how to be as smart as malcolm gladwell

Anyone who knows me (or who reads my del.icio.us links) knows that I think Malcolm Gladwell is the Bullshit King. Professor Coldheart asks why Gladwell’s latest is so bullshitty.

It is bullshitty, of course, because it follows the Gladwell model:

1) State a stylized fact:

Five quarterbacks were taken in the first round of the college draft that year, and each looked as promising as Chase Daniel did now. But only one of them, Donovan McNabb, ended up fulfilling that promise. Of the rest, one descended into mediocrity after a decent start. Two were complete busts, and the last was so awful that after failing out of the N.F.L. he ended up failing out of the Canadian Football League as well.

2) Grossly mis-characterize this phenomenon and give it a cute name:

This is the quarterback problem. There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired.

(If you are wondering why this is a mischaracterization, it is worth considering whether NFL scouts were able learn enough about me to predict how I’d perform as a NFL quarterback.) (In case you think I am being too flippant, I will further observe that there are hundreds of college football quarterbacks who graduate every year, and most of them are judged, presumably with some merit, as not pro football material.)

3) Apply your “rule” to some trendy cause:

After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers. But there’s a hitch: no one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like. The school system has a quarterback problem.

4) Drown the reader in colorful (but irrelevant) details:

Kickoff time for Missouri’s game against Oklahoma State was seven o’clock. It was a perfect evening for football: cloudless skies and a light fall breeze. For hours, fans had been tailgating in the parking lots around the stadium. Cars lined the roads leading to the university, many with fuzzy yellow-and-black Tiger tails hanging from their trunks. It was one of Mizzou’s biggest games in years. The Tigers were undefeated, and had a chance to become the No. 1 college football team in the country. Shonka made his way through the milling crowds and took a seat in the press box. Below him, the players on the field looked like pieces on a chessboard.

5) Loop in a third example:

Perhaps no profession has taken the implications of the quarterback problem more seriously than the financial-advice field, and the experience of financial advisers is a useful guide to what could happen in teaching as well.

6) Draw an “outside the box” conclusion:

In teaching, the implications are even more profound. They suggest that we shouldn’t be raising standards. We should be lowering them, because there is no point in raising standards if standards don’t track with what we care about. Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree—and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before.

(For the record, I agree with this conclusion, which is further evidence of its outside-the-box-ness.)

(Also, notice that this conclusion actually has nothing to do with the original “problem”, as evidenced by the fact that neither Gladwell nor anyone else is suggesting that we would be well served by lowering the standards for NFL quarterbacks.)

7) Be wistful:

What does it say about a society that it devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its money than of those who handle its children?

8) Demonstrate tolerance:

This was what it would be like to be an N.F.L. quarterback, wasn’t it? But there is nothing like being an N.F.L. quarterback except being an N.F.L. quarterback. A prediction, in a field where prediction is not possible, is no more than a prejudice.

9) End with an irrelevant, opaque quotation:

“In a great big piece of pie,” Shonka said, “that was just a little slice.” ♦

CONGRATULATIONS! You’re as smart as Malcolm Gladwell! Use your powers wisely!

(Yes, this has nothing to do with India. Get over it.)

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where, for the love of god, is captain vijayakanth?

A number of people have commented that I got out of India “just in time”, and others have drawn parallels to the time in September 2001 when I accidentally happened to be in Manhattan for 9/11. And a third group of people has suggested that my 3-week sojourn in the dark subcontinent gives me unique insight into the problem of terrorism (which, of course, I do not dispute).

Terrorism was a definite worry when we were in India. There were bombings in Delhi less than a month before we were there, and there had been bombings in Jaipur (on our itinerary) and Bangalore (on our itinerary) and Ahmedabad (not on our itinerary) earlier in the year. We did not go to Mumbai (Ganga doesn’t like it, as it is “too big”, and anyway it was not conveniently located for us to get there), but the hotel we stayed at in Delhi was similarly high-class to the ones that were targeted (the hotels we stayed everywhere else were a notch below), and we stayed in a Taj hotel in Khajuraho, and we used the bathroom at the Oberoi in Agra.

