Wednesday, December 21, 2011

10 Short Thoughts Not About Glenn Gould

I just read the Maclean's year-end "Newsmakers 2011" issue. It contains a series of articles about the supposedly most newsworthy people and events of the year. With this issue, we hit a new journalistic low.

It's a given that a few people on these annual "most intriguing", "most interesting", etc., lists will be women who are there solely because of who they slept with. However, this issue features Pippa Middleton - who is on the list not even because of who she slept with, but because of who her sister slept with.

At least her sister finally got a promotion this year, after eight years of casual / temporary status as the Royal Penis-Warmer. Pippa's most newsworthy activity appears to have been showing up at the wedding.

To be clear, this is not meant as personal criticism of Miss Middleton. She may be a very intelligent and capable person. She may be very accomplished in the field of whatever it is that she does. However, none of that makes her particularly newsworthy.

No, this is meant to mock the media, and by extension its audience - that's us, folks - for being overly concerned with her. She isn't the problem, the people giving her undue attention are the problem. There's no discernible reason for anyone to be talking about her in "news" articles or magazine profiles.

Or in blog posts, for that matter.


Although I accept that there is truly nothing new under the sun, I sometimes strive for some semblance of originality. A while back I scrapped a drafted article / joke because I had expected "penis-warmer" to be a something of a rare term, but Google told me otherwise. I was surprised, especially by how many of the results were product listings on eBay (with optional what cozy?!?).

That said, I have high hopes for the revised term used above, "Royal Penis-Warmer". As I write this, there are no Google hits for that phrase.

Soon there will be one.

The Walking Dead (the comic, not the TV show) has been disappointing me of late. I'm getting a little tired of the last page cliffhanger/shocker that completely fizzles and is completely forgotten about within the first three pages of the next issue. Kirkman's going to that well just a bit too often.

An occasional commenter here, TB, has a blog of his own now. If you think I'm cantankerous sometimes, you should buckle up, go over there, and take a look.

I'm still not writing much here lately, I know. I've been posting comments some other places, though, like the Forge forums, Comics I Don't Understand, and Slashdot. I can often be found in one of those places when I'm not doing much here.

I've also been known to show up in comment threads in places like Jim Shooter's blog, Roger Ebert's blog, Crime Justice & America, and Ken Levine's blog.

That last one is probably my favourite, because Ken Levine actually responded to one of my comments in a later post (the one I linked). In this culture, getting my (fake Internet) name mentioned by a guy who knows some famous people is better than money!

The Supercommittee failed to reach a budget deal. By most accounts, the Democrats on the committee refused to consider any proposal that included any spending cuts, and the Republicans refused to consider any tax increases. No shocker, really. But it gave us a great chance to play Mediawatch! Here's how to play:

Think about the blurbs you heard in the media about this. The headlines, the soundbites, the text crawls at the bottom of the screen, the snarky remarks from "unbiased journalists" and late-night comedians. Notice how many of them blame the stalemate entirely on the Republicans "refusing to compromise" and completely ignore the equal but opposite intransigence from the Democrat side.

Oh, sure, some of the long articles mentioned the Democrats' equal role in one of the "continued on page 26" paragraphs - we're just talking about the short versions that are all most people will perceive.

But remember, only Fox News is biased. Well, and Sun News if you're in Canada.

Here's the scary part of playing Mediawatch. Consider any newsworthy topic of which you have some deeper knowledge. Now consider how ridiculously distorted you find the media's reporting on the matter.

Now consider that most people don't have deeper knowledge of most topics, and all they know is what the media feeds them.

Now consider that that includes you. The media usually talks about subjects where you don't have any particular insight. It's statistically inevitable, just because of the sheer volume of information on the world. It's humanly impossible to know very much about very much.

And when out of one of your comfort zones - which is most of the time - you only know what they tell you, and then usually only what was in the headline, sound bite, or crawl across the bottom of the screen.

Notes for historical purposes:

We got six trick-or-treaters this year, and most of those were kids whose parents specifically drove them here because they know us.

We have no snow to speak of yet. We've had flurries, and a few times enough to cover the ground (barely), but it's all melted away again so far.

My son's current obsessions are Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Roblox.

I don't like bad arguments being used in support of positions with which I agree. To that end, I wish people who oppose capital punishment - as do I - would stop saying that it has no more deterrent value than life imprisonment.

