Malcolm GladWell Book Review: What the Dog Saw

by Mr. Cheap

Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “What the Dog Saw” is different from his previous books.  Whereas he took a core idea and expanded it to book length in Outliers, The Tipping Point and Blink, in this book he collects a number of articles he had previously written for “The New Yorker”.

A number of times I’ve complained to Mike about how under-utilized most blog’s archives are.  When someone finds a blog they like, it seems quite rare that they dig through the archives (instead they just start  reading the most recent posts, often missing some of the best stuff there).  My feeling was along these lines after reading this book:  Gladwell has published a lot of great stuff in The New Yorker and I should really dig through it more than I have (I’d only read two of his articles before this book).

The articles themselves covers a wide range of topics, such as ketchup (and how it delivers all five of the known fundamental tastes of the human palate), dogs (and how they’ve evolved to find humans VERY interesting), hair dye (and it’s connection to the evolving women’s rights movement), problems with interviews (and how this is seen in recruiting football quarterbacks), and how to deal with homelessness (in a way that will annoy everyone across the political spectrum).

At one point in the introduction, Gladwell discusses how annoyed he gets when someone talks to him about one of his articles and says “I don’t buy it”.  He writes that his intention isn’t to give the definitive last word, but to excite people about how interesting things like ketchup and hair dye are and get them thinking about some of the ideas that surround us every day.  This is exactly what I like about his books (and why I’m glad there there’s a number of authors imitating him):  the world can use more of this style.

Joel Spolsky writes some excellent posts on “Joel on Software“.  He is a former Microsoft programmer who created a company that is set up as “the type of place he would want to work”.  He treats his programmers very well, and has built a good company based on this idea.  One chapter in this book dealt with this idea (which I’ve always thought was a good one):  a company that gives its top talent a large degree of latitude.  At the company Gladwell discussed they would identify the “stars”, then give them resources for projects, let them work on things they found interesting, and pay them generous wages to keep them.  The CEO talked in one article about an employee who had, at 29, as a gas trader at the company set up an on-line trading division.  She worked in her spare time, and 6 months later, when the CEO first heard about the project, she had 250 people working for her, servers purchased and was ripping apart some of their buildings.  The CEO responded that this was “exactly the kind of behavior that will continue to drive this company forward”.  I would be tempted to agree that this is an exciting, dynamic way to create a pretty innovative company.  That company’s name, by the way, was Enron.  In another article he presents a pretty convincing case that at Enron the complexity got away from them, rather than it being deliberate fraud.

I think there’s certain information in this book that will be of interest to anyone who likes to read about personal finance topics.  Gladwell is always good at presenting a new perspective on issues (especially on irrational beliefs and behaviours), which I think is vital for investing.  His ideas about how we interact with each other and use products should be useful for anyone interested in human interactions or business.  One chapter, Blowing Up, deals specifically with two traders and their differing approaches to investing (one who tries to outsmart the market, and one who bets that the market will outsmart traders – guess who wins?).

There’s an introduction and SOME chapter have a short update at the end (if something big has changed since the article was written), but for the most part the book is a collection of his articles, so frugal fans could probably just read through his The New Yorker archive.

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