Saturday, January 09, 2010

Book Review - "What the Dog Saw" by Malcolm Gladwell

Finished reading "What the Dog Saw" from Malcolm Gladwell and found it to be a really interesting read.

Gladwell is a solid writer (whose website can be found here) and I've enjoyed reading his prior books "Outliers", "Blink" and "The Tipping Point". "Outliers" was my favorite of these and it's hard to compare his new effort as "What the Dog Saw" isn't about one overarching idea, but rather a collection of Gladwell stories from The New Yorker.

Probably the best way to review the book as a whole is to note the chapters that stood out as most interesting and get into why exactly that was.

Section One - Minor Geniuses

The Ketchup Conundrum - Addressed the question of why ketchup differs from mustard in it's number of varieties. Had the very interesting mention of amplitude as a measure of food ranking... with the concept being how well various flavors work together. Gladwell writes during this portion of how this amplitude measure is often the difference between the most popular consumer brands of a product and generic store brands... for that same product and featuring many of the same ingredients and flavors.

Blowing Up - About Nassim Nicholas Talib and the idea of not knowing what the stock market will do so betting on big deviations from the norm. Talib two years after this Gladwell story wrote about this idea in his bestseller "The Black Swan"... which I found to be an interesting, but also pretty weighty read. Gladwell's story here is interesting in that it really gets at the idea that you can't predict the future. Really, perhaps the only prediction that can be done is the obvious... like for example if housing prices are rapidly increasing and people are buying them based on income they don't have, problems will follow and prices will drop.

What the Dog Saw - The title chapter of the book and written about the "Dog Whisperer", Cesar Millan. Featured Gladwell's writing about the fascinating concept of Laban Movement Analysis... basically high level non-verbal communication (and the concept of phrasing as a combination of posture and gesture).

Section Two - Theories Around Experience Or Events

Open Secrets - About Enron accounting and how it wasn't lies, just information people didn't look for or want to believe. The model the company followed was predicated on normal, but the company was brought down by not normal conditions. In many ways, this chapter reminds me of the Taleb story.

Connecting the Dots - About military intelligence and stands out as interesting given how this chapter relates to the intelligence failure around the attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner (from Time Magazine).

Blowup - About the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and how it really was due to an acceptable risk not having an acceptable outcome. Reminds me of my blog post about terrorism in Detroit in that the world isn't a perfect place and bad things can happen.

Section Three - Predictions About People

Late Bloomers - Was a fascinating chapter about how you have boy wonder types and then those who work and flounder around prior to success. Gladwell quotes the economist David Galenson who says "late bloomers goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental" (and experimental). Another idea put forth by Gladwell is that late bloomers simply often aren't that great to start, they have to improve to get there... which reminds me of the David Kord Murray book "Borrowing Brilliance" (that I reviewed and summarized here).

All in all, really an interesting book with some chapters that may appeal more than others, but that's where the practice of skimming through the less interesting stuff comes into play...