How David Beats Goliath

Monday, May 18th, 2009

A non-stop full-court press gives weak basketball teams a chance against far stronger teams — it’s how David beats Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell says — so, why have so few adopted it?, he asks.

He doesn’t really answer the question though, which opens up many game-theoretic avenues of thought.

Instead, he cites an amusing example, the “little blond girls” from Menlo Park and Redwood City who went to the National Junior Basketball championships under the coaching of Vivek Ranadivé, who had never played basketball growing up in Mumbai, but whose daughter, Anjali, played on the team:

A professional basketball game was forty-eight minutes long, divided up into alternating possessions of roughly twenty seconds: back and forth, back and forth. But a good half of each twenty-second increment was typically taken up with preliminaries and formalities. The point guard dribbled the ball up the court. He stood above the top of the key, about twenty-four feet from the opposing team’s basket. He called out a play that the team had choreographed a hundred times in practice. It was only then that the defending team sprang into action, actively contesting each pass and shot. Actual basketball took up only half of that twenty-second interval, so that a game’s real length was not forty-eight minutes but something closer to twenty-four minutes — and that twenty-four minutes of activity took place within a narrowly circumscribed area. It was as formal and as convention-bound as an eighteenth-century quadrille. The supporters of that dance said that the defensive players had to run back to their own end, in order to compose themselves for the arrival of the other team. But the reason they had to compose themselves, surely, was that by retreating they allowed the offense to execute a play that it had practiced to perfection.
Redwood City’s strategy was built around the two deadlines that all basketball teams must meet in order to advance the ball. The first is the inbounds pass. When one team scores, a player from the other team takes the ball out of bounds and has five seconds to pass it to a teammate on the court. If that deadline is missed, the ball goes to the other team. Usually, that’s not an issue, because teams don’t contest the inbounds pass. They run back to their own end. Redwood City did not. Each girl on the team closely shadowed her counterpart. When some teams play the press, the defender plays behind the offensive player she’s guarding, to impede her once she catches the ball. The Redwood City girls, by contrast, played in front of their opponents, to prevent them from catching the inbounds pass in the first place. And they didn’t guard the player throwing the ball in. Why bother? Ranadivé used that extra player as a floater, who could serve as a second defender against the other team’s best player. “Think about football,” Ranadivé said. “The quarterback can run with the ball. He has the whole field to throw to, and it’s still damned difficult to complete a pass.” Basketball was harder. A smaller court. A five-second deadline. A heavier, bigger ball. As often as not, the teams Redwood City was playing against simply couldn’t make the inbounds pass within the five-second limit. Or the inbounding player, panicked by the thought that her five seconds were about to be up, would throw the ball away. Or her pass would be intercepted by one of the Redwood City players. Ranadivé’s girls were maniacal.

The second deadline requires a team to advance the ball across mid-court, into its opponent’s end, within ten seconds, and if Redwood City’s opponents met the first deadline the girls would turn their attention to the second. They would descend on the girl who caught the inbounds pass and “trap” her. Anjali was the designated trapper. She’d sprint over and double-team the dribbler, stretching her long arms high and wide. Maybe she’d steal the ball. Maybe the other player would throw it away in a panic — or get bottled up and stalled, so that the ref would end up blowing the whistle. “When we first started out, no one knew how to play defense or anything,” Anjali said. “So my dad said the whole game long, ‘Your job is to guard someone and make sure they never get the ball on inbounds plays.’ It’s the best feeling in the world to steal the ball from someone. We would press and steal, and do that over and over again. It made people so nervous. There were teams that were a lot better than us, that had been playing a long time, and we would beat them.”

The Redwood City players would jump ahead 4–0, 6–0, 8–0, 12–0. One time, they led 25–0. Because they typically got the ball underneath their opponent’s basket, they rarely had to take low-percentage, long-range shots that required skill and practice. They shot layups. In one of the few games that Redwood City lost that year, only four of the team’s players showed up. They pressed anyway. Why not? They lost by three points.

“What that defense did for us is that we could hide our weaknesses,” Rometra Craig said. She helped out once Redwood City advanced to the regional championships. “We could hide the fact that we didn’t have good outside shooters. We could hide the fact that we didn’t have the tallest lineup, because as long as we played hard on defense we were getting steals and getting easy layups. I was honest with the girls. I told them, ‘We’re not the best basketball team out there.’ But they understood their roles.” A twelve-year-old girl would go to war for Rometra. “They were awesome,” she said. 

