Small Data

Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends attracted my attention for several reasons. One, I am interested in understanding the world better, so other people’s ways of seeing, ways of making sense of things interest me. Two, I read anything that can be vaguely filed under “decision making”. Three, that the title appears to rail provocatively against the tide of “big data” drowning us these days.

Martin Lindstrom, the author, is a Danish consultant to brands. As a 12-year old he was once confined to hospital where, to entertain himself, he started keenly observing others in his ward and the various nurses and doctors who came to visit, and making hypotheses and testing them. As a keen Lego maker as a child, he notes in passing an encounter with Lego’s lawyers and then how later he was able to help the brand remain on course even as the company feared it was losing its market as kids became more engrossed in online games and communities.

The book is full of stories from Lindstrom’s assignments for various brands in many different countries. His insight often benefits from his outsider status in the cultures he studies whether as a middle-aged man observing teenage girls’ fashion behaviours, or as a Danish man trying to disentangle the Indian Mother-in-law-daughter-in-law dynamic in joint families. He also shares a story of when he had to go off Pepsi in his personal life to become a more-or-less dispassionate observer in order to help the brand.

In telling his stories, Lindstrom goes off on tangents sometimes, but also links back to experiences described in other chapters. This quirk has personal appeal for me because in conversations, I am quite prone to telling side stories and going off on tangents to enrich a thread but unlike many others, I also have the ability to always come back to the main narrative.

In the last chapter, Lindstrom shares his 7Cs framework of observing and making sense of small data. That framework, alas, is the weakest link in this book. I can see why it might have been compelling to abstract his “magic” into a framework others could use. But when I put my business person and sometime teacher and trainer hat on, I know that people missing the obvious and not being keen observers is quite common. That ability to observe aside, being able to link things, and to reject or persist with various hypotheses is Lindstrom’s real USP. The framework would go nowhere with those whose ability to see is not as keen as the author’s.

The references and the index are helpful but if you seek academic research type references, this is not a book for you. Read it definitely but read a lot more besides.

The stories are good and amusingly regaled, even if sometimes correlation-causation-explanation-inquiry get muddled, and some hypotheses or conclusions seem a bit too far fetched. As a way of seeing and explaining the world, the book would easily nudge “big data” obsessed business decision makers into questioning and reflecting.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: A good light read, which I would heartily recommend, but not for those seeking robust academic style frameworks and concepts.

Tales from The Quran and Hadith

When my best friend from school came a-visiting recently, she asked me what I wanted from India. I resisted asking for mangoes, choosing instead a copy of Rana Safvi’s Tales from The Quran and Hadith. I am both an atheist-agnostic and a reluctant reader of fiction or stories, but I am curious about the nature of faith and about religions, especially to understand human beings and their motivations better. Further, Rana Safvi is blessed with an amazing ability both to regale stories and to make them accessible through her prolific writing, as evidenced by a recent award bestowed on her.

To invoke a cliche, the book is a breezy read. The stories are narrated quite simply and the prose is evocative. I am aware of several Islamic — Shia, Sunni, Sufi — traditions and artifacts such as the Sword of Ali. The stories in the book put flesh on the bones of my knowledge of some of those.

Mohammad’s marital life was one of the most fascinating threads for me. His first wife, Khadija, was a successful business woman, his employer, a widow, and an older woman. This, by any modern standards, is a pretty remarkable woman, not least because she chose him as her husband. Further, in contrast with the practice of the time, he did not take another wife while Khadija was alive. He did subsequently take eleven wives, according to the book, most of whom were widows or slaves or women captured as prisoners-of-war, and some of whom proposed to him. I know this book did not promise that it would dwell on why these narratives of open-minded and forward thinking have gotten lost but I would have liked to read more stories of the social transitions. Perhaps Rana Safvi will write another book.

The book has several stories of women with self-determination and independent thinking such as Asma bint Abu Bakr. I was quite taken aback by the story of Zulaikha, where the protagonist’s passion for a younger, handsome servant is the theme. I was reminded of Irawati Karve’s Yugant, where she writes about Mahabharata from the women characters’ point of view, and Chitra Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions, that is told in Draupadi’s voice. It is hard to read Tales From.. without often thinking about why it is crucial that we have more female narrators, modern day trobairitzes.