There was “security” in many of these places — bored-looking guards had a mirror-on-wheels with which they would inspect the underside of your car (presumably for bombs, but also possibly for leaking oil), and occasionally they would peek in the trunk (although I am pretty sure they didn’t look inside the luggage). Mostly, I suspect, the inspections were Security Theater, with an added “benefit” of keeping the riffraff auto-rickshaw drivers away from the guests. (Less of a benefit for us, as we often preferred to take auto-rickshaws, and had to, in every circumstance, leave the hotel grounds to catch one.) Guns inside luggage, or hidden inside coats, or in the backseat under a blanket would very likely have made it past the inspection and been ready for terrorizing.

The question I keep hearing is “who do you think was responsible?”, which strikes me as precisely the wrong thing to focus on. As the entire operation seems to me an extremely effective proof-of-concept, here are two questions that are much more interesting:

(1) What makes you think something like this couldn’t happen here in Amrika?
(2) What can be done to prevent the next one?

As it stands, I doubt that a similar attack could succeed here, for a couple of reasons. First, enough of us have seen Die Hard and Under Siege that we know how to use office chairs as deadly weapons, and how to make bombs out of pies and microwaves, and how to properly pronounce “Yippee Ki Yay”, and never to trust Gary Busey. And second, in many parts of the country, people are walking around strapped.

“Why,” I kept yelling at the TV as CNN continued its interminable coverage, “are hundreds of hotel guests not capable of overpowering ten cracked-out terrorists, and whyare the police not capping some of the bad guys? And where, for the love of god, is Captain Vijayakanth?”

It appears that I am not the only one to have this thought:

It is likely, but not certain, that if the hotel security had been armed, they would have lost the battle anyway, due to the planning and overpowering firepower of the terrorists. That said, they might have been able to put up some sort of resistance or slowed the attack down or maybe, possibly, have saved a few of the nearly two hundred lives lost. At the very least, it might have given the terrorists pause before committing their atrocities. One thing is certain: Unarmed, security didn’t stand a chance and, by extension, neither did the guests.

(For the record, Ganga insists that this plan will never work, and that otherwise-law-abiding armed Indians will simply shoot each other all the time, at political rallies and bus stops and cricket matches. I sort of assume they’ll get sick of this after a while.) In any event, it would be much more difficult for armed gunmen to take a bunch of armed people hostage, let alone torture and explode them and set them on fire.

(For the same reason, I’d probably try to avoid the high-profile tourist spots in New York City.)

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to clear up a misconception

Some people are under the impression that, because every one of my posts makes fun of India, I had a bad time there. Nothing could be further from the truth. I had a blast in India. I am simply someone who makes fun of everything.

If you are considering visiting India, I wholeheartedly recommend it. If you are willing to forgo Western-style comforts you can get by on astoundingly little money (I probably could have done the trip for $25/day all-in, not including plane tickets, if that had been my goal). If you would rather live large, you can do that too. People are terrifically friendly (as long as they’re not trying to sell you something), and if you are white you are treated as a terrific novelty by cheerful little urchins. There is great food, amazing history and scenery, and exotic animals everywhere.

Anyway, I had a great time, and don’t let my mockery convince you otherwise.

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class (not the movie with andrew mccarthy)

In Amrika, people (Charles Mudede excepted) typically don’t care about “class”. When you eat at a restaurant, or when you ride in a cab, or when you go to the store, you treat the waiter/driver/cashier with respect, because, you know, they’re people. (And also because they’ll pee in your soup if you don’t.) And they treat you with respect because, you know, you’re a customer. (And also because you’ll stiff them on the tip if they don’t.)

In India, this is not how things work. Naively, you might expect things to break down along caste lines, but (except for the blatant quotas-detailed-in-for-hire-ads affirmative action programs and some of the matrimonials that run in every newspaper) I was not able to observe caste distinctions. (Probably an Indian could to some degree.)

What I did notice, however, is that many of the people who work in customer-service-for-rich-people jobs are obsequious to a fault. I have never been called “sir” so many times in my life. When I ate (invariably at odd-for-India hours), the five people working the empty dining room stared at me, waiting hungrily for me to need something (and then invariably doing a piss-poor job of providing it). At every hotel, if a staff member saw me carrying something (a suitcase, or a backpack, or a bag of golf clubs) (remind me to tell you about the poor excuse for a “mini-golf” course they had at the Mughal Sheraton in Agra), he would sprint towards me, so that he might do the carrying instead.

