Malcolm Gladwell and the mystery of free-throw shooting

Here’s an interesting podcast in which Malcolm Gladwell confronts one of the fundamental mysteries of Western civilization: Why don’t basketball players shoot free-throws underhanded?  The evidence is incontrovertible that this method produces better outcomes than the overhand method.  And yet almost no one uses it.

This is of particular interest to me because, growing up, shot free-throws underhanded — I guess because my father did.  And I was good!  In the 7th grade, I was elected captain of my gym team, basically because I could shoot free-throws better than anyone else.  But this came to an end when the gym teacher noticed what I was doing and ordered me to cut it out.  So I did.  I was also pretty good shooting overhand, but nowhere near as good as I was underhand; it’s just harder.

Gladwell tells the story in his typical entertaining fashion, focusing on Wilt Chamberlain’s legendary 100-point game, which would never have happened if he hadn’t been going through a phase where he was shooting free throws underhand.  But then later, he changed back to the overhand method he was so bad at, because it made him “feel like a sissy.”  Wilt Chamberlain felt like a sissy!  Gladwell also brings in other standard examples from sports of people who can’t do the right thing even though they know better, like coaches who insist on punting when all the data says they should go for it on fourth down.

But, as usual, Gladwell’s explanation for this is, well, not that interesting, at least to me.  He uses the same theory of “thresholds” that he has also advanced to explain riots and school shootings.  Some people are go-it-aloners who don’t need to feel like they’re part of a crowd; for free-throw shooting, this would be Rick Barry, who didn’t care that no one else shot underhanded.  He knew he was right, and so that’s what he did.  He had a low “threshold”.  Most people have much higher thresholds; they can’t bring themselves to shoot free throws underhand or go for it on fourth down unless everyone else is doing it.  If everyone is doing the wrong thing, they will do the wrong thing–this might be the lesson of the Milgram experiments and others that emphasize the importance of situation in predicting human behavior.

Gladwell may be right; I don’t know.  But I’d have liked him to dig a little deeper.  Why would someone like Wilt Chamberlain feel compelled to be a conformist when it came to free-throw shooting, despite being as out of the ordinary as one could imagine in so many other ways?  What causes someone to have a different threshold?  No explanation is given.

Free ebooks in return for reviews: Some results

It’s becoming harder to get customer reviews for books nowadays.  That’s probably related to the general downturn in the ebook market.  Here I mentioned a program, run by my epublisher, to give away ebooks in return for honest reviews.  Once you sign up, you start getting a weekly eZine containing a list of books you can download for free.  Download a book, read it, and leave a review.

This model seems to be OK with Amazon, which has cracked down on some aspects of the customer review racket.  It appears to be a requirement to state that you got the book for free in return for an honest review.

Anyway, the approach is working for my novel Where All the Ladders Start.  Most reviews are pretty terse, like this one:

I received this book for an honest review. I loved this book. The plot and characters were amazing.

Well, what more do you need to say?  But wait!  It turns out that Laura Furuta has more to say!  Namely:

When I first started reading this story I was not really sure what to expect. I read the description and was thinking it was just another mystery book. I was wrong! This is a story about a P. I. who works in an America that has been changed. Not only that, also there are forces at work that are determined to see he fails with his latest case. I really enjoyed the story from the first chapter to the very ending page. It has the right combination of mystery and plot to keep you guessing. The characters also really shine as well. The main characters are very well written and even some of the secondary ones you will remember and love. This is one book that I recommend if you love mysteries. It will keep you guessing. I received a copy of this book from eBook Discovery in exchange for an honest review.

Even better!  Now all I need is a few more sales . . .

Here’s the cover, in case you forgot what the thing looks like:

Ladders cover final jpeg

Writers in the movies: “Trumbo”

One more in an apparently very occasional series.

Trumbo, of course, is the movie about Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted screenwriter who wrote Roman HolidaySpartacus, and other major movies.  The film mostly focuses on his time on the blacklist, when he had to cobble together a living by writing scripts anonymously, with the screen credit going to fronts.

Bryan Cranston is fine as Trumbo, and I guess he deserved his Oscar nomination, but Trumbo struck me as being a very bland movie.  Trumbo is presented as a secular saint, with his opponents–Hedda Hopper, John Wayne–presented as purely evil.  The only flaw we see in Trumbo is when he gets cranky with his kids for not wanting to deliver some of his rewrites to a movie set–but he quickly repents and goes off to apologize to his daughter, who, like him, is devoted to the cause of justice for the downtrodden.  Couldn’t we at least have had a scene where he explains why he’s still a communist despite what was then known about Stalin?  Life and politics in the 1950s were more complex than this movie lets on.

If Trumbo soft-pedals its hero’s politics, it pretty much ignores his writing.  We see a scene from Roman Holiday and another from Spartacus, and we learn that Trumbo likes to write in the bathtub, but there’s virtually nothing about the craft itself.  Well, there is a scene where he and a blacklisted co-writer (played by Louis CK) discuss the plotting for a quickie called “The Alien and the Farmgirl”.  Why does the alien fall for the farmgirl?  Because he reminds him of his girl back home.  OK, then.

Too bad.  Trumbo seems like an interesting guy, and the blacklist is certainly an interesting subject.  They deserve a better movie.

