All posts by dstsai

The Banana Man – The Fish That Ate the Whale


This story is based on the book “The Fish That Ate The Whale” by Rich Cohen.

I’m going to tell you a story about this guy, Sam Zemurrary, the Banana Man.

Some interesting facts about banana: banana is technically not a fruit but a berry that grow on a herb plant, not tree, and is tallest grass and largest plant without a woody trunk. Banana plant grows from a rhizome (like orchid or lotus) and has no roots and no seeds so it can only be propagated from a cutting. In other words, a banana species are all clones. This means, one disease that kills one banana plant can wipe out an entire species due to lack of genetic diversity. This has happened to a few species like “Big Mike” and “Cavendish.” So enjoy your banana while you can!

Enough about banana but why does it have to do with Sam Zemurray, the Banana Man? I don’t think there another person whose story is more entangled with a fruit or a berry than he was. Let me tell you his story.

Sam Zemurray, a Russian Jew, arrived in America in 1891 at age fourteen. He was tall, gangly and penniless. He saw a banana in 1893 for the first time, 20 years into American banana trade during the hay day of the steam-engine boats. Banana just became a popular, exotic imported luxury fruit. It can’t be easily grown in the US and even more difficult to transport due to its short shelf life and natural vulnerability. The 6-ft-3 Zemurray started out as a fruit peddler, a banana hauler, then a dockside hustler. He settled in New Orleans, got married at age of 31. His daughter was born a year later. He wanted to give her the best he could offer like most immigrant parents. To do that, he needs to grow his company and his supplier base. Where? Central America.

The first time Sam Zemurray visited Honduras, he bought 5000 acers of north-coast “junk” land immediately for $2000, all borrowed. Then he borrowed more and bought more land. Leveraging his knowhow from growing up in a Russian farm, he turned the land into a fertile banana farm. He bribed the Honduras government officials into giving him the best tax break. When the Honduras government tried to back out of the tax exemption sweet deal, he organized a mercenary team and overthrew the government. He ended up with an even better tax break.

When he expanded his plantation into Guatemala, he started butting against United Fruit’s territory. United Fruits was the biggest banana company at that time. As the conflicts between the two companies escalated within Guatemala, the US government stepped in to avoid destabilizing the region. Urged by the US government, both companies were forced to merge and occupy 64% of banana market share with anti-trust immunity. Zemurray walked away with shares of United Fruits, worth about $30M in 1929, or $420M now.

Was he ready to retire? Not quite. The Great Depression hit, he saw his shares of United Fruits dropped to only 10% or $3M. He came up with plan to turn around the company. When he presented his plan to the Board of Director, he was mocked, and turned away. A few months later, he returned to the Boston headquarter with proxy votes and fired the board and the CEO. Zemurray took over United Fruits as its CEO.

Then World War II happened. The banana ships were being sunk by German’s U-boats during transport. If that wasn’t bad enough, a personal tragedy hit him hard when his son’s, Sam Zemurray Jr’s plane went down and died in Africa serving as an Air Force pilot during the war. He was heart broken and started searching the true life meaning.

Up to 1948, he was never involved in any political advocacy for Jews. Surprisingly, he stepped down from his CEO position, and devoted his time to making sure Israel secured its statehood with 2/3 of the United National’s General Assemblies by influencing or bribing the several central America countries to vote yes. The state of Israel was born.

Zemurray eventually returned to United Fruits, which was forced to break up by US government to 3 smaller companies after involving itself in Central America conflicts during the Communist uprising – central character, Fidel Castro. Today we see pieces of United Fruits in Dole, Del Monte and others. United Fruits eventually became Chiquita as we know today after several ownership changes.

Samuel Zemurray died in 1961 at the ripe age of 84 with an estimated fortune of $30M, a big chunk of which he donated to local universities like Tulane.

Is Sam Zemurray a story of rages-to-riches immigrant’s fulfilling the American dreams, or a shrewd businessman sparing no means, mercy to get the results mimicking American’s aggression in Central America, or a man truly living life to its purposes? I would say, “all of the above.”

Ryobi USB Charger – a LearnByBlogging DIY Project

For ~$20, you can turn your Ryobi 18V battery into a power engine for your IoT projects or a mega battery charger that would last you many days out in the camp or where ever you choose to be without AC power.

Here is the link to the 3D-printed power clip: ~$5
https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:1194867

12V Car Lighter Socket/Plug: ~$6
https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B015H6945S/

24V-tolerant USB Car charger: ~$9
https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B014ZZLLB2/

Book Review: “Solve for Happy: Engineer Your Path to Joy” by Mo Gawdat


This is a book by an engineering-minded father to solve this mystery of achieving happiness in life.

– The author went to bat directly stating the what happiness is: an absence of unhappiness, the default state when we were a child. I like the exercise of writing down, “I feel happy when ______.” (Fill in the blanks.)
– It’s our own thought of unhappy events, not the actual unhappy events, that causes our own unhappiness. The trick is not to think about it. Don’t let it linger, which turns into a self-generated pain.
– The authors offers the 6-7-5 formula: bust the 6 illusions, fix the 7 blind spots and hang on to the 5 ultimate truths.

– The six illusions are:
1) thought: the little voice in your head.
2) self: you’re not the star of the movie.
3) knowledge: we don’t know that much after all. Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.
4) time: live in the here and now. Life is now and now is amazing.
5) control: you can only choose your attitude. “It’s going to be fine in the end. If its not yet fine, then it is not yet the end.”
6) fear: learn to die before you die. It is time to face your fears.

