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ALSO BY MALCOLM GLADWELL
The Tipping Point
When I was a small child, I used to sneak into my father's study and leaf through the papers on his desk. He is a mathematician. He wrote on graph paper, in pencil — long rows of neatly written numbers and figures. I would sit on the edge of his chair and look at each page with puzzlement and wonder. It seemed miraculous, first of all, that he got paid for what seemed, at the time, like gibberish. But more important, I couldn't get over the fact that someone whom I loved so dearly did something every day, inside his own head, that I could not begin to understand.
This was actually a version of what I would later learn psychologists call the other minds problem. One-year-olds think that if they like Goldfish Crackers, then Mommy and Daddy must like Goldfish Crackers, too: they have not grasped the idea that what is inside their head is different from what is inside everyone else's head. Sooner or later, though, children come to understand that Mommy and Daddy don't necessarily like Goldfish, too, and that moment is one of the great cognitive milestones of human development. Why is a two-year-old so terrible? Because she is systematically testing the fascinating and, to her, utterly novel notion that something that gives her pleasure might not actually give someone else pleasure—and the truth is that as adults we never lose that fascination. What is the first thing that we want to know when we meet someone who is a doctor at a social occasion? It isn't "What do you do?" We know, sort of, what a doctor does. Instead, we want to know what it means to be with sick people all day long. We want to know what it feels like to be a doctor, because we're quite sure that it doesn't feel at all like what it means to sit at a computer all day long, or teach school, or sell cars. Such questions are not dumb or obvious. Curiosity about the interior life of other people's day-to-day work is one of the most fundamental of human impulses, and that same impulse is what led to the writing you now hold in your hands.
All the pieces in What the Dog Saw come from the pages of The New Yorker, where I have been a staff writer since 1996. Out of the countless articles I've written over that period, these are my favorites. I've grouped them into three categories. The first section is about obsessives and what I like to call minor geniuses — not Einstein and Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela and the other towering architects of the world in which we live, but people like Ron Popeil, who sold the Chop-O-Matic, and Shirley Polykoff, who famously asked, "Does she or doesn't she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure." The second section is devoted to theories, to ways of organizing experience. How should we think about homelessness, or financial scandals, or a disaster like the crash of the Challenger? The third section wonders about the predictions we make about people. How do we know whether someone is bad, or smart, or capable of doing something really well? As you will see, I'm skeptical about how accurately we can make any of those judgments.
In the best of these pieces, what we think isn't the issue. Instead, I'm more interested in describing what people who think about homelessness or ketchup or financial scandals think about homelessness or ketchup or financial scandals. I don't know what to conclude about the Challenger crash. It's gibberish to me — neatly printed indecipherable lines of numbers and figures on graph paper. But what if we look at that problem through someone else's eyes, from inside someone else's head?
You will, for example, come across an article in which I try to understand the difference between choking and panicking. The piece was inspired by John F. Kennedy Jr.'s fatal plane crash in July of 1999. He was a novice pilot in bad weather who "lost the horizon" (as pilots like to say) and went into a spiral dive. To understand what he experienced, I had a pilot take me up in the same kind of plane that Kennedy flew, in the same kind of weather, and I had him take us into a spiral dive. It wasn't a gimmick. It was a necessity. I wanted to understand what crashing a plane that way felt like, because if you want to make sense of that crash, it's simply not enough to just know what Kennedy did. "The Picture Problem" is about how to make sense of satellite images, like the pictures the Bush administration thought it had of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. I got started on that topic because I spent an afternoon with a radiologist looking at mammograms, and halfway through — completely unprompted — he mentioned that he imagined that the problems people like him had in reading breast X-rays were a lot like the problems people in the CIA had in reading satellite photos. I wanted to know what went on inside his head, and he wanted to know what went on inside the heads of CIA officers. I remember, at that moment, feeling absolutely giddy. Then there's the article after which this book is named. It's a profile of Cesar Millan, the so-called dog whisperer. Millan can calm the angriest and most troubled of animals with the touch of his hand. What goes on inside Millan's head as he does that? That was what inspired me to write the piece. But after I got halfway through my reporting, I realized there was an even better question: When Millan performs his magic, what goes on inside the dog's head? That's what we really want to know — what the dog saw.
