kottke.org posts about Malcolm Gladwell
UMass Dartmouth is reporting that "a person being sought in connection with the Boston Marathon bombing has been identified as a student registered at UMass Dartmouth":
I don't know that there's any verified report that registered student is bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but I found a blog post from August 2011 that suggests that Tsarnaev was participating in the school's summer reading program for incoming first-year students. The students were participating in a group discussion blog while reading Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. The post in question was written by UMass Dartmouth English teacher Shelagh Smith on the concept of thin-slicing as it pertained to the case of the West Memphis Three. The post reads, in part:
I believe that thin slicing put them in jail. It helped an entire community make a rash decision and justify their actions in convicting three teens of murder. Once the town was able to identify the bogeyman, they could rest easy again.
But it all went horribly wrong. The real murderers were never found. These young men went into prison at 18 years old. Today, they walked out at 36 years old.
Being different - being unique - is a right we're supposed to enjoy in this country. But what we can't control is how people view us.
So what do we do about that? Is there anything we can do about it?
In response, a commenter listing his name as "Dzhokhar Tsarnaev" posted the following about a week and a half after the original posting:
In this case it would have been hard to protect or defend these young boys if the whole town exclaimed in happiness at the arrest. Also, to go against the authorities isn't the easiest thing to do. Don't get me wrong though, I am appalled at the situation but I think that the town was scared and desperate to blame someone. It's because of stories like this and such occurrences that make a positive change in this world. I'm pretty sure there won't be anymore similar tales like this. In any case, if they do, people won't stand quiet, i hope.
Tsarnaev also made another comment in another thread on the blog a few minutes earlier in which he offered a critique of Gladwell's book:
While I understand and agree with most of the concepts that Gladwell explained in his book, there are several ideas of his that I cannot fathom or just choose not to believe. Yes, this book was very interesting but the idea that a person can predict whether you and your partner are going to be together in the future is honestly a little hard to believe. Sure, if you put two obvious celebrities in a room talking about how they're going to adopt six children, that's just not going to work out. And the idea that a more experienced doctor is more likely to be sued is likely to happen because they would have way more patients and more time in the work force. "Thin-slicing" and other concepts made me want to keep reading.
Grantland's Bill Simmons and the New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell had one of their epic email conversations the other day and posted it to Grantland. Topics included the NBA playoffs, sports journalism, LeBron, fame in the internet era, sports philosophers, and football concussions.
Do we really need 25 people crammed in baseball locker rooms fighting for the same mundane quotes? What's our game plan for the fact that -- thanks to the Internet and 24-hour sports stations -- a city like Boston suddenly has four times as many sports media members as it once had? Why are we covering teams the same way we covered them in 1981, just with more people and better equipment? If I could watch any Celtics game and press conference from my house (already possible), and there was a handpicked pool of reporters (maybe three per game, with the people changing every game) responsible for pooling pregame/postgame quotes and mailing them out immediately, could I write the same story (or pretty close)? If we reduced the locker room clutter, would players relax a little more? Would their quotes improve? Would they trust the media more? Why haven't we experimented at all? Any "improvements" in our access have been forgettable. Seriously, what pearls of wisdom are we expecting from NBA coaches during those ridiculous in-game interviews, or from athletes sitting on a podium with dozens of media members firing monotone questions at them? It's like an all-you-can-eat buffet of forgettable quotes, like the $7.99 prime rib extravaganzas at a Vegas casino or something. There's Russell Westbrook at the podium for $7.99! Feast away! We laugh every time Gregg Popovich curmudgeonly swats Craig Sager away with four-word answers, but really, he's performing a public service. He's one of the few people in sports who has the balls to say, "This couldn't be a dumber relationship right now."
Paul Sahre and Brian Rea designed a 3-book boxed set for Malcolm Gladwell's "intellectual adventure stories".
"During our initial meeting with Malcolm, he referred to the three books as 'intellectual adventure stories,'" Sahre tells Co.Design. "Brian and I really responded to that, as it suggested a specific and interesting way to think about how the books could be designed. We wanted the books to feel like first editions of Moby-Dick or Treasure Island or The Wizard of Oz."
The tasteful gray cloth binding and foil stamping of the set and its "extremely conventional" design, as Sahre puts it ("maybe 'comfortable' would be a better way to describe it," he adds) makes me think of famous children's literature collections, like The Chronicles of Narnia. "This 'traditional/comfortable' design allowed for the drawings Brian was doing to venture off into the abstract and unconventional place they ended up," Sahre continues. "More importantly, the quiet design allowed the text and the drawings room to interact and to breathe. I hope the reader doesn't notice the design of the book at all."
The set is available on Amazon.
In a review of Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, Malcolm Gladwell says that Jobs was much more of a "tweaker" than an inventor...he took ideas from others and made them better.
Jobs's sensibility was editorial, not inventive. His gift lay in taking what was in front of him-the tablet with stylus-and ruthlessly refining it. After looking at the first commercials for the iPad, he tracked down the copywriter, James Vincent, and told him, "Your commercials suck."
"Well, what do you want?" Vincent shot back. "You've not been able to tell me what you want."
"I don't know," Jobs said. "You have to bring me something new. Nothing you've shown me is even close."
Vincent argued back and suddenly Jobs went ballistic. "He just started screaming at me," Vincent recalled. Vincent could be volatile himself, and the volleys escalated.
When Vincent shouted, "You've got to tell me what you want," Jobs shot back, "You've got to show me some stuff, and I'll know it when I see it."
Speaking of the New Yorker, there are three articles from the current issue you folks might be interested in (subscriber-only): Malcolm Gladwell on Apple borrowing ideas from Xerox Parc, John Seabrook on Pepsi's mission to make their offerings healthier, and Anthony Lane visits Pixar to see how the magic is made.
...is called Grantland and will feature writing from Chuck Klosterman, Dave Eggers, Malcolm Gladwell, Katie Baker, Molly Lambert, and others.
