Friday, 8 June 2012

Book Review: What the dog saw and other adventures by Malcolm Gladwell

I’ve been reading 4 books from Gladwell so far. However, I think only “Outliers” and this book “What the dog saw and other adventures” inspired me to write a review. Basically, Gladwell’s books usually collected reliable science evidences or research studies to reveal the world in disruptive ways which need the third eye to discover. What was considered as myths or weirdness were explained pretty well in different manners in Gladwell’s books, especially in the cases of mysterious accidents, social phenomena or human psychology. I’m going to give a brief review for “What the dog saw and other adventures” in this post.

Honestly I didn’t intend to read this book from beginning though. After reading “Outliers,” I was searching for other Gladwell’s books and after reading all their titles; I decided to read this book last or might just skip it if I couldn’t handle my time budget. It was simply that the title didn’t amuse me much about either science or business. On the other hand, I was also reading the book “Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know” by Alexandra Horowitz at that time. What a coincidence! That also explained why “What the dog saw and other adventures” didn’t appeal to me much. Anyway, I’m glad that finally I determined to read Gladwell’s book because both books with “dog” in the title but completely different in genre.

I was attracted the most at “True Colors”, “What the Dog Saw”, “Million-Dollar Murray”, “Something Borrowed”, “Connecting the Dots”, “The art of Failure”, “Blowup” and “Late Bloomer”  chapters. Those components actually gave me “ah”, “oh” and finally “wow” with the truth discovered in surprising ways. I cannot guess how other readers feel, but for me, those interesting findings [from Gladwell’s] are totally exciting and agreeable.  

 “True Colors

Have you ever thought products are more impressive if their commercials carry some statements like “Because I’m worth it.” or “You’re worth it.”? How likely you would buy those products or how excited you would “like” those companies on facebook? I don’t think I’m a person to buy products as fads. I’m not easy to be convinced by commercials either. However, reading this chapter and thinking again, I found that some products I bought somehow unconsciously affected more or less from commercials on TV (cereals, shampoo, lotion, plant food…). Recently for example, I couldn’t afford the product, yet Bose's QuietComfort headphone commercial has really appealed strongly to me. I was shocked.  

Similarly, I’m not a person want to dye my hair by my mood. Up to now, I have my hair dyed just once. That time, I was on an impulse for a change. I just knew I really needed a change, yet I didn’t wonder or try to explain what was going on my mind at that time. Astonishingly, here is what the book says: “women who were just beginning to color their hair, and within that group we were getting those undergoing life changes”.  That statement stopped me awhile for a second thought about the reason I dyed my hair. Well, it was completely correct, how could it be?  I recalled and the feeling at that moment [the moment I decided to dye my hair] seemed run again clearly in my mind. It was truly a life change to me. Somehow the book statement was very convincing.

 “What the Dog Saw

Because I love dogs and cats, I tend to be gravitated into writings about them. I grew up with full of dogs and cats in house. I knew some tricks to deal with new dogs and cats without getting attacked. Seemly like trying to make friend with them at the first meeting. What on my mind is, as long as I don’t attach them and show the friendliness [not sure how I do that though], I’ll be fine. Moreover, I never thought how human’s eyes and faces pose or which way the body leans toward would give impressively different reactions from dogs. I was thrilled to read what the author found about encountering dogs in the proper communicative way that the dog would understand and appreciate. Really exciting chapter!

Million-Dollar Murray

There have been more than one time I concerned about how the gov’t deals with homeless issue as well as why [a few] homeless people are given apartments for free while everyone else has to work too hard and have to pay tax for that spending. The book gave me one chapter which explains pretty thoroughly the reason for this matter. The key idea here is due to the cost, there are some issues that require being solved completely than keeping managing. Homelessness is one of them. After vigorously researching, socialists finally concluded that it was far cheaper to give some special homeless people a place and a nurse than trying to save them [very often] from streets in emergencies if they’re hard-core homeless and hospital’s fans. However, giving homeless people their own places and nurses is just a patch, it’s not a complete solution, especially in the case that they don’t want to improve their lives or there are too many people like them so that they gov’t can’t even bear.  Fortunately, researchers also found that most of homeless people will return to work or be able to support their own in a couple of years.  Good to know about that though!

