Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Writing more pseudo than science, Gladwell entertains -- and enjoys going to the bank

By Winston A. Marbella

In a personal illustration of the 10,000-Hour Rule he popularized in Outliers, bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell notes, "I was a basket case at the beginning, and I felt like an expert at the end. It took 10 years—exactly that long."

He says, "I have two parallel things I'm interested in. One is, I'm interested in collecting interesting stories, and the other is, I'm interested in collecting interesting research. What I'm looking for is cases where they overlap." 

In Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Blink, What the Dog Saw) explores a concept that has fascinated many authors: success.
Gladwell repeatedly mentions the "10,000-Hour Rule"---that the key to phenomenal success is going at it for 10,000 hours, more or less, if you keep pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone.

Gladwell wrote for The Washington Post before writing for The New Yorker. The subjects for his articles roamed around "psychology experiments, sociological studies, and law articles, statistical surveys of plane crashes and classical musicians and hockey players."

Extreme edge

Before Outliers, Gladwell wrote two best-selling books: The Tipping Point (2000) and Blink (2005).  The first, which sold 2.5 million copies, explored how ideas and behaviors reach critical mass and chain reaction, such as how Hush Puppies rapidly became a hit again in the 1990s. 

Blink (2 million copies) explained "what happens during the first two seconds we encounter something, before we actually start to think."  It is what we think without thinking.

In Outliers, Gladwell notes that "the biggest misconception about success is that we do it solely on our smarts, ambition, hustle and hard work.”

Outliers are described by Gladwell as exceptional people, especially those who are smart, rich, and successful, and those who operate at the extreme outer edge of what is statistically possible.

A hard day’s night

Gladwell says that success requires enormous time, using The Beatles and Microsoft founder Bill Gates as examples. 

The Beatles performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times in 1960-64, more than 10,000 hours of experience.  "By the time they returned to England from Hamburg, Germany, 'they sounded like no one else.” 

Gates logged 10,000-hours writing programs overnight at a high school computer in 1968 at the age of 13.

Without that access, Gates would still be "a highly intelligent, driven, charming person and a successful professional," but he might not be worth US$50 billion.  

Just 10 years

The 10,000-Hour Rule, the key to success in any field, may daunt men of lesser stuff, but is simply a matter of practicing a specific task that can be accomplished with 20 hours of work a week for 10 years, Gladwell says.  He also reveals that he himself took exactly 10 years to meet the 10,000-Hour Rule in his two previous journalism jobs.

Gladwell continually emphasizes that genius is not the most important thing in determining a person's success.  He notes that success "is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned.”

Temperamental prodigies

The idea that it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to really master a skill dates back to work done by Herb Simon in the 1970s and in later years by one of Simon’s postdoctoral students, Anders Ericsson. 

Their work evokes visions of a cinematic Mozart prodigiously caressing classical music out of a piano after years of practice.  Or of a temperamental Bobby Fischer smashing a chess set when he could not coax a brilliant move.

Think long-term

Great achievement is certainly not impossible without putting in 10,000 hours. Perhaps this is even more common in the real world.  If one thinks of 10,000 hours of practice as some kind of long-term goal, it suddenly becomes less daunting and more achievable.

A more practical approach seems to set your sights on a goal that you enjoy working on, break it down into a set of skills where palpable progress becomes rewarding. 

An incremental Federer

Think of yourself as a Roger Federer going through years of tennis practice but enjoying every minute of it: A sizzling serve. A cross-court volley that hits the baseline. A drop shot that stops cold after a short bounce off the net.
The more enjoyable and rewarding, the less awesome the task becomes and the less difficult it will be to put in the time that leads to expertise  Then ratchet up the challenge, stretching yourself to a higher level of performance, enjoying each new level you achieve.  

Along the way, do not forget to stop and smell the flowers. The journey is as enjoyable as the destination. This way, even if you don’t reach your goal, you will still enjoy yourself.

Now think of yourself as Malcolm Gladwell. Think of this adoring review from Wikipedia:

Love him/hate him

The Tipping Point was named as one of the best books of the decade by customers.  

Blink was named to Fast Company's list of the best business books of 2005. It was also number 5 on Amazon customers' favorite books of 2005, named to The Christian Science Monitor's best nonfiction books of 2005, and in the top 50 of Amazon customers' favorite books of the decade.

Outliers was a number 1 The New York Times bestseller for 11 straight weeks, and was Time's number 10 nonfiction book of 2008, as well as named to the San Francisco Chronicle's list of the 50 best nonfiction books of 2008.

