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Christopher Horn


Interesting you brought up your chaplain sister-in-law in the context of jobs that are more difficult than they appear.

Interesting because my wife and I have been volunteering at two different nursing homes each month with our charming little mutt. The pooch, my wife, and I have been doing so for almost two years, and the experience has been phenomenal.

Why? Many reasons which people not woven into the life of a nursing home might not imagine. In many respects our homes *are* communities, only with much more wisdom, patience and humor then the communities outside.

In other words, knowing nothing about your sister-in-law's job, I might conclude that being around death would be very difficult.

However, two years ago, knowing nothing about nursing homes, I would have had no idea the life inside, a life that might well outweigh the negatives and make the experience profoundly rewarding to your sister-in-law.

In summary, then, I agree that what your sister-in-law, or Michael Lewis, or Bill Simmons do may in fact be more difficult than it seems, but there must be many details to which we are not privy, with the joy, humor, etc. that might exist in a nursing home community being one example.

One last one to the particular detail of this thread: is Simmons' work really that hard? Much like your sister-in-law, I suspect there are details to which we are not privy.

For example, read the guy's stream-of-consciousness pieces. Entertaining, definitely. Wide scope of knowledge, sure.

In those kitchy pieces, how many times does Simmons nostalgize about the night that World B. Free scored 60 on 30% shooting, bricking all his team's fourth quarter shots?

Or the night that Mark Eaton had 35 rebounds and 2 points, missing two dozen shots within two feet of the rim?

I betcha both those things have happened, and I betcha Simmons has never written about either.


'Cause they are not, and are nowhere near, Celtics.

I suggest that is probably easier to channel one's own memories in a stream-of-consciousness piece then it is to connect with your audience's experience (if God has so blessed you with the ability to call forth your private memories on command).

Christopher Horn

Sorry - just a bit of overkill on the Simmons' skepticism:

As cognitive psychology established 30 years ago, context is everything for information processing. In simplistic terms, this explains why odors, sounds, thoughts have the ability to evoke such strong memories.

Here's something I don't know about Simmons:

Did he spend his childhood glued to the tv, alternatively switching between Wonder Woman episodes and the Bird-era Celtics, with a soda in one hand and a bologna sandwich in the other?

If that's true, then it stands to reason that planting Simmons today in front of Sportscenter, with a beer where the soda was and a computer where the sandwich was, may not be as difficult as it seems.

Brian @ mgoblog

You may as well link to the rip-job so we know what you're talking about. It's the one that showed up on Kissing Suzy Kolber, right?

Anyway: as a sportsblogger who has launched the occasional jab at Simmons, I can say that I'm pretty sure the enmity comes from Simmons' dismissive attitude towards people who are essentially trying to do exactly what he did. He constantly complains about not being able to launch into rip-jobs about ESPN personalities he dislikes (except, apparently, the Sklar brothers, who are insignificant enough for him to flame), then turns around and says he doesn't get people who sit around and rip others all day. That smacks of hypocrisy. His public persona has warped itself from something uniquely common to something elitist, and that grates.

I also think there's a major difference between you writing a (really interesting, btw) story on pension plans that requires epic research and Simmons going to a game with his buddies and writing the ol' running diary. One clearly has invisible infrastructure and the other doesn't. Not that Simmons is unique in that way.

I still like his stuff and read it, but some of the magic's gone.



I hope I'm not being presumptuous, but I think you may have been referring to us. I'm one of the fellows from Kissing Suzy Kolber. I didn't author the post that garnered so much attention, but there's a difference for attacking Simmons for the quality of his work (which, largely, wasn't done) and attacking his holier-than-thou attitude.

I'm a fan of Bill's work -- went to his book-signing and everything -- but I can't comprehend how he doesn't see the hypocrisy of trumpeting his own rise on the Internet (when print journalism proved too stodgy) while pooh-poohing the work of bloggers who were unable or unwilling to work for established media that has sinced embraced the Internet.

Ah, yes: the negativity issue. Bill was writing columns from a fan's point of view: today's bloggers merely tear down; they offer nothing original to the discussion; they bring darkness but no light. I disagree, of course -- and the circular discussion, the endless argument, begins anew.

I'd love to delve into this further (example: several thousand words about your road trip: NOT a difficult story to write), but I've already gone on too long. You're welcome to contact me or any of us at KSK over email.



Your comments on Lewis' book are well deserved. The book deals with diverse issues such as poverty, race, education, drugs, evangelical Christianity, the NCAA and the evolution of the NFL game. Lewis somehow is able to tell an extremely complex story in a "page turner" way that is somewhat mind-boggling. I imagine that a huge amount of time went into figuring out just how to structure the story.

