The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan (Non-fiction)

I was surprised at how much I loved this book. I’m a fiction reader and get easily bored (or horrified) by drawn out descriptions of battles, strategies, and political maneuvers. This book was fantastic because it focused on the “why.” The eponymous war (World War I) is literally the epilogue of this book. The first 600+ pages is on what happened in the 30+ years before that made the war possible … though not inevitable.

That is what really fascinated me about the story. MacMillan brings out the details of the individuals involved, the context of the time, the recent events, and the crises averted, to show that so many small things — had they gone just a little differently — might have averted the war that cost 8.5 million lives, with 8 million others missing, and 21 million wounded. Her style is ideal — every detail relevant, a cohesive structure that brings elements to light at the right time and a narrative style that brings the details together to make a coherent story. And no rambling! I don’t know why, but so many non-fiction writers seem to ramble endlessly!

In many places, the book read like a giant game of Risk. Large empires — some new (e.g. Germany had just unified in 1871), some dying (e.g. the Ottoman empire), some struggling to maintain the status quo (e.g. Austria Hungary) — each vying for status in the International community (largely by bickering over colonies and building up impressive militaries) while simultaneously dealing with internal strife in the form of nationalist movements from conquered peoples and new socialist / workers parties demanding rights. Philosophically, social Darwinism concepts had been introduced. Conrad, Austria Hungary’s chief of staff had the core belief (as did many others) that “existence was about struggle and that nations rose and fell depending on their ability to adapt.” MacMillan presents in-depth and well-documented character studies of all the players from the volatile and unpredictable Kaiser Wilhelm II, to his cousins, Britain’s Edward VII and the weak and unprepared Tsar Nicholas II (and his wife Alexandra — “a will of iron linked to not much brain and no knowledge”) to the spartan Franz Joseph of Austria Hungary as well as a panoply of prime ministers, ambassadors, military personnel and socialist leaders.

But my favorite line of all: “Finally…we should never underestimate the part played in human affairs by mistakes, muddles, or simply poor timing.”

As I read I kept having what I call my Gone With the Wind moments — I knew what was going to happen but I somehow kept hoping it would work out differently. With only verified quotes and actual events as material, MacMillan manages to convey the absolute desperation of many as the world drew closer and closer to war and the slow unraveling of the Concert of Europe. The description of this was chilling — rail and telegraph lines were cut, bank reserves were frozen, currency exchange stopped, trade stopped. “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life.” (attributed to Sir Edward Grey, Britain Foreign Secretary in 1914). Although written in 2013 (pre-Trump), she often draws unnerving parallels between the situations in 1914 and those of our current time.

Some advice for reading — if you’re like me and find 600 pages of dense history overwhelming and off putting — read one chapter at a time and take as long as you like. The contents are so memorable that you can pick it up days later and not have forgotten a thing.

Our Women on the Ground by Zahra Hankir (Non Fiction)

This is a hard book to read, but will open your eyes to whole worlds that exist just across the ocean. These 19 female journalists write about the stories they cover across the countries in the Middle East. From Syria to Iraq to Lebanon to Yemen (and more), they describe the world behind the political and military statistics — the civilian individuals (often women and children) trying to survive in a world gone crazy. From years without power, to the random and constant acts of violence, to the impact of a single car bomb on the rest of the community, these women bring to life a whole realm of existence that is hard for a Westerner to imagine. In many cases, we are reminded of how “normal” life was in the very recent past. It’s a harsh reminder that yes, no place or system or way of life is immune to the possibilities of sudden and violent destruction.

The essays are very personal, in many cases exposing the difficulties of being a female journalist, the impact on her life, the hopelessness of covering what feels like endless stupidity and ritualized anger. Some are heartfelt but rambling, others provide clear, coherent overviews and analyses of the situations, many expose details that enable the reader to understand a little more about how things evolved, and almost all stimulate a compassion that unfortunately have no real place to go.

Definitely worth reading, though give yourself time and take some breaks to keep from sinking into a useless despair.

Thank you to Penguin Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 6, 2019.

 

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis (Non Fiction)

Fascinating book about the birth of the field now known as Behavioral Economics. Part biography, part history, part research summary, this is the story both of the evolution of a friendship and collaboration as well as the melding of two previously disconnected fields: Economics and Psychology.

After their first meeting around 1968, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman were rarely apart. The decades long tight collaboration that resulted produced a stunning number of key insights and seminal papers on the psychology of Judgement and Decision Making. The primary idea: there is systematic bias in the way people make decisions. Their work was responsible for the fall of the concept of the “rational man.”

They studied the cognitive basis for common human errors and elaborated on a set of heuristics (simple rules) and cognitive biases that subconsciously influenced the way people formed judgements or made decisions. Many of the resulting concepts — such as Anchoring, Framing, Hindsight, and the Halo Effect — have become household terms. Their “Prospect Theory,” created in 1979 and developed in 1992, was a “psychologically more accurate” description of how people made decisions, replacing the previously accepted Utility Theory which claimed that people made decisions by rationally calculating the utility (or value) of all potential outcomes. Applications of this work are widespread, ranging across medicine (evidence based medicine), sports, finance, and military uses.

Some of the heuristics:
• Representativeness heuristic: the decision making shortcut that determines probability based on how well the subject is representative of a stereotype.
• Availability heuristic: the mental shortcut that makes decisions based on examples that come immediately to mind.
• Anchoring and adjustment heuristic: the influence of a previously suggested reference point (the anchor) on a person’s assessment of probability.
• Simulation heuristic: the shortcut for determining an event based on how easy it is to imagine – or “the power of unrealized possibilities to contaminate people’s minds.”

Some of the biases
• Recency bias: Decision making based on the relative ease of remembering something that happened recently rather than long ago.
• Vividness bias: bias based on the ease with which an option can be recalled.
• Hindsight bias: the tendency of people to overestimate their ability to have predicted an outcome that they could not have possibly predicted.
• Present bias: The tendency of people to undervalue future with respect to present.

The structure of the book follows the story of the two men. Though the closest of friends and collaborators until the last few years of Tversky’s life, their personalities and background were quite different. While both Israeli, Amos came from an aggressive Zionist family, while Danny and his family escaped from Nazi Europe; Danny was an appeaser, Amos a bully; Amos loved theory while Danny liked practical application of psychology, “Amos was built to fight, Danny was built to survive.” The book includes captivating detail about their backgrounds and interactions, and the process by which the work took flight and captured the interest of researchers and practitioners around the world.

The journalistic style of the story makes the personal bits easy to remember, with the research results a little harder to grasp in its entirety. The narrative jumps around a bit and the down side of watching a theory evolve (and not necessarily in a linear order) is that it can be harder to comprehend the whole. I found reading the Wikipedia articles on Kahneman and Tversky helped supplement my understanding of the actual work.

Some great quotes:
Asked if their work was related to AI, Amos said: “We study natural stupidity instead of Artificial Intelligence.”

In response to evolutionary psychology proponents Amos said, “The mind was more like a coping mechanism than it was a perfectly designed tool.”

On “Creeping determinism,” Amos says: “He who sees the past as surprise-free is bound to have a future full of surprises.”

“Economics was meant to be the study of an aspect of human nature, but it had ceased to pay attention to human nature.”

“Theories for Amos were like mental pockets or briefcases, places to put the ideas you wanted to keep.”