Malcolm, meet Fonzie. Fonzie, Malcolm. I think you two will get along well together now that you’ve both jumped the shark. I never wanted to introduceMalcolm, meet Fonzie. Fonzie, Malcolm. I think you two will get along well together now that you’ve both jumped the shark. I never wanted to introduce the two of them, but I sort of feel obligated to after reading Outliers. In this, his third book, Gladwell stretches his sociological study of all things common sense to its ultimate breaking point. The cover touts the book as an answer to the long-standing question that thousands have tried to answer before him: why is it that some people succeed at their chosen field while others toil for years without ever rising above mediocrity? The answer is an obvious one: people succeed through a fortuitous convergence of different factors.
It is not enough to merely be smart, or from a rich family, or have unique opportunities to embrace your field- be it music, writing, business, or whatever. All of these things form a good base layer for success, but in no way guarantee success (though anyone looking for such a guarantee may buy it from my website, along with some other steals: bridgeinbrooklyn.com). An outlier must also come of age in an appropriate time period to best take advantage of changing business situations (getting in at the beginning of the industrial revolution or the construction of Silicon Valley). In other words- success is determined by a large and complex system of variables that might benefit a determined individual. It all comes down to each person seizing any opportunity that might come their way and capitalizing upon it. Like I said, common sense.
Still, just because it’s not ground-breakingly revelatory doesn’t mean that this book is without merit. Any reader familiar with Gladwell will expect the diverse examples that he draws from- ranging from Canadian hockey to enterprising Jewish immigrants and software programmers. Most interesting to me, though, were his examples of those people who should have become outliers but, for some reason or another, failed. His recounting of the world’s smartest man (IQ 192) who was unable to even graduate college due to an inability to adjust from his standard adversarial approach to hierarchical systems reminded me of dozens of people I have known who, despite phenomenal intelligence and creativity, flounder in the so-called real world and end up in dissatisfying and meaningless jobs. I do enjoy when authors of self-help or finance books admit that most of the problems that we deal with in our daily existence are created by us- Radiohead said it best when they sang “You do it to yourself, it’s true, and that’s why it really hurts.”
Overall, though, this book seems scattered and more than a little unhinged. Much of the demographic analysis seems cherry-picked to support Gladwell’s theory of successful determiners and some of the examples seem to bear no relation to his main point but were included to pad out the length of the book. Still, I’m a little bittersweet about having finished it. I’ve been listening to Gladwell’s books, the above and his two previous, The Tipping Point and Blink, in their audiobook incarnations narrated by the author and his voice is just so calm and soothing, I wish I could make him read all of my books out loud to me. Hell, I’d settle for simply attending a lecture in order for a chance to hear his voice live. This alone is enough to guarantee that I will read his next attempt....more
With his study of how ideas spread in The Tipping Point and then with his explanation of how humans rely on intuition here in Blink, Malcolm GladwellWith his study of how ideas spread in The Tipping Point and then with his explanation of how humans rely on intuition here in Blink, Malcolm Gladwell has carved a comfortable niche for himself among the pop-science authors of today. With his eye for patterns and a knack for putting into words many of the quirks of humankind that we take for granted, Gladwell has made a science out of common sense.
In this, his second book, Gladwell looks at our ability to subconsciously process information in a far faster and more detailed way than our conscious minds are typically capable of. This is hardly new ground- the Beats intoned “First thought, best thought.” Obi-Wan Kenobi told Luke to “trust your instincts” and Luke managed to blow up the Death Star without aid from his targeting computer. Examples abound. Gladwell, as all social scientists must, puts his own stamp on it by renaming it "thin slicing" (the knack we have for deriving often correct solutions/ideas from a small sampling of information).
There's not much that is new or ground-breaking within these pages. Gladwell builds his case for thin slicing with many vastly different examples, from studies performed to read the micro-expressions in people's faces which betray their mood and thoughts (I think someone at Fox must have read this book before developing "Lie To Me") to the way in which people may be "primed" to be more cooperative or smart simply by being exposed to a series of terms or thinking about the traits of a good professor (the most disturbing example of this is when Gladwell cites a study in which a group of African-American students attending an Ivy League school take a test in which they are asked their racial information at either the beginning of the test or at the end. Those who fill in the racial info before taking the test performed far worse due to being primed to think of all the stories about black students' inability to perform well on standardized testing.)
The latter half of the book is spent analyzing those events in which our intuition leads us astray, the most glaring example of which is the 1999 shooting of the unarmed Amadou Diallo by a group of four police officers. While interesting and definitely a good check on those who read the first half of the book and want to go out and only trust their instincts, I felt that Gladwell never really made clear the instances in which we should rely on our gut or when we should proceed in a thorough and detailed manner. Still, this was an incredibly interesting read that provided much fodder for both thought and discussion around the supper table. I'd recommend it for those in search of a quick non-fiction read or who enjoy the slow accumulation of trivia....more
Can I just admit something straight off the bat? I. Don’t. Care. I don’t care whether you want to participate in ritualized cannibalism. I don’t careCan I just admit something straight off the bat? I. Don’t. Care. I don’t care whether you want to participate in ritualized cannibalism. I don’t care whether you think the soul resides on the top of the head. I don’t care whether you want to rub blue mud in your navel, ingest some psylocybin and commune with Gaia. I don’t care whether you want to build temples to a god who, at best, is enormously small-minded and petty or, at worst, is a genocidal tyrant bent on undoing the mistake of free will. I especially don’t care whether you do or don’t believe in any bi-polar sky god. I’m just done with it. It’s a discussion I’ve had more times than I can count and one where I’ve already heard every justification for and against. I just don’t care.
While I am undoubtedly an atheist, there’s something very off-putting about this new wave of skeptics that makes me want to distance myself from them. Something about the missionary zeal with which this new group of atheists approaches religious discussions smacks too much of “we will save the heathens from themselves or they’ll die trying.” Tellingly, it is normally those who have recently lost their faith that are the most vocal challengers of deists, there is no fervor as powerful as that of the recently converted, be it to Christianity, Alcoholics Anonymous, or atheism. Yet what is the point of replacing one doctrine of ideas with another if it does nothing to change the tone with which we discuss things? People are still going to be assholes, regardless of which creed they are espousing today.
Either all the accumulated evidence (and lack thereof) is correct and there is no god, or there’s a pantheon of every belief system floating somewhere in the ether. Either way it makes no actual impact on my day to day living, other than through interactions I have with a creed’s adherents. God is not going to do anything to either lessen my burdens or smite me with righteous fury. All we can do is live our lives in the manner that we feel is best for us. Any deity worth its salt should be able to recognize that, and any deity that does not recognize it is not deserving of anyone’s worship.
That is not to say that I do not have severe issues with the ways in which people use “it’s just what I believe” as a justification for completely irrational and harmful behavior, and there is no faster way to earn my enmity than to try to write your morality into law. Do what you will, but keep it to yourself- live by example but without self righteousness. In his short polemic Harris lists point by point his, rather convincing, arguments against deism and the various reasons why coddling people’s faith and placing it beyond debate is both harmful and intellectually dishonest, in far more clear terms than I can ever manage. This is definitely a contentious book, but one that will make you think, regardless of which side of this argument you may sit. My main complaint with the idea of people moving beyond religion is I don’t think that Harris is taking into account humankind’s need for illusions.
We all tell stories to ourselves to better understand the world and our place within it. For a majority of the world, this story involves a divinely imparted code of rules to adhere to or else. If we stripped away the belief systems of all of these people then what is left? Living without illusions is hard work, having to bear the responsibility for your choice on your own is a constant struggle. Some days I don’t think I would wish that on my worst enemy. Too much existentialism for a Thursday morning? Probably. It still doesn’t change the fact that I can conceive of no swifter way for the world to descend into chaos than to rip away the support structure of people’s existence. Slow and steady will win this race, the best we can expect is a holding action to keep God out of our statehouses and legislature. ...more
I originally picked up this audiobook because the descriptions I had read of it made it sound as though it were the thematic follow-up to Malcolm GladI originally picked up this audiobook because the descriptions I had read of it made it sound as though it were the thematic follow-up to Malcolm Gladwell’s incredibly enjoyableThe Tipping Point. I was expecting a study on how like-minded people have a tendency to congregate and an analysis of how ideas can jump from one micro-group to another. I would have loved a book like that: thought-provoking, engaging, at times irritating, but a book that made me excited to talk about it with others.
Instead, this book is just so much bullshit. Self help pap for the business class. “YOUR business needs YOU to LEAD them into the future. The ONLY thing holding you back from LEADING YOUR TRIBE is FEAR. Through your actions as a LEADER you attract a tribe that WANTS to follow you.” I’m sure somebody out there is paying $1200 for a weekend seminar hosted by this snake oil salesman of the digital age. He says nothing new or interesting but cloaks it in his own personal jargon (a sure sign that you are reading a self help book is the liberal use of phrases that the author thinks make him sound original but which do little but turn me off to the book) and examples of innovators within internet culture that have only the most tenuous of connections to the point that Godin is trying to make.
It’s not even structured in an enjoyable way. Sentences are so short and so filled with buzz words and Godin’s lingo that they’re basically meaningless. Repeating a term again and again adds nothing to my comprehension of his point but makes me feel as though I’m reading a Dick and Jane primer. Sadly, this is what happens more often than not when bloggers try to stretch out into a book. Perhaps before LEADING his TRIBE, Godin should invest in some writing classes. ...more
Sometimes I start to tell people about my experiences in high school and they look at me as though I'm from another planet. Every day for four years ISometimes I start to tell people about my experiences in high school and they look at me as though I'm from another planet. Every day for four years I would wake up at 5:30, deliver papers around my neighborhood, defrost my toes, and head to school by 6:30 for zero hour chamber choir rehearsals. I typically would not leave the building again until 8 or 9 in the evening, having eaten very little but sustained on a near constant drip of Mountain Dew and the occasional banana or apple. I had the security deactivation code for several teachers, keys to the teacher's lounge, complete unfettered access to the photocopier, could walk the halls with impunity during class time, and keys to more than a few classrooms.
"What sort of odd utopian high school did I go to?", you may wonder. Was I the child of some overworked teacher or administrator? Not at all. I was a member of the Debate Team. Every year, starting in July and continuing until the National Qualifying Tournament, we would research the assigned topic, write our cases, continue to research, cram ourselves and our tubs full of evidence onto buses that vented exhaust directly into the interior and flee travel from North Idaho over to whichever University or high school was hosting this particular weekend's tournament. Along the way we would miss a lot of class time, meet extremely interesting people from all over the nation, and get to argue about whether the United States Government's support of the International Space Station would trigger a nuclear conflict with Russia or whether the use of gender specific language in the debate round served to reentrench patriarchal systems of behavior.
Without putting too melodramatic of a point on it, debate saved my life. At a time when I had no interest in compulsory education, it provided an outlet for me to advance my own studies and, later, provided the means (a much coveted scholarship) by which I could flee Idaho. It was with great excitement then that I picked up Joe Miller's Cross-X, a recounting of the 2002-2003 debate season for Central Kansas City High School. An inner city school that has been the focus of national attention time and again for its academic defficiency and struggles with desegregation, Central doesn't really have a lot going for it other than its nationally-ranked debate team.
Miller follows two teams of debaters, a varsity team that ranked in the top 75 teams in the country and a novice team just getting their first taste of the weird and hyper-specialized world of cross-x, or policy-style, debate. This book could have easily become another example of the "struggling inner city youth makes good" cliche if Miller had maintained his journalistic integrity. Fortunately, as he gets to know these debaters, watch their rounds, fight against the recalcitrant Missouri HS activities association trying to bar them from national-level competitions, and confront the structural racism of both the education system as a whole and the debate community in particular, Miller himself gets drawn into the story. It's little things at first (writing letters to the school board to draw their attention to problems, convincing a debater that an upcoming tournament is more important than a computer game) but soon enough he is helping chaperone, cutting cards as a new Assistant Coach and, finally, setting up his own debate program at another urban Kansas City high school.
A lot of this read as old hat for a while, anyone who has been involved in the activity for long is well aware that there is a very serious dearth of female or minority debaters. It's also clear that, on the national level, it is dominated by just a few very well-funded public schools and private academies. The book really begins to take off when Miller's debaters begin to question these underlying truths of the debate world using Paulo Freire's seminal Pedagogy of the Oppressed and flip the traditional structure of the debate round on its head. It was incredibly nostalgic to hear about the case they write using UN peacekeepers in the Third World as a metaphor for the rich/poor (privileged/put down?) dichotomy that splits the Nationally-ranked elite from the struggling inner city teams.
My senior year of high school, when the topic was increasing education, my partner and I ran a very similar case using Sr. Freire's powerful philosophy, eschewing the traditional format of writing a plan to do so and advocating the adoption of a critical consciousness in the debate community itself. It made people incredibly upset when they first heard it (just as the case Miller's debaters create offended) because it attacked the very foundations of the sport that we all very much loved, but as the year went on and opposing teams kept losing to it, it gained a grudging respect in the North-West. To read of another team attempting the same thing, and succeeding on a level that we could only dream of (there is only one possible tournament that teams from the NW can compete in to gain a TOC bid and that's all the way down in Berkeley. Kansas City may have been stuck because of bureaucratic waffling but we were stuck due to budget constraints- who can afford to go to Texas to compete?) was an utter delight.
While those outside the debate community may not find this book too interesting, it deserves to be read by anyone who has ever stacked their debate tubs atop one another, given a roadmap and then proceeded to speed-read several dozen pages of evidence in a five minute rebuttal. It's a niche market, to be sure, but an important one that Miller clearly loves yet remains unafraid of criticizing. It's definitely reawakened a side of myself I thought long dead and has me contemplating getting involved in the activity once more....more
It may seem a little gauche to be talking about the real cost of food while in the midst of complete economic armageddon- these days my budget has beeIt may seem a little gauche to be talking about the real cost of food while in the midst of complete economic armageddon- these days my budget has been broken down to beer and rent- but Michael Pollan is nothing if not a man on a mission. With 2006's Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan looked into the industry of food- from commercial farms to mass organics to local self-sustaining farms- with often disturbing results.
With In Defense of Food, Pollan tries a different route to the consumer's stomach by looking at the "science" of nutritionism and the various food fads that have engulfed grocery aisles and the diet shelves of many a bookstore. Looking at the claims put forward by industry about low-carb, no-fat, high-fat, pomegranate-enhanced, antioxidant-bearing chemically-created foods he shows first that there is no solid evidence that any of these things on their own can help one lead a healthier lifestyle and secondly that due to all of these competing claims about each new miracle vitamin or mineral, consumers have little to no clue what to eat or why.
Fortunately he provides a few good rules of thumb to follow. I would call these rules mere common sense had he not spent the previous 180 pages explaining that, when it comes to food, we no longer have any common sense. Our senses have been tricked by chemical additives, increased sugars and advertising to think that a McDonald's hamburger (easy target, I know) is not only "food" but a delicious meal. It basically comes down to buying whole foods rather than premade meals or anything containing ingredients with more than 12 syllables.
While I found the book interesting and it helped reignite my love of my garden (come Autumn all I can think of is how much a pain in the ass it has been to take care of for the past 6 months), I didn't find it as gripping as I did Omnivore's Dilemma. This is undoubtedly personal bias on my part- I'm exceptionally interested in the industry of food but get bored to tears when discussion turns to healthy living or how much Vitamin D a person needs. My wife, on the other hand, grew bored with Omnivore's Dilemma within the first 50 pages but flew through In Defense of Food in but a few days.
Different paths to reach the same result: the way in which Western civilization produces and consumes the basic nutrients for life has been completely divorced from an actual relationship with the soil or the farmer's who produce food for us. This has led to a massive increase in the spread of so-called Western diseases such as heart disease and diabetes and the pillaging of ecosystems in exchange for monoculture crops and vast feedlots. It's undoubtedly more expensive, the biggest factor in my eyes at this moment, to eat locally and more fresh foods but Pollan does a decent job of looking at the long term costs of eating the "cheap" foods and the future medical bills this implies to show that, while it may hurt the pocket in the present, the lifetime savings more than make up for it....more
Worth reading if only for the chapter on UPS and how every single movement of an employee's job is scripted to ensure "maximum efficiency"- everythingWorth reading if only for the chapter on UPS and how every single movement of an employee's job is scripted to ensure "maximum efficiency"- everything from scanning packages to having a driver buckle their seatbelt at the same time as they start the truck....more
One of the most interesting and important books that I have ever read. This should be required reading for every eater and food lover everywhere. I daOne of the most interesting and important books that I have ever read. This should be required reading for every eater and food lover everywhere. I dare you to read this and look at a supermarket the same again. Not just this century's The Jungle, though it is a loud call of alarm against our increasingly industrial way of life, but also a fantastic look at another way of producing food that embodies an appreciation for the complexities of nature and the sacred nature of our relationship with the Earth and its inhabitants.
Pollan is a fantastically talented author whose gentle approach to contentious topics serves not to bash the reader's mind against the brick wall of Truth, but rather to illustrate three different ways of producing food and ask the reader to take from each what they will according to their own personal values system. Of course, he also asks the reader to challenge that value system to see if it is worthwhile, but every good author should do that.
I've already passed my copy on to another friend and (if it is ever returned to me) know of a dozen more that I want to have read it....more
I have a deep and abiding fear of zombies. I spend more time thinking about what to do in the event of a zombie outbreak than is probably good for oneI have a deep and abiding fear of zombies. I spend more time thinking about what to do in the event of a zombie outbreak than is probably good for one's mental health. But then I also a good amount of time worrying about giant squid attacks as well, so perhaps my fears aren't the most rational. Regardless, some wise person whose name I have long forgotten once said that if you faced you fears you would realize how foolish they were. I tried this with sharks once and ended up far more afraid than I originally was. This is not the case with Serpent and the Rainbow.
Author Wade Davis is an ethnobotanist from Cambridge who ventures to Haiti after two cases of zombis come to the attention of medical staff on the island. Funded by a group of scientists eager to learn the secret potion used to make one appear dead and then miraculously rise again some time later, Davis begins to peel apart the layers of mystique and tradition that serve to create the soul of Haiti, and which once allowed it to be the only country to successfully free itself from slavery in the history of Western domination of the Americas. As the answer to the mystery of the zombi reveals itself, Davis gains entry into the secret voudoun societies that serve as the spiritual guides and enforcers of Haitian life.
Davis has crafted a fantastically interesting story that combines history, spirituality, and excitement in what can only be described as a real-life Indiana Jones adventure. I've been savoring this book for over a month for good cause, it's just that intriguing....more
This humorous compendium of the marvelous "Science Fiction Future Wasn't" is a little more brief than I would prefer but makes up for it with a fun toThis humorous compendium of the marvelous "Science Fiction Future Wasn't" is a little more brief than I would prefer but makes up for it with a fun tongue-in-cheek attitude and cute illustrations. Basically a series of short articles about various Sci-Fi innovations that would make our lives drastically easier (or at least so much cooler) the book looks at real-world attempts to build such things as self-driving cars (progressing pretty well), jet packs (sadly R&D on this wonderful concept is lacking), underwater cities (soon to open in sunny Dubai!), and hoverboards like Michael J. Fox used in "Back to the Future 2" (loud and slow, but they exist). It's a fun read but lacking in the detail that I would have preferred. Still, I'd keep "Where's my Jetpack" on the back of my toilet for some light reading....more