The problem with arguing about the deterrent value of capital punishment is that there's a ridiculous time lapse between a criminal being sentenced to execution and that execution being carried out. The lapse is so long that a death sentence is effectively the same thing as a life sentence.

Oba Chandler was executed recently for a crime that was committed in 1989, and of which he was convicted in 1994. 17 years after conviction, 22 years after the crime. With gaps like that, of course there's no extra deterrent value involved. Criminals know full well that execution is not a credible or imminent threat. It's too remote to be taken into consideration.

I'd be interested in seeing statistics on how many criminals die of natural causes - e.g., old age - while on death row. I wouldn't be surprised if it's more than are actually executed.

In all but completely informal conversation, and sometimes even then, I'm a stickler for terminology. This is because correct use of terminology demonstrates comprehension of the subject. Incorrect use of terminology demonstrates the lack of same.

My wife and I started watching Breaking Bad a few weeks ago, from the first episode. It's great. We have only one episode left to watch - the fourth season finale, which is the last episode to date. We'll probably watch it tonight, then commence complaining until season five begins.

I like it because it's neither formulaic nor predictable. It took me many episodes to accept that I could almost never accurately predict what would happen next. Most TV shows and movies, including my nevertheless beloved Walking Dead (the TV show, not the comic), are predictable enough that at any point I can tell you more or less how any given scene will develop and/or resolve.

Not so Breaking Bad. It's a constant stream of nothing but curve balls. The writing is so good that I'm amazed that Vince Gilligan, the series creator, worked on the X-Files. I was not a fan of the latter show, to the point where I only made it all the way through one episode (the one Stephen King wrote). I thought the X-Files was trash, frankly, nothing more than rehashes of Scooby-Doo episodes, and it was painfully obvious that the writers had no idea how to resolve any of the longer story threads. I remained aware of the X-Files because my wife liked it (she has the entire series on DVD, and still re-watches them all from time to time), and because I worked in a comic shop in the late 90s.

The acting is also first-rate. When I first started watching Breaking Bad, I thought of Bryan Cranston as Hal, the goofy dad from Malcolm in the Middle. Hal is long, long gone now. There's not a trace of him in Cranston's performance by this point. It would be odd to go back and watch Malcolm reruns now, because I'll probably think of Cranston as Walter and wonder when somebody is finally going to drive that little punk Reese out into the desert and give him the bullet he deserves.

Giancarlo Esposito deserves every bit of praise he's gotten, too. He can express more with the slightest facial twitch than most Oscar winners manage in their entire career.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of what it takes to get me to throw out a t-shirt. The last time I wore this shirt was to a Maplenoise show in September. It was in this condition by then. Partway through the concert, my wife suggested that I put my jacket back on. The shirt is solid black with orange and red letters - all of the light colour is a pillow I stuck in it to display the extent of its decrepitude. It's a Rez shirt, from the early 90s or so. The writing is (was) a Biblical reference ("For our God is a consuming fire, Hebrews 12:29"), written in the shape of a flame.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Yes, I'm lazy about writing these days.

Well, not entirely. I'm currently in the middle of writing a multi-part series outlining pretty much my biography for the last ten years, but that will never get posted here because it contains all kinds of identifying information and matters that are far too personal to put online. I recently had a chance (or, more accurately, providential) encounter with an old friend with whom I'd lost touch. After a very quick chat due to our circumstances at that time, we exchanged e-mail addresses. When I got home, I started writing to catch him up on what I've been doing for the past decade or so.

But as far as blogging, yeah, I'm very lazy now. That's why I really should take advantage of a chance like this to get a double use out of my typing.

A pro-life lady named Kristen Walker recently attended a pro-abortion group's meeting, took notes, and wrote up a report afterward. It was appalling. Somehow the fact that this rally for death was held in a church basement sends an extra little iceball into the pit of my stomach every time I think about it.

She's posted her thought on the meeting on the Live Action blog. It's well worth reading.

I posted a couple of comments, partly in response to other peoples' comments. The useful idiots of abortion profiteers are coming out to make feeble (and often borderline illiterate) defenses of the meeting, and I felt some of them could use some help trying to get back in touch with concepts like logic and compassion.