The question I get asked most often is, Where do you get your ideas? I never do a good job of answering that. I usually say something vague about how people tell me things, or my editor, Henry, gives me a book that gets me thinking, or I say that I just plain don't remember. When I was putting together this collection, I thought I'd try to figure that out once and for all. There is, for example, a long and somewhat eccentric piece in this book on why no has ever come up with a ketchup to rival Heinz. (How do we feel when we eat ketchup?) That idea came from my friend Dave, who is in the grocery business. We have lunch every now and again, and he is the kind of person who thinks about things like that. (Dave also has some fascinating theories about melons, but that's an idea I'm saving for later.) Another article, called "True Colors," is about the women who pioneered the hair color market. I got started on that because I somehow got it in my head that it would be fun to write about shampoo. (I think I was desperate for a story.) Many interviews later, an exasperated Madison Avenue type said to me, "Why on earth are you writing about shampoo? Hair color is much more interesting." And so it is.
The trick to finding ideas is to convince yourself that everyone and everything has a story to tell. I say trick but what I really mean is challenge, because it's a very hard thing to do. Our instinct as humans, after all, is to assume that most things are not interesting. We flip through the channels on the television and reject ten before we settle on one. We go to a bookstore and look at twenty novels before we pick the one we want. We filter and rank and judge. We have to. There's just so much out there. But if you want to be a writer, you have to fight that instinct every day. Shampoo doesn't seem interesting? Well, dammit, it must be, and if it isn't, I have to believe that it will ultimately lead me to something that is. (I'll let you judge whether I'm right in that instance.)
The other trick to finding ideas is figuring out the difference between power and knowledge. Of all the people whom you'll meet in this volume, very few of them are powerful, or even famous. When I said that I'm most interested in minor geniuses, that's what I meant. You don't start at the top if you want to find the story. You start in the middle, because it's the people in the middle who do the actual work in the world. My friend Dave, who taught me about ketchup, is a middle guy. He's worked on ketchup. That's how he knows about it. People at the top are self-conscious about what they say (and rightfully so) because they have position and privilege to protect — and self-consciousness is the enemy of "interestingness." In "The Pitchman" you'll meet Arnold Morris, who gave me the pitch for the "Dial-O-Matic" vegetable slicer one summer day in his kitchen on the Jersey Shore: "Come on over, folks. I'm going to show you the most amazing slicing machine you have ever seen in your life," he began. He picked up a package of barbecue spices and used it as a prop. "Take a look at this!" He held it in the air as if he were holding up a Tiffany vase.
He held it in the air as if he were holding up a Tiffany vase. That's where you find stories, in someone's kitchen on the Jersey Shore.
Growing up, I never wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a lawyer, and then in my last year of college, I decided I wanted to be in advertising. I applied to eighteen advertising agencies in the city of Toronto and received eighteen rejection letters, which I taped in a row on my wall. (I still have them somewhere.) I thought about graduate school, but my grades weren't quite good enough. I applied for a fellowship to go somewhere exotic for a year and was rejected. Writing was the thing I ended up doing by default, for the simple reason that it took me forever to realize that writing could be a job. Jobs were things that were serious and daunting. Writing was fun.
After college, I worked for six months at a little magazine in Indiana called the American Spectator. I moved to Washington, DC, and freelanced for a few years, and eventually caught on with the Washington Post — and from there came to The New Yorker. Along the way, writing has never ceased to be fun, and I hope that buoyant spirit is evident in these pieces. Nothing frustrates me more than someone who reads something of mine or anyone else's and says, angrily, "I don't buy it." Why are they angry? Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. Not the kind of writing that you'll find in this book, anyway. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else's head — even if in the end you conclude that someone else's head is not a place you'd really like to be. I've called these pieces adventures, because that's what they are intended to be. Enjoy yourself.
OBSESSIVES, PIONEERS, AND OTHER VARIETIES OF MINOR GENIUS
"To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish."