The article about Dan McLaughlin's quest to go from zero-to-PGA Tour through 10,000 hours of deliberate practice got linked around a bunch yesterday. Several people who pointed to it made a typical mistake. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the 10,000 hours theory in his book, he did not come up with it. It is not "Gladwell's theory" and McLaughlin is not "testing Gladwell". The 10,000 hours theory was developed and popularized by Dr. Anders Ericsson (here for instance) -- who you may have heard of from this Freakonomics piece in the NY Times Magazine -- before it became a pop culture tidbit by Gladwell's inclusion of Ericsson's work in Outliers.
Dan McLaughlin read about the 10,000 hour theory in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers -- basically that it takes someone 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become really good at something -- and decided to try it for himself. He plans to practice playing golf for six hours a day, six days a week, for six years in order to have a shot at making the PGA Tour. He's already a year in.
Here's how they have Dan trying to learn golf: He couldn't putt from 3 feet until he was good enough at putting from 1 foot. He couldn't putt from 5 feet until he was good enough putting from 3 feet. He's working away from the hole. He didn't get off the green for five months. A putter was the only club in his bag.
Everybody asks him what he shoots for a round. He has no idea. His next drive will be his first.
In his month in Florida, he worked as far as 50 yards away from the hole. He might -- might -- have a full set of clubs a year from now.
You can follow Dan's progress at his Dan Plan site. (via @choire)
There are seven main features of a Malcolm Gladwell book.
5. Give things names and remember Douglas Adams' rule of capital letters. Capital letters make things important. For example, in The Tipping Point, Gladwell conjures up the following important concepts: The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and The Power of Context. In Outliers, there's The Matthew Effect and The 10,000-Hour Rule.
And totally unrelated but related, here's an awesome photo of a 14-year-old Gladwell running the 1500 meters. (thx, nick)
Malcolm Gladwell tells us about Operation Mincemeat, a caper undertaken by British intelligence to fool the Hitler and the Nazis into thinking the Allied invasion of mainland Europe would come from through Greece and not Sicily.
It did not take long for word of the downed officer to make its way to German intelligence agents in the region. Spain was a neutral country, but much of its military was pro-German, and the Nazis found an officer in the Spanish general staff who was willing to help. A thin metal rod was inserted into the envelope; the documents were then wound around it and slid out through a gap, without disturbing the envelope's seals. What the officer discovered was astounding. Major Martin was a courier, carrying a personal letter from Lieutenant General Archibald Nye, the vice-chief of the Imperial General Staff, in London, to General Harold Alexander, the senior British officer under Eisenhower in Tunisia. Nye's letter spelled out what Allied intentions were in southern Europe. American and British forces planned to cross the Mediterranean from their positions in North Africa, and launch an attack on German-held Greece and Sardinia. Hitler transferred a Panzer division from France to the Peloponnese, in Greece, and the German military command sent an urgent message to the head of its forces in the region: "The measures to be taken in Sardinia and the Peloponnese have priority over any others."
New idea for a biweekly sports magazine: Simmons & Gladwell. Two writers, off the cuff, no polish...the whole magazine is one big long rambling smartypants messy conversation. Or maybe it's an email list where subscribers are CC'd on their emails in real-time. Anyway, in the meantime here's the third conversation between Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell (mostly) about sports. Here's Simmons on why the NBA is so good right now:
When you consider the influx of foreigners, the extended shelf lives of quality careers, the medicine/health strides, the positive impact of the rookie salary scale, the successful drug policy and the equally successful one-year waiting period for high schoolers, for the first time since the early '90s, you can make a case that the NBA finally has enough talent to stock every one of its teams. Recently, I watched my Celtics almost lose to Memphis and found myself thinking, "Wait a second ... is Memphis secretly good, or did my wife spike my drink?" And they're 10-14. Really, there are only two hopeless teams right now: Minnesota and New Jersey. Every other team has enough talent to beat any other team on any given night.
And Christ, Gladwell has never seen Boogie Nights? Maybe he's a hack after all.
Using Michael Vick as a pivot, Malcolm Gladwell compares professional football with dogfighting and asks if the former is just as morally unacceptable as the latter. This is former NFL offensive lineman Kyle Turley:
I remember, every season, multiple occasions where I'd hit someone so hard that my eyes went cross-eyed, and they wouldn't come uncrossed for a full series of plays. You are just out there, trying to hit the guy in the middle, because there are three of them. You don't remember much. There are the cases where you hit a guy and you'd get into a collision where everything goes off. You're dazed. And there are the others where you are involved in a big, long drive. You start on your own five-yard line, and drive all the way down the field-fifteen, eighteen plays in a row sometimes. Every play: collision, collision, collision. By the time you get to the other end of the field, you're seeing spots. You feel like you are going to black out. Literally, these white explosions-boom, boom, boom-lights getting dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter.
Perhaps this is what Gladwell will be talking about at the upcoming New Yorker Festival?
Update: From Stephen Fatsis, a list of improvements for the NFL players union to consider to protect the health of the players.
N.F.L. players often get excellent medical treatment, but the primary goal is to return them to the field as quickly as possible. Players are often complicit in playing down the extent of their injuries. Fearful of losing their jobs -- there are no guaranteed contracts in the N.F.L. -- they return to the huddle still hurt.
And from GQ comes a profile of Bennet Omalu, one of the few doctors investigating the fate of these NFL players.
Let's say you run a multibillion-dollar football league. And let's say the scientific community -- starting with one young pathologist in Pittsburgh and growing into a chorus of neuroscientists across the country -- comes to you and says concussions are making your players crazy, crazy enough to kill themselves, and here, in these slices of brain tissue, is the proof. Do you join these scientists and try to solve the problem, or do you use your power to discredit them?
Update: Commissioner Roger Goodell defended the NFL's handling of head trauma in a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee today.