Gladwell emphasizes that the full-court press demands more effort and a higher level of fitness, and he seems baffled that the other teams coaches and parents would be downright angry about the press. The little blond girls are just trying harder.

What he ignores is that these are 13 year-old girls still learning the game, and that a press works much better against easily flustered young players — and it does this by keeping them from using the skills they’re trying to learn. The youth league isn’t an end in itself; it’s training for the older leagues.

The Mismatch Problem

Thursday, June 5th, 2008

In his speech at the recent New Yorker conference, Malcolm Gladwell explains the mismatch between the metrics we use to assess potential new hires and new hires’ actual performance on the job. (This is the subject of his upcoming book, Outliers: Why Some People Succeed and Some Don’t.)

If we look at professional-sport combines, teacher credentials, and law-school applications, they have zero predictive capacity. The best quarterbacks score the worst on the IQ test given to quarterbacks, teachers with additional training and credentials teach no better than other teachers, and lawyers who get into a prestigious law school via affirmative action do just as well in their career as higher-scoring lawyers.

But I think he misses — or skirts — the issue of why these predictive metrics aren’t very predictive. It’s not simply that hard, objective criteria are bad. If you have a set of physical metrics that predict athletic performance in the population at large — height, weight, vertical leap, etc. — they won’t predict performance in a tiny sample of athletes who have already been selected for a particular level of performance. In the case of athletes at a combine, of course, these are athletes in the top fraction of a percent of players, but the same thing would presumably happen if we looked only at players between the 50th and 51st percentile.

In the case of teachers, the issue is that the training and credentialing have never been intended to improve teaching performance. The credentials are there to keep out competition. It is a highly unionized profession, after all.

A bigger issue in Gladwell’s analysis though — at least as far as I can tell from his short speech, which is just a summary — is how he defines good and bad teachers. Apparently he defines good teachers as those whose students improved the most in percentile rank over the school year and bad teachers as those whose students dropped the most in percentile rank over the school year, which seems like it would grossly exaggerate the performance difference between good and bad teachers, because the teacher is just one tiny variable in a system with a lot of noise — and because percentile scores aren’t z-scores. (A jump of one standard deviation can take you from 31st percentile to 69th, a 38-rank jump, or from 97.7th to 99.9th, a 2-rank jump.) I suppose I’ll have to see the study he’s referencing.

Gladwell’s last example seems particularly odd, given that we know that affirmative action backfires when law schools admit less-qualified black applicants:

Easily the most startling conclusion of his research: [UCLA law professor Richard] Sander calculated that there are fewer black attorneys today than there would have been if law schools had practiced color-blind admissions — about 7.9% fewer by his reckoning. He identified the culprit as the practice of admitting minority students to schools for which they are inadequately prepared. In essence, they have been “matched” to the wrong school.
While some students will outperform their entering academic credentials, just as some students will underperform theirs, most students will perform in the range that their academic credentials predict. As a result, in elite law schools, 51.6% of black students had first-year grade point averages in the bottom 10% of their class as opposed to only 5.6% of white students. Nearly identical performance gaps existed at law schools at all levels. This much is uncontroversial.
The Sander study argued that the most plausible explanation is that, as a result of affirmative action, black and white students with similar credentials are not attending the same schools. The white students are more likely to be attending a school that takes things a little more slowly and spends more time on matters that are covered on the bar exam. They are learning, while their minority peers are struggling at more elite schools.

Mr. Sander calculated that if law schools were to use color-blind admissions policies, fewer black law students would be admitted to law schools (3,182 students instead of 3,706), but since those who were admitted would be attending schools where they have a substantial likelihood of doing well, fewer would fail or drop out (403 vs. 670). In the end, more would pass the bar on their first try (1,859 vs. 1,567) and more would eventually pass the bar (2,150 vs. 1,981) than under the current system of race preferences. Obviously, these figures are just approximations, but they are troubling nonetheless.