While I really used to appreciate how difficult it is for Simmons to write his columns, his repetition (especially making reference to bad reality tv shows) and snide biases have gotten old and uninteresting. And if he's going to take repeated shots at certain teams, players and columnists, then it stands to reason that people who like those teams, players and columnists are going to take shots back. What makes it worse (and even less interesting to read) is that like many who are harshly critical, Simmons is extremely thin-skinned.

And while Simmons may still write a somewhat interesting column (his Green Bay column was better than most of late) on occasion, the bulk of his writing seems to be about the Sox, Pats, Celtics which really isn't too interesting for non-Boston fans.

But again, Lewis' new book is one of the best things I've read in awhile.


On the night of Monday, October 6, 2003, Derek Lowe struck out Terrence Long to win the ALDS. Remember that series? A wild one. I saw that game at a friend's house, and on the way out I noticed that he had a copy of Moneyball. I asked permission to borrow it, and he said yes. It took me an hour or so to drive home, so i got into bed around 1 AM. And then proceeded to read every word of Moneyball, just tore through it.

I remember the date so well because I remember wanting to watch Hatteberg hit -- had just watched Hatteberg hit -- and the A's series was freshly over with yet another disappointment.

I know you admire Moneyball a lot too, Malcolm, and I feel something similar about that book. For the record, I've been a Bill James reader since 1982, when I was 11, so either I've got a vested interest in liking the book or I'm an especially tough audience to please on that subject, depending on how you look at it. I loved the book.

It's funny. I'm a member of the National Book Critics Circle, which means I read (and review) a ton of books every year. I remember at the beginning of 2004 the NBCC sent around a little ballot for our book award vote, and I thought about it for a minute or two and put down Moneyball, a book I hadn't reviewed, and I'm pretty sure the book was not on their (rather lengthy) list of suggestions. Even as I wrote the title in, I had the feeling that the rest of the NBCC wouldn't respect a "mere baseball" book like Moneyball. They're wrong, I'm right, and the reason is not unconnected to the speed with which I tore through the book (and I don't read every book with that kind of speed).

It's not every book that can generate that kind of narrative momentum, with a bunch of vivid and really different characters (Bradford, Ron Washington, Beane, Hatteberg, Teahen) in a big breezy popular way, all while handling a bunch of not entirely straightforward ideas of some depth.

Moneyball is to nonfiction mass market books as Groundhog Day is to big comedy motion pictures. Both makes it look easy.


The flip side to all of this is overestimating the degree of difficulty.

You know the statsitical story of the blind dart thrower vs. the stock broker?

But yeah, your point is well taken,-- particularly in regards to athletics.

Still I wonder which happens more often:

Do people under or overestimate the degree of difficulty?

My answer: Kowtowing has many synonyms but few antonyms.


Supposedly though the right perspective some of the time is that of "the consumer." At least that's the convention for the writers we call "critics." The consumer doesn't even belong to the same species as the producer, or it's cannibalism. Sports writing I guess is a mix of review and profile. That might make it feel more lively and less monotonous than the rest of our news diet.


How close is appreciating degree-of-difficulty to the urge to know the perspective or share the experience of the actor? I think we call a life or occupation "unsung" because others haven't been made to live it vicariously. Now that few sports watchers have ever played all the sports they're watching, I guess the "singing" that makes sports heroes the very opposite of unsung is sports writing--and so I wonder if conveying "degree of difficulty" is incidental to giving us a vicarious experience. It's a romantic one, though, like songs tend to be romantic. We're liable to be bored to death by what's going through Tiger Woods' mind during any given putt. I bet it's a huge challenge to write an autobiography as a celebrity in sports or anything else. Still, I'm not tempted to read one.

Big Daddy Drew

As the guy who wrote the Simmons rant, I'll again note that I don't see why making fun of sportswriters is any different than making fun of coaches or athletes. And Simmons has ripped numerous writers in print (Dan Shaughnessy, Jim Caple, etc.) through the years. It's all part of being a sports fan. We magnify little things for the sport of argument. That's the fun of it.

Oh, and writing a running diary is not hard. The loose nature of it allows you to riff on things without having to worry about structure and flow. Take it from the world's laziest writer.


One possible factor in the "degree of difficulty" problem is that an expert's very own expertise can make some tasks look easy. Another is that unfamiliarity with the tasks has us fix on the superficial tasks we can understand and see ourselves performing. Then there are social factors, such as our culture's view of women. Put all those together, and it becomes apparent why feminized professions such as education and librarianship tend to be underestimated.

The chaplain is a very interesting example, because the typical stereotype of the religious professional is the minister who works a couple hours a week on Sunday. In reality, pastoral work is complex and challenging. The chaplain is a sub-group in that profession whose work, at least in health care, is understood to involve tasks known to be hard, such as working with ill and dying people.

Christian Anderson

A few weeks ago when my son started Kindergarten I noticed the school's handbook this statement: "Corporeal punishment is not permitted." "Of course not," I thought to myself. "That's a thing of the past." I figured that it was just put in there pro forma.

