‘Simplexity’ explains the methods to the madness


A handshake might seem to be a simple, even thoughtless social exchange. But behind the meeting of hands are a lot of neural firings, tactile feedback, control of muscles, depth perception; it’s a ritual that grows out of a long tradition of greetings and social cues.

In his thought-provoking new book, “Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple)” (Hyperion), Jeffrey Kluger, Time magazine senior editor and writer, refracts perceptions of how the world works — and how to make things better — through the prism of complexity science.

As he explained in an interview, people tend to mistake size for complexity and subtlety for simplicity and often miss seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary. He reports in part on the pioneering work of the Santa Fe Institute, a think tank and research center dedicated to the study of complexity led by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann.

Kluger’s literary agent helped him coin the book’s title, an apt new word for the overlap and interface between simplicity and complexity. They later learned that the name has also been used by companies.

“Simplexity” joins a growing genre of nonfiction books that bridge science, psychology and economics to look at the science of decision making that make economics sexy, as a Time magazine correspondent has said. Also dubbed chic-onomics, the titles include Dan Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational,” Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” and “Blink,” and Stephen Dubner’s and Stephen Levitt’s “Freakonomics.”

The inspiration for this book came several years ago, when the author was staring at a fish tank in his apartment. As he writes in the book’s prologue, “We grow hushed at, say, a star, and we shrug at, say, a guppy. And why not? A guppy is cheap, fungible, eminently disposable, a barely conscious clump of proteins that coalesce into a bigger clump.”

For Kluger, the guppy is where the magic lies. It’s a “symphony of systems — circulatory, skeletal, optical, neurological, hematological, metabolic, auditory, respiratory, olfactory, enzymatic, reproductive, biomechanical, behavioral, social. Its systems are assembled from cells; its cells have subsystems; the subsystems have subsystems.”

Similarly, as he explains, a house plant may be more complex than a manufacturing plant.

Writing “Simplexity” changed the way Kluger looks at just about everything. Many of the chapters grew out of issues he covered for Time, including language acquisition, emergency evacuation and health care. He also writes here about the arts, the stock market and the onset of wars. As a writer, he’s particularly skilled in making complex ideas accessible.

Kluger explains that a generation ago, chaos theory was a paradigm-shifting hypothesis about the power of disorder. He believes that a new understanding of how things that are complex are actually simple and vice versa is similarly causing a shift in scientific thinking.

He quotes Chris Wood, a neuroscientist at the Santa Fe Institute, “Ask me why I forgot my keys this morning, and the answer might be simply that my mind was on something else. Ask me about the calcium channels in my brain that drive remembering or forgetting, and you’re asking a much harder question.”

Through many intriguing anecdotes, Kluger demonstrates predictable patterns of human behavior, addressing questions like why it takes so long for a crowd to leave a burning building, how institutions can be similar to a series of nested dolls within dolls, why people aren’t very good at distinguishing between risks likely to kill them from those that are statistical longshots and why a baby is likely to be the best linguist in the room.

In his chapter on global health concerns, titled “Why Are Only 10 Percent of the World’s Medical Resources Used to Treat 90 Percent of Its Ills?” he discusses the effectiveness of many low-cost microsolutions to battling global poverty and disease that are not at all complicated, as governmental agencies might believe.

Kluger emphasizes the importance of teaching behavioral skills on the local level, creating distribution networks for delivery of existing cures or vaccines and establishing micocredit banking institutions to get money directly to the people who need it most.

With the wisdom of flexibility, precision and planning, positive change is truly possible. He mentions an international foundation that bought new and used ambulances, refrigerated trucks and motorcycles for local health agencies in Africa, creating a motorized medical fleet — where none had existed before — servicing great stretches of several countries; they have slashed mortality rates for certain diseases.

“Our deep sense that this is an effort we not only could be making but should be making comes from a place that might, ultimately, be one of the most uncomplicated parts of us: our simple sense of compassion,” he writes.

Kluger doesn’t cover religion but notes that a consideration of the topic might have been an additional chapter in the book.

“Religion is exceedingly complicated as long as it is not used blindly, not as a simple, rigid adherence to doctrine,” he says. “Fanaticism is very simple. No matter how long the text, the fact is if you take it literally, you don’t bring anything to the party.”

