Mike Kueber's Blog

December 15, 2013

Sunday Book Review #116 – David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 11:28 am
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Gladwell has become one of the most popular nonfiction authors in America.  Starting with The Tipping Point, he followed-up with Blink and Outliers, all huge successes.  His newest book, David and Goliath, as noted in the book’s jacket, continues Gladwell’s tradition of combining “history, psychology, and powerful story-telling.”

Outliers, which is my favorite Gladwell book, examined some of the underlying reasons for an individual’s success.  David and Goliath looks at that same issue from a different, narrower perspective.  Gladwell’s newest book scrutinizes situations where, ostensibly against all odds, an individual succeeds.

Obviously, the biblical tale of David and Goliath is the quintessential example of an individual succeeding against all odds.  But upon closer analysis, Gladwell concludes that the D&G matchup was actually a mismatch in favor of David and his sling, based on dynamics similar to the rock, paper, scissors game.

Rock, paper, scissors?  Let Malcolm explain.  In D&G days, there were infantry, cavalry, and projectile warriors:

  • With their long pikes and armor, infantry could stand up to cavalry.  Cavalry could, in turn, defeat projectile warriors because the horses moved to quickly for the artillery to take proper aim.  And projectile warriors were deadly against infantry because a big, lumbering soldier, weighed down with armor, was a sitting duck for a slinger who was launching projectiles from a hundred yards away.”

Gladwell analyzed other facets of the D&G fight, but this was essentially paper covering a rock.  Or in a similarly colorful Gladwell analogy, Goliath went to a gun fight with a knife.

Subsequent chapters in the book examined other situations (a) where the ostensible advantage was actually disadvantageous (sometimes called affluenza), or (b) where significant disadvantages forced individuals to be creative (think out of the box) and develop alternative strategies that enabled the person to overcome those disadvantages.  Being born with dyslexia, like famous lawyer David Boies, is an example of this latter situation.

I found the second and third chapters to be the most interesting.  The second chapter dealt with optimal class size in elementary and secondary schools.  Before directly addressing schools and class size, Gladwell showed how successful parenting is easier with more money, but only up to a certain point, where additional money does not help and eventually makes successful parenting more difficult.  Intuitively, that makes sense and is reflected in an inverted-U curve.  Gladwell extended the same inverted-U concept to schools.  Smaller class size facilitates successful teaching, but only to a certain point, beyond which there are a plethora of problems created by a too-small class; e.g., too dominated by a bully, no individual autonomy, less likely to find intellectual peers, not enough variety of opinions in discussion, etc.

The third chapter concerned whether an individual was better off getting into the best possible university.  According to Gladwell, there was strong evidence that kids were much more likely to succeed in life if they attended an average university where they were strong students instead of an excellent university where they would feed at the bottom of food chain.  The former kid will flourish; the latter will flounder.  An obvious application of this concept would be affirmative action, which Gladwell concluded was counter-productive.

From a personal perspective, there is an argument that this concept applied to me at the University of Texas Law School, an excellent university where I just barely achieved admission and where my studies floundered.  But I disagree with that argument as applied to me because I had already downgraded the importance of academic excellence before enrolling at UT, as reflected by my mediocre grades during my last year of college at UND.  And my self-esteem was fine during UT-Law days and I always felt that I could compete academically with my classmates if that were a priority to me.  But, in general, the concept makes sense.

As with Gladwell’s earlier books, D&G contains some weak chapters, but overall this book is well worth reading.


p.s., the following is an interesting tidbit from Gladwell regarding Harvard’s attempt to deal with class standing:

Affirmative action at Harvard

Malcolm Gladwell in his book David and Goliath described the psychological effect on kids in elite schools like Harvard when they find themselves a class position to which they are unfamiliar – i.e., bottom of the class:

