The finest handpicked things from the stinking and burning dumpster fire that is the interweb.

Month: June 2024

The wonders in between pages

Assorted links

I fell sick last week and had one of the worst headaches I’ve ever had in my life. It was so bad I couldn’t look at screens even if I longed for them, like cocaine addicts long for cocaine. So I couldn’t get around to writing anything.

I also realized that one of the reasons I started publishing this newsletter was to share interesting links, which I used to do in the beginning but not anymore. I started by sharing links but ended up publishing rambling essays on random things that I got fascinated with in a given week. It wasn’t planned, but something that just ended up happening, and I’m happy that it did.

So this week, I figured I’d share a bunch of amazing articles across different topics so that you can find a rabbit hole to get lost in.


The many joys of aimless reading

The Substack app has become my go-to source for discovering new writing. I don’t know if the app will remain as good as it is, but so far, I’ve found some truly insightful writing on a whole host of topics. I can confidently say that some of the best writers of our time are on Substack. By that, I don’t mean popular writers but rather people with tiny audiences that have yet to hit mainstream.

Every morning, I scroll through the app and save a few posts for reading later. So far, I haven’t been able to read all the posts I’ve saved, but I’ve been trying. This morning, I finally found time to read, and among the first posts I perused was this delightful post (archive) by Jared Henderson that had me nodding along in agreement.

The post is on why students are reading. He starts by pointing to the usual suspects of why people don’t read: the negative impact of the pandemics on students, the testing culture, horrible teaching backed by terrible theories, the ubiquity of smartphones, etc. But he also identifies another crucial reason why we don’t read—we are gatekeeping ourselves:

Gatekeeping is usually conceived of as an interpersonal violation. The gatekeeper is preventing someone else from being included in whatever is at issue. But very often, the person who is preventing you from crossing the bridge (to go back to the troll metaphor) is you. If you want to read The Economist, say, but don’t because you don’t think you fit the profile, then you are your own troll. You are the one doing the gatekeeping, and the person being kept out is you.

And this is what I believe is happening with students and reading, at least in part. They have convinced themselves that they aren’t readers. They have convinced themselves that reading old books, especially difficult old books, is just too arduous, too boring, too pointless. They have convinced themselves that even if the books are good and soul-enriching, there are better things to be doing with their time.

I picked up a reading habit thanks to my dad. He grew up in an environment where he couldn’t read, even though he desperately wanted to, so he put a premium on educating me and my brother. He was also quite smart. He made sure we weren’t just reading textbooks but other random things like magazines, newspapers, encyclopedias, and other books. I still remember trips as a young, runny-nosed kid to Sapna Book House in Gandhinagar on my dad’s rickety Bajaj Chetak.

I’ve always read random things, but after college, I stopped reading books. My reading diet was filled with online reading, but this wasn’t enough. So I made a conscious effort to start reading books again, and now I regret ever stopping.

As someone who’s remarkably average at most things, I’ve realized that life is a steady process of chipping away at one’s ignorance and stupidity. Books help you do that. Of course, you can’t learn everything from books. You’ve gotta live a little and then learn from life. But books are a part of that toolbox that helps you be a little less dumb in life.

Another aspect of the article that resonated with me was the obsession with reading metrics. It’s also something I struggle with, but I’m slowly starting to let go.

We like to measure our successes, and when we don’t measure up we consider it a failure. This carries over into adult reading culture still — people set ambitious reading goals based on books or pages, and they feel good if (and only if) they meet those goals. It’s a metrics-based way of looking at the world. This culture is everywhere, and students are sensitive to it.

Last weekend, when I was sick, I couldn’t look at screens because they made my splitting headaches worse. I also couldn’t read anything dense, so I picked up Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants. I must have devoured the first 300 out of 900 pages over the weekend. As I was reading the book, I remembered the pure joy of reading aimlessly.

Pair this with another brilliant post (archive) by Olga Koutseridi that resonated deeply with me.

In this post, Olga reflects on another post about how she has lost her habit of researching just for the sake of researching, without any specific goal. The post struck a chord with me because exploring without a goal is something I’ve tried to do all my life.

What does research as a way of life look like on a daily basis? It’s a day that’s driven by curiosity and exploration. A day full of inquiry, pondering, questioning, reading, finding, writing, revising, documenting, excavating, and editing. A day when you have the freedom to explore; be it browsing grocery store aisles, talking to urban farmers, cycling through the city, noticing things and how they change, make observations about new and old patterns, talking to people at the bus stop, foraging, or browsing the internet.

I am carving out time for leisure and research. I’m blocking off time on my calendar as leisure blocks, and using that time to download pdfs, make lists of books or cookbooks, organizing and managing my databases, reading, and re-organizing files on my computer, in Notion, and opening way too many tabs. I’m also breaking up my time to do different forms of research be it archival, qualitative research, going to the library (partially leisure), browsing online databases, taking notes, talking and asking people questions, and documenting.

