Skip to content


A little more about “Outliers”

Since I wrote a somewhat negative post mentioning Outliers and Malcolm Gladwell the other day, I thought this was a worthwhile follow-up, "Lost in the Crowd" from the New York Times, which starts sounding positive:

"As usual, Gladwell intelligently captures a larger tendency of thought — the growing appreciation of the power of cultural patterns, social contagions, memes. His book is being received by reviewers as a call to action for the Obama age. It could lead policy makers to finally reject policies built on the assumption that people are coldly rational utility- maximizing individuals. It could cause them to focus more on policies that foster relationships, social bonds and cultures of achievement." (from NYT, "Lost in the Crowd")

But in the end, I am not so sure:

"Gladwell’s social determinism is a useful corrective to the Homo economicus view of human nature. It’s also pleasantly egalitarian. The less successful are not less worthy, they’re just less lucky. But it slights the centrality of individual character and individual creativity. And it doesn’t fully explain the genuine greatness of humanity’s outliers. As the classical philosophers understood, examples of individual greatness inspire achievement more reliably than any other form of education. If Gladwell can reduce William Shakespeare to a mere product of social forces, I’ll buy 25 more copies of “Outliers” and give them away in Times Square." (from NYT, "Lost in the Crowd")

gladwell nyt outliers

Back Channels May Add, But They Also Subtract

I totally agree. Is it just part of the tendency of those people to always want to be the center of attention? Check this post Back Channels May Add, But They Also Subtract from McToonish:

"Rick Schwier and I were actually talking about this last week and then Stephen Downes blogged about it today. Is it rude for people to use laptops, cell phones (for texting) and other hand-held devices while sitting in on somebody else’s conference presentation? I know that this will likely be unpopular with the crowd that I run in, but I happen to think it is. [snip…]" (from Back Channels May Add, But They Also Subtract)

Originally posted on May 13, 2008. Reprinted courtesy of ReRuns plug-in.

How come are these two swindlers also huge philanthropists?

The irony and paradox confounds:

"[…] Mr. Dreier, who grew up on Long Island, the son of a refugee from
Poland who owned movie theaters, evolved into a bon vivant who belonged
to the Harmonie Club and was a staple of high-wattage charity events[…]." (from NYT, "Lawyer Seen as Bold Enough to Cheat the Best")


"[…]They were renowned for their charitable work and gave away millions to arts and education groups and Jewish charities. They also served on the boards of several prominent foundations, theatres and colleges.[…] (from The Telegraph, "Bernie Madoff: Profile of a Wall Street star")

Oh well.

charity swindlers

VRM and

VRM is a concept that's been floating around for a while. Evangelized (and perhaps coined) by Doc Searls, it has developed a strong following. In their words:

"VRM, or Vendor Relationship Management, is the reciprocal of CRM or Customer Relationship Management. It provides customers with tools for engaging with vendors in ways that work for both parties.

CRM systems for the duration have borne the full burden of relating with customers. VRM will provide customers with the means to bear some of that weight, and to help make markets work for both vendors and customers — in ways that don't require the former to "lock in" the latter" (from Project VRM)

That definition is still fairly opaque for me.

I find it easier to explain by simple example: Today, Amazon keeps track of all their customers and near-customers (like wish list users, web site visitors, etc.) in a huge database. VRM says that instead, the individual should own information about themselves and make it available to Amazon (and other vendors) as desired.

The database that Amazon keeps contains personal, commercial, demographic and interest information. It's their CRM ("Customer Relationship Management system.) This database is hugely valuable to them as a way to sell stuff but also as a way to market stuff. VRM's perspective is that information actually should be under the explicit control of individuals. They should decide who gets to see it and they should share in the commercial or non commercial value of this information.

VRM is a compelling concept. If VRM intrigues you, here's the ProjectVRM blog, you may want to start following it.

It's not easy to see how it will get built. So since I've gotten interested in VRM, I've been thinking about existing systems and products which might be precursors of VRM.

One site I came across is "". In their words:

"When moving home, notify every organisation of your new address
details. reduces the hassle by avoiding call centres and
the need to visit individual websites." (from

I think this service has something to do with VRM. It allows me to control my virtual change of address card, and decide which vendors and other agencies ought to be notified of this fact. Pretty cool, unfortunately only available so far in the UK. (Then again, I am not moving so it's a theoretical negative at least for me 🙂

What do you think?

VRM CRM docsearls

Joel on Software talks about Malcolm Gladwell and Tom Friedman

There have been a number of articles taking shots at some of Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, "Outliers". No doubt Mr. Gladwell is really good at getting visibility for his books and has hit upon a formula with The Tipping Point and Blink which are fascinating reads, with profound insights, that happen to sell well.

Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times was the first one I saw being not 100% flattering about the book, saying:

"“Outliers,” Mr. Gladwell’s latest book, employs this same recipe, but does so in such a clumsy manner that it italicizes the weaknesses of his methodology.: (from Books of the Times, NYT)

More interesting or telling is Patrick Smith who writes Ask The Pilot for Salon. He is an actual 'subject matter expert' as they say, and he more or less tears apart one of the Gladwell anecdotes from the book as well as from press appearances. He writes:

"Malcolm Gladwell claims cultural issues can play a big role in plane crashes. The pilot begs to differ" (from Ask The Pilot)

It's fun to take down cultural icons.

Another interesting post comes from one of 'our own' cultural icons, Joel (middle name: "On", last name: "Software") who writes a new piece called "Anecdotes" where he aggrees with Michiko Kakutani and does her one better:

"This review captures what's been driving me crazy over the last year… an unbelievable proliferation of anecdotes disguised as science, self-professed experts writing about things they actually know nothing about, and amusing stories disguised as metaphors for how the world works." (from Anecdotes, Joel on Software)

But then he goes on to also speak not-nice about Thomas Friedman, and several other authors, saying that:

"Thomas Friedman, who, it seems, cannot go a whole week without inventing a new fruit-based metaphor explaining everything about the entire modern world, all based on some random jibberish he misunderstood from a taxi driver in Kuala Lumpur" (also from Anecdotes)

Ouch! I admit to be a Tom Friedman fan (despite the fact that Mr. Friedman feels like the highest virtue is inventing new words and trying really hard to have us adopt them.) He is smart, very well informed, insightful, experienced, and an excellent writer. About major world issues.

I have to say I always enjoy reading Joel on Software, especially when he is writing about Software and the software business. I wonder whether Joel himself (or Himself) is falling into this trap himself:

"This is not the way to move science forward. On Sunday Dave Winer [partially] defined "great blogging" as "people talking about things they know about, not just expressing opinions about things they are not experts in (nothing wrong with that, of course)." Can we get some more of that, please? Thanks." (also from Anecdotes)

technorati tags: joelonsoftware thomasfriedman malcolmgladwell

Warning: Email Sabbatical is Imminent .. and other random thoughts

I really like this approach to vacation. I think I will try it: Check out this post Warning: Email Sabbatical is Imminent .. and other random thoughts:

"For those who are unaware of my approach to vacation… I believe that email eradicates any benefits gained from taking a vacation by collecting mold and spitting it back out at you the moment you return. As such, I've trained my beloved INBOX to reject all email during vacation. I give it a little help in the form of a .procmail file that sends everything directly to /dev/null. The effect is very simple. You cannot put anything in my queue while I'm away (however lovingly you intend it) and I come home to a clean INBOX. Don't worry… if you forget, you'll get a nice note from my INBOX telling you to shove off, respect danah's deeply needed vacation time, and try again after January 19." (from: from apophenia)

Ideas are still cheap, right?

From XConomy Seattle, this article covers 'an inspiring talk by Nick Hanauer of Seattle-based Second Avenue Partners'. It's a good read with lots of useful insights.

Here's his formula for judging whether your idea for a new product is any good. I am not sure whether I like these because they are cleverly worded and snarky or whether there's a big grain of truth in them. Probably a little of both.

  • If everyone thinks it’s a great idea, it probably sucks.

  • If people understand it, you’re too late.

  • If people don’t like it and don’t understand it, it probably still sucks.

A little more from the article:

"So entrepreneurship is a dangerous field, he said. “The difference between being an idiot and being a genius is very, very thin.” And keep in mind, he pointed out, “you can be very successful without being socially disruptive. Great fortunes have been made doing incremental things. Burger King, which came after McDonald’s, was not transformational, despite what they tell you…But they made a great fortune."

XConomy’s Battle of the bands

As a favor I am posting this notice about an event that looks like it might be fun:

Battle of the Bands

The requirement is that at least one member of the band must work for a New England-area technology or life sciences company or a venture-capital or private-equity firm that invests in technology. All levels of bands are welcome—from club veterans to garage hackers. All musical styles are welcome – entry deadline is Dec 12, 2008.

The event will take place on January 22, 2009 at the Middle East in Cambridge. Last year Jeet "Miki" Singh, co-founder of Art Technology Group and lead singer for the Indo-Euro band Dragonfly and Patrick Faucher, President and co-founder of Nimbit, were judges, plus others. This year 2 charities have been selected to split 50% of the ticket sales: Community Music Center of Boston ( and the Science Club for Girls ( More information follows with the link to the site.

See Battle of the Bands for more info