Company by Max Barry

Jones is a new hire at Zephyr Holdings, a company in Seattle.  His very first task upon arriving at the office is to find out who ate his boss’s donut.  From there, Jones begins a quest to find out exactly what it is this company he works for does. I mean, what is their business.  The answer is both surprising and a bit unsettling.

Company is the third book I’ve read by Max Barry (Jennifer Government and Syrup being the other two). Company follows right on the heels of the others, exploring the relationship between the corporate world and everyday life.  In Company, Barry focuses on the employees, the worker-bees in any corporation, and their role in the company’s successes and failures.  In particular, he examines how the different aspects of the company — marketing, IT, procurement, etc — work together — or don’t — for the betterment of the company.  But, he also explores how corporate culture demands personal sacrifice from the employees in order to maximize corporate success.

Barry explores corporate culture by taking it to absurd extremes — or, at least, I hope he does.  I can’t imagine working in an environment that he describes.  At the same time, while reading Company, I couldn’t help but think that “that’s a lot like where I work.” For example, regarding the different organizations in the company and their relationships to one another, I’ve often thought that there must be someone where I work who’s sole job is to make up new forms, just so I have new ones to fill out.  Not because it leads to more productivity, or makes it easier to do my job, but just because.  Just because someone has a job to make forms.

By lampooning corporate culture, Barry exposes some of the trends that are really disturbing once you think about them.  I won’t go into details because I think it would spoil the plot, but suffice it to say that by painting corporate life in an absurd extreme, Barry offers insight into just how corporate culture is affecting us, both as individuals and as a society.

I really enjoyed the novel and highly recommend it, both for its entertainment value and its perspective on our market-driven society. I’d really like to hear what people who are in large, multinational corporations think about this book.  Barry himself used to work at HP. Any HPeons out there willing to give their thoughts?

Catching Fire by Richard Wrangham

I heard about Catching Fire on NPR and thought the premise intriguing, so while on vacation I picked it up.  This book is full of fascinating ideas and the central tenet promises to shake up the current picture of human evolution quite a bit.

In Catching Fire, Richard Wrangham argues that the invention and adoption of cooking by our pre-homo sapien ancestors is a, if not the, key reason for our evolution into homo sapien. Cooking is an easy way of processing food such that our bodies can more easily digest it, and thus not spend nearly so much energy.  That energy, instead, is redirected to our brains.  That is, cooking freed our body from using energy for digestion and was able to use that energy to power our brains which could thus evolve into what they are today.

Much of Catching Fire offers various arguments to support this thesis, from the fact that raw diets result in drastic weight loss as the energy from the food cannot be extracted efficiently by the body; to evidence that processing food, even simply adding air to puff it up, makes it easier to digest; to the fact that in many cultures, cooking and sharing meals is a much more important sign of bonding between men and women than sexual relationships.

In addition to offering a new view of human evolution, Wrangham also points out some secondary effects that should resonate with our modern society.  First, the more foods are processed, the more easily our body can extract calories from them.  This, Wrangham speculates, is a key reason for the obesity epidemic: our foods are so processed that our bodies are getting way too much out of them.  Second, cooking has lead to a nearly universal subservient role for women.  In almost all cultures, women are tied to the kitchen, the cooking fire, the pit, and their lives are strongly centered on that role.

I’m still trying to figure out what the implications of the processed food argument are for my own life.  For example, is it better for me to get that steak medium rare or well done?  If well done, I will get more energy out of it, presumably giving me more energy myself and helping me feel overall more energetic. But, it also means it’s likely to add to my beer gut more than the medium rare steak, which my body will have to spend more work digesting.  Not sure which is overall better.

It is interesting that, in the end, it doesn’t seem to matter if the diet contains meat or is vegetarian, but more important if it involves cooked or raw food.  Wrangham argues that our bodies have evolved to essentially need cooked food; they aren’t designed to process raw food.  Our brains are too expensive, energetically, to be able to function on a raw food diet.

I felt that the book dragged on in places, with Wrangham padding his argument a bit more than he needed and sometimes offering evidence that was tenuous at best, but overall I thought that his ideas were fascinating.  I certainly learned quite a lot, both about humans as a species and about how I might want to approach my own diet.  I certainly recommend Catching Fire.

We like to think that things happen for a reason, that the good — and bad — things that happen to us aren’t just random.  We like meaning and some sense of control in our lives.  However, as Leonard Mlodinow points out in his book The Drunkard’s Walk, the reality is that randomness plays a much bigger role in our lives than we are often willing to admit, or are even aware of.

The Drunkard’s Walk is a tour of the history of our understanding of random processes, with the goal of showing how randomness infiltrates our lives.  From clear demonstrations of this randomness, such as the lottery, to less obvious ones, such as the success of a movie or song, Mlodinow shows us how things all around us are quite often the consequence of randomness.

I took from this book two main conclusions.  First, humans have such an overarching need to feel in control, to see order in the universe, that they often see paterns in what is really random data.  Mlodinow points out that one of the biggest causes of stress in humans is a feeling of not having any control.  Indeed, research has shown that people who don’t have control of even simple things — like watering a plant — give up more easily and, consequently, die at a faster rate than those that have the purpose of watering a plant.  Stress is certainly one of the biggest factors in health and feeling out of control, in the sense that you have no control of your life or destiny, is a big contributor to stress.  This clearly suggests to me that micromanaging is overall a bad way to run an organization, as it does not let the lower rungs of the ladder have any control of the processes they are involved with and, as a consequence, will be more stressed and less healthy.