 “Something Borrowed

Research is a field I’m trying to filling up myself. Same as music, movie or intellectual works, plagiarism is the most critical issue ever in researching, which explains why I’ve paid attention to “Something Borrowed” chapter. Nonetheless, it’s also debating topic ever as of how to define or point out plagiarism in a work. The border between plagiarism and carelessness is too thin but too dangerous since one mistake can kill the rest of related author’s life. In this high-tech world, it’s easy to search for any topics we’re interested in, or consume thousands by thousands pieces of information in a short time. That means it’s also easy to write down in your work something you read somewhere but you don’t recognize you’re borrowing, especially in case of new/amateur researchers. Simply you just suppose the idea pop out by your own or the [borrowing] info was just non-authorized such as news or general education from public sources. The case actually happened in real life and recorded in this chapter. Acknowledging the issue, the chapter helps me pay more attentions to what I read and also find a way to take good notes of info sources. Last but not least, the book reveals that sometimes it's not important what and how much you borrow, the point is that when you borrow. You absolutely can learn more the reason for that by reading the book. Just keep in mind, people won’t mind if you reference to their work [and even if lucky enough, you will also at the same time promote their work to the mass market for free]; however, it’s just that you have to ask them for the right before using.

 “Connecting the Dots

Just round 15 years ago people might deal with “not enough info”; nowadays, we would deal with “too much info.” Which one is better? I would say “tradeoff”. If you’re born before 1985 in a developing country like mine, you may know how hard it was to not get enough info [for education, for society, for life, for understanding the world]. Fortunately, google was born. However, with google, we now shift to another battle. Google can pump up endlessly “alike” answers, but won’t tell us which one is the “exact” answer. With the similar concept, this chapter gives some interesting paradoxes of info flooding, with only one different thing is the book mentioned the case in wartime.

 “The art of Failure

The most interesting question right in the chapter subheading attracted me: “Why some people choke and others panic?” I’m more or less still an English learner, non-native speaker. To me, the meanings of “panic” and “choke” are limited in their definitions in dictionary. I use them completely in different situations and never even notice they could confuse each other in some way, especially in sport. This chapter conveys new perspectives to clarify their confusing meanings. In these two cases in sport,
-  an expert player suddenly loses at the last minutes of a game when she is leading the game with absolute points and almost the winner,
- a new scuba diver couldn’t grasp any of many air supply sources around him when water suddenly got into his current one,

people may say those players  “choke” or “panic” alternatively. However, it is completely a different issue when it comes to explain why those cases would happen to players. The answer would help improve athletes’ skills or save their lives. To find who chokes and who panics, scientists have to define two learning systems called implicit learning [unconsciously] and explicit learning [consciously].  Usually, when we’re first taught something, you think it through in a very deliberate, mechanical manner [consciously]. But as you get better, the implicit system takes over; you start to do everything fluidly without thinking [unconsciously]. You can get more understanding by imagining the process we learn to ride a motorbike or drive a car. 

In stress, “chock” happens because implicit learning system switches to explicit one. That means players is playing at expert level suddenly switch to learner mode which was taught long time ago. At that time, in learning mode, they can’t remember step by step anymore; and in explicit mode, they can’t move smoothly as they are used to do in implicit mode. On the contrary, “panic” happens when players in conscious mode suddenly switch to unconscious mode which is completely black because they didn’t get enough training. “Chock” often happens with experienced players and “panic” usually happens with new players.


The chapter mentioned “risk homeostasis” theory which was the first time I heard of the word in English I think. What is it about? Here is the simple definition: in some cases, improvements in a system of organization don’t really make them better in real. Two memorable cases to interpret the theory were given in this chapter. First, why are more pedestrians killed crossing the street at marked crosswalks than at unmarked crosswalks? Second, why did the introduction of childproof lids on medicine bottles lead, according to one study, to a substantial increase in fatal child poisonings? The explanation is that somehow we consumed the risk reduction, we don’t save it. We think the marked crosswalks are for us, we tend to forget to check carefully before and after using it as much as we do with unmarked crosswalks. Similarly, with new pill bottles, parents usually don’t pay high attention to put them away from the reach of children anymore. And the results, more contacts risk for more accidents. The new safety standard can’t help with the burst of abuse. This theory sounds weird, yet it’s true!

Late Bloomer

Not only was me, but also most of people, we usually suppose talent people are mostly blooming at early age. Even worse, the early bloomers are usually given more credits and the later are usually forgotten. The interesting statistics in the book said that the ratio between early and late talent bloomers was not much different [lower than 5%]. If the precocities are successful by working mostly at conceptual level – building a clear idea of what they want and execute it, the late bloomers, on the other hand, work at experimental level - explore and fail and repeat until their values are found. What lesson did the chapter teach me here? I’m one more time reminded success is always waiting out there and usually equal for all of us as long as we keep questing for it; and talent is always appreciated no matter when it starts blooming.

*All italic texts are excerpted from the book.

After all, I would like to say my time was invested correctly when I decided to read the book. If those facts in my brief review surprise or amuse you, you may also enjoy the book as I did. In case you're not interested in any chapters above, the book still has many other chapters awaiting your discovery. 

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