Goodell faced his harshest criticism from Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, who called for Congress to revoke the league's antitrust exemption because of its failure to care adequately for injured former players. "I believe you are an $8 billion organization that has failed in your responsibility to the players," Waters said. "We all know it's a dangerous sport. Players are always going to get injured. The only question is, are you going to pay for it? I know that you dearly want to hold on to your profits. I think it's the responsibility of Congress to look at your antitrust exemption and take it away."
Update: The NFL will soon require players with head injuries to receive advice from independent neurologists.
What the Dog Saw is a collection of his writing from The New Yorker. Here's an annotated table of contents with links to all the articles and the dates on which they originally appeared in the magazine:
The Pitchman - Ron Popeil and the conquest of the American kitchen. (Oct 30, 2000)
The Ketchup Conundrum - Mustard now comes in dozens of different varieties. Why has ketchup stayed the same? (Sept 6, 2004)
Blowing Up - How Nassim Taleb turned the inevitability of disaster into an investment strategy. (Apr 22, 2002)
True Colors - Hair dye and the hidden history of postwar America. (Mar 22, 1999)
John Rock's Error - What the inventor of the birth control pill didn't know about women's health. (Mar 13, 2000)
What the Dog Saw - Cesar Millan and the movements of mastery. (May 22, 2006)
Open Secrets - Enron, intelligence and the perils of too much information. (Jan 8, 2007)
Million Dollar Murray - Why problems like homelessness may be easier to solve than to manage. (Feb 13, 2006)
The Picture Problem - Mammography, air power, and the limits of looking. (Dec 13, 2004)
Something Borrowed - Should a charge of plagiarism ruin your life? (Nov 22, 2004)
Connecting the Dots - The paradoxes of intelligence reform. (Mar 10, 2003)
The Art of Failure - Why some people choke and others panic. (August 21, 2000)
Blowup - Who can be blamed for a disaster like the Challenger explosion? No one, and we'd better get used to it. (Jan 22, 1996)
Most Likely to Succeed - How do we hire when we can't tell who's right for the job. (Dec 15, 2008)
Dangerous Minds - Criminal profiling made easy. (Nov 12, 2007)
The Talent Myth - Are smart people over-rated? (Jul 22, 2002)
Late Bloomers - Why do we equate genius with precocity? (Oct 20, 2008)
The New Boy Network - What do job interviews really tell us? (May 29, 2000)
Troublemakers - What pit bulls can teach us about crime. (Feb 6, 2006)
Some really great stuff in there. Even though it's all available online for free, this is a sure airport bestseller for years to come. (thx, kyösti)
Malcolm Gladwell's piece in this week's New Yorker about the psychology of overconfidence is pretty much a transcript of the speech he gave at the New Yorker Summit a couple of months ago. Gladwell's thesis is that the overconfidence of experts caused the current financial crisis.
"I'm good at that. I must be good at this, too," we tell ourselves, forgetting that in wars and on Wall Street there is no such thing as absolute expertise, that every step taken toward mastery brings with it an increased risk of mastery's curse.
I mentioned Malcolm Gladwell's piece on underdogs the other day. It's one of the many subjects that he and Bill Simmons tackle in a three-part email conversation they had recently: part one, part two, part three. Simmons says of LeBron James:
Let's wrap things up by tackling LeBron James. As the 2009 postseason rolls on, the King has become its most compelling story, not just because of his insane numbers, that Jordan-like hunger in his eyes, even the fact that he's still on cruise control to some degree. (Note: I would compare him to Nigel Tufnel's amp. He alternated between "9" and "10" in the regular season, and he's been at 10 in the playoffs, but I can't shake the feeling that he has an "11" in store for Kobe and the Finals. An extra decibel level, if you will. In my lifetime, Jordan could go to 11. So could Bird. Shaq and Kobe could get there together, but not apart. And really, that's it. Even Magic could get to 10 3/4 but never quite 11. It's a whole other ball game: You aren't just beating teams, you're destroying their will. You never know when you'll see another 11. I'm just glad we're here. End of tangent.)
I have a hunch that Kobe may not even make it to the finals. They've got to beat the pesky and superstarless Rockets first and those Nuggets are looking good, although the long layoff could affect their momentum. Gladwell shared one of his ideas for changing the NBA draft: let the best teams pick first.
I think the only way around the problem is to put every team in the lottery. Every team's name gets put in a hat, and you get assigned your draft position by chance. Does that, theoretically, make it harder for weaker teams to improve their chances against stronger teams? I don't think so. First of all, the principal engine of parity in the modern era is the salary cap, not the draft. And in any case, if the reverse-order draft is such a great leveler, then why are the same teams at the bottom of both the NFL and NBA year after year? The current system perpetuates the myth that access to top picks is the primary determinant of competitiveness in pro sports, and that's simply not true. Success is a function of the quality of the organization.
Another more radical idea is that you do a full lottery only every second year, or three out of four years, and in the off year make draft position in order of finish. Best teams pick first. How fun would that be? Every meaningless end-of-season game now becomes instantly meaningful. If you were the Minnesota Timberwolves, you would realize that unless you did something really drastic -- like hire some random sports writer as your GM, or bring in Pitino to design a special-press squad -- you would never climb out of the cellar again. And in a year with a can't-miss No. 1 pick, having the best record in the regular season becomes hugely important.
Simmons and Gladwell did this once before in 2006: part one, part two.
You've probably already seen this, but I just finished it so I'm posting: How David Beats Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. The main thesis is that through hard work and unconventional tactics, seemingly overmatched teams/people/armies can prevail against more powerful opponents.
It is easier to retreat and compose yourself after every score than swarm about, arms flailing. We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It's the other way around. Effort can trump ability -- legs, in Saxe's formulation, can overpower arms -- because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coördination.
A post on Gladwell's blog addresses some of the criticisms people had with the piece.
Freakonomists Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner probably got the ball rolling back in 2006 with their article about how people get really good at something. Malcolm Gladwell threw his hat into the ring with Outliers and the 10,000-Hour Rule. More recently, David Brooks stepped up to the plate and delivered a review of two recent books on how genius is made, not born: Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code and Geoff Colvin's Talent is Overrated. I even stuck my oar in briefly; the deliberate practice concept fascinates me, tangentially related as it is to relaxed concentration. From Brooks' article:
The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It's not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it's deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.
Athletes have long been ridiculed for the cliches they use when talking about how they won, particularly during post-game interviews. You know them by heart:
We just have to keep working hard.
It just comes down to staying focused.
We gave it 110% tonight.
We worked hard in practice all week.
We never gave up.
If the writers above (and the researchers their writings are based on) are correct, maybe the jocks have it right: it all comes down to preparation, working harder, and wanting it more than the other guy. Simple...except for that pesky 10,000 hours thing.
Is everything connected with everything else? Not everyone thinks so. But that not everyone doesn't include Benjamin Cohen. In I Dream in Malcolm Gladwell, Cohen draws an unlikely parallel between marshmallow melting and the science of pediatric nutrition.
In an age when children are born nearly every day in America, and most of them to parents who have had intercourse sometime during the year prior, physicians have become troubled that once the children are born, they seem to lack the ability to feed themselves. The two researchers have been working for years on a study that may provide insight to the problem. Infants, their studies are showing, aren't very smart. Like melting marshmallows, it appears that breastfeeding is an unusual process difficult to understand. In this case, W- and S- believe, that process may involve both breasts and milk.
It all sounds so obvious when he puts it that way.
This is more than a week old but I just finished reading it, so stick it. Malcolm Gladwell says that the problem of finding good teachers is the same sort of problem encountered by scouts attempting to find good NFL quarterbacks.
The problem with picking quarterbacks is that [college QB] Chase Daniel's performance can't be predicted. The job he's being groomed for is so particular and specialized that there is no way to know who will succeed at it and who won't. In fact, Berri and Simmons found no connection between where a quarterback was taken in the draft -- that is, how highly he was rated on the basis of his college performance -- and how well he played in the pros.
A group of researchers -- Thomas J. Kane, an economist at Harvard's school of education; Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth; and Robert Gordon, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress--have investigated whether it helps to have a teacher who has earned a teaching certification or a master's degree. Both are expensive, time-consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire; neither makes a difference in the classroom. Test scores, graduate degrees, and certifications -- as much as they appear related to teaching prowess -- turn out to be about as useful in predicting success as having a quarterback throw footballs into a bunch of garbage cans.
The upshot is that NFL quarterbacking and teaching are both jobs that need to be performed in order to find out if a certain person is good at them or not. For more, check out a follow-up post on Gladwell's blog.
The first line of Tyler Cowen's review of Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell's new book:
The book is getting snarky reviews but if it were by an unknown, rather than by the famous Malcolm Gladwell, many people would be saying how interesting it is.
Bing! I can identify with the fatigue one can get after reading too much of the same sort of thing from an author (even a favorite author), but dismissing a book because of who writes it rather than what's written is small-minded and incurious.
Can an unlikely group succeed in a counterintuitive fashion? Can underprivileged outsiders have an advantage? As evidence, Gladwell cites the story of Sidney Weinberg, a high-school dropout who rose from the mailroom at Goldman Sachs to become a senior partner in the company and one of the most connected and powerful men on Wall Street.
This is the great mystery of Weinberg's career, and it's hard to escape the conclusion that Carnegie was on to something: there are times when being an outsider is precisely what makes you a good insider. It's not difficult to imagine, for example, that the head of Continental Can liked the fact that Weinberg was from nothing, in the same way that New York City employers preferred country boys to city boys. That C.E.O. dwelled in a world with lots of people who went to Yale and then to Wall Street; he knew that some of them were good at what they did and some of them were just well connected, and separating the able from the incompetent wasn't always easy. Weinberg made it out of Brooklyn; how could he not be good?
I read Gladwell for the anecdotes.
Now that he has a book coming out on the subject of genius and high achievement, the New Yorker finally lets Malcolm Gladwell write about David Galenson's work on age and innovation. (A previous effort was Gladwell's first article to be rejected by The New Yorker.) For an overview of Galenson's work, check out my post from August.
The most interesting bit of Gladwell's piece is his discussion of the economics of the two different types of artist. The conceptual artist's talent is noticed and rewarded immediately. But conceptual innovators need more help to reach their full potential.
Sharie was Ben's wife. But she was also-to borrow a term from long ago-his patron. That word has a condescending edge to it today, because we think it far more appropriate for artists (and everyone else for that matter) to be supported by the marketplace. But the marketplace works only for people like Jonathan Safran Foer, whose art emerges, fully realized, at the beginning of their career, or Picasso, whose talent was so blindingly obvious that an art dealer offered him a hundred-and-fifty-franc-a-month stipend the minute he got to Paris, at age twenty. If you are the type of creative mind that starts without a plan, and has to experiment and learn by doing, you need someone to see you through the long and difficult time it takes for your art to reach its true level.
Gladwell discusses the article in a podcast and will be answering reader questions about it later in the week.
This short NY Times profile of economist David Galenson reminded me that I never shared Old Masters and Young Geniuses with you. The book was recommended to me by Malcolm Gladwell -- which means that many of you can now form your opinion of it without even reading it -- through a talk that he gave a couple of years ago. Gladwell also wrote an article for the New Yorker about Galenson's work but it was rejected:
When Mr. Gladwell submitted an article about Mr. Galenson's ideas to The New Yorker, he suffered his first rejection from the magazine. "You buy this Galenson stuff?" Mr. Gladwell recalled his editor saying to him. "What are you, crazy?"
But never mind all that, Old Masters and Young Geniuses is one of the most interesting books I've read in the past few years. I haven't studied enough art history to know if Galenson's thesis is correct, but the book presents an interesting framework for thinking about innovation and how to best harness your own creativity.
