Business Stories

We’ve talked before here about the point that most fiction seems to be about people who are lawyers, policemen, criminals, soldiers, spies, students, politicians, and noble but struggling writers. But there are indeed some works of fiction, and some vivid personal memoirs, in which business plays a central role without being portrayed simplistically or as stereotypically evil. Here are some that I like…please add your own favorites in the comments.  (I posted this at Ricochet, in slightly different form, about a week ago)

The Current War, a recent movie about the late-1800s power struggle to determine which technology…AC or DC…will dominate America’s electrical distribution system. Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla are the key characters, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, and Nicholas Hoult respectively. My review is here.

The Big Short, a 2015 film about the 2007-2008 financial crisis, based on Michael Lewis’s book. A hedge fund manager concludes that the subprime-loan market is not sustainable, and makes a billion-dollar bet against the relevant mortgage-backed securities. Based on real events. I thought it was very well done.

God is an Englishman, R F Delderfield. Following his return to England from the Crimean War, Adam Swann identifies a business opportunity: although railroads are being built throughout the country, there will always be sources and destinations of freight which are not on the tracks. Hence, the potential for a nationwide gap-filling road haulage business based on the systematic use of horse-drawn wagons. (This is the first book of a three-book series called the Swann Family Saga.)  Reviewed here.

Oil for the Lamps of China, Alice Tisdale Hobart. This 1933 novel is about a young American working as a sales rep in China, focused on selling oil for his employer (unnamed, but clearly based on Standard Oil) and increasing volumes by promoting the kerosene lamp as a better alternative to traditional lighting methods. The book was the basis for a 1935 movie of the same name…the film has its moments, but overall is not worthy of the book.

Father, Son, and Company, by Thomas Watson Jr. This is the best business autobiography I’ve read. It’s about Watson Jr (the long-time CEO of IBM), his difficult relationship with his father, the company they built, and the emergence of the computing industry. It is an emotional, reflective, and self-critical book, without the kind of “here’s how brilliant I was” tone that afflicts too many executive autobiographies. I reviewed it here.

A Man in Full, by Tom Wolfe. The central character of this 1988 novel is Charlie Croker, an Atlanta real-estate developer who has gotten himself into way too much debt. Other characters include Charlie’s current and former wives, the Black mayor of Atlanta, the bankers who must deal with the debt problem, and a warehouse worker at one of the Croker enterprises. The book also casts a not-very-complimentary light on the Atlanta society/arts scene.

Trial by Fire, Stephen Buck. The adventures of a Honeywell field engineer in the early days of process-control computing. The book’s title reflects the point that the industrial processes being controlled frequently involved combustion, sometimes in scary circumstances. Much of the author’s work took place outside the US, in countries ranging from Poland to Brazil.

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Sputnik Anniversary Rerun–Book Review: Rockets and People

Today being the 62nd  anniversary of the Sputnik launch, here’s a rerun of a post about a very interesting book.

Rockets and People, by Boris E Chertok

Boris Chertok’s career in the Soviet aerospace industry spanned many decades, encompassing both space exploration and military missile programs. His four-volume memoir is an unusual document–partly, it reads like a high school annual or inside company history edited by someone who wants to be sure no one feels left out and that all the events and tragedies and inside jokes are appropriately recorded. Partly, it is a technological history of rocket development, and partly, it is a study in the practicalities of managing large programs in environments of technical uncertainty and extreme time pressure. Readers should include those interested in: management theory and practice, Russian/Soviet history, life under totalitarianism, the Cold War period, and missile/space technology. Because of the great length of these memoirs, those who read the whole thing will probably be those who are interested in all (or at least most) of the above subject areas. I found the series quite readable; overly-detailed in many places, but always interesting. In his review American astronaut Thomas Stafford said “The Russians are great storytellers, and many of the tales about their space program are riveting. But Boris Chertok is one of the greatest storytellers of them all.”  In this series, Chertok really does suck you into his world.

