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Author recommendation

by Michael Nielsen on March 15, 2005

Malcolm Gladwell has the happy knack of selecting the right stories and the right studies, and packaging them into memorable little morsels. Highly recommended. I suspect you could go a long way toward writing good non-fiction by studying what people like Gladwell and Steven Pinker do in their books.

Some titles:

  • The Tipping Point. All about social epidemics. Why some ideas spread, while others don’t.
  • Blink. Why and when making very rapid decisions can produce better results than extended cogitation.
  • Shorter articles. A good indication of what his longer work is like.

From → General

  1. I thought _Blink_ was interesting, but I don’t think he made a very convincing argument for WHEN very rapid descisions can produce better results. He gave lots of examples where quick thinking worked and didn’t work, but how am I supposed to use this? I mean, don’t I need to know “in a blink” whether thinking “in a blink” will work or not if I’m going to use his observations constructively?

  2. Michael Nielsen permalink

    I agree, although I did think there were some interesting tidbits.

    In particular, I thought the comments about heartrates were thought-provoking, particularly the remarks about top (team) athletes having relatively low heartrates when they’re playing at their best.

  3. aram harrow permalink

    Maybe I should read “The Tipping Point” first, but I think there’s a huge difference between how memes and epidemics spread.

    To be convinced of a meme, people usually need several repetitions (like in the famous Goebbels quote about telling a lie often enough). Much stronger is to hear something through multiple channels – like school, media, friends, etc… But a single exposure to a disease typically leaves a person either infected or unchanged. This means that the spread of a disease is linear in the number of carriers (assuming that most of the population is uninfected), but the log of the popularity of a meme grows nonlinearly.

    So it’s strange that the phrase “Tipping Point” comes from epidemiology, when it seems more appropriate for memes.

  4. Michael Nielsen permalink

    Hi Aram,

    I don’t think Gladwell argues that the spread of memes exactly parallels the spread of disease, merely that it’s a useful and stimulating analogy, suggesting useful hypotheses and ways of thinking. This is, of course, a point that’s been made many times before — I think convincingly — by people such as Richard Dawkins.

    I don’t understand your final point. Why does it matter where the phrase “tipping point” comes from? Surely all that matters is whether it works well for Gladwell’s own subject matter.

  5. aram permalink

    I phrased my comment like an objection to Gladwell, but I didn’t mean it to be.

    The phrase “tipping point” seems to fit memes better than it does diseases, so I found it strange that it was originally a phrase used in epidemiology.

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