The main idea is this. Instead of people being super creative when they're young and getting less so with age (i.e. the conventional wisdom), Galenson says that artists fall into two general categories:
1) The conceptual innovators who peak creatively early in life. They have firm ideas about what they want to accomplish and then do so, with certainty. Pablo Picasso is the archetype here; others include T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Orson Wells. Picasso said, "I don't seek, I find."
2) The experimental innovators who peak later in life. They create through the painstaking process of doing, making incremental improvements to their art until they're capable of real masterpiece. Cezanne is Galenson's main example of an experimental innovator; others include Frank Lloyd Wright, Mark Twain, and Jackson Pollock. Cezanne remarked, "I seek in painting."
Galenson demonstrates these differences through analysis of how often artists' works are reproduced in textbooks, auction prices, and museum shows. The pattern is clear, although the method is less than precise in some cases and Galenson has since backed off his thesis somewhat. But the compelling part of the book is what the artists themselves say about how they work. The text is littered with quotes from painters, poets, writers, sculptors, and movie directors about how they perceived their own work and the work of their peers and predecessors. Their thoughts provide ways for contemporary creators to think about how their creativity manifests itself.
The transcript of Gladwell's talk is a good introduction to there ideas. Galenson's next book, And Now for Something Completely Different, appears to be available online in its entirety in a preliminary form. Much more information is available on his web site.
Ben Fry analyzes the data from an intelligence test administered to all incoming NFL players and displays the results by position. Offensive players do better than defensive players on the test, although running backs score the lowest (wide receivers and cornerbacks also don't do well). As Michael Lewis suggested in The Blind Side, offensive tackles are the smartest players on the field, followed by the centers and then the quarterbacks.
Malcolm Gladwell talked about the Wonderlic test at the New Yorker Conference and judged it a poor indicator of future performance.
Robert McCrum, the outgoing literary editor of The Observer, recently summed up the last decade in books in ten short chapters (with accompanying timeline).
People will argue about the decisive milestones (I have come up with my own 10, which I have set out in chapters), but there will be general agreement that, in Britain, a decade of change starts with the election of New Labour in 1997. That was also the year Random House launched its website, John Updike published a short story online and Vintage started a series of reading guides to encourage new book clubs. As well as new readers, the millennium saw the emergence of a new literary generation, writers born in the Sixties and Seventies, and few of them more fascinating than Zadie Smith...
McCrum also shares a tidbit about Malcolm Gladwell's first book which I'd never heard before.
The Tipping Point was almost a flop. It was published to mixed reviews in the US, did no serious business in the UK and was saved by -- yes -- word of mouth. After a dismal launch, and as a desperate last resort, Gladwell persuaded his American publisher to sponsor a US-wide lecture tour. Only then did the book 'tip'. Eventually, it would become a literary success of its time, turn its author into a pop cultural guru and spend seven years on the New York Times bestseller list. This was one of those pivotal moments that illustrates the story of this decade.
At the WH Smith shop at Heathrow last weekend, the paperback copy of The Tipping Point was still #5 on the business bestsellers list and nearly sold out.
The Amazon page for Malcolm Gladwell's new book is up. From here, we learn that the full title is "Outliers: Why Some People Succeed and Some Don't" and what the cover looks like. Here's the description:
In this stunning new book, Malcolm Gladwell takes us on an intellectual journey through the world of "outliers" -- the best and the brightest, the most famous and the most successful. He asks the question: what makes high-achievers different? His answer is that we pay too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where they are from: that is, their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing. Along the way he explains the secrets of software billionaires, what it takes to be a great soccer player, why Asians are good at math, and what made the Beatles the greatest rock band.
And an excerpt from the Little, Brown catalog:
Outliers is a book about success. It starts with a very simple question: what is the difference between those who do something special with their lives and everyone else? In Outliers, we're going to visit a genius who lives on a horse farm in Northern Missouri. We're going to examine the bizarre histories of professional hockey and soccer players, and look into the peculiar childhood of Bill Gates, and spend time in a Chinese rice paddy, and investigate the world's greatest law firm, and wonder about what distinguishes pilots who crash planes from those who don't. And in examining the lives of the remarkable among us -- the brilliant, the exceptional and the unusual -- I want to convince you that the way we think about success is all wrong.
This doesn't sound exactly what I had heard his new book was going to be.
A few days ago, New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell noted that he's almost finished with his third book. I've learned that the subject of this book is the future of the workplace with subtopics of education and genius.
I guess if you flip those around, that describes Outliers marginally well. According to Amazon, the book is due on November 18, 2008. (thx, kyösti)
In last week's New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell talked about inventions, scientific discovery, and how it's possible to "manufacture" ideas.
In 1999, when Nathan Myhrvold left Microsoft and struck out on his own, he set himself an unusual goal. He wanted to see whether the kind of insight that leads to invention could be engineered. He formed a company called Intellectual Ventures. He raised hundreds of millions of dollars. He hired the smartest people he knew. It was not a venture-capital firm. Venture capitalists fund insights -- that is, they let the magical process that generates new ideas take its course, and then they jump in. Myhrvold wanted to make insights -- to come up with ideas, patent them, and then license them to interested companies.
Myhrvold believes that scientific discovery is largely "in the air" and inevitable, not the product of individual genius. Given the thesis of the piece, as Kevin Kelly notes, it's odd that Gladwell tells the story of this new idea as not one that was "in the air" but as stories like these are traditionally told, through the insight of one man, Nathan Myhrvold.
Picking a subject from his upcoming book, Malcolm Gladwell talked about the difficulty in hiring people in the increasingly complex thought-based contemporary workplace. Specifically that we're using a collection of antiquated tools to evaluate potential employees, creating what he calls "mismatch problems" in the workplace, when the critera for evaluating job candidates is out of step with the demands of the job.
