I often tell people that I’ve probably finished 5 books in my life. I mean it as a joke, but it probably isn’t too far from the truth. My completion percentage probably hovers around 10%… maybe less. However, when the author is Malcolm Gladwell it jumps up to 100%. That’s how good of an author I think he is. He has a way of explaining oddities of human psychology that is truly entertaining. Now if only I could convince him to write about MonaVie and other MLM scams…
So it was little surprise when last year for Christmas, that I opened up a gift and saw his most recent book, What the Dog Saw. What was surprising is that my dog somehow went to the Barnes and Noble, got it on a discount, and signed the car. (Perhaps he got a little help from my wife.)
Typically, I only read books on vacation. They are good by the pool or in an airplane. The rest of the time, I’ve got the web to keep me entertained. After 10 months of sitting on the shelf, our trip to Aruba got this book into action. As expected, it was another masterpiece by Gladwell. Usually, I don’t review books. It takes a lot longer to go through 350 pages and write 3200 words on the topic. However, I really think everyone should read this book and this review may convince you of that.
This book isn’t like his other books. It is a compilation of articles that he has written for The New Yorker over the last 14 years. There isn’t really any new material. It’s as if I just put together a bunch of blog posts about how to save money and made a book (perhaps something you’ll see someday in electronic version). What the Dog Saw is divided into three parts. I’ll go through each chapter, set it up a bit, and say a little bit about what I learned in it. (Feel free to skip around, I wouldn’t have the patience to read it all myself)
- Obsessives, Pioneers, and Other Varieties of Minor Genius
- The Pitchman – Ron Popeil and the Conquest of the American Kitchen
The story of Ron Popeil is more interesting that I imagined. You probably know him for the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie and the famous saying of “Set it and forget it.” While it is clear that he is quite the salesman, I didn’t know that it ran in the family… and that he’d been doing it long before informercials made him famous. I learned quite a bit about how to sell a product and also about Popeil’s obsession with testing his product until it is perfect. Just reading this chapter made me think that I need to pick up a few Ronco products.
– Mustard Now Comes in Dozens of Varieties. Why Has Ketchup Stayed the Same?
Turns out that ketchup is fairly unique. It hits all five fundamental tastes. Basic mustard, on the other hand, doesn’t. So you get a variety for people who like things a little more sweet or a little more salty. Turns out that there are 36 kinds of Ragu spaghetti sauce because people’s palates are so different, but when it comes to ketchup – it is pretty much the same. I also learned that umami is a taste. Next time I’m a dinner party, I’m going to try the “Ohh, there’s so much umami, I’m overwhelmed with joy.” …or maybe not.
- Blowing Up – How Nassim Taleb Turned the Inevitabiility of Disaster into an Investment Strategy
This is probably on of the more topic stories for this website. However, it is also one of the more complex ones to tell as it involves options trading. The idea is that Nassim Taleb realized that financial disaster is inevitable. His interesting investment strategy involves buying options that almost always expire worthlessly. However, when events like September 11 happen or the financial crisis that we saw in 2008-2009, he makes big money. If you think about it, it kind of makes sense. Disaster can cut major market indexes in half really in a span of a few days. However, you never see the opposite and see good news boost the major indexes to double their previous levels in a short time.
- True Colors – Hair Dye and the Hidden History of the Postwar America
Gladwell does what he does best… take something like hair dye and make it interesting (and not like I tried). In the 1950’s it was very taboo for women to dye their hair. Shirley Polykoff made Clairol famous with the pitch, “Does she or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure.” The pitch was tied in with mother-daughter activities to make it seem normal aiming for the girl-next door types. In 1973, L’Oreal’s Preference struck it big with the famous “Because I’m worth it” campaign. That was geared towards career-oriented women (and you see it with the women used to pitched the product from Cybill Shepherd from Moonlighting and Heather Locklear in Melrose Place). In short, you can see how hair dye pitches changed with the times.