On the other hand, “success” — unlike bar-exam pass rates — can be hard to measure, and potential lawyers may vary dramatically in how much “success” they achieve, because such success means great sacrifice, a point Gladwell has made elsewhere:

But what did Hunter achieve with that best-students model? In the nineteen-eighties, a handful of educational researchers surveyed the students who attended the elementary school between 1948 and 1960. [The results were published in 1993 as “Genius Revisited: High IQ Children Grown Up,” by Rena Subotnik, Lee Kassan, Ellen Summers, and Alan Wasser.] This was a group with an average I.Q. of 157 — three and a half standard deviations above the mean—who had been given what, by any measure, was one of the finest classroom experiences in the world. As graduates, though, they weren’t nearly as distinguished as they were expected to be. “Although most of our study participants are successful and fairly content with their lives and accomplishments,” the authors conclude, “there are no superstars . . . and only one or two familiar names.” The researchers spend a great deal of time trying to figure out why Hunter graduates are so disappointing, and end up sounding very much like Wilbur Bender. Being a smart child isn’t a terribly good predictor of success in later life, they conclude. “Non-intellective” factors — like motivation and social skills — probably matter more. Perhaps, the study suggests, “after noting the sacrifices involved in trying for national or world-class leadership in a field, H.C.E.S. graduates decided that the intelligent thing to do was to choose relatively happy and successful lives.” It is a wonderful thing, of course, for a school to turn out lots of relatively happy and successful graduates. But Harvard didn’t want lots of relatively happy and successful graduates. It wanted superstars, and Bender and his colleagues recognized that if this is your goal a best-students model isn’t enough.

In the Air

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell says that great ideas must be floating In the Air, because great minds keep independently discovering them:

This phenomenon of simultaneous discovery — what science historians call “multiples” — turns out to be extremely common. One of the first comprehensive lists of multiples was put together by William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas, in 1922, and they found a hundred and forty-eight major scientific discoveries that fit the multiple pattern. Newton and Leibniz both discovered calculus. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both discovered evolution. Three mathematicians “invented” decimal fractions. Oxygen was discovered by Joseph Priestley, in Wiltshire, in 1774, and by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, in Uppsala, a year earlier. Color photography was invented at the same time by Charles Cros and by Louis Ducos du Hauron, in France. Logarithms were invented by John Napier and Henry Briggs in Britain, and by Joost Bürgi in Switzerland.

“There were four independent discoveries of sunspots, all in 1611; namely, by Galileo in Italy, Scheiner in Germany, Fabricius in Holland and Harriott in England,” Ogburn and Thomas note, and they continue:

The law of the conservation of energy, so significant in science and philosophy, was formulated four times independently in 1847, by Joule, Thomson, Colding and Helmholz. They had been anticipated by Robert Mayer in 1842. There seem to have been at least six different inventors of the thermometer and no less than nine claimants of the invention of the telescope. Typewriting machines were invented simultaneously in England and in America by several individuals in these countries. The steamboat is claimed as the “exclusive” discovery of Fulton, Jouffroy, Rumsey, Stevens and Symmington.

For Ogburn and Thomas, the sheer number of multiples could mean only one thing: scientific discoveries must, in some sense, be inevitable. They must be in the air, products of the intellectual climate of a specific time and place.

Dangerous Minds

Saturday, January 26th, 2008

In Dangerous Minds, which originally ran in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell puts criminal profiling under the magnifying glass, and he finds that it bears an uncanny resemblance to cold reading:

A few years ago, Alison went back to the case of the teacher who was murdered on the roof of her building in the Bronx. He wanted to know why, if the F.B.I.’s approach to criminal profiling was based on such simplistic psychology, it continues to have such a sterling reputation. The answer, he suspected, lay in the way the profiles were written, and, sure enough, when he broke down the rooftop-killer analysis, sentence by sentence, he found that it was so full of unverifiable and contradictory and ambiguous language that it could support virtually any interpretation.

Astrologers and psychics have known these tricks for years. The magician Ian Rowland, in his classic “The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading,” itemizes them one by one, in what could easily serve as a manual for the beginner profiler. First is the Rainbow Ruse—the “statement which credits the client with both a personality trait and its opposite.” (“I would say that on the whole you can be rather a quiet, self effacing type, but when the circumstances are right, you can be quite the life and soul of the party if the mood strikes you.”) The Jacques Statement, named for the character in “As You Like It” who gives the Seven Ages of Man speech, tailors the prediction to the age of the subject. To someone in his late thirties or early forties, for example, the psychic says, “If you are honest about it, you often get to wondering what happened to all those dreams you had when you were younger.” There is the Barnum Statement, the assertion so general that anyone would agree, and the Fuzzy Fact, the seemingly factual statement couched in a way that “leaves plenty of scope to be developed into something more specific.” (“I can see a connection with Europe, possibly Britain, or it could be the warmer, Mediterranean part?”) And that’s only the start: there is the Greener Grass technique, the Diverted Question, the Russian Doll, Sugar Lumps, not to mention Forking and the Good Chance Guess—all of which, when put together in skillful combination, can convince even the most skeptical observer that he or she is in the presence of real insight.

