May 202013

Jan Wong is a well-known journalist and author in Canada. I’d read some of her other books, and then a friend suggested I read her memoir about depression, “Out of the Blue” ( link, link). For a summary, read Globe’s Reaction to Jan Wong Depression Put Journalism in a Sad Place .

Jan Wong’s book details not only how a person in a high-stress job can hit a wall when something goes wrong, but also how the company that person is working for can help, or make it all worse. In her case, it was all much worse than it needed to be. I admit, over here in Vancouver, the entire kerfuffle that started her spiral into depression evaded my attention (and, I suspect, the attention of most people who aren’t avid Quebec/Ontario watchers).

This book is more than a memoir of one woman dealing with depression; it also makes it clear how many people suffer or have suffered from depression, whether they’ve been formally diagnosed or not. There’s a stigma attached to depression that makes it hard for people to admit they might have it and so they battle on and through. I suspect, for example, that my mother suffered from depression after my parents divorced, but it isn’t something she would have ever admitted to herself, let alone anyone else. Some passages in the memoir are hard to read (especially, for me, the effects on her family), but in the end it’s a positive book. I’m glad I read it, I learned a lot about the medical aspects (e.g., that depression can be triggered by external factors, or can be due to an internal predisposition, or a combination of the two). Neither the triggers (often stress and/or insomnia) nor the reactions (fight or flight, anhedonia) are widely understood. I didn’t know, for example, that depression is often a short-term condition, that medications take so long to take effect, that so many famous people suffer from chronic depression.

Recommended for anyone who works in the corporate world, or has more than a few friends and relations. You may be lucky enough to never work with or be close to someone who has or has had depression, but even so, it’s worth getting an appreciation for what it’s like. Chances are, someone you know has it, had it, or will have it in the future.

Dec 162008

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything was published a long time ago, way back in 2005, but it took my bookclub until this year to decide to read it. Hey, no point in being too fast, if a book is worthwhile it will still be worthwhile a couple of years later, right? In this case, it is. There is an updated version, but even the older version has a way of looking at the world that’s worth pondering. Wikipedia and the official book site have summaries, and there’s now a related blog.

The most famous part of the book is the one that asks how far the decrease in crime in the 1990s was due to the potential criminals never having been born; there has rightly been a lot of discussion about that (Wikipedia has a decent summary of some of the points). That discussion has tended to overshadow the other parts of the book, some of which bear more thinking about. One good example is the way that gangs were organised So how did the gang work? An awful lot like most American businesses, actually, which, if taken seriously by people trying to get rid of gangs, might lead to different ways of tackling them. The discussion about how the Ku Klux Klan was made ridiculous by incorporating it into the Superman radio show was good, even if who did exactly what when is unclear.

Above all, the book appeals if you’re someone who asks whether there are other explanations for things, past the seemingly obvious. Like the book says, conventional wisdom is often wrong, and it’s refreshing to read about some of the ways in which it is. Normally we don’t discuss non-fiction books for very long at bookclub, but this book was an exception. Most of our discussion was along the lines of “does it make sense that” or coming up with alternative hypotheses to explain some of their data. It would have helped if we’d seen some more of the actual mathematics so we could have been a little more sure of how they did the regression testing, but that’s a minor quibble and I’m sure most of the book’s audience didn’t miss it.

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