my manuscript and made the suggestion, because that’s really the overarching theme of the book. As it stands now, I like the title, because it does have a rough-around-the-edges feel and is itself minimalist (just two short words that hopefully reach out and grab people when they see the cover).

2. In the book’s opening chapter, you describe how various experiences led you to simplify your approach to running over time. (The bit about your dog burying your $25 gloves was priceless.) Aside from the fact that you’re a writer, what made you want to create a whole book about your approach?

Great question. I wanted to write this book, because I felt compelled, almost obligated, to point out something very important to my fellow runners. Why? Because I feel a strong sense of loyalty to this community and want to help give back to it in some way. As I went to expos and lined up on the starting line of races, I saw thousands of well-intentioned people who thought (and had been conditioned to believe) that they could run faster if they spent their hard-earned money on solutions. Here in the United States, we tend to think that technology can make life easier for us in all facets of our lives, but I don’t necessarily think this is the case with running. I really didn’t see the “run simple” approach going on anywhere I went. I saw ads in running magazines and a whole lot of salesmanship going on in expos for GPS watches, technical tee shirts, specially designed running shoes, and electrolyte-infused jellybeans. I saw more and more of my fellow runners donning headphones and heart-rate monitor straps. I overheard conversations about “power songs” and witnessed people poring over biometric data that they collected during their runs in the effort to draw conclusions about their running that I think are quite basic to grasp. I think offering people this perspective and getting them to at least consider a simpler approach was worthy of a book.

3. Your book argues that many runners have become overly dependent on high-tech apparel and food and gadgets and so forth. What do think are the most egregious examples of this? Live-tweeting one’s runs? Monitoring heart rate 24/7? Ingesting expensive, specially formulated recovery foods after a 3-mile jog?

One that comes to mind is the time I saw a guy line up for the start of a one-mile road race wearing headphones. I can begin to understand people who want to listen to music after six hours of running, but why do you need to listen to music for six or so minutes? Are those two songs really going help you pass the time? Can’t you get motivated from just listening to the huffing of runners around you and the roar of the crowd? Another egregious example is the time I watched a track race (3000m event, I believe) and some guy was wearing a GPS watch. It’s a track for crying out loud; you get pace feedback every lap!

4. Your sample training schedules seem good to me, but are not what I’d call “simple” — there are 16 different types of workouts listed, plus cross-training exercises. To reconcile this with the simplicity theme, I’d say that you advocate keeping each individual day relatively simple (e.g., not worrying about exact paces and heart rates) while still pushing for lots of variety in any given month of training. Is that about right? Do you think a lot of serious runners are stuck in a rut of doing essentially the same workouts every week, and need to shake things up a bit?

To me, simplicity requires some level of method. A runner can’t just be told to run simple and then left with no ideas of what that means. I put forth 16 different types of sample workouts in order to get the reader thinking about how to apply the principles I espouse. Each of the workouts map to three key concepts: “race”, “rest”, and “just run”. I don’t expect the reader to memorize these workouts and try to figure out exactly when they should be doing exactly what. However, I do want runners to ask themselves every day which of the three concepts their body and mind crave and then run accordingly. I hope that eventually, after some degree of experimentation, readers come up with their own types of runs they should be conducting on the race, rest, or just run days. I debated for a long time whether or not to put sample training plans in the book, because I think sample plans can lure people into believing in what I call “running recipes” (e.g., If I follow the plan exactly, I will reach my race goal). But I believe putting plans in the book was ultimately necessary since it can help people see how to put everything together. That being said, I think each runner needs to come up with their own plan and that their plan doesn’t necessarily have to be a daily schedule; it can be much more abstract. As to your second question: absolutely. I think many serious runners reach plateaus and don’t alter their workouts or approach that much in order to break through. Why? Because most of us are creatures of habit. We pretty much run the same routes and do the same workouts. We have our dearly held routines. Forgoing them entails taking risks, and so I believe instead of significantly altering the approach, runners rush to the store for a solution.

5. The part of the book that seems most contrary to my notion of simplicity is in Chapter 7, where you suggest creating and studying wind maps and elevation maps for your race courses. I claim that the kind of runner you’re cultivating — one who reads his/her body well without high-tech aids — can run through changes in wind and elevation simply and effectively by sticking to a constant effort (aside from any drafting opportunities that arise). To what extent is this complementary to or in conflict with your view?

Yeah, I know it seems odd that a book espousing simplicity has a runner studying the race course the day before (or running on it in training) and creating a wind/elevation map. But a race is usually a pretty important event and so why not be prepared for it? By suggesting these ideas, I’m trying to set the reader up for success and help them as much as possible reach their goal. Thoreau, no stranger to simplicity, once penned that “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” So if you are exchanging large chunks of your life training in the pursuit of a race goal, then the price to attain it is high, and therefore the person should come prepared with knowledge. Running simple doesn’t equal racing ignorant. (e.g., I didn’t know there was going to be a 20mph headwind and a mile-long hill!)

6. Your book provides training schedules, but your ultimate goal is to help people create their own schedules based upon their individual goals and bodies. I applaud this, but it will be hard for some people to make this transition. What sort of feedback on this have you gotten from readers? What are the main difficulties (if any) that they have faced?

I’ve had a few people write me to say that they PR’d after reading the book, which was music to my ears. Most people tell me that they are unable to follow the schedules to a tee, which is great, because that’s what I want. Their main challenge with going out on their own has been keeping up the confidence that they are doing the right thing on a daily basis.

7. The book also provides examples of and interviews with runners and coaches who employ principles similar to yours. Who is your all-time favorite example of a “simple runner,” and why?

It’s hard to come up with an all-time favorite “simple” runner. I guess my top choice is Japanese marathoner Yuki Kawauichi. I tried to interview him for the book, but unfortunately couldn’t connect with him. Why Kawauchi? He became a 2:08 marathoner while holding down a full-time job. His approach to training is surprisingly simple (just three structured weekly workouts: one long run, one speed session, and one soft-surface trail for recovery). He doesn’t train with gadgets; he doesn’t run on an Alter-G treadmill. He isn’t out promoting whatever product. To him, it’s all about putting in the miles and believing in yourself. I wish there were more pros like him.

8. Your main target audience for this book is people who want to achieve their racing potential. How would you modify your advice for people who aren’t particularly interested in races?

Do fewer “race” workouts in favor of more “just run” workouts. Racing is all about attaining comfort at a particular pace. If people don’t want to race, then don’t focus on that aspect, but I still would argue that this type of runner should at least do one “race” workout a week as breaking up the pace is good for preventing burnout.

9. Ultramarathons, especially trail ultras, could be considered the ultimate in simple running: enjoying nature for hours at a time, with competition and exact pace an afterthought for many participants. On the other hand, issues like refueling, maintaining the right body temperature, and seeing in the dark become more important in ultras, and can be addressed with the specialized products that you normally avoid. You’ve done a few ultras; what are your thoughts?

I recently did my first 24-hour race. I didn’t run with a headlamp (the course was lit). The only thing I carried was an 8-oz bottle. My fuel was whatever they had for me at the aid stations. I wore trainers with thousands of miles on them and my holy shirts/shorts were what I’ve been wearing for a nearly decade, so at least I practice what I preach! That being said, I think entering into the ultra realm requires some element of “gearing up”. There’s nothing wrong with getting a nice headlamp for night running and there’s nothing wrong with doing some research about finding the right fuel to consume, but I still think all runners should “gear down”. Most ultras do a great job supporting runners. Aid stations are stocked with pretty much everything a runner needs. The weight of carrying things for 100 miles, no matter how small, can add up to a significant amount, so I would suggest that ultra runners look at paring down in a race. They can best do this by experimenting in training.