“Moving on to career matters, you don’t work with children, do you?” Rowland will ask his subjects, in an example of what he dubs the “Vanishing Negative.”

No, I don’t.

“No, I thought not. That’s not really your role.”

Of course, if the subject answers differently, there’s another way to play the question: “Moving on to career matters, you don’t work with children, do you?”

I do, actually, part time.

“Yes, I thought so.”

After Alison had analyzed the rooftop-killer profile, he decided to play a version of the cold-reading game. He gave the details of the crime, the profile prepared by the F.B.I., and a description of the offender to a group of senior police officers and forensic professionals in England. How did they find the profile? Highly accurate. Then Alison gave the same packet of case materials to another group of police officers, but this time he invented an imaginary offender, one who was altogether different from Calabro. The new killer was thirty-seven years old. He was an alcoholic. He had recently been laid off from his job with the water board, and had met the victim before on one of his rounds. What’s more, Alison claimed, he had a history of violent relationships with women, and prior convictions for assault and burglary. How accurate did a group of experienced police officers find the F.B.I.’s profile when it was matched with the phony offender? Every bit as accurate as when it was matched to the real offender.

Why Some People Are Lucky

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

Watch this video. (It’s a Java applet.) When viewing the video, try to count the total number of times that the people wearing white pass the basketball. Do not count the passes made by the people wearing black.

Watch the video. I’ll wait.

I’ve commented on that video before, but it turns out that it’s also a favorite of Richard Wiseman, who recently explained to Forbes
why some people are lucky:

The human brain is amazingly good at detecting what it wants to find. When you are hungry, your brain focuses on finding food. When you are thirsty, it looks for liquid. The problem is, your brain can become so focused on seeing what it expects to see, it misses things that are obvious but unexpected. Lucky people tend to have a somewhat relaxed view of life. They are less concerned with mundane details and more prone to look at the bigger picture. Ironically, by trying less, they see more.

Exactly the same principle applies to the opportunities that bombard us in everyday life. In another experiment, I gave some volunteers a newspaper and asked them to look through it and tell me how many photographs were inside. What I didn’t tell them was that halfway through the newspaper I had placed an unexpected opportunity. This “opportunity” took up half a page and announced, in huge type, “Win £100 by telling the experimenter you have seen this.” The unlucky people tended to be so focused on counting the photographs they failed to notice the opportunity. In contrast, the lucky people were more relaxed, saw the bigger picture and so spotted a chance to win £100.

There’s more. “Lucky people possess a whole host of opportunity-attracting traits.”

You will quickly exhaust your potential opportunities if you keep talking to the same people, taking the same route to and from work and going to the same places on holiday. But introducing new or random experiences is like visiting a new part of the orchard–suddenly you are surrounded by hundreds of apples.

Lucky people had developed various interesting ways of introducing such variety. One noticed that whenever he went to a party, he tended to talk to the same type of people. To help disrupt this routine, he randomly chose a color before arriving at the party, and then only spoke to people wearing that color of clothing at the party.

Yet another trait:

Lucky people experience a large number of seemingly chance encounters. They bump into someone at a party, discover that they know people in common, and from these connections end up getting married or doing business together. Or when they need something, they always seem to know someone who knows someone who can solve their problem.

I wondered if these “small world” experiences were due to knowing a large number of people, and being tied into more elaborate social networks than most. To discover if this was the case and quantify the nature of these networks, I employed a method described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point. To explore the notion of social connectivity, Gladwell carried out an informal study in which he presented people with a list of surnames and asked them to indicate if they knew people with that surname. Similarly, I asked hundreds of lucky and unlucky people to look at a list of 15 common surnames, and indicate if they were on first-name terms with at least one person with each surname.

The results were dramatic and demonstrated the huge relationship between luck and social connectivity. Almost 50% of lucky people ticked eight or more of the names, compared with just 25% of unlucky people. Further work has shown lucky people tend to be extroverts who both meet a large number of people and keep in contact with them. The building and maintaining of such social networks significantly increases the likelihood of having a “lucky” chance encounter.

