Puritan Slavery

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Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

We are taught in elementary school that the roots of America lie in the religious Puritans and Pilgrims. But I believe that there is something to Russell Shorto’s argument that we under-appreciate the contribution of the secular libertarian Dutch of New Amsterdam. In this continuing debate, it is useful to have an accurate history of all sides.

(p. A11) The great Puritan divine John Winthrop, founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, probably wouldn’t make it through Allegra di Bonaventura’s book without suffering a cardiac episode. Set principally in the seaport town of New London, Conn., “For Adam’s Sake” provides an astonishing worm’s-eye view of Winthrop’s beloved Bible Commonwealth in the throes of its ghastly unraveling, even as it narrates an intimate history of racial slavery in early New England through the entwined lives of five families (the Winthrops among them).

Many readers will be surprised to learn that slavery flourished in colonial New England–albeit on a smaller scale than on the plantations of the antebellum South. And they might be forgiven their incredulity: “New Englanders in the nineteenth century,” Ms. di Bonaventura writes, “studiously erased and omitted inconvenient and unsavory aspects of their region’s collective past in favor of a more heroic and wholesome narrative of their own history.” Such acts of moral cleansing all but obscured the lives of enslaved New Englanders well into our own time.

For the full review, see:
KIRK DAVIS SWINEHART. “BOOKSHELF; Not Your Parents’ Puritans; Slavery flourished in colonial New England. Yet the Puritans’ erasure of its signs have obscured their crimes well into our own time.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., Aug. 5, 2013): A11.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Aug. 4, 2013.)

The book under review is:
di Bonaventura, Allegra. For Adam’s Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013.

The relevant book by Russell Shorto is:
Shorto, Russell. The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America. New York: Doubleday, 2004.

Push the Flywheel, in Business and Life

Jim Collins makes wonderful use of the flywheel analogy in his Good to Great book. His point is that many achievements in business require long, gradual work to build to a major achievement that finally gets noticed by the business press and the general public. The business press often assumes that the success is overnight, when it is in fact long-building.

(p. C14) Flywheels – weighted wheels used for absorbing, storing and releasing energy – get used in everything from pottery wheels to car engines. Lately, they have showed up in corporate spin.

“Our more than 19,000 store global footprint, our fast-growing CPG presence and our best-in-class digital, card, loyalty and mobile capabilities are creating a ‘flywheel’ effect elevating the relevancy of all things Starbucks, and driving profitability,” CEO Howard Schultz said in a statement accompanying quarterly earnings last month.
“So we have the flywheel spinning in the right direction because it is spinning one way and letting us generate these margins, contribution margins,” said Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne last month. “And so now we can give some of that back and that makes it easier to get it spinning faster.”
“We are at the one-mile market (sic) in a marathon,” commented Symantec CEO Steve Bennett in an earnings call with analysts last week, “and the flywheel is just starting to spin.”

For the full story, see:
JUSTIN LAHART. “Overheard.” The Wall Street Journal (Weds., Aug 6, 2013): C14.
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug 6, 2013, and had the title “Ride a Painted Pony, Let the Spinning Wheel Fly.” The print version did not identify an author. The versions were slightly different in two or three places–when different, the version quoted above follows the print version.)

The Collins book, mentioned above, is:
Collins, Jim. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… And Others Don’t. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2001.

Dohrmann and Quevedo Survive Creative Destruction of Inacom

DohrmannHokampQuevedoCosentry2013-10-07.jpg “Cosentry, an Omaha-based provider of data center storage and managed technology services, has a new CEO, Brad Hokamp, center. With him at the Cosentry data center in Papillion are company founders Kevin Dohrmann, left, and Manny Quevedo.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the Omaha World-Herald article quoted and cited below.

Innovation through creative destruction brings us the new products and processes that make our lives longer, richer and more satisfying. The major downside of creative destruction is the job loss of those working for firms that are creatively destroyed. Sometimes, in class, I use Omaha’s Inacom as a concrete example. Inacom was a value-added retailer of computer equipment. They would buy PCs from IBM, Compaq and the like, then add software and hardware, and re-sell and install for firms, at a mark-up. They were creatively destroyed by Dell’s process innovation of customizing and selling direct, at much lower prices than Inacom charged. When I arrived in Omaha, Inacom was one of a handful of Fortune 500 firms. Now Inacom is gone. But just because a firm is creatively destroyed does not imply that all those who worked for the firm are creatively destroyed. Dohrmann and Quevedo were executives at Inacom. They had the skills, knowledge, resilience and work ethic to create their own entrepreneurial startup that has thrived. Not everyone can do what Dohrmann and Quevedo did. But everyone should be able to improve their skills, knowledge, resilience, and work ethic, so that if creative destruction destroys the firm that employs them, they will still survive and possibly thrive.

(p. 1D) Cosentry’s regional data center footprint has grown far from its “humble beginnings” 12 years ago of just 4,000 square feet in the old Southroads Mall in Bellevue.

