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July 2008

Tuition and Endowment

Berea College in Kentucky is one of the three colleges mentioned in Daniel Golden's fascinating book, The Price of Admission, as not charging any college tuition. (It is interesting how you can work in academia and not see any of the behaviors detailed in the book, but some parents really might do crazy things to get their kids into an Ivy League school.) It was profiled in the New York Times recently; it focuses on low-income students. The article discusses the staggering endowments of some famous universities, which keep increasing tuition costs although they could easily offset those by dipping into the alumni donation pot.

While not everybody should go to college for free (wealthy alumni who have achieved their fortune through hard work might be reluctant to contribute if their dollars go to a student who could afford tuition costs anyway), and while endowments are also used to pay for, you would have guessed it, multi-year endowed professorships, I am often left wondering what the bulk of it is used for. According to the article, "Harvard's $35 billion endowment, Yale's $23 billion, Stanford’s $17 billion and Princeton’s $16 billion put them among the world’s richest institutions." I guess the real issue is that admission yields are relatively insensitive to the price tag (people apply to schools they have a remote chance of being able to afford), and colleges will charge what they can get away with. We recently had a tuition increase in graduate student credits at Lehigh (from $990 to $1,100 per credit; grad students on research assistantships typically register for nine credits a semester), and I am curious what the point is, since that just means that I have to ask funding agencies for more money (to fund my students) to do the same work, and that decreases Lehigh's ability to compete with other schools. 

What I find most interesting is that the eye-popping endowment numbers mean that a lot of alumni donations do not go into financial aid or new buildings or new computers or even a new gym at all - they are simply invested. They sit in the ether of the online account of some financial institution. With all the talk about "what are endowments for?" and parents' perspective and the difficulty to pay for college, I find it curious that nobody has bothered to think about the small donors (the big donors are the ones with leverage enough to get their name on buildings) and point out the money is not being used, and might not be for another thirty or fifty years. Small donations make alumni offices happy because they can say a lot of people participate to the funding campaigns, but in terms of impact, donating $50 to an Ivy League college will have as much of an impact as stuffing it under a mattress. In contrast, local community colleges rarely have wealthy alumni (in Harvard's or Yale's eyes), but a small donation will make a much bigger difference. It is time alumni started answering "With an endowment like that, you really don't need my money" when phonathon volunteers call them asking for donations.

Operations Research at Starbucks

A columnist at is blaming operations research for some of Starbuck's ill-advised policed, in its all-out drive to optimize profits. (Thanks a lot to the reader who pointed out the link!) The author, Joel Spolsky, describes a situation at a Manhattan Starbucks store on Eighth Avenue at 58th Street where an "expediter" walks down the customer line and asks patrons what they are planning to buy to rush their  coffee order. Since the queue is first-come-first-serve, it is unlikely the barista gets started on the drink that much earlier,  but customers in line can hope that they won't have to wait twice - once at the cashier's and once at the pick-up counter. Because the expediter behaved in extremely rude fashion the day Spolsky visited the store, he decided to explore the issue further and ended up on Starbucks's gossip site, where employees discuss various store policies. As it turns out, at least according to the grapevine, the "expediter" isn't there to make the customer experience more satisfying at all. He (or she) is there to make the patrons place their order earlier so that they will feel an ethical obligation to wait until they get their drink, instead of balking at the long lines and getting their coffee elsewhere.

According to Spolsky, this evil policy is the result of operations research in action - he writes : "All of this fancy optimization stuff is called operations research. It's what Michael Gerber talks about in his best-selling book The E-Myth Revisited . If you're planning to expand your business to a certain scale, you must first establish procedures and build systems to get predictable outcomes so that your employees can produce decent results even when they're not having a great day. It's a real academic field of study, and it's really hard and really important. You need to hire pretty smart people to do studies and experiments and collect the statistics and then figure out what it all means." My first reaction was: getting more visibility for operations research is great, but we certainly don't need bad PR. (The prices of airline tickets already provide plenty of that.) So can we pass the buck? Here comes the spin minute. As much as I loved the "really hard and really important" comment and the "pretty smart people" one, if it is about directing customer behavior, it is a lot more about operations management than operations research. (Remember what I wrote last week about Pennsylvania blaming New Jersey for all its troubles and then some? We all need a cousin to dump our problems on.)

