Philip Gourevitch: We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families

The quote on the cover is apt: “a staggeringly good book.” This is a cutting political dissection of Rwanda from before it was even conceived of to modern times, with the horrific genocide of 1994 the unfortunate climax in this story.  The salient point is that Rwanda and by extension Africa isn’t a hapless mess, but a complex web of competing interests. In the case of Rwanda the country didn’t succumb to barbarism, there is a clear party at fault which is the Hutu supremacists, the perpetrators of the genocide.

There’s a tendency to write off the continent altogether since it seems blighted by war, poverty, dictators and dysfunction. There’s truth in that, but the reality is that the people aren’t amoral savages destined to Hobbesian brutality; they just happen to live in places with a web of competing and conflicting groups and interests, not unlike a Europe of  500 years ago (or even 25 years ago in Yugoslavia). Even an insane situation like genocide can’t be attributed strictly to homicidal barbarism. There is a logic to it and a brutal pursuit of self-interest at play.  Rwanda is decipherable if you pay close attention and anything decipherable is also workable, which is the good news.

The unfortunate truth is that no country and even no individual person can rely on others to save them when in need. To quote The Streets:

“No-one’s really there fighting for you in the last garrison. No-one except yourself that is, no-one except you.  You are the one who’s got your back ’til the last deed’s done.”

When staggering evil is unleashed and you assume that surely someone will realize this and do something, that something might not happen. In the case of Rwanda there was an assumption, or at least a hope, that individual Hutu’s might restrain themselves from killing, that other African nations, the United Nations or the USA would intervene.

Unfortunately it was not in the interest of anyone to risk anything to prevent the Tutsi from being slaughtered, aside from themselves. Individual Hutu found it safer to follow orders, even when it meant hacking your in-laws to death with a machete. The United Nations did not have members willing to fight for the Tutsi, nor did the USA, which was still reeling from the killing of 18 marines in Somalia. The French even sent in troops to aid the butchers as it was somehow calculated that it was in their self-interest. The only salvation for Tutsi’s were other Tutsi’s, as those exiled in Uganda were able to mount a successful invasion of Rwanda and come to their rescue.

The conundrum for Rwandans today is that they must cooperate and identify first as Rwandans, not Hutu or Tutsi, if the country is to function and anyone is to prosper.  This requires an enormous level of trust, especially when you know the other side has the potential to obliterate you and has tried to recently. If you can’t trust anyone else, how do you then build trust? The good news for Rwandans in all of this is that they at least know they can’t count on the USA, the United Nations or anyone else for guidance or salvation. If they want the country to work and to prosper, only they can truly figure it out.

Currently the country is a dictatorship run mostly by Tutsi’s, who form only about 15% of the population. The human rights record is poor, as opposition and free speech are not tolerated. However, the life expectancy rate has doubled, the economy is doing well and child deaths are much lower. It isn’t an ideal situation as people should be able to speak freely or run for office.

At the same time it’s a logical arrangement as it’d be asking a lot of Tutsi’s to cede power to Hutu’s, akin to Jews handing the reins to Germans in 1955, as would be the case if a free election were held. The objective is to create and instill a Rwandan national identity that supersedes an ethnic identity. When this project is complete and a level of trust is established, there’d be minimized risk that more freedom would lead to violence. In the meantime a Tutsi government ensures the Hutu, if tempted, can’t repeat their mistakes of the recent past.  As with Europe post-WWII the solution to unbearable violence is to expand the concept of who “us” is and hopefully there will be a realization that violence is in nobody’s interest. It isn’t perfect, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and it seems like a Rwandan solution from those who know best the realities of their own country.

I can’t rate this book highly enough if this is a subject that remotely interests you.

Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything

The two previous books were intentionally easy reads as I was prepping to tackle this big boy and stick to my 1/week average. It is after all a summation of all important scientific knowledge known to mankind. Tectonic plates, astronomy, evolution, bacteria, the atom. All that and more.

I admit that when it comes to science I am an ignoramus. I consume a ton of politics, history and even psychology, but scientifically I’m the equivalent of the 11% of Americans that can’t even place their own country on the map.

Why don’t I care about science? I find people interesting, for one. I also don’t much care how scientists came to know something to be true, which is to say all of the computations required to arrive at a conclusion. I don’t know enough to value this work or have an opinion, so it is basically gibberish. Whether it is carbon dating or the theory of relativity, the end result is fascinating, the process less so. The other reason is pure vanity – thinking about the natural world makes me feel small.  I am but one organism among trillions that have existed on Earth over 4 billion years and our planet is potentially just one of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 in the universe. My body is an assemblage of atoms that will disperse and take other forms. The light I view from a star is actually 800 years old and my most important star, the sun, will eventually burn out entirely.  It’s enough to make anyone feel insignificant, which is probably why most religions imagine a world centered around the Earth and humans.

