Malcolm Gladwell on outliers, maths and rice

Outliers

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?

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Software billionaires like 19th century tycoons…

Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Steven Jobs and Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy are all about the same age, says Malcolm Gladwell. So were John Rockefeller,  Andrew Carnegie,  Jay Gould and JP Morgan, the biggest 19th century tycoons, he adds. Some generations are luckier than others and benefit from extraordinary opportunities, Gladwell writes in his new book, Outliers: The Story Of Success. Here’s an except published in the Guardian:

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Before and since Harry Potter

Robert_mccrum_140x140
Book lovers will enjoy this trip down memory lane with Robert McCrum (left), who stepped down as literary editor of the Observer this month after 10 years on the job. McCrum, who has written about the English language (The Story of English) and a biography of PG Wodehouse (PG Wodehouse: A Life), writes about the changes in the publishing world. He joined the Observer in 1996, when publishing was still "a world of ink and paper; of cigarettes, coffee and strong drink", and he is bowing out after seeing in the Kindle.

McCrum writes about how book blogs are growing in importance as newspapers shrink or altogether eliminate book reviews. And, of course, he notes the changing of the guard on the literary landscape: Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Iris Murdoch, Thom Gunn, Kurt Vonnegut, Ted Hughes were very much alive when he came in; now they are gone, replaced by a generation of writers: Zadie Smith, Hari Kunzru, Monica Ali and Kiran Desai are among the writers he mentions. A host of writers from non-English-speaking countries are among the most acclaimed writers in English today.

Malcolm Gladwell and The Tipping Point

McCrum's article offers valuable insights into the changes in the market. Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, for example, was "almost a flop", says McCrum, published to mixed reviews in 2000 but "saved by word of mouth". McCrum writes:

After a dismal launch, and as a desperate last resort, Gladwell persuaded his American publisher to sponsor a US-wide lecture tour. Only then did the book 'tip'. Eventually, it would become a literary success of its time, turn its author into a pop cultural guru and spend seven years on the New York Times bestseller list. This was one of those pivotal moments that illustrates the story of this decade.

Personally, I was rather disappointed with the book, which no doubt marks me as an old fogey. The book seemed too plain, without any intellectual excitement, to me, brought up on generations of wordsmiths from GK Chesterton (with whom McCrum starts the article) to Tom Wolfe. With advancing age, I now prefer the prose of Naipaul, Vikram Seth and Jhumpa Lahiri, though I still appreciate the stylistic feats of Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie; but Gladwell, even for a New Yorker writer, is too understated for me. But The Tipping Point reflects this dot-com society, I guess, when things catch on suddenly out of the blue.

JK Rowling and Harry Potter

JK Rowling is a case in point. McCrum recalls Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone had been published with a tiny first printing of 500 in 1997 to modest but enthusiastic reviews, swiftly followed by Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but such was the word-of-mouth success of the series that when Bloomsbury released Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire at 6am on a Saturday morning in July 2000, people queued overnight for a copy of the book. McCrum says:

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Blink: Not what it’s blurbed to be

Blink "Trust your instincts. Don’t think — blink," says the blurb.

But I am beginning to have doubts about my instincts after reading this.

"Blink is all about those moments when we ‘know’ something without really knowing why," says the blurb.

But I thought the book showed our first impressions could be both right and wrong.

The blurb adds, "This book shows how we can hone our instinctive ability to know in an instant, helping us to bring out the best in our thinking and become better decision-makers in our homes, offices and everyday lives."

If that’s the lesson this book has to offer, sorry, I didn’t get it at all.  I went through the stories about the Greek statue, Warren Harding, the cola tests, the Aeron chair and the women classical musicians and came to the conclusion that first impressions can be both right and wrong. Gladwell explains why they can be both right and wrong, and how to get them right. But the process — what he calls "thin-slicing", looking at only the relevant details — is not easy. For to judge a musician, you have to listen to the music only, but to judge a cola, it’s not enough to take a sip, you have to drink the whole can.

If there’s anything else I learnt from this book, it’s the wisdom of the old saying: Never judge a book by its cover. Or its blurb. You could be disappointed.