Have you ever read a biography of someone you have never heard of? I think this may be my first. I’ve often thought it was the whole point of a biography; to see someone or something that you admire, and want to know how it happened to be. The tales of Adam Smith, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Facebook come to mind. But the life of Sam Zemurray, the proverbial fish of this book’s title, is incredible even without prior knowledge. If not for his stunning role in bringing bananas to all of our diets, or his outsized impact on South America, his story of rags to riches deserves to be told for the other lessons. And one in particular.
“Zemurray’s life is a parable of the American dream – not history as recorded in textbooks, but the authentic cask-strength version, a subterranean saga of kickbacks, overthrows, and secret deals: the world as it really works.”
The story starts with Sam Zemurray, a penniless Russian immigrant, and his discovery of bananas – posited in numerous fantastical ways. It may sound strange to a modern reader, but bananas weren’t always common, they weren’t destined for smoothies. As a penniless Russian immigrant he had never seen or tasted a banana. And even in the new world, they were hardly a staple. He started small, buying the “waste” bananas of bigger companies, transporting and selling them for a small profit. His bunches became thousands, hundreds of thousands and then millions. Soon there were ships and plantations, railroads and soldiers. He funded a coup and took on the US Government, ran weapons and hired famous mercenaries. Along the way Zemurray and his business grew from something like a fruit-based arbitrage to a vertically integrated behemoth, and he brought the lowly banana along for the ride.
“It was the worldview of the immigrant: understanding how so-called garbage might be valued under a different name, seeing nutrition where others saw only waste.”
Reading some of the other reviews of this book, a lot of the emphasis is placed on these, more fantastic aspects of Zemurray’s story. How he once owned most of Guatemala and fantastically took the helm of United Fruit – the proverbial whale – in a thrilling boardroom coup. But for me the big lesson is the fundamental aspect of Zemurray’s business: it was built on controlling waste and cost. Nowadays we like to glorify the people who think big and loud, want to fashion their world through grand visions, think Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. Zemurray offers a competing path to success, one that is less flashy but also less flash in the pan. He picked the low hanging fruit, literally. His secret sauce wasn’t a new boat that could carry more bananas or carry them faster, it was good old fashioned stinginess.
“Selling hundreds of thousands of bananas a year, he’d become one of the biggest traffickers in the trade. And he’d done it without having to incur the traditional costs. His fruit was grown for him, harvested, and shipped for free.”
Seizing the value of ripe fruit is an amazing innovation. It’s what allowed him not only to profit from, but compete with and eventually subsume his competition. The larger, less nimble corporations were not able to recognise what was laying in their laps. And it’s something we can all learn from: most of us don’t have the skills to create a killer app, the nous to build a rocket or the eye to demand design perfection, but we can all take a look around us to see what’s been wasted. Four stars.
Title – The Fish that Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King
Author: Rich Cohen
Pages: 269 (Hardback)
Josh’s Rating: 4/5
Amazon Link – The Fish that Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King
Speculating about what the future will look like is generally a waste of time. For every correct prediction, you get innumerable Jetsons fantasies. There is, however, a lot to learn from what’s happening right now. Some of the most interesting possibilities thrown up by the information revolution are distributed teams and location agnostic workplaces. Moore’s law and ubiquitous WiFi has given us the power to work from almost anywhere, and at any time. Yet soul-crushing partitions, dreary commutes, and senseless “business hours” rule supreme. Why haven’t companies leaped upon these opportunities? Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com and it’s various tentacles, has. Scott Berkun spent a year working for Automattic, and in a Year Without Pants he gives us a fascinating look at why and how it works.
“An amazing thing about our digital age is that the person next to you at Starbucks might just be hacking into a Swiss bank or launching multi-warhead nuclear missiles continents away. Or maybe he’s just on Facebook.”
The author, Scott Berkun, was a former Microsoft Employee and has written a great many books that I have been recommended to read (I’m getting there). Hence why he was hired in the first place, hired to help with a mammoth experiment in how Automattic is run, and hired on the condition he could write a book about his experience. So there are a great many excellent points in this book that I could focus on. But there are two that really interest me more than anything else: the possibilities that distributed teams offer, and the culture at Automattic that allows it to work.
