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Book Review of: Simplexity

Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple)

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Review of Simplexity, by Jeffrey Kluger (Hardcover, 2008)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

Despite some flaws (addressed in moment), Simplexity is interesting and intellectually stimulating. The premise for the book, as discussed in the prologue, is that simplicity and complexity are often juxtapositioned and intertwined. This is relevant in today's world, in which real life increasingly resembles trying to get breakfast at Fawlty Towers.

Kluger has a crisp, efficient writing style. He is also one of those rare authors who shows a strong command of Standard Written English. Missing in this text are the normal problems of misplaced modifiers, misused words (I was relieved that this author wasn't impacting anybody--ouch!), parallel sentence structure, and all of the other gaffes that normally add an unnecessary layer of complexity and confusion to the typical book published today.

Simplexity consists of eleven chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue. The title of each chapter is a question, and each chapter is subtitled with a "Confused by" slug (e.g., "Confused by Silence"). Each chapter contains a wealth of information and insights easily worth the price of the entire book.

Kluger does a wonderful job of explaining the intertwining of complexity and simplicity, and that is the overall theme of the book. Thus the title, "Simplexity." But there's a second theme on the very different subject of paradoxes, and entire chapters follow that theme instead of the main one. The extra material is good, but it seems out of step with the title and subtitle.

A fix for this would have be to divide the book into Parts. Part 1 would contain the chapters that clearly follow the theme of the book. Part 3 would contain the chapters that follow the second theme. Part 2 would provide the bridge, explaining how Part 3 necessarily arises out of Part 1. That's really what's missing. The book is a collection of articles rather than a structured work wherein each chapter builds on previous material. That doesn't make it a bad book (it's not), but that does make it a book that falls short of its potential (it does).

Since the chapters could appear in any order, a chapter-centric synopsis of the book isn't useful. So, let's look at just Chapter Seven. It's entitled "Why do we always worry about the wrong things?" and has a subtitle "Confused by Fear." Kluger starts this chapter with the following:

"It would be a lot easier to enjoy your day if there weren't so many things trying to kill you before sundown. The problems start before you're even fully awake. There's the fall out of bed that kills six hundred Americans each year. There's the early morning coronary, which is 30 to 50 percent more likelier than the kind that strikes later in the day. There's the fatal tumble down the stairs, the bite of sausage...." He goes on to describe many other dangers.

This leads to his question, "Have we simply become overwhelmed by all the fear and uncertainty we face--remaining understandably jumpy over the 3,000 who died on September 11, for example, but giving little thought to the 220,000 who have perished on the nation's highways since?"

Then Kluger delves into how and why humans routinely make irrational choices. And that's the big clue. Those choices spring from the amygdala (emotional seat), not the cortex (logical seat). Kluger looks at many examples of this, and it makes for a fascinating read. It also explains quite a bit about why we routinely make choices that we later see, upon analysis, weren't the correct ones.

Faults and caveats

Like many authors on nonfiction lists today, Kluger can't resist the temptation to insert his personal opinions into the work, as though they are fact. This is a disturbing trend in the publishing world today, and this practice never fails to diminish a book. One mark of a good nonfiction author is there's no personal editorializing. Any controversial ideas get fair and balanced coverage. Any ideas that aren't relevant to the central theme just don't get presented.

Kluger fails this test. He expresses his political opinions matter of factly, as though there is only one valid viewpoint (his). Kluger uses a combination of manipulative word choices, "Easter eggs," and unsubstantiated claims to squeeze a personal political agenda into what could have been an unquestionably informative book. If he wanted to write a book supporting the idea that criminals should be protected from law-abiding citizens rather than the other way around, he should have done that with another book and left such a bizarre line of thinking out of this book. Ditto, for some other presumptions he makes.

Kluger chose not to provide authority for his work. One of the main things that lends authority to a book is its bibliography. This book doesn't have one (maybe a protected criminal stole it?). But a bibliography isn't always necessary for a work to be considered authoritative. For example:

  • We could consider the text to be the musings of an expert in the field the book covers. If Larry Ellison wrote about databases, we would consider that a serious book on databases by virtue of the qualifications of the author. Unfortunately, Kluger doesn't have any expert qualifications that bear on the topic of this book. That is somewhat muted by the fact that he quotes experts throughout the text, though we really don't have the context from which those quotes sprang.
  • We could consider the text to be the result of reasoned analysis by an insightful and interesting person. While Kluger is insightful and interesting, he also suffers from the flawed thinking mentioned earlier. Thus, he does not write authoritatively by virtue of a penchant for reasoned analysis. That is somewhat muted somewhat by his many examples that illustrate the point being made. To his credit, all of the examples are relevant and most of them are logical.

    My personal authority for commenting on reasoning is a perfect score on the Watson-Glaser test of reasoning. Only 25% of people at the college level ever score higher than 75%. Many law school programs will accept applicants who score 60%.

One fix for the lack of authoritativeness would be to remove the personal opinion insertions. This would necessarily remove the flawed reasoning upon which those opinions are predicated, and thus not leave the reader second-guessing every other point the author makes. The good material would clearly stand on its merits, unstained and undiluted by the editorializing. And, yes, there is plenty of good material in this book.

Another fix would be to present a bibliography that supports facts and assertions, backnoting them as they appear in the text. This would also clue the reader where to look for more information on a topic that holds enormous potential on both a personal and societal level. A study of the premise of this book could lead to solutions to most of the problems society faces today.

That includes everything from gadgets so complex they're nearly useless, to the way we mis-run and mis-fund our mis-governments and most other institutions. There's a reason why "bureaucracy" isn't considered a compliment. Chapter 10 will give you a full understanding of that reason.

If Kluger drew on a wealth of information, why not share the wealth, so to speak, by revealing the sources? I feel cheated, as a reader, to find that information missing. It may be missing simply because Kluger is a writer for Time Magazine. While sources are normally end-noted with a bibliography in professional society magazines (term-paper style), we typically don't find that in consumer magazines. I'm not a Time Magazine reader, so I checked it out online and didn't see bibliographies in any of the articles (but they have some great stuff!).

From a structural perspective, Kluger's background as a magazine writer becomes even more obvious (that's not a bad thing; it just is). Each chapter strikes me as an extended (and well-written) magazine article. As a big fan of magazines, I don't find this objectionable in itself. Writing the book as more of an anthology of related articles than a structured work did leave the book as less than it could have been. However, they are darn good articles except where Kluger strays into personal opinion injection.

To buy or not to buy, that is the question

If you're looking for something that can help stimulate some good conversation among bright friends, this book is a worthwhile read. You can use any chapter as the basis for conversations far more engaging than what the weather is like or which celebrity is sleeping with another celebrity's significant other.

If you are involved in problem-solving or policy-setting, this book can help you step back and ask the questions you should be asking. The simplest solutions are usually the best solutions, but sometimes what seems simple isn't. Kluger's thoughts on this will help you sort things out.

If you feel like you are running on the treadmill of life and someone keeps turning up the speed, you may be able to get things back under control by reading this book one chapter at a time and reflecting on how things got so complicated. While you won't be able to wave a magic wand and instantly simplify everything, you should be able to pick up on Kluger's ideas and start identifying which complexities you can replace with simpler, less stressful options.

Despite some flaws, this book is so full of gems that passing it up would be unwise.




About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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