To illustrate his point, Gladwell talked about sports combines, events that professional sports leagues hold for scouts to evaluate potential draftees based on a battery of physical, psychological, and intelligence tests. What he found, a result that echoes what Michael Lewis talks about in Moneyball, is that sports combines are a poor way to determine how well an athlete will eventually perform as a member of their eventual team. One striking example he gave is the intelligence test they give to NFL quarterbacks. Two of the test's all-time worst performers were Dan Marino and Terry Bradshaw, Hall of Famers both.
A more material example is teachers. Gladwell says that while we evaluate teachers on the basis of high standardized test scores and whether they have degrees and credentialed training, that makes little difference in how well people actually teach.
Duncan Watts' research is challenging the theory that a small group of influential people are responsible for triggering trends as explained in Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point.
"If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one--and if it isn't, then almost no one can," Watts concludes. To succeed with a new product, it's less a matter of finding the perfect hipster to infect and more a matter of gauging the public's mood. Sure, there'll always be a first mover in a trend. But since she generally stumbles into that role by chance, she is, in Watts's terminology, an "accidental Influential."
Perhaps the problem with viral marketing is that the disease metaphor is misleading. Watts thinks trends are more like forest fires: There are thousands a year, but only a few become roaring monsters. That's because in those rare situations, the landscape was ripe: sparse rain, dry woods, badly equipped fire departments. If these conditions exist, any old match will do. "And nobody," Watts says wryly, "will go around talking about the exceptional properties of the spark that started the fire."
I've previously covered some of what Clive talks about in the article.
One of the ongoing debates about IQ tests (besides whether they measure anything meaningful) is to what extent race affects scores. As Malcolm Gladwell explains in a review of a new book by James Flynn, for whom the Flynn Effect is named, IQ scores seem from the available data to be influenced more by nurture than nature.
Our great-grandparents may have been perfectly intelligent. But they would have done poorly on I.Q. tests because they did not participate in the twentieth century's great cognitive revolution, in which we learned to sort experience according to a new set of abstract categories. In Flynn's phrase, we have now had to put on "scientific spectacles," which enable us to make sense of the WISC questions about similarities. To say that Dutch I.Q. scores rose substantially between 1952 and 1982 was another way of saying that the Netherlands in 1982 was, in at least certain respects, much more cognitively demanding than the Netherlands in 1952. An I.Q., in other words, measures not so much how smart we are as how modern we are.
That last line is a pretty insightful way to think about IQ tests. On his blog, Gladwell references a recent article by Richard Nesbitt, who closes it with:
Most important, we know that interventions at every age from infancy to college can reduce racial gaps in both I.Q. and academic achievement, sometimes by substantial amounts in surprisingly little time. This mutability is further evidence that the I.Q. difference has environmental, not genetic, causes. And it should encourage us, as a society, to see that all children receive ample opportunity to develop their minds.
A few days ago, New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell noted that he's almost finished with his third book. I've learned that the subject of this book is the future of the workplace with subtopics of education and genius. (That topic dovetails nicely with business consulting/speaking, no?) As with his previous books, hints of what the book will cover appear in his recent stories and interviews. Most relevant is an October interview with Gladwell in The Globe and Mail on "our working future".
We will require, from a larger and larger percentage of our work force, the ability to engage in relatively complicated analytical and cognitive tasks. So it's not that we're going to need more geniuses, but the 50th percentile is going to have to be better educated than they are now. We're going to have to graduate more people from high school who've done advanced math, is a very simple way of putting it.
Other recent and not-so-recent writings and talks by Gladwell on working, education, and genius include:
- his talk on genius from the 2007 New Yorker Conference
- The Risk Pool - What's behind Ireland's economic miracle and G.M.'s financial crisis? (more, more)
- The Myth of Prodigy and Why It Matters
- Getting In - The social logic of Ivy League admissions
- Brain Candy - Is pop culture dumbing us down or smartening us up?
- Gladwell's personal work space
- Making the Grade
- The Talent Myth - Are smart people overrated?
- The Social Life of Paper - Looking for method in the mess
- The Bakeoff - Project Delta aims to create the perfect cookie
- Designs For Working - Why your bosses want to turn your new office into Greenwich Village
- The New-Boy Network - What do job interviews really tell us?
Malcolm Gladwell took a break from his day job to write another book and has returned to shorter form writing with a short blog post and a New Yorker article on criminal profiling.
A profile isn't a test, where you pass if you get most of the answers right. It's a portrait, and all the details have to cohere in some way if the image is to be helpful. In the mid-nineties, the British Home Office analyzed a hundred and eighty-four crimes, to see how many times profiles led to the arrest of a criminal. The profile worked in five of those cases. That's just 2.7 per cent, which makes sense if you consider the position of the detective on the receiving end of a profiler's list of conjectures.
The identity of anyone with information on Gladwell's new book will be treated with the greatest of discretion...hit me on my burner.
The last we heard from Malcolm Gladwell, he wrote about Enron and information overload, got hammered by his blog audience about it, and then stopped blogging and wrote nothing more for the New Yorker for the next 10 months. Rumor is that he's busy working on a new book, not shellshocked from the feedback. Anyway, the Globe and Mail interviewed Gladwell the other day about the "working future".
You're going to have to create internal structures that will help people grow into positions; that's really where the real opportunity is going to be. That's what we're going to have to do. That means being more patient with people, being willing to experiment with people, and being willing to nurture people. Those are three things we're reluctant to do at the moment.
Short interview by James Surowiecki of Nassim Taleb about his new book, The Black Swan. "History is dominated not by the predictable but by the highly improbable -- disruptive, unforeseeable events that Taleb calls Black Swans. The effects of wars, market crashes, and radical technological innovations are magnified precisely because they confound our expectations of the universe as an orderly place." Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article on Taleb for the New Yorker in 2002, which Taleb said "put too much emphasis on the far less interesting, more limited -- and rather boring -- applications of my ideas to finance/economic, & less on the dynamics of historical events/philosophy of history, artistic success, and general uncertainty in society". See also an interview in New Scientist, a NY Times op-ed, and a long piece on the Edge site about the black swan idea.