To be honest, for me the whole point of life centers around discovery or a sense of adventure that comes from learning, seeing, or experiencing something new. Research is a way of life for me. I am an endlessly curious person.

Pair this with Rose Macaulay’s exquisite meditation (archive) on being left alone:

An exquisite peace obtains: a drowsy, golden peace, flowing honey-sweet over my dwelling, soaking it, dripping like music from the walls, strowing the floors like trodden herbs. A peace for gods; a divine emptiness.

[…]

The easy chair spreads wide arms of welcome; the sofa stretches, guest-free; the books gleam, brown and golden, buff and blue and maroon, from their shelves; they may strew the floor, the chairs, the couch, once more, lying ready to the hand… The echo of the foolish words lingers on the air, is brushed away, dies forgotten, the air closes behind it. A heavy volume is heaved from its shelf on to the sofa. Silence drops like falling blossoms over the recovered kingdom from which pretenders have taken their leave.

What to do with all this luscious peace? It is a gift, a miracle, a golden jewel, a fragment of some gracious heavenly order, dropped to earth like some incredible strayed star. One’s life to oneself again. Dear visitors, what largesse have you given, not only in departing, but in coming, that we might learn to prize your absence, wallow the more exquisitely in the leisure of your not-being.

How does an egg become a person?

How does a single cell become a full-grown human being capable of running, climbing mountains, and generating farts of varying smells? In this fascinating post (archive), Kasra explores the work of developmental and synthetic biologist Michael Levin.

Back to the question of how a cell becomes a person: Our genes aren’t the full answer. Apparently, cells have bioelectrical networks similar to neurons in the brain that allow them to communicate and coordinate. These bioelectrical networks, from what I understand, are like cell phone networks. They talk to each other using this network to decide whether they should develop into a leg, liver, or kidney.

The worm is just one example: Levin’s lab and others have already demonstrated an astonishing level of control over development by modulating bioelectric networks. They’ve done things like getting frogs to develop extra limbs, and getting them to develop an eye in their gut, or an eye in their tail that they can actually see out of. The end goal that Levin dreams of is an “anatomical compiler” – a program which takes as input a specification for an arbitrary organ or body plan, and outputs the specific set of chemical and electrical signals needed to generate that organ. Imagine 3-d printing entire synthetic organs and organisms, except instead of having to specify all the micro-level details, you can just give a high-level description like “an extra eye at the tail.” This is Dall-E but for biology. And in the very long run, it could be the answer to virtually all of biomedicine, including traumatic injury, birth defects, degenerative disease, cancer, and aging.6

So on a practical level, the impact of Levin’s work is a shift away from genes as the only determinant of structure, shifting instead towards the bioelectric network. But there’s a broader thesis here, which is recognizing that the terms “intelligence” and “cognition” apply to much more of biology than we tend to think. The very process of development has an intelligence of its own: for example, if you take a tadpole (the precursor to a frog), and manually scramble its facial organs, those facial organs will relocate back to the correct place as the tadpole matures.

Fascinating stuff, but I’m not qualified to judge if this is all accurate.

Enough

One of the weird things about being human is that we are never content with what we have, where we are, who we are, who we are with, or what we want. We think the present state of everything sucks and strive for some ideal of perfection that lies in the future. Because of this tendency, even though we are physically in the present, we mentally live in the future. I enjoyed this beautiful and thought-provoking post (archive) by Isabel.

Much of maturity is this slow, burning realization that the Inner Ring is never quite as glamorous, sparkly, or magical as you think it will be—and noticing that what you already have is pretty damn good. You go somewhere beautiful and glamorous, but feel relieved to come back home to the people you love. You move somewhere to make new friends, but are eager to come back to those who know you deeply already. Maturing is this process of realizing that where you are, the people you’re around, the blessings you have, the city you live in—contain so much abundance that you could hardly behold it if you were to pause and feel it fully.

There will always be something shiny, glossy and new that stirs desire in you. This is the world we live in: we are mimetically inducing desires into each other constantly—a phenomenon that was happening long before we had coined the label ‘influencers’. Since the beginning of time, we have been imitating those at the top of the hierarchy, desiring the objects and symbols possessed by those inside the Inner Ring.

And hey, don’t get me wrong: desires can be fun. Striving, pursuing, attaining are all natural aspects of being human. But we don’t always need to be in pursuit, yearning for more. We can build resilience to this constant onslaught of desire. There is a way to pause and float above it all, to be where you are, to enjoy what you already have.

We’ve all forgotten how to stop and smell the roses.

Pair this post with another all-time favorite post (archive) of mine by Hadden Turner.