But then this morning I open up the NYT to read, "In Many Public Schools, the Paddle Is No Relic" which shows that corporeal punishment is used in some parts of the country.

Something that was, to me, unfathomable, is commonplace to others. And not to others around the world but here in the same country. So, when Malcolm talks about how hard it is to understand others, I think this happens all the time.

In this country we have rural/urban divides, red/blue divides, sneetches with stars/sneetches without stars upon thars, and many others -- all illustrating how little we understand even our own countrymen.

Will Leitch

I must say, sir: I am disappointed. I am a fan of Simmons too, but the "hey, how can you criticize unless you do it yourself?" argument is beneath you. Pauline Kael once talked about knowing whether or not a souffle tasted good even though she could, in fact, not make a souffle herself. (I'm paraphrasing from memory here; forgive me.) This argument has been used for decades on everything from film criticism to sportswriting to political journalism: How can you criticize when you don't do it yourself? It's pretty surprising you'd resort to it here.

Isn't the "YOU TRY IT THEN!" argument exactly the same dumb argument every athlete throws out at journalists when they write about their poor play? It is odd to see journalists doing the exact same thing.

I mean, honestly: How is it not fair to criticize Simmons? I am not saying he deserves it or he doesn't ... but how is it not fair? Can Simmons throw for 200 yards? Of course not. But that doesn't mean he can't say something insightful (and critical) about Aaron Brooks. So why, when the writer is the other side of that divide, is it somehow different?

I'll tell you: It isn't.


It's always easier said than done.And it's a totally universal "vice".Here in China,we use the idiomatic counterpart "it's easier to appreciate an embroidery than to do one yourself" to strike back against overly sharp criticisms.
There is indeed a fine line to walk between constructive feedback and irrational blaming.
Solution?well,try to put your feet in other people's shoes and walk around,see how that feels.
Some of the difficulty you may have to be doing the very task to feel,but if you learn how to appreciate and tolerate,you will know life is hard,no trade is easy....


I hope you mean "corporal" punishment, Christian. I'd hate to think of so many little kids having their very substance punished. Yowch!

Monday Morning Punter

Your arguement for Simmons is uninspiring, but I'll reserve judgement, since I can't possibly understand how HARD it was to create that arguement.

I look forward to reading Blink; thanks for letting us weigh in.

-Monday Morning Punter


I have to say that I agree with Malcolm that running diaries are hard to pull off. Sure. they're easy to write, but that doesn't mean they're easy to make humorous and interesting. The reason I feel this way is because I've read so many running diaries that aren't remotely funny, and quickly forget that the reader had no part in the experience, thereby making long stretches completely uninteresting.


Please, please, everyone...stop using Malcolm's income as a basis for criticism of his writings. It is NOT relevant, unless you are somehow responsible for paying some part of his salary.

I do not have a problem with criticism of public writers, if the arguments are sound and fair. But I have grown increasingly tired of the chatroom/blog climate where there seems to be a need to be louder, nastier, and more argumentative with every subsequent point. It's almost as though people (some) read things with simply one intent: to disagree. I'm sure the anonymous environment of the internet has something to do with it.

I really like Bill Simmons' work. I groan at a few of his oft-repeated references (particularly his well-known distaste for the WNBA), and I glaze over at some of his Boston-only articles. But overall, he provides good insight on the big-three US sports, he is generally funny, and he is not afraid to make picks, predictions, and arguments. I really have no point in this paragraph other than to agree with Malcolm's fondness of Simmons...but I guess that's a change of pace from everyone else.

Christopher Horn

A further question pops into my mind on this thread:

I find it slightly surprising that you are a fan of Simmons, Malcolm. Of course I don't know you; however, the tone of your writing tends to reflect respect for intellectuals/peers, and you seem to want to understand the truth of the world around you more than you want to indulge your opinion of yourself.

Simmons, I am sorry to say, seems not to share these traits, imposing his own idiosyncratic existence on his audience as if his private experience was important somehow, largely getting away with it because frankly its often pretty funny.

Doesn't seem like a Gladwell guy.

Peel the onion back a layer, and the following occurs to me: The Tipping Point was a very enjoyable book, but let's be honest its not Shakespeare. What's more, its arguably not even Pinker.

Indeed, your tremendous material good fortune is due to a mixture of natural writing talent as well as the moat that separates writers benefitting from the big media promotion machine from the poorer writers outside. The internet, of course, is threatening to dry that moat up permanently.

Simmons most certainly doesn't share your talent.

But he does share the moat.