Open Secrets

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2007

In Open Secrets, Malcolm Gladwell looks at the differences between puzzles and mysteries:

The national-security expert Gregory Treverton has famously made a distinction between puzzles and mysteries. Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. We can’t find him because we don’t have enough information. The key to the puzzle will probably come from someone close to bin Laden, and until we can find that source bin Laden will remain at large.

The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn’t a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much. The C.I.A. had a position on what a post-invasion Iraq would look like, and so did the Pentagon and the State Department and Colin Powell and Dick Cheney and any number of political scientists and journalists and think-tank fellows. For that matter, so did every cabdriver in Baghdad.

The distinction is not trivial. If you consider the motivation and methods behind the attacks of September 11th to be mainly a puzzle, for instance, then the logical response is to increase the collection of intelligence, recruit more spies, add to the volume of information we have about Al Qaeda. If you consider September 11th a mystery, though, you’d have to wonder whether adding to the volume of information will only make things worse. You’d want to improve the analysis within the intelligence community; you’d want more thoughtful and skeptical people with the skills to look more closely at what we already know about Al Qaeda. You’d want to send the counterterrorism team from the C.I.A. on a golfing trip twice a month with the counterterrorism teams from the F.B.I. and the N.S.A. and the Defense Department, so they could get to know one another and compare notes.

If things go wrong with a puzzle, identifying the culprit is easy: it’s the person who withheld information. Mysteries, though, are a lot murkier: sometimes the information we’ve been given is inadequate, and sometimes we aren’t very smart about making sense of what we’ve been given, and sometimes the question itself cannot be answered. Puzzles come to satisfying conclusions. Mysteries often don’t.

To see how that ties in with Enron and mark-to-market accounting, read the whole article.

Book Consciousness

Friday, August 25th, 2006

Nick Szabo describes book consciousness:

Marshall McLuhan, Elizabeth Eisenstein and others have described the importance of the “printing revolution” to European developments such the Reformation, Renaissance, and science. According to Eisenstein, printing finally foiled the entropy that had destroyed the vast majority of written works since ancient times. Printing also enlarged the bookshelves of scholars all over Europe: by a factor of fifty or more by the middle of the 16th century.

I’d go even farther than Eisenstein. Printing soon brought literacy to vast numbers of people (eventually to the vast majority of us). Printing, especially printing in newly standardized vernaculars, changed the very consciousness of people, and turned a small corner of the world, Western Europe, into a culture that in many ways conquered the world. Widespread decentralized printing and the accompanying book markets, new schools, and rise of literacy gave rise to a new form of consciousness — book consciousness.

Colombus was among the first generation of navigators who had been reading avidly and widely since a child. On his bookshelf was Marco Polo’s Travels. On his voyages he carried maps made by geographers who had been literate sincethey were children, and he carried astronomical tables that had been printed widely across Europe. These tables had been made by a Hungarian-Italian mathematician whose bookshelf was full of ancient Greek science and mathematics. Such information had been rather inferior and far less available just a few decades before.

With the easy conquest by tiny Portugal of Asia’s vast and ancient sea trade routes, rapidly literizing Western Europeans were by the early 16th century demonstrating a vast superiority in naval affairs. In navigation as in battle officers using accurate charts and astronomical tables were at a premium. (Europeans did not have quite such good luck on land against the Turks). Western Europeans would retain completely uncontested (except among each other) naval superiority on the world’s oceans until the Japanese victory over Russia in the early 20th century. The Japanse by then had long since taken up printing and had a very well read population . Even on the ground by the 18th century English merchants, officers, and civil servants, practically all of them literate and widely read since young children, were finding it quite easy to conquer and take over the administration in far larger and otherwise highly advanced civilizations like India.

Szabo notes that widespread literacy allowed western organizations to grow beyond the Dunbar number, which was popularized by Gladwell in The Tipping Point as the “rule of 150″:

Soon after the spread of the printing press, the very fundamentals of organization in Western Europe began to change. In the late Middle Ages organizations, even royal and papal bureaucracies and banking “super-companies”, rarely engaged more than a few dozen employees. Organizational size came up against the severe limit of the Dunbar number. By the end ofthe 16th century, the colonial companies and bureaucracies of Spain and Portugal were vast, highly literate, and well coordinated. Officer corps had often been raised on military books and thus able to draw lessons from a wide variety of ancient and recent battles. Even a minor salt extractor in Wear, England, was employing 300 men by the mid 16th century. (Large organizations in manufacturing would largely have to wait until the 18th century and the industrial revolution, however).

