Saturday, 14 December 2013

The art of battling Giants : A book review of Malcolm Gladwell's 'David and Goliath:Underdogs, misfits, and art of battling Giants’

Malcolm Gladwell, the “Goliath” of non-fiction writing, has become a publication phenomenon with five critically acclaimed best sellers. His books and ideas are revered by business schools and have been assigned as a must read in many institutions. His ability to turn the simple observations of the events of our multifarious social life into ‘actionable ideas’, has catapulted him into a position of unprecedented reverence in the field of non-fiction genre (which informs us that the world is not necessarily what we think of it).
His latest book ‘David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits, and art of battling Giants’ starts with the biblical account of the battle between David and Goliath at the valley of Elah, and Mr.Gladwell uses this biblical story as his central metaphor in the book. Subsequently he builds up his ‘theory’ with adroitly told anecdotes of real life Davids and connects those anecdotes into various causal relationships to suit his theory. Though, these connections are often ‘overarching’ and often not very convincing.
We all know what happened at the valley of Elah. All odds were against David, the Israelite shepherd boy, when he faced Goliath, the philistine Giant. The fact that David won in that impossible battle only asserts divine intervention and serves the purpose of establishing David as the true king of Israel. The battle was just a beginning and the story was just another ideal ‘Evil Vs Good’ tell, where all ends in the favor of good.
But in his latest book Mr.Gladwell urges us to look into the epic battle with a different perspective, which he refers to as ‘the advantages of disadvantages’ and ‘disadvantages of advantages’. Mr.Gladwell informs us that for the strong, "the same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness," whereas for the weak, "the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty."
For us, David, the Israelite shepherd boy was an underdog. Our intuition made us believe that David had a very minuscule chance of winning in the battle with giant Goliath. It was most likely that the king Saul and rest of the Israelite present in the battlefield also thought in similar way about the chances of David winning in that heavily tilted battle. But history proved all of us wrong. David won against all odds. Overwhelmed by this not so obvious outcome, we concluded that the David’s win was by chance or a mere random outcome and some of us believed in divine intervention as the cause.
‘History looks more predictable when we look backwards’, than the future when we look forward. Yet ‘we’ (excluding Mr. Gladwell of course) concluded that the outcome was unexpected, since most of us would have predicted in favor of Goliath, even when we looked backwards. So far we have got this underdog business completely wrong, until Mr.Gladwell comes up with his brilliant and ingenious theory of ‘advantages of disadvantages’ (and disadvantages of advantages) and explains that David’s win was a predictable outcome indeed.
‘We’ very often miss the obvious facts. In my opinion this mystery about the obvious facts is very intriguing. Steven Levitt, the author of Freakonomics, correctly says-“sometimes the things that should be completely obvious, turn out to be the hardest one to see”. According to Mr.Gladwell we have misread and misinterpreted the ‘advantages’ of disadvantaged David. Mr.Gladwell argues that, David had clear advantages that have often been overlooked: “His mobility against the stationary and heavily armored giant, his choice of weaponry, his skill with the sling, his cunning in fighting the odds in his own terms” had already elevated him to the vantage point. According to Mr.Gladwell David’s win was not a chance win, it was a predetermined win and the outcome of the war was decided in that very moment when David volunteered to fight. Gladwell argues that it was Goliath, who was the vulnerable one. The giant, probably was suffering form acromegaly was slow, clumsy and half blind.  The only way he could have beaten David was in close combat – but David had no need to go anywhere near him. David had a sling, the ‘most devastating weapon in ancient world’. So far the assumptions seem reasonable and conclusions to somewhat convincing, but where Mr.Gladwell fails is that he forgets or purposefully avoids considering other alternate possible assumptions or even obvious facts.
According to the biblical account Goliath’s fall was caused by the stone that was struck on his forehead. Archaeological accounts suggest that ‘Philistine helmets generally had a forehead covering, in some cases extending down to the nose’. Now the question arises that, why would David target that impenetrable spot? And why would Goliath fall? An alternate explanation by British rabbi Jonathan Magonet suggests that, the misinterpretation was caused by Hebrew word Meitzach (which means forehead), a word almost identical with a word mitzchat, ‘translated as "greaves" — the flexible leg-armor that protected Goliath's lower leg (see I Samuel 17: 6)’. Hence the alternate explanation of Goliath’s fall was that the stone “sank down behind Goliath's leg-armour (as his leg was bent), making it impossible for him to straighten his leg, and causing him to stumble and fall. Then David removed the head of Goliath to show all that the giant was killed”. Also author’s assumption that Goliath was suffering from acromegaly could seem farfetched considering the fact that Goliath’s stature grew at the hands of scribes or narrators-which ranges from "four cubits and a span" (6 feet 9 inches) to "six cubits and a span" (9 feet 9 inches).
“Cherry Picking” of the data to suit his narrative is blatant in Mr.Gladwell’s book ‘David and Goliath’. It is time for Mr.Gladwell to find a different strategy; otherwise World will think that -the World does not work the way Mr. Gladwell thinks it does.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Fair? Not Fair? Unfair !! Fairy tale of "The Indian Male".

