Malcolm Gladwell on outliers, maths and rice

The Chinese are good at maths because their number words are remarkably brief, says Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers.

He quotes from The Numbers Game by Stanislas Dehaene, who wrote:

“Most of them can be uttered in less than one-quarter of a second (for example, 4 is “si” and 7 “qi”). Their English equivalents — “four”, “seven” — are longer; pronouncing them takes about one-third of a second.”

So the Chinese have an edge over English speakers. “Because as human beings we store digits in a memory loop that runs for about two seconds,” explains Gladwell. “We most easily memorize whatever we can say or read within two seconds.”

Try this test:

Read this list of numbers: 4,8,5,3,9,7, 6. Look away and spend 20 seconds memorizing that sequence before saying them out loud again.

“If you speak English, you have about a 50 percent chance remembering that sequence perfectly,” says Gladwell.

“Chinese speakers get that list of numbers — 4,8,5,3,9,7, 6 — right almost every time because, unlike English, their language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds.”

What makes it more difficult for English speakers is their highly irregular number system, he says. For example, in English, we say eleven, twelve, but thirteen, fourteen, twenty-one, twenty-two: the number form changes.

“Not so in China, Japan, and Korea. They have a logical counting system,” says Gladwell. “Eleven is ten-one. Twelve is two-ten. Twenty-four is two-tens-four and so on.

“The difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster than American children.”

But do you think Gladwell is right when he says China, Japan, Korean and Singapore are good at maths because they have a rice-growing culture?


The Malayan Trilogy

The Malayan Trilogy by Anthony Burgess

Anthony Burgess may be best known for A Clockwork Orange. But anyone with an interest in Southeast Asia should read The Malayan Trilogy.

Like all good novels, this big book about the early years of Malaysia is both timeless and of its time.

Set in the 1950s, it has its King-and-I moments. Take this episode, for example. When Wigmore, a British planter, is killed by the communist guerrillas, it is discovered he has left 20,000 dollars to the state for “the improvement of the lot of the people”.

But the money is not going to the people, Victor Crabbe, a British education officer, learns from his Malay colleague.

“The Sultan wants a Cadillac,” explains Nik Hassan.

“But damn it, he can’t do that,” protests Crabbe, the protagonist of the novel. “The terms of the will are clear, aren’t they? It says something about the good of the State, doesn’t it?”

Nik retorts: “They say the highest good is the Sultan’s good.”

“Who say that?” asks Crabbe.

“The Sultan and the Raja Perempuan and the Tungku Mahkota and the Mentri Besar,” replies Nik, naming the highest officials of the state.

Incredible, huh?

But the relationship between the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians described in the book could be right off current newspapers.


Anthony Burgess on Malaysia

Malaysia celebrated its 52nd independence anniversary recently. So how much has it changed since Anthony Burgess wrote about it in The Malayan Trilogy?

The book is based on his experiences as an education officer in Malaysia in the 1950s.

In his introduction to The Malayan Trilogy, he writes: “The Malays resented Chinese wealth and were determined to keep the Chinese out of politics.”

On the other side, says Burgess, were the “Chinese communist terrorists” who fought a guerrilla war throughout the 1950s.  “These were young men and women, possessed of weapons left over from the war (World War II) and animated by political ideals taken from Peking, who were determined to prevent Malaya’s emergence to parliamentary democracy and wished to see a communist state ruled by Chinese,”  he says.

Here is his introduction to The Malayan Trilogy, which is worth reading in full.