Monday, August 19, 2013

Outliers: The Story of Success - Malcolm Gladwell

This is the second book of Malcolm Gladwell I am reading. The first one being Tipping Point in which he had explored how some ideas grow rapidly and become popular. In this Book "Outliers: The Story of Success" Gladwell explores the factors that contribute to success. 

We are all brought up on the romanticized fact that hard-work and determination leads to success. Malcolm counters this by arguing that the factors that lead to success are not so simple but are a combination of opportunity & legacy.

Gladwell looks into the lifes of those who have risen meteorically to the top of their fields, analyzing developmental patterns and searching for a common thread. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell seeks to dissuade us of the notion that genius and greatness are predominantly a function of innate ability and IQ. He rightly notes that while IQ is certainly a contributor, it reaches a "point of diminishing returns" after a while: once people score about 130, IQ becomes less important and "intangibles" become more important.

The book, then, focuses on what these "intangibles" are. Gladwell suggests that things like what income level, culture, and time of a child's birth are important contributors to success, as well as a person's tenacity and agility.

He argues that there is no such thing as a self-made man and that the origins of high achievement lie instead in the circumstances and influences of one's upbringing, combined with excellent timing. The Beatles had Hamburg in 1960-62; Bill Gates had access to an ASR-33 Teletype in 1968. Both put in thousands of hours-Gladwell posits that 10,000 is the magic number-on their craft at a young age, resulting in an above-average head start. 

Reemphasizing his theme, Gladwell continuous to remind the reader that genius is not the only or even the most important thing when determining a person's success.  He takes the example of Christopher Langan, a man who ended up owning a horse farm in rural Missouri despite having an IQ of 195 (Einstein's was 150). Gladwell points out that Langan has not reached a high level of success because of the environment in which he grew up.  Further, Gladwell compares Langan with Oppenheimer, the father of the US atomic bomb. Noting that even if both had the innate natural abilities that should have helped them both succeed in life, Gladwell argues that Oppenheimer's upbringing made a pivotal difference in his life. Oppenheimer grew up in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Manhattan, was the son of a successful businessman and was afforded a childhood of "concerted cultivation". Malcom argues that these opportunities gave Oppenheimer the chance to develop the practical intelligence necessary for success.

Gladwell advances the notion that the success of students of different cultures or different socio-economic backgrounds is in fact highly correlated to the time students spent in school or in educationally rich environments. How does culture matter? He talks about the discrepancy between how many days per year American children spend in school (180) versus Asian students (280), and how many more social expectaitons Asian students are borne into. This will affect academic and other achievement. Gladwell further explores how culture shape up a person taking the examples of a "Plane Crash" and also from the life of his Mother.

Gladwell is criticized for too often falling prey to fallacious reasoning, inadequate and anecdotally based sampling, and oversimplified analysis. But the way Gladwell has written the book you unconsciously nod with him when you see his arguments. I enjoyed this book and will give it a rating of 4 / 5

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference - Malcolm Gladwell

The Tipping Point is the first book of Malcolm Gladwell.  The book as explores in Gladwell own words "How Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do." The examples of such changes in his book include the rise in popularity and sales of Hush Puppies shoes in the mid-1990s and the steep drop in the New York City crime rate after 1990.

According to Gladwell there are 3 rules of epidemics 
  • The Law of the few
  • The Law of the few according to Gladwell is similar to the 80/20 principle in economics. Few people effect the most change. Gladwell further divides these people into 3 groups. 
    The Connectors a set of people who know large numbers of people and who are in the habit of making introductions.
    The Mavens or "information specialists" The people collect knowledge and share it with others.
    And the Salesmen these are people with the skills to pursue people about what they are hearing.
    These set of people are those who actually drive a idea to success.
  • The Stickiness Factor
  • This is how the way of presentation of a message improves its retension skill. He takes examples of popular shows like Sesame street which worked upon the stickiness factor and thus enhanced the effective retention of the educational content in the show along with its entertainment value.

  • The power of Context
  • According to Gladwell Humans are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they are. For example, efforts to combat minor crimes such as fare-beating and vandalism on the New York subway led to a decline in more violent crimes city-wide. This is like the Open window theory
Malcolm Gladwell also discusses what he dubs the rule of 150, which states that the maximum number of individuals in a society or group that someone can have real social relationships with is 150. Anything more than this no the relationships lose its strength. 

The book is a very interesting read. Easy to follow. I give this book a rating of 4/5.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie

Midnight's Children is considered to be Salman Rushdie's masterpiece; it won the Booker Prize, and then, in 1993, it won the 'Booker of Bookers', ie the best book to have won the Booker Prize in the first 25 years of the award.

The plot is amazing. At the stroke of midnight on August 15th, 1947, India achieved her independence. 1001 children were born in the hour from 12a.m to 1a.m, These children had magical powers, the potency of which increased the closer the child was born to midnight.