“Since location is irrelevant, Automattic, the company that runs WordPress.com, can hire the best talent in the world, wherever they are.”
The Year Without Pants begins with Scott’s team hard at work in the lobby of a hotel in Greece. Two Americans, an Australian and a Brit, meeting in person for only the second time, and yet seamlessly beavering away on an update that would affect millions of people. This one scene illustrates what is possibly the greatest advantage to be found in distributed teams: the talent pool you can draw from is global. If you flick on the news almost anywhere nowadays you are likely to find red-faced businesspeople fuming about a lack of qualified workers, or politicians promising some new scheme to fix the problem (curriculum changes, special visas, incentives, etc.). Automattic get’s to bypass all of this. While Facebook lobbies Congress to keep and hire foreign-born engineers, Automattic hires the best and brightest wherever they happen to be.
“A central element in Automattic culture was results first. Nobody cared when you arrived at work or how long you worked. It didn’t matter if you were pant-less in your living room or bathing in the sun, swinging in a hammock with a martini in your hand. What mattered was your output. Shouldn’t the quality of work be the primary measure of worker performance? Isn’t it good, then, to eliminate traditions that get in the way and add ones that help?”
The next point ties right in with the first: a distributed team means a team that crosses ethnicities, languages and timezones. In a globalising world and with an already globalised internet this is a comparative advantage beyond compare. (My own website is run on WordPress but is not hosted by Automattic. So whenever I have a problem I have to wait for someone to be awake and working in Salt Lake City. If you don’t think switching to a service where someone is always on is enticing, well, you’ve got another thing coming). The last great advantage is quality of life for the workers themselves. Automattic employees get to work from home, a Co-Working Space, a coffee shop or pretty much anywhere they feel comfortable and are productive. There are no dress codes, set hours or people looking over their shoulder. And with a relatively flat hierarchy and leadership spread across timezones, the only metric they can really be judged on is their output. For many that mind sound scary, but personally I can’t imagine a more enticing work environment. Let alone one more flexible and conducive to changing lifestyles.
“…how loaded workplaces are with cultural baggage. We faithfully follow practices we can’t explain rationally. Why is it that work has to start at 9:00am and end at 5:00pm? Why are you required to wear a tie if you’re a man and a skirt if you’re a woman? Why are meetings sixty minutes long by default, and not thirty? We have little evidence these habits produce better work.”
All of this, of course, comes down to culture and the nature of the work. They are what make it possible. Automattic is blessed with their product and employees: many Automatticians started out contributing to WordPress as a hobby, and most if not all believe in it’s ideals of democratising publishing.They are also all creative: building and fixing a platform that powers twenty percent of the internet. The same can’t be said of most businesses. But the leadership of Automattic also seem to go to extraordinary lengths to be transparent, empower their team (read: treat them like adults), foster a community, find the right people, and act like people not robots. The stories Berkun relates of their hiring practices (such as project based rather than interview based evaluations) and parties and getaways gives you the impression of a company that realises culture is important, and tries very hard to get it right. Really, the numerous tangents Berkun goes on about culture are worth the sticker price on their own. And the fact that Automattic endorses a book that includes anecdotes of company drinking parties and senior employees taking part in evaluations while hung over, just drives it all home.
“…remote work, and many other perks Automattic used, will work or fail because of company culture, not because of the perk itself…Every benefit granted can be used to perform better work, or it can be abused. The benefit itself rarely has much to do with it.”
I came to this book while researching a radio series I am doing on the opportunities facing Australia’s nascent tech sector (Matt Mullenweg, the CEO of Automattic, very politely declined my interview request). I feel I have learned so much more from this book, and from Automattic, than I ever imagined at the outset. I’m not going to say their model is the future of work. As with any human endeavour, the workplaces of the future will be so myriad and diverse as to escape encapulsation. But there is so much here for the rest of us to learn from, and even implement, that we cannot ignore it. The Year Without Pants is more than a well written account of a unique working experience. It is a guide for how to create and manage a company that rides the biggest workplace innovation in generations, as well as a taste of what’s to come.
