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kottke.org posts about Malcolm Gladwell

Smarts on the gridiron

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 18, 2008

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 book biz summary

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 09, 2008

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.

New book by Gladwell: Outliers

posted by Jason Kottke   May 19, 2008

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)

Ideas in the air

posted by Jason Kottke   May 12, 2008

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.

Gladwell on the mismatch problem

posted by Jason Kottke   May 08, 2008

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

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 30, 2008

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

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 11, 2007

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.

Malcolm Gladwell’s new book on the workplace of the future

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 08, 2007

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

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2007

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,

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 04, 2007

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.

I suppose I am contractually obligated to

posted by Jason Kottke   May 03, 2007

I suppose I am contractually obligated to tell you that Malcolm Gladwell was on the Colbert Report the other night.

Short interview by James Surowiecki of Nassim

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2007

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

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 04, 2007

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.

Following three recent racial incidents (Michael Richards,

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 04, 2006

Following three recent racial incidents (Michael Richards, Michael Irvin, and Mel Gibson), Malcolm Gladwell considers a possible spectrum of racial remarks.

David echoes my reaction to seeing a

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 27, 2006

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

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 18, 2006

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

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 12, 2006

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

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 04, 2006

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

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 29, 2006

Gladwell on zero-tolerance policies: “making a fetish of personal accountability conveniently removes the need for institutional accountability”.

Gladwell says that some bloggers “believe that

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 28, 2006

Gladwell says that some bloggers “believe that a reaction is the same thing as an argument”. Amen, brother.

Malcolm Gladwell on how the demographics of

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 27, 2006

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

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 18, 2006

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,

posted by Jason Kottke   May 22, 2006

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

posted by Jason Kottke   May 17, 2006

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)

Creating talent

posted by Jason Kottke   May 11, 2006

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.

Review of Why? by Charles Tilly, in

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 17, 2006

Review of Why? by Charles Tilly, in which he examines the four kinds of reasons people offer as explanations for things and under which situations they are used. See also an October 2005 interview with Tilly.

Gladwell’s reading Game of Shadows (which alleges

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 17, 2006

Gladwell’s reading Game of Shadows (which alleges that Barry Bonds took steroids) and proposes that record setters like Bonds, Flo Jo, and Bob Beamon should be subjected to a high degree of statistical analysis before their records should be allowed to stand. (followup)

Lots of chatter lately about the “broken

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 28, 2006

Lots of chatter lately about the “broken windows” theory of why the US crime rate dropped so dramatically in the 80s and 90s. Writing in the Boston Globe, Daniel Brook explores the possible cracks in the theory, while proponents William Bratton & George Kelling defend it from “attacks” from ‘liberals”, “anti-police groups”, and “ivory-tower academics”. Gladwell says broken windows holds up, Dubner disagrees, and Gladwell rebuts.

High-end SUVs aren’t selling as well as

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 20, 2006

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

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 05, 2006

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)