10. “Run Simple” ends with a chapter of questions that readers might have, along with your answers. What additional Q&A would you now add, based on reactions to the book?

I would probably spend some more time clarifying why I have so many sample workouts in a book that supposedly espouses simplicity. I can see why some readers would be confused by that and I believe I need to add some more clarification about the purpose of these workouts.

* * * * * *

review of “Run Simple” (
The Most Dangerous Man in Running, and The Book He Wrote (


A [long-ago] Season on the Brink

February 2, 2013

I just read A Season on the Brink, John Feinstein’s chronicle of Bob Knight’s 1985-86 season coaching the Indiana Hoosiers basketball team. I was appalled.

Admittedly, my perspective is that of an outsider, both sports-wise and time-wise. I’ve had limited immersion in big-time college athletics; my cross country and track experiences at an NCAA Division III school of 2,000 students hardly seem relevant. Meanwhile, the culture of sports has changed over the past 27 years, and it’s questionable whether the events of the ’80s can be judged by the standards of today.

I couldn’t help myself, though. The farther I got into this book, the more I wanted to yell at the protagonist: “You insufferable, self-righteous, disingenuous prick! What right do you have to subject these students to incessant bullying, verbal abuse, and mind games? Do you really think that the goal of winning basketball games justifies such tactics? Do you? Huh? You’re the worst coach I’ve ever encountered! You make me sick!”

Such rhetoric would be an oversimplification of the truth, not entirely fair, and unnecessarily mean-spirited. But that’s exactly how Knight sounds in talking to his players much of the time. Thanks to the author’s thorough reporting, there is no doubt about this. Here’s just one example of a post-game harangue, typical except for a paucity of profanities, after a valient Indiana comeback falls short in a road game against Michigan State.

“Don’t even hang your heads,” Knight said angrily. “Don’t bother, because you don’t care. Don’t even try to tell me that you care. Every time you make a mistake you just nod your head. I told you at the half about those six points that we gave them. Ricky, you foul on the rebound with the score tied. Jesus. Harris and Jadlow, I’ve never had two more disappointing people here in my life. You two haven’t contributed two ounces to what we’re trying to do. You don’t improve or change from one day to the next.

“Boys, I want to tell you how long a season you’re in for if you don’t compete any harder than that.” He paused. His voice was almost choked now. “I never thought I would see the day when Indiana basketball was in the state it’s in right now.”

They went home dreading what was to come. The assistant coaches were genuinely frightened about what might happen next.

Feinstein provides numerous anecdotes like this, yet the book is not intended as a hatchet job. It begins with an unabashedly pro-Bob introduction from Knight’s friend Al McGuire, and ends with the following comments from the author.

As I finish this, I am reminded of an incident that took place in January. After the Indiana-Illinois game during which Bob kicked and slammed a chair, and kicked a cheerleader’s megaphone, Dave Kindred, the superb columnist for The Altanta Constitution, wrote that he was disappointed to see Knight acting this way again. Kindred, a longtime friend of Knight’s, ended the column by writing, “Once again I find myself wondering when it comes to Bob Knight if the end justifies the means.”

A few days later, Knight called Kindred. “You needed one more line for that damn column,” Knight said. “You should have finished by saying, ‘And one more time, I realize that it does.'”

Kindred thought for a moment and then said, “Bob, you’re right.”

I agree.

Feinstein provides evidence throughout the book that Knight cares deeply about his players, despite outward appearances to the contrary; that he occasionally gives them heartfelt praise; that he sticks up for them and helps them out after they graduate; and that he picks mostly on those who can handle it the best. But I just can’t get beyond Knight’s basic attitude, which I could paraphase as, “Winning is the most important thing in the world, and I’m willing to say and do almost anything to get my players to crave winning as much as I do.” That’s not an approach I can accept.

