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Book Review: Simplexity by Jeffrey Kluger

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Have you ever wondered why so many bad teams seem to win so many games? Have you ever pondered why a truck driver’s job is harder than an executive position with higher pay? Have you ever marvelled at how traffic can clog up even the simplest of roadways?

All of these questions seem to beg a sort of complex argument, although the explanations are often incredibly simplistic. Things that seem simple can, however, seem dazzlingly intricate. On the other hand, things that seem multifaceted can seem almost daft in their underlying simplicity. The inner workings of a house plant can, in fact, be more complex than that of a fully-fledged manufacturing plant.

Jeffery Kluger, coauthor of Apollo 13, attempts to explore these ideas with his new book, Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple).

The format of the book is – forgive me – simple enough. Kluger frames each chapter with a question, for example “Why do we always worry about the wrong things?” and a subtitle, such as “Confused by Fear” in the case of the aforementioned question. Kluger attempts to answer the questions posed and draws reference to the subtitle, employing scientific research and common sense to comprise an answer.

The use of sociological factors and how they can mesh with other basic explorations, such as how roads are built or how buildings are structured, sheds interesting light on the aspects of how people routinely get stuck in traffic or have trouble evacuating buildings in the book’s second chapter, “Why is it so hard to leave a burning building or an endangered city?” and its subhead “Confused by Instincts.”

Each chapter reads somewhat like a magazine article, which is convenient for those who like to put a book down and come back to it at different intervals. The chapters are not interconnected in any way and, as such, can be read more as a compilation than a complete book.

Kluger infuses the book with little nuggets of information that can be fun for trivia hounds and some interesting scientific studies on a host of topics from predicting the stock market to discovering how a smaller army can beat a bigger one. Overall, though, Kluger’s book comes down to the basic tenets of common sense and natural human behaviour in that it is as hard to predict using a single scientific method as it is difficult to define using a dictionary.

Simplexity is a fun book and stands alongside other examples of pop psychology or sociology, like Levitt’s Freakonomics. Kluger’s book is well-written, but can be a little dry in some places. Nothing is particularly mind-blowing or earth-shattering, either, but it can make for some interesting table conversation.

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