Some “upper class” people, it appears, get used to this master-servant dynamic, as I saw multiple (what I would consider “upper middle class” in Amrika) people speak to waiters and waitresses in ways I would never dream of: “You, bring me salt!” “You’ve charged me for an extra entree. I have made the appropriate corrections on the bill and have recalculated the total. You will make these changes now!”

The canonical jerky customer in Amrika behaves this way, but in India lots of people seem to feel entitled to be that jerky customer.

The service people who don’t deal with the rich — the rickshaw driver, the roadside vendor — swung to the opposite extreme: argumentative, bullying, and aggressive. None of them seemed very interested in providing much service at all — mostly they just wanted to do as little as possible and get paid as much as possible. (Which is what we all want, I guess.)

Were I more entrepreneurially-spirited, I would move to India and start a chain of Amrikan-style coffee shops (“Amrikafe” would be a good name, as would “Sharbuk’s”). They would be clean and cheap and efficient, and any customer who disrespected the employees would get punched in the face, and also any employee who disrespected the customers would get punched in the face. The walls would be decorated with pictures of Sylvester Stallone and Pamela Anderson and Snoop Dogg and The Rock, and we would play a carefully-programmed mix of Van Halen and Jewel and Pat Benatar, which we would also sell on (pirated) CDs. We would have clever slogans like “Declare independence from shitty Indian-style service!” and “We hold these drinks to be self-evident!” and “Drinky drinky just like Amriki!” We would also have cleverly-named drinks like “the Statue of Liberty” (four shots of espresso, with apple and caramel syrups) and “Purple Mountain Majesty” (acai berries blended with green tea) and “Enduring Freedom” (drip coffee with free refills). We would offer free wi-fi, and it would be set up so that every time you opened your browser you would be automatically directed to the YouTube page for (depending on the day) Neil Diamond’s “America”, Simon and Garfunkel’s “America”, or (most days) Joey Scarbury’s “Theme from the Greatest American Hero”.

After our initial success, we would branch out into heavy machinery and auto-rickshaws and rice cookers and publishing (always maintaining our “punch in the face” policies and pictures of The Rock) until we were the height of Mumbai society, at which point we would begin producing Bollywood versions of our favorite Amrikan movies: Revenge of the Nerds, No Retreat, No Surrender, Better off Dead, and Air Bud: World Pup.

Unless someone beats me to it.

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the shanty

After yesterday’s chicken-fried-steak lunch at “The Shanty” (when I write it out like that it seems so obvious), I developed the sort of debilitating gastro-intestinal distress that I was “supposed to” experience in India (but didn’t).

In fact, I didn’t get sick at all the whole time we were in India, except for the same small amount of stomach-upset that I seem to get whenever I travel (it happened in Paris, for instance).

Partly this is due to precautions I took before I left. I visited the UW travel clinic, where they forced upon me a polio shot, a hepatitis shot, a typhoid vaccine, and a regimen of $7-each malaria pills (thanks, Microsoft insurance plan!). Furthermore, when Ganga later visited the same clinic they made her get a flu shot, which then she insisted I get, which I did, at the “Minute Clinic” in the QFC near my house, a small cubicle staffed by a surly, pregnant ARNP (who cheerfully informed me that her unborn baby was going to be named “Joel” and asked me all sorts of questions about my experiences as a “Joel”, in what I understood as an attempt to affirm her naming choice).

And partly this is due to the precautions I took while I was there. I only drank bottled water (and made sure, whenever possible, to leave the empty bottles on the ground at historic forts and temples), never tap. Every time I accidentally (damn muscle memory) wetted my toothbrush with sink water, I threw it away and angrily demanded a new one from the hotel concierge. I duct-taped my mouth shut before showering, lest I gargle the hot shower water (as is my habit at home) without thinking about it. I never ate street food, and (except at the finest restaurants) I scrupulously avoided Indian sushi.

I carried around several bottles of hand sanitizer and used them at every available opportunity. (After the Tanjore temple elephant blew his nose on my head, I scrubbed my scalp with nearly an entire bottle of the stuff, earning myself weird looks from the shirtless, ash-covered priests and the families on religious pilgrimages and the street-people living in tarp-covered shacks on the temple grounds.) When the Chennai temple demanded that I take off my shoes to enter (forcing me to walk barefoot through wet muck), I whined loudly and repeatedly, letting the Hindu gods know not to infect me with ringworm or hookworm or worm-in-foot disease.

