Thursday, February 24, 2011

What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures

This is a collection of Malcolm Gladwell essays in a tone similar to some of his other popular books. They all generally describe situations where the "obvious" is not necessarily the "truth". The various essays include stories of people who succeed in very narrow niches. Many essays also cover many common policies and actions that are known to be inferior, yet still done that way.
It opens with a tail of the chopomatic. The good pitchman is a great actor who also has the great ability to get people to part with their money. However, part of being the great pitchman was also innovation. Marketing and engineering were integrally combined in order to create things that could be well sold - on streets and via infomercials.

A story about plagiarism questions the line we have drawn between unlawful copying and "fair use". Homelessness is analyzed as a "power distribution" problem. Spending money to give apartments and regular care to the most chronic homeless may seem unjust, but it is much cheaper than having them regularly appear in the ER. "Safety features" can often cause more harm. Drivers with new anti-lock breaks became worse drivers than those without the safety features, while the accident rate plummeted in Sweden after they switched from the left to the right side of the road. Faults of profiling and improper generations are also included in some essays. It also shows how easy it is to find retrospective fault with efforts to counter terrorism (or Enron fraud), while many of the seemingly ignored "critical warnings" could legitimately be brushed aside as useless noise. "Puzzles" and "Mysteries" both require different tools to solve. Many problems today have huge amount of information available in plain sight. Making sense of it is the big problem.

Overall, it is a very good book that encourages a questioning of conventional wisdom, and the "crowd-think" reactions to many major events.

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