Today, the two companies still have ties back to their original message, but it’s much more tempered. The advertising is starting to converge.
- John Rock’s Error – What the Inventor of the Birth Control Pill Didn’t know about Women’s Health
When John Rock invented the birth control pill his idea was to come up with a natural contraceptive. As a practicing Catholic, he figured that it would be accepted by the church as the hormones were natural. The church didn’t agree. However, it turns out that the pill may help with breast cancer. Thus it can be seen as a way of saving lives, not preventing them.
- What the Dog Saw – Cesar Millan and the Movements of Mastery
This chapter is very much a lesson in the importance of non-verbal communication. Dogs are amazingly good at detecting human cues… better than chimpanzees (who are smarter than dogs). When a dance-movement psychotherapist, Suzi Tortora, looks at Cesar Millan, a dog trainer, she notices that he is a master of non-verbal communication. He has subconsciously become an expert in how to talk to your dog.
- Open Secrets – Enron, Intelligence, and the Perils of Too Much Information
National security expert Gregory Treverton has makes a case for their being a difference between a puzzle and a mystery. A puzzle is something that can be solved. For example, the United States is trying to figure out the puzzle of Osama bin Laden’s location. If given enough intelligence about the problem, the puzzle can be more easily solved. Mysteries are different. Trying to figure out if someone is going to crash a plane into a building on September 11 is more of a mystery. Given more information, the mystery can be harder to solve. It’s almost like trying to predict the winner of a football game. More statistics give you, well, more statistics.
Gladwell makes a good case in that this is exactly what happened with Enron. While everything they were doing was in the open, you had to read some 3 million pages of information to dig through all the business entities and the relationships that were set up. Enron got away with what they were doing for a long time. In perhaps a nod to an earlier Gladwell book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, a group of Cornell University students looked at the financial ratios of Enron and came to the conclusion that there were questions with its business model and that it may be manipulating earnings. Mystery solved.
- Million-Dollar Murray – Why Problems like Homelessness May Be Easier to Solve than to Manage
This was perhaps my favorite chapter in the book. Murray is Reno’s homeless town drunk… but a lovable one like a Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile sort of way. He was on a first name basis with the police and hospital workers because every night he ended up in one of those places. When he dies, the city realized that cost them a million dollars in hospital bills and police expenses. It would have been cheaper to just give him a home and pay someone to watch him (he was a productive member of society when he was supervised).
So that’s what some people proposed, give the problem drunks some housing and some structure to save the people money. It turns out that it works too. It solves 80% of the homeless problem (roughly). However, how do you tell other homeless that they just haven’t caused enough problems to get a free ride yet? That’s a social issue that is very, very complex… perhaps unsolvable.
- The Picture Problem – Mammography, Air Power, and the Limits of Looking
Gladwell explains that mammograms are difficult to interpret. You can get 5 experts to say 5 different things sometimes. Satellite photos have the same issue. That’s why someone may say that they see a truck moving a weapon of mass destruction when it could be oil truck or a fire truck.
- Something Borrowed – Should a Charge of Plagiarism Ruin Your Life?
This was a unique chapter, because Gladwell actually plays a role in the story instead of just reporting it. A Broadway play, Frozen, is written about the life of a forensic investigator. The forensic investigator sees the play and realizes that the play is based on her memoir. Obviously upset, she lawyers up. In the process it turns out that the person who made the play stole words from Gladwell’s own review of the forensic investigator. Turns out that the playwright had been quoted years before the plagiarism that she borrowed from the forensic investigator’s life. So the playwright was only stealing a few of Gladwell’s words
Gladwell explores the difference between the playwright using a few of his sentences and a musician sampling a few notes of music. Interesting, but I didn’t learn too much.
