Monday, May 28, 2007

Think: Michael R. LeGault

After trawling through 254 pages of Think, you find the author articulating the book’s thesis: Critical thinking depends on analysis and logic, and action. I wish we had seen more of the first two in the book.

Think is Michael R. LeGault’s criticism (I almost said “critique”) of Malcolm Gladwell’s much-acclaimed Blink. So why is it not just a long scathing review in The Washington Times (where Michael LeGault worked)? Or a furious post in LeGault’s blog? Why did LeGault have to make a book of it?

I wonder whether LeGault missed Malcolm Gladwell’s key argument in Blink – snap decision-making is about “thin slicing,” which is not quite unthinking guesswork, but an ability to, in a sense, separate the grain from the chaff. This misinterpretation is perhaps the undoing of Think.

Consequently, the book ends up as one long rant at virtually everything – corporate America, the government, the education system, the media, the bureaucracy… LaGault’s argument seems to be that the whole world has stopped thinking, and therefore we are all going to perish. And as ranters go, LeGault is quite aggressive in his language, uses quick data to make points that appear specious, and offers arguments that seem shallow and superficial. Which is ironic, considering the theme of the book. Here are some LeGault-isms.

  1. It wasn’t as clear to me then as it is now that GM had committed the most grievous of sins in the business world. It had created and daily sanctioned a culture of unaccountability. As it had grown to dominate the industry, it had become the ultimate government project, insulated from customers, ideas, and the dynamics of the market. A culture of unaccountability is a culture without incentive, and a culture without incentive is the death of critical and creative thinking. (This strong judgment could have been palatable if it had been preceded by some really strong thinking; except that there are just the two examples that precede this assertion.)
  2. Despite its dubious meaning, or perhaps because of it, “stress” gets prolific coverage in the media. My search engine retrieved 80 million hits on stress in less than two-tenths of a second. Madonna, by comparison, netted 20 million hits, marijuana only 11 million. (Can we also conclude that Madonna is more popular than marijuana?)
  3. The people who succeed, find fulfillment, make a decent living under these new conditions will be the ones who understand that the fashionable dictates about the questionable relevance of formal, book-style learning and knowledge are themselves old-fashioned. This isn’t about solving the conundrum of the Unmoved Mover or an expanding universe. It’s about being able to express viewpoints and rationally debate important issues with family, friends, and colleagues. It’s about winning a contract with a company in India by being able to recite a few lines of the Bhagwat Gita. (What was that again?)

It’s a pity, really, because there are quite a few interesting facts and observations in Think. It’s just that while trying to bend everything in the direction of anti-Blink, LaGault ends up losing focus. Moreover, with the tone being so critical, the real arguments drown in a sea of vitriol.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Codex: Lev Grossman

Edward Wozny is a young, successful investment banker. He is between jobs – moving from New York to London. He has a fortnight between jobs. And what does he do? Well, to begin with, he is asked to catalog the book collection of a rich English client of his New York employer (well, ex-employer, technically). Of course, he is not overly excited about it. So he decides to give it up after the first day. But then he discovers that there is more to it than just cataloguing – there is a mysterious codex that is missing and needs to be tracked out. But Edward does not even know what a codex is. Thankfully, help is at hand, in the form of research scholar Margaret Napier.

“A codex—” She stopped and half turned. She seemed nonplussed at having to define so basic a concept. “A codex is just—it’s a codex. As opposed to a scroll, or a wax tablet, or a rock with words chiseled on it. A codex is a set of printed pages, folded and bound with a spine between two covers. It’s what someone like you would call a book.”

Edward has a close friend called Zeph, a computer-game nerd. Zeph introduces Edward to computer games, specifically a game called Momus. Now Edward is not at all interested in computer games, but he gets hooked to Momus. So whenever he is not with Margaret, trying to track the missing codex, he is with his laptop, trying to crack Momus.

As you would have guessed by now, the strands of the narrative are not independent – they collide as the plot thickens. There are clues in the game that help Edward get closer to the codex, and that helps him do better at Momus in return.

If you ignore the incongruity of an investment banker being called to catalog a book collection, Codex is tremendously promising. But it leaves you feeling just a bit short in some aspects. The narrative is a bit too straight with an unvarying tone and pace; the inter-textual references are sparse and predictable; beyond Edward and Margaret, you hardly know anything about any of the others (I especially wanted to know a lot more about the client and his family); and there are not enough blind alleys and red herrings – in a search of this nature, you would expect more than a few of those. But the biggest disappointment was the ending – it seemed a bit too glib for me – after all, you don’t expect all i’s dotted and t’s crossed in a plot like this, do you? May be the author has an eye on a film? Notwithstanding this snatch of dialogue?

Did you read The Name of the Rose?

“Saw the movie. Sean Connery. Christian Slater.

Margaret refrained from comment.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Holmes on the Range: Steve Hockensmith

Perhaps no other fictional detective has been emulated, imitated, twisted, and parodied as much as Sherlock Holmes. Steve Hockensmith’s Holmes on the Range (the first in the series) is a delightful attempt at taking Sherlock to the Wild West of the U.S.

The Brothers Gustav Amlingmeyer and Otto Amlingmeyer (Old Red and Big Red) are farm hands in Montana. The elder brother, Old Red is a fan of Sherlock Holmes (Some folks get religion. Gustav got Sherlock Holmes.) and his “deducifyin” skills, and his brother Big Red is his story reader (Old Reader can’t read while Big Red can a bit) and Dr. Watson.

Holmes on the Range, is set in 1893, so in a sense it is contemporaneous to Sherlock Holmes. Old Red and Big Red sign on (as part of a group of seven, called the Hornet’s Nesters) as hands at a secretive ranch, the Bar VR (referred to as the Cantlemere Ranch by the English owners, another nice Holmes connection). Lowly paid, working in the open in the freezing winter in a dilapidated ranch (owned, rather pompously, by the Sussex Land and Cattle Company) with a surly suspicious supervisor, the circumstances are right for Old Red to get into some “detectivizing.” A totally mutilated dead body turns up and the stage is set for the Reds. A second murder completes the set up. And the owners (the “chairman” of the Sussex Land and Cattle Company and two “shareholders”, along with their entourage) land up and Old Red is given one day by them to “solve” the mystery. How he goes about the task and succeeds forms the rest of the story. And in a delightful twist, one of the owners also has a connection with Sherlock Holmes – a little forced for sure, but delightful nevertheless.

A cannibal on the loose (Hungry Bob Tracy) is a bit of a distraction in the book, though his relevance comes in when his body parts come in handy to mask and therefore reveal one of the murders in the story. Well, Sir Doyle had a touch of the macabre in his stories as well, so we will do well to forgive Steve Hockensmith for this.

“Witty” is not a word I would have ever thought of using to characterize a book written by an American (no, I don’t mean it in the pejorative sense, it’s just that “witty” in my mind is oh-so-English), but Steve Hockensmith’s writing is precisely that. The humor is all pervasive in the dialogues between the Red brothers, and Big Red’s asides, brilliant dry wit. The book is just peppered with this that to pick just one or two examples is close to impossible. Pick up Holmes on the Range and read it – this is one book you don’t want to miss. I eagerly await the next book.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Made to Stick: Chip and Dan Heath

The Sticking Point is a title the authors of Made to Stick would have surely toyed with, considering they acknowledge that the genesis of this book is The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.

This book is a complement to The Tipping Point in the sense that we will identify the traits that make ideas sticky, a subject that was beyond the scope of Gladwell’s book. Gladwell was interested in what makes social epidemics epidemic. Our interest is in how effective ideas are constructed—what makes some ideas stick and others disappear.

However, Chip and Dan Heath make a significant departure from Malcolm Gladwell, in terms of their writing style—Made to Stick has a text bookish tone to it. May be it is because Chip is a professor—the didactic tone is very prevalent in the book, and that to me is one of the drawbacks. May be this book is meant for students and not corporate executives. (The Easy Reference Guide at the end suggests the same thing as well.)

And it is not just in the tone that this book is didactic. It is also in the construct—to form an acronym like SUCCESs, with the hope that we will remember it better and thus use it (and make it a household name?) smacks of academia. I shivered because it had shades of John Maeda’s The Laws of Simplicity, another book that flattered to deceive. My review of that book here.

As for the core premise of the book, ideas stick because they are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and are in the form of stories, is pretty much old hat. Getting ideas to stick is at the core of the advertising and communication industry—so there is nothing new Chip and Dan unearth here. At times, it is tragic (and disappointing) that they seem to be trying so hard to make an argument that no one is likely to disagree with. And to talk about how proverbs stick, well…

As you would expect with ideas, most of the examples in the book are to do with communication; however, Chip and Dan manage to bring in concepts of stickiness in product design as well. But you are bound to have heard of most of the examples, more than once.

Sure, some of the concepts like the Curse of Knowledge and the Velcro theory of memory are interesting, but if you have to dredge through 252 pages of platitudes to get them, you wonder whether it’s worth the time.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Sultan’s Seal: Jenny White

A location as rich as Istanbul, a period as ripe as the Ottoman Empire (albeit in its dying days), a palace full of intrigue, a magistrate as a detective, and the body of an unidentified naked English woman – great ingredients for a riveting detective story. So how well did first-time novelist Jenny White (whose day job is that of a professor of anthropology at Boston University) put the ingredients together?

White invokes the Istanbul of the late 19th century exceedingly well. Her period-precise language brings the city and the period quite alive in the reader’s mind. The coming apart of the city, the uncomfortable intermingling of the west and the east, an unstated sense of societal despair – all these shine through in the narrative. However, while the palace intrigues are suggested and even mentioned in the odd instance, White doesn’t get too deep into them – this is perhaps an area she could have exploited better. You almost beg for it at times.

Notwithstanding all that, The Sultan’s Seal is a Kamil Pasha book. His characterization in the early pages is exceedingly strong. (“He is a man who controls his environment by comprehending it.”) The first chapter really raises expectations to a tremendous level. And as we go forward, and start reading a lot more into his character and his idiosyncrasies (“…he keeps a clay jar of water and a tinned mug on the dressing table in his bedroom. He drinks from it to clear his mind and calm his senses.”), the stage is set for the magistrate-detective to impress.

However, Kamil Pasha flatters to deceive. The initial characterization makes him sound almost Holmesian (a deep interest in biology invites the comparison) in personality and detecting style. Subsequent events suggest he could be a classical analytical detective – not unlike an investigator in a police procedural. So you expect him to dredge through the details and uncover the crime in layers. But he ends up coming across as neither. You almost wonder what his role is in the unraveling of the mystery. Considering The Sultan’s Seal is referred to in the cover as “A Kamil Pasha Novel,” I would imagine this to be the beginning of a series of books. And may be in the subsequent ones Kamil Pasha would settle down to do some serious detective work.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

On The Wealth of Nations: P. J. O’Rourke

One of America’s leading political satirists turns his eye on Adam Smith – but not with satiric intent. On The Wealth of Nations is the first in The Atlantic Monthly’s “Books That Changed The World” series.

It is tempting to deride the series as a Cliffs Notes equivalent of non-fiction, but this definitely is a useful attempt to render some of the classics into a crisper, more relevant, modern form, complete with current examples and case studies.

And you can do worse than to start with The Wealth of Nations. Unarguably one of the most influential and seminal works in the field of Economics (and may I suggest, business?), it is also arguably one of the most imposing, what with its door-stopping size. And in converting it into a sub-200 page modern version, P. J. O’Rourke has re-created a masterpiece, nay, created a modern masterpiece.

P. J. captures the simplicity of Adam Smith’s fundamental propositions – pursuit of self-interest, division of labor, and freedom of trade – and demystifies the more complex explanations and logic. His trademark satire (the book is worth reading for the humor alone!) and the fluidity of his language make this book a most entertaining and insightful read. The success of the book lies in how P. J. not only presents Adam Smith in a modern context, but also explains some of the more recent economic changes like the rise of the service economy and outsourcing in terms of what Adam Smith had written. And from a human perspective, how he manages to give us a picture of the man Adam Smith.

Another good feature of the book is that P. J. doesn’t just interpret Adam Smith. He takes a position on Adam Smith’s thoughts – and even disagrees with some of them, and offers his counter-views. This makes for interesting reading because it offers the reader an opportunity to take positions and analyze things from that perspective.

At times, P. J. does give you a sense that he is critical of Adam Smith’s writing style (… the book Smith made reads like an FBI wiretap transcription, except with deeper thoughts and no swear words.), but I think it is worth bearing that inasmuch as P. J. O’Rourke’s writing style is relevant to our times, so was Adam Smith’s in his. Which is precisely the reason this series sounds like a good idea. Keep reading, P. J. What next? You seem to be hinting at Friedrich A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Sea Change: Robert B. Parker

I’ve never read (or even heard of) Robert Parker before, so when I picked up Sea Change at the airport, my expectations were not particularly high. May be it was that, may be it was because I was on a long transcontinental flight, may be it was because I was reading crime fiction after quite a long time, but Sea Change was delightful – a simple straight narrative with banter and humor, and good old-fashioned police investigation. What more do you need to put together a racy readable piece of crime fiction?

Jesse Stone comes across as a realistic cop, complete with a secretary who gently flirts with him and a sidekick with a corny nickname (Suitcase Simpson). Straight-talking, Jesse does not take much to establish his authority smoothly and unashamedly.

“Okay Jess,” Perkins said and folded the paper and put it on the conference table.” You’re the chief.”

“Yes I am,” Jesse said.

And a no-nonsense approach.

“Just as long as we’re clear on whose case it is.”

“It belongs to all of us,” Healy said, “who love truth and justice.”

“Like hell,” Jesse said. “It belongs to me.”

An undercurrent of humor runs through Sea Change so well that the crimes come across as less gruesome and tragic than they actually are. And the small touches of philosophy come across as dryly humorous as well. It almost makes you wonder whether Parker is parodying crime fiction and police procedurals.

Jesse Stone is well characterized in Sea Change. His alcoholism and his problems with his marriage are clearly not part of the narrative of Sea Change, but considering he is a constant hero for Robert Parker, it is understandable that his personality goes beyond the requirements of the plot. It did sound a bit like Maj Sjöwall’s and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck. But only the merest hint of a resemblance. And the comparison ends there.

The biggest drawback in Sea Change is the villain, who, considering the nature of the crimes, came across as a little too glib and smooth. You would expect some more complexity in the character of a person who committed all those heinous crimes.

Sea Change is unlikely to find a front row seat in the pantheon of crime fiction or police procedurals, but for a light read on a transcontinental flight, you can do worse than pick this book up.