[Related: my review on]


“Children: The Challenge” by Dreikurs and Soltz

October 8, 2012

Just over two years ago, I hit a nadir in my satisfaction and effectiveness as a parent. My son, not quite 4 years old, seemed to enjoy defying me, and I was angry with him for being uncooperative and angry with myself for being unable to rein him in.

In desperation I turned to a book recommended by my Uncle Chris: “Children: The Challenge” by Rudolf Dreikurs, M.D. with Vicki Soltz, R.N. Despite its antiquated view of parental roles (which reflect its 1964 publication date), it dispenses wise advice on how to avoid conflicts with one’s children while still guiding them toward appropriate behavior. It’s written in a crisp, confident style that I find remarkably compelling.

Below are excerpts that illustrate the crux of the authors’ advice. If you like these passages, you should get a copy of the book for yourself.

[from Chapter 5: The Fallacy of Punishment and Reward]

Mother wondered why everything was so quiet and decided to investigate. She found Alex, two and a half, busily stuffing toilet tissue into the toilet again. Alex had been spanked several times for stopping up the toilet in this fashion. Furious, Mother yelled, “How many times am I going to have to spank you for this?” She grabbed Alex, took down his pants, and whipped him. Later that evening, Father found the toilet stuffed up again.

After so many spankings for the same act, why in the world does Alex continue? Is he too small to understand? Far from it. Alex knows exactly what he is doing. He deliberately repeats this misbehavior. Of course, he doesn’t know why! But his behavior tells us why. His parents say, “No — you can’t.” His actions say, “I’ll show you I can — no matter what!”

If punishment were going to make Alex stop stuffing the toilet, one spanking would have accomplished results. Repeated spankings have not made much impression. What is wrong?

. . . We must realize the futility of trying to impose our will upon our children. No amount of punishment will bring about lasting submission. Today’s children are willing to take any amount of punishment in order to assert their “rights.” Confused and bewildered parents mistakenly hope that punishment will eventually bring results, without realizing that they are actually getting nowhere with their methods. At best, they gain only temporary results from punishment. When the same punishment has to be repeated again and again, it should be obvious that it does not work.

. . . Punishment, or the authoritative idea — “obey me, or else,” needs to be replaced by a sense of mutual respect and co-operation. Even though children are no longer in an inferior position, they are untrained and inexperienced. They need our leadership. A good leader inspires and stimulates his followers into action that suits the situation. So it must be with parents. Our children need our guidance. They will accept it if they know we respect them as human beings with equal rights to decide what they will do. The insult to a child’s dignity is enormous when he is whacked, and not much of Mother’s dignity is left when she is through with the procedure, particularly if she feels guilty afterwards.

We parents can learn to use more effective methods to stimulate a child so that he has a desire to conform to the demands of order. We can create an atmosphere of mutual self-respect and consideration and provide an opportunity for the child to learn how to live comfortably and happily with others. We need to arrange learning situations without showing a lack of respect for the child or for ourselves. And we can do all this without a show of power, for power incites rebellion and defeats the purpose of child-raising.

. . . The system of rewarding children for good behavior is as detrimental to their outlook as the system of punishment. The same lack of respect is shown. We “reward” our inferiors for favors or for good deeds. In a system of mutual respect among equals, a job is done because it needs doing, and the satisfaction comes from the harmony of two people doing a job together.

[from Chapter 6: The Use of Natural and Logical Consequences]

Since punishment and reward are ineffective, what can we do when children misbehave? Well, what happens if Mother forgets about the cake in the oven? It follows by logic that the cake is burned. This is the natural consequence of her forgetfulness. If we allow a child to experience the consequences of his acts, we provide an honest and real learning situation.

. . . Alice, four, is underweight and catches cold easily. Both Mother and Daddy are convinced that her health will improve with proper nourishment.