I show up over there, and some other places where I post comments, as "Zirbert Zirbert". For some reason my Google signin has decided that Zirbert is both my first and last name, which is especially funny because it is of course neither. I'm trying to fix it - get it to show either no last name or some variation on "the Irritable Saint" for the last name - but no luck yet.

Let the shameless reposting of my comments begin:

Well done. Congratulations on making it out of the meeting without being physically sickened.

This is the most crucial part of your essay:

"I was upset because I had seen evil, and evil was mundane. Evil had a
very impressive law degree and sensible brown shoes. Evil sat in pews
around me with folded arms, feeling very concerned about the plight of
poor women, wearing pants it bought at Macy’s. Evil looked like people
you see at the grocery store. And, most terrifying of all, evil thought
it was doing good."

This is, indeed, the heart of the problem in our society at this point. So many "useful idiots", so many otherwise nice people cheerfully paving the road to Hell with their good intentions. I wish more people would watch the movie Conspiracy, a reenactment of an actual meeting where a group of very polite and cultured men sat around a table discussing how to best benefit society by exterminating every Jew they could find.

The attitudes, thoughts, words, and behaviour of pro-abortionists (I reject their term, "pro-choice" - pro-what choice? The choice for abortion? Then you're pro-abortion) are absolutely no better. They're really not even significantly different.

As a side note, if anyone reading this is one of those capable of ginning up false outrage and moral indignation over comparing abortion with the Holocaust - tough. The shoe fits. Wear it.

Those who have come here to defend the pro-aborts at the meeting, and complain about Kristen's article are a huge part of the problem. Self-reflection isn't just for monks on mountaintops.

Thank you, Kristen.

(Someone else wrote) "How 'bout saving your tears for the hundreds of thousands of babies born due to a lack of knowledge, choice or birth control who are already in our fine foster care system."

So, better dead then born into poverty, born to uneducated parents, or with the possibility of winding up in foster care someday. Gotcha. Nice compassion you've got there - not all hatey like the prolifers.

You know, I've met people who were in foster care at some point in their lives, and some who were even adopted. I'm grateful they made it through attitudes like yours to be here now. I've yet to hear one of them say they would have been better off dead before birth.

(The same someone else wrote) "After a kid draws its first breath, it's out of luck. And I don't see any of the pro-birth groups using their resources to build shiny, new, state-of-the-art orphanages for these kids."

Sheer nonsense. Every pro-lifer I know also supports other causes to benefit older people (i.e., "birth-and-up") as well.

And when's the last time you saw an orphanage, at least in North America? Do they still exist? I've had friends wait years - yes, years - on lists to adopt a child. I've had others adopt from overseas for a variety of reasons, including that adopting domestically just isn't feasible much of the time due to a lack of prospective adoptees.

Please stop using the "way too many children waiting to be adopted" meme. It's silly and completely fantasy-based. If you know of a way for these children to be adopted ASAP, like now, let us all know. I know families who are waiting and would LOVE to have some of these mythical unwanted children.

(Someone named Nanamiro posted) "This mode of thinking is what allowed the holocaust to happen in a "civilized" society. Look the other way, and look out for yourself."

(Someone else posted) "No it isn't. The mode of thinking which caused the holocaust was a group in power deciding that a particular section of society should be deleted. There is no comparison with abortion which is decided on an individual, one by one, basis with no central plan to remove a partcicular section of society."

(I posted, beginning with a quotation from the last poster) "The mode of thinking which caused the holocaust was a group in power deciding that a particular section of society should be deleted." Right. Which is what Nanamiro said. Abortion is one group - a pregnant woman, her doctor, and the drum-pounding politically correct "choice defenders" - deciding that a section of society - the child in utero - should be deleted.

Your "if it doesn't hurt me, why should I care" / "if it doesn't hurt you, why should you care" attitude is amoral at best, immoral at worst. I can't share it, because I have a conscience.

(The same poster who didn't like the Holocaust comparison posted) "I'm well aware of the horrors of the holocaust but any attempts at comparison with abortion are totally invalid."

The shoe fits. Wear it. [Yes, I recycled material even within those comments.]

(Someone anonymously posted) "i have had an abortion because that was the best choice for ME. i didn't ask a stranger their opinion because it didn't matter. if you wanted me to have my baby sooo bad, you should have been sending me checks to support it because I could not afford it & didn't want to have a welfare baby which was a huge factor in my decision. if you have never been in the situation, you shouldn't look down on those that have."

