Saturday, December 19, 2009

Malclm Gladwell: Outliers

Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers was an engaging read, but a disappointing argument. Gladwell presents a series of separate incidents, each painted in a fair amount of detail. He doesn't focus on the common threads, and sometimes it's hard to see how the stories are pulling in the same direction, since he fills in the theme with a really light hand.

Gladwell presents a number of success stories and a few stories of failure in order to show that luck and circumstances contribute substantially to both. The preface shows us a small Pennsylvania town whose residents mostly came from a single small Italian town. Both towns show unusual longevity, and Gladwell points to a low-pressure lifestyle with lots of community contact as the reason. The first chapter shows that the top Canadian hockey players (and around the world) all have birthdays that are clustered just after January 1(toward the beginning of the year (January 1 is the cutoff date for entry into the youngest organized leagues). This means that each year, this cohort includes the biggest kids, who get the most attention and training, and the investment compounds over the years.

Lewis Terman's gifted kids are presented to show that intelligence isn't a sure precursor for success. There were very few successes out of the class of extremely bright kids that Terman followed for decades.

Gladwell then presents details about various successes who happened to already have the right preparation when their skills came to be valued by the marketplace (Bill Gates and Bill Joy, as well as Jewish lawyers who'd been handling corporate proxy fights when they'd been out of favor by the white shoe firms in New York). Gladwell argues that 10,000 hours of focused practice is necessary to turn someone into the kind of expert how can take advantage of situations like this. He seems to want us to believe that luck determines which of the available experts will ultimately succeed, but he fails to establish that 10,000 hours is an important benchmark. It's certainly plausible that in order to be considered a pioneer, you have to have picked up the expertise before it was obvious that there was a field available to excel in.

Gladwell tries to put the Beatles in the category of people who picked up the 10,000 hours of experience, and then won because the time was right. The evidence he shows makes it look like they worked very hard in Germany for a few summers before they achieved their success, but it doesn't look like 10,000 hours. And it's not obvious what wave of change they rode to gain their success, comparable to the opportunities available to Gates, Joy, and the New York lawyers who were ready for the wave of corporate lawsuits in the 1970's.

Along the way, we also get a few stories of surprising failures, uniformly due to socialization. Some cultures are poorly suited to producing successes in particular fields. He focuses on a particular bad period for Korean Air Lines, which the long term investigations eventually laid at the feet of the extreme deference due to pilots (and high status individuals in general) in Korean society. Gladwell dissects several crashes to show that even when the co-pilot could tell the plane was in trouble, Korean social mores prevented him from saying anything directly to the pilot. Eventually, the international community convinced Korean aviation to change their training to ensure that cockpits were much more egalitarian, so communication didn't have this fatal flaw. There are a couple of other stories of individuals from dysfunctional societies, or of dysfunctional societies themselves.

The book closes with the story of KIPP, a free open-enrollment school that has shown that pretty much all kids can be successful and prepared for college if the social environment is appropriate. It takes a culture that embraces hard work (which Gladwell also emphasized in the previous chapter on Asian farmers), but doesn't require selective admissions.

Gladwell tells a good story, but he didn't spend much time stitching it together. I had to review the whole array of pieces in order to see how they fit together. Before going to that extra effort, I had a different impression of the intended moral. The high-profile success stories (the Beatles, Bill Joy, Bill Gates, and Joe Flom the Jewish lawyer) were the most vivid, so I remembered it as a story of how hard work makes you eligible for success, but requires the addition of fortuitous timing in order to win the brass ring. Once I brought in the pro athletes, Terman's gifted kids, and KIPP, I could see that the point must have had something to do with those who just missed greatness, too. The commonality that Gladwell wants us to find is that success is mostly a matter of luck and circumstance. And he we wants us to know that luck and circumstance can also work against us. (That's how the Korean pilots fit in and southern culture's deleterious effects on socialization.)

So he wants us to believe that community and context matter more than ability. Hard work apparently gives you a chance at success, but the chance is out of your control. All you can do is pick something you care about and work hard at it. If you're lucky things might turn out well for you, but they probably won't.

This is a pretty discouraging story if you stop there. While it may be a reasonable story about which people get to be the big winners, it's misleading as a guide to living a successful life. Success at the level of the characters he describes probably is mostly a matter of luck, but ordinary success and modest achievement is much more attainable, as the KIPP example shows. There aren't many fields like pro hockey or pro baseball in which the winners are picked early, and there's no reasonable chance to catch up if you miss the initial cut-off. But Gladwell doesn't provide any hints about that and he makes this story harder to follow than it needs to be.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Health Care is not like Agriculture

Atul Gawande is an excellent writer and has a lot to say about the practice of medicine. His columns in the New Yorker have been very educational, and his observations about what some doctors do to make medicine safer and more effective are really incisive. His June article on the difference in costs of providing approximately equivalent services across the country caught a lot of people's attention. He has continued to explore issues related to health care reform, but I'm afraid his most recent article misses the mark.