Malcolm Gladwell on the difference between secrets and puzzles, particularly as it relates to something like the Enron scandal. I think this is one of the more interesting pieces from Gladwell in recent years. Having lived in California during the blackouts and the absurdly high electricity bills, I want Skilling's head as much as anyone, but Gladwell has a good point here. There's more on his blog, including a question: "According to the way the accounting rules were written at the time, what specific transgressions were Skilling guilty of that merited twenty-four years in prison?" Also note the similar themes to one of my favorite articles from last year, The Press' New Paradigm.
David echoes my reaction to seeing a Zune in person for the first time this weekend: "I just saw a Zune, and guess what? Its a piece of shit." I usually give people a hard time for making snap judgments about technology that takes time to get to know (comments like "this interface sucks" after 20 seconds of use make my eyes go rolling), but the Zune...it's like the story of the Getty's Greek kouros that Gladwell tells in Blink: one look and you know it's wrong. Andre has been trying a Zune out for the last couple of weeks and doesn't mind it even though he's giving up on it.
Malcolm Gladwell writes about a group of people trying to predict movie hits. As Andy notes, "the problem with their technique is coming up with every possible meaningful variable".
Summary of a talk by Malcolm Gladwell on precociousness. "What a gifted child is, in many ways, is a gifted learner. And what a gifted adult is, is a gifted doer. And those are quite separate domains of achievement."
Passing the Gladwell Point: what's wrong with Malcolm Gladwell? "At times, lately, Mr. Gladwell sounds like someone trying to tell other people about something he read once in a Malcolm Gladwell piece, after a few rounds of drinks." (thx, choire)
Gladwell on zero-tolerance policies: "making a fetish of personal accountability conveniently removes the need for institutional accountability".
Malcolm Gladwell on how the demographics of companies affects their financial health. At the time of its bankruptcy in 2001, Bethlehem Steel "had twelve thousand active employees and ninety thousand retirees and their spouses drawing benefits. It had reached what might be a record-setting dependency ratio of 7.5 pensioners for every worker." More from Gladwell on the piece here and here.
Faces are now being searched at US airports for suspicious microexpressions. Psychologist Paul Ekman helped set up the program and was previously one of Malcolm Gladwell's subjects in The Naked Face and Blink.
The Wages of Wins sounds like Moneyball, but for all sports, not just baseball. Gladwell has a review in this week's New Yorker ("We become dance critics, blind to Iverson's dismal shooting percentage and his excessive turnovers, blind to the reality that the Philadelphia 76ers would be better off without him."), Tyler Cowen has a quick summary, and here's the blog for the book ("Most stars play worse in the playoffs."). Also, the formula for the Win Score statistic they refer to in the book.
Lee Siegel has a Malcolm Gladwell problem and, he argues, so do the rest of us. From a commenter (who gets his Dubner mixed up with his Levitt): "Gladwell is destroying literature as we know it". (via 3qd)
The Stev(ph)ens Dubner and Levitt report on some recent research suggesting that people who are good at things got good at them primarily through practice and not because of innate talent.
Their work, compiled in the "Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance," a 900-page academic book that will be published next month, makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers -- whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming -- are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. These may be the sort of cliches that parents are fond of whispering to their children. But these particular cliches just happen to be true.
The talent myth described here seems to be distinct from that which Malcolm Gladwell talks about in relation to talented people and companies, but I'm sure parallels could be drawn. But back to the original article...I was particularly taken with the concept of "deliberate practice":
Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task -- playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.
"Deliberate practice" reminds me of a video game a bunch of my friends are currently hooked on called Brain Age. Available for the handheld Nintendo DS, Brain Age is based on a Japanese brain training "game" developed by Dr. Ryuta Kawashima. The game measures the "age" of your brain based on your performance of simple tasks like memorizing a list of words or addition of small numbers. As you practice (deliberately), you get faster and more skilled at solving these mini-games and your brain age approaches that of a smarty-pants, twitchy-fingered teenager.
Speaking of talented teenagers, this week's New Yorker contains an article (not online) on Ivan Lendl's golfing daughters. In it, Lendl agrees that talent is created, not born:
"Can you create athletes, or do they just happen?" [Lendl] asked me not long ago. "I think you can create them, and I think that Tiger Woods's father proved that. People will sometimes ask me, 'How much talent did you have in tennis?' I say, 'Well, how do you measure talent?' Yeah, sure, McEnroe had more feel for the ball. But I knew how to work, and I worked harder than he did. Is that a talent in itself? I think it is."
Translation: there's more than one way to be good at something. There's something very encouraging and American about it, this idea that through hard work, you can become proficient and talented at pretty much anything.
High-end SUVs aren't selling as well as they used to and people are even trading them in for vehicles that get better gas mileage. "For Janna Jensen, it was the dirty looks and nasty gestures from other drivers that finally persuaded her to give up the family's $55,000 Hummer H2." I have an irrational and nearly irresistable urge to key the hell out of a Hummer everytime I see one. See also Gladwell on the SUV.
I recently linked to a debate between Adam Gopnik and Malcolm Gladwell about health care that took place in 2000. Gladwell has recently updated his thinking on the issue here and here, saying that "I now agree with virtually everything Adam said and disagree with virtually everything I said". (via lots of readers last week, when I forgot to post about it...was spurred into action this AM by this)
Part 2 of the Bill Simmons/Malcolm Gladwell conversation is even better than part 1. They really rip into what Isiah Thomas has done as GM of the Knicks. "The mess [Thomas] is creating right now in New York will be studied by business school students 50 years from now alongside Enron and pets.com."
Debate between Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik on the health care systems in the US and Canada. "Adam Gopnik and Malcolm Gladwell have both lived in Canada and developed strong feelings about socialized health care -- pro and con."
