Bollocks: a review of Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Blink’

I started writing this review a couple of weeks ago, at which point I was roughly halfway through chapter one. I didn’t publish because I thought I was perhaps being a bit too harsh. After dipping back into Blink however, I and now am certain that this is one of the weakest, shallowest, unrelentingly stupid non-fiction books I’ve ever read. So please, read this review and (just to be sure you appreciate how vigorously I hate reading this) mentally upscale all negative comments by a factor of 100.

For Blink to make a convincing argument, Malcolm Gladwell requires of the reader two things: a) they don’t use their brain, and b) they accept that the point he’s making is wrong.

Shop fronts of Snappy Snaps and JessopsI’m not the first person to take a poke at Gladwell’s personal brand of pop psychological bullpap (Adam and Joe did a particularly entertaining bit about it on their radio show a few years ago), but Blink is the first of his books I’ve delved into. Equipped with a tiresome palette of loaded anecdotes and sciency-sounding studies, Gladwell attempts to paint a world in which instinct offers greater insight than contemplation. He calls this ‘thin-slicing’.

And by ‘thin-slicing,’ Gladwell contends, deploying trendy-sounding jargon to better qualify his point, we can quickly and effortlessly identify fraudulent pieces of art, doomed marriages and the best candidates for a job. The appeal to the ignorant is obvious: why strain yourself with deep thought when it’s easier to just run with whatever random crap is floating around your brain at the time? Under the slightest weight of scrutiny, however, the premise collapses quicker than the cheerleading team of the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Society forming a pyramid.

Early in the book, Gladwell presents a scenario. Imagine, he says, that you’re asked to judge a person’s suitability for a job based on your impression of their personality. To do this, you have two options. Option one, you meet with the candidate three times a week over the course of a year, eventually becoming their best friend. Option two, you spend fifteen minutes nosing around their bedroom. Which one offers a better judge of character?

For Gladwell to elicit the slightest flutter of interest from the reader, he relies on them assuming option one to be the better of the two. For Gladwell to get the kind of fuck-me-my-mind-is-blown reaction he seems to be aiming for, the reader needs to be so wedded to the idea that option one is the way to go, they need several patronising pages of poorly conceived psychological study to show them the light.

The study, unsurprisingly, purports to show that option two is the better choice: strangers who spend a short time poking around someone’s bedroom are a better judge of certain aspects of that person’s character than the subject’s closest friends. Gladwell makes it clear that we’re supposed to find this both unbelievable and face-palmingly obvious:

“If you are like most people, I imagine that you find [the study’s] conclusions quite incredible. But the truth is they shouldn’t be…”

But there’s simply nothing incredible going on here. As Gladwell’s own description of the study explains (between over-excited embellishments), the personality traits ‘thin-slicers’ judged more accurately than friends were centred around how organised, stable, and independently minded they were (or were not). Meanwhile, the friends were significantly more accurate at judging how extraverted and agreeable the person is (or isn’t). In other words, looking at a bedroom (one of the most personal, intimate areas of someone’s life) affords you exactly the kind of non-insightful insight you’d expect from such a perspective, while offering no clue whatsoever as to a person’s wider behaviour. Likewise, friends accurately know how a person acts in public, but not so much about what they keep out of sight. This says nothing about the strength of ‘spontaneous decisions’ and more about the benefit of perspective.

But there’s a deeper flaw here. Gladwell presents two options and says himself that most people, using their gut reaction, choose the first – i.e., the ‘wrong’ choice. To get to the ‘right’ choice requires a level of critical thinking and/or a fairly extensive psychological study – which is about as non-spontaneous as you can get. If my blink response can’t steer me in the right direction with such an inane (and supposedly unsurprising) example, what use is it on matters of real importance?