Are we (The Indian Male) Colourists when it comes to our perception of female beauty; per se choosing female partners?! Which simply imply that we differ in according social treatment towards our female counterparts depending on their skin tone or complexion? Serious allegation though and I am quite sure some of you will immediately raise a concerned voice to perpetuate that these allegations are baseless,"we are progressive and moved on buddy" and so on. Yeah!!This was much of an office tea-break topic which germinated from our apparently innocuous list of so called beauty queens in our workspace; judged and marked accordingly with an eye and judgemental capacity of a world class beauty pageant jury member; and normalized from bias of individual preferences by presence of juries from different states of our multicultural country, roughly epitomising outlook of “The Indian male”.” You males are biased towards “Gori Chori” (fair girls), and it’s evident from your list”-my dusky Bong (people from state of West Bengal, which as a quirk of fate is located at the eastern side of our country) female colleague blurts out to make the point:  how apartheid her sorority is indeed. Momentarily it seemed to me typical case of dogmatic female jealousness (phenomena that is not limited by boundary of logic), but a closer look at the alleged “beauty queen list” of ours confirms her averment.  All of them are indeed having high reflectance of skin (which simply means they are fairer than average).From afar it might just look as an artifact of data insufficiency but recurring phenomena indeed indicates something  more than that. Being an ardent fan of Bipasha Basu and Chitrangada Singh (both dusky Bollywood actress), I couldn’t think that I am making a conscious choice here .It seemed to me that some force inherently embedded in me, is subconsciously shaping my choices as well as other fellow Indian Male. Popular belief of “beauty is in the beholder’s eyes” no longer holds true for me.Our perception of beauty seems to be uniformly indoctrinated by some pervasive force and none of us can hide from that omnipresent force within certain boundary of culture and geography.
“Phantom in my head” questions; why in a tropical country like India, males are so biased towards scarce population of fair females!? Is it just human materialistic attraction towards rare objects or we are wired like that by nature? If later is true, what role it plays in biology or evolution? Or is it a socio- economic phenomenon rooted in our colonial past. Also bigger and more important question; albeit deviated from current discussion –Are we as a nation “Pigmentocratic” by nature (“The name Pigmentocracy is given to a group-based social hierarchy based largely on colorism”-Wikipedia)!?
Being a staunch supporter of positivism, I tried to look for quantitative as well as qualitative evidences if any; which played role in shaping our perception of skin color in general apart from gender bias. If we look at the global phenomena of colorism (not to be confused with racism) and question, which came first? Differentiation of skin colour in human population by geographical separation and resultant evolution of ethnic colour sensitivity from socio-economic point view or antipathy towards dark skin was already embedded in human psyche leading to evolutionary benefits. 
Renatto Luschan’s human skin colour distribution map shows direct correlation of exposure to the Sun and colour clusters; which imply that further away from equator lighter the skin tone. Hence major force that determined our skin colour is exposure to the Sun. Now ancient colour clusters separated by geographical barriers need to be came in contact to develop inter-ethnic colour sensitivity as a threat to their existent socio-economic state. Since the neighbouring colour clusters do not differ markedly in skin tone, colour clusters largely from distant geographic locations were needed to be mingled to develop such colour sensitivity. That phenomenon only occurred during age of exploration and colonial era of human history, but existence of colour sensitivity can be dated back to ancient civilizations. It has been suggested by likes of Peter Frost and Pierre Van Den Berghes that “race based attitudes to skin colour grew at pre-existing matrix constructed around differing complexion of men and women”.
                                        Renatto Luschan’s human skin colour distribution map
Starting from Ancient civilization to modern civilization, many cultures favored or still favoring lighter complexion in women. Renowned sociologist Pierre L. van den Berghe elaborates: "Although virtually all cultures express a marked preference for fair female skin, even those with little or no exposure to European imperialism, and even those whose members are heavily pigmented, many are indifferent to male pigmentation or even prefer men to be darker." According to Hindu mythology Lord Krishna was dark complexioned as well Lord Vishnu (“as black as full rain cloud”, cumulonimbus I guess!!) and were considered as epitome of beauty, whereas Krishna's consort Radha was a fair lady. Similarly Arjun’s wife Chitrangada was dark complexioned which added stature to her masculine virtues. Heroines of medieval European romances were compared with snow, ivory, swan, ermine, starlight, hence fairness was deemed essential for womanhood.