– The 7 blind spots are
1) filters: our brain tells incomplete pictures due to its limitation.
2) assumptions: brain-generated story – not truth.
3) predictions: brain-generated future possibilities – not truth.
4) memories: a record of what you think happened – often not the truth.
5) labels: covers the truth in the absence of context.
6) emotions: our perception of truth is often distracted by our irrational emotions.
7) exaggeration: what’s more than the truth is less than true.

– The 5 ultimate truths:
1) now: Being fully aware of the present moment considerably increases your chance of being happy. Be aware means stop doing and just be. Be aware of your world outside, inside your body, your thoughts and emotions and your connection to the rest of being. Be aware of the journey where all of life happens.
2) change: when everything you do feels effortless, you’ll have found your path. Don’t just keep looking up for better material things. Look down and feel how fortunate we are. Gratitude is a sure path to happiness.
3) love: joy of true love is giving it. The more love you give, the more you get back. Choose to be kind instead of being right. Love is all you need.
4) death: accepting death will set you free. Surrender! Live before you die.
5) design: the author attempts to argue the “grand” design based on probability of our existence. It’s small, very small. But he believes that God does not intervene or run the show.

– It’s heartbreaking to have your son die on the operating table at his young age of 21. The author took it as his mission to define and seek happiness.
– The author really turned his son, Ali, into a saint the way he described his son. It’s only human to commemorate your lost loved one all the positives except there’s one time his son tattooed himself without telling him. Maybe Ali was a saint.
– The chapter on evolution vs. intelligent design was his attempt to “prove” or “disprove” the existence of God. He made an gallant effort to show how unlikely the randomness or probability can allow all the living things on this earth or universe. I think it’s well researched and argued for his case. However, the probability for a God to exist could be even more daunting. But his belief was more toward this non-intrusive God which/who just tilted the odd one way for things to happened as it has. I can probably live with that, but still find it hard to comprehend anyone/anything could have such a power.

Overall, it’s a great book for someone seeking happiness. If you’re depressed, experiencing personal or family tragedy and/or lacking life directions, this may be a good book for you. Highly recommended.

Shoe Horn Pant Lifter – A LearnByBlogging Quick Tip and Gadget


Here’s a quick tip – make yourself a shoehorn pant lifter. Why? Because it’s the best thing since the sliced bread. Probably not, but it’s pretty close. When I leave home for office, I used to struggle with shoehorning my feet into the shoes because I carry my laptop and other things and my pants tend to get caught in the shoe. This shoehorn pant lifter allows you to shoehorn your feet without catching your pants in the shoes. Try it! You might like it!
Here’s the 3D file for you to modify or print directly.

Raspberry Pi Garage Server – an IoT Project


This is my newfound interest – IoT or Internet of Things. I have been taking in all the Maker movements and decided to do something about it. This particular project Raspberry Pi Zero W was the first of the many IoT projects I plan to do and bring you along in my journey. Raspberry Pi Zero W is one of my favorite controller because it’s compact, inexpensive ($10) and with built-in Wifi and well supported by the Raspberry Pi community.

I wouldn’t say this was challenging to me as I have done more difficult and complex hardware design in my career as a hardware development engineer, designing the big-iron mainframe computer and multi-CPU servers. But this was probably more fun as I got to sense and control the real-life environment and it’s relative inexpensive to do.

I look forward to sharing more of this type of projects with you, in addition to all the “boring” book reviews, according to my daughter, I will continue to make.

Book Review “The Undoing Project” by Michael Lewis


This is one of the great books written by Michael Lewis, one of my favorite authors. This book covers the friendship between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics on the theory of the mind. To truly appreciate the book, you probably wanted to first read their theory, which you can read a summary from my book review of “Thinking Fast and Slow” here.

In the first chapter of the book, the author tried to bridge the Moneyball book to this book using an NBA analogy and the story of Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets. The objective was to emphasize the work of human judgement biases studied by the two Nobel Prize winners, the two central characters of the book. I was a little confused in the beginning, thinking the book was a sequel to “Moneyball.” But it wasn’t. The book went into great details of how the two men met each other in Israel and how to two men collaborate so well and the fallout of the relationship due to jealousy. But just before the death of Amos to cancer, they reconciled and all was good.

My takeaways are:
– You should be so blessed to find a true soulmate who can challenge your thinking and make you better than you could be without.
– Jealousy always plays a big role in relationships especially in the always-connected world because of Internet and Facebook. Try to avoid falling into the trap. Look farther in your horizon and rise above it to the best of your ability.
– On the other hand, if you’re the more successful one of your team, try to appreciate those who support you. It’s important to acknowledge them when you’ve succeeded.
– “Undoing,” the phrase, is a throwback to the last of the theories the two men worked together, which refers to the peeling back what you could have done or not done and whether that’s logical or not. Almost in all cases, we humans are not logical. There will always time and temptation to “undo” your past actions knowing what you know today. I suggest to not dwell in the past but live in the presence to the best you can. Life is too short.
– The author tries to put the two men’s work in a much plainer terms than all the technical jargon in their research work. For most people, he has succeeded and I thank him for reinforcing their ideas and work.

I enjoy this book because it highlights the “human-ness” on the two men who have somewhat succeeded in explaining human faults and biases.