The Latest Malcolm Gladwell

I really enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and now he’s churning out the books. His is an appealing formula that is part psychology, part economics, and part science. :) This month’s book club will be looking at his latest book.


An interesting theory of why individuals succeed based on their circumstances rather than their talent.

In “Outliers”, Gladwell provides anecodes, scientific studies, and personal history to support the idea that exceptional individuals (the outliers of the title) are more due to the circumstances of their birth and the amount of practice they’ve put in, than being due to exceptional talent. It’s a quick read, and engagingly written, so easy to enjoy.

However, is it a controversial idea that success comes from more than just talent? Do I need to give any examples other than former US President George W Bush? Perhaps in (some parts of) the US, it is a widely held belief that success comes solely from individual merit, but I hope that most have a more nuanced view. So, the author does not have to work very hard to convince us.

Although, perhaps he should have, as the book is written to build out the theory rather than the demonstrate the theory’s truth. There is little scientific method in such a treatment, as even though we are shown some successful individuals meet Gladwell’s criteria, we aren’t shown if all individuals that meet Gladwell’s criteria are successful. In this way, it is a bit like The Millionaire Next Door (which I reviewed here) – a book that proposes the attributes of millionaires but doesn’t show how many with those attributes achieve millionaire status.

These are minor quibbles. Perhaps it is more concerning that the book has a somewhat racist message. Jews are successful lawyers, Koreans are poor pilots, and Asians are good at maths. Although supported by his research, there is a moral tangle with accepting such claims, and this isn’t dealt with in the book.

That said, it is an enjoyable and interesting read. I didn’t find it as good as The Tipping Point, but given the potential for debate, I think it will be a good book-club book.

My rating: 3.5 stars

Post-modern Post-bookclub

Even though it was my turn to stay home on bookclub night last month, I did actually read the book anyway. My take on bookclub is to write my thoughts into this blog and whoever reads this is welcome to comment. Or not. It was a post-modern novel this time, so alternatives to traditional, in-situ bookclub discussion are completely appropriate.

The Raw Shark Texts

Jaws meets Memento meets The 39 Steps meets Tristram Shandy

I tried to get this. I really did. I hung on – hoping for something. Something that never came. Almost, but not quite.

It is difficult to talk about or explain The Raw Shark Texts, the first novel by UK author Steven Hall, without giving away some of the surprises. I don’t want to give any spoilers, as it is the mystery and surprises that were the most rewarding parts of the book for me. In this way, it reminded me of The 39 Steps – the main protagonist has no idea what is going on, neither does the reader, and the fun is from finding it out together.

Hall has training in Fine Arts, and apparently produced artwork with a textual element. This background is apparent in the book, with something akin to ASCII art featuring in the story and even forming part philosophy underpinning the story’s universe. It was a very interesting idea, but didn’t quite work for me as a plot device.

The title is a pun on Rorschach (ink-blot) Tests where the reader is urged to come up with their own interpretation of what is happening in the story. Unfortunately, I found enough inconsistency with different interpretations that I couldn’t find any that really worked, although I could appreciate the story as a bunch of clever ideas.

My rating: 2.0 stars

Huge night out

Last night Kate and I went out and saw a film together. It was the first film we’ve seen together since Harriet was born, and Kate’s parents did the duty of minding our little girl for a couple of hours. We saw the film, had a coffee, and were back by 10:30 to pick her up again. A Saturday night out is a bit different to how it used to be. :)

For this momentous night out we chose to see a film that is up for a bag of oscars. We’ll know within 24 hours whether it has landed any of them, but I think it’s got good odds.

Slumdog Millionaire

A huge, Indian film with gangsters, family, and romance.

This is probably not the sort of film to go to if you are dog tired. It requires a lot from the audience, with a large number of subtitles (done in an interesting way), two levels of flash-backs, and multiple actors playing the main characters at different points in their lives. But it is worth the effort, as the film is epic, well-acted and has an interesting tale.

Based loosely on a book, the idea in this film is explaining how a boy from the slums can know the answers in the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” game-show in India. In explaining this, we are treated to an amazing life the includes the horrors of slums, beggars, thieves and death, although situated in some incredible locations that are well captured by the cinematography. It intelligently covers themes of loyalty, religious intolerance, and the class system, but wraps it up in a romantic plot. I was impressed.

Given that it doesn’t show India in a particularly kind light, it didn’t really make me want to go back and visit. I can’t imagine the Indian government being particularly happy about the number of people going to see this film, from a tourist perspective. For example, I couldn’t imagine such a film being set and filmed in China, with the PRC’s tight control of media.

I have also read that this film is bringing about a renewed interest in Bollywood dancing. This surprises me, as I would’ve picked this as the least likely Indian film to spur a Bollywood dancing resurgence. The stars are not Bollywood stars, and there is no dancing in the main part of the film. But if it encourages people to see other Bollywood films, where there are real song and dance numbers, then all the better.

Or maybe it’s just the sheer number of people who are going to see this movie. And I can understand that.