- Connecting the Dots – The Paradoxes of Intelligence Reform
This was my least favorite chapter. It is a bit like the chapter on too much information that I mentioned earlier. When you gather intelligence, there are going to be a lot of false-positives. Deciding which intelligence is credible and which is not, is extremely difficult. So when something like September 11th happens, you can look back in hindsight and make sense of the intelligence… but the intelligence was vague enough to apply to many things.
- The Art of Failure – Why Some People Choke and Others Panic
When you get to be an expert at something, you tend to stop thinking about the lower-level details on how to do it. For instance, I’m a pretty decent Wii Tennis player, but when I was learning, I had to think about every swing. Now I just react without thinking. Years ago, Chuck Knoblauch of the New York Yankees had a problem where he’d through the ball into the stands… even on very basic plays he’s made thousands of times before high school. This is choking… and it happens to athletes when their “react” fails and they have to start thinking. Then they have to resort to doing something they haven’t had to do in years… and failure happens.
Gladwell argues that panic is different. He points out that in a panic, people stop thinking clearly. They could be expert pilots or scuba divers, and have a very obvious solution right in front of them. However, panic has clouded their ability to see the solution.
- Blowup – What can be Blamed for a Disaster like the Challenger Explosion? No one, and We’d Better Get Used to It.
Complex systems fail. You can have all the safeguards in the world, but you disaster inevitably happens. As you can imagine this chapter fits well with Blowing Up above as Nassim Taleb investing philosophy is that disaster inevitably happens. Sadly, Gladwell didn’t tie these two stories together as they seemed like a natural fit.
- Late Bloomers – Why Do We Equate Genius with Precocity
Gladwell explores two types of geniuses… the ones who are instant geniuses and the ones who fail quite a bit before finally succeeding. He finds that those late blooming geniuses had a lot of support from people behind the scenes. How many geniuses have we lost because these people didn’t have proper support?
- Most Likely to Succeed – How Do We Hire When We Can’t Tell Who’s Right for the Job
How is a football quarterback like a teacher? You can’t tell if you have a good one until you put them to the test. A quarterback could be great in college and fail at the professional level and vice-versa. Football teams pass up the Tom Brady’s and draft the JaMarcus Russell’s early. A teacher can have a lot of education and not necessarily be a good teacher.
- Dangerous Minds – Criminal Profiling Made Easy
Turns out that criminal profilers are all scammers. Or at least that’s Gladwell’s case. They use a set of ambiguity tricks similar to psychics. Apparently you just need to pick up The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading and start practicing.
- The Talent Myth – Are Smart People Overrated?
Gladwell looks at the difference between a few companies. Some, like Enron, hired the smartest people available and let them do what they want. If they wanted to create a new division, go for it. There’s too much trust in these people who have shown “talent” in the climb to the top. In contrast you have the Southwest Airlines of the world. They hire very few of the brightest MBAs. Instead their organization structure is more sound.
- The New-Boy Network – What Do Job Interviews Really Tell Us?
This is another nod back to his Blink book. It turns out that many people make hiring decisions in the first minute. It seems job interviewers are dogs and we need be like Cesar Millan with the non-verbal cues.
- Troublemakers – What Pit Bulls Can Teach Us About Crime
Not all pit bulls are killers. You can usually predict when they’ll attack by looking at the circumstances around the attack. The owner is often neglectful. The dogs are properly socialized. They aren’t neutered. A small boy was teasing the dog. There are a bunch of warning signs we can look for. Turns out that in the past Huskies, German Shepherds, Akitas, and Dobermans, all have history of biting. Rarely a day goes by where I don’t exchange a nice pat with one of these dogs at the dog park. The lesson is that it isn’t necessary the type of dog.
The same is true about crime. We can’t look at young Arab or young Pakistani and make a generalization that they could be a pit bull. Instead, you want to look at the specifics and see if a person is behaving nervous, if their paperwork is off, if something is unusual about their physical appearance. Once airport security stopped looking at the type of people and more at the behavior of people, their success rate went up.