Malcolm Gladwell’s Advice to the Eagles

Tuesday, February 15th, 2005 interviewed Malcolm Gladwell and asked him (hypothetically) to advise the Eagles (before the Super Bowl). He fell back on one of Blink‘s anecdotes, about the military’s wargames going into Iraq:

Van Riper, in a sense, went to the ‘no-huddle’ against his much more formidable opponent. And his experience shows that being good at deliberate, conscious decision-making doesn’t make you good at instinctive decisions.

That’s why I’ve always been so surprised that more NFL teams don’t use the no-huddle. It’s not just that it forces your opponent to keep a specific defense on the field. It’s that it shifts the game cognitively: it forces coaches and defensive captains to think and react entirely in the instinctive ‘blink’ mode — and when teams aren’t prepared for that kind of fast-paced thinking crazy things happen, like Iraq beating the U.S. Andy Reid has to know that Belichick has an edge when he can calmly and deliberately plot his next move. But does he still have an advantage when he and his players have to make decisions on the spur of the moment? I’d tell Andy Reid to go no-huddle at random, unpredictable points during the game — to throw Belichick out of his comfort zone.

I had a self-defense (not martial arts, self-defense) instructor who shared deBecker’s philosophy:

DeBecker talked a lot about how rigorously he trains his people [at his personal security agency]. If the quality of our coordination and instinctive reactions breaks down when our heart rate gets above 145, he wants to expose his people to stressful situations over and over and over again until they can face them at 130, 110 or 90.

So he fires bullets at people, and does these utterly terrifying exercises involving angry pit bulls. The first and second and third and fourth time you run through one of deBecker’s training sessions you basically lose control of your bowels and take off like a scalded cat. By the fifth time, essential bodily functions start to return. By the 10th time, you can function as a normal human being.

This, by the way, is why police officers will tell you that you must practice dialing 911 at least once a week. Because if you don’t, when a burglar is actually in the next room, believe it or not you won’t be able to dial 911: you’ll forget the number, or you’ll have lost so many motor skills under the stress of the moment that your fingers won’t be able to pick out the buttons on the phone.

So I’d run quarterbacks who don’t do well under pressure through deBecker’s gauntlet — or any other kind of similar exercise so they have a sense of what REAL life-threatening stress feels like. I’d run them through a live-fire exercise at Quantico. I’d have them spend the offseason working with a trauma team in south-central L.A. It is only through repeated exposures to genuine stress that our body learns how to function effectively under that kind of pressure. I think its time we realized that a quarterback needs the same kind of exhaustive preparation for combat that we give bodyguards and soldiers.

The Accidental Guru

Sunday, January 2nd, 2005

Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, has a new book coming out, Blink, about how we make snap judgments. Tyler Cowen describes Malcolm Gladwell as “one of the most influential economic (and social) journalists today” and points us toward this profile, The Accidental Guru:

The impetus for Blink started with Gladwell’s hair (as did his brief splash in the gossip pages when he got ‘a little too close to some candles’ and it ignited during a recent literary event, according to the New York Post‘s Page Six). For most of his adult life, he had worn it closely cropped, but several years ago decided to let it grow out into a woolly Afro. ‘The first thing that started happening was I started getting speeding tickets. . . . I wasn’t driving any faster than I was before, I was just getting pulled over way more.’ Then there was the day Gladwell was walking around New York and cops surrounded him, mistaking him for a rape suspect. ‘I’m exactly the same person I was before,’ recalls Gladwell, who’s half black (his mother, a therapist, is Jamaican). ‘But I just altered the way someone makes up very superficial, rapid judgments about me.’ Rather than merely grouse — legitimately enough — about prejudice, Gladwell, who has the tendency to look in on his own life as a case study, was inspired to try to understand what happens beneath the surface of rapidly made decisions. ‘The idea that something that is extraordinarily harmful in society could be exactly the same in its form as something that’s incredibly useful is really interesting to me.’

The Vanishing

Tuesday, December 28th, 2004

In The Vanishing, Malcolm Gladwell reviews Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, a book that looks at many failures, including the collapse of Viking Greenland:

The Norse colonies in Greenland were law-abiding, economically viable, fully integrated communities, numbering at their peak five thousand people. They lasted for four hundred and fifty years — and then they vanished.
The problem with the settlements, Diamond argues, was that the Norse thought that Greenland really was green; they treated it as if it were the verdant farmland of southern Norway. [...] But Greenland’s ecosystem was too fragile to withstand that kind of pressure.
The Norse needed to reduce their reliance on livestock — particularly cows, which consumed an enormous amount of agricultural resources. But cows were a sign of high status; to northern Europeans, beef was a prized food. They needed to copy the Inuit practice of burning seal blubber for heat and light in the winter, and to learn from the Inuit the difficult art of hunting ringed seals, which were the most reliably plentiful source of food available in the winter. But the Norse had contempt for the Inuit — they called them skraelings, “wretches” — and preferred to practice their own brand of European agriculture. In the summer, when the Norse should have been sending ships on lumber-gathering missions to Labrador, in order to relieve the pressure on their own forestlands, they instead sent boats and men to the coast to hunt for walrus. Walrus tusks, after all, had great trade value. In return for those tusks, the Norse were able to acquire, among other things, church bells, stained-glass windows, bronze candlesticks, Communion wine, linen, silk, silver, churchmen’s robes, and jewelry to adorn their massive cathedral at Gardar, with its three-ton sandstone building blocks and eighty-foot bell tower. In the end, the Norse starved to death.