The chief protagonist of the story is Saleem Sinai, born at the exact moment when India became an independent country. He was born with telepathic powers, as well as an enormous and constantly dripping nose with an extremely sensitive sense of smell.  Other  characters with notable gifts are Shiva "of the Knees", Saleem's nemesis, and Parvati, called "Parvati-the-witch,".

The book begins with the story of the Sinai family, particularly with events leading up to India's Independence and Partition. Saleem is born precisely at midnight, August 15, 1947, therefore, exactly as old as the independent republic of India.

Saleem with his Telepathic powers, assembles a Midnight Children's Conference, a conference of lall children born in India between 12 a.m. and 1 a.m. Salman portray the conderence as a reflective of the issues faced by India in its early statehood majorly the cultural, linguistic, religious, caste and political differences facing the nation.

Meanwhile, Saleem's family begin a number of migrations and endure the numerous wars which plague the subcontinent. The story moves forward with each of the wars, playing an important role in moving the plot forward for Saleem's life is inter-connected very much with the story of India. The story end with the Indira Gandhi-proclaimed Emergency. For a time Saleem is held as a political prisoner; these passages contain scathing criticisms of Indira Gandhi's overreach during the Emergency as well as a personal lust for power. The Emergency signals the end of the potency of the Midnight Children, and there is little left for Saleem to do but write the chronicle that encompasses both his personal history and that of this young nation.

Midnight's Children is not at all a fast read. The prose is dense and initially frustrating  with repeated instances of the narrator rambling ahead to a point that he feels is important--but then, before revealing anything of importance, deciding that things ought to come in their proper order.

But I understand why this book got the 'Booker of Bookers'. Its Beautifully written, The primary characters are intriguing and unforgettable. Salman Rushdie's ability to tie the story to history and his ability to overlap events, religions, and mysticism is amazing. The details created vivid images: beautiful Kashmirian landscapes, putrid slums and titillating love scenes.Midnight's Children is littered with politics, religion, and "real-world" events from India, Pakistan, Kashmir, and the sub-continent.

I loved the book, but I feel its not for everyone. Its not for anyone looking for a light read while lying on the bed. But this book is a must for any serious Literature fans. I give it a rating of 3.5 / 5.  

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Made In America - Sam Walton

Walmart - The giant retailer almost everyone knows about. I have not yet entered a Walmart yet but with all the hype about FDI in retail going on I felt it would be good to read about the company which is like the King of Retail. In this book Made In America - Sam Walton offers many invaluable recommendations for business men and entrepreneurs.  Walton does a nice job of telling a clear, concise story about how he built the business of Walmart.

Sam Walton is the guy who made Walmart happen. He build up the Walmart empire from a single store. He started building the empire first by learning the tricks of the trade a store by store. The business model he created is simple: always offer the lowest price possible, and depend on higher sales volume to generate the profit. We all know that Walmart is famous for its logistical superiority, in both a distribution system and computer-aided controls. As the company grew, it was able to use its power to force suppliers to sell at ever-lower prices. Its stores spread slowly, always supported by the distribution system.

Sam Walton comes off as this humble guy from rural USA who made it big by his hard work. In this auto-biography we are shown the same. But personally I felt at times Sam Walton never took what is said by critics properly and brushed it off. I agree with Walton that Walmart was built with really good intentions but  not everything born of Walmart's rise to dominance is an unmitigated good. Walmart has done a lot of positive things for American consumers. But Walton refuses to contemplate the impact of his company's power, forcing conditions on suppliers which can bring them to their knees. But this aspect of Walmart has captured me, how it has been able to shift the power away from the manufactures into the retailers hands. Another thing I felt is Walton doesn't actually listen to his employees (or "associates). He views unions as bad influences rather than legitimate players and potential allies. 

I give the book 2.5/5. Walton appears to believe in his own myth and he presents it well: his tone is down home, expresses a genuine humility, and believes in small-town values. I agree there are many who see things differently. I suppose that that the absolute confidence in the system he created is part of his entrepreneurial genius, but it is also a clear statement on its limits. I would highly recommended this book to those who would like to understand the motivations behind Walmart being what it is today and a great business story to boot.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Last Man In Tower - Aravind Adiga

Last Man In Tower is the second book of Aravind Adiga I reading after The White Tiger. I had liked The White Tiger and had picked "Last Man In Tower" with a lot of hope and am happy to say Aravind Adiga didn't disappoint me.

Last Man in Tower explores how money changes people? How far would people go for the sake of money? It pushes us to think does the convictions of one man out weigh the consensus of the many?