In December's New Yorker, Dr. Gawande describes how the US Department of Agriculture spread information about the practice of farming by hiring extension agents who convinced local farmers to try out pilot projects to demonstrate the benefits of scientific farming, and where they had successes, recruiting additional farmers by the power of example. Gawande seems to think that most of the improvement in American farm productivity is due to the work of the USDA. He then proposes that this approach is hidden in the draft health care bills, and that it is likely to work as well for health care as it did for agriculture.

I'm very doubtful, and the reason is that everything the USDA did was voluntary. That's why they got volunteers to run pilot projects--they needed to show that the ideas worked, and they couldn't force anyone to go along with it. And voluntarism is one thing you can be sure will be missing from the pilot projects (disguised as targetted programs for particular districts) included in the health care bill. The ideas may well be tried out in one local area at a time, but I'd bet each pilot will be mandatory for some set of doctors, clinics, or insurers. The kinds of approaches that could be made to work if practitioners were allowed to try them are very different from the kinds that might work when practitioners are forced to follow them. The big problem in health care is that there's already way too much regulation. Adding more layers of regulation, and more requirements, won't give any of the participants in this industry any incentive to improve results or lower prices.

A solution would have to include finding ways to make more of medicine look like lasek surgery, or any other competitive industry, but nothing like that is on the table. The Cato institute has been pushing for opening up insterstate competition in various ways, but I don't get the impression that anyone with the ability to influence outcomes is listening to them.

Friday, December 11, 2009

C. J. Cherryh: Forty Thousand in Gehenna

C. J. Cherryh's Forty Thousand in Gehenna (1983) is a classic, and shows Cherryh's mastery of the presentation of alien minds. In this case, she makes the non-humans even more alien by having humans become incomprehensible to their own kind in the process of living and working with them.

The story takes place on the border between Alliance and Union space. In a political move, the Union sets up a colony on a remote world, and then fails to resupply it, leaving the colonists on their own. The colonists discover that the planet is inhabited, something the surveys failed to notice. The Caliban (various species of lizard, from smaller than a dog to as large as a brontosaurus) don't seem to be intelligent, though it's hard for the under-supplied colonists to control them and keep them out of the settlement.

The settlers start out as a mix of a few thousand natural-born humans and the titular 40,000 Azi (programmed humans). The plan of the settlement is to remove the programming once the settlement is set up, and allow the Azi to marry, raise families, and farm the land. The first generation of Azi have a hard time adapting to their freedom, and don't have any experience of family, so they don't do a good job with the next generation. At first arrival, the Azi vastly outnumber the free humans, so the resulting culture is a result of the natural forces that arise from the mixing of untutored second generation Azi and caliban than anything the Union planners might have intended.

Two generations later, a resupply expedition arrives, and tries to figure out how to deal with the cultural mix of Humans and Caliban. The expedition's leaders are slow to realize that the caliban represent a separate intelligence from the feral colonists. Eventually, anthropologists learn enough from the divergent societies (the colonists have split into warring factions) to understand that there are two alien groups (diverged humans and the Caliban who have adapted to a human presence) to be integrated into the galactic civilization.

I've read many stories set in Cherryh's Alliance-Union universe, and this is probably the only one in which Azis play a prominent role as individual characters. Normally they're present to show how a high-tech society would hold slaves. They're treated relatively well physically, but have their mental lives completely controlled. In this story, they're prepped for the mission with hints and build up that they will be learning to live on their own and that this is a great honor and an important mission. The latter is part of their standard indoctrination, so while they believe it, they don't assign it any particular significance. There's a little bit of hinting that they are excited about the opportunity to be free individuals, but as it turns out, their foreboding about having to manage their own affairs is more to the point. Shortly after the colony is founded, the resupply mission fails to arrive, and the technology that was used to give them reassuranc and training starts to break down. Since additional tools and technical assistance would also have arrived at the same time, the Azi and the other colonists experience their new freedom as part of a package deal with the gradual decay of their technology base. It's too small a colony to be self sufficient in maintaining the technology, though they are capable of feeding themselves as long as everyone works the land. In the end, what could have been an interesting story about discovering how to live a self-directed life is side-steped because the manumission happens in conjunction with a general breakdown in the social order.

It's not surprising that the children of the colonists, growing up in an impoverished settlement, surrounded by nearly incomprehensible but strangely communicative alien beasts grow up estranged from the previous generation. Few of the elders know enough about survival skills in farming or exploration to be of much help, their myths are suited to a much more technological society, and the vast majority of the older generation learned skills as they needed them from the tapes they were fed along with the programming that kept them docile. Given this, it's not surprising that their children charted a new course, but it is interesting to see how Cherryh presents their divergence, and the fumbling steps the envoys from civilization take in their attempts to control and understand them. Cherryh also does a good job of showing how bureaucracy and politics interfere in the task.

I apparently started reading this once before, since I see that Google's cached summary of a 2005 review I wrote has it in my "Currently Reading" list. I'm pretty sure I didn't get very far, because the story was all new to me this time. It's also been on my list for a while, but it took me a while to find a copy. (And then to find another.)