But perhaps the most important reason I must return my gaze to Chelmsford is that this city, its people, and its wildlife lay a claim on me — a claim of responsibility which every inhabitant of every city, town or village has — to do good to the place you are in and one day leave it in a more convivial state than you first came to it. Where you are is where you are — and is where you must be4. As Wendell Berry wisely once said “Do you think it could be a general rule that the only place one is urgently needed is at home?” The more I have pondered these wise words, the more heartily I find myself answering “yes”.

Effective altruism or bullshit?

I’m halfway through this brilliant essay (archive) on effective altruism by P. Jordan Anderson it’s both brilliant and dense. It’s a wonderful primer to one of the most viral charitable moments of the 21st century. Pair it with David Pinsof’s brilliant post (archive):

You’ve gotta live it

An insightful and thoughtful post (archive) by Alex Perez on why most journalism has gone to shit. He argues that journalism was once dominated by people from ordinary and working-class backgrounds, but it’s now filled with people who can afford elite degrees and have lived relatively cosseted lives. When you no longer have people who understand cultural realities, class conflicts, and racial inequalities, you get journalism that is not just puerile but also one-dimensional.

You see the dumb opinions that result from an inability to understand the lived reality of the vast majority of people in Indian media as well. Snotty, elitist opinions, and ceaseless pontification about social matters that one couldn’t remotely fathom from the comfort of one’s privilege.

The relative absence of the adjacent figure in mainstream media—whether on the progressive or conservative side—has resulted in a sterilized environment, of two bubbles perpetually battling each other. It’s always been difficult for the adjacent figure to penetrate the elite world, but as the two bubbles have consolidated in their mutual obsession with each other, the marginal critic has been squeezed out. The difficulty lies in the ability of the adjacent figure to navigate disparate social scenes with the necessary authenticity to be allowed entry. He must understand the norms and nuances of elite culture, while simultaneously keeping a foot in the lower classes. It isn’t a matter of merely code-switching, as the differences between elite and non-elite go beyond conversational differences; it involves the far more difficult task of status switching—navigating between the rich world and the poor world. The adjacent figure, in elite spaces, may look the part and even sound the part, but something will always be slightly off. Maybe he still doesn’t know which fork to use or how to feel comfortable around old money. When the journalism world was slightly more working-class, the status switch wasn’t as difficult to navigate, but now a lower-class outsider must be attuned to the perpetually shifting language rules and norms. It probably isn’t worth the work for the outsider, and so he tends to leave, and the bubble consolidates again. Meanwhile, the status switch upon returning to the non-elite-world is just as jarring. 

Other notable reads

What Would Make Americans Eat Better? (archive)

India Steps Back From the Brink (archive)

Ecuador’s Risky War on Narcos (archive)

Get lost in poetic reveries

See the light and get lost in it.

A couple of months ago, I started reading The Poetics of Space by French philosopher Gaston Bachelard. It is by far one of the most enriching, rewarding, and delightful books I have ever read. It’s not a book that lends itself easily to description. While it’s nominally about unpacking the many meanings of home, it’s much more than that.

It’s one of those rare books in which very little is explicit. It’s written so that every reader is forced to dream and let their imagination run wild, so that they can reclaim old meanings and conjure new ones about the humble abode we all take for granted. It’s a delightfully messy and abstract book that’s filled with all sorts of detours, from poetry, philosophy, and psychology to botany.

Once you read the book, you will see your home, which lives within you and cocoons you from the outside, in a new light. As you read the book, you will be forced to step outside your own body and construct vivid daydreams about everything from the cupboards and chests to the roofs and stairs.

Your childhood dreams and memories will come rushing into your consciousness, like a dammed-off river that’s set free. You will remember the warmth and safety that your first house provided you with, so that you could swim in the deepest oceans, climb the tallest mountains, and bask in the warm afterglow of distant stars.

Once you read the book, you will never see your house the same way again. You will feel a certain kinship with the place, which is your own little safe corner in this vast universe—your own universe. Gaston Bachelard makes even the simple profound. I’m inordinately grateful that I found this little book and got to read it.

Throughout the book, Bachelard includes wonderful poems from some luminous poets across the ages. The last time I read a poem was in my undergrad English class more than a decade ago. After that, I don’t think I’ve read a single poem. I now regret that.

I have no recollection of the magic of poetry. It had forgotten the ability of poems to make the ineffable, effable.

