Friday, February 25, 2005

I have found my utopia

Pop.: 1 plus 5000 books

If only the 1 in the population were a tall, blonde, handsome cowboy capable of discussing domestic policy, pop culture, and modern literature with equal ease.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

On the Nightstand

Time for this week's list of readings:

The Ninth Life of Louis Drax by Liz Jensen
We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch (still---I can only take so much horror and sadness at a time)
Blue Clay People: Seasons on Africa's Fragile Edge by William Powers
Antioch Review: The Fiction Issue (summer 2004)
The New Yorker: Winter Fiction Issue (winter 2004) (so I got a little behind on some of these)
Vanity Fair: The Hollywood Issue (woo and hoo and yippy yay!)

Wednesday, February 23, 2005


I have a combination of nothing to do* and nothing to say, so here are other people saying and doing interesting things:

Queer Studies: Six New Texts
Sadly, any of these could actually get made.

I just want to be Jennifer Weiner.

I'm bad at thank-you notes and hate skiing, too.

The Subtitle that Changed America
So how do I get a job that pays me to write about my whimsy of the day?

* Not entirely true. I'm sure there is something useful and productive that I could be doing, but finding that thing seems like too much effort today. It's rainy and cold, and I'd rather be home with my dog and a book.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The Best-Laid Plans

I began reading Blink with the intention of sending in a review to Bookslut in the hopes of becoming a regular reviewer there. Unfortunately, when I was about halfway through the book, I checked the Bookslut site and discovered that someone else had the same idea and got it done before me. Rather than letting my efforts go to waste, I finished the book and wrote my review as a practice. So here it is.

My initial impression of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell was that it would be a somewhat amusing collection of cute if not entirely apropos or scientifically accurate anecdotes loosely strung together under the banner of a vague and unoriginal hypothesis. Gladwell would describe my initial analysis as “thin-slicing,” his term for the ability to filter vast amounts of data through past experience and distill the essential facts to reach a quick conclusion, a process that is more commonly and prosaically known as synthesizing.

I will give Gladwell credit for his ability to repackage the banal into highly marketable product, along with the requisite buzzword, a skill he also showcased in his first book, The Tipping Point. But that’s the cynic in me talking. Gladwell is an engaging and enthusiastic writer who is clearly enamored of this subject, so much so that criticizing him almost feels mean. He really wants us to be as interested in all these fun facts---and the people who supply the facts---as he is. And the facts are fun, such as the explanation of the various muscle actions required for a simple facial expression or the deconstruction of a fake ancient Greek statue.

Gladwell, however, was a little too enamored of his research. Under scrutiny, many of his fun facts fail the skepticism test. For example, in an experiment with college students, strangers’ observations of the students’ dorm rooms matched the results of a personality exam more closely than friends’ opinions of the students did. Gladwell takes this as proof that first impressions based on limited information are more accurate than impressions formed over time with much information. I would interpret the results differently: that we carefully select how we present ourselves on the surface, either in answers to personality tests or in the decoration of our homes, whereas we gradually reveal a more nuanced version of ourselves to our friends. That the friends’ opinions and the personality test differ may only prove that the test wasn’t valid. Gladwell, of course, doesn’t question whether such tests are accurate measures of our personality; he accepts the interpretation that best suits his hypothesis. (As, one could argue, I am doing as well by taking the opposite view to prove my point.)

Furthermore, Gladwell consistently places science and experts above basic instinct or human judgment, going as far as to write, “it is really only the experts who are able to reliably account for their reactions.” Whether my “thin slicing” of a situation determines that a person is friendly or that a song is catchy is irrelevant if a scientist thinks the person is angry or a music critic thinks the song is dull. Apparently, before we can thin slice, we have to have a thick slice, putting this theory out of the reach of those of us who haven’t spent years documenting our facial muscles or conducting experiments on college students.

Both his reliance on science and his examples negate Gladwell’s central hypothesis, which is a shaky proposition at best: we make better decisions when we decide quickly and with a limited amount of data. Too much information or thought muddies the waters. Yet Gladwell admits that “truly successful decision making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking,” and most of Gladwell’s examples of “instinctive” decision making involve highly skilled experts who through years of research and practice have accumulated a wealth of data. Gladwell describes a researcher who can accurately predict whether a married couple will stay together after overhearing only a minute or two of a couple’s conversation (although, again, no evidence of any follow up from the initial evaluation is given to prove that the predictions are accurate). Before this demonstration, however, Gladwell tells how the researcher has painstakingly analyzed the components of hundreds of couples’ conversations, including coding 1-second intervals of taped conversations. The man has honed his skills over years of collecting massive amounts of data and practicing his trade. His ability to note discord in a conversation is no more remarkable than my ability to find a grammatical error on the dinner menu after several years of working as an editor or an experienced tailor’s ability to notice an uneven hem from across the room.

The book does have an overarching theme, and had Gladwell focused on it, he would have had a more solid, if still unoriginal, thesis: In our information-inundated age, we need to learn to be more selective in which data we use to make decisions. Gladwell makes this point inadvertently with his weak examples, which demonstrate the need to apply our own intelligent skepticism to even the most highly pedigreed scientific reports, and more directly with his counterpoints of when thin slicing fails, including a lengthy analysis of the Amadou Diallo shooting (a little too lengthy; we get it: the police screwed up) and a review of the failure of New Coke. In both cases, the decision makers had lots of data, from which they selected what they thought were the essential facts, only to find that they had filtered out the truly telling details.

In the beginning of the book, Gladwell sets out three goals for his book: to explain the adaptive unconscious; to examine the situations in which we should and should not trust our instincts; and to determine how we can better harness the power of thin slicing in our own decision making. Gladwell gets low marks on all three goals. In the end, we are left with a vague notion that our unconscious is able to process information quickly and efficiently in a way that our conscious cannot, although our unconcious judgments can be deeply flawed and sometimes fatal, and with the idea that, as simple lay people, our instincts are not to be trusted. Thin slicing, as presented by Gladwell, is the province of the elite experts, which makes this book an interesting set of case studies for psychology students and CEOs but a letdown for the rest of us.

I picked up two new books to review. Let's hope that at least one of them has escaped the attention of other would-be reviewers.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Beyond Angry

This just makes me beyond angry.

And sad. Because we should be outraged by the U.S. government's attempt at censorship. Because this just further demonstrates the hypocrisy of the Bush Administration, which claims to promote free democracies but in practice only promotes its own self interest.

But the truth is, most people won't even hear about this and even fewer will care.

Restrictions Bar Publishing Dissident Writers from Abroad (Baltimore Sun)