Wikipedia defines operations research as "an interdisciplinary branch of applied mathematics and formal science that uses methods like mathematical modeling, statistics, and algorithms to arrive at optimal or near optimal solutions to complex problems." In other words, it deals with the quantitative models behind decision-making. Academics who work in operations research are typically found in engineering schools, often in industrial engineering departments. OR graduates are hired by companies like to satisfy customer order at the lowest cost (for instance, they develop large-scale algorithms to analyze sales data and decide from which warehouse to dispatch the goods.) Operations management, according to the same source, "is an area of business that is concerned with the production of goods and services, and involves the responsibility of ensuring that business operations are efficient and effective. It is the management of resources, the distribution of goods and services to customers, and the analysis of queue systems." OM people are typically found in business schools, and tend to have a more "integrated" approach to decision-making, in the sense that they take more into account the fuzzy factors behind the problems at hand (customer satisfaction, supplier relationship, and the like) and are less mathematically-oriented. (This is, of course, a generalization, and as in any generalization, you can find people who don't fit neatly in my simplified overview of OR versus OM, like this one.) They also tend to interact more closely with top management at companies. In OR, you analyze the data and design computer models to optimize profits by assigning values to different input variables. Computers can't output "create a new type of employees to make your customers feel guilty".

Devising policies that rely on customers' good heart (no, I will not let poor little Starbucks waste a latte by leaving the line!) is not quantitative enough to count as OR. Opening upscale stores so that customers are willing to pay more for coffee isn't quantitative enough either. (Nice spin, huh? Life in the Lehigh Valley has served me well.) Operations research would be about the optimal shipment strategies for coffee beans and staffing policies in the stores - you might need only two employees off-peak but four in the morning or late afternoon when people start or leave work. OR quantitative techniques are what is behind Starbucks's former executive vice president Ted Garcia's success story: "Through his prior experience developing manufacturing and logistics networks, as well as information systems and technology platforms, he was able to establish programs for Starbucks that have delivered savings totaling more than $250 million."

But the fact is, OR and OM people are in this boat together - they help companies become more profitable. OR/OM success stories are case studies where academics help business make a lot of money. They only benefit the general public in the sense that the extra cash flow creates or maintains employees' jobs, brings more dividends to shareholders, which might include your pension fund, or keep prices down by helping companies stay in business despite competition. Good decision-making in business seems, at first glance, to benefit companies and hurt the average customer - the goal is, after all, to make clients pay as much as possible. Blaming greedy big businesses is also a popular theme in some media outlets, especially local newspapers. In working to help OR/OM gain more visibility, we risk letting others give it a bad name, unless we relentlessly point to concrete benefits such as low prices (Wal-Mart is an operations research expert too). But having OR in the limelight also means we get to take all the credit in articles such as this 2004 piece in the Boston Globe: "Operations everything [..] a primer on the most influential academic discipline you've never heard of." In it, the associate director of the school of operations research and (then) industrial engineering at Cornell University defines OR as: "the effective use of scarce resources under dynamic and uncertain conditions." No mention of pop psychology to make customers stay in line. The Globe article is a great read because it takes the average person's vantage point and shows how OR benefits his or her life (when the person books a flight on Orbitz and heads to Disney World, for instance), and it correctly identifies many of the trends that have made OR so popular over the last few years. ("After decades in which the field's progress was mostly theoretical, computers have finally gotten powerful enough to collect the data and deliver the problem-solving solutions that O.R. has been promising since the heady days of the New Frontier.") We need more articles like that.