Poetry is the language that sits really close to feelings that defy language. Poetry nudges some of our feelings of joy or confusion or desire toward feelings that we can recognize and describe. I take solace in the fact that it’s poems that we turn to in big moments of change — like the loss of someone or a marriage or the birth of a child — because poems are resourceful for finding terms that remind us of what we live with but don’t always bring into speech. — Tracy K. Smith, U.S. Poet Laureate

I was a latecomer to poetry — an art form I did not understand and, as we tend to do with what we do not understand, discounted. But under its slow seduction, I came to see how it shines a sidewise gleam on the invisible and unnameable regions of being where the truest truths dwell, the most difficult and the most beautiful; how it sneaks in through the backdoor of consciousness to reveal us more fully to ourselves; how it gives us an instrument for paying attention, which is how we learn to love the world more. — Maria Popova

The Poetics of Space is sprinkled with verses from the greatest conductors of imagination, such as Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Charles Péguy, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Jules Supervielle, Tristan Tzara, Henri Michaux, and Rainer Maria Rilke—poets that I hadn’t heard of.

So, I started reading a little bit of poetry and also bought a few books. Then I realized that you don’t even have to buy a book. Many of the greatest poems ever written are in the public domain. So I decided to read one poem a week and share it here in the hopes that it might move you.

I’m also creating a separate section called “Poetic Reveries.” The name is inspired by Poetics of Space. It’s also the title of another of Bacherald’s books called The Poetics of Reverie, which I’ve yet to read.

In itself, revery constitutes a psychic condition that is too frequently confused with dream. But when it is a question of poetic revery, of revery that derives pleasure not only from itself, but also prepares poetic pleasure for other souls, one realizes that one is no longer drifting into somnolence. The mind is able to relax, but in poetic revery the soul keeps watch, with no tension, calmed and active. To compose a finished, well-constructed poem, the mind is obliged to make projects that prefigure it. But for a simple poetic image, there is no project; a flicker of the soul is all that is needed.

Poetic revery, unlike somnolent revery, never falls asleep. Starting with the simplest of images, it must always set the waves of the imagination radiating.

— From The Poetics of Space


The first poem I wanted to share is “In the Light” by Kamini Roy, the legendary Bengali poet, activist, and teacher. I came across the poem in the wonderful Poem-a-Day newsletter by the Academy of American Poets.

It’s an evocative and stirring poem that celebrates the miracle life. One of the curses of modernity is that we often get stuck in mechanistic routines and become zombie-like. We allow our sense of joy, awe, and wonderment to be stifled; we lose reverence for life, and this is a tragedy. I hope this poem stirs you so that you start seeing the light.

In the Light

Kamini Roy

We are indeed children of Light. What an endless mart goes on in the Light. In the Light is our sleeping and waking, the play of our life and death. 

Beneath one great canopy, in the ray of one great sun, slowly, very slowly, burn the unnumbered lamps of life. 

In the midst of this unending Light I lose myself; amidst this intolerable radiance I wander like one blind. 

We are indeed children of Light. Why then do we fear when we see the Light? Come, let us look all around and see, here no man hath cause for any fear. 

In this boundless ocean of Light, if a tiny lamp goes out, let it go; who can say that it will not burn again? 


Did the poem move you?

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Slouching towards Armageddon

Earlier this week, I was listening to a podcast episode with macro strategist Whitney Baker, and she mentioned George Soros’ theory of reflexivity:

It’s just the idea that a certain cause will create an effect, and that will then create another cause that kind of works in a circular way. So you can think about anything like a virtuous cycle or a vicious cycle as having some degree of self-reinforcing reflexivity.

In simple terms, it’s the idea that investors are not rational and have various biases and cognitive flaws. Given these limitations, when investors make decisions, they are acting based on subjective views of reality. These actions lead to self-reinforcing feedback loops that affect the actions of other investors, which in turn reinforce similar behavior, leading to boom and bust cycles. You can read about the idea in detail in Soros’ own words here if you are interested.

Anyway, I was bored of listening to finance podcasts, and I started listening to a podcast about World War 1. Learning about WWI has long been on my wish list, but I never got around to it. The list of regrets in my life is only matched by the number of books I want to read but haven’t read yet.

The podcast was decent, but I was searching for a better show. I then remembered that a week ago, a colleague had mentioned that he was listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. If you have never heard of the podcast, then shame on you. It’s arguably one of the greatest podcasts ever, and it has done more to popularize podcasts than anything or anyone else.

Dan Carlin had narrated a six-part series on the history of WWI called Blueprint for Armageddon that’s about 23 hours long. I had heard one or two episodes several years ago, but I had forgotten about them, so I started listening again. I finished the first episode, and it’s bloody brilliant. The sheer breadth and depth of research that’s gone into making the series is insane. It’s like listening to the summaries of several great tomes on the Great War.

What makes the show special compared to other WWI podcasts is Dan Carlin’s deep, gravelly, and intense voice. There’s something about his tone. The man’s voice can evoke an orchestra of bloody and violent horrors in your head. The undulating intensity of his voice slowly heightens the tension and keeps you hooked.

Your imagination lights up as you listen to him, and you become a witness to history as his voice deftly guides you through one of the bloodiest phases of humanity. From the great halls in which weak men made fateful decisions to the killing fields that consumed millions, history comes alive. Carlin is a true Sherpa of history.