“The U.S. Constitution is a marvel of economy. But in 200 years of Supreme Court decisions, simplicity allows for complexity,” he says, pointing out that the Talmud is similarly simple and complex.

Kluger, 54, who covers science and social issues, is the author of several books, including “Apollo 13,” written with astronaut Jim Lovell, upon which the 1995 movie was based; “Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio”; and a novel for young adults, “Nacky Patcher and the Curse of the Dry-Land Boats.”

Writing is a Kluger family tradition. He has Pulitzer Prize winners on both sides of the family: the historian and journalist Richard Kluger is an uncle, and poet Karl Shapiro is a cousin. His three brothers are also writers.

While he has been covering science for Time for many years, Kluger humbly claims that he is unqualified. His own training is in law, although he hasn’t practiced as an attorney.

PASSOVER: Yemenite Flavor at the Seder


For me, Yemenite cooking is the taste of home. My parents were born in Sharab, a region in southwest Yemen. I was born in Tel Aviv, and grew up on my mother and father’s traditional cooking. The food in our home was always fresh, simple and richly spiced. On Passover, the fragrance of the traditional chicken soup, full of tumeric and cumin, filled our house, and we looked forward to eating our candy-like charoset, made from dates and walnuts.

I came to America in 1976, and opened Magic Carpet, named after the airlift of Yemenite Jews to Israel, in 1993. The Yemenite food we serve is a warm and constant reminder of my childhood.

Of course, now it turns out it might also be good for you — really good for you.

Yemenite Jews in Israel live longer and healthier lives than other Israelis. Over the years, many researchers have attributed the Yemenite’s good health to the simplicity of their cooking and their use of herbs and spices. Fenugreek, for example, a staple spice in our kitchens, has shown promise in research to treat diabetes and high cholesterol.

Beef, chicken, fish and vegetables require the use of hawa’age, a curry-like spice mixture that consists of turmeric, cumin, coriander and black pepper in proportions that vary from town to town. On top of that, we add fresh garlic, onion, tomatoes and cilantro to many of our dishes. Hilbeh, a viscuous, spicy relish made from freshly ground fenugreek, and schug, a bright green mix of cilantro and chili, are served separately and added to food according to taste. A few meals like this, and you are on your way to a healthy Yemenite life.

Below are traditional Yemenite Passover foods. Some, like chicken soup, we serve in the restaurant. For the rest, you’d have to come to my house.

Baked Eggs

Oven-baked eggs become brown and flavorful, with a creamy texture.

Just cover eggs in water at room temperature. Add salt to minimize cracking. Cover and cook in your oven at low heat (250 F) overnight or at least 12 hours. Serve hot or cold.

Charoset

This is our version of charoset, which Ashkenazim make from apples, walnuts and wine. We use charoset as jelly on matzah through the holiday.

1 pound dates, pitted and mashed
3 cups water
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 cup raw sesame seeds

Place all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to simmer. Stir occasionally. Cook for about an hour or until the mixture is thickened to a jelly-like consistency. Serve cold.

Matzah Cereal

This was our breakfast throughout the holiday. What makes it special is the spice mixture.

Break two matzah into small pieces. Pour in 1 1/2 cups of hot milk and one tablespoon of butter, mix with the same spice mix as the charoset. Add honey to your taste.

Yemenite Chicken Soup

We would often serve this by placing broken soaked matzah in our soup bowls, then ladling the broth over it.

One 4-pound chicken cut in quarters
5 quarts water
1 large head garlic
1 large tomato
1 large onion
1 bunch of fresh cilantro
1/3 tablespoon turmeric
1/2 tablespoon cumin
1/2 tablespoon of coriander
black pepper
salt

Put whole onion, garlic and tomato in the pot of water and bring to a boil. Add chicken pieces and cook for 25 minutes. Add spices and fresh cilantro, peeled tomato and if you like, add some sliced zucchini. Salt and paper to taste. Cook for 25 more minutes.

Nili Goldstein is co-owner of the kosher Yemeni-Israeli Magic Carpet Restaurant, 8566 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 652-8547.