Malcolm Gladwell on "power law problems" like homelessness, auto pollution, and bad cops. These problems have solutions which focus on the small number of hard-core cases, like the 5% of Denver vehicles that account for 55% of the city's automobile pollution.
Malcolm Gladwell on different types of generalizations and when it's helpful to generalize (and not). I don't know about all that, but I *hate* "pit bull-type" dogs and I still think they should be banned.
Bakeoff! A Gladwell article from back in September on a project that used different team methodologies to attempt to create the perfect cookie: an open source approach, an approach based on extreme programming, and a traditional hierarchical team. You may be surprised which team won.
Time magazine asks Moby, Malcolm Gladwell, Tim O'Reilly, Clay Shirky, David Brooks, Mark Dery, and Esther Dyson about their views on the future: religion, culture, politics, etc. Gladwell: "If I had to name a single thing that has transformed our life, I would say the rise of JetBlue and Southwest Airlines. They have allowed us all to construct new geographical identities for ourselves."
Malcolm Gladwell's description of how Harvard decides on who to admit strikes me as similar to how many companies in the tech/web industry hire employees. "Subjectivity in the admissions process is not just an occasion for discrimination; it is also, in better times, the only means available for giving us the social outcome we want. The strategy of discretion that Yale had once used to exclude Jews was soon being used to include people like Levi Jackson."
Sorry for the extensive quote, but this paragraph (along with the following one) in Malcolm Gladwell's article about health care in America does a fine job in laying out why it's failing:
The U. S. health-care system, according to "Uninsured in America," has created a group of people who increasingly look different from others and suffer in ways that others do not. The leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States is unpaid medical bills. Half of the uninsured owe money to hospitals, and a third are being pursued by collection agencies. Children without health insurance are less likely to receive medical attention for serious injuries, for recurrent ear infections, or for asthma. Lung-cancer patients without insurance are less likely to receive surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation treatment. Heart-attack victims without health insurance are less likely to receive angioplasty. People with pneumonia who don't have health insurance are less likely to receive X rays or consultations. The death rate in any given year for someone without health insurance is twenty-five per cent higher than for someone with insurance. Because the uninsured are sicker than the rest of us, they can't get better jobs, and because they can't get better jobs they can't afford health insurance, and because they can't afford health insurance they get even sicker. John, the manager of a bar in Idaho, tells Sered and Fernandopulle that as a result of various workplace injuries over the years he takes eight ibuprofen, waits two hours, then takes eight more--and tries to cadge as much prescription pain medication as he can from friends. "There are times when I should've gone to the doctor, but I couldn't afford to go because I don't have insurance," he says. "Like when my back messed up, I should've gone. If I had insurance, I would've went, because I know I could get treatment, but when you can't afford it you don't go. Because the harder the hole you get into in terms of bills, then you'll never get out. So you just say, 'I can deal with the pain.'"
You can point fingers at what's wrong or who's responsible all day long, but the facts remain, America's health care system sucks...well, unless you're rich, in which case nothing really sucks. The BBC put it well earlier this week in writing about the crisis in New Orleans:
The uneasy paradox which so many live with in this country - of being first-and-foremost rugged individuals, out to plunder what they can and paying as little tax as they can get away with, while at the same time believing that America is a robust, model society - has reached a crisis point this week.
Malcolm Gladwell on why focus groups suck. Focus groups are an attempt by management to reduce risk (and with it, potential reward)...Gladwell says that management should instead trust their creatives, be patient, and tolerate uncertainty.
Short article about Pixar on the 10th anniversary of Toy Story. Their work process takes a cue from improv comedy by opening up possibilities with "yes, and..." rather than "no, but..." Gladwell talks about this aspect of improv at length in Blink.
When dealing with information sent to them on mobile devices like the Blackberry, people tend to not read anything that closely and seem to take the information less seriously. Like Matt and Foe, I've noticed this...but with blogs and (especially) newsreaders. Having 1000s of unread items to deal with per day would tend to diminish the value of individual blog posts, n'est pas? I wonder if this is partially what Gladwell is getting at with his upcoming NYer festival talk, The American Obsession with Precociousness, Learning quickly versus learning well...
Grant McCracken offers an alternate theory for why crime fell in the 90s: rap music replaced violence among urban youths as a way to gain esteem. Compare with Levitt and Gladwell.
Malcolm Gladwell talks about his work space. He does most of his writing on his laptop while sitting on sofas and in coffeeshops and restaurants.
I'll write more in-depth about a few of the speakers here, but for now, here are some soundbites (my comments in brackets):
- Andrew Zolli: All societies have an image of the future. Those that have optimistic images have better outcomes than those with pessimistic images. [The US right now seems optimistic overall, but getting a bit more pessimistic. At PopTech this year and last, about 1/2 the speakers said during their talks something to the effect of "we're screwed".]
- Malcolm Gladwell talking about a chapter from Blink:
One of the many ways in which asking someone what they think isn't necessarily the best way to find out what they want: people move away from the more sophisticated idea and they go for the simpler choice because they don't have the necessary "vocabulary" to explain their real feelings. [You may prefer The Hours to Goldeneye, but when asked to justify that choice, you may find yourself favoring the Bond flick more than you would if you didn't have to justify it.]
- Frans de Waal studies primate behavior to gain insight into human behavior. One of his findings: aggression does not disperse, it brings primates together more often than normal. [Destruction is creative. Creativity is destructive. Or something.]
- Bruce Mau: Not all countries have embraced democracy, but most have embraced traffic (individual transportation). [There are many different ways in which openness can be introduced into a culture.]
- Thomas Barnett: China is 30% Marxist Communist, 70% The Sopranos.
- Phillip Longman: Secular societies that cannot reproduce will be replaced by fundamentalist countries where children are an economic asset and a gift from God. And in Brazil, television viewing time predicts birth rate...the more TV a woman watches, the less likely she is to have children.