Time Warp:Clockwise from top left.Seny(nefer)head of king's office and wife.Egypt 1400BCE.Roman painting of Arcadia and Hercules,1st century.Roman painting of Venus and Mars,1st century."Fair woman dark man" motif Quebec,Canada.A 14th Century fresco depicting Krishna and Radha,India.Raja Ravi Verma's oleo graphs depicting Arjuna and his wife Subhadra and Ravana attacking demigod Jatayu;Colonial India 18th century.

Though said in the context of color prejudices in African American society I found journalist Jill Nelson’s view very relevant in this context. He argued that "to be both prettiest and black was impossible" and explained in the following way: “As a girl and young woman, hair, body, and color were society's trinity in determining female beauty and identity, the cultural and value-laden gang of three that formed the boundaries and determined the extent of women's visibility, influence, and importance. For the most part, they still are. We learn as girls that in ways subtle and obvious, personal and political, our value as females is largely determined by how we look. As we enter womanhood, the pervasive power of this trinity is demonstrated again and again in how we are treated by the men we meet, the men we work for, the men who wield power, how we treat each other and, most of all, ourselves”. Being dark complexioned in India severely reduce the domination of woman considering the physical aspects of beauty perceived by society. Woman in our society are ebbed into a lifelong effort to be “fair”; evident from usage of numerous so called cosmetic fairness products and their ever expanding market portfolio.
The socio-economic view point justifies the existence of color prejudice in various societies, but fails to explain why at first time this dichotomous complexion perception among sexes evolved and what it means biologically.
“Men are from Mars and Woman are from Venus”-cliché but very effective line used for neutralizing the obvious differences and sometimes blinding us of prejudices. Pigmentation can be categorized as: Constitutive (genetic and heritable) and Facultative (tanning /dependent on exposure to sun). Men are generally dark complexioned compared to the female counterparts as a result of more melanin and hemoglobin. The differentiation arises during puberty. Girls revert from facultative pigmentation more efficiently than boys, as depigmentation mechanism is more effective in case of “Fairer Sex” (Jablonski & Chaplin 2000; van den Berghe & Frost 1986). Subsequent exposure builds up darker complexion in grown up males. The constitutive sex difference in skin complexion decrease from strongly to weakly pigmented peoples and is not significant in the least pigmented ones, because they are already close to the physiological limit of human depigmentation, hence the skin of their adolescent girls cannot lighten any further (Rigters-Aris 1973).Sex hormones and adiposity also plays significant role in determining the colour of skin. Both androgen and estrogen darken the skin colour; androgen being more effective in darkening. Presence of “aromatase” in adipose tissue converts androgen into estrogen thus lowering the darkening effect; which is well correlated with the fact that female skin has relative high reflectance than male skin as females contain more adipose tissue than male beneath their skin.
Now more important question is what role this dichotomous perception played in male-female relationship in ancient human populations. Skin colour was once used by males to screen potential mates, specifically as an index of fecundity, Symons (1995). In the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA), darker women would have been prepubescent, pregnant (90% of pregnancies cause a mild, generalized darkening), or menstruating (skin reddens around the time of menstruation). Symons argues that successive pregnancies progressively darken the skin, so that the fairest women should have been the most nubile and fecund. One drawback of this model is that light skin also can be considered for infants of both sexes (although other secondary sex characters may refine the screening process).Another problem elaborated by Gregen (1967), is that whiteness, though often associated with female beauty, and does not seem to signify erotic desire in cross-cultural analyses of word meanings. Normally it has positive connotation of 'peace', 'innocence', 'purity', 'delicateness', and 'modesty’. Hence erotic behaviour/character exuded  by physical nature  and multitude of other cues also play a very essential role in evoking aggressive carnal desire in male, but that does not explain my liking of Bipasha Basu or Chitrangada Singh!!!Don’t blame on me huh!!   Fairer skin is one of several infant-like features—smaller nose and chin, smoother skin texture, relative lack of body hair, higher pitch of voice—that women have evolved to deter male aggression: "the sexual differences in skin colour resulted from female whiteness being selected for because it is opposite the threat coloration, although the selection pressures may have been rather mild. Light skin seems to be more paedomorphic, since individuals of all races tend to darken with age. Even in the gorilla, the most heavily pigmented of the hominoids, the young are born with very little pigment" Guthrie (1970).
Bollywood actress Chitrangada Singh
The above arguments suggest that “Our expression of 'the fair sex' harks back to a time when people conceived skin colour in terms of sexual identity” (Peter Frost).In the early stage of human evolution the difference in complexion between two sexes might have structured mind to respond to skin colour and it’s minor variation. Skin colour could have been evoked different response from male and female. Hence, in ancient “ancestral environment, a person with a dark coloration would have meant one thing to a man and another to a woman—either a potential rival or a potential mate” (Peter Frost).Clearly this differentiation translated into hard wired mechanism of “perception of beauty” or at least one major influential cue of integrated in determining beauty in human psyche, which later shaped and modified by socio-economic forces leading to society dependant human essence of female beauty based on colour hues. This view is supported by the fact that people can distinguish a man’s face from a woman’s by complexion alone (Russell 2004; Tarr et al.2001) critical cue being the contrast between facial pigmentation and eye/lip pigmentation (Russell 2003). [A detailed discussion on this topic is available at Peter Frost’s Website: and also his blog:]
"Someone forgot to tell Vogue's retoucher that Rihanna is in fact Black"-This cover of Vogue created colorist furore.