“Everyone saw it as a mall that was in deterioration, and I walked in and saw the most beautiful building in Omaha,” co-founder Manny Quevedo said, (p. 3D) remembering solid walls and below-grade space for computer systems.
Investments from Omaha firms Waitt Co. and McCarthy Capital along the way helped the firm grow; it was sold in 2011 to Boston private equity firm TA Associates but still has its headquarters at 127th Street and West Dodge Road.
. . .
The company’s workforce has approximately doubled in the last five years to nearly 200, more than half of them in Nebraska, and will continue to grow gradually with the expansion as Cosentry hires more engineers and technicians, Quevedo said.
Today the company has six data centers, including two each in the Kansas City and Sioux Falls, S.D., metropolitan areas. If you use utilities or health care services or do any shopping or banking in the region, there’s a chance some of your information has been stored or processed through Cosentry’s servers.
Cosentry started with what Quevedo said was a handful of clients and grew to hundreds within its first five years.
. . .
(p. 3D) Cosentry Timeline
2001: With investment from Waitt Co., Cosentry is started by Manny Quevedo and Kevin Dohrmann, former employees of InaCom, the former Omaha Fortune 500 computer dealer that began as a division of Valmont Industries but merged with VanStar of Atlanta in 2000 and later declared bankruptcy. Cosentry creates a data center in Bellevue.
2005: Cosentry, also called IPR Inc., sold its IP Revolution division to a Kansas firm, Choice Solutions. IP Revolution sold voice and data communications services and systems. Cosentry doubles the size of its Bellevue data center and expands to the Kansas City and Sioux Falls, S.D., markets.
2008: Omaha investment firm McCarthy Capital invests in the firm. At the time, Cosentry had 95 employees.
2010: Cosentry cuts the ribbon on the $26 million Midlands Data Center in Papillion, a joint project with Alegent Health, which uses the center to store electronic medical records.
2011: Boston investment firm TA Associates buys Cosentry for an undisclosed amount from McCarthy and Waitt. The local management team continues to operate and have an ownership stake in Cosentry. The firm expands with second data centers in both the Sioux Falls and Kansas City markets.
2013: Cosentry refinances its credit facilities to provide up to $100 million to enable expansion, including the expansion of the Midlands Data Center. Today, Cosentry has nearly 200 employees and six data centers in three metropolitan areas.

For the full story, see:
Barbara Soderlin. “A Growing Tech Footprint: As Businesses’ Data Storage Needs Expand, Cosentry Adds to Its Papillion Center.” Omaha World-Herald (MONDAY, AUGUST 26, 2013): 1D & 3D.
(Note: ellipses added; bold in original print version of article.)
(Note: the online version of the article has the title “As Businesses’ Data Storage Needs Expand, Cosentry Adds to Its Papillion Center.”)

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“Scott Capps of Cosentry’s Papillion data center with the cooling system that helped Cosentry earn an Energy Star certification, which is given by the Environmental Protection Agency based on energy efficiency and lower emissions. It’s the only data center in Nebraska with the certification.” Source of caption and photo: the archive online version of the Omaha World-Herald article quoted and cited above.

Google’s Redundant, Fault-Tolerant System Worked with Cheap, Low-Quality, Failure-Prone Equipment

(p. 183) Google was a tough client for Exodus; no company had ever jammed so many servers into so small an area. The typical practice was to put between five and ten servers on a rack; Google managed to get eighty servers on each of its racks. The racks were so closely arranged that it was difficult for a human being to squeeze into the aisle between them. To get an extra rack in, Google had to get Exodus to temporarily remove the side wall of the cage. “The data centers had never worried about how much power and AC went into each cage, because it was never close to being maxed out,” says Reese. “Well, we completely maxed out. It was on an order of magnitude of a small suburban neighborhood,” Reese says. Exodus had to scramble to install heavier circuitry. Its air-conditioning was also overwhelmed, and the colo bought a portable AC truck. They drove the eighteen-wheeler up to the colo, punched three holes in the wall, and pumped cold air into Google’s cage through PVC pipes.
. . .
The key to Google’s efficiency was buying low-quality equipment dirt cheap and applying brainpower to work around the inevitably high failure rate. It was an outgrowth of Google’s earliest days, when Page and Brin had built a server housed by Lego blocks. “Larry and Sergey proposed that we design and build our own servers as cheaply as we can– massive numbers of servers connected to a high-speed network,” says Reese. The conventional wisdom was that an equipment failure should be regarded as, well, a failure. Generally the server failure rate was between 4 and 10 percent. To keep the failures at the lower end of the range, technology companies paid for high-end equipment from Sun Microsystems or EMC. “Our idea was completely opposite,” says Reese. “We’re going to build hundreds and thousands of cheap servers knowing from the get-go that a certain percentage, maybe 10 percent, are going to fail,” says Reese. Google’s first CIO, Douglas Merrill, once noted that the disk drives Google purchased were “poorer quality than you would put into your kid’s computer at home.”
(p. 184) But Google designed around the flaws. “We built capabilities into the software, the hardware, and the network–network– the way we hook them up, the load balancing, and so on– to build in redundancy, to make the system fault-tolerant,” says Reese. The Google File System, written by Jeff Dean and Sanjay Ghemawat, was invaluable in this process: it was designed to manage failure by “sharding” data, distributing it to multiple servers. If Google search called for certain information at one server and didn’t get a reply after a couple of milliseconds, there were two other Google servers that could fulfill the request.

