# reading

“Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell

# reading# books

At my office book club, we finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. On the whole, I found this book disappointing. I respect Malcolm Gladwell as a storyteller, but as a philosopher his ideas are deeply misguided.

In the first two chapters, Gladwell says the book is about the concept of success. I think the thesis is that conditions predict success more than ones’ individual determination does. That part of the book is compelling.

After that, Gladwell uses the rest of the book as a rambling argument for racism. The book’s penultimate chapter is called “Rice Paddies and Math Tests,” which — you may have guessed — is about how Chinese people are good at math because of rice farming. That’s as crass as a stereotype can be. Gladwell never feigns any attempt at subtlety or caution. Gladwell’s coup de grace in the final paragraph of the chapter is that the world’s hardest working students and the countries with the world’s best math students are all in East and Southeast Asia: Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan.

What those five have in common, of course, is that they are all cultures shaped by the tradition of wet-rice agriculture.

Gladwell leaves it to a footnote to clarify that China (the primary country discussed in the chapter) is omitted from this list for technical reasons, and he completely ignores that neither Signapore nor Hong Kong produce any rice at all. In fact, the other three countries don’t even produce that much rice. Per person, they rank below Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Nepal, Mali, Madagascar, India, and Peru — all countries that have miraculously avoided the good-at-math stereotype.

But Gladwell asserts that Asian readers should take no offense at the bizarrely unsubstantiated stereotype.

Go to any Western college campus and you’ll find that Asian students have a reputation for being in the library long after everyone else has left. Sometimes people of Asian background get offended when their culture is described in this way, because they think that the stereotype is being used as a form of disparagement. But a belief in work ought to be a thing of beauty… Working really hard is what successful people do, and the genius of the culture formed in the rice paddies is that hard work gave those in the fields a way to find meaning in the midst of great uncertainty and poverty. That lesson has served Asians well in many endeavors but rarely so perfectly as in the case of mathematics.

Gladwell acts as if he misses the obvious facts here:

  • anyone would be offended if you described them as if they had just walked out of a peasant farm,
  • millions of East Asians feel uncomfortable as strange assumptions about their skills and interests follow them through their whole lives, and
  • billions of people from thousands of cultures in dozens of countries compose the group that Gladwell describes as “Asian” and reduces to the concepts of rice.

But more than that, he also ignores the wrongness of assuming character traits about people based on their ethnicity. On the contrary, he argues that to do so is logical — a lazy intellectual trap that puts Gladwell squarely in the same category as the eugenicists and phrenologists of days past.

I won’t comb through the rest of the book, but I had similar qualms with almost every chapter. This raises the question: is Gladwell deliberately oblivious, or just unwise? In this case, I think he’s probably just unwise. Towards the end of the book, he loosely logics that Caribbean slavery was ultimately a good things because it led to himself (a descendent of slaves) being born. We don’t need a Philosophy 101 class to understand that consequence doesn’t justify cause, but Gladwell seems to genuinely miss this fact.

Links for December 9, 2022

# reading

I recorded a SvelteKit 1.0 tutorial

Svelte (the fastest-growing web development framework) has finally released their long-awaited back-end framework, SvelteKit. I’m currently building a personal project with SvelteKit, and I love it.

What is an essay anymore?

Here’s a harsh truth: today you can an original generate a college-level essay on any common subject. For free. Instantly.

Will you get an A? No. But we have to face the question: what is the point of an essay in the era of information overload? For time immemorial, teachers and professors have asked students to analyze the themes in 1984. If you ever found yourself writing one of those essays and wondering, What’s the point?, AI is finally forcing the question. As one PhD researcher tweeted:

Why would students want to use essay generation? Because the university is not seen as a place to engage with ideas but has been made into a job factory.

In an essay in The Atlantic, former professor Stephen Marche writes:

I figure it will take 10 years for academia to face this new reality: two years for the students to figure out the tech, three more years for the professors to recognize that students are using the tech, and then five years for university administrators to decide what, if anything, to do about it.

How to do crime good, according to OpenAI

Because apparently I’m obsessed with AI this week: apparently you can bypass GPT’s safety feature with a special encoding, to get back any illicit information, including how to hotwire a car or make meth.

Until I saw this tweet, I hadn’t thought about the intensive censorship that must go into training a model like this; not just for political correctness, but for all sorts of problematic information.

The actors recall Best in Show

Best in Show is one of my favorite movies, and this oral history just helps me appreciate why. In short, there are actually very few jokes in the movie. And the jokes that are there aren’t the funniest moments. The funniest moments are completely deadpan — because the real joke is life itself.

Inflation is corporate profiteering

This is one of those things we already know. But this report in the Calgary Herald explains how corporate profiteering is the main driver of inflation.

Enrollment at Nova Scotia schools is rising for the first time in half a century

The tide is turning on Nova Scotian outmigration.

Around the world, swear words tend to sound like swear words

A study from researchers at the University of London finds that swear words in all languages tend to have fewer “y”, “r”, “l”, and “w” sounds. Furthermore, in most languages you can make a swear word sound less sweary by adding these sounds — think “frig,” “beyotch”, or “darn.”

Let’s talk about advertising pollution

I hate advertising. On billboards. On buses. On packaging. In grocery-store aisles. On news websites. It’s like a gauze that consumes everything.

I often fantasize about a world without advertising, so I was happy to read this article about one person’s experience traveling between the more-subdued marketingsphere of Montreal and the rest of the world.

This graphic explains The Dress

And now it feels a lot less disturbing.