My rating: 4.0 stars

As a postscript to this review, when I was living in London, I had a job that involved developing mobile handset versions of the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” game. Every time the theme music played in the movie, I practically had a flash-back, which made it a bit hard to focus on the movie at times. I don’t expect many other people would have that problem…

How we watch movies these days

Last weekend, we “watched” a movie. However, as I suspect will become quite typical, we watched it on DVD, at home, in snatches of 15-30 minutes, punctuated by a whisper of “your turn” then one of us attending to Harriet. (She was a little unwell, and wasn’t sleeping as well as she would normally at that time.) Despite this, and a little surprisingly, I really enjoyed the movie!

The Bank Job

Facinating retelling of the 1971 Baker St robbery

Maybe it’s just my recent enjoyment of the conmen in the UK TV series Hustle, but I really enjoyed this fictionalised take on how some real-life British criminals conducted a major bank heist in 1971. Normally you need to suspend your disbelief in watching a movie, but given that a large number of the circumstances in this movie are actually true (and more of them than you might expect), skepticism is replaced with astonishment.

So it was with a sense of astonishment at the gall, luck and intelligence of these criminals that I found myself sucked into the plot. It is quite complex, with much of the film providing a set-up for the last 30-40 minutes. Although, it wasn’t until this last part that I found myself really enjoying the film. In this way, it reminded me a little of The Thomas Crown Affair, another film I really enjoyed.

Watching the DVD in one respect was better than the film would have been, as the DVD contained a mini documentary on the facts behind the Baker St robbery. This reinforced the incredible nature of the case, showing that sometimes fact is much stranger than fiction.

My rating: 4.5 stars

Not The Bookclub Book

Last month I didn’t read the bookclub book, but I did read the book the book nominator wanted to nominate as the bookclub book. (How many chucks can a woodchuck chuck etc.?) When it came to bookclub last week, it turned out more people had finished reading that book than the actual bookclub book.

The Year of Living Biblically

A thought-provoking book about taking The Bible literally

This book is the day-by-day diary of the author, A.J. Jacobs, as he takes a year to follow as many of The Bible’s rules as literally as possible. Jacobs doesn’t just follow the ten commandments – he digs through the old testament (the first eight months) and the new testament (the last four months) and attempts to go by every proclamation or suggestion. Is Jacobs a particularly religious man? No, and this is the intriguing part. The Bible is taken as an experiment to see what following it would do to someone, in this day and age.

There are some obscure, and some would say, obsolete rules in The Bible, but Jacobs is determined to follow them all. It would take a rather obsessive personality to persevere with this, but luckily that’s what Jacobs has, and the book also provides an little bit of insight into living with obsessive compulsive disorder.

There is fun in this book in learning about strange Biblical rules, their background, and their ardent adherents. But there is also heart – it is amazing to read about how a modern day New Yorker and his family is affected by taking up the challenge of living Biblically for a year.

My rating: 4.0 stars

For the record, the actual bookclub book was the author’s previous book: The Know-It-All.

Actuaries as Heroes

One of the troubles with an insight is that when you then explain it to someone else, they find it obvious. It can be a bit disheartening, but people seem to have a knack for finding surprises obvious in hindsight. Which, of course, doesn’t make them any less of a surprise at the time.

So, coming across a book that points out that stuff that I take for granted was not taken for granted 500 years back, and in fact, enabled civilisation as we know it today to flourish, I was a bit surprised, you might say. It was interesting to try to put myself in the position of people who didn’t know about probability, to see how something so “obvious” could be an exciting insight.

Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk

An interesting journey through the birth and history of risk management

The author, Peter L Bernstein, puts his main thesis plainly enough at the start – “The revolutionary idea that defines the boundary between modern times and the past is the mastery of risk: the notion that the future is more than a whim of the gods and that men and women are not passive before nature.” However, it’s a good thesis, is extensively researched, and Bernstein writes about it well. Enough to sustain interest over some 330 pages.

I found it quite compelling to think that, before the Renaissance, people thought of the future as something they couldn’t control, only put up with. And, that God or the Fates dictated what would happen, or tomorrow would simply be same as today, and it was egotistical or heretical to try. This assumption closed down any thought of trying to build a science of probability, so until the assumption was broken, we couldn’t develop probability, statistics, or insurance.

Marine insurance was needed to make European colonisation economically feasible. Life insurance was sold by governments needing to raise funds to wage wars. Risk management is used by organisations to manage large projects. Home or health insurance are regularly used by prudent families to protect against disasters. Society would be a lot smaller, simpler and sadder without this elementary mathematical invention. Yes, actuaries are heroes.

Bernstein drew me into the successive insights produced by keen minds over the recent centuries that has taken us to where we are today in economics, finance and gambling. Some of the people he profiled were more interesting than others (but others may have their own favourites) – the initial Renaissance thinkers and the behavioural finance guys were pretty cool. It would seem to be a rather complete set of the important contributors.

If you have any interest in modern history, economics or mathematics, you’ll probably find this book a worthwhile read. And it also made me reflect on what other basic assumptions we might hold that could be overturned in order to advance society.