Still, when learning more it appears we are extraordinarily lucky. It is totally possible the big bang might not have produced matter or that gravity could have collapsed the universe. The Earth could be a few degrees further from the Sun, rendering it a frozen wasteland. The atmosphere might not have arisen and cosmic rays would enter Earth, burning my flesh (or whatever little bit of algae or mollusk that might become me). Bacteria, asteroids, cooling or heating of the Earth, massive volcanic eruptions, neanderthals bashing homo sapiens to death with clubs. All would mean no me.  If a piece of Earth hadn’t chunked off and reassembled as the moon the sun would be setting on me as I type this as a day would only be about 8 hours long.  It isn’t fate that I’m here, just luck. I’m extremely fortunate for that and I’m grateful. That extreme fortuity makes me feel less small in the scheme of things.

This book is fantastic if you mostly want a history of scientific thought, with just a bare bones explanation as to how scientists arrived at their conclusions. Bryson sprinkles in the stories of the scientists themselves, which are often hilarious, bizarre, sad (those who pursued theories for their entire life that were wrong or those who were never recognized in their time) and often inspiring. Nearly every new discovery was viciously opposed as status quo scientists dug their heels into existing paradigms for reasons of inertia, power, money or lack of imagination. This book is great as it is as much a story of the humans who have uncovered some of the universe’s secrets as it is a list of what they found. We owe them all, even those who failed, a tremendous debt.




Robert Sutton: The No Asshole Rule

I’ve been buying used books lately and because they are cheap I often buy books I wouldn’t shell out $20 for. If they stink, no big loss. Also helps when they are short. Enter The No Asshole Rule.

This book is focused on the business world, but the same rules apply in any area of life. This management guru takes a Buddhist approach, arguing that not only does treating people well produce better results (for a business), but is also just the right thing to do since it makes people happier and improves the lives of them and those around them.

I think the biggest misconception that this book dispels is that being an asshole is necessary to produce results. It will often benefit someone short-term in moving up the corporate ladder, but it produces negative results for the organization. Employees quit, spend more time protecting themselves then doing a good job (they don’t report mistakes that can help improve efficiency), become disengaged (steal more, do poor work), it becomes harder to hire people or a “premium” is required (i.e. you have to pay people more) and managers and human resources spend time resolving conflict or even lawsuits.

The supposed superstar, who is a raging jerk, when you tally up the costs of them being an asshole is actually incompetent. A single salesperson, who was good at sales, was shown to have cost his company $160,000/year through being an asshole. His success was also inflated since he stole easy sales from other employees.

The other example is a surgical team. The surgical team led by a tyrant has no reported errors. Was everything done perfectly? No, the errors just weren’t reported by underlings out of fear. The mistakes persisted. The surgical team lead by a non-asshole reported ten times as many surgical errors because no one feared the boss, allowing the team to fix the problems and becoming more efficient. The bottom line is that ruling through fear, on the whole, doesn’t work, especially in larger organizations.

The New Zealand All Blacks were the most talented rugby team in the early 2000s, but the results didn’t show it. They failed to win the rugby world cup repeatedly, despite having the best players. An assessment of the culture found that the players were talented, but were arrogant, self-absorbed and partied too much. A major culture change was instituted, culminating in the No Dickheads rule. The team requires an attitudinal change and they back this up with action. No matter how good you are they won’t select you if you have a poor attitude. I’m sure a few NFL coaches would have been happier with a no T.O. rule.

The result for the All Blacks has been unparalleled success, winning world cups and setting records for most wins. On the field they never bicker, argue with the ref and rarely have off field drama.  A star player recently got caught having sex in an airport, landing him on the bench for an extended period despite his talents.

The disturbing part of this book were studies showing that power causes most people to treat others beneath them poorly, the “kiss up, kick down” effect. This isn’t surprising to anyone that has worked in an office. I had a boss that was a disgusting sycophant with higher ups to the point where he literally would never disagree with them, even on a minor insignificant point. He’d agree to incorrect facts knowingly, which might have helped him, but caused great harm to the organization. Sadly he was promoted, but I recently heard he is now engaged in constant conflict. Not surprising.

The other point made in the book is that the jerks themselves inevitably suffer for their own arrogance. Michael Eisner of Disney was fired for being an asshole. Others accrue enemies who pounce when a moment of weakness is detected. Stephen Harper, the Canadian PM, governed like a dickhead. When he was weakened people didn’t hesitate to turn on him and he was trounced in the last election. In the extreme case of Steve Jobs he was so arrogant that he believed an all juice diet would defeat cancer. Many assholes think this trait gives them success, but that is usually just confirmation bias. They typically have the skills needed to succeed without acting that way. In the end they suffer for their behaviour.

My old rugby team had a few players that were self-declared assholes. They were rude to new players, insulted or ignored others and blamed everyone else. They managed to be key leaders, deciding things like who gets playing time. As a result of being dicks they had to spend a miserable season losing badly and playing a full 80 minutes every game. Other players had quit, new players didn’t join and nobody played hard.  Two don’t play anymore though they’d like to and one guy plays for another team where he has no status whatsoever. They tried to put together a team to play in a tournament, but found they didn’t have enough friends to field a decent side. Being an asshole may have been fun, but they didn’t benefit from it in the end.

Highly recommend for a short read, especially if you work in an office setting. Also, take the asshole test yourself to make sure you aren’t part of the problem: