Thursday, December 18, 2008

My only post about the new Malcolm Gladwell book, I promise

As Lucy's comic suggests, I'm a huge Malcolm Gladwell fan.  I could blog my thoughts on almost every chapter in his latest book, Outliers, but I'm not sure I'd be able to curb my desire to just copy the book into my blog verbatim in an attempt to expose more people to his fascinating socio-economic hypotheses, so I'll try to keep it brief.  Here are a few points of interest from his recent writings.

  • Convergence tests & divergence tests

Many of the tests we take in school can be categorized as a convergence test.  For example, on a multiple choice test, a list of possibilities are presented for each question, and you have to converge upon the correct answer.  A divergence test, on the other hand, requires your mind to move in as many different directions as possible.  In the example used in Outliers, students are asked to write down as many different uses as they can think of for two objects: a brick and a blanket.  Gladwell discusses these testing methods while writing about different kinds of intelligence, and uses them to explain why affirmative action graduates of Michigan's law school, who didn't perform as well academically as other students, enjoy careers that are every bit as successful as their white counterparts.  In the same chapter, he convincingly suggests that Harvard should introduce a lottery structure to its admissions process.

  • Unconventional comparisons

In Gladwell's latest New Yorker article, he likens the selection of public school teachers to the selection of NFL quarterbacks.  Blogging about the response to this article, he espouses the value of drawing parallels between seemingly unconnected things.

"...non-symetrical comparisons are far more interesting and thought-provoking than symetrical comparisons. If I wrote a piece about how finding good point guards in the NBA was a lot like finding good quarterbacks in the NFL, the comparison would be exact. And as a result, it would be relatively useless.  What new light does the addition of a second, identical example shed on the first?"

This pretty well summarizes why I find Gladwell's work so interesting: he's good at combining ideas in previously unrecognized ways.  Would that I had such insight.  When I was younger, I was amazed at how musicians, scientists, and other creative minds were able to produce brilliance seemingly out of nothing.  The older I get, the more often I see that breakthrough discoveries or artistic achievements are the result of (or the combination of) many preceding accomplishments & influences.  My definition of creativity has been reshaped with time.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Ser vs. Estar

The Spanish language has two verbs that mean "to be."  To generalize, estar is used to indicate location or a temporary state.

John está en el cuarto de baño, probablemente el juego de Riesgo en su iPhone.
John is in the bathroom, probably playing Risk on his iPhone.

Ser is used (again, generally) when describing a more permanent state of being, such as physical attributes or personality traits.

John es una locura de Taco Bell, aunque él sabe que es casi lo peor que puede poner en su cuerpo.
John is crazy for Taco Bell, even though he knows it's pretty much the worst thing that you can put in your body.

This differentiation between a temporary and permanent "to be" verb becomes especially interesting to me in the context of trying to change onself.  There are certain things I've been terrible at for my whole life to date, but I hate to think that they will plague me until the end of my days.

For example, I am a Nail Biter (yes, capital N, capital B).  Always have been, probably always will be.  While I had braces for three years I completely stopped, and when they were removed I picked up right where I left off.  Yet, nearly every day that I catch myself indulging in this habit, I say to myself, "Enough!  This is it, no more nail biting FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE, starting right now."

I usually break this pledge within five minutes.  Then re-make it five minutes after that.

Still, I can occasionally claim a victory against myself.  Two months ago, I joined a gym and told myself that I'd never let that bully at the beach kick sand in my face again.  Since then, thanks to my weightlifting regimen, I've gained 10 pounds - which may not sound like much to you, but is actually a Herculean accomplishment given my physique.  Sure, only some of that weight can be attributed to muscle gain while the rest comes from a nascent belly paunch and my relentlessly growing mop of hair; it feels good to know that I'm capable of demonstrating the discipline required to institute a positive change in my life.

John es un perezoso por lo general una criatura de la costumbre, aunque de vez en cuando le va a sorprender a sí mismo.
John is a usually a lazy creature of habit, though occasionally he will surprise himself.