Unless you were raped (which I doubt, because I'm sure it would have been in your first few sentences), you were utterly irresponsible.

However, your child was your responsiblity, and his/her father's (where was he, again?). You failed.

Have you any sense of personal responsibility at all? Why would your child be anyone else's responsibility, under any circumstances?

I am a parent. I an responsible for my child. I don't get to say " you should have been sending me checks to support" my family. That's my job. I "didn't want to have a welfare baby" either, so I got a job. Before having the child, even.

I hope you can heal from this. Sincerely. You've made a terrible, terrible mistake. Please turn your life around, if you haven't already.

Kristen's article was depressing but important. The same goes for the comments underneath. However, the comments show room for hope. There are more gentle souls with compassion for both mother and child posting than people who just want the kid chopped up and chucked out.

So far, anyway. Hopefully the article doesn't get linked at Huffington Post or Daily Kos, which tends to draw out the screaming lunatics. A Huffpo/Kos invasion always reminds me of a scene from one of my favourite movies, Escape From New York. "It's the end of the month. Crazies are out of food."

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of a balloon monkey trying to get into the brownies.

Monday, July 25, 2011

It's Funny Because I Didn't Know Her

Turns out that maybe Amy Winehouse should have gone to rehab after all.

I'm proud to be the 13,264,179th person in the world to do that line. It's a really cheap, easy joke, the kind I never feel really good about. It's the sort of obvious joke that I can imagine Jay Leno doing in his monologue, and it kind of depresses me when I write one of those. However, if Leno were to come out and do this particular joke this week, it would go a long way toward letting me respect his work again.

In that spirit, I'm hoping that I'm the first person to do a Winehouse joke other than the painfully obvious one. Let's give it a shot:

Right now, the Grim Reaper is berating one of his assistants. "You got the work orders mixed up! Winehouse wasn't until next week - you were supposed be at Charlie Sheen's place! This is almost as bad as that time you wrote down the wrong address and went to Phil Hartman's house instead of Andy Dick's!"

There. I feel better now.

Enough rambling. Here's another picture of my new dog back when she weighed less than sixty pounds, lo so many months ago.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Educational Fascism, Part XXIV

Homeschooling has been effectively outlawed in the province of Quebec. Those who choose not to hand their children over to bureaucratic babysitters for indoctrination are well on their way to being officially labelled enemies of the state.

Here's a brief rundown of the situation. More details are readily available online if you want to find out more. There's a family in Quebec who have four children, ages ranging from 3 to 9 ears. For whatever reason, they decided to homeschool their kids. It really doesn't matter to anyone else exactly why they made that choice. As the parents of those children, there's absolutely no reason why anyone else should have any say about it.

The "authorities" decided otherwise. Last year, representatives of the state decided that the two oldest, who were already of school age but not attending the state-run daily indoctrination camp, had to start going to public school. For whatever reason, the parents complied. Those two children are not thriving, to put it gently.

Now the "authorities" have decided that the younger two children, who are too young for school, cannot spend their weekday afternoons at home under the watchful and loving eyes of their family either. They have been ordered into state-run daycare.

This responsibility for this latest outrage falls entirely upon a judge, an unelected and unaccountable bureaucrat with delusions of grandeur named Nicole Bernier. The "honourable" Ms. Bernier decided that she wasn't convinced that these kids would be properly "socialized" if not subjected to the Lord-of-the-Flies-esque meatgrinder that is the public school system.

It's important to stop here and note that there is not so much as a whiff of an allegation of abuse, neglect, impropriety, or even academic weakness on the part of these parents. Perhaps under the mistaken impression that fascists might be reasonable, they reportedly co-operated with all inquiries and requests for the "authorities" to check out how the kids were doing. Other than one of the older ones having a hearing problem that presented some challenges (and could certainly be handled better at home than in a large group setting like a classroom), everything was fine by all reports.

Not having any actual grounds to seize these kids didn't dissuade Ms. Bernier. She fantasized that the "socialization" of children was somehow the purview of the state, and used her delusion to invent a legal justification.