Read the whole article.

Incidentally, the Dunbar number has also been popularized as the “monkeysphere”:

In its popularization, the research of Dunbar and others is taken as an upper bound of the number of fellow humans that an individual can view as being “truly human”. In this form, the “monkeysphere” functions as a reductionistic and biologistic explanation for why humans can treat some humans with consideration and other humans indifferently or even inhumanely.

Some example explanations using the notion of a monkeysphere are:

  • “Whenever you make new close personal friends, you have to drop some old personal friends to make room for them in your monkeysphere.”
  • “The reason that the people in village X don’t mind doing Y to the people in village Z is because the people in village Z are not in the monkeysphere of people in village X.”
  • “Because the number of people in that department exceeded 150, which is the size of the human monkeysphere, they had to split the department into two.”

The Case for Geothermal

Saturday, August 12th, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell’s father presents The Case for Geothermal:

Geothermal heating and cooling is based on one simple fact: that 6 feet down in the ground the temperature is the same — between 50?F and 60?F — the whole year round. This means that it is relatively cool in the summer, and relatively warm in the winter. Geothermal heating is thus quite different from solar heating: solar heating works worst when you most need it — in the cold, cloudy, snowy conditions of winter; the source for geothermal heating and cooling is not affected by the weather.

For geothermal cooling, all one needs to do is to circulate water in a pipe through the ground to cool it, and use this cool water to cool the air pumped through the house in the heating ducts.

For heating, there is an extra wrinkle. Most of us prefer the temperature in the house in the winter to be nearer 70?F then 60?F, so we need to raise the temperature of the relatively warm air a little.

Bulky man barely injured as car rolls over him

Tuesday, June 13th, 2006

From Bulky man barely injured as car rolls over him:

A 440 pound German man discovered that being overweight can be good for your health — if you get run over by a car.

German police said the extra body mass prevented the 30-year-old man from suffering potentially fatal injuries when a Volkswagen Polo drove over him after he braked suddenly on his bicycle at a crossroads and fell off in front of the car.

‘It certainly helped him in this case,’ said Sven-Marco Claus, a spokesman for police in the western town of Gifhorn on Monday. ‘Someone smaller would probably not have been so lucky.’

The man dislocated his hip, which local doctors put back in place, but otherwise suffered only scratches and a bloody nose from the underside of the vehicle, police said.

My first thought — after noting that the original German article almost certainly referred to him as a 200-kilogram man — was that he might not have had so much trouble braking and staying on his bike if he were leaner and more agile. Lance Armstrong never would have been hit.

In fact, the same concept holds for vehicles, where it’s called active safety. I cited Malcolm Gladwell’s Big and Bad on that topic a couple years ago:

Most of us think that S.U.V.s are much safer than sports cars. If you asked the young parents of America whether they would rather strap their infant child in the back seat of the TrailBlazer or the passenger seat of the Boxster, they would choose the TrailBlazer. We feel that way because in the TrailBlazer our chances of surviving a collision with a hypothetical tractor-trailer in the other lane are greater than they are in the Porsche. What we forget, though, is that in the TrailBlazer you’re also much more likely to hit the tractor-trailer because you can’t get out of the way in time. In the parlance of the automobile world, the TrailBlazer is better at “passive safety.” The Boxster is better when it comes to “active safety,” which is every bit as important.

Friday, February 24th, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell (Tipping Point, Blink) now has his own blog at

In the past year I have often been asked why I don’t have a blog. My answer was always that I write so much, already, that I don’t have time to write anything else. But, as should be obvious, I’ve now changed my mind. I have come (belatedly) to the conclusion that a blog can be a very valuable supplement to my books and the writing I do for the New Yorker. What I think I’d like to do is to use this forum to elaborate and comment on and correct and amend things that I have already written.