The second point is that success is often as much influenced by randomness than not.  In fact, Mlodinow implies (if not outright argues) that random factors are often more important that pure skill or talent.  Many talented people succeed simply because they were at the right place at the right time, through no conscious planning or act on their part.  Conversely, many talented people fail because they didn’t get the big break.  This is true at all levels of society, from the homeless guy who had a string of bad luck, to the CEO who essentially got lucky overseeing a company when it hit big.  Mlodinow uses a number of examples that show how the success of baseball teams has, in the end, little to do with the manager and are really just a consequence of randomness associated with whether a batter gets or doesn’t get a hit.  He also highlights how past performance of CEOs or movie moguls has little bearing on future performance and it is essentially a random process.  And how what song becomes the most popular is a lot of random luck and not necessarily a measure of how “good” the song is. In the end, persistence is a much better indicator of success than talent, indicating that we shouldn’t reward successes and punish failures, but we should reward effort, regardless of the outcome.

An important point he makes is that we are so hardwired to attribute success to our abilities that we automatically become condescending to people who fail.  Mlodinow describes experiments in which subjects watch people being punished, either for their supposed failures at some task or because of their supposed suffering for some more noble goal.  The consequence is the same: simulated electric shocks, but the explained reasons are different.  In the cases in which the punishment and resulting suffering are viewed as a consequence of the person’s failures, subjects very quickly form a negative opinion of the person, attributing some shortcoming of the person.

This has consequences for social policy.  If who ends up as a CEO or movie star versus homeless on the street is a much a consequence of random factors as any intrinsic talent or skill, then it could be any one of us that ends up in one or the other.  It isn’t a result of our abilities, it is a result of random factors none of us can control.  Thus, there is little that separates the highest from the lowest and we should do more to help those who, due to an unfair amount of bad luck, fall through the cracks.

I have discussed the role of randomness on success in the past.  It seems that moer and more evidence points to the fact that randomness plays a bigger role in our lives that we readily admit.  In a society that automatically assumes that success is the direct consequence of ability, should we perhaps reevaluate some of the resulting social apperati that has been built around that assumption?  I’m not saying we don’t reward those who do well, but maybe we also reward those who try hard, even if they don’t always succeed?

Two Random Tours Through History

I recently finished two books that took different and interesting approaches of presenting history.  The first, Pop Goes the Weasel by Albert Jack, uses nursery rhymes as a guide through British history.  Actually, the intention is to delve into the origins of the very common nursery rhymes we all learn and subsequently teach our children.  But, given that so many of them are rooted in historical fact, it ends up being quite the whirlwind tour of history.

For example, Humpty Dumpty was a cannon used in the English Civil War in the mid 1600s.  It was used to great effect to keep the Parliamentarians at bay, until the tower it was housed in was destroyed, sending Humpty to the ground, where it was useless.  Or Baa Baa, Black Sheep being about a tax on wool, where, as is typical, the working class got stiffed in favor of the business owner and the church.  Or the Three Blind Mice being three bishops upon whom Queen Mary I took revenge when she ascended to the throne for their role in persecuting Catholicism during Edward VI’s reign.

The book is written such that the story behind each rhyme is independent of the others. As such, some of the style does get a little tedious, as Jack introduces each one in a way to try to pique the reader’s interest that becomes repetitive.  But, as a reference, it is a great way to organize things as you can easily go back and reread about any given rhyme with ease.  Not all of the origins of these rhymes are overly convincing, as Jack himself points out as he explores alternative theories about each one.  My only real issue, however, is that there are no references or citations that document where the theories came from.

Not being a British history buff, I still enjoyed learning about all of these dark episodes in British history (as it does seem most of these seemingly innocent rhymes have their origins in the dark recesses of regicide or other equally murderous plots.  It does make me wonder how differently the book could have read if the rhymes were used specifically as tools to guide us through British history.

Which brings me to the second book, American Connections by James Burke. I first encountered Burke during my first year as a Vandal.  If you’ve never been exposed to his unique approach to history, Burke draws connections between people and things to highlight the links between them, the interconnectedness of the people, events, and inventions that drive history.  In American Connections, he uses the Founding Fathers — all of the signers of the Declaration of Independence — to make connections through history to our own times.  As an example, take Thomas Jefferson –> Cesare Beccaria –> Jean-Baptiste Joseph Delambre –> James Macie –> David Brewster –> Dr. John Bostock –> Dr. John Elliotson –> Dr. James Esdaile –> Karl von Reichenback –> Gustav Fechner –> Ernst Mach –> Wilhelm Ostwald –> William Ramsay –> Harold Edgerton –> Jacques Cousteau –> side-scan sonar –> USNS Littlehales –> National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration –> Littlehales renamed Thomas Jefferson (if you are interested in what all of these people have in connection, you’ll have to read the book).

Burke does an admirable job of taking us from 1776 to our modern times through these connections.  Along the way, he makes some interesting observations about society at the time and the progress of, for example, scientific knowledge (people like Mach and Ostwald were very important for several branches of science).  As he goes through the chains of people connecting one another, he has an odd fascination with their sexual behaviors.  Besides making it clear which were homosexual (possibly to highlight the role that homosexuals have had in history?), he also touches on people who had very let’s say active sex lives, with many loves.  I wonder if this is because he thought it would spice up the story (which it certainly does, at it seems everyone was engaging in three- or foursomes or were nymphomaniacs) or if it was simply easier to connect people with others through these “hubs”, these people who knew (in more ways than one) so many others.  I suspect it is a bit of both.

Near the end of each chapter (focused on a different signer), it felt like Burke copped out a bit by connecting to some big corporation or some big organization and finding someone who worked for that group as his final link.  It just felt like he stalled a bit, not finding anything more direct.  It also felt like something that he could always do to make that final link, it was just a question of how long he wanted to go until he got there.  However, it is a minor quibble.

Overall, his approach is a very entertaining one through American and British history.  Not that I would retain much, as names and places are thrown about with abandon, but the overall richness stays with you.

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

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