Dataclysm: Who We Are* (*When We Think No One’s Looking) by Christian Rudder (Crown, $28.00, 272 pages)
Dataclysm – an unprecedented deluge of digital information reshaping our view of the world.
Christian Rudder is a co-founder and the analytics team leader of the dating site OkCupid. Rudder has made use of the massive amount of data collected by his website. He ventures beyond the two basic and common data use perceptions – government spying and commercial manipulation to encourage purchases. Rather, he has added a third use – an unprecedented look into the nature of human beings.
The OkCupid site data yields not only the responses to its in depth questionnaires but also the transactions and/or communications between the site’s users. Much is revealed regarding our prejudices and preferences through text and graphic depictions.
Data geeks and everyone else will benefit from reading this fascinating mainstream science book. It is definitely not a pop science product. Rudder’s smooth writing style is quite surprising for a data person. Perhaps his Harvard education included writing classes or he has the benefit of an excellent editor. The comfortable sentence structure provides a balance of tech data and human warmth.
This is a book that should appeal to those readers interested in how often humans act like pack animals, versus how often they act independently. It’s only fair to add that Dataclysm requires an attentive reader who has a true commitment to the subject matter. The payoff is well worth the effort.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Photograph of Christian Rudder by Victor G. Jeffreys II.
My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossell (Knopf, $27.95, 416 pages)
“So am I, with my phobias and worries and general twitchiness, ‘neurotically’ anxious? Or just ‘normally’ so? What’s the difference between ‘normal’ anxiety and anxiety as a clinical problem? …If anxiety disorders and depression are so similar, why do we distinguish between them? …Mightn’t my anxiety be just a normal human emotional response to life, even if the response is perhaps somewhat more severe for me than for others? How do you draw the distinction between ‘normal’ and ‘clinical’?”
The unfortunate thing about this book is that the very people who will be attracted to it may be those who’ll get the least from it. I’m speaking of those who suffer from anxiety, something that Scott Stossel is unable to define although he claims to suffer from it. Stossel is not an expert but he combines a survey like approach – what he calls “a cultural and intellectual history of anxiety,” to the topic with his own experiences. (This takes up over 400 pages.) The problem with the initial approach is that Stossel plunges into deep waters quickly, discussing Kierkegaard and Sartre and the nature of Existentialism. All readers who were not Philosophy majors in college are likely to be lost immediately.
The author might have grabbed the reader by relating his own anxious experiences first. However, there are two problems with his stories. Firstly, one wonders whether some of them actually happened. And, secondly, they must have been greatly exaggerated in the telling.
Those who pick up My Age of Anxiety thinking it’s a self-help book will likely be disappointed, especially as Stossel self absorbedly and somewhat relentlessly relates the exact nature of his confused and anxious mental state ad infinitum (to infinity).
A review copy was received from the publisher.
A review of My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread and the Search for Piece of Mind by Scott Stossel.
A review of The Ecstasy of Surrender: 12 Surprising Ways Letting Go Can Empower Your Life by Judith Orloff, MD.
The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success by Megan McArdle (Viking, $27.95, 299 pages)
Yes, it’s OK to fail as long as you learn from your failure and keep on trying. Megan McArdle advocates a remarkable approach to achieving mastery and success in The Up Side of Down, an unusually titled book that is part pop culture/psychology, part memoir, and contains a whole bunch of useful information.
The book opens with an easy-to-understand definition of failure. Building upon the definition, McArdle expands the reader’s knowledge base by exploring the way societies operate. Her examples are spot on (e.g., California’s disastrous electric power deregulation and the collapse of the Soviet Union). Both of these events resulted in catastrophic failures – contrary to the economic theory of “creative destruction.”
McCardles’s example of mastery and success is charming. She sets up scenarios where the results of teamwork exercises are compared. The comparison is between a group of kindergartners and teams of MBAs and engineers. The task assigned to these teams is the construction of a tower of spaghetti. You’ll need to read the book to find out which team won.
While the book has a lively mix of pertinent examples of failure in each chapter category (virtuous society, experimenters, crisis), the threads that tie them together are admittedly sketchy at best.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Mood: The Key to Understanding Ourselves and Others by Patrick M. Burke (Prometheus Books, $18.95, 275 pages)
Patrick Burke has written a straightforward and detailed layman’s textbook that explains the importance of recognizing behavioral problems early in life. Before emotions and feelings there is mood. Typically, we think of observable signs like irritability, hostility and withdrawal as key elements associated with psychological issues. What we don’t take into account is that one’s mood is always – for better or for worse – present. For example, it can be happy or anxious. We usually aren’t aware of our mood until it begins to shift.
Mood sets out the scientific explanation of the brain’s structure and the interactions of the physical and chemical elements that allow it to function. There are diagrams and ample text to support the hypothesis that mood exists within us even before we are born. It is the combination of genetic material and environmental influences with mood that are observable as behavior. The accompanying narrative provides the reader with useful, practical information contained within scenarios.
Mood supplies parents and caregivers with valuable guidance that can demystify the difference between occasional behavioral issues in children and/or adults and mental problems that need attention.
A review copy was received from the publisher. Mood was released on November 11, 2013.