More Business Links

Here are a few business links for today.

Management Thinking. The Economist, which recently launched an online series about management ideas (mentioned in this post of mine), has paired it with a new series on management thinkers. The first person profiled is someone named Igor Ansoff, whom I will admit I had never heard about before, but apparently pioneered the field of "modern strategy thinking." Wikipedia has a longer entry - I just loved the "Professionally, Ansoff is known worldwide for his research in [...] the contingent strategic success paradigm, a concept that has been validated by numerous doctoral dissertations." I will venture that a business thinker should aim at having his research validated by real-life implementation, rather than a multitude of dissertations Ansoff probably supervised. As any consultant worth his salt, this researcher created a two-by-two table, in his case linking new and present products to new and present markets, with the grand title of product-market growth market, now taught in business schools everywhere.

Non-Revenue Management at the Opera. The Met has shown an audience existed for live, high-quality telecasts, transmitted live throughout the world for about $20. (I wrote about it here.) The thought of revenue management done right without the help of revenue management experts was a bit vexing for us academics working on the topic. Thankfully, the Bayreuth Festival - which, for those of you non-opera-goers, is "the" opera festival of the year - has demonstrated that some people could also misapply revenue management in spectacular fashion. Bayreuth charged would-be viewers 49 euros ($77, according to Yahoo! currency converter) to watch the opera opening the festival live from their laptop. Let's compare the two for a second: on one side, $20 for a high-definition broadcast with a surround sound in a state-of-the-art movie theater, watching the opera with a crowd; on the other side, $77 for a broadcast on a computer screen about the size of a sheet of paper, by oneself. This doesn't exactly make a lot of sense, now, does it? The numbers speak for themselves. In the 2007-8 season, an average of 115,000 people watched one of the eight Met operas broadcast live. Bayreuth's offer attracted only 10,000 viewers over the world, according to this AP press release, despite the immense prestige of the festival among opera-goers. In contrast, about 38,000 locals watched the Bayreuth premiere for free on a giant screen outside the festival - and those were only people who were already on site, for instance because they lived nearby. While the Bayreuth organizers should be lauded for trying to provide everyone with an opportunity to watch the premiere (people supposedly wait eight or ten years to get tickets), they did not go about it the right way. Food for thought for next year, maybe.

Newspapers. I recently wrote about the end of the newspaper. While the struggles of the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal are making headlines, those papers are not the worst of the bunch by far. In the Lehigh Valley, the Tribune-owned Morning Call has announced large-scale cuts, which, given the sad state of the newspaper, did not come as a surprise. (Let me just say that the reporters are not given many opportunities to write long, in-depth stories, and that a large part of the paper is made of police blotter items.) This is a pity, because a well-led local newspaper could do wonders to educate the public about changing times, in an area prone to bitterness and recrimination, and keep officials accountable. It is hard to believe that the advertising slump affects local businesses as drastically as Chicago magnate Zell explained - when I go to Lehigh University's Zoellner Arts Center, the program is full of inserts about local restaurants and dry-cleaners and flower shops. The issue, really, is that big conglomerates deal with advertising for local papers in the same way as for their "crown jewels" (Los Angeles Times and the like), maybe because they live in big cities and no longer remember the small-town feeling. You only have to take one look at the Morning Call webpage to know they'd be better off focusing on local businesses rather than the American Express Gold credit card, and they should print the business addresses in the ads too. Of course, said local businesses would be even more receptive to the idea if the articles in the Call showed a bit more depth, instead of repeating what the police chief or assistant district attorney blabbers, in an obviously distorted account of whatever facts happen to make the headlines that day. In related news, "newspapers are thriving in developing countries," according to The Economist; reading (as well as being able to afford a paper) is a source of prestige over there. Given the worrisome (lack of) reading habits of US teenagers, browsing through a newspaper might soon become a sign of the elite here too.

Randy Pausch

Randy Pausch died on Friday. About everyone in the States has heard about him by now, but for my non-American readers, he was a computer science professor at Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer about two years ago. He was 47 at the time of his death. He shot to fame in September 2007 when he was invited to give a talk at Carnegie-Mellon, as part of a seminar series where speakers gave a mock "last lecture" - if this was the last lecture they could give, what lessons would they impart to their audience? It turned out that, for Pausch, this was a lot more than a rhetorical exercise. The lecture was videotaped and found its way to the Internet, where it became a run-away success, thanks to YouTube. (You can watch it here [scroll to the bottom of the page]; it lasts about one hour and fifteen minutes.)

The lecture was then turned into a book, which instantly became a best-seller. I haven't bought the book - I am always wary of the self-help literature, with a history of packaging platitudes and pretending that "this book will change your life"; sometimes it feels like they are hyping problems to increase book sales. But it seems that the book was well-received by many. On Friday I watched the Carnegie-Mellon lecture at last off the NPR website and I have to admit, it was amazingly good. USA Today printed some nuggets from the talk; two of my favorites are "No one is pure evil. Find the best in everybody. Wait long enough and people will surprise and impress you." (I couldn't help but think when I read this that, in some cases, I might have to wait a while!) and "It is not about achieving your dreams but living your life. If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself." That echoes my own philosophy quite nicely.

After Pausch's death, readers commented that he had reminded them that life is precious and they should give a big hug to their children. How trite. Do you really need a perfect stranger to remind you of that? Pausch's legacy for me is the absolute, undivided, enthusiasm he expressed in his lecture for teaching and leaving a mark on students. He structured the talk so that the projects and courses he got involved with became bigger and bigger, and I was taken aback by the virtual world course he led for about ten years at Carnegie-Mellon - the core innovation was to bring students from very different departments together (arts and engineering, for instance) to create their own virtual world. He comes across as someone who had a tremendous impact on students and influenced many lives. We educators all wonder, at some point in our career, and maybe at many points, whether what we do matters in any way. Pausch's lecture superbly conveyed the excitement of teaching, the privilege of having that kind of job, and will rekindle the aspirations of any educator threatened with burnout, or just prone to self-doubt. It should be a must-see for all college professors throughout the country and beyond.

Math for Middle-School Girls

33-year-old UCLA graduate and actress Danica McKellar, whom I discovered following a reader's tip (thanks FF), is on a book tour promoting her second book Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who's Boss, after last year's phenomenal success of Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail. I haven't read either, for obvious reasons, but Math Doesn't Suck scores a 4.5 out of 5 out of 83 ratings, which suggests parents find the book valuable (unless middle school girls have suddenly developed an urge to write ratings on Amazon). It links math concepts to issues a middle-school girl can relate to, such as making sure a sibling isn't cheating her of her fair share. Anything that helps girls become more proficient in math is welcome, and hopefully McKellar will have as much success with her second book as she had with her first.

On a different note, the Engineering Pathway website, which is a portal to high-quality teaching resources in math and engineering for both K-12 and college education, has been relaunched. Check it out!

Business Links

Some interesting business links for today:

  • Ambush marketing. The practice "in which companies try to promote their brands at sporting events without paying sponsorship fees" (The Economist, July 5th, 2008) isn't new, but has received more attention due to the upcoming Olympic Games, both in The Economist and in Reuters news wires (July 21st). The list of non-sponsors' antics to get free publicity for their wares is quite entertaining - giving green hats, symbolizing Heineken, to Dutch soccer fans entering the stadium for the Euro tournament, or plastering Atlanta with Nike ads in 1996 while Adidas was a sponsor - but the sums at stake are not small change: "This year 12 firms, including Coca-Cola, Samsung and Visa, have paid a total of $866m to be official sponsors of the Beijing Olympics - and they want exclusivity." Overzealous enforcement, however, can backfire and bring more publicity for the offending company, as was the case for Bavaria, a Dutch brewery, during the 2006 soccer World Cup - "officials asked fans to remove the offending garments [orange plastic Lederhosen]. [...] Many fans ended up watching the match in their underwear."
  • Cheating at the GMAT. Wherever there is a test, especially one that influences admission in American prestigious business schools - and hence future earnings, status, and so on - there is a cheating opportunity. In a case described in the online edition of The Economist (here and here), it appears that a website "posted live [currently used in the real test] questions to the GMAT", and 6,000 prospective students since 2003 might have cheated, voluntarily or not, by accessing the website and using the questions to prepare. While I do believe the GMAT should play a role in b-school admissions, I'd much prefer to see a procedure where applicants go to test centers (so that their identity is verified) and write essay questions on-site for each of the b-schools they want to apply to. (They would not know the questions in advance, although many of these are quite obvious - your most important failure, your view of leadership, etc. We could imagine a situation where candidates are asked about a current business situation, among several they could choose from. Because there would be a lot fewer questions than at the GMAT and these questions would not involve multiple-choice answers, they would also be easy to change on short notice. Besides, there could be fewer testing dates, as for the CFA exam, thus reducing the risk of students leaking questions to others. Having one testing date per school and a fee for each exam would force applicants to focus on the schools they truly want to attend and keep the number of applications to each school more manageable.) The ability of future business leaders to articulate intelligent thoughts without the help of friends and the gift of time is, in my opinion, a much better gauge of their potential in such a career than multiple-answer questions at the GMAT.

Starbucks in the Valley

Starbucks is closing 600 under-performing stores in America, including three in the Lehigh Valley. The comments of some of the local residents upon learning the news (the kind who write on discussion boards, who, judging by their numerous spelling mistakes, didn't all get As in English when they were in school) are, I find, quite revealing - in a nutshell, "yuppies, go back to New Jersey!" and "Wawa's coffee is better and doesn't cost $5! Dunkin Donuts' is better too!" (and then, the splendid "Starbucks made millions selling an addictive drug. It was only a matter of time before God struck them down. I can't feel at all bad for the people who are losing their jobs. The Bible says, 'The wages of sin is death.' (Romans 6:23)", which was erased from the list due to its outrageousness but still appears as quote in other posts' replies. Welcome to Pennsylvania, everyone.)

We are only twenty minutes away from the New Jersey state line, off Route 78 which leads straight to New York City, with property taxes much lower than in New Jersey, and the past five years have seen a property boom due to the influx of New Jersey residents, before gas prices sky-rocketed. The resentment of some of the "born and bred in the Valley" (not everyone, of course, but quite a few blue-collar workers) toward the "transplants" now extends beyond the nice cars the latter drive around and the big mansions they have had built in the area, to something as silly as Starbucks coffee, which doesn't even sell for $5 to begin with. People who drink Starbucks coffee are viewed as "people not from here", a category widely translated as former New Jersey residents, the scourge of the earth and source of all evil. (Once you've settled down in eastern Pennsylvania, you quickly figure out that you can blame New Jersey for all of your problems. Your wife left you? New Jersey's fault. Global warming? New Jersey's fault. Your favorite candy missing from the vending machine? New Jersey's fault. The fact that people working in New Jersey and living here bring more tax revenues to Pennsylvania? Please, please, don't make us say something nice about New Jersey. That's just mean.) The fact is, the population of the United States is growing, these people need housing, and they have the right to take advantage of the tax differential. Hoping the New Jersey folks will just "go home" and the situation will revert to the 1980s before Route 78 was built is just wishful thinking. While there are also many lifelong Lehigh Valley residents who welcome newcomers and enjoy a cup of Starbucks, they are, sadly, a lot less vocal than the transplant-haters.

The issue is that, like the fancy restaurants, Starbucks came to the area by following the New Jersey money trail, so the local working class became aware of a "luxury" item they paid no attention to when it was not available to them. Now, these people try to rationalize their choice by pretending Starbucks coffee is too expensive, while the whole point of going to Starbucks is to get one of those fancy drinks you can't prepare yourself. (Or just waste time while your child is at soccer practice.) I hope that, at some point, these people will channel their dissatisfaction to change their life for the better instead of criticizing other people for the brand of coffee they drink, and wishing them all kinds of misfortune because they make more money than them. Sadly, the local politicians are also lifetime residents of the Valley, and have no incentive to avoid the blame game. It is hilarious - or, depending on how you look at it, quite upsetting - that people talk for hours on end about globalization, India, China, foreign workers, and Pennsylvania can't even stand New Jersey.

The Technology Innovation of the Year

Technology leaders at the Brainstorm Tech conference, organized by the Fortune magazine, were asked about the most exciting technology innovation they had seen in the past 12 months. The following article summarizes the answers, and contains this statement. "An astonishing number - about half - said the iPhone was the most exciting thing they'd seen." I find that sad. Rebecca McKinnon, who mentions this statistic on her blog, uses the expression "amazingly and somewhat disappointingly." It is not difficult to understand why: the iPhone is, ultimately, a fashion object that fulfills no greater purpose in society. You could be forgiven for thinking that technology leaders, invited to a high-visibility summit, would cite innovations that contribute to the greater good. Some do (the other half of the respondents), and list the following: cloud computing/Web services, one laptop per child, and even "the use of algae to create oil", which at least suggests an awareness of the great engineering challenges ahead of us, and of current efforts to address them.

My own vote for this survey would be cast for the Metropolitan Opera's high-definition, live broadcasts of performances during the season and, in a related vein, the use of Internet2 connections to bring live classical concerts to university campuses. This allows people to discover the power of opera and music in a way that simply is not possible through, say, a car radio, while spending very little (if anything) for the concert. Of course, if the iPhone fulfills no greater purpose in society, one can ask what opera adds to the grand scheme of things. I am not going to enter that debate - some people out there will always be convinced art is superfluous. But focus on the technology rather than its current application for a second: live broadcasting technologies make it possible to reach - educate - clusters of people throughout the country. If it works for opera, why not for presidential debates? State of the Union addresses? It is common knowledge in psychology that experiences in bright colors, on large screens and at loud volumes are remembered more vividly - the most widely used technique in post-traumatic stress disorders is to picture the difficult memory in one's head and change its modalities: darken the image, make it smaller, decrease the sounds, etc. The appeal of the Met's high-definition, live broadcasts in particular is that they give patrons an "in your face" experience, with better views than if they had attended the actual opera at Lincoln Center. The immediacy of it is what draws in the crowds. Maybe it is time we treated political events as we treat opera performances. I am not sure if McCain would be a people magnet, but I could see Obama fans crowding every single movie theater in the country. Now let's just hope their man doesn't turn into an opera diva.

Blink, Part 3

Here comes the last part of my review of Blink, Lehigh's selection for the First-Year Experience program this year. Before I begin, let me say that I appreciate Lehigh choosing a "shortish" book for the program. I recently read in the New York Times that Amherst College's selection was Franklin and Winston, a book on - you guessed it - the friendship between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. I love the idea behind the selection of the book, and I even have it on my shelves (although I haven't found time to read it yet), but that book is 512 pages long. Can you imagine all Amherst-bound high school graduates reading over five hundred pages of a history book? I can't. I love history and the book has received great reviews, but I doubt most students will finish the book.

(Last year, when I led the seminar about the Dalai-Lama's autobiography at Lehigh, everybody had started the book, but quite a few couldn't bring themselves to finish it, and that was only 271 pages in my edition. Honestly, I don't blame them - the first hundred pages weren't particularly exciting, although the book gets a lot more interesting once the Dalai-Lama is in exile.) Their first assignment in college, and they don't even complete it - can you imagine the impact this has on some? Feeling like "fakes" even before school has started. Maybe it'd make more sense to let them pick from a list of three or four books on different topics - history, science, business, or fiction. Of course you'd lose some of the "bonding" effect touted on the First-Year Experience websites throughout the country because everybody in the first-year cohort wouldn't have been reading the same book, but well, the kids have been bonding on Facebook all summer long, I am sure they can handle their roommate's reading a different book without having a nervous breakdown.