The story is about "Masterji"; The one man refusing to leave his home in the face of property development. Tower A of Vishram Society  is a pucca housing society established in the 1950s. A property developer "DarmenShah" offers to buy out the residents for mouth-watering sums, the principled masterji is the only one refusing the offer, determined not to surrender his sentimental attachment to his home and his right to live in it, in the name of greed. But as his neighours, the others in the building can't get the benefit from the offer until all agree tensions in the society. As the deadline to accept the offer looms - Friends turn enemies, acquaintances turn co-conspirators. His neighbours gradually take matters into their own hands, building up to a nice climax.

Arvind nicely explores the psyche of humans, How money can turn people, how friendships can break when money comes in between. He nicely shows the changes in thinking of the people, how one-by-one each neighbor gets seduced by money. Arvind again captures the changing India, he shows us the co-existence of both the slums and the high rises in Mumbai.

Arvind lets the reader decide with whom his/her sympathizes lie, With Masterji - who stands in the way of his neighbors' most audacious dreams, and whose integrity and incorruptibility borders on the improbable. Or with the middle-class neighbors for whom the windfall can make all their dreams come true. 

He makes us think what is the price growth? Will so called good people risk their humanity when faced with a chance to bag a lot of money? Who can we trust to stand by us when we take a lone stance? The breakdown of family life in modern India.

I give the "Last Man in Tower" a rating of 3/5. Its a  Gripping read, with the right mix of humor and suspense. At every point, the reader is wondering, "What's going to happen to the Masterji?" Arvind has etched out the Characters are well. It lost points because its not always a page turner, at some parts you feel he has stretched out the book.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Long Tail - Chris Anderson

In this book "The Long Tail" Chris Anderson expands on his article written in October 2004 on Wired called "The Long Tail"

Basically Chris Anderson is talking about an economic phenomena currently being created in the present world where we have almost unlimited choice because of the Internet. He talks of a future which is not "Hit-centric" but a future where "minorities" and "niches" thrive and everybody can find something to their taste. 

Anderson explains, "The theory of the Long Tail can be boiled down to this: Our culture and economy are increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of hits (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve, and moving toward a huge number of niches in the tail."

He mostly talks about the phenomena in Entertainment but the same can be observed in all walks of life. Take this case If you could watch Movies only at the Cinema hall near your house you would get a very limited choice and more-so your choice would be limited by the "HITS" or what is liked by majority of the customers of the Cinema Hall. But if you order movie DVDs from Netflix your choices explode by a factor of millions. Log in to YouTube your choices explode further. 

Long Tail can be explained by considering the figure on the Right. 

In most industries (films, music, books, etc.) a few hits make most of the money, and demand drops off quickly thereafter. But the Demand, however, doesn't drop to zero. 
The products in the Long Tail are less popular in a mass sense, but still popular in a niche sense. 
Basically the Demand never drops down to Zero.   What that means is that some businesses, like Amazon, Google Apple iTunes can make money not just on big hits, but by serving the long Tail. 

Anderson identifies three 'forces' that drives this Long Tail and the niches that populate it?

  1. More stuff is being produced. Technology and the internet make it cheaper and easier to record and distribute your own songs, publish your own writings and so on. This lengthens the tail.
  2. There is better access to niches, again thanks to the reach and economies on the net. This fattens the tail.
  3. Search and recommendations connect supply and demand. This drives business from hits to niches.
Anderson explains these 3 forces further in the book and further explains how the abundance of choice is both good for the customer and the marketer. He tries to take us beyond the entertainment industry where he explores how EBay, Lego,  Kitchenmaid etc also have explored and exploited the power of the long tail. This is where I feel Anderson loses the plot If I may say, he goes to explore "Long Tail" everywhere. 

He writes "there are now Long Tail markets practically everywhere you look," He calls offshoring the "Long Tail of labor," and online universities "the Long Tail of education." He quotes that there's a "Long Tail of national security" in which al-Qaida is a "supercharged niche supplier." At times, it feels he is just going around looking for examples to suit the theory.

I would further like to argue that their are many industries that don't rely on the economics of information products.  For E.g. Take the Steel Industry, which Anderson doesn't discuss, —The Long Tail doesn't seem to tell us much about the future of the steel industry. It's not really clear how Tata Steel or any other still company might benefit from expanding the types of steel it makes available. (There are different types of steel - Mild Steel, Hard Steel, Automotive Grade Steel etc). It would cost Tata Steel a lot to produce them, and few customers would require a very different type of steel. So basically no Long Tail in steel Biz. Same can be said for other industries dealing with physical products like Oil, Diamond etc

The other disappointment is that Anderson doesn't do a very good job of describing strategy choices for product producers. After the first 6 chapters you have understood the entire book, the rest of the book is just repetition. My advice would be don't read the book either. Read his 2004 article and you are all set.  

I will give the book a rating of 2/5. Anderson explores a phenomena successfully,  The reading of the sociological and physiological factors affecting the current world is interesting. But like I said the article is more than enough for it.