“What the Dog Saw” by Malcolm Gladwell: Part One

This book has reminded me a lot of “Things that Matter” in that it is a collection of years of works by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker. I’ve been pulling little quips and phrases mostly because I find them interesting. I especially like taking these relatively short articles and relating them to other full-length books. Additionally, some of these stories are just plain interesting; besides, who doesn’t need a conversation starter about ketchup or birth control when the conversation wanes. More importantly, the overall theme of the book is that everything and everyone, regardless of their prowess or influence, has a story. Most of the time these stories are never told. It’s refreshing to see what some of these stories can become if someone takes the time to just dig a little deeper.

  1. Curiosity about the interior life of other people’s day-to-day work is one of the most fundamental human impulses.
  2. The trick to finding ideas is to convince yourself that everyone and everything has a story to tell.
  3. Our instinct as humans, after all, is to assume that most things are not interesting.
  4. The other trick to finding ideas is figuring out the difference between power and knowledge.
  5. Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. Not the kind of writing that you’ll find in this book, anyway. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head—even if in the end you conclude that someone else’s head is not a place you’d really like to be.
  6. About ketchup: The dominant nineteenth century ketchups were thin and watery, in part because they were made from unripe tomatoes, which are low in the complex carbohydrates known as pectin, which add body to a sauce.
  7. There are five known fundamental tastes in the human palate: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Umami is the protein, full-bodied taste of chicken soup, or cured meat, or fish stock, or aged cheese, or mother’s milk, or soy sauce, or mushrooms, or seaweed, or cooked tomato. (For more interesting points about umami and tuna see “Four Fish”)
  8. When Heinz moved to ripe tomatoes and increased the percentage of tomato solids, he made ketchup, first and foremost, a potent source of umami. Then he dramatically increased the concentration of vinegar, so that his ketchup had twice the acidity of most other ketchups; now ketchup was sour, another of the fundamental tastes. The post-benzoate ketchups also doubled the concentration of sugar—so now ketchup was also sweet—and all along ketchup had been salty and bitter.
  9. Salt and sugar and umami are primal signals about the food we are eating—about how dense it is in calories, for example, or, in the case of umami, about the presence of proteins and amino acids.
  10. The taste of Heinz’s ketchup began at the tip of the tongue, where our receptors for sweet and salty first appear, moved along the side, where sour notes seem the strongest, then hit the back of the tongue, for umami and bitter, in one long crescendo.
  11. Small children tend to be neophobic: once they hit two or three, they shrink from new tastes. That makes sense, evolutionarily, because through much of human history that is the age at which children would have first begun to gather and forage for themselves, and those who strayed from what was known and trusted would never have survived.
  12. After breaking the ketchup down into its component parts, the testers assessed the critical dimension of “amplitude,” the word sensory experts use to describe flavors that are well blended and balanced, that “bloom” in the mouth.
  13. You can’t isolate the elements of an iconic, high-amplitude flavor like Coca-Cola or Pepsi. But you can with one of those private-label colas that you get in the supermarket.
  14. Happiness, in one sense, is a function of how closely our world conforms to the infinite variety of human preference.
  15. The economist Eugene Fama once studied stock prices and pointed out that if they followed a normal distribution, you’d expect a really big jump, what he specified as a movement five standard deviations from the mean, once every seven thousand years. In fact, jumps of that magnitude happen in the stock market every three or four years, because investors don’t behave with any kid of statistical orderliness. They change their mind. They do stupid things. They copy one another. They panic. (See more about stock market irrationality and how to make better decisions in “A Random Walk Down Wall Street” and “How Not to be Wrong”)
  16. Buying a stock, unlike buying an option, is a gamble that the future will represent an improved version of the past.
  17. Taleb buys options because he is certain that, at root, he knows nothing, or, more precisely, that other people believe they know more than they do.
  18. Karl Popper, who said that you could not know with any certainty that a proposition was true; you could only know that it was not true.
  19. We’re more willing to gamble when it comes to losses, but are risk averse when it comes to our gains. (Lots and lots more of this psychological trap in “Thinking, Fast and Slow”)
  20. That’s why we like small daily winnings in the stock market, even if that requires that we risk losing everything in a crash.
  21. The truth is that we are drawn to the Niederhoffers of this world because we are all, at heart, like Niederhoffer: we associate the willingness to risk great failure—and the ability to climb back from catastrophe—with courage. But in this we are wrong. That is the lesson of Taleb and Niederhoffer, and also the lesson of our volatile times. There is more courage and heroism in defying the human impulse, in taking the purposeful and painful steps to prepare for the unimaginable.
  22. “She has no rules in the outside world, no boundaries,” Cesar said, finally. “You practice exercise and affection. But you’re not practicing exercise, discipline, and affection. When we love someone, we fulfill everything about them. That’s loving. And you’re not loving your dog.”
  23. In the book The Other End of the Leash, McConnell decodes one of the most common of all human-dog interactions—the meeting between two leashed animals on a walk. To us, it’s about one dog sizing up another. To her, it’s about two dogs sizing up each other after first sizing up their respective owners. The owners “are often anxious about how well the dogs will get along,” she writes, “and if you watch them instead of the dogs, you’ll often notice that the humans will hold their breath and round their eyes and mouths in an ‘on alert’ expression. Since these behaviors are expressions of offensive aggression in canine culture, I suspect that the humans are unwittingly signaling tension. If you exaggerate this by tightening the leash, as many owners do, you can actually cause the dogs to attach each other.”
  24. If you expose healthy babies, repeatedly, to a very loud noise, eventually they will be able to fall asleep. They’ll become habituated to the noise: the first time the noise is disruptive, but, by the second or third time, they’ve learned to handle the disruption, and block it out.
  25. When we talk about people with presence, we often assume that they have a strong personality—that they sweep us all up in their own personal whirlwind. But Cesar Milan and Suzi Tortora play different tunes, in different situations. And they don’t turn their back, and expect others to follow. Cesar let JonBee lead; Tortora’s approaches to Eric were dictated by Eric. Presence is not just versatile; it’s also reactive. Certain people, we say, “command our attention” but the verb is all wrong. There is no commanding, only soliciting.
  26. The national security expert Gregory Treverton has famously made a distinction between puzzles and mysteries. Osama Bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. We can’t find him because we don’t have enough information. The key to the puzzle will come from someone close to bin Laden, and until we can find that source, bin Laden will remain at large.
    The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn’t a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much.
  27. If things go wrong with a puzzle, identifying the culprit is easy: it’s the person who withheld information. Mysteries, though, are a lot murkier: sometimes the information we’ve been given is inadequate, and sometimes we aren’t very smart about making sense of what we’ve been given, and sometimes the question itself cannot be answered. Puzzles come to satisfying conclusions. Mysteries often don’t.
  28. A puzzle grows simpler with the addition of each new piece of information.
  29. Now most of the world is open, not closed. Intelligence officers aren’t dependent on scraps from spies. They are inundated with information. Solving puzzles remains critical: we still want to know precisely where Osama bin Laden is hiding and where North Korea’s nuclear-weapons facilities are situated. But mysteries increasingly take center stage.
  30. Puzzles are “transmitter-dependent”; they turn on what we are told. Mysteries are “receiver-dependent”; they turn on the skills of the listener.
  31. Cover-ups, whistle blowers, secret tapes, and exposes—the principal elements of the puzzle—all require the application of energy and persistence, which are the virtues of youth. Mysteries demand experience and insight.
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