“The most dangerous tradition we hold about work is that it must be serious and meaningless. We believe that we’re paid money to compensate us for work not worthwhile on its own.”
Title: The Year Without Pants
Author: Scott Berkun
Pages: 258 (Hardcover)
Josh’s Rating: 4/5
Amazon Link: The Year Without Pants
A couple of hours ago I did something amazing: bought lunch. I walked about a kilometre down the road, straight into my favourite Thai restaurant, and got myself some fried rice. Now, you’re probably questioning my sanity, or at the very least pondering how amazing my story is. But it is amazing. In exchange for a colourful piece of paper, the wonderful lady behind the counter put down her newspaper, and through a mixture of skill and fresh ingredients made me a tasty meal. How did it get that way? Why does a piece of paper imbue sufficient power to drive human action? This, my friend, is the story of money. It’s the story of innovation. And it’s an incredibly fascinating story.
“Credit and debt, in short, are among the essential building blocks of economic development, as vital to creating the wealth of nations as mining, manufacturing or mobile telephony.”
Where to begin? Written on the cusp of the Global Financial Crisis, Niall Ferguson starts his tale with a rumination on what exactly money is — silver, paper, pixels on a screen. The root of all evil, the cause of our discontent, and the key to our success. Money is and has been all of these things. But these are not what make money, well, money. Money is a unit of exchange, a unit of account and a store of value. These are the real essences of money, not the whiff of Gold or the declaration of a sovereign. And it’s the story of money’s transformation through all of these stages, to hit all these targets, that makes up the bulk of the pages.
“From ancient Mesopotamia to present-day China, in short, the ascent of money has been one of the driving forces behind human progress: a complex process of innovation, intermediation and integration that has been as vital as the advance of science or the spread of law in mankind’s escape from the drudgery of subsistence agriculture and the misery of the Malthusian trap.”
The most interesting component of the book, however, are the ancillary tales of these great leaps. The clay tablets from 2000BC Mesopotamia, which turn out to be a form tradable debt — thousands of years before the first bond markets. The Spanish looting of an Incan civilisation thoroughly unaware silver’s status in the West, and the long term affects on Spanish Competitiveness. The rise of the Stockmarket in Amsterdam, which fuelled the long arm of the East India Companies. The spread of the “Cotton Bond” allowing the American South to stick around in a war with the North. The Scottish Clergymen who started an Insurance fund that invested the proceeds and paid the widowers and children of clergy out of the profits. And, finally, collateralised debt obligations, sub prime mortgages and the Global Financial Crisis.
“When we withdraw banknotes from automated telling machines, or invest portions of our monthly salaries in bonds and stocks, or insure our cars, or remortgage our homes, or renounce home bias in favour of emerging markets, we are entering into transactions with many historical antecedents.”
It’s with that last point that Ferguson really strikes home. The final parts of the book deal with the complexity of the modern financial system, and how it unravelled in the period leading up to publication. For while all these great innovations have built the world we now inhabit, they have also created one so complex that many simply give up. But we can’t. Giving up is what allows the likes of sub-prime loans to promulgate, and myriad mistakes be remade. Ferguson’s book is a partial answer to that. It’s nowhere near the silver bullet — for more sophisticated readers, there is much to be desired (Adam Smith seems to be particularly glossed over, for example), but it’s a great overview. And Ferguson’s passion for anecdote makes it particularly enjoyable. Three out of five.
Title: The Ascent of Money
Author: Niall Ferguson
Pages: 366 (Paperback)
Josh’s Rating: 3/5
Amazon Link: The Ascent of Money
Growing up in a family with a large number of Muslims, I first heard the story of Muhammad when I was very young. I would hear of Muhammad’s return to Mecca, his clearing the Kabah of pagan idols, and his fight for social justice and the empowerment of Women. It’s a version of Muhammad I can understand. It fits my family.
“The history of a religious tradition is a continuous dialogue between a transcendent reality and current events in the mundane sphere.”