Even if we try to ignore the wider argument of the book and focus on the component psychological ‘revelations’, we end up frustrated. I’m convinced that Gladwell actively goes out of his way in his efforts to avoid saying anything of real insight. At the close of chapter one, he talks about how humans are natural thin-slicers and, illustrating this alongside some excruciatingly inane anecdotes, points to an example in which non-experts took part in a divorce prediction test (that he found, apparently, “overwhelming”) after being given a list of emotions to look for when watching videos of couples. The observers predicted which couples would divorce with “better than 80 percent accuracy”. To Gladwell, this was just another anecdote to throw in to show how effective the blink effect is, alongside a birdwatcher accurately (according to the birdwatcher) identifying a bird from a fleeting glance two-hundred feet away and a Hollywood producer telling the story about why he cast Tom Hanks in the movie Splash. But what’s interesting to me is how these people knew to look for the emotions in that list, or the distinguishing features of bird species, or the characteristics of a leading man that resonate with movie-goers. Of course, the ‘trick’ is knowing what to look for – crack that and we can streamline the old mental process, cutting out the crappy thought-streams and focus on what matters. Surely that’s what’s at the heart of this?

Apparently not. Gladwell dismisses this at the beginning of chapter two, further tailoring the bullshit for the gleefully clueless by arguing that even if you can’t explain why you feel something, that doesn’t mean you’re wrong or full of shit. This is just how thin-slicing works! We shouldn’t even try to understand what’s jerking that knee.

“If we are to learn to improve the quality of the decisions we make, we need to accept the mysterious nature of our snap judgments.”

Appropriately, Gladwell rejects an in-depth analysis and instead prefers to recall the most whimsical, least helpful personal account of anything I’ve ever read: “[when attempting to determine whether a piece of art was a fraud or not, the fakebuster said it was as if] his eyes and senses were a flock of hummingbirds popping in and out of dozens of way stations.” What the fuck am I supposed to do with that information?

Depressingly, I’m only about a fifth of the way through the book (I thought I’d get into the swing of things by making a snap judgment). There’s a chance it’ll all begin to make sense, or maybe Gladwell will qualify his central point into extinction (“It only works with certain aspects of some topics on which you’ve already acquired extensive knowledge and experience”). He may even be saving his best material for later, biding his time before dropping some ‘facts’ that will truly rock my world (if it does get better, leave a comment letting me know – I’m as yet undecided whether or not to finish it).

I just can’t see that happening, however. It’s not premise that is infuriatingly shallow. Gladwell explores his subject with the subtlety and authority of that twatty kid from primary school who totally is an expert in some cool martial art – “did you know I could kill a man with one finger? Like this… well, yeah, but if I used my full strength your head would explode.”

Gladwell paints another scenario: he’s a professor; you walk down a long corridor to his office, sit down on a table and proceed to do a simple word test (helpfully included in the book). Once you’ve completed the test, he writes:

“That seemed straightforward, right? Actually it wasn’t. After you finished that test – believe it or not – you would have walked out of my office and back down the hall more slowly than you walked in.”

Maybe I’m missing a ‘wonderment gland’ or something, because I am not amazed at the idea of how Gladwell asserts I would’ve behaved had I really completed that test in his office.

The study referenced is quite interesting by itself – the word test was littered with terms that subconsciously trigger feelings of old age in your mind; if you’re a bit of a Derren Brown fan (as I am), you’d be familiar with the idea. But Gladwell ‘reveals’ the finding in such a breathlessly childish way, I found myself immediately sceptical, wondering whether the corridor had a slight-but-significant gradient leading away from the office. I know books like this are supposed to challenge one’s lazily-accepted beliefs, but this is surely the opposite effect to what was intended. He’s got me doubting things I had hitherto accepted!

This perfectly sums up how utterly worthless the book is: I was a believer in Blink before I started reading it.

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The worst Guardian CiF article I’ve read (today)

The art of writing an effective CiF article seems to be cramming the minimum amount of point in as much horrendous writing as possible. By this measure, Angela Davis’ recent article, with the suitably meaningless title “The 99%: a community of resistance”, is a very effective article indeed. Here’s why:

1. Clumsy Stupid Rhetoric.

“When the Occupy Wall Street movement erupted on 17 September 2011…”

Nakedly partisan. Massively overblown. Possibly inaccurate. Mildly sexual? Good start.

“well-established and similar encampments had emerged in hundreds of communities around the country…”

Communities is one of my least favourite examples of unspeak. In this context, at least, I think she means ‘cities’ – ‘the encampments emerged in hundreds of cities around the country’.

“which would mean working on behalf of those who have suffered most from the tyranny of the 1%.”

The meaning of tyranny risks being neutered through misuse. Does Angela Davis honestly look at oppressed people protesting in genuinely tyrannical regimes and think, ‘oh, do they have to pay for their university education too?’

“we have had to engage in difficult coalition-building processes, negotiating the recognition for which communities and issues inevitably strive.”

I don’t know what coalition-building processes are, nor what makes them difficult (or what doesn’t, for that matter). Must you ‘engage’ in them? And she’s talking about communities again – though this time I think she’s using it to mean ‘peoples’. Can issues ‘strive’ for something?

“I don’t know whether any of us could not have predicted that on the second day of the conference, the plenary audience of more than 1,000 would be so riveted by this historical conjuncture that almost all of us spontaneously joined a night march…”

If this conference was anything like I suspect it was, I think I could’ve predicted you would ‘spontaneously’ do that. I think I could’ve predicted it very easily. Unless the double negative isn’t a typo and that’s your point…

“Indeed, it can be persuasively argued that the 99% should move to ameliorate the conditions of those who constitute the bottom tiers of this potential community of resistance”

Sure, it can be persuasively argued, but why bother when it’s easier to just assert that this is the case? And she’s using fucking community again! Only this time, it seems to be referring to, well, everyone minus the 1%. So we’ve got a community of communities occupying communities. Crystal.

“They call upon the majority to stand up against the minority. The old minorities, in effect, are the new majority.”

This strikes me as being the first part of the article to be written. “The old minorities are the new majority”. That’s the sort of ethereal guff certain people go nuts over. It doesn’t actually make any sense of course, whether in effect or in actuality.

“And if we identify with the 99%, we will also have to learn how to imagine a new world, one where peace is not simply the absence of war, but rather, a creative refashioning of global social relations.”

Why if we identify with the 99% do we have to do that? I honestly have no idea what the writer is getting at here.

2. Clumsy Stupid Language

I am probably being really unfair, but parts of the article made my brain vomit inside my own skull. Offending words and phrases in bold…

I happened to be reflecting on my remarks for the upcoming International Herbert Marcuse Society conference.”

“…we were struck by the serendipitous affinity of the theme with the emergent Occupy movement…”

[Aside: can something that’s previously erupted be considered emergent?]

“…we repeatedly expressed our enthusiasm about the confluence of the Wall Street and Philadelphia occupations and the conference theme, which seemed to us to emphatically enact the 21st-century relevance of Herbert Marcuse’s work.”

“…which wended its way through the streets of Philadelphia toward the tents outside city hall.”

“At the site, I reflected aloud – with the assistance of the human microphone…”

“Thus, the most pressing question facing the Occupy activists is how to craft a unity that respects and celebrates the immense differences among the 99%.”

As you can imagine, after reading the article I reflected upon an emergent need to craft a unity between the computer screen and my fist.

3. Clumsy Stupid 53-Word Long Paragraph

At what point in the paragraph quoted below do you a) find yourself merely scanning instead of reading, b) forget how the sentence began and what the point is, and c) lose the will to live.

“The organising theme of the conference – “Critical Refusals” – was originally designed to encourage us to reflect on the various ways Marcuse’s philosophical theories push us in the direction of a critical political practice located outside the proper realm of philosophy, but nevertheless as anchored in philosophy as it is in a will to transform society.”

For me, the answers to a), b) and c) are all at ‘PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE MAKE THE PAIN STOP’. At least, that’s what flashes before my eyes before I black out for a few hours.

4. Clumsy Stupid Crowbarring of a Point

Although hazy on the specifics, I think it’s kinda been established that OWS (and company) are pro- social equality and anti- capitalist greed. Watch how Angela Davis tacks on her own particular beef with all the grace and subtlety of a wild elk suffering from dystonia attempting to re-tile your bathroom floor.

“In the past, most movements have appealed to specific communities – workers, students, black people, Latinas/Latinos, women, LGBT communities, indigenous people – or they have crystallised around specific issues like war, the environment, food, water, Palestine, the prison industrial complex.”

“It seems to me that an issue such as the prison industrial complex is already implicitly embraced by this congregation of the 99%.”

“We are learning also to say no to global capitalism and to the prison industrial complex.”

“Decarceration and the eventual abolition of imprisonment as the primary mode of punishment can help us begin to revitalise our communities and to support education, healthcare, housing, hope, justice, creativity and freedom.”