As I heard the first episode, I couldn’t help but think of George Soros’s theory of reflectivity. The events leading up to the First World War were a textbook case of reflexive feedback loops. One fateful action triggered another, and the whole world, which was peaceful just a few weeks before, was in flames.

While World War I was a fight between European powers, it touched the entire world through colonial connections. Over 1.5 million Indians, 1+ million Africans, 400,000+ Australians, and hundreds of thousands more from Canada and New Zealand served in the war. Several bloody battles were fought across Africa.

I work in finance, and the one thing that the markets beat into you is the fact that the future is uncertain and things can change on a dime. You also learn that most things that you do to reduce uncertainty are a road to ruin. I had a newfound appreciation for this fact as I listened to the series. Let me explain what I mean. But before that, I’m not an expert on World War 1, and what I’m about to describe is a very broad and deliberately superficial outline. So please don’t post mean comments. I have low self-esteem, and I will cry.

Slouching towards Armageddon

In 1908, the Austro-Hungarian Empire formally annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, which it was administering. This created deep resentment among Serbians who dreamed of their own independent nation. So in June 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie decided to visit Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, there was a mood of tense anticipation. The date for the visit was set for June 28, 1914. It would prove to be a fateful day.

Nationalist passions were intense in Serbia and Bosnia. Their antagonism toward the Austro-Hungarian Empire had given birth to several nationalist organizations. One such group was called the Black Hand, a secret military society formed by officers in the Serbian army.

The Black Hand decided to take advantage of the archduke’s visit and assassinate him because they saw him as a threat to their independence. On that fateful day of June 28th, they lined up seven assassins at various points to assassinate the archduke.

Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, made their way through Sarajevo in an open car. As the convoy passed, the first assassin, a Bosnian-Serb named Nedeljko Cabrinovic, threw a hand grenade at the archduke’s car. There’s no agreement on what happened next. Some accounts suggest that the driver may have heard a loud noise and decided to accelerate, causing the grenade to bounce off the car, while others say that the archduke may have swatted the grenade away.

The archduke was unfazed and decided to continue the day as planned. He goes to the city hall as scheduled and delivers a speech. After this, Franz Ferdinand decided to visit the hospital to check on the injured before he left. It was decided to change the route for security reasons, but not all drivers understood this.

On the way, the archduke’s driver took a wrong turn, and realizing his mistake, he stopped to back up. As fate would have it, he stops directly in front of 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, one of the assassins. Princip steps forward and fires two shots, killing the archduke and the duchess Sophie.

With a wrong turn and two shots, the entire continent would be at war in just a few weeks. Of course, the assassination wasn’t the cause, but one of many that triggered the war.

Here’s Dan Carlin’s vivid description of the events leading up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand from first episode of the podcast “Blueprint for Armageddon”:

The person who was closest to the whole thing was Count von Harrach, who was on the running board, not doing that great of a job apparently at security. He says as soon as the shots were fired, they reversed the car, and he later testified this quote: “As the car quickly reversed, a thin stream of blood spurted from His Highness’s mouth onto my right cheek. As I was pulling out my handkerchief to wipe the blood away from his mouth, the Duchess cried out to him, ‘For God’s sake, what has happened to you?’ At that, she slid off the seat and lay on the floor of the car with her face between his knees.

I had no idea that she too was hit and thought that she had simply fainted with fright. Then I heard His Imperial Highness say, ‘Sophie, Sophie, don’t die! Stay alive for the children!’ At that, I seized the Archduke by the collar of his uniform to stop his head drooping forward and asked him if he was in great pain. He answered me quite distinctly, ‘It is nothing.’ His face began to twist somewhat, but he went on repeating six or seven times, ever more faintly as he gradually lost consciousness, ‘It’s nothing.’ Then came a brief pause, followed by a convulsive rattle in his throat caused by the loss of blood. This ceased on arrival at the governor’s residence. The two unconscious bodies were carried into the building, where their death was soon established.”End quote.

As a way to sort of prove that the old adage “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is true, you have only to note that among Serbs today, many will consider Gavrilo Princip a heroic figure, someone who fired the first shots that started a chain of events that, while it would be horrible in both world wars for the Serbian people, eventually led to a time when those countries exist without having to be just simply a province in some other major superpower’s territories.

I still can’t wrap my head around the sheer improbability of the fact that WWI was triggered all because of a wrong turn. Now, of course, the archduke’s assassination wasn’t the only cause of the great war. It just lit a spark in the dynamite-laden cracks in the peace between the great European powers of the era.

The Europe of this era was a multipolar world with several superpowers. After the horrific and destructive Napoleonic Wars, almost all of the major powers had mutual defense treaties with each other.