A Profile of the Author of ‘Blink’ and ‘The Tipping Point’

Sunday, February 12th, 2006

The New York Times has published A Profile of the Author of ‘Blink’ and ‘The Tipping Point’, Malcolm Gladwell:

He’s long cultivated the persona of the outsider. Gladwell, 42 though he looks younger, was born in England and grew up in rural Canada. His English father taught mathematics at the University of Waterloo, and his Jamaican mother is a psychotherapist. Gladwell studied history at the University of Toronto and wanted to go into advertising, but said he couldn’t find a job and became a journalist instead. After a stint at The American Spectator, a conservative political magazine, he joined The Washington Post in 1987. He covered business and science, and spent three years as New York bureau chief before Tina Brown, then editor of The New Yorker, hired him in 1996.

Gladwell, a self-described ‘right-winger’ as a kid — he had a poster of Ronald Reagan on his wall during college — notes that his politics have changed over the years. When he was growing up, Canada was ‘essentially a socialist country’ so ‘being a conservative was the kind of fun, radical thing to do,’ he said. ‘You couldn’t outflank the orthodoxy on the left the way that people traditionally did when they wanted to be rebels. There was only room on the right.’ Now, he plays the flip side: ‘I hate to be this reductive, but an awful lot of my ideology, it’s just Canadian. Canadians like small, modest things, right? We don’t believe in boasting. We think the world is basically a good place. We’re pretty optimistic. We think we ought to take care of each other,’ he said. ‘And it so happens that to be a Canadian in America is to seem quite radical.’

Million-Dollar Murray

Thursday, February 9th, 2006

In Million-Dollar Murray, Malcolm Gladwell explains “why problems like homelessness may be easier to solve than to manage”:

Johns and O’Bryan pleaded with Murray to quit drinking. A few years ago, he was assigned to a treatment program in which he was under the equivalent of house arrest, and he thrived. He got a job and worked hard. But then the program ended. “Once he graduated out, he had no one to report to, and he needed that,” O’Bryan said. “I don’t know whether it was his military background. I suspect that it was. He was a good cook. One time, he accumulated savings of over six thousand dollars. Showed up for work religiously. Did everything he was supposed to do. They said, ‘Congratulations,’ and put him back on the street. He spent that six thousand in a week or so.”
In the fall of 2003, the Reno Police Department started an initiative designed to limit panhandling in the downtown core. There were articles in the newspapers, and the police department came under harsh criticism on local talk radio. The crackdown on panhandling amounted to harassment, the critics said. The homeless weren’t an imposition on the city; they were just trying to get by. “One morning, I’m listening to one of the talk shows, and they’re just trashing the police department and going on about how unfair it is,” O’Bryan said. “And I thought, Wow, I’ve never seen any of these critics in one of the alleyways in the middle of the winter looking for bodies.” O’Bryan was angry. In downtown Reno, food for the homeless was plentiful: there was a Gospel kitchen and Catholic Services, and even the local McDonald’s fed the hungry. The panhandling was for liquor, and the liquor was anything but harmless. He and Johns spent at least half their time dealing with people like Murray; they were as much caseworkers as police officers. And they knew they weren’t the only ones involved. When someone passed out on the street, there was a “One down” call to the paramedics. There were four people in an ambulance, and the patient sometimes stayed at the hospital for days, because living on the streets in a state of almost constant intoxication was a reliable way of getting sick. None of that, surely, could be cheap.

O’Bryan and Johns called someone they knew at an ambulance service and then contacted the local hospitals. “We came up with three names that were some of our chronic inebriates in the downtown area, that got arrested the most often,” O’Bryan said. “We tracked those three individuals through just one of our two hospitals. One of the guys had been in jail previously, so he’d only been on the streets for six months. In those six months, he had accumulated a bill of a hundred thousand dollars—and that’s at the smaller of the two hospitals near downtown Reno. It’s pretty reasonable to assume that the other hospital had an even larger bill. Another individual came from Portland and had been in Reno for three months. In those three months, he had accumulated a bill for sixty-five thousand dollars. The third individual actually had some periods of being sober, and had accumulated a bill of fifty thousand.”

The first of those people was Murray Barr, and Johns and O’Bryan realized that if you totted up all his hospital bills for the ten years that he had been on the streets—as well as substance-abuse-treatment costs, doctors’ fees, and other expenses—Murray Barr probably ran up a medical bill as large as anyone in the state of Nevada.

“It cost us one million dollars not to do something about Murray,” O’Bryan said.

The key point:

Homelessness doesn’t have a normal distribution, it turned out. It has a power-law distribution. “We found that eighty per cent of the homeless were in and out really quickly,” he said. “In Philadelphia, the most common length of time that someone is homeless is one day. And the second most common length is two days. And they never come back. Anyone who ever has to stay in a shelter involuntarily knows that all you think about is how to make sure you never come back.”

The Bakeoff

Monday, November 21st, 2005

In The Bakeoff, Malcolm Gladwell looks at a cookie-baking Dream Team and compares it to a nuclear power plant crew and an open-source software development team:

The strength of the Dream Team — the fact that it had so many smart people on it — was also its weakness: it had too many smart people on it. Size provides expertise. But it also creates friction, and one of the truths Project Delta exposed is that we tend to overestimate the importance of expertise and underestimate the problem of friction. Gary Klein, a decision-making consultant, once examined this issue in depth at a nuclear power plant in North Carolina. In the nineteen-nineties, the power supply used to keep the reactor cool malfunctioned. The plant had to shut down in a hurry, and the shutdown went badly. So the managers brought in Klein’s consulting group to observe as they ran through one of the crisis rehearsals mandated by federal regulators. ‘The drill lasted four hours,’ David Klinger, the lead consultant on the project, recalled. ‘It was in this big operations room, and there were between eighty and eighty-five people involved. We roamed around, and we set up a video camera, because we wanted to make sense of what was happening.’

When the consultants asked people what was going on, though, they couldn’t get any satisfactory answers. ‘Each person only knew a little piece of the puzzle, like the radiation person knew where the radiation was, or the maintenance person would say, ‘I’m trying to get this valve closed,’ ‘ Klinger said. ‘No one had the big picture. We started to ask questions. We said, ‘What is your mission?’ And if the person didn’t have one, we said, ‘Get out.’ There were just too many people. We ended up getting that team down from eighty-five to thirty-five people, and the first thing that happened was that the noise in the room was dramatically reduced.’ The room was quiet and calm enough so that people could easily find those they needed to talk to. ‘At the very end, they had a big drill that the N.R.C. was going to regulate. The regulators said it was one of their hardest drills. And you know what? They aced it.’ Was the plant’s management team smarter with thirty-five people on it than it was with eighty-five? Of course not, but the expertise of those additional fifty people was more than cancelled out by the extra confusion and noise they created.

The open-source movement has had the same problem. The number of people involved can result in enormous friction.

Getting In

Thursday, October 6th, 2005

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest piece, Getting In is a must-read:

In 1905, Harvard College adopted the College Entrance Examination Board tests as the principal basis for admission, which meant that virtually any academically gifted high-school senior who could afford a private college had a straightforward shot at attending. By 1908, the freshman class was seven per cent Jewish, nine per cent Catholic, and forty-five per cent from public schools, an astonishing transformation for a school that historically had been the preserve of the New England boarding-school complex known in the admissions world as St. Grottlesex.


The enrollment of Jews began to rise dramatically. By 1922, they made up more than a fifth of Harvard’s freshman class. The administration and alumni were up in arms. Jews were thought to be sickly and grasping, grade-grubbing and insular. They displaced the sons of wealthy Wasp alumni, which did not bode well for fund-raising. A. Lawrence Lowell, Harvard’s president in the nineteen-twenties, stated flatly that too many Jews would destroy the school: “The summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews meets its fate … because they drive away the Gentiles, and then after the Gentiles have left, they leave also.”

Definitely read the whole article.

Brain Candy

Friday, May 20th, 2005

In Brain Candy, Malcolm Gladwell reviews Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good for You — which I assume I’ll buy and read but haven’t yet:

One of the ongoing debates in the educational community, similarly, is over the value of homework. Meta-analysis of hundreds of studies done on the effects of homework shows that the evidence supporting the practice is, at best, modest. Homework seems to be most useful in high school and for subjects like math. At the elementary-school level, homework seems to be of marginal or no academic value. Its effect on discipline and personal responsibility is unproved. And the causal relation between high-school homework and achievement is unclear: it hasn’t been firmly established whether spending more time on homework in high school makes you a better student or whether better students, finding homework more pleasurable, spend more time doing it. So why, as a society, are we so enamored of homework? Perhaps because we have so little faith in the value of the things that children would otherwise be doing with their time. They could go out for a walk, and get some exercise; they could spend time with their peers, and reap the rewards of friendship. Or, Johnson suggests, they could be playing a video game, and giving their minds a rigorous workout.