“There is a direct connection between the pauperising effect of global capitalism and the soaring rates of incarceration in the US.”

5. Clumsy Stupid Complete and Utter Absence of an Argument

[tumbleweed]

Fifty fantasy fiction clichés in fewer than fifteen-hundred words

I’ve just finished reading the amazing A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, which got me thinking about the wondrous toolbox of fantasy fiction clichés authors have at their fingertips.

I have no doubt the world would be a far poorer place without the noble lion-hearted hero travelling many ‘leagues’ across culturally-appropriate terrain to avenge his father’s murder at the hands of the dragon-crested baddie. If we couldn’t sum up an entire race or culture with one particular personality trait, where would we be? Adrift in an ocean of nuance and complexity, that’s where. Fuck that. I like my fantasy books like my fantasy heroines: with as little dressing as possible and easy to get into.

In honour of those literary shortcuts, I’ve cobbled together this short passage containing (at least) fifty of my favourite clichés. Your challenge is to identify as many as you can. Click continue reading or scroll down to the bottom of the page for the answers.

Note: some appear more than once. If you spot one I’ve missed leave a comment.

Ready? Then let’s begin…

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Blood Harvest

The crowd bowed reverentially as their lord proudly made his way to the executioner’s dais. Alix only stared longingly at the father he hadn’t seen for nigh on fourteen seasons. Where the town-peasants and plains-folk saw the victorious hero of Ayr’s Gash, towering above them in glory with thick auburn beard and skin as white as marble, Alix saw only a stranger’s face, tired and haggard. His father had developed a slight stoop, Alix mused, and held his shield arm with a stiffness he had not possessed when he first left for battle those many moons ago. Even a Farsford ranger with Faelfleyn eyes would have struggled to notice such flaws, but Alix had cherished in his mind a crystal-keen image of his father. War had changed him.

As the lord of the Nordermark lofted the ragged banner of House Fallen high into the air, the muted tricolore of the bear, wolf and lion waved defiantly in the chill breeze and ebullient cries of emotion from the crowd threatened to drown even Alix’s dark feelings. It was not just longing for his father that inspired such melancholy. Today was the eve of the Blood Harvest, when the spirits of ancestors past return to this world to leech wasted life off the living. In a waking dream many nights ago, Alix had seen the celebrations, kick-dances and rowdy group-songs of the festival. He saw his father’s triumphant homecoming and the faith he inspired. And he saw darkness spreading from the north, turning faith into despair and tears of joy into fountains of blood. His dread vision revealed a future of death, hate, betrayal…

And the return of The King.

Attempting to dispel the shadow of his thoughts, Alix returned his attention to the stage where his father was now making a speech. It was tradition on Blood Harvest’s Eve to welcome the honoured dead by spilling blood in their name. By the lord’s own hand, the foulest of criminals were put to death in public execution.

To a chorus of cries, wails and hisses, Alix’s father announced the name of Zuh Luh-turgal, the butcher of Gladestown. A raucous clamor erupted from the audience as the condemned was escorted to the stage by the imposing figure of Nordermark’s most trusted servant: Cr Treacher, knight of the old order, wolf-kin, augur of Misdon-Keep. Garbed in azure drilkiln-pelt and carrying a dull-grey warhammer, the venerable soldier and Alix’s mentor-at-arms deposited the prisoner at the foot of his master with obvious disgust. Alix was tall for his young age, but still had to stand on his toes to see the wretched beast groveling on the executioner’s stage.

His dark face was adorned with crude tattoos and ugly piercings. Revealing yellow teeth, he growled like a caged animal; though a hard kick from Treacher soon saw him tamed. At length, the king read out the butcher’s list of crimes. The murder of three children in Staine’s End, the razing of Grunswyrd, the rape of thirteen Pantheon brides… and so the list continued. On occasion, those violated by his foul deeds would step forward, spitting and cursing.

At one point, a woman of the Dhans-kin clambered onto the stage, tore off her tunic and raked long nails down her bare flesh, from breast to belly and below. Alix understood. This woman had been raped by the butcher. Her performance was an act of defiance, as dictated by the custom of her people. Treacher gathered up her clothes and, not unkindly, moved her off of the stage.

