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Monday, January 11, 2010

What the Dog Saw, by Malcolm Gladwell

Every time I visit the US, I pick up a copy of the New Yorker. I love reading the long, well thought out and superbly written, essays. “What the Dog Saw” is a collection of 19 essays written by Malcom Gladwell and published in the New Yorker over the past decade or so. The essays touch on various subjects but they all have that “Gladwell touch”: a seemingly mundane and boring topic is turned into a fascinating narrative with thoughtful insights.

What the Dog SawThe book is organised into three categories. In the first - “Minor Geniuses - Gladwell explores people who have made a significant impact in their field of expertise. I truly loved the first essay in the book, about Ron Popeil, who single-handedly invented the direct marketing of kitchen appliances, first by selling on street corners and later on late-night TV. The story is fascinating from both a business and a personal perspective. The third essay in the book is about an equally captivating character, Nassim Taleb, who devised an investment strategy based on the “inevitability of disaster”, that is betting that the most unlikely event (like 9/11) will happen. I found other essays in this category less captivating, such as the one about John Rock, the inventor of the birth control pill. I didn’t agree with the conclusions Gladwell drew from Rock’s decisions regarding the Catholic church’s approach to the pill.

Essays in the second category deals with “theories, predictions and diagnoses”. There is an essay about Enron and how how all the information was there for everyone to see. Another, related, story deals with a subject that was at one time close to my heart: the impossible job of military intelligence assessments. In these two stories Gladwell makes a brilliant distinction between puzzle and mystery. A puzzle is a problem which has a definitive answer and finding that answer depends on finding all the relevant pieces of information. A mystery, on the other hand, is a problem with no definitive answer, because it requires judgement and assessment and cannot be solved by gathering more information. Many of the intelligence assessments are mysteries and that is why intelligence organisations have failure built into their very nature.

The last category of essays is about “personality, character and intelligence”. Gladwell makes minced mint out of the “profile builders” of the FBI, those psycho-experts that can tell you who the criminal is (almost) by analysing the crimes he committed. In another essay he asks the question “are smart people overrated?”, and in a third he asks whether it is possible to hire people based on interviews. I found some of the essays in this category to be less engaging and less convincing, as they touched on topics that appeared in Gladwell’s previous book “Outliers”, which I didn’t like.

All in all, this is a delightful collection of long-winded essays but easy-to-read essays. Vintage Gladweel, vintage New Yorker.

PS – This was my first ever audiobook. I never thought I could concentrate on a book by listening to it, but I found out that while driving or jogging, listening to a book is a great way to pass the time. I’m now trying to listen to a novel and see if it works just as well.

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