Alice sits in front of her plate eating the first few bites with relish. She drinks a little milk; and as the conversation between Mother and Daddy starts, she gradually loses interest in her food. She leans her elbow on the table and supports her head on her hand. Listlessly, she pushes the food around on her plate. “Come on, darling,” prompts Daddy. “Eat your good dinner.” He speaks gently and lovingly. Alice smiles winsomely, puts a bite into her mouth, and holds it there. Daddy is again talking to Mother. Alice’s jaws move once or twice. “Come on sweetheart. Chew it up.” Mother interrupts her conversation with Daddy. “You want to be a big, healthy, girl, don’t you?” Alice chews vigorously. “That’s my girl,” Daddy encourages. But as soon as Mother and Daddy talk again, Alice stops eating. The whole meal is one of continually coaxing Alice to eat.

The purpose of Alice’s poor appetite is to keep her parents busy with her. This is easy to discover when we look at what the parents are doing.

Eating sustains life. It is a normal function. There is always a misbehaving parent when a child becomes a feeding problem. It is the child’s business to eat. The parents should mind their own business and not the child’s.

The simplest way to teach Alice to eat properly is to “let” her eat. If she refuses, the parents should maintain a friendly attitude, abstain from verbal reminders altogether, remove the unfinished food from the table when everyone is finished, and allow Alice to find out what happens. If we don’t eat, we get hungry. At the next meal, and not before, food is again offered. If Alice still dawdles, nothing is said; friendliness prevails at the table. The implication is, “If you wish to eat, here is food. If you don’t wish to eat, then I must assume you are not hungry.” The food is casually removed if the child plays with it. There is no threat of punishment and no bribe of reward (dessert). Alice may complain of hunger an hour later and beg for milk and cookies. Mother replies, “I am sorry you are hungry. Dinner will be ready at six; it is too bad that you will have to wait so long.” Regardless of how pitiable Alice’s hunger may appear, Mother must allow Alice to be hungry because this is the natural consequence of not eating. The suffering inflicted by a spanking is punishment because it is inflicted by the parent. The discomfort of going hungry is not imposed by an adult but is the result of not having eaten at mealtime.

. . . If logical consequences are used as a threat or “imposed” in anger, they cease being consequences and become punishment. Children are quick to discern the difference. They respond to logical consequences; they fight back when punished.

Alice’s parents have decided to use logical consequences. She dawdles. Mother is annoyed but says nothing. Daddy and Mother converse, but without animation. Their problem sits right there under their noses, dawdling, pushing food around. Mother and Daddy have almost finished their lunch. Daddy turns to Alice with loving patience. “Alice, come on, eat your lunch. If you don’t, you know you will be hungry before dinner and you can’t have anything between meals. You don’t want want to go hungry, do you?” “I don’t want any more lunch,” Alice replies. “All right – you’ll be hunry. And remember, nothing till dinner.”

This is not logical consequence: it is still punishment. Alice is “threatened” with hunger. Mother and Daddy are still concerned with her eating and have subtly shown it. They still want to “make” Alice eat. Clever Alice. She senses how bad they will feel if she is hungry. So she denies herself her lunch and will “suffer” hunger to punish her parents.

The only way out of the dilemma is for Alice’s parents to be actually and genuinely unconcerned with her eating. It is her problem. She has to solve it. She may eat or not; she may feel hunger or not – it is her choice. Let her take the consequences for herself.

When we use the term “logical consequences,” parents so frequently misinterpret it as a new way to impose their demands upon children. The children see this for what it is – disguised punishment. The secret lies in the manner of application. It comprises a judicial withdrawal on the part of the parent that allows room for the logical sequence of events to take place. It works both ways. The natural consequence of not eating is the discomfort of hunger. The natural consequence of eating is the comfort of satisfaction.

. . . Many times a logical consequence to fit the act will occur to us after a little thought. We merely need to ask ourselves, “What would happen if I didn’t interfere?” Homework not done brings the teacher’s wrath. Toys destroyed are gone – not replaced. Clothes not put into the hamper don’t get washed. And so on. At other times it may be necessary to subtly arrange the consequence.