High Prices

Monday, November 1st, 2004

Malcolm Gladwell examines the High Prices of pharmaceuticals:

The “intolerable” prices that Angell writes about are confined to the brand-name sector of the American drug marketplace. As the economists Patricia Danzon and Michael Furukawa recently pointed out in the journal Health Affairs, drugs still under patent protection are anywhere from twenty-five to forty per cent more expensive in the United States than in places like England, France, and Canada. Generic drugs are another story. Because there are so many companies in the United States that step in to make drugs once their patents expire, and because the price competition among those firms is so fierce, generic drugs here are among the cheapest in the world. And, according to Danzon and Furukawa’s analysis, when prescription drugs are converted to over-the-counter status no other country even comes close to having prices as low as the United States.
The second misconception about prices has to do with their importance in driving up over-all drug costs. In one three-year period in the mid-nineteen-nineties, for example, the amount of money spent in the United States on asthma medication increased by almost a hundred per cent. But none of that was due to an increase in the price of asthma drugs. It was largely the result of an increase in the prevalence of usage — that is, in the number of people who were given a diagnosis of the disease and who then bought drugs to treat it. Part of that hundred-per-cent increase was also the result of a change in what’s known as the intensity of drug use: in the mid-nineties, doctors were becoming far more aggressive in their attempts to prevent asthma attacks, and in those three years people with asthma went from filling about nine prescriptions a year to filling fourteen prescriptions a year. Last year, asthma costs jumped again, by twenty-six per cent, and price inflation played a role. But, once again, the big factor was prevalence. And this time around there was also a change in what’s called the therapeutic mix; in an attempt to fight the disease more effectively, physicians are switching many of their patients to newer, better, and more expensive drugs, like Merck’s Singulair.

Asthma is not an isolated case. In 2003, the amount that Americans spent on cholesterol-lowering drugs rose 23.8 per cent, and similar increases are forecast for the next few years. Why the increase? Well, the baby boomers are aging, and so are at greater risk for heart attacks. The incidence of obesity is increasing. In 2002, the National Institutes of Health lowered the thresholds for when people with high cholesterol ought to start taking drugs like Lipitor and Mevacor. In combination, those factors are having an enormous impact on both the prevalence and the intensity of cholesterol treatment. All told, prescription-drug spending in the United States rose 9.1 per cent last year. Only three of those percentage points were due to price increases, however, which means that inflation was about the same in the drug sector as it was in the over-all economy. Angell’s book and almost every other account of the prescription-drug crisis take it for granted that cost increases are evidence of how we’ve been cheated by the industry. In fact, drug expenditures are rising rapidly in the United States not so much because we’re being charged more for prescription drugs but because more people are taking more medications in more expensive combinations. It?s not price that matters; it’s volume.

Big and Bad

Thursday, April 8th, 2004

I’ve become a great fan of Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, and I found his latest article, on SUVs, Big and Bad, full of interesting tidbits:

In the summer of 1996, the Ford Motor Company began building the Expedition, its new, full-sized S.U.V., at the Michigan Truck Plant, in the Detroit suburb of Wayne. The Expedition was essentially the F-150 pickup truck with an extra set of doors and two more rows of seats — and the fact that it was a truck was critical. Cars have to meet stringent fuel-efficiency regulations. Trucks don’t. The handling and suspension and braking of cars have to be built to the demanding standards of drivers and passengers. Trucks only have to handle like, well, trucks. Cars are built with what is called unit-body construction. To be light enough to meet fuel standards and safe enough to meet safety standards, they have expensive and elaborately engineered steel skeletons, with built-in crumple zones to absorb the impact of a crash. Making a truck is a lot more rudimentary. You build a rectangular steel frame. The engine gets bolted to the front. The seats get bolted to the middle. The body gets lowered over the top. The result is heavy and rigid and not particularly safe. But it’s an awfully inexpensive way to build an automobile.

I still don’t understand why cars and trucks have different safety requirements (based solely on the fact that they are cars and trucks.)

Anyway, the Expedition obviously made good business sense:

Ford had planned to sell the Expedition for thirty-six thousand dollars, and its best estimate was that it could build one for twenty-four thousand — which, in the automotive industry, is a terrifically high profit margin. Sales, the company predicted, weren’t going to be huge. After all, how many Americans could reasonably be expected to pay a twelve-thousand-dollar premium for what was essentially a dressed-up truck? But Ford executives decided that the Expedition would be a highly profitable niche product. They were half right. The “highly profitable” part turned out to be true. Yet, almost from the moment Ford’s big new S.U.V.s rolled off the assembly line in Wayne, there was nothing “niche” about the Expedition.