Source:
Levy, Steven. In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Hubel and Wiesel Are an Example that ‘Luck Favors the Prepared Mind’

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“Dr. David Hubel, right, celebrating with his longtime collaborator, Dr. Torsten Wiesel, after they won the Nobel Prize in 1981.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT obituary quoted and cited below.

(p. A25) Dr. Hubel and Dr. Wiesel liked to recall that their initial discovery about how vision works resulted from luck. Working in a tiny basement laboratory at Johns Hopkins, the pair struggled for days to coax brain cells in cats to respond to images of dark and light spots. Becoming increasingly frustrated, they waved their arms, jumped around, and, in a moment of levity, displayed images of glamorous women from magazines.

Then, as they shifted a slide in the opthalmoscope, a cell in the cat’s visual cortex suddenly started to fire. The edge of the slide had cast a straight, dark line on the animal’s retina. “It was what the cell wanted, and it wanted it, moreover, in just one narrow range of orientations,” Dr. Hubel said in his Nobel lecture.
They studied the cell for nine hours, and then, Dr. Wiesel recalled, ran down the hall screaming with joy.

For the full obituary, see:
DENISE GELLENE. “David Hubel, Nobel-Winning Scientist, Dies at 87.” The New York Times (Weds., September 25, 2013): A4.
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date September 24, 2013.)


Samuelson Disputed Nephew Summers’ Praise for Milton Friedman

(p. A4) [Uncle Paul Samuelson and nephew Larry Summers] clashed over the fate of struggling mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which were bolstered by a government backstop in July 2008 and later taken over completely by the U.S. Treasury.
Mr. Samuelson found “strange and harmful” his nephew’s skepticism about the government backstop for the firms. Mr. Summers, a longtime critic of the two firms, wrote back that shareholders and management of Fannie and Freddie didn’t deserve taxpayer support.
Friction had emerged earlier in 2006, when Mr. Summers praised the late Mr. Friedman in a New York Times column. Friedman was “the most influential economist” of the second half of the 20th century, Mr. Summers said.
“For your eyes only,” Mr. Samuelson wrote to his nephew of Mr. Friedman, “I had to grade him low as a macro economist” and “stubbornly old fashioned.”

For the full story, see:
JON HILSENRATH. “A Close Bond and a Shared Love for ‘Dismal Science’; Correspondence Between Famously Brash Summers and His Uncle, a Nobel Economist, Reveals Flashes of Humility and Tenderness.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., September 14, 2013): A4.
(Note: bracketed words added.)
(Note: the online version of the story was updated on September 15, 2013 and has the title “Letters Show Little-Known Side of Summers; Correspondence With Uncle, a Nobel Economist, Reveals Flashes of Humility and Tenderness.”)

Covey Was Amazon’s Entrepreneurial CFO

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Joy Covey and son Tyler. Source of photo: was posted on Joy Covey’s Google+ page: https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-3CNdHv-7W3A/Thx9kuMHEPI/AAAAAAAABKs/lX9H2JlJ_lg/w763-h762-no/J+%2526+T+snowbird.jpg

(p. D8) As Amazon’s first chief financial officer, Ms. Covey helped take the company public and was an independent-minded advocate for Amazon’s plans to ignore Wall Street and invest for the future. That notion, radical in its day, was the foundation for Amazon’s growth into a $61 billion retailing and entertainment behemoth.

In its early days, Amazon prided itself on its unconventional hires, telling staffing agencies to “send us your freaks.” Ms. Covey did not have a traditional background. She dropped out of high school at 15 and worked as a grocery clerk. She attended Cal State Fresno and later Harvard Law School, where, she said, she did not fit in.
“We’d go to lunch and people would talk about their favorite 17th-century poets, and I’d be thinking, ‘Could I even name five poets? From any century?’ ”
But after joining Amazon in late 1996, when its annual revenue was less than $20 million, she thrived. She sold Wall Street the debt that the company needed to expand. The company went public on May 14, 1997, with an initial offering price of $18. Shares this week were selling for more than $312. Her own wealth is estimated at more than $200 million.

For the full obituary, see:
DAVID STREITFELD. “Joy Covey, 50, Top Executive in Amazon.com’s Early Days.” The New York Times (Sat., September 21, 2013): D8.
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date September 19, 2013, and has the title “Joy Covey, Top Executive in Amazon.com’s Early Days, Dies at 50.”)