Wikipedia

From episode 1 of Blueprint for Armageddon:

This is the era of a very complex web of alliances that bind European countries to each other. It’s perhaps the most enduring work of Otto von Bismarck, the 19th-century German diplomat who played a very large role in the foundation of modern Germany. Bismarck also played a huge role in creating a system of alliances that both expanded Germany’s possibilities while at the same time preserving general peace in Europe.

There were wars between Napoleon and the First World War, and some of them were directly the fault of Bismarck, but there wasn’t a general European conflict involving all the major powers. Let’s not forget that this is an era that we would today call a multipolar world, which is hard for us to understand in an era of one or two superpowers. Europe during this time period had at least five first-rate power states: Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many people throw in Turkey and Italy too, which would make seven. These states were all bound to each other with complex alliance systems, and complex is the way Bismarck wanted it.

Bismarck had set it up so that basically, no matter what happened, he was in the driver’s seat. This worked unbelievably well, especially for German interests but also for European interests as a whole, for a long time. However, by the time 1914 rolls around, this genius who created this system that’s so complex only he knew how to run it had been fired by the leader of Germany. Now, this complex machine that the genius of Bismarck had created and run was being run by people who couldn’t carry his jockstrap, as we used to say.

It was inevitable that something like that would break down. The reason that the Austro-Hungarians didn’t just march into Serbia the minute they found out that the Serbs were responsible for killing their heir to the throne is that they knew that would mean war with Russia.

After the archduke’s assassination, the Austro-Hungarian Empire seeks the help of its ally Germany, because if it invades Serbia, then Russia will step in to help the Serbs. There’s no agreement among historians on this, but the German Kaiser Wilhelm II is supposed to have given the Austrians a blank check to deal with the Serbians.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire gives the Serbians an ultimatum with a list of demands that’s impossible to meet. Serbia chooses to comply with most of the demands, but this wasn’t enough for the Austrians, and on July 28th, they declare war on Serbia. In response, Russia orders a mobilization of its troops to support the Serbs.

The Germans send an ultimatum to the Russians to stop mobilization, which Russia ignores. On August 1st, Germany declares war on Russia. France had a mutual defense treaty with Russia and a plan to mobilize its troops. Within one month of the assassination, four major powers in Europe were at war.

Britain was the only superpower remaining on the sidelines. Now, Britain had carefully managed to avoid any permanent alliances. It had a gentleman’s agreement with France to come to its aid, but it wasn’t binding, so it decided to stay on the sidelines. But it wouldn’t last long.

Germany had a serious problem—it was encircled on both sides by its enemies. On one side, it shared a border with Russia, and on the other, it shared a border with France. Its worst nightmare had come true, and it was now at war with both countries.

The National Museum of Australia

However, Germany had planned for this eventuality for a long time. Germany’s plan for a two-front war with Russia and France involved sending a massive number of troops to quickly defeat France and then running back to fight the Russians. The assumption here was that it would take a long time for Russia to mobilize its low-tech army across such a large geography.

Peacetime strategic planning was relatively new in Europe (in the Crimean War the British and French had first declared war and then decided how to fight it). It had started in Prussia, and after Bismarck’s victories in 1866 and 1870 it was copied elsewhere. Recent research has shown the war plans were more adaptable than Taylor suggested and were subject to regular revision: the French in 1914 implemented their Plan XVII and the Russians Plan XIX Altered, while the German plan was a rolling document amended every year.

We now also know that many military chiefs envisaged a conflict that so far from being over by Christmas would last at least eighteen months. Even so, in the summer and autumn of 1914 the belligerents’ war plans almost uniformly failed.

The German plan (best referred to as the Schlieffen-Moltke Plan) entailed moving the bulk of the field army westwards to defeat France quickly by wheeling through Belgium and outflanking the modern fortresses the French had built along the Franco-German border. The more archaic Belgian fortresses round Liège and Namur could be overcome quickly by mobile heavy artillery, and the French had left their northern frontier largely unfortified.

But there was a problem: The mutual border that France shared with Germany was one of the most fortified places on the planet. With enough time, Germany could smash through them but they didn’t have time. If they took time, Russia would be in Berlin by then. So Germany had only one option: hit France on the other side, which is lightly defended, but there was again a problem here.

On the other side, France didn’t share a border with Germany, but with Belgium and Luxembourg, both of which were neutral states. In a tragic twist of fate, in 1839, Britain had promised to protect Belgium’s neutrality if it was violated. Germany had no option but to go through Belgium, and Britain was dragged into the war, and the whole continent was in flames.

In a sense, the Great War was a series of tragic coincidences that happened all at once. Of course, the nominal cause of WWI was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but there were deep fissures in Europe. Historians still bicker about who or what caused the war, but the reality is there isn’t just one person or country to blame, even though many historians do.