Anyway, I stopped my review of Blink at the end of Chapter 4, so today's post will be on the last two chapters, Chapters 5 and 6, and the conclusion. Chapter 5, "Kenna's Dilemma", is about a musician who enthralls the crowds when people hear him sing, but is getting no play time on the radio because focus groups have decided his songs wouldn't sell. The issue, it seems, is that focus groups' answers don't really predict what consumers will buy. The leading example in this chapter is the abysmal failure of the "New Coke" in the 1980s, which was developed in response to focus groups' overwhelming preferences for Pepsi. (The example starts on p.155.) One reason why consumers did not respond favorably to Coke's formula changes is that the tests in focus groups were "sip tests" - Pepsi apparently tastes better when people only have to take one sip of it, but many consumers who enjoy sipping Pepsi prefer Coke when they have to drink the whole can. (At least that's what Malcolm Gladwell explains. I don't drink soda, so I can't judge.) The other reason for the result is that "in the real world, no one ever drinks Coca-Cola blind" (p.166) - people also unconsciously react to the package when they assess the taste of a product. Regarding package considerations, the example of the brandy bottles p.162-3 is also worth reading.

The last chapter was, for me, the most difficult to read, not because it uses complicated language (it doesn't), but because it tackles the Amadou Diallo case, and I have a hard time reading about police officers' egregious behavior, which always upsets me. For those of you who can't quite place the name, Amadou Diallo is the black man from the Bronx who was killed by 41 bullets on a February 1999 night when plainclothes police officers thought he was taking a gun out of his pocket. The "gun" turned out to be his wallet. Diallo was taking in some air outside his apartment building and Gladwell suggests he thought he was going to get mugged, since, in his neighborhood, big bulky white men rushing out of a SUV at night are typically up to no good. The four police officers were acquitted of murder charges. Gladwell's account of the events surrounding the shooting isn't exactly going to brighten the day of wide-eyed, idealistic high school grads. But maybe they will have dropped the book by then.

On p.222, Gladwell explains that, in contrast with what Hollywood would have us believe, "most police officers - well over 90 percent - go their whole career without ever firing at anyone, and those who do describe the experience as so unimaginably stressful that it seems reasonable to ask if firing a gun could be the kind of experience that could cause temporary autism." (Gladwell uses the expression of temporary autism to describe a situation where clues of someone's pacific intentions are misread and alternative explanations for gestures are ignored.) Apparently, if the heart rate goes about 145 beats per minute, "bad things begin to happen", in the words of a former army lieutenant (p.225), "and at 175, we begin to see an absolute breakdown of cognitive processing." (Gladwell points out that the most notorious beatings by police officers, such as the one that triggered the Los Angeles riots, took place after high-speed chases - a situation known to increase drivers' heart rate dramatically.) Long story short, having police officers patrol by themselves rather than with a partner is a good thing because it "reduce[s] bravado" (p.233-4). Officers, on their own, tend to be more cautious, so their heart rate doesn't increase as much; they make fewer mistakes and are involved in fewer questionable shootings. This is actually a valuable anger/stress management technique: to stay in control, slow things down when they heat up.

The book's conclusion contains a fascinating story about gender discrimination in orchestras (specifically, a musician named Abbie Conant and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra), and how the practice of auditioning candidates behind a screen has led to women being admitted to top orchestras, without the fuss and controversy associated with better known approaches such as quotas or affirmative action. From p.250: "In the past thirty years, since screens became commonplace, the number of women in the top U.S. orchestras has increased fivefold." Food for thought after the July 15 article in the New York Times on introducing quotas for women in science.