Ford started running its Michigan Truck Plant 24 hours a day.

By the late nineteen-nineties, it had become the most profitable factory of any industry in the world. In 1998, the Michigan Truck Plant grossed eleven billion dollars, almost as much as McDonald’s made that year. Profits were $3.7 billion. Some factory workers, with overtime, were making two hundred thousand dollars a year.

Customers, of course, buy large SUVs because they feel safe, even though they aren’t. Not only don’t they withstand impacts as well as, say, mini-vans, but they lack the maneuverability to avoid impacts.

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.

Definitely read the whole article.

Connecting the Dots

Tuesday, March 11th, 2003

In Connecting the Dots, Malcolm Gladwell makes the case that intelligence work is all so easy…after the fact:

In the fall of 1973, the Syrian Army began to gather a large number of tanks, artillery batteries, and infantry along its border with Israel. Simultaneously, to the south, the Egyptian Army cancelled all leaves, called up thousands of reservists, and launched a massive military exercise, building roads and preparing anti-aircraft and artillery positions along the Suez Canal. On October 4th, an Israeli aerial reconnaissance mission showed that the Egyptians had moved artillery into offensive positions. That evening, aman, the Israeli military intelligence agency, learned that portions of the Soviet fleet near Port Said and Alexandria had set sail, and that the Soviet government had begun airlifting the families of Soviet advisers out of Cairo and Damascus. Then, at four o’clock in the morning on October 6th, Israel’s director of military intelligence received an urgent telephone call from one of the country’s most trusted intelligence sources. Egypt and Syria, the source said, would attack later that day. Top Israeli officials immediately called a meeting. Was war imminent? The head of aman, Major General Eli Zeira, looked over the evidence and said he didn’t think so. He was wrong. That afternoon, Syria attacked from the east, overwhelming the thin Israeli defenses in the Golan Heights, and Egypt attacked from the south, bombing Israeli positions and sending eight thousand infantry streaming across the Suez. Despite all the warnings of the previous weeks, Israeli officials were caught by surprise. Why couldn’t they connect the dots?

If you start on the afternoon of October 6th and work backward, the trail of clues pointing to an attack seems obvious; you’d have to conclude that something was badly wrong with the Israeli intelligence service. On the other hand, if you start several years before the Yom Kippur War and work forward, re-creating what people in Israeli intelligence knew in the same order that they knew it, a very different picture emerges.

Gladwell shares an amusing (if frightening) anecdote to illustrate the problem of drawing conclusions from ambiguous signals buried in “noise”:

In the early nineteen-seventies, a professor of psychology at Stanford University named David L. Rosenhan gathered together a painter, a graduate student, a pediatrician, a psychiatrist, a housewife, and three psychologists. He told them to check into different psychiatric hospitals under aliases, with the complaint that they had been hearing voices. They were instructed to say that the voices were unfamiliar, and that they heard words like “empty,”"thud,” and “hollow.” Apart from that initial story, the pseudo patients were instructed to answer every question truthfully, to behave as they normally would, and to tell the hospital staff — at every opportunity — that the voices were gone and that they had experienced no further symptoms. The eight subjects were hospitalized, on average, for nineteen days. One was kept for almost two months. Rosenhan wanted to find out if the hospital staffs would ever see through the ruse. They never did.

Rosenhan’s test is, in a way, a classic intelligence problem. Here was a signal (a sane person) buried in a mountain of conflicting and confusing noise (a mental hospital), and the intelligence analysts (the doctors) were asked to connect the dots — and they failed spectacularly. In the course of their hospital stay, the eight pseudo patients were given a total of twenty-one hundred pills. They underwent psychiatric interviews, and sober case summaries documenting their pathologies were written up. They were asked by Rosenhan to take notes documenting how they were treated, and this quickly became part of their supposed pathology. “Patient engaging in writing behavior,” one nurse ominously wrote in her notes. Having been labelled as ill upon admission, they could not shake the diagnosis. “Nervous?” a friendly nurse asked one of the subjects as he paced the halls one day. “No,” he corrected her, to no avail, “bored.”

The solution to this problem seems obvious enough. Doctors and nurses need to be made alert to the possibility that sane people sometimes get admitted to mental hospitals. So Rosenhan went to a research-and-teaching hospital and informed the staff that at some point in the next three months he would once again send over one or more of his pseudo patients. This time, of the hundred and ninety-three patients admitted in the three-month period, forty-one were identified by at least one staff member as being almost certainly sane. Once again, however, they were wrong. Rosenhan hadn’t sent anyone over. In attempting to solve one kind of intelligence problem (overdiagnosis), the hospital simply created another problem (underdiagnosis). This is the second, and perhaps more serious, consequence of creeping determinism: in our zeal to correct what we believe to be the problems of the past, we end up creating new problems for the future.