Here’s an excerpt from historian Margaret Macmillan’s wonderful talk on the causes of WWI:

But when you try to find the causes of the First World War, I think you’re looking at everything from individuals, and I think individual decisions in fact do at various points make a difference, but you’re also looking at the world in which those decisions were made. You’re looking at the values of that world, the assumptions of that world, the tensions in that world. And so you have to take into account such things as national rivalries, economic rivalries, competition for colonies. You have to, I think, look at the arms race, which was becoming increasingly expensive and increasingly important in Europe in the years just before 1914. You have to look at the military plans.

I sometimes feel as if what you’re doing when you’re trying to understand the First World War is trying to understand a chess game which is played on three different boards, at least, all of them connected so that moving a pawn or a queen or a castle on one board affects something on the other two boards.

The best explanation I’ve come up with, which is not, as you will see, a very satisfactory one, is that what happened in 1914 was very much like a perfect storm. A number of things came together in a particular sequence which made what might have been yet another crisis in the Balkans (because there had been several crises in the Balkans before 1914) uncontrollable. And once Europe had got into the war, it became very, very difficult to stop it. The war turned out to be much longer than most people who had been making decisions, and most people who had been watching those decisions, could ever have expected.Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when published. — Explaining the Outbreak of the First World War.

Aside: She’s also The author of The War That Ended Peace: 

The cost of the war was dear. Not just in terms of money or blood, but in terms of how it shaped the world after. Here’s an excerpt from a wonderful talk that Christopher Clark, the author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, gave:

This war in particular, I think, has rightly been described as the primal catastrophe. The term is Kennan’s, George Kennan originally, the primal catastrophe of the 20th century. It’s been widely taken up in the German language historiography, the “Urkatastrophe”.

“Urkatastrophe” has a kind of, I don’t know, a hairy, scary sort of feel to it, which “primal catastrophe” doesn’t, but in any case, it consumed, and this term “primal catastrophe” is now controversial. The point has been made that, you know, this war was not a primal catastrophe for everybody. It wasn’t for the Baltic states or for Poland.

Everybody, but it is, I think, if we think about the amount of poison released into the European political system by this war, about its destabilizing effect on global politics, about its long-term consequences in the Middle East, it is, I think, right to think of this war, in its global frame, as a primal catastrophe. It consumed four great empires: the German Empire, the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and of course, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. All were consumed in the cauldron of this war.

More importantly, it caused the deaths of between 10 and 13 million young men. These are just military deaths on its numerous fields of conflict. The global statistics about wounded men are not very reliable, but the estimates sort of oscillate between 15 and 21 million wounded men. And I’m not talking here about lightly wounded men who were treated in theater or in local field hospitals just behind the front, but men who had carried serious wounds, many of whom felt the effects of these wounds right through until the end of their lives.

And so I think that Fritz Stern, the German-American Jewish historian, a wonderful historian, is right when he says that this is the disaster out of which all the disasters of the 20th century sprang. It’s very difficult to imagine the rise and seizure of power of fascism in Italy without this war. It’s difficult to imagine the October Revolution in the Russian Empire without the First World War.

Everybody predicted something like the February Revolution: collapse of tsarist autocratic authority, a seizure of power by a sort of middling coalition of political entities, you know, right-wing social democrats perhaps, Kadets (Constitutional Democrats), nationalists, and so on. But no one had foreseen the coup-like takeover of power by the Bolsheviks and the creation thereafter of a one-party state under Bolshevik control, which of course in its course was attended by a further Russian Civil War that consumed yet another 5 to 7 million lives.

Again, we don’t have very good statistics, and of course, it’s difficult to imagine German history taking the disastrous and appalling turn that it took in the direction of Nazism and of the Holocaust without the titanic pressures brought to bear on German society and, above all, on German political culture by this vast conflict.

Fingerprints of the past

As I heard Dan Carlin describe in great detail how the world sleepwalked into a catastrophe of epic proportions, I couldn’t help but think of modern-day parallels. Today’s world, has many of the hallmarks of Europe prior to 1914. It may be the human brain’s tendency to seek patterns, our instinctive impulse to look to the past to understand the present, or maybe I’m an idiot who doesn’t understand history, but it’s hard not to see the similarities to the world before World War I.

You also hear many of the same arguments that were put forth before World War I as to why a war is unlikely. From Dan Carlin’s Blueprint for Armageddon I:

They’ve been snapping up books like The Great Illusion, written by Norman Angell where the historians point out how influential this book was. Angell is trying to explain to the people in that time period that this war that continually gets threatened, like the Russian Roulette trigger being pulled, is never going to happen. It can’t happen.

The world has become too interdependent in that time period; there’s too much globalization. This is the early period where all that starts, where you have the telegraph providing instant communication, and the railroads and the shipping lines, and trade had never been higher, wealth had never been grander, and Europe was at the height of its financial power, and Britain was at the height of everybody’s financial power. Why would you mess with that economic situation?