Fortune described The Tipping Point as "a fascinating book that makes you see the world in a different way." The Daily Telegraph called it "a wonderfully offbeat study of that little-understood phenomenon, the social epidemic."

Reviewing Blink, The Baltimore Sun dubbed Gladwell "the most original American [sic] journalist since the young Tom Wolfe." Farhad Manjoo at Salon described the book as "a real pleasure. As in the best of Gladwell's work, Blink brims with surprising insights about our world and ourselves.” 

TheEconomist called Outliers "a compelling read with an important message." 

David Leonhardt wrote in The New York Times Book Review: "In the vast world of nonfiction writing, Malcolm Gladwell is as close to a singular talent as exists today" and that Outliers "leaves you mulling over its inventive theories for days afterward."[53] 

Ian Sample wrote in The Guardian: "Brought together, the pieces form a dazzling record of Gladwell's art. There is depth to his research and clarity in his arguments, but it is the breadth of subjects he applies himself to that is truly impressive."

Journalist not scientist

Criticism of Gladwell tends to focus on the fact that he is a journalist and not a scientist, and as a result his work is prone to oversimplification. 

The New Republic called the final chapter of Outliers, "impervious to all forms of critical thinking."

Gladwell has also been criticized for his emphasis on anecdotal evidence over research to support his conclusions. Maureen Tkacik and Steven Pinker have challenged the integrity of Gladwell's approach.

Even while praising Gladwell's attractive writing style and content, Pinker sums up Gladwell as "a minor genius who unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning…" in his book Outliers. Pinker criticizes his lack of expertise: "…when a writer's education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong." 

Lucrative speaker, too

In 2005, Gladwell commanded a $45,000 speaking fee. In 2008, he was making "about 30 speeches a year—most for tens of thousands of dollars, some for free," according to a profile in New York magazine.

In 2012, CBS's 60 Minutes attributed the recent trend of American parents "redshirting" their five-year-olds (postponing entrance) to give them an advantage in kindergarten to a section in Gladwell's Outliers!

The scientists can munch on that for a while – until October 1, to be exact.  That’s when the fifth Gladwell book goes on sale.  It’s called David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and The Art of Battling Giants.

The scientists can eat their hearts out.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Outliers (underdogs) hit The Tipping Point in the Blink of What the Dog Saw

By Winston A. Marbella

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Malcolm Gladwell. Little, Brown. 2013.

MALCOLM Gladwell, the best-selling author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers and What the Dog Saw, will publish his fifth book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, on Oct. 1.  

The topic will endear Gladwell to many Filipinos who fancy themselves culturally linked to the world’s most downtrodden underdogs. 

David and Goliath will be published by Little, Brown, which has released the official synopsis to perk up reader interest:

“We all know that underdogs can win–that’s what the David versus Goliath legend tells us, and we’ve seen it with our own eyes. Or have we? 

“In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell, with his unparalleled ability to grasp connections others miss, uncovers the hidden rules that shape the balance between the weak and the mighty, the powerful and the dispossessed.

“Gladwell examines the battlefields of Northern Ireland and Vietnam, takes us into the minds of cancer researchers and civil rights leaders, and digs into the dynamics of successful and unsuccessful classrooms–all in an attempt to demonstrate how fundamentally we misunderstand the true meaning of advantages and disadvantages. 

“When is a traumatic childhood a good thing? When does a disability leave someone better off? Do you really want your child to go to the best school he or she can get into? Why are the childhoods of people at the top of one profession after another marked by deprivation and struggle?”

“Gladwell draws upon psychology, history, science, business and politics in his examination,” the publishers say in the synopsis.

Wikipedia posts an affectionate bio of him. Excerpts: 

Malcolm Gladwell (born Sept. 3, 1963) is a British-Canadian journalist, bestselling author, and speaker. He has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996. He has written four books, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference (2000), Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005), Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), and What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures (2009), a collection of his journalism. All four books were on The New York Times Best Seller list.

Gladwell's books and articles often deal with the unexpected implications of research in the social sciences and make frequent and extended use of academic work, particularly in  sociology, psychology, and social psychology.  

Peripatetic young boy

Gladwell was born in Fareham, Hampshire, England. His mother is Joyce (Nation) Gladwell, a Jamaican-born psychotherapist. His father, Graham Gladwell, is a British mathematics professor.

Gladwell has said that his mother is his role model as a writer. When he was six his family moved to Elmira, Ontario, Canada.

Gladwell's father noted that Malcolm was an unusually single-minded and ambitious boy. When Malcolm was 11, his father, who was a professor of mathematics and engineering at the University of Waterloo, allowed him to wander around the offices at his university, which stoked the boy's interest in reading and libraries. 

During his high school years, Gladwell was an outstanding middle-distance runner and won the 1,500 meter title at the 1978 Ontario High School 14-year-old championships in Kingston, Ontario. In the spring of 1982, Gladwell interned with the National Journalism Center in Washington, D.C. He graduated with a degree in history from the University of Toronto's Trinity College in 1984.[12]

‘Basket case’

Gladwell's grades were not good enough for graduate school (as Gladwell puts it, "college was not an... intellectually fruitful time for me"), so he decided to go into advertising. After being rejected by every advertising agency he applied to, he accepted a journalism position at The American Spectator and moved to Indiana.  

Gladwell began covering business and science for The Washington Post, where he worked until 1996. In a personal elucidation of the 10,000 hour rule he popularized in Outliers, Gladwell notes, "I was a basket case at the beginning, and I felt like an expert at the end. It took 10 years—exactly that long."

When Gladwell started at The New Yorker in 1996 he wanted to "mine current academic research for insights, theories, direction, or inspiration.” His first assignment was to write a piece about fashion. 

Instead of writing about high-class fashion, Gladwell opted to write a piece about a man who manufactured T-shirts, saying "it was much more interesting to write a piece about someone who made a T-shirt for $8 than it was to write about a dress that costs $100,000. I mean, you or I could make a dress for  $100,000, but to make a T-shirt for $8 – that's much tougher.” 

Gladwell gained popularity with two New Yorker articles, both written in 1996: "The Tipping Point" and "The Coolhunt.” These two pieces would become the basis for Gladwell's first book, The Tipping Point, for which he received a $1 million advance.  


He says, "I have two parallel things I'm interested in. One is, I'm interested in collecting interesting stories, and the other is, I'm interested in collecting interesting research. What I'm looking for is cases where they overlap." 

The inspiration for his first book, The Tipping Point, came from the sudden drop of crime in New York City. He wanted the book to have a broader appeal than just crime, however, and sought to explain similar phenomena through the lens of epidemiology. 

While Gladwell was a reporter for The Washington Post, he covered the AIDS epidemic. He began to take note of "how strange epidemics were," saying that epidemiologists have a "strikingly different way of looking at the world.” The word "tipping point" comes from the moment in an epidemic when the virus reaches critical mass and begins to spread at a much higher rate.

‘Aha!’ moments

After Tipping Point, Gladwell wrote Blink in 2005. It explains how the human subconscious interprets events or cues and how past experiences can lead people to make informed decisions very rapidly.

Gladwell's (wildly bouffant reddish curly) hair was the inspiration for Blink. He recalled that he started to get speeding tickets all the time, an oddity considering that he had never got one before, and that he started getting pulled out of airport security lines for special attention. In a particular incident, he was accosted by three police officers while walking in downtown Manhattan, because his curly hair matched the profile of a rapist, despite the fact that the suspect looked nothing like him otherwise.

Gladwell's third book, Outliers, published in 2008, examines how a person's environment, in conjunction with personal drive and motivation, affects his or her possibility and opportunity for success. Gladwell's original question revolved around lawyers: "We take it for granted that there's this guy in New York who's the corporate lawyer, right? I just was curious: Why is it all the same guy?, in reference to the comparable family histories of many early corporate lawyers.

In another example in the book, Gladwell noticed that people ascribe Bill Gates's success to being "really smart" or "really ambitious." He noted that he knew a lot of people who are really smart and really ambitious, but not worth 60 billion dollars. "It struck me that our understanding of success was really crude—and there was an opportunity to dig down and come up with a better set of explanations."

Gladwell's fourth book, What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, published in 2009. puts together his favorite articles from The New Yorker since. The stories share a common theme: the world as seen through the eyes of others, even if that other happens to be a dog (!).

Gladwell's books, The Tipping Point (2000) and Blink (2005), were international bestsellers. The Tipping Point sold over two million copies in the United States. Blink sold equally well. As of November 2008, the two books had sold a combined 4.5 million copies.

Gladwell's next book, David and Goliath, will examine the struggle of underdogs versus favorites. The book is inspired by an article Gladwell wrote for the New Yorker in 2009, "How David Beats Goliath."

The world’s downtrodden will love him for it.