The funniest/saddest (those often blur together for me) part of this is that even if we accept the premise that the state is responsible for the nebulous category of "socialization" - and we shouldn't - there is still a glaring logical error with this judicial fiat. Homeschooled children, contrary to bigoted leftist fantasies, generally do not have social problems when compared to those raised by (not "in", deliberately) public schools. The biggest difference later on tends to be that the homeschooled students tend to be more confident (in a positive way, not in the modern empty "self-esteem" sense) and comfortable when interacting with people of different ages, social cohorts, etc. The public school veterans have twelve years or so of having been confined almost exclusively with people their own age and from similar social backgrounds. They are very comfortable with other people just like themselves, but not as comfortable (as the homeschooled students) with those who are different.

Oh, and homeschooled kids wind up much better educated than their assembly-line-product peers as well, but that almost goes without saying.

This is a travesty. The family is fighting it, and they must win. The principles of parental authority and freedom of conscience are at stake. The family, not the state, is the foundational structure of society. The suggestion that these family, or anyone else, needs the permission of the state (translation: of some clipboard-toting civil servant) to homeschool their children infuriates me. It's actually quite the opposite. The educational bureaucracy needs the permission of the parents to have access to those children.

My son is in public school, for reasons I'm not going into just now. It's complicated. However, I make it crystal clear on a regular basis to every school district employee I encounter that they need to remember who is the final authority in our relationship. Many parents take the attitude that the school is responsible to educate the children, and the parents can help. That's exactly the opposite of true. It's the responsibility of parents to educate their children, and the school can help (if the parents choose to let it). I hope you see the difference there. It's a matter of who bears the primary responsibility, and who therefore is the corresponding primary authority. Parents need to explicitly assert this principle, and keep reminding representatives of "the system" of who is really in charge, until it sinks in.

This family in Quebec has chosen to fight this outrage in court. Good for them. they're being far more patient and accommodating than I would have been in the same situation. I would have ignored the initial inquiries (that lead to the two older children being drafted last year), and had the situation escalated to where theirs did, I would almost certainly have wound up spending at least a few evenings in jail for "contempt of court" (as though this court deserves anything else) for informing the judge that they didn't have a say in how I choose to educate my children, and I really couldn't care less what they have to say about it.

But back to my opening sentence. Homeschooling has already been criminalized in some countries, like Germany. Funny, you'd think Germany, of all nations, might understand that compelling children into state-run indoctrination programs doesn't always end well.

With this ruling, if it is allowed to stand, Canada is on a very slippery slope. This sets a precedent that the legal system may decree, for no good reason, that children can be forced into public school against the will of their parents. The step from that coercion being an option to being mandatory is frighteningly small. And don't think for a second that this fascism will confine itself to Quebec.

This is a camel whose nose must be pushed back out of the tent. A few years ago, the bureaucrats in my home province decreed that requiring children to enter grade one, at age six, wasn't good enough, and kindergarten for five-year-olds became mandatory. I tried to raise the alarm that it was the thin edge of a wedge, but few would hear. Now state-approved daycare is required in some places for even younger children.

The State wants control of as many children as possible, from as young an age as possible. This should alarm anyone with any knowledge of history or sense of personal autonomy. "Give me a child until the age of seven and I will give you the man" is generally attributed to the Jesuits, but it took the Communists to harness its full potential.

Daycare, kindergarten, public school - none of these are inherently good or evil, right or wrong. If you are a parent, you are free to evaluate your options and decide what makes the most sense for your family. But it must be your choice, not Nicole Bernier's.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of flowers I bought for my wife an anniversary or two ago. I was necessarily vague about my expectations, giving the florist a budget to work with but no particular specifications beyond "flowers, maybe in a vase or something." Thus, due to my cluelessness and the florist's lack of scruples, this bouquet cost in the ballpark of sixty bucks. Oh, and the card reads, "In appreciation for your years of loyal service." Really. But that part was my idea.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Reading Log: Outliers

I have several rather large stacks - well, more like an amorphous pile at this point - of books that I've finished reading but haven't written about. I had intended this blog to act as a reading log, among other things. Not writing about books that I finish doesn't contribute much to that goal.

As an insignificant token gesture toward rectifying that, here's a book that I borrowed, and which I'd like to return: Outliers: The True Story of Success by Malcom Gladwell.