My rating: 4.0 stars

Christmas Traditions

We all have our Christmas traditions – the Santa stockings, the bad jokes over the Christmas meal, retelling embarrassing stories about a distant relative – but my favourite tradition is grabbing a book that I received as a present, and submerging myself in it for as long as it takes. Surfacing only to eat chocolate and ham (not necessarily in that order). Kate took a punt, and bought me the latest Neal Stephenson (I couldn’t get into his previous series) which I’ve spent most waking hours with since.


Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose meets Carl Sagan’s Contact

This is a long one. You’ve got to want it, and Stephenson doesn’t make it easy. He has created a whole new lingo for his futuristic world, a bit like Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, but admittedly does help a little by scattering dictionary entries throughout. There are also mini-essays at the end that you need to read in order to follow some of the plot. It is hard-core speculative fiction, with a particularly academic bent. If this is not your thing, I’m pretty sure you’ll be hating it before you even need to worry about its length. If you like sci-fi novels with big ideas, then keep reading..

The main characters belong to a cloistered order, and we get a feel for what monastic life might be like (I was reminded of The Name of the Rose). This is contrasted with the futuristic world outside the walls of their self-imposed prison, which gets a satirical treatment ironic for a sci-fi author. But, the sci-fi take on monastic life is pretty cool.

It takes about a third of the book before the plot picks up in pace, and we’ve got a mystery, some puzzling philosophy and characters that we care about. It takes about this long to get used to the lingo as well, so be prepared.

I already knew a lot of the philosophy, math and science that Stephenson draws upon in this book, and I really appreciated his explanations and clear analogies as provided by the characters. Part of the fun was in seeing how many different strands of knowledge could be pulled together to service the plot.

It’s probably 10% story and 90% academic discourse, but I liked it.

My rating: 4.0 stars

After I read the book, I also checked out the website of the Clock of the Long Now, which relates in a tiny way to the book, and is a pretty ambitious idea. Worth a look.

Bond Begins – The Sequel

I loved the new style Bond, so it was a given that I’d see the current one, at least to see if Daniel Craig could do it again. Luckily, we’d recently re-watched Casino Royale, so it made some modicum of sense…

Quantum of Solace

Fasted paced action flick with an English guy in it

Named after an obscure Ian Fleming short story, this film begins mere minutes after the previous film ends, and drops you right into the action. If you want to follow the plot, it’s best to be familiar with the earlier film, but if you don’t care about plot, then no fear – this film jumps from action sequence to action sequence with minimal explanatory dialogue. You get multiple chase scenes, fight scenes (apparently Daniel Craig got real bruises), beautiful people and sinister villains.

However, it’s not really a spy film. In fact, it hardly follows the James Bond formula at all – for example, there is no trip to the exotic weapons laboratory. Frankly, our Bond couldn’t have managed to fit it in, given all the chasing and fighting that he has to do. I suspect that, with a few tweaks, this could have been a Steven Seagal or Will Smith movie.

But Craig’s bond is more of that ilk than the “snooping around the lair” style hero, and there is plenty of edge-of-the-seat excitement to make it an enjoyable 1:45 hours.

My rating: 3.5 stars

Not much like my schooldays

It’s a bit dull waiting for the baby to arrive now. We’ve watched a lot of DVDs. On the weekend we took a break from the TV to go watch a film.

Son of Rambow

A bit like The Wonder Years crossed with Jackass

Set in Britain in the early 80s, this is a film about kids, and the power of their over-active imaginations. Don’t expect much in the way of special effects, or cloying nostalgia. Just wacky kids. I laughed a lot, but I think I was laughing more than most others in the cinema.

Will is a boy growing up in a fundamentalist religion. Lee is a ne’er-do-well kid of the same age. Both turn out to have a few things in common. Both are well acted. In fact, all the acting is pretty good.

This film might be considered anti-religious. Well, anti-fundamentalist-religion, more precisely. But although that’s there, it isn’t what the film is about.

This film might also be considered anti-French. It was made with the assistance of the French, so perhaps they didn’t know what the film was about ahead of time.

But this film should not be considered a kids film. Sure, they could go see it, with it’s kid-friendly classification, but adults will get much more out of it.

It was the best thing I’ve seen for weeks.

My rating: 3.5 stars

Unexpected, black comedy

I guess it’s our own fault that we weren’t expecting this film to turn out like it did. We saw 10 seconds of a preview for it on TV while channel flicking, and remembered enough of the name to pick it out when buying tickets. It wasn’t a light-hearted comedy about dwarves.

In Bruges

A rather black comedy-drama set in Bruges

If Quentin Tarantino had instead been raised on a diet of European art-house film, then this would have been a film he made. It’s about an odd couple, both hit-men, who have escaped to Belgium after completing a job in London. However, Bruges turns out to be a lot more interesting than either expect.

Outside of the violence that you’d expect from a film involving hit-men, and some laugh-out-loud moments, there are also points where the film ponders philosophies of ethics and honour. And all of the main characters develop in interesting ways as the film progesses.

An amusing game to play during this film is to spot all of the actors who were also in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It seems that casting was done as a job lot.

My rating: 3.0 stars