Chertok was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1912: his mother had been forced to flee Russia because of her revolutionary (Menshevik) sympathies. The family returned to Russia on the outbreak of the First World War, and some of Chertok’s earliest memories were of the streets filled with red-flag-waving demonstrators in 1917. He grew up on the Moscow River, in what was then a quasi-rural area, and had a pretty good childhood–“we, of course, played “Reds and Whites,” rather than “Cowboys and Indians””–swimming and rowing in the river and developing an early interest in radio and aviation–both an airfield and a wireless station were located nearby. He also enjoyed reading–“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn met with the greatest success, while Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin gave rise to aggressive moods–‘Hey–after the revolution in Europe, we’ll deal with the American slaveholders!” His cousin introduced him to science fiction, and he was especially fond of Aelita (book and silent film), featuring the eponymous Martian beauty.

Chertok remembers his school years fondly–there were field trips to study art history and architectural styles, plus a military program with firing of both rifles and machine guns–but notes “We studied neither Russian nor world history….Instead we had two years of social science, during which we studied the history of Communist ideas…Our clever social sciences teacher conducted lessons so that, along with the history of the French Revolution and the Paris Commune, we became familiar with the history of the European peoples from Ancient Rome to World War I, and while studying the Decembrist movement and 1905 Revolution in detail we were forced to investigate the history of Russia.” Chertok purused his growing interest in electronics, developing a new radio-receiver circuit which earned him a journal publication and an inventor’s certificate. There was also time for skating and dating–“In those strict, puritanical times it was considered inappropriate for a young man of fourteen or fifteen to walk arm in arm with a young woman. But while skating, you could put your arm around a girl’s waist, whirl around with her on the ice to the point of utter exhaustion, and then accompany her home without the least fear of reproach.”

Chertok wanted to attend university, but “entrance exams were not the only barrier to admission.” There was a quota system, based on social class, and  “according to the ‘social lineage’ chart, I was the son of a white collar worker and had virtually no hope of being accepted the first time around.” He applied anyhow, hoping that his journal publication and inventor’s certificate in electronics would get him in.” It didn’t–he was told, “Work about three years and come back. We’ll accept you as a worker, but not as the son of a white-collar worker.”

So Chertok took a job as electrician in a brick factory…not much fun, but he was soon able to transfer to an aircraft factory across the river. He made such a good impression that he was asked to take a Komsomol leadership position, which gave him an opportunity to learn a great deal about manufacturing. The plant environment was a combination of genuinely enlightened management–worker involvement in process improvement, financial decentralization–colliding with rigid policies and political interference. There were problems with absenteeism caused by new workers straight off the farm; these led to a government edict: anyone late to work by 20 minutes or more was to be fired, and very likely prosecuted. There was a young worker named Igor who had real inventive talent; he proposed an improved linkage for engine and propeller control systems, which worked out well. But when Igor overslept (the morning after he got married), no exception could be made. He was fired, and “we lost a man who really had a divine spark.”  Zero tolerance!

Chertok himself wound up in trouble when he was denounced to the Party for having concealed the truth about his parents–that his father was a bookkeeper in a private enterprise and his mother was a Menshevik. He was expelled from the Komsomol and demoted to a lower-level position.  Later in his career, he would also wind up in difficulties because of his Jewish heritage.

The memoir includes dozens of memorable characters, including:

*Lidiya Petrovna Kozlovskaya, a bandit queen turned factory supervisor who became Chertok’s superior after his first demotion.

*Yakov Alksnis, commander of the Red Air Force–a strong leader who foresaw the danger of a surprise attack wiping out the planes on the ground. He was not to survive the Stalin era.

*Olga Mitkevich, sent by the regime to become “Central Committee Party organizer” at the factory where Chertok was working…did not make a good first impression (“had the aura of a strict school matron–the terror of girls’ preparatory schools”)..but actually proved to be very helpful to getting work done and later became director of what was then the largest aircraft factory in Europe, which job she performed well. She apparently had too much integrity for the times, and her letters to Stalin on behalf of people unjustly accused resulted in her own arrest and execution.

*Frau Groettrup, wife of a German rocket scientist, one of the many the Russians took in custody after occupying their sector of Germany. Her demands on the victors were rather unbelievable, what’s more unbelievable is that the Russians actually yielded to most of them.

*Dmitry Ustinov, a rising star in the Soviet hierarchy–according to Chertok an excellent and visionary executive who had much to do with Soviet successes in missiles and space. (Much later, he would become Defense Minister, in which role he was a strong proponent of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.)

*Valeriya Golubtsova, wife of the powerful Politburo member Georgiy Malenkov, who was Stalin’s immediate successor. Chertok knew her from school–she was an engineer who became an important government executive–and the connection turned out to be very useful. Chertok respected her professional skills, liked her very much, and devotes several pages to her.

*Yuri Gagarin, first man to fly in space, and Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman.

*Overshadowing all the other characters is Sergei Korolev, now considered to be the father of the Soviet space program although anonymous during his lifetime.  Korolev spent 6 years in labor camps, having been arrested when his early rocket experiments didn’t pan out; he was released in 1944.  A good leader, in Chertok’s view, though with a bad temper and given to making threats that he never actually carried out.  His imprisonment must have left deep scars–writing about a field trip to a submarine to observe the firing of a ballistic missile, Chertok says that the celebration dinner with the sub’s officers was the only time he ever saw Korolev really happy.

Chertok’s memoir encompasses the pre-WWII development of the Soviet aircraft industry…early experiments with a rocket-powered interceptor…the evacuation of factories from the Moscow area in the face of the German invasion…a post-war mission to Germany to acquire as much German rocket technology as possible…the development of a Soviet ballistic missile capability…Sputnik…reconnaissance and communications satellites…the Cuban missile crisis…and the race to the moon.

Some vignettes, themes, and excerpts I thought were particularly interesting:

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Not-Really-Summer-Anymore Rerun: Coming Soon, to Places Near You?

(Summer is now officially over, but I thought this story from Rose Wilder Lane, whose work I reviewed and excerpted a couple of days ago, was worthy of a repost)

In 1926, Rose and her friend Helen Dore Boylston, both then living in Paris, decided to buy a Model T Ford and drive it to Albania. Their adventure is chronicled in the book Travels With Zenobia.  (Helen’s nickname was “Troub”, which stood for “trouble.”)

Acquisition of the car–a “glamorized” 1926 model which was maroon in color rather than the traditional Ford black–went smoothly. Acquisition of the proper government documentation allowing them to actually drive it–not so much:

Having bought this splendid Ford, my friend and I set out to get permission to drive it, and to drive it out of Paris and out of France. We worked separately, to make double use of time. For six weeks we worked, steadily, every day and every hour the Government offices were open. When they closed, we met to rest in the lovely leisure of a cafe and compared notes and considered ways of pulling wires…

One requirement was twelve passport pictures of that car…But this was a Ford, naked from the factory; not a detail nor a mark distinguished it from the millions of its kind; yet I had to engage a photographer to take a full-radiator-front picture of it, where it still stood in the salesroom, and to make twelve prints, each certified to be a portrait of that identical car. The proper official pasted these, one by one, in my presence, to twelve identical documents, each of which was filled out in ink, signed and counter-signed, stamped and tax-stamped; and, of course, I paid for them…

After six hard-working weeks, we had all the car’s papers. Nearly an inch think they were, laid flat. Each was correctly signed and stamped, each had in addition the little stamp stuck on, showing that the tax was paid that must be paid on every legal document; this is the Stamp tax that Americans refused to pay. I believe we had license plates besides; I know we had drivers’ licenses.

Gaily at last we set out in our car, and in the first block two policemen stopped us…Being stopped by the police was not unusual, of course. The car’s papers were in its pocket, and confidently I handed them over, with our personal papers, as requested.

The policemen examined each one, found it in order, and noted it in their little black books. Then courteously they arrested us.

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Mice in a Maze

Arnade, Chris. Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America. Penguin Publishing Group, 2019.