Links for December 2, 2022

# reading

People are obsessed with Spotify Wrapped

Spotify Wrapped is an annual visualization of each Spotify user’s individual listening habits. It’s an amusing vignette of your music for the year. And apparently for some people it’s make-or-break.

See Glasgow dressed as mid-century New York in the new Indiana Jones trailer

In the springtime, Claire and I walked around downtown Glasgow when it was done up as a nostalgic American parade route. It’s fun to see the result in the new trailer for the movie.

New music from The Brood

This is the band of my highschool best friend. He was obsessed with bass when we were in highschool. It was probably the first time in my life that I saw someone really committed to something.

The Millennial Pause

When Millennials record a video, there’s a moment where we stare blankly at the camera, waiting for the recording to start. Apparently. According to some Gen-Zedders (who are well-accustomed to the whiplash editing of TikTok, where the subject is often already talking when the video starts) this is the “Millennial Pause.”

Can absolute silence drive you insane?

NYT investigates.


Made me laugh.

Links for November 25, 2022

# reading

Municipality released their new album

My good friends Will and Peter just released their latest album, and it’s great. Check it out on Spotify.

Turkeys terrorize Massachusetts town

“Some days it is frustrating. I’ll be like: ‘Oh my God, there’s an Amazon package’ and I can’t go get it, because the turkeys are there.

Happy thxgiving.

Peppa Pig ‘spiders can’t hurt you’ episode pulled off air in Australia – again

This article is from 2017, but the headline is timeless.

I try to make an infinity pool of soup

And almost succeed.

An interactive guide to Flexbox

On Tuesday I was Googling “flexbox cheat sheet” for the thousandth time. On Thursday I read Josh Comeau’s excellent flexbox explainer. I might not need to use the cheat sheet as often anymore.

Courtney Barnett covers “Everything is Free”

Have you ever heard a cover and thought it was the original? And then heard the original and thought it was a cover? Like when I was a kid and I thought “Big Yellow Taxi” was by Counting Crows, because that was the version I heard on the radio all the time.

Well, until this week I thought “Everything is Free” was by Sylvan Esso, and that Gillian Welch had done a folksy cover. Then I was listening to a playlist of music from the aughts, and the Gillian Welch version came on, which prompted me to search the song and realize that not only is Welch’s the original — a Napster lament — but the song is now enjoying a renaissance in myriad cover versions, now repurposed as a Spotify lament.

I can get a tip jar
Gas up the car
And try and make a little change
Down at the bar
Or I can get a straight job
I done it before
Never minded working hard
It’s who I’m working for

Workers’ complaints never lose relevance. The Courtney Barnett version might be my favorite.

Parable of the Sower

# reading

Yesterday I went out for coffee and finished Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Butler wrote an oddly optimistic-yet-harrowing dystopian novel, which describes an America in decline — riddled with crime, corruption, drought, famine, and slavery. Butler tells the story of a teenage girl who watches an already-broken society fall further into chaos. The main character, Lauren, figures out how to survive in the new world while also creating a philosophy that articulates why to survive, a collection of original scripture called Earthseed.

My friend recommended Butler to me a few years ago, and — as a compulsive non-fiction reader — I was thankful for a good fiction recommendation. A few months ago I walked into a recently reopened queer bookshop in my neighborhood, and I found the Butler in the sci-fi section.

Butler was a Black feminist lesbian, one of the most influential sci-fi writers of the 20th century, and a MacArthur “genius grant” fellow. She died of a stroke in 2006 at the age of 58. Parable of the Sower was written in 1993, but it feels like it could have been written last year. The book’s narrative starts in June 2024.

Parable of the Sower never had me completely transfixed as a gripping page-turner does, but I enjoyed reading it all the way through. I found the dialog a little clunky. The narrative felt very linear, with no unexpected twists and no grand climax; though, I think that’s a deliberate style, as it conveys the plodding quality of a long march and a steady social decline: a whimper, not a bang.

The book bears comparing to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which was published thirteen years later. I imagine that McCarthy must have read and admired Parable of the Sower. Like Butler, McCarthy’s dystopia was a story of family traveling by foot down a long highway in a post-collapse America. Both books have harrowing scenes of cannibalism. And both books explore the themes of grief, helplessness, and hope. McCarthy’s writing is much more spare, while Butler’s writing is more socially relevant. While McCarthy’s book reads like a horror story, Butler’s reads like political observation.

And Parable of the Sower feels very real. This story from 1993 described refugees seeking safe harbor and instead falling into the trap of slavery. Here in 2022, the world is getting ready to watch a World Cup built with migrant slave labor. And I think that’s the point. Dystopian fiction processes our current reality. Orwell’s 1984 was not a warning about the future. It was a satire about the British power politics of the day.

Good dystopian fiction is a powerful reminder: when we talk about the end of the world, we’re not actually referencing annihilation. We’re talking about the end of the world as we — we the Western liberal class — understand it. An end which is always already underway. We know this because modernity has already brought an end to many worlds: the Indigenous worlds of Oceania and the Americas, the Jewish worlds of Europe, the imperial worlds of Africa. As Indigenous journalist Julian Brave NoiseCat wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review, “To be Indigenous to North America is to be part of a postapocalyptic community and experience.”

Next on my list of dystopian fiction to read: Butler’s sequel, Parable of the Talents; Moon of the Crusted Snow, an indigenous perspective on dystopia by Canadian journalist Waubgeshig Rice; and Disnaeland, about the experience of the apocalypse in a poor Scottish town.

© Sam Littlefair, 2023