RON POPEIL AND THE CONQUEST OF THE AMERICAN KITCHEN
The extraordinary story of the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie & BBQ begins with Nathan Morris, the son of the shoemaker and cantor Kidders Morris, who came over from the Old Country in the 1880s, and settled in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Nathan Morris was a pitchman. He worked the boardwalk and the five-and-dimes and county fairs up and down the Atlantic coast, selling kitchen gadgets made by Acme Metal, out of Newark. In the early forties, Nathan set up N. K. Morris Manufacturing — turning out the KwiKi-Pi and the Morris Metric Slicer — and perhaps because it was the Depression and job prospects were dim, or perhaps because Nathan Morris made such a compelling case for his new profession, one by one the members of his family followed him into the business. His sons Lester Morris and Arnold (the Knife) Morris became his pitchmen. He set up his brother-in-law Irving Rosenbloom, who was to make a fortune on Long Island in plastic goods, including a hand grater of such excellence that Nathan paid homage to it with his own Dutch Kitchen Shredder Grater. He partnered with his brother Al, whose own sons worked the boardwalk, alongside a gangly Irishman by the name of Ed McMahon. Then, one summer just before the war, Nathan took on as an apprentice his nephew Samuel Jacob Popeil. S.J., as he was known, was so inspired by his uncle Nathan that he went on to found Popeil Brothers, based in Chicago, and brought the world the Dial-O-Matic, the Chop-O-Matic, and the Veg-O-Matic. S. J. Popeil had two sons. The elder was Jerry, who died young. The younger is familiar to anyone who has ever watched an infomercial on late-night television. His name is Ron Popeil.
In the postwar years, many people made the kitchen their life's work. There were the Klinghoffers of New York, one of whom, Leon, died tragically in 1985, during the Achille Lauro incident, when he was pushed overboard in his wheelchair by Palestinian terrorists. They made the Roto-Broil 400, back in the fifties, an early rotisserie for the home, which was pitched by Lester Morris. There was Lewis Salton, who escaped the Nazis with an English stamp from his father's collection and parlayed it into an appliance factory in the Bronx. He brought the world the Salton Hotray — a sort of precursor to the microwave — and today Salton, Inc., sells the George Foreman Grill.
But no rival quite matched the Morris-Popeil clan. They were the first family of the American kitchen. They married beautiful women and made fortunes and stole ideas from one another and lay awake at night thinking of a way to chop an onion so that the only tears you shed were tears of joy. They believed that it was a mistake to separate product development from marketing, as most of their contemporaries did, because to them the two were indistinguishable: the object that sold best was the one that sold itself. They were spirited, brilliant men. And Ron Popeil was the most brilliant and spirited of them all. He was the family's Joseph, exiled to the wilderness by his father only to come back and make more money than the rest of the family combined. He was a pioneer in taking the secrets of the boardwalk pitchmen to the television screen. And, of all the kitchen gadgets in the Morris-Popeil pantheon, nothing has ever been quite so ingenious in its design, or so broad in its appeal, or so perfectly representative of the Morris-Popeil belief in the interrelation of the pitch and the object being pitched, as the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie & BBQ, the countertop oven that can be bought for four payments of $39.95 and may be, dollar for dollar, the finest kitchen appliance ever made.
Ron Popeil is a handsome man, thick through the chest and shoulders, with a leonine head and striking, oversize features. He is in his midsixties and lives in Beverly Hills, halfway up Coldwater Canyon, in a sprawling bungalow with a stand of avocado trees and a vegetable garden out back. In his habits Popeil is, by Beverly Hills standards, old school. He carries his own bags. He has been known to eat at Denny's. He wears T-shirts and sweatpants. As often as twice a day, he can be found buying poultry or fish or meat at one of the local grocery stores — in particular Costco, which he favors because the chickens there are $0.99 a pound, as opposed to a $1.49 at standard supermarkets. Whatever he buys, he brings back to his kitchen, a vast room overlooking the canyon, with an array of industrial appliances, a collection of fifteen hundred bottles of olive oil, and, in the corner, an oil painting of him, his fourth wife, Robin (a former Frederick's of Hollywood model), and their baby daughter, Contessa. On paper, Popeil owns a company called Ronco Inventions, which has two hundred employees and a couple of warehouses in Chatsworth, California, but the heart of Ronco is really Ron working out of his house, and many of the key players are really just friends of Ron's who work out of their houses, too, and who gather in Ron's kitchen when, every now and again, Ron cooks a soup and wants to talk things over.
In the last thirty years, Ron has invented a succession of kitchen gadgets, among them the Ronco Electric Food Dehydrator and the Popeil Automatic Pasta and Sausage Maker, which featured a thrust bearing made of the same material used in bulletproof glass. He works steadily, guided by flashes of inspiration. In August of 2000, for instance, he suddenly realized what product should follow the Showtime Rotisserie. He and his right-hand man, Alan Backus, had been working on a bread-and-batter machine, which would take up to ten pounds of chicken wings or scallops or shrimp or fish fillets and do all the work — combining the eggs, the flour, the breadcrumbs — in a few minutes, without dirtying either the cook's hands or the machine. "Alan goes to Korea, where we have some big orders coming through," Ron explained recently over lunch — a hamburger, medium-well, with fries — in the VIP booth by the door in the Polo Lounge, at the Beverly Hills Hotel. "I call Alan on the phone. I wake him up. It was two in the morning there. And these are my exact words: 'Stop. Do not pursue the bread-and-batter machine. I will pick it up later. This other project needs to come first.' " The other project, his inspiration, was a device capable of smoking meats indoors without creating odors that can suffuse the air and permeate furniture. Ron had a version of the indoor smoker on his porch — "a Rube Goldberg kind of thing" that he'd worked on a year earlier — and, on a whim, he cooked a chicken in it. "That chicken was so good that I said to myself" — and with his left hand Ron began to pound on the table — "This is the best chicken sandwich I have ever had in my life." He turned to me: "How many times have you had a smoked-turkey sandwich? Maybe you have a smoked-turkey or a smoked-chicken sandwich once every six months. Once! How many times have you had smoked salmon? Aah. More. I'm going to say you come across smoked salmon as an hors d'oeuvre or an entrée once every three months. Baby-back ribs? Depends on which restaurant you order ribs at. Smoked sausage, same thing. You touch on smoked food" — he leaned in and poked my arm for emphasis — "but I know one thing, Malcolm. You don't have a smoker."
The idea for the Showtime came about in the same way. Ron was at Costco when he suddenly realized that there was a long line of customers waiting to buy chickens from the in-store rotisserie ovens. They touched on rotisserie chicken, but Ron knew one thing: they did not have a rotisserie oven. Ron went home and called Backus. Together, they bought a glass aquarium, a motor, a heating element, a spit rod, and a handful of other spare parts, and began tinkering. Ron wanted something big enough for a fifteen-pound turkey but small enough to fit into the space between the base of an average kitchen cupboard and the countertop. He didn't want a thermostat, because thermostats break, and the constant clicking on and off of the heat prevents the even, crispy browning that he felt was essential. And the spit rod had to rotate on the horizontal axis, not the vertical axis, because if you cooked a chicken or a side of beef on the vertical axis the top would dry out and the juices would drain to the bottom. Roderick Dorman, Ron's patent attorney, says that when he went over to Coldwater Canyon he often saw five or six prototypes on the kitchen counter, lined up in a row. Ron would have a chicken in each of them, so that he could compare the consistency of the flesh and the browning of the skin, and wonder if, say, there was a way to rotate a shish kebab as it approached the heating element so that the inner side of the kebab would get as brown as the outer part. By the time Ron finished, the Showtime prompted no fewer than two dozen patent applications. It was equipped with the most powerful motor in its class. It had a drip tray coated with a nonstick ceramic, which was easily cleaned, and the oven would still work even after it had been dropped on a concrete or stone surface ten times in succession, from a distance of three feet. To Ron, there was no question that it made the best chicken he had ever had in his life.
It was then that Ron filmed a television infomercial for the Showtime, twenty-eight minutes and thirty seconds in length. It was shot live before a studio audience, and aired for the first time on August 8, 1998. It has run ever since, often in the wee hours of the morning, or on obscure cable stations, alongside the get-rich schemes and the Three's Company
- On Sale
- Oct 20, 2009
- Page Count
- 130 pages
- Little, Brown and Company