This one is borrowed from the local library. I've already kept it past its due date, and renewed it, and am fast approaching its new due date. I had read it well before the first due date rolled around, but held onto it in faint hopes of writing this entry.

There's a library very close to my workplace. So close, in fact, that I can spend my lunch breaks there, and most days I do. I have a set prioritization sequence. Each day I read the newspapers (including any from past days that I haven't read yet), then any new periodicals of any interest to me whatsoever, then scan the new arrivals shelves for anything that looks interesting, then finally work my way down a shelf, in Dewey Decimal System order, at least skimming each book. I keep notes on that last method, so I can remember the shelf and book where I last left off; most days, I don't make it past the new arrivals, so I rarely resort to this method.

I'm usually content to read a new book for a few minutes to get the idea, maybe returning to it another day if it's still there. Outliers has been the only book so far for which my ten-minute skim wasn't enough. I signed it out so that I could finish it at my leisure (which took two or three days).

This books starts strong, with a chapter on a phenomenon that fascinated me: the tendency for elite athletes to have been born in the early months of the year. The author provides a few lists of professional sports team rosters, and it's immediately obvious that the players are far likelier to have been born between January and March than at any other time. Then he explains why.

It's one of those things that's so obvious, you wonder why we hadn't seen it all along: at first, in any group activity, children are grouped by age, and there has to be a cutoff. Whether we're talking about junior sports teams, school, or almost anything else, all the kids born before an arbitrary date go into group A, and all the ones born on that date or later go into group B or wait until next year. It quickly becomes apparent that some of the kids in each group are more talented than others. Those more talented kids get more attention, more opportunities, better coaching, more practice time, whatever. It's only normal to encourage and nurture talent. The less proficient kids fall by the wayside. They may get relegated to the backup team, put into a less challenging curriculum, held back for remedial work, etc.

However the truth is that those "more talented" kids may not be prodigies at all. They may just be older.

These groupings by birthdate usually happen at an early age. Five or six years old, at the latest. When grouping those children into age cohorts, you end up with some children in the group being as much as one day short of a full year older than the others. At age five or six, a gap of (effectively) a full year makes a huge difference. The child who is five years, 11 months, and 28 days old will be bigger, stronger, faster, more co-ordinated, more agile, and more intelligent than the child who is five years and 2 days old. They will be "better", by almost any measure, by a significant margin.

That younger child will wind up on the losing end of almost any comparison. Before long, they will be shunted off into the second (loser) division. The "prodigy", whose true main advantage was that they had several extra months of development under their figurative and literal belt, will receive better training, more resources, more opportunities, and ultimately a better outcome.

This is not to say that birthdate is the only predictor of success, that children born at the "right" time never have true natural ability, or that children born at the "wrong" time can't sometimes overcome that through true natural ability or sheer determination. However, it's clearly an important factor.

The only hockey player whose name I could immediately think of when I first read this was Wayne Gretzky. He was born on January 26.

I found this age issue mind-blowing, and I wonder how it could be overcome or, to put it more crassly, perhaps even exploited. The first thing that comes to mind is that a rival children's sports league could be started, with the age cutoff exactly six months off from that used by the current, established league. If you could get this to take hold (and you'd have to follow it up through all the age groups for such a league), I think that within a few years we would discover almost twice as many "prodigies" in the sport. The ones born in January or soon thereafter, and the ones born in July or soon thereafter. How many potential Wayne Gretzkys have gone unnoticed simply because they were a few months less developed?

That's in sports, though, about which I give not the slightest whit. It's just an area where this phenomenon is easily observed. Gladwell - among other sources we'll discuss shortly - assures the reader that statisticians have done proper studies on the matter that demonstrate a clear, strong correlation between high athletic achievement and a birthdate near the entry point cutoff.

I'd be far more interested in overcoming this in the academic world. Many a child has been pigeonholed early on by the bureaucrats in charge of the school system, and proceeded to live down to the expectations placed (or not) upon them. Just one more way in which the public "educational" system fails miserably.

I'm something of a numbers and statistics geek, so when I read about this in Gladwell's book, having never heard of it before, I thought it must be a very obscure phenomenon. Then, shortly thereafter, I read about it on .

I think it's safe to assume that if a research area is being discussed on Cracked (which is sometimes a surprisingly good source of information), it's not exactly a secret anymore. I was just late to the party.