Saturday, July 13, 2013

When reason and genius fail, what can a poor little think tank do?

By Winston A. Marbella

Soldiers of Reason: The Rand Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire. Alex Abella. Harcourt, Inc., 388 pp.

In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. Robert S. McNamara. Times Books. 414 pp.

The inside flap blurb describes Soldiers of Reason as, “A page-turning chronicle of the rise of the secretive think tank that has been the driving force behind American government for the last half century.” It may well be. For those of us who grew up in the shadow of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War years of the 50s and 60s, Stanley Kubrick’s black-comedy film, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” was all too real to be a joke.

“Soldiers of Reason is the first-ever history of the RAND Corporation, written with full access to its archives,” touts the blurb, giving the book credible sourcing. “Born in the wake of World War II as a factory of ideas designed to advise the Air Force on how to wage and win wars, RAND quickly grew into a magnet for the best and brightest, and became the creator of America’s nuclear strategy in the struggle against the Soviets.” 

The blurb continues, rather self-consciously: “From its ranks arose Cold War luminaries Albert Wohlstetter, Bernard Brodie, and Herman Kahn, who arguably saved us from nuclear annihilation with their doctrines of fail-safe and second strike, and unquestionably created what Eisenhower first termed the military-industrial complex.”

Shadowy celebs

The heady Camelot years of the Kennedy era brought RAND directly into the forefront of policy-making, where its shadowy analysts became celebrities as the Whiz Kids of the brilliant Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, and their theories of rational warfare steered US conduct in the Vietnam War. Those same theories would underlie the questionable American invasion of Iraq 45 years later. 

RAND’s greatest contribution might be its “rational choice theory,” a mathematical construct seeking to explain all human behavior through 
self-interest. It was the start of the postwar era, and American social scientists were enamored of “game theory,” which economists believed could solve political and strategic problems by reducing them to their core via mathematical formulae.   The eggheads forgot that they were dealing with humans -- and the Vietcong refused to conform to the tidy behavioral models that the erudite McNamara had fashioned into flashy charts of body counts per megaton of bombs dropped on the killing fields of Vietnam.

RAND’s studies of the Vietcong showed that the communist organization was deeply entrenched in the grass roots and represented authentic popular desire for nationhood and social justice. This flew in the face of the official US policy view of North Vietnamese "aggression." 

Disenchanted young RAND analysts, including Anthony Russo and Daniel Ellsberg, started opposing the war privately. Ellsberg was so enraged that he snitched the secretly commissioned study of the history of US policy in Vietnam and leaked it to the New York Times. 

The secret study became known as the Pentagon Papers, which led to the break-in at the Watergate Hotel, which led to the impeachment and eventual resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

Judgmental error

In his 1995 memoir, “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,” McNamara asked forgiveness from the families of the soldiers who had died in Vietnam. Regretfully, he said, "we sought to do the right thing...but in my judgment hindsight proved us wrong."

“This is the book I planned never to write,” he said, but he broke 27 years of silence "to put Vietnam in context.” The two administrations McNamara had served with utmost loyalty and dedication made "terribly wrong" decisions, he asserted, because of "an error not of values and intentions but of judgment and capabilities."
McNamara's book should be read in tandem with Soldiers of Reason -- for it tells a cautionary tale of how “the best and the brightest” minds can produce tools than can lead to tragic policy-making. In their converging light in the long view of history, the two volumes become a must-read for anybody interested in governance and policy-making – and the perils that come with hubris. 

All the best-laid plans of geniuses and patriotic men cannot seem to ensure effective – nor even ethical – policy-making. (As a historical footnote, the leading scientists at the Manhattan Project resigned after they saw the devastation wrought on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the nuclear bombs they helped to build.)

Paranoid film

Kubrick’s 1964 black-comedy blockbuster, Dr. Strangelove, satirizes the nuclear paranoia of the Cold War years. The film tells of a deranged US Air Force general who orders a first-strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, the sort of scenario the Rand eggheads would have loved to construct. 

The President of the US, his advisers, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff all try to recall the bombers to prevent a nuclear holocaust. The best comedic moments involve the crew of one bomber as they try to deliver their payload of mayhem over Russia.

In 1989, the US Library of Congress included Dr. Strangelove in the films selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. It was listed under the category, “100 Years…100 Laughs.” 

But for the Soldiers of Reason of the Cold War, the storyline was no laughing matter. The film now reflects a bygone era – but the think tank survives as an institutional apparatus of modern strategic planning.