Zoomed view of Renatto Luschan’s human skin colour distribution map showing India.

If we look back at Renatto Luschan’s human skin colour distribution map and zoom into India, it becomes clearly evident that India is one of those rare countries with most varied pigmentation among its population. This grading variation in pigmentation from south to north in order of dark to light complexion with certain outlier clusters constitute our pigmentocratic social motif and this matrix play a very important role in gender based colorism as well as Pigmentocracy as a whole. Colorism has a strong hold in our social psyche; it dictates a whole lot of important matters in our life. The most blatant effect is on “Marriage Market” and most affected are with darker complexioned. Yes it’s a “Market” when it comes to marriage in India. The ritual of arrange marriage in India survived colonial invasion, western influence and may be in future alien invasion also. Strange may sound though, the fairer ones are highly prized catch and a consequence of this is that, higher-ranking men get to marry more physically desirable women i.e. “fairer fairies”. And further consequence of this is that a whole cosmetic market thrives on “reducing pigmentation of female skin” and somehow they are expanding their market to “male skin” domain as well (beware guys, in case you don’t want the plight of the other halfs). Bollywood epitomizes this epiphany:
“Matrimonial si aankhein, sabko ab taake jhaakein
Matrimonial si aankhein, dhoondhe re chehre baanke
Matrimonial si aankhein, sabko ab taake jhaakein
Matrimonial si aankhein, dhoondhe re chehre baanke
(matrimonial si aankhein)

Sundar ho aur susheela, rang chaandi sa chamkeela (complexion as bright as pearl)
Degree bhi ho fashion bhi jaane (soniye)
Ho Seeta jaise naari aur jaane duniya daari
Piya ko sab kuch hi woh maane
Dil se Dilli ho woh dhadkan se ho London
Dhoondu mein dhoondu, mere brother ki dulhan
Dil se Dilli ho woh dhadkan se ho London
Dhoondu mein dhoondu, mere brother ki dulhan
Matrimonial si aankhein, sabko ab taake jhaakein
Matrimonial si aankhein, dhoondhe re chehre baanke
Matrimonial si aankhein, sabko ab taake jhaakein
Matrimonial si aankhein, dhoondhe re chehre baanke…….and list goes on.(Song from MERE BROTHER KI DULHAN)
The proud parents of “Chaandi sa chamkeela” girl advertises in matrimonial bazar “Groom wanted for …..Shusheela (toned down version of “SHEELA” of “Sheela ki jawani” fame, those who don’t know search YouTube)…Roopmati, Kalawati…..extreamly fair..fair as ivory….girl” and apartheid parents of dark complexioned girls meekly drops the keyword “dusky” in the corner of the list, hoping that it will be at least considered depending someone’s idea of time of the Dusk. Groom’s side uses their screening algorithm searching for “ivory fair to fair” adjusting with their market value determined by earning potential. “Indian Marriage Market” a mean competitive market, “fair and lovely” plays fair role here, nothing is unfair when you are looking for fairy.
I believe that “however troubling reality may be, human dignity is not affirmed in fleeing it, rather dignity lies in seeing reality for what it is and acting responsibly in the face of it”(The Chomsky Reader”).Lets face it!?