Chris Arnade certainly seems to have been called, and may well have been chosen, to help mitigate one of the great divisions of our time. Dignity complements, among others, Charles Murray’s Coming Apart with interviews and photos from what Murray would call “Fishtown,” or rather its extreme margin, whose inhabitants are simultaneously transient and rooted, strategizing to survive in ways often incomprehensible to the more cognitively gifted and emotionally stable. Learning to extend compassion and respect rather than mere pity (in its more negative variant), glib political “solutions,” and outright contempt is a challenge far too few Americans are willing to undertake. Matthew 22:14 seems unnervingly relevant in this context, and while the church as it is depicted among the people Dignity portrays is an overwhelmingly positive influence, more “front row” believers might take a moment to consider just how much better than the vast majority of us Arnade, a secular liberal, has done at reaching out to desperate communities. My advice to them is to buy and read this book, pray over it, maybe lend it out to others for discussion, and—without reinventing the wheel—do the Tocquevillian thing and organize/volunteer, with an eye to Luke 15. Because if the parables in that chapter aren’t about “back row” people, they don’t mean a damned thing.

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Trump and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.

Andrew_Johnson_photo_portrait_head_and_shoulders,_c1870-1880-Edit1

I think I see some similarities between the Democrats’ apparent efforts to try to impeach President Trump and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868.

Andrew Johnson was a “war Democrat,” meaning that he was a Democrat who supported the Union. He was Governor of the border state of Tennessee. Lincoln considered the border states critical in saving the Union.


“I hope to have God on my side,” Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said early in the war, “but I must have Kentucky.” Unlike most of his contemporaries, Lincoln hesitated to invoke divine sanction of human causes, but his wry comment unerringly acknowledged the critical importance of the border states to the Union cause. Following the attack on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops in April 1861, public opinion in Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri was sharply divided and these states’ ultimate allegiance uncertain. The residents of the border were torn between their close cultural ties with the South, on the one hand, and their long tradition of Unionism and political moderation on the other.

In 1864, after Atlanta was taken by Sherman, Lincoln began to think about the situation after the war. He met with Sherman and Grant on March 28, 1865. He had two weeks to live. He talked to them about his plans for after the war ended. Sherman later described the conversation. Lincoln was ready for the post-war period and he told Sherman to assure the Confederate Governor of North Carolina that as soon as the army laid down its arms, all citizens would have their rights restored and the state government would resume civil measures de facto until Congress could make permanent arrangement.

In choosing Johnson as his VP in 1964, Lincoln was doing two things, he was supporting his argument that no state could secede from the Union. The radical Republicans like Stevens and Sumner had taken the position that states had “committed suicide” by seceding. There was even a movement at the Baltimore Convention to nominate someone else, like Fremont who had been the nominee in 1856. The other was allowing the Convention to choose the VP nominee. It did seat some delegations from states, like Tennessee, that were still the scene of fighting. Only South Carolina was excluded.

The Convention was actually assumed to be safe for a Hannibal Hamlin renomination. Instead it voted for Johnson by a large margin. The final ballot results were 494 for Johnson, 9 for Hamlin. Noah Brooks, a Lincoln intimate, later recounted a conversation in which Lincoln told him that there might be an advantage in having a War Democrat as VP. Others, including Ward Hill Lamon, later agreed that Lincoln preferred a border state nominee for VP.

And so, Andrew Johnson, a War Democrat, was elected to an office that no one ever considered as likely to become President. No one anticipated Lincoln’s assassination. However there was a significant segment of radical Republicans that wanted to punish the states that had seceded and those who had joined the Confederacy, contrary to Lincoln’s plans. He had intended to restore the local governments, pending Congressional action to restructure the state governments. The Convention was well before Atlanta fell to Sherman’s army and Lincoln was not convinced he would be re-elected. The War Democrat VP nominee would help with border states.

Johnson humiliated himself with his inauguration speech, at which he was suspected to be drunk. He may have been ill; Castel cited typhoid fever,[95] though Gordon-Reed notes that there is no independent evidence for that diagnosis

Six weeks later, Lincoln was assassinated. Johnson was not well prepared to assume the Presidency.

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