I covered my cheeks in kumkum (stop snickering, you perverts) to ward off the evil eye. I made sure to avert my eyes whenever a widow was present. I carried a picture of Sai Baba in my left pocket and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in my right. Each morning I consulted an astrologer for advice on which of my two REI outfits I should wear that day. I avoided riding in auto-rickshaws whose license plate numbers were multiples of 7, 13, or 58. And no matter how many times I was encouraged to do so by street urchins, I never once uttered the name “Macbeth”.

Ganga, who took only a fraction of these precautions, came down with some sort of cold while we were there, which meant that we had to visit an Indian drugstore, where all drugs (even things like aspirin) are kept in locked cabinets, in disorganized bins of assorted (boxless) blister packs, and are dispensed by pharmacists (or, when the pharmacists are out to lunch, makeup-counter-workers) who will sell you any number of pills you want simply by taking a scissors and chopping off the appropriate dose from the blister pack.

As (my favorite drug) Pepto-Bismol does not come in blister packs, we found ourselves unable to procure it over there. Fortunately, I was able to find some yesterday.

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chubby and tubby

Towards the end of the trip, as we were taking an auto-rickshaw ride through the (very, very bumpy) streets of Chennai, I noticed that my round little belly was shaking, as we drove, like a bowlful of jelly. (Which it normally does not do.)

I returned to my hotel room, weighed myself, procured a slide rule, converted the result to regular-people units, and discovered that I weighed 5 pounds more (unclothed) than at my last doctor’s appointment (where, out of consideration for potentially-faint-hearted patients, they always weigh me fully-clothed, and also with sacks of nickels in my pockets).

After a few moments of despair, I began to reflect on how this could be the case. The following is a list of (non-mutually-exclusive) possibilities.

1. Habit of making ersatz “Croissan’wiches” from hotel breakfast-buffet ingredients
2. New dietary staple of “chicken cooked in (Indian spices and) rich creamery butter”
3. New dietary staple of “extra servings of Indian bread to soak up sauce left over after eating chicken cooked in (Indian spices and) rich creamery butter”
4. Repeated purchases of (and subsequent drinkings of) Cokes and Pepsis in order to get change for the ATM-provided 500-rupee bills, which sellers of monument tickets routinely claimed to be unable to provide (“you come back after you visit temple, I give you change then!”)
5. Nightly replacement of customary dinner drink of “water” (possibly laden with cholera or spirulina or some other terrible disease) with 650ml (about 22oz) bottles of Kingfisher beer (in Tamil Nadu complete with hyperbolic “Liquor ruins country, family, and life” warning label)
6. Dearth of Indian CrossFit affiliates
7. Prohibitions on climbing things at historical monuments
8. Unpleasantness of long walks in heavily-polluted, full-of-pestering-rickshaw-drivers big cities

Fortunately, we came home to no food in the house [technically, we came home to no Joel-food, as we are well-stocked on “rice-cooker-cooked whole grains (e.g. cracked wheat) with South Indian spices”, which is a staple of Ganga’s diet but which I don’t particularly care for] and we haven’t bothered to go to the store yet, which means that I haven’t eaten dinner the last three nights, which means that (especially since I don’t eat breakfast at home either) I’m back down to my pre-India weight already.

Still, a terrifying experience!

Last night my sister came over to see our pictures, and showing them took 2 hours, mostly because there are so damn many of them (who really needs 40 pictures of the Taj Mahal?) but also because I couldn’t remember what a lot of them were (or couldn’t read the squiggly-language signs in them) and had to ask Ganga for help.

The moral of the story is that I have to do some serious culling before I start thinking about uploading and sharing them. But I’ll get to it soon, I promise.

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mister toad

If you are a fan of Disney’s “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” (and, really, who isn’t?), then you simply must try the new ride I call “auto-rickshaw in jaipur”:

This was actually my first auto-rickshaw ride of the whole trip (but certainly was not the last!).

Incidentally, one result of the trip is that I really, really want an auto-rickshaw (albeit not one powered by a white-smoke-spewing lawnmower engine) for commuting. (Although I would rather not pay $6500 for it.) Anyone looking to unload one on the cheap should contact me.

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