Guys like Angell were saying that what had happened is it was so profitable to simply do business as usual that there was nothing worth going to war over. What Angell was saying is that anything you would gain by launching a war would be dwarfed by what you would lose by destroying the system that was allowing everyone to make so much money. There’s an old line that when goods don’t cross borders, armies will. Well, this is the opposite situation. Their goods are crossing borders like crazy.

So guys like Angell tell you that, you know, because of that formula, and they believe in that formula, you can’t have a war. But the British are starting to find out, you know, as this dead zone period from the end of the archduke’s assassination to the ultimatum by Serbia, what the British are starting to find out is that Angell is at least partially wrong. He may be right that you will destroy a whole system that’s making everybody rich, but he seems to be wrong in thinking that the powers that be will avoid a war because of that.

Margaret MacMillan, from the same talk I linked above:

Question from the audience: You do draw a number of parallels between our current political situation and the situation at the turn of the 20th century. Do you have any ideas about perhaps the seeds of things that you see now that might cause people to do something equally as stupid as what happened then?

Margaret MacMillan: Okay, our capacity to do stupid things is huge, I think. You know, I think that’s a given. What worries me always is when you have disputes which engage nationalist feelings, because I think these can push governments in ways they may not want to go. Governments sometimes themselves, of course, encourage such things.

I’m thinking of the current tension in the South and East China Seas between China and its neighbors, and how this is becoming a nationalist cause in Japan, for example. I was recently in Japan and I talked to some Japanese international relations experts who were very concerned about the ways in which they thought Prime Minister Abe was using and appealing to Japanese nationalism to mobilize opinion against China, and the Chinese government doing something rather similar with Chinese nationalism. The trouble with those things is they can get out of control far too quickly.

And I think perhaps even more than in 1914, we expect governments to respond quickly. You know, if a government hasn’t responded in two minutes, people start getting impatient. And so the temptation to do something stupid… I mean, you know, should a Chinese – let’s hope not – but should a Chinese and a Japanese naval vessel have a clash, or should there be some incident in the air, the danger then, I think, is that opinion on both sides gets inflamed and it becomes very difficult for governments to back down.

I think the same thing with what’s happening around the borders of Russia, particularly of course in Ukraine. You know, the potential there for things to get out of control… On the plus side, I think we do have stronger and more international institutions. And I think we also have a very sensible recognition that any major war now would be so devastating that its consequences would probably be much worse than either the First or the Second World War.

But I’m not always confident about human nature. As someone once said – not me – we have a couple of design flaws there.

Christopher Clark again from the same talk I linked above:

And finally, there is the fact that we are no longer in the era of bipolar stability that we used to call the Cold War, and we are still scratching our heads and trying to work out what that means. I went to an interesting paper in Belgrade by George Friedman, the American political scientist, and he commented that we had the Cold War, then we had the post-Cold War – that was the period from 1989 till about 2007, and that was an era of total unipolarity.

There was only one great power left and everybody was watching Washington, and there was talk of full spectrum dominance and so on. That era has now passed and we are now in what he calls the post-post-Cold War. It gets more and more unwieldy – I was hoping he would come up with something a bit more handy, but no, the post-post-Cold War.

And this is an era when it is no longer unipolar. We are back in a period which is authentically multipolar, with numerous centers of power, a world populated not just by, on the one hand, a weary Titan – that was the term sometimes used about Britain before 1914, and some might like today to describe Washington as a weary Titan.

It is not in decline in any kind of metrically provable sense, but it is certainly wearying in some respects, subjectively at least, of its world role, or parts of it are. On the one hand, we have that, and on the other hand, we have rising powers, one in particular which is rattling at the cage of the geopolitical system in ways which unsettle many chancelleries, and I am not, of course, referring to Russia.

So, these shifts in perspective, which, I mean, this is of course a world which in many ways resembles 1914 more and more, rather than less and less, so we have a paradoxical situation where, even as 1914 recedes further away into the past, it actually in some ways feels more relevant.

I came across these two quotes as I was writing this post:

“History is the sum total of things that could have been avoided.” – Konrad Adenauer, first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (1876-1967)

History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies.” – Alexis de Tocqueville, French diplomat, political scientist, and historian (1805-1859)

In a previous post, I wrote about optimists vs. pessimists. When you learn about the history of WWI, and how leaders bumbled their way into a horrendous war, it’s a bit hard to be optimistic about humanity. Optimists may point out that we’ve managed to survive two world wars. However, what’s different this time is that the killing power of modern weapons has never been higher.

The history of the First World War is fascinating. I’ve just started learning about it, and I’ll continue to write as I learn more. Dan Carlin’s series is brilliant, and it’s one of the best places to start if you are interested. I cannot recommend it enough.

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