Is the word “cachet” losing its cache?

Here is a Boston Globe article about the Donald Trump scandal of the day: buying a Tim Tebow helmet with funds from his charitable foundation, apparently in violation of IRS rules.  But why isn’t it on display in photos of Trump’s sports memorabilia?

One possible reason: the Tebow gear has lost some of its cache. In hindsight, Trump’s famous eye for a good deal seems to have deserted him on the night of the auction: as it turned out, he was buying Tebow gear close to its peak price.

What the heck is the word “cache” doing there?  Obviously they meant “cachet” — presumably they thought “cache” was like “cliché”, with an acute accent over the final “e”.

Turns out this isn’t random: Here is Fox Business wondering if the American Express Black Card is losing its cache.  They liked the word so much it appeared in the article’s title.  This Chicago real estate publication wonders if Park Tower has lost its cache.  It’s interesting, though, that the Globe article is reprinted from the Washington Post, which uses the correct word (online, anyway).

This (mis)usage isn’t anywhere near as common as the similar use of cliché as an adjective, on the model of passé.  That’s so cliché!  Here’s a grammarian who is OK with this:

By now, I think, “so cliche” seems normal to a lot of younger speakers and writers. And I have a soft spot for it myself, as I confessed in that 2003 column, because it’s such a natural choice:

Though cliche came into English as a noun, it retains its French form — and that form is a past participle, perfectly happy to be used as an adjective. English is full of such French words, some used as nouns (divorcee, souffle, negligee), others as adjectives (passe, flambe).

For me, that usage is like fingernails on a chalkboard.


I’m finally getting around to reading Funeral Games, the last volume in Mary Renault’s trilogy about Alexander the Great.  It is wonderful.  And it addresses some issues I’m trying to solve while starting up my new novel, which will be a sequel to my upcoming novel Terra (which by the way, should be available in a matter of weeks.)

The first problem with writing a sequel is that you have to treat it as a stand-alone novel. You shouldn’t assume that the reader has read (or has remembered) the book to which it’s a sequel.

But there’s also a deeper problem.  Why are you breaking the story in two?  Why not write one long novel?  The sequel really needs to be somehow different.

What Renault did in Funeral Games is something I’ve decided to try in my own sequel. The predecessor to Funeral GamesThe Persian Boy, is a first-person narrative, told by a young eunuch named Bagoas who grew close to Alexander at the  peak of his glory.  But in Funeral Games, which tells the story of what happened after Alexander’s death, Renault gives us a panoramic multiple-third-person point of view.  We are now inside the heads of characters whom before we only saw from Bagoas’s point of view.  And Bagoas is now seen from their point of view.  The effect is to immediately deepen and broaden the story.  And changing the point of view also helps with the first problem — we get to experience events from the first two books in the point-of-view characters’ memories, so the backstory is established effortlessly.

Anyway, this is exactly what I’m trying to pull off in my new novel.  We’ll see how successful I am.  Renault set the bar very high.

The Salem Lyceum

A few weeks ago I had dinner in a restaurant housed in the former Salem Lyceum building. Lyceums were to mid-nineteenth-century America what TED talks are to our America.  Here’s a nice summary of the history of the one in Salem.  Hawthorne, Thoreau, Emerson, Daniel Webster . . . the intellectual and political heavyweights of nineteenth-century Massachusetts all showed up here.

As the article points out, the Salem Lyceum is most famous for an event that was technical, not intellectual — Alexander Graham Bell’s first public demonstration of “long distance telephone conversations” in 1877:


Technology marches on.  I took this photo on my iPhone, which automatically sent a copy to my Dropbox account on a computer somewhere in the cloud.  Then I used my phone’s global positioning technology to map out the route back to my hotel.  I didn’t use the phone to talk to anyone.

Is the period on its way out? (Also, apostrophes?)

Here is another article about the disappearing period, this one from the New York Times. The article cleverly makes its point by omitting all periods:

“We are at a momentous moment in the history of the full stop,” Professor Crystal, an honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor, said in an interview after he expounded on his view recently at the Hay Festival in Wales

“In an instant message, it is pretty obvious a sentence has come to an end, and none will have a full stop,” he added “So why use it?”

I’ll just point out that generally the author achieves his non-periodness by writing one-sentence paragraphs.  Periods are less important at the end of a paragraph than they are in the middle of a paragraph.  So maybe this indicates we’re on our way to changing the way we view paragraphs.  Wouldn’t surprise me.

But I also wanted to point out the decline of the use of the apostrophe in tweets and text messages. Here is Marco Rubio during a tweetstorm back in May:

If you can live with a Clinton presidency for 4 years thats your right. I cant and will do what I can to prevent it.

In Florida only 2 legitimate candidates on ballot in Nov. I wont vote for Clinton & I after years of asking people to vote I wont abstain.

On a  smart phone, adding the apostrophe requires you to do an annoying switch of keyboards.  Why bother?  The fact is, losing the apostrophe doesn’t make the tweets much more difficult to understand. Once you leave the apostrophes out of your tweets and text messages, it’s harder to add them to your emails.  Next thing you know, Donald Trump is president, and civilization has ended.