But this image has become muddled. It’s clear that there are many visions of who Muhammad was and what he means. Much of my life has taken place against the backdrop of a cosmic war — planes flying into buildings, invasions, car bombs and police raids. And Muhammad has been invoked, repeatedly, by all sides. Used to justify all manner of atrocities. This tension has become especially meaningful in the past few months, as gunmen attempt to police his image on our own doorsteps.
“We have a long history of Islamophobia in Western culture that dates back to the time of the Crusades. In the twelfth century, Christian monks in Europe insisted that Islam was a violent religion of the sword, and that Muhammad was a charlatan who imposed his religion on a reluctant world by force of arms; they called him a lecher and asexual pervert.”
So, who was Muhammad? The benevolent and merciful figure that I’ve grown up with? The man who inspires the billion plus Muslims who go about their days peaceably, who we never hear from? Or was he the great Muslim crusader that the Islamic Fundamentalists tout? How about the bloodthirsty tyrant that many of his obstreperous critics claim? As the cosmic war of the past decade is joined by a culture war, increasingly on our own doorsteps, this is a question that needs answering. And so, I turned to Karen Armstrong.
“The work of Muhammad’s first biographers would probably not satisfy a modern historian. They were men of their time and often included stories of a miraculous and legendary nature that we would interpret differently today.”
Muhammad has had many biographers, the first emerging a hundred or so years after his death. However, like many other religious figures, the bulk of our knowledge comes from the scriptures, which in turn rely on an oral history. Armstrong begins the story with Muhammad’s first revelation, when he was forty years old. But she quickly backtracks and takes us through the religious, cultural and economic context of Muhammad’s time. Aspects of his life that are inseparable from his teachings and legacy, but are rarely mentioned now. We learn about his birth into the Hashim clan in Mecca, an important clan in a powerful city. His marriage to Khadijah in his twenties Khadijah was employer and a rich widow with whom he would remain monogamous (not the norm) until her death. And as the short 200-odd pages go by, we follow the slow creation of Islam, the Muslim exile to Medina and their struggle to return. All set in the context of the wider Arabian world that both influenced and was influenced by them.
“Muhammad literally sweated with the effort to bring peace to war-torn Arabia, and we need people who are prepared to do this today. His life was a tireless campaign against greed, injustice, and arrogance. He realised that Arabia was a turning point and that the old way of thinking would no longer suffice, so he wore himself out in the creative effort to evolve an entirely new solution.”
This focus on context is brilliant. After all, Muhammad’s tale is like many other stories from pre-modernity – awful when the context is removed. However, there are also weaknesses with Armstrong’s account. The most obvious is that it is entirely uncritical. Apart from a brief mention at the beginning, there is scarce reference to the fact that the entire story is built upon an oral history of Muhammad’s followers. And yet, it is also written with absolute certainty. There are no questions given to the possibility of bad memory, an incomplete historical record, or alteration through retelling. This problem is especially clear when Armstrong repeatedly asserts Muhammad’s reputation for honesty and grace – it may be so, but his followers would say that wouldn’t they? And since the scriptures are God’s revelations channeled through Muhammad, from where does this survey of his contemporaries emanate? Even worse, such hagiographic characterisations are often accompanied by literary flourishes and insights into the Prophet’s own mind – what are the sources for these intrusions? I would greatly love to read the tome in which his every sigh and facial expression are also recorded.
“The Qur’an is the holy word of God, and it’s authority remains absolute. But Muslims know that it is not always easy to interpret. Its laws were designed for a small community…”
For those who don’t mind a critical account, there is another big issue – the question of Muhammad’s agency. The context-centric approach means that most of the events are portrayed as a reaction to external cultural and political events. For example; the rival Quraysh clan does something, and suddenly Muhammad is gifted the perfect revelation and strategy. What comes off is both a God and Prophet in thrall to outside events, responding to the world rather than shaping it. Armstrong repeatedly asserts Muhammad’s disdain for metaphysics, but should we come away with such an emphasis on politics? A cynical reading could conclude that Muhammad doesn’t have agency, and that many of these revelations are quite convenient. Is that the intention? If so, who exactly is the target audience of this account?
