Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

What the Dog Saw and other adventures

Posted by nliakos on March 5, 2012

by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown 2009)

This was my first encounter with New Yorker essayist Malcolm Gladwell. The blurbs on the back jacket (Baltimore Sun, “Nobody else thinks the way he does;” Time, “He’s like an omniscient, many-armed Hindu goddess of anecdotes: he plucks them from every imaginable field of human endeavor;” Chicago Sun-Times, “he can look at seemingly mundane things…and find valuable lessons about what makes human beings human”) suggest  someone like John McPhee, whose writing I love. I dove right into the title essay, which was about “Dog Whisperer”, Cesar Millan, whose show I used to watch before the NatGeo channel was taken off the basic cable lineup, and I liked it.  Actually, I found pretty much every essay in the book very interesting and well worth reading.

The essays in the book are divided into three categories, though I must confess I don’t really understand the basis for their separation:

(1) Obsessives, Pioneers, and Other Varieties of Minor Genius;

  1. “The Pitchman: Ron Popeil and the Conquest of the American Kitchen”  A family who invent kitchen gadgets (e.g., rotisseries, food dehydrators, smokers) and sell them, at first live and then on night-time TV. (I keep wondering: how do you pronounce Popeil? Pop ALE?  POP ale? POP ile? pop EEL?) As one who always pretty much assumed those infomercials were lies, I was interested to learn that a lot of these gadgets are, according to Gladwell, really worth the money.
  2. “The Ketchup Conundrum: Mustard Now Comes in Dozens of Varieties. Why Has Ketchup Stayed the Same?” Good question, and one I had never thought of before.
  3. “Blowing Up: How Nassim Taleb Turned the Inevitability of Disaster into an Investment Strategy”  Empirica Capital’s CEO is a humble man. He knows he doesn’t know what the markets will do, so he ensures against disaster by buying everything. I realized that the so-called experts don’t really know all that much more than the rest of us.
  4. “Hair Dye and the Hidden History of America” Shirley Polakoff (“Only her hairdresser knows for sure” and Ilon Specht (“I’m worth it”), who changed the marketing of hair dye in America.
  5. “John Rock’s Error: What the Inventor of the Birth Control Pill Didn’t Know About Women’s Health” John Rock was the staunch Catholic doctor who invented the modern birth control pill. I learned from this essay that women did not evolve to menstruate every month from puberty to menopause, because primitive women spend so much time pregnant and nursing, so what we think of as normal and natural (monthly periods) is in fact extremely unnatural and possibly the cause of serious health problems. Birth control pills that decreased the frequency of menstruation would probably improve women’s health. Very, very interesting.
  6. “What the Dog Saw: Cesar Millan and the Movements of Mastery” I always wondered how Millan expects dog owners, who have created their dogs’ behavior problems in the first place, to just step into his shoes and be able to control their dogs without slipping back into their own bad habits, especially since a large part of his mystique is his air of confidence (Gladwell talks about the way he moves), which the owners lack after such prolonged failure to get their pets to behave. Maybe he doesn’t expect it.

(2)Theories, Predictions, and Diagnoses;

  1. “Open Secrets: Enron, Intelligence, and the Perils of Too Much Information” What’s the difference between a puzzle and a mystery? With a puzzle, you need to piece together all the information to get the answer, but with a mystery, there may not be a satisfactory conclusion at all. What happened at Enron is a mystery. Information about what Enron was doing was public and easily available (although hard to slog through); nobody was trying to hide anything. Cornell University graduate students, assigned to assess the worth of its stock, recognized that it was worthless. Why didn’t the rest opf the financial world pay any attention?
  2. “Million-Dollar Murray: Why Problems Like Homelessness May Be Easier to Solve Than to Manage”  Hard-core homelessness is not as prevalent as we think, and for some people, it may be more cost-effective, and also just more effective, to give them a place to live and some supervision, than to keep saving their lives in emergency rooms.
  3. “The Picture Problem: Mammography, Air Power, and the Limits of Looking” We trust what we see more than we trust what we feel, but sometimes we can get better information through our finger tips. And satellite photos of enemy installations are not as easy to read as people think.
  4. “Something Borrowed: Should a Charge of Plagiarism Ruin Your Life?” No, according to Gladwell, the victim of a plagiarist. Certainly not in this age of mashups.
  5. “Connecting the Dots: The Paradoxes of Intelligence Reform” Hindsight may be 20-20, but when a lot of “noise” obscures the important information, you can’t recognize its importance. We should stop blaming the intelligence community for not preventing the 9/11 attacks.
  6. “The Art of Failure: Why Some People Choke and Others Panic”  Choking is when you think too much (you become a beginner again at something you were expert at), and panicking is when your brain shuts down and you can’t think, or even see what’s in front of you.
  7. “Blowup: Who Can Be Blamed for a Disaster like the Challenger explosion? No One, and We’d Better Get Used to It” Kind of like “Connecting the Dots”. Unfair and inappropriate to go back and blame people for not knowing then what we know now. There’s a lot of conflicting data out there, and it’s only in retrospect that it looks as though someone should have known what was going to happen, and prevented it.

and (3) Personality, Character, and Intelligence.

  1. “Late Bloomers: Why Do We Equate Genius with Precocity?” Not every genius explodes out of the starter gate; some, like Paul Cézanne, need a lifetime, and a great deal of support from family, friends, and mentors, to achieve greatness. If we discourage all those who don’t show exceptional talent early in life, we lose some great artists and writers.
  2. “Most Likely to Succeed: How Do We Hire When We Can’t Tell Who’s Right for the Job?” Most interesting to me was the part about how what makes a teacher great is not what teachers study in school, but their ability to connect with their students and manage their classrooms. This quality could be recognized by observers watching a few seconds of a video; their assessments of teachers were essentially the same as those of students who spent an entire semester in those teachers’ classes. Also, what makes quarterbacks and financial advisors tick.
  3. “Dangerous Minds: Criminal Profiling Made Easy” Organized vs disorganized serial killers; FBI criminal profiling and its limitations.
  4. “The Talent Myth: Are Smart People Overrated?”  Yes, according to Gladwell, and I agree.  Again, how Enron screwed up.
  5. “The New-Boy Network: What Do Job Interviews Really Tell Us?”  Something about charisma, and whether we like an applicant, but not much about the sort of job s/he will do for us.
  6. “Troublemakers: What Pit Bulls Can teach Us About Crime”  Pit bulls were bred to be fearless fighters, but the vicious ones were made that way by their owners or trainers, who want vicious dogs.

Excellent book! Full of facts, very thought-provoking.

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