Betty, three, neglected to brush her teeth. In order to get the job done, Mother had to go with her and force her each time. This quarrel upset both Mother and Betty. Then Mother thought of a consequence. She told Betty that she need not brush her teeth if she didn’t want to. But since candy and sweets destroy unbrushed teeth, Betty could have no sweets. Thereafter, Mother avoided any mention of tooth brushing. For a week Betty neither brushed her teeth nor had any sweets. The other children had candy and ice cream. One afternoon Betty announced that she wanted to brush her teeth and have some candy. “Not now, Betty. Morning is the proper time to brush teeth.” The girl accepted this without complaint. The next morning she brushed her teeth of her own accord.


The Interrobang Book Club

July 22, 2012

[from the “Bizarro Jerry” episode of Seinfeld]
Elaine, admiringly: “They [Kevin and his friends] read!”
Jerry, defensively: “I read….”
Elaine: “Books, Jerry!”
Jerry: “Oh … big deal!”

Like Jerry, I hardly ever read books. Novels, biographies, self-help manuals…. You name it — I haven’t read it.

Since the joy of books alone isn’t enough to get me to pick one up, I’ve thought that I should join a book club so that the “assignments” would provide extra motivation. But then I’d be reading books chosen mostly by others rather than the books I wish I could get myself to read. The only solution, it seemed, was to form a book club that I would be in charge of.

And that is how the Interrobang Book Club came into existence. It consists of me, my companion LZ, and LZ’s friend TM.

the cover of Moneyball

The IBC’s inaugural meeting focused on Moneyball by Michael Lewis. Moneyball is the true story of how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane has used novel statistics-based methods of evaluating players to make the A’s a perennial contender despite a very limited budget.

LZ is not especially drawn to the game of baseball per se, so she was most interested in the inefficiencies of the baseball “market” and how Beane has taken advantage of them. But she agreed with me that the vignettes of underappreciated players — such as Scott Hatteberg, Chad Bradford, and Jeremy Brown — were fascinating and moving. These were guys considered defective by most baseball scouts and managers: Hatteberg can’t throw, Bradford pitches underhanded and with poor velocity, and Brown is fat. But Beane identifies them as bargains and gives them a chance to shine, to their initial confusion and eventual delight.

It’s easy to root for these unassuming underdogs. Beane himself is an underdog too — a general manager trying to outsmart teams that literally have three times as much money as the A’s. He shows admirable grit in repudiating deeply entrenched beliefs about how to judge talent. He’s also a bit of a maniac who is prone to temper tantrums. The detailed portrayal of Beane allows us to appreciate his insight and charisma, yet be glad that we don’t work for him.

LZ raised the question of whether a Billy Beane-style team, with its emphasis on efficient production of runs, is less fun to watch than a conventional squad of good-looking stars. Do fans want to see a bunch of unheralded misfits patiently draw lots of walks? The book seems to conclude that, if a team is winning, its fans will embrace it, regardless of the details. Whether the average fan can appreciate the challenges of competing against much richer teams is another matter, but for those who are interested, Moneyball provides a compelling explanation.



April 5, 2012

My aunt just sent us the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, upon which the Martin Scorsese movie Hugo is based. It is enormous — over 500 pages long, and resembling the later Harry Potter volumes in size and shape. Phil loves it.

He loves it in part for its numerous pivotal pencil-and-paper drawings. At various key points in the story, the text simply stops and the pictures take over the narrative, in a sort of tribute to silent films (which figure into the plot).

I think Phil also appreciates the book’s sheer size, and its seemingly endless supply of twists and turns. We can read it for a full hour, and at the end of the hour there are still plenty of pages left for next time.

I hope that, once we do eventually finish it, Phil will want to explore other giant books. Maybe even Harry Potter.