His crimes now aired for the gods to judge, Zuh Luh-turgal’s neck was eased onto the block while his father unsheathed The Sword. Standing almost as high as a knight, the black blade, which Alix knew would one day be his to bear, shimmered under the weak glow of the Palling Sun. On cue, the Grand Pantheon’s earthly representative rose to perform his part of the occasion. Moving surprisingly gracefully for such a grotesquely fat man, the pox-faced High Priest mounted the stage and started his ceremonial declaration. From behind, Alix could hear the Master of Books translate the oration, performed in the high speech, lingua deus, into the common tongue. Alix did not need such a translation. He had quickly mastered languages as he did all other subjects.

Bored by the pomp of the old religion, Alix took the time to look for familiar faces in the audience. Although he could not see him, Alix knew his arch-rival, Cethil Cur-Medgar, heir to the House Be’traille, would be watching him. They had hated each other from birth, but whereas Alix attempted to maintain his distance with characteristic Fallen stoicism, the other boy, with his gaunt, deathly-white face, small, pink-rimmed eyes and bitter tongue, would bait and snipe with a coward’s spite. Whenever Alix rose in challenge to the petty insults, Cethil would run, scared and spitting lies to his mother. Alix could see her, standing in the crowd, radiating distaste like a sour moon. Swlthin Nur-Medgar, the Baroness of House Be’traille, clung to her minkin fur as if to protect her noble self from the swarming peasants. Tradition of Alix’s House said all castes stand equal at such occasions. For such proud customs the Baroness and her kin considered Alix’s bloodline primitive.

For what it was worth, Alix found Swlthin’s own ways more vile. She was the mistress of manipulation and whoredom, whose only passions were power and politics. Wife of the lecherous Baron-Knight Medgar, her spread legs had sired him two children and won her the right to title and land. Cethil, the eldest, was all the spawn of his bitch mother, while the infant Celi, standing next to the Baroness, was as bright and generous as any child Alix had met. Ignorant of the spectacle on the stage, her sparkling eyes were fixated on a troupe of Fallen knights standing nearby. A flicker of a smile crossed Alix’s countenance. The noble girl who dreamt, in vain, to be a warrior. At that moment, the Baroness noticed her daughter’s straying attention as she harshly yanked the child to her side and hissed cruel words under her breath. Alix felt a pang of pity for the innocent youngling. She was born into the wrong family in the wrong age. Shaking off these thoughts, Alix heard the priest reach the climax of his speech and so returned his attention to the stage.

With a polite nod from the priest, Alix’s father wrapped his strong, steely fingers around the well-worn hilt of his mighty blade. Alix remembered being held warmly by those hands once when they were soft as leather. Now, after years of fighting the warring tribes beyond The Pit, they were as coarse as the tongue of a grizzled Sabre-Cat.

Bloodshed mere moments away, the crowd roared. Alix almost didn’t notice Salia Laella stepping smartly from the throng, standing so close he could smell the sweet scent of rose-water on her skin. Alix forced himself not to turn his eyes from the stage, but from the edge of his vision he could see the soft outline of her proud features, the gentle curve of her chin and the slight swell of her breasts poking out beneath her traditional virginal tunic. She was his Solistani, his chosen one, and one day, Alix knew, she would bear his seed. A delicate hand lightly clasped his own.

“I can read your worries, cousin,” she whispered. “Quell your fears. Victory belongs to House Fallen. The Outerlands acquiesce to your family’s might.”

Alix did not reply, but the slight tensing of his fingers around hers was enough to betray his resolve. Though his eyes may have been set on his father’s gruesome duty, Alix’s mind looked far past to the land beyond Argyll’s Shame where, in his waking-dream, he saw the unliving hordes of The Shadow gathering ‘neath the black banner of The Unforgiving Eye.

With a face as cold and grim as the land he ruled, Alix’s father swung the blood-iron blade smooth and strong. The scarred head of the black butcher bounced across the Barrow-wood planks. The crowd cheered for their master, the bringer of justice and peace. For a fleeting second, as he scanned the masses with a hunter’s care, the lord locked eyes with his son. It was only a passing glance, but Alix understood. There was a price to pay for justice and peace, his father’s look told him. And that price was weighed in blood.

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[Click continue reading for the answers]

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