“If we are to avoid catastrophe, the Muslim and Western worlds must learn not merely to tolerate but to appreciate one another. A good place to start is with the figure of Muhammad: a complex man, who resists facile, ideologically-driven categorisation, who sometimes did things that were difficult or impossible for us to accept, but who had profound genius and founded a religion and cultural tradition that was not based on the sword but whose name — “Islam” — signified peace and reconciliation.”
To answer my conundrum from earlier, Armstrong paints a picture of Muhammad quite close to the one I was brought up with. Only much richer than my family could ever manage. He wasn’t the man claimed by the fundamentalists on either side, but a man of his time. The context she provides is eye opening, and definitely an important addition to our current debate. But Armstrong’s lack of criticism is really the takeaway. It invalidates it for anyone who wants as “true” a picture as possible. Granted, in our current climate it is understandable why Armstrong could not do for Muhammad what Reza Aslan did for Jesus, but Muhammad already has enough hagiographies. Muhammad by Karen Armstrong is the best biography I have found so far. So, for now at least, I will recommended it. But I’m going to keep looking for a more definitive biography.
Author: Karen Armstrong
Pages: 249 (Paperback)
Josh’s Rating: 2/5
Amazon Link: Muhammad – Prophet For Our Time
Facebook has become all-pervasive. It screams at me from the laptops of my fellow classmates, tracks me as I traverse the interwebs, draws visitors to my blog and radio show, and invades the real world through my vibrating phone. The draw of its network and the push of it’s firehose has become inexorably linked with the internet itself. However, like many, I ache to escape its grasp. I have all but shut down my profile, installed blockers on everything but my cat, and rarely log on. But perhaps what I want more is to figure it out. And so I found myself opening ‘The Accidental Billionaires’ by Ben Mezrich. You might know it as the basis of ‘The Social Network,’ which was a surprisingly faithful and brilliant adaptation. It is one of the most entertaining business book I have ever read. That isn’t a compliment.
“Nonfictionish” is how I have seen it described in a couple of places. And, really, I can think of no better descriptor. The Accidental Billionaires is a business book written like a novel. Or, as Mezrich put’s it in the introduction; “a dramatic, narrative account based on dozens of interviews, hundreds of sources, and thousands of pages of documents…”. Now, having read that, I was expecting something along the lines of a Michael Lewis or Malcolm Gladwell tale — a high concept told narratively to keep us plebs interested. Unfortunately Mezrich does not seem to have the deft touch of Lewis or Gladwell, as it’s the drama that wins out over everything else.
From the start, the booze-fueled parties, super-speculative points of view, and bizarre literary flourishes build mountains of melodrama and scant understanding. I really am unsure what insights should be gleamed from Mark Zuckerberg lost in his reflection in a computer screen, Eduardo Saverin – our hapless foil — wondering if he ever really knew Zuckerberg, or the virtuous Winklevoss twins fighting for justice in an otherwise cruel campus. The tension between Zuckerberg, Saverin and the Winklevi does well to build tension throughout, but the space needed detracts from everything else. The real meat of Facebook’s genesis and rise is lost amid the kind of superficial account you’d get from a blowhard at a party. I went in wanting to learn about Facebook, but I’ve come out not quite sure if I learned anything at all. Really, upon reflection it seems like Aaron Sorkin may have toned the book down a bit. I don’t remember the movie being as soapy.
Perhaps this is a Facebook book for a Facebook world. Screaming for attention by airing what was once hidden — the sex, drugs and lawsuits. Hiding the message under layers of drama so we don’t even know we’ve learned something — like putting your pet’s medicine in a treat. If all you want is a passing understanding of Facebook, maybe this is the book for you. The Facebook story is in there, superficially at least. But if you want to know more, about it’s conquering of college campuses and burst into the mainstream, about its rise into a genuine business and global powerhouse. If you are looking for lessons, if you want to understand what drives the pokes, look elsewhere. Two stars.
Title: The Accidental Billionaires
Author: Ben Mezrich
Pages: 272 (Paperback)
Josh’s Rating: 2/5
Amazon Link: The Accidental Billionaires