Wednesday, August 18, 2021

WHAT THE DOG SAW By Malcolm Gladwell (2009)

WHAT THE DOG SAW By Malcolm Gladwell (2009)

Adventure of Discovery of the Minds of Others.  Reading Malcolm Gladwell is to be in the presence of a great mind, a great heart, and a great spirit.  He goes beyond the intellectual stimulation for which he is so rightly famous, and shows real sensitivity to the human condition.  I feel that Malcolm Gladwell cares about what I do with the insights he has given me.  The insights themselves are a treat.  The caring on top of that is surprising and delightful.

I would feel presumptuous in the extreme to write a book review of any of  Malcom Gladwell's works.  I would feel wholly inadequate to do a book report on any of his works.  Instead, my attempt is to make notes on my experience of the adventure of discovery of the minds of others.  In so doing, it is my hope to honor Mr. Gladwell by showing just how much his work made me think, feel, and get more in touch with my humanity.

Mr. Gladwell wanted to be a lawyer.  He would have been an excellent lawyer (but it would have been a waste in the same way Eddie Redmayne becoming a lawyer would have been a waste).  Understanding the view from the other side of the table is vital to lawyering.  Getting into the mind of the opposing party, and opposing counsel, and understanding how they think and perceive the situation is an invaluable skill.  Mr. Gladwell celebrates that skill.  He is a master at play with that skill.  It is beautiful to watch.


Unforeseeable Events.  Unforeseeable events are unforeseeable in all of their particulars, but they can be counted on to occur and can form the basis of a successful investment strategy which pays off when others are suffering financially.  Risk can be well managed; risk can be successfully hedged.

My law practice is focused on death and debt.  Estate planning and administration is reliable (nothing is certain, but death and taxes).  Debt is cyclical and tends to be positively correlated with unemployment, divorce, and medical bills - in short, misery.  My revenue goes up when misery increases.  I have a natural tendency toward depression and anxiety which makes me inclined to bet that bad things will happen.  I don't know precisely when, but when they do (being Irish) my response will be that it could have been worse.

Try and think about what a dog sees in human behavior.  A friendly quick approach with eye contact with arms ready to hug tend to be comforting to people because it implies excitement to see a person you like or love.  A dog may see threat and aggression instead.  When someone rushes to help with voice raised, a dog could see more aggression.  The Dog Whisperer (Cesar Millan) has difficulty relating to people, which perhaps is part of why he relates so well to dogs.  The feelings of being isolated, alone, ignored, and misunderstood as an illegal immigrant.  That may have played some role in his sensitivity to dogs who, from their owners point of view, are misbehaving.  What Cesar sees is reaction to the humans in the dogs environment.  It is not the dog that is the issue.  It is the environment the dog is in and the way the dog is being treated that is the issue.  Cesar appears to intuitively understand that the issue is not him, it is the environment and the way he is being treated.  Dogs save Cesar, and Cesar saves dogs.

Image & Substance.  When I think of this issue, I think of Billy Crystal on SNL as Fernando:  It is better to look good than to feel good, and you look marvelous.  Reading Mr. Gladwell's exploration of hair coloring was interesting to me because I started going bald at 25 and have a gray speckled beard.  For me, shaving my head and face is what makes me look much younger and more vibrant, and alters my interactions with the world.  

For women, changing hair color to blond may have a similar effect.  The idea that feelings can start within and be reflected in appearance, but a change in appearance can also affect feelings is profound.  Humans are much more sensitive to our environments than we realize.  Studies of the effects of facial expressions on mood and the subconscious effects of priming show that our behavior can in fact be deeply and immediately affected by environment whether we are conscious of it or not.

Puzzle v. Mystery.  Puzzles require more information to solve; Mysteries require less information more carefully analyzed.  Knowing the difference matters.  In the modern world, we are drowning in information searching for the rare floating bit of thoughtful analysis to save us.  

The demise ENRON was brought about by the analysis of publicly available information filed with the SEC by the company itself.  ENRON used things called Mark to Market (MTM) accounting and Special Purpose Entities or Vehicles (SPE or SPV).  The IRS does not allow MTM which is booking revenue when a contract is signed even though the revenue may not appear for another decade.  ENRON's tax return was based on actual earnings, which were anemic.  Tax returns should be included with financial statements for investors to compare the two.  The incentives between financial statements and tax returns are different.  Once incentivizes high earnings, the other low earnings.

In Personal Injury Practice (PI), a common deposition tactic is to get the Plaintiff to talk at length regarding lost earnings from an injury and then follow up with a lengthy discussion of tax returns.  It puts the Plaintiff in a bind because they can't have high earnings for one purpose and low earnings for another. 

That is why loans should be based on tax returns.  President Trump routinely exaggerated values for loans, and low balled values for the IRS.  Different values for different purposes should not be allowed.

SPE's can be highly complex webs of interlocking companies created for the purpose of obtaining loans not reported as debt by the parent company (Off Book).  Assets are transferred to these companies and the value of the asset may be dramatically overstated allowing a much larger loan than should be warranted.

Currently, the parent company is not required to disclose these relationships that are clearly of a great deal of interest to the investing public (just ask the employees of ENRON who invested in their 401(k)'s with ENRON stock).  If the relationships had to be disclosed and their consequences explained, they would be more transparent, less complex, and easier to understand.

Currently, companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google & Facebook can use low corporate tax jurisdictions (like Ireland I am ashamed to say) to save tens of millions in taxes.  We have a WTO (World Trade Organization) for tariffs and trade.  We need a WTO (World Tax Organization) for corporate taxes.  Gross revenue should be taxed in the County where it is earned.  My law practice pays a 1.5% Business and Occupation (B&O) Tax on gross receipts quarterly regardless of profit. If Multinationals were paying half the rate they are paying now in Ireland to the United States Treasury we would all be better off (Ireland unfortunately would be slightly worse off; Sorry about that).

Power Law Distribution v. Bell Curve Distribution.  Knowing the difference between the two has major public policy implications.  For example, focusing resources on the 10% of people who are chronically homeless, chronic criminals, chronically arrested for DUI, or chronically truant is much cheaper and more effective than our current systems.  Giving chronically homeless people apartments, for example, is a tough sell politically because it appears to reward negative behavior, to encourage State dependence, and to encourage addiction, untreated mental illness, and malingering.   A single parent working two jobs is not likely to take kindly to paying for a chronically homeless person to get a free apartment (which may be nicer than they one in which the single parent lives).  When we do the psychological calculation of what seems right to us as human beings the result is the maintenance of homeless system we currently have.  However, if we do the math on the emergency room visits of the chronically homeless it tends to show that taxpayers are already paying much more than the cost of the apartment in medical bills.  

If we stop to think about homeless persons point of view, they have no choice but to go to the emergency room.  There are no alternatives and no disincentives, so they will just keep doing it.

Mammograms.  They save lives.  That is all I knew.  I didn't understand how they actually work. X-Rays are absorbed by fat and appear darker.  So, calcium deposits from slow growing cancer tumors are in high contrast and are easily spotted.  Dense non-fatty breast tissue appears lighter so that a tumor 3 times as large can be very difficult to see.  Even if seen, variations in shape, color, consistency and many other factors can make determining the life threatening from the benign very difficult. 

We have a family friend who is a Radiologist specializing in reading mammograms.  I have seen the chart filling her wall with the myriad shapes, dimensions, and measurements of various tumors with specifics about what to look for.

Understanding that regular fingertip examination is key (especially between the ages of 50 and 69) is vitally important to catching fast growing "interval tumors" which can develop in between annual mammograms.  I did not know that.  Knowing a little bit about what the mammogram can see and not see and what Radiologists can interpret accurately and consistently is important to manage expectations (and reduce malpractice litigation). 

As a lawyer in the most litigious society in the history of the world it may sound strange for me to say we need to decrease litigation, but we clearly and urgently need to do so for our financial and mental health as a society.

Plagiarism & Attribution.  Software can do this automatically now with links that can all be put online, so theoretically it should be less of an issue, but it's not.  Balancing public interest with private interest is what copyrights are supposed to do.  Like so much of law, the balance changes over time to reflect the relative values of society.  Currently, private profit dominates the public interest.  This is the same philosophy in which the shift of cleanup costs onto the taxpayers fuels private profit.  

Choke v. Panic.  Choking is thinking too much; Panic is thinking too little.  JFK, Jr. died in a plane crash because he felt level even when banking for the same reason that your drink doesn't spill when a commercial airliner banks.  He couldn't see lights on land, and he couldn't trust the way his body felt, he was limited to instrument flying which requires experience he did not have.  

FBI Profiling, Astrology, Psychics, Tarot, Palmistry, Futurism, Prophets, Market Forecasting & Predictions About the Future Generally.  Cold reading is a skill that has rules and techniques: Rainbow Ruse, Jacques Statements, Barnum Statement, Fuzzy Fat, Greener Cases, Diverted Question, Russian Doll, Sugar Lumps & Good Chance Guesses to name a few.

Complex Systems.  That complex systems will always have failures which can be minimized, but not eliminated such that someone or someones are not always to blame seems intuitive.

Early v. Late Bloomers It seems intuitive that early bloomers like Picasso are harder to understand and to relate to than producing beautiful works after decades of effort like Cezanne.

Structured Questioning is an Effective Job Interview Technique in a Field of Ineffective Techniques.

I have a B.A, M.A., & J.D. and spent years in school.  School is a largely solitary pursuit with feedback in the form of grades.  Work tends to be more collaborative with much less feedback about what is good performance and what is not.

In fact, in cases like ENRON, which fall into the Talent Fallacy, positive feedback flows from increasing levels of incompetence and criminality.  In well run organizations, the System is the star.  The System creates the environment which fosters the development of those who work within it.  ENRON hired MBA's from top schools, let them do whatever they wanted, and kept telling them how smart they were (See The Smartest Guys In The Room).  Studies show that treating intelligence as an immutable rather than malleable trait and praising intelligence itself rather than the work ethic of constantly changing mental skills based on learning from books and experience, deeper relationships, and a sharpening and refining of worldview and place in it tends to make people more likely to lie and to cheat.  That is exactly what happened at ENRON.  They forgot the simple, obvious, and basic truth that creating and cultivating value is what matters.  ENRON was the triumph of image over substance.

Overly Simplistic Pit Bull Ban.  Political reality is that laws need to have some intuitive popularity regardless of whether they are actually effective or not.  Actual dog bites involve dogs bred for violence, trained to be violent, or when violence is reinforced by the dog's owner.  25% are directly related to illegal dog fighting.  Often dogs have bitten someone prior, but there was no effort to neuter, muzzle, or use an invisible fence after the first bite.  It is not the breed (Pit Bulls can be gentle and make good therapy dogs); it's the owners.

Conclusion.  Everything looks different when perspective changes.  Being able to integrate and go back and forth among multiple points of view to create an overall impression that is greater than the sum of the perspectives is a particular gift of Mr. Gladwell.  To be able to spin ideas 360 degrees, to zoom in and out, slowing down and speeding up time, in a curated way that is meaningful, useful, and beautiful is a joy to witness.  Ideas don't have limited raw materials the way skyscrapers and cities do.  The raw materials of an idea are invented and infinite - as are the ideas themselves.  Mr. Gladwell fishes in the vastness of all that is, has been, and all that could be everywhere and reels in one beautiful gleaming catch after another.

No comments:

Post a Comment