A retort to the writer who claims that social media are not effective tools for activism.
Have you ever wondered why there are so many kinds of mustard but only one kind of ketchup? Or what Cezanne did before painting his first significant works in his 50s? Have you hungered for the story behind the Veg-O-Matic, star of the frenetic late-night TV ads? Or wanted to know where Led Zeppelin got the riff in “Whole Lotta Love”? Neither had I, until I began this collection by the indefatigably curious journalist Malcolm Gladwell.
Fear-mongering through data (or a lack thereof): on Alex Berenson, Malcolm Gladwell, and “what happens when tidy narratives outrun the science.”
It’s been just over a day since the internet exploded with analyses, memes, and hashtags on Melania Trump’s liberal use of phrases from Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech. The awkwardness of this particular case of (alleged) plagiarism will soon be drowned out by other stories. But debates around plagiarism never quite disappear: they touch on originality, authenticity, and property, concepts that are deeply linked to our modern sense of humanness.
Here are six meaty reads on plagiarism: from deep dives into infamous recent cases to essays that question the very possibility of writing that isn’t, to some extent, an act of unattributed borrowing.
1. “The Ecstasy of Influence.” (Jonathan Lethem, Harper’s, February 2007)
By now a postmodern classic, Lethem’s piece is a passionate, erudite defense of plagiarism — composed almost entirely of passages he himself lifted from other works.
“‘We thought we were the best in Hamburg and Liverpool—it was just a matter of time before everybody else caught on. We were the best fucking group in the goddamn world … and believing that is what made us what we were.’”
-John Lennon, in a 1980 interview. Lennon is quoted in Andrew Romano’s 2013 story for The Daily Beast, which aims to debunk Malcolm Gladwell’s argument in Outliers that the Beatles made their success through thousands of hours of playing in Hamburg.
Andrew Romano sets out to debunk Malcolm Gladwell’s argument in Outliers that the Beatles made their success through the “10,000-hour rule”—in this case, spending thousands of hours of playing in Hamburg:
But this isn’t even the real problem with Gladwell’s theory. The real problem is that while the Beatles’ marathon stints in Hamburg did transform them as a band—they were so vibrant, so tight, and so unrecognizable when they returned from their first campaign that the crowds in Liverpool mistook them for a blistering new German combo—the “complex task” they had now “mastered” was not the same task that would eventually earn them world domination.
Being able to mach schau in a small club was a pivotal part of the Beatles development: it won them a fanatical following in Liverpool, which in turn drove their debut single “Love Me Do” up the charts even when the suits in London refused to promote it, and it was also the reason the Fabs were able record an LP as a thrilling as Please Please Me in a single ten-hour workday. But beyond that, Gladwell is wrong. The Beatles’ “excellence at performing” is not “what it took” for them to become the greatest rock band of all time. In fact, the Beatles were stuck in a rut even after they returned from Hamburg in 1961—and their live expertise was not enough to get them out of it.
How much of greatness is nature vs. nurture? Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein challenges Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” rule in a new book about the science of training, The Sports Gene. A lot depends on individual biology, and there are cultural factors, too:
“Usain Bolt is a great example. He was 6’4” when he was 15 years old and blazing fast. He wanted to play soccer or cricket. What are the chances anyone lets him run track in the U.S.? To me, it’s zero. There’s no way he’s not playing basketball or football. Nowhere but Trinidad, the Bahamas, Barbados, and Jamaica would a guy that’s 6’4”, with blinding speed, be allowed to run track instead of something else. People have asked me, ‘Should we do genetic screening for the best athletes or at least some sort of measurements?’ Yes, measuring kids and trying to fit them into the right sport for their body type absolutely works. That’s why you saw Australia and Great Britain up their medal haul with their talent search programs when they had their Olympics. However, when there’s a sport that’s most popular in an area, you don’t have to do that because you already have the natural sifting program. You don’t have to go hunt for the best football players in America because they’re already going to go play football and then we select them.”
Last week we lost a pioneer of early computing, Doug Engelbart, and Tom Foremski has an excellent short backstory about the inventor of the mouse. It was Engelbart’s 1968 demo of computer graphical user interfaces that inspired everything we now use today—yet despite his many accomplishments Engelbart struggled in later years to get attention or funding for his work.
Now seems like an appropriate time to look back at some of the early computer demos, and for further reading, check out “Creation Myth,” Malcolm Gladwell’s 2011 New Yorker story on the work of Engelbart, Xerox PARC and Apple.
1. The Early Days of ‘Cloud Computing’ at MIT, 1963 (28 min.)
This is a 1963 interview with professor Fernando J. Corbato at the MIT Computation Center, where he explains the concept of “timesharing,” which they developed to allow teams to work on individual consoles that attach to one centralized computer.
For more from MIT, check out this 1963 demonstration of “sketchpad” software developed by Ivan Sutherland.
2. Hewlett-Packard’s First Personal Computer, 1968 (21 minutes)
3. Doug Engelbart, Stanford Research Institute, 1968 (1 hr., 15 min.)
This two-hour demo from Engelbart, who founded SRI’s Augmentation Research Center, not only introduces the mouse, but also everything from the graphical user interface to hyperlinking, cutting-and-pasting and collaborative editing.
4. Early Digital Teleconferencing, University of Southern California, 1978 (6 min.)
USC’s Informational Sciences Institute produced this filmed demonstration of early digital teleconferencing technology over ARPAnet, complete with guy-who-nearly-misses-the-call-because-he-was-yachting.
5. Xerox Star User Interface, 1982
It was Xerox PARC where Steve Jobs saw the future for Apple, when he visited and got a demo of the Alto personal computer. Xerox released its Star Professional Workstation in 1981, and this clip features Star designers Charles Irby and David Canfield-Smith explaining how the system worked.
Image via dougengelbart.org
Nieman Storyboard’s “Why’s This So Good” explores what makes classic narrative nonfiction stories worth reading.
This week: Tim Carmody examines Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Ketchup Conundrum,” which was originally published in The New Yorker’s Food Issue in Sept. 2004:
Note: I can’t stand ketchup. Any ketchup. I think it’s disgusting, and always have. I was averse to it as a kid, and unlike almost every other one of my wide list of childhood prohibited foods, it never made it off that list. But I am riveted by the story of ketchup regardless, because Gladwell’s offered me a route, through history, science, and the words of men and women here and now, to understand these odd human beings around me who love the stuff.