After reading the blogs about the NCAA, two unrelated comments come to mind. First, trying to have a sustained logical discussion about this topic among sports fanatics is physiologically impossible. There are too many cortical synapses short-circuiting among any testosterone rich discussion group. Second, one additional "exibit" in favor of shutting down the NCAA concerns their ridiculous "mascot name" inquisition. It is ridiculous that, as a bastion of contradictions and inequity-perpetuating policies, NCAA would hold itself up as an arbiter of politically appropriate mascots. As with so many of their enforcement decisions, the powerful schools get preferential treatment.


A distinction should be made between public and private figures (or, public and private work). Bill Simmons and Malcolm's sister cannot, for the sake of this argument, be lumped together.

Public figures work in the court of public opinion. Bill Simmons, Malcolm Gladwell, and many (though not all) other writers make money because members of the public want to read what they write. Pro athletes - through a long chain of 3rd parties - ultimately make money because the public has an appetite for consuming sports (watching, buying, reading, etc). A few elite athletes make even more dough through commercial endorsements, which rely very heavily on the public's opinion of said endorser. Other public figures: film stars, politicians, fashion designers, the Pope, novelists, certain CEOs, rock stars .. etc.

These people are all fair game for open and honest criticism (of their work, that is). All of them. And while some criticism may be less-informed than others, it's not insignificant. Sure, Mark O'Meara or the average PGA announcer has a much more intelligent read on a Tiger Woods putt than John Q Public. But John Q Public is the one who will (or won't) sign up for a Woods-endorsed American Express Card, log onto espn.com/page2, read Blink, vote for the Republicans, buy a movie ticket, wear NBA apparel, give money to the Catholic Church, or tune into a baseball game or golf tournament instead of taking a walk or making a sandwich or falling asleep.

It doesn't matter if JQP doesn't know how to play golf or write or govern a country or act. Many of the people who do know how to do those things are still relying on him, in a big way. The respect of your peers means more than the respect of outsiders? Well, no kidding. But in the case of these public figures, the opinion of the uninformed masses counts. For a lot.

Malcolm's sister, your tax accountant, your daughter's schoolteacher and the guy who fixed your sink .. all of these people have difficult jobs in their own right. But they don't belong in this argument.


I didn't mean to suggest that outsders can't criticize insiders. Of course they can. I was simply trying to understand why and when insiders are most sensitive to criticism. I think all of us tend to be less concerned with criticisms of the quality of our work than we are with the idea that the effort we put into our work has been overlooked. That's all. But since I didn't work particularly hard on that post, you can criticize it all you want. :-)

Ed Brenegar

As a local newspaper columnist and soon to be columnist for a magazine writing a Q&A column on leadership practice issues, I understand the difficulty issue very well. For me it is a matter of the complexity of the issue; writing for too many divergent audiences; and, my own thought process as I try to figure out the precisely right thing to say. And when there is a deadline involved, it is a level of stress that only someone who has experienced it will understand. We may not always get it right, but at least we can get it in print.

Andrew Cocke

Don't be so hard on yourself. The Risk Pool article was terrific, not merely well written but well researched.

It was one of those rare pieces of journalism that seems inconsequential enough when the New Yorker is breaking Colin Powell's innermost thoughts or some such. It was much more than a potentially dry article about pensions. It should be required reading for every Fortune 500 CEO.

The first thing I did after reading it was to email the producers of the only television show worth watching, HBO's The Wire, suggesting that the deal to buy the BethShip yard should be the basis of their final season. It was a great story and so poignant not merely about pensions, but about the decrepitude of American manufacturing.

Finally, I just finished Kevin Philips' latest book, American Theocracy and was surprised to find a very good chapter on the demise of American manufacturing and the historical precidents for a nation in economic not to mention ethical decline. What is the old saw? "As goes GM so goes the nation." That may, to our collective surprise be more true today than ever.

Brian Lindecker

This is an interesting post and it immediately made me think of a Simmons comment I read a few months ago when he ripped on movie critics. He questioned why people should care about such subjective judgments. Don't writers exist to bridge the gap and help Outsiders understand the world of Insiders? If I read a Pauline Kael review or a Bill Simmons article, I do so in the hope that they will offer me insight through the knowledge of their profession. When I read a poorly-written piece, it's often because the author has taken logical steps that I cannot follow or offered no more insight than I could have gleaned from the movie trailers or box score.

It is nice to be acknowledged for a difficult piece, but one cannot count on such praise simply for putting in the effort. Hemingway wrote that some parts of his writing felt effortless while others felt like dynamiting a mountainside. Are those chapters of his novels any more valuable than the ones that flowed easily? Ultimately, the effectiveness is all that matters.

That said, I don't believe there are any who carry the moral highground to throw stones, particularly with the sort of violence that a few of your commenters seem to favor.

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  • I'm a writer for the New Yorker magazine, and the author of four books, "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference", "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" and "Outliers: The Story of Success." My latest book, "What the Dog Saw" is a compilation of stories published in The New Yorker. I was born in England, and raised in southwestern Ontario in Canada. Now I live in New York City.

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