  • By the way, do you know what elite institution has recognized this very fact about the dangers of the Big Pond for nearly fifty years?  Harvard!  In the 1960s, Fred Glimp took over as director of admissions and instituted that was known as the “happy-bottom quarter” policy.  In one of his first memos after taking office, he wrote: “Any class, not matter how able, will always have a bottom quarter.  What are the effects of the psychology of feeling average, even in a very able group?  Are there identifiable types with the psychological or what-not tolerance to be ‘happy’ or to make the most of education while in the bottom quarter?”  He knew exactly how demoralizing the Big Pond was to everyone but the best.  To Glimp’s mind, his job was to find students who were tough enough and had enough achievements outside the classroom to be able to survive the stress of being Very Small Fish in Harvard’s Very Large Pond.  Thus did Harvard begin the practice (which continues to this day) of letting in substantial numbers of gifted athletes who have academic qualifications well below the rest of their classmates.  If someone is going to be cannon fodder in the classroom, the theory goes, it’s probably best if that person has an alternative avenue of fulfillment on the football field.  Exactly the same logic applies to the debate over affirmative action.

Based on Gladwell’s book notes, this information came from a 2006 book by Jerome Karabel – The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton

November 25, 2013

Sunday Book Review #112 – The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 2:23 am
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I stumbled across The Art of Thinking Clearly while recently browsing the New Book section at the Igo Branch Library.  The title seemed like something that has greatly interested me since reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, a book that analyzes decision-making (both intuitive and rational) and suggests ways to improve it.  I was so impressed by Kahneman’s book that I wrote an open letter to a State Education Board member suggesting that it be incorporated into the standard high school curriculum in Texas.

When I reviewed Kahneman’s book, I noted that it was similar to popular writer Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink:

  • “… but it is much more in-depth and comprehensive.  Gladwell is relatively a subject-matter dilettante compared to Kahneman, who has won a Nobel Prize in Economics and has been studying this subject (decision-making) his entire life.  Kahneman does an especially good job in describing how fast and efficient intuition is, which he calls it System 1.  But he also vividly describes the slower, lazy System 2, which monitors the functioning of System 1 and overrules it where necessary.  This overruling of System 1 by System 2 is necessary because, although System 1 is generally accurate, it makes lots of fundamental mistakes.”

If Gladwell is a dilettante compared to Kahneman, so is Rolf Dobelli.  His 306-page book consists of 99 of Dobelli’s insights into clear thinking, with each insight neatly described in 3 pages of print.  Although the insights are accurate, they are generally things that are readily apparent to thinking people.  And if you aren’t a thinking person, then you probably won’t take the time to plow through 306 pages.

But it might work as a textbook for high school students.




March 17, 2012

Sunday Book Review #67 – Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 6:45 pm
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Over a year ago, I blogged about intuition by comparing the viewpoints of two of my favorite authors – Ayn Rand of Atlas Shrugged fame and Malcolm Gladwell of Outliers fame.  Rand was not a fan of intuition and famously said:

  • As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy.  Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation – or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single solid weight: self doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind’s wings should have grown.”

By contrast, Gladwell in his book Blink describes intuition as mental processes that work rapidly and automatically from relatively little information – something he calls thin-slicing.  He believes that many spontaneous decisions are as good as—or even better than—carefully planned and considered ones.  Gladwell believes experts are especially able to thin-slice, but this ability can be corrupted by their likes and dislikes, prejudices, and stereotypes (even unconscious ones).  Experts can also be overloaded by too much information (e.g., analysis paralysis).

Thinking Fast and Slow takes essentially the same position as Gladwell’s book Blink, but it is much more in-depth and comprehensive.  Gladwell is relatively a subject-matter dilettante compared to Kahneman, who has won a Nobel Prize in Economics and has been studying this subject (decision-making) his entire life.

Kahneman does an especially good job in describing how fast and efficient intuition is, which he calls System 1.  But he also vividly describes the slower, lazy System 2, which monitors the functioning of System 1 and overrules it where necessary.  This overruling of System 1 by System 2 is necessary because, although System 1 is generally accurate, it makes lots of fundamental mistakes.