The rest of Gladwell's book is still somewhat interesting, but didn't grip me like that first revelation. He debunks the myth of effortless expertise, by using such examples of Bill Gates and the Beatles. Gates was certainly brilliant, but to suggest that he was an inexperienced natural who mastered computers by sheer intuition is off the mark. He had several opportunities fall into his lap by various means that allowed him to rack up thousands of hours of programming experience at an early age. Where most of us squander our time, young Gates passionately threw himself into a hobby that turned out to have a very practical application later in his life.

As for the Beatles, they honed their craft with months of nights on Hamburg nightclub stages, playing for eight to ten hours a night, seven nights a week, for demanding audiences. They didn't get as good as they became without paying years of dues. By the time they appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, they had spent more hours onstage than most veteran performers will amass in their entire career.

The books bogs somewhat in the middle, as Gladwell spends far too many pages explaining why Jews became so prominent in the legal profession (no, really, he does). The book is well worth reading overall, but I could understand a reader setting it aside after the chapters on birthdates and "overnight success stories".

Another fascinating section comes when he compares two brilliant physicists, Chris Langan and Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was somewhat deranged, even trying at one point to poison an associate for no comprehensible reason, but was put in charge of the Manhattan Project. Langan falls victim to a series of seemingly minor misfortunes, and winds up a footnote. The main differences between them lie in their social skills - Oppenheimer is a master manipulator, although we, as always, pretty this up by calling him "charming", "personable", or "persuasive". As such, his flaws, though at least comparable to those of Langan, are overlooked whereas Langan is allowed to drift into obscurity.

Much of life is a popularity contest.

I also appreciated the theme that raw intelligence ultimately counts for little. There seems to be a point where IQ is simply "high enough", and being any more intelligent past that threshold is insignificant. There is also a large degree to which, as in the case of Oppenheimer and Langan, raw intelligence matters less than "social skills", a euphemism for likability and capability to manipulate.

I appreciated this because I'm a guy whose IQ consistently tests in the top 1/2 of 1% of the population. It's been formally tested a few times over the years, and I've taken a few other informal but supposedly valid tests as well, and every time I've scored in that range. In real life, that counts for the exact midpoint of jack and squat.

I have a nice, nondistinguished, middle-class existence, which suits me fine. However, it's certainly not what anyone, including myself, would have predicted for me back when my elementary school tried to move me up several grades (Mom vetoed it), but settled for letting me take individual advanced classes (grade 5 English when I was in grade 1, high-school English and math in grade 3), or when universities began calling my house when I was still in junior high school. As it turned out, my academic career was solid but nothing special, and my professional life has been similar. My social skills are closer to those of Langan than Oppenheimer, so it could have been much worse, and I have absolutely no complaints about my lot in life. Still, one of my favourite TV shows was Malcolm in the Middle, because of its recurring theme: being intelligent doesn't make you smart.

Back to the book. The question I'm left with is what we can do with this information. By the end of the book we know that grouping children by age conveys a huge advantage on the oldest members of the group. We know that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of experience in anything to become an expert, and there are no shortcuts. We know that sometimes the skills acquired to adapt to adverse circumstances pay off handsomely later, when the circumstances change (the point of the section about Jewish lawyers).

So, do we stop grouping children by age? Do we devote more time to productive or educational activities, which sounds more than a bit obvious, no matter how unlikely? Do we focus more on developing our interpersonal skills? Do we contact our friendly neighbourhood psychics to ask what things will be like in twenty years, so we can start angling into position now?

The only practical action I can see is to try to provide opportunities to others. Part of Gladwell's thesis is that his titular "outliers" may not be so special in and of themselves. They may have been in the right place at the right time or willing to do what needed to be done to advance. However, many of them reached in their positions of prominence due in no small part to the largesse of others. No one really makes it alone. Bill Gates was given time in computer labs in an era when that was a rarity. A club owner decided to give the Beatles, a moderately talented garage band like hundreds of others, a shot as his house band. A blind eye was turned toward Oppenheimer's antisocial tendencies.

Help one another. Give a break to somebody who could use one.

I guess that's as good a moral to the story as any.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of my new dog, back when she really was my new dog, in every sense of the word. She's a little over a year old now, and her head alone is now much larger than those boots on the left.