The book brought several personal delights for me, which I concede may be minor or unimportant for others. One of these was that I learnt how names of prophets and angels travel across various Abhrahamic religions. Another was to learn the etymological roots of certain words e.g. muhajir, meaning migrant, hijrat, meaning migration, and Hajj, the pilgrimage, all of which are related to the story of Hajira and her sacrifice.

One of the things that made the book easier to read is that the author chose not to write PBUH each time Prophet Mohammad’s name was invoked. I feel however the book would have been improved with the inclusion of an appendix with some kind of timeline to explain some of the key events in Islamic history, as well as an index with the names of the key characters in the stories so that the stories could be re-read, for instance, to create a fuller narrative of a specific character’s life.

Some sloppy editing, both grammatical and usage related, lets the book down. This was avoidable.

Star rating: 5 out of 5

Usefulness note: I would delight in gifting copies of the book to my curious atheist friends as well as to any others, who love reading stories culled and curated from books they may otherwise not stretch to reading.

Life Moves Pretty Fast

Just over 300 pages, including several Top-n lists, notes and an index, Hadley Freeman’s Life Moves Pretty Fast is a breeze to read.

Written in the chatty style of friends nattering over a coffee or a beer in a British pub — although Freeman was born in New York, she seems to have grown up in the UK and now lives in London — the book is almost deceptive in the seriousness of its thesis. The book explores the complex dynamics of race, gender, class, relationships, and identity, without being dry or boring.

Freeman builds the case — although you wouldn’t know it from the ease of her storytelling — that 80s Hollywood films discussed important social themes, and did so in a manner essential to the story, that is no longer seen in films. This is, to a great extent, owed to the fact that the earlier studio driven system of film-making has now morphed into a handful of corporate owners focused less on story telling, and more on profitability of specific market segments, such as China, for whom Transformers 4 was made. This push for profitability in non-English speaking markets may also be why subtlety, complexity and nuance are being lost in favour of violence and cartoonish characters. After all, there is no need to translate violence, she argues. As readers, we find ourselves agreeing with her, as we do with many of the other key points she makes.

That these studios are owned and controlled by men means that it is increasingly tough for women to get films made, which explains a lot of things about modern day Hollywood fare but I digress.

The chapters are organised by film and a dominant social theme, although as we dive into each chapter it becomes clear that social themes come in clusters. Freeman discusses abortion (Dirty Dancing), the multi-facetedness of love (The Princess Bride), the interestingness of women (Steel Magnolias, whose back-story is as moving as the film was impactful), the importance of parents (Back To The Future), social class (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).

Using Ghostbusters and Top Gun, she writes about the idea of masculinity and male friendship. The chapter fascinated me no end not least because well I don’t have to worry about being masculine but as women, we deal with men who have to. I read twice the chapter discussing When Harry Met Sally. Freeman writes an ode to romantic comedies, and gender, love, and how the depiction of women in films is cliched and stereotypical and reductive.

Freeman however saves the best for the last. In a chapter titled “Eddie Murphy’s Eighties Movies: Race can be transcended”. That chapter made me wish the book went on a bit longer.

Ironically the only chapter I did find a drag was titled “Batman: Superheroes don’t have to be such a drag”.

The book could have been edited a bit tighter. I struggled to resist reading it without a highlighter or pencil in hand. There were several occasions where I felt that some of the most crucial, impactful points Freeman makes may be at risk of being missed altogether. The voice can sound a bit teenager-y at times but I wouldn’t dwell on it as a shortcoming of the book.

There is a skill in discussing uncomfortable themes, themes we can relate to so obviously we don’t think they merit a discussion at all, without getting all het-up, moralistic and preachy. Freeman demonstrates the skill in spades. There is mention of the Bechdel test, for instance, but it doesn’t make it to the index, that remains steadfastly focused on the names of films, actresses and actors that appear in the book.

This review gets out on the Saturday of the second May bank holiday in the UK. You have time. Read the book, watch the films, but this time you may well do it with a different angle on them.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: A book about Hollywood films of the 1980s will likely best appeal to those who were growing up in that time. But it should be read by all those interested in cinema and its power to reflect and shape social discourse, indeed document it in a story telling format.