Individuals can’t do much to make their System 1 decisions more accurate, so ultimately they can improve their thinking and decision-making only by training their System 2 to be vigilant for common System 1 mistakes and to stop being so lazy.  The book is replete with examples of common System 1 errors, such as:

  • WYSIATI (what you see is all there is).  Instead of thinking about how limited our knowledge is, we assume that we already know all that is needed to make a decision.
  • Priming and framing.  Certain words prime our thinking, and the framing of an issue can control our decision.
  • The law of small numbers.  Our decisions are not restrained even though we have only small numbers.  Our bias is toward confidence instead of doubt.
  • Anchors.  Our thinking is significantly affected by the anchor number (starting point).  That is why you feel better about buying a $20 shirt that was previously $40 as compared to a $15 shirt that was previously $25, even though both shirts are essentially the same.

As I said, the book is filled with examples too many to mention.  The example that totally confuses me is called, “Causes trump statistics” or the Bayesian inference:

  • A cab was involved in a hit-and-run accident at night.  Two cab companies, the Green and the Blue, operate in the city.  You are given the following data:
    • 85% of the cabs in the city are Green and 15% are Blue.
    • A witness identified the cab as Blue.  The court tested the reliability of the witness under the circumstances that existed on the night of the accident and concluded that the witness correctly identified each one of the two colors 80% of the time and failed 20% of the time.
  • What was the probability that the cab involved in the accident was Blue rather than Green?

According to Kahneman, “The two sources of information can be combined by Bayes’s rule.  The correct answer is 41%.  However, you can probably guess what people do when faced with this problem: they ignore the base rate and go with the witness.  The most common answer is 80%.”  Count me the same as most people.

Early in his career, Kahneman was asked by the Israel government to create a high school textbook for teaching kids how to improve their decision-making.  For a bunch of bureaucratic reasons, the project was never completed.  Sounds like a great idea to me.  Thinking Fast and Slow is one of the most interesting, insightful books that I have read in a long time, and I believe most kids would benefit immensely from being exposed to the concepts.

September 25, 2011

Redshirting my kindergarten-aged kid?

Filed under: Culture,Education,Sports — Mike Kueber @ 7:26 pm
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Yesterday, there was a column in the NY Times arguing that it was not a good idea delay your kid’s entrance into kindergarten.  This delaying practice is sometimes called redshirting because it is analogous to a practice in college football that allows college kids to mature an addition year before beginning four years of competitive college football.

Although I hadn’t heard of this practice when my four boys entered kindergarten, my youngest son Jimmy tells me that one of his best friends started a year behind Jimmy even though Jimmy was younger.  And according to Jimmy, the delayed start was intended by his friend’s dad, who had been a professional baseball player, to improve his friend’s athletic prospects.  (It worked; his son has received a Division I scholarship.)

You may think this sort of parental behavior is irrational, but that would be wrong.  One of my first blog postings was a review of a classic book titled Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.  In Outliers Gladwell described compelling evidence that kids who are grouped with kids a few months younger than themselves are unbelievably more successful in sports.  If a few months make a big difference, imagine how much difference there is when a kid is delayed more than 12 months?

The NY Times column was authored by scientists, but it was obvious that the authors were social advocates, not disinterested scientists.  Also the column focused on the academic advantage to starting kindergarten as soon as possible.  It didn’t study the athletic advantage of starting early, but seemed to concede it.

You may wonder when kids can start kindergarten.  The law varies in every state.  According to one internet website, kindergarten is for 5-year olds, and the cut-off date for turning 5 is usually August 31 or September 1.  The earliest is August 1 (Missouri) and the latest is December 31 (several states).

The cut-off in my home state of Texas is September 1, and my former home state of North Dakota is December 2.  If I had grown up in Texas, I would have started school one year later because my birthday is September 24.

But this information establishes the earliest date to begin kindergarten.  What are the parents’ rights to delay kindergarten?  Again, the laws in each state are different.  In Texas, the mandatory school-attendance law applies to any kid who is six-years old by September 1.  Only seven states require school attendance at age 5, which means that redshirting would be an option in the others.  Twenty-three require it at age 6, while 17 states, including North Dakota, require it at age 7.

So what’s a parent to do?  As my brother Kelly said, most parents have no idea whether their kid is going to be blessed with great athletic ability.  Unless you have huge athletic aspirations for your child, redshirting will receive a “delay of game” penalty.