Sunday, February 18, 2007

Blue Blood, by Edward Conlon

Blue Blood, by Edward Conlon

I have the utmost respect for those that risk their lives for others. When I came across this autobiography of a Harvard educated cop working in the Bronx, I was compelled to pick it up. While a bit long and repetitive at times, the story lines are captivating and I found this hard to put down. Even though our lives are nothing alike, I felt a connection to the author; the familiar style in which it is written gives the feeling that if I ran into him we could have a beer together. This isn’t some distant person writing a history for the ages, but a guy telling his life story to his family.

Being a nearly 700 page tome, Conlon discusses a wide range of topics. We get the tale of how he went from Harvard to the police academy along with the stories of his father (an FBI agent) and his grandfather (a corrupt cop). We get the history of the NYPD and the Bronx. We get the French Connection case and the Serpico case. We get an inside look at the tedium of police work and the thrill of an arrest. We get political hassle and incompetent leadership, and true heroes and the forging of brothers-in-arms. We get the stories of junkies, dealers, thugs, and informants along with a NYPD cop’s experience during 9-11. But mostly, we get thoroughly entertained and a large sense of respect for the badge and those that proudly wear it.

First Sentence:
As I tok my first steps on patrol as a New York City police officer, heading out from the precinct onto East 156 Street toward the projects on Courtlandt Avenue in the South Bronx, a deep voice called out, “There’s a new sheriff in town!”

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Wikinomics, by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams

Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams

According to the authors, the monolithic, inwardly focused corporation is dead. Replacing it is a company that reaches outside its boundaries for innovation and knowledge, treating the whole world like an R&D department. By examining the success of Wikipedia, Flickr, Linux, Second Life, and many others they present a compelling case. I think claiming the death of traditional corporate management is taking it a bit far, but with even IBM embracing open source methods clearly there is something to the premise.

Two recurring themes here: “There are more smart people outside your enterprise boundaries than there are inside.” and “We need an incentive system that rewards inventors and knowledge producers and encourages dissemination of their output.” These are both disrupting ideas to most companies, but I find a lot of truth in them. I’ve spent a good-sized hunk of my career building APIs, which has brought me into contact with a lot of really smart people trying to use what I’ve created. This experience, coupled with the ongoing patent, copyright, and DRM debates, gives quite a bit of resonance to these thoughts.

Another interesting discussion covered was inaccuracies in Wikipedia versus Encyclopedia Britannica. Many studies between the two have been made, but most agree that for accuracy they are very close. The Wikipedia supporters have shown that an obscenity inserted in a random page is removed on average in under two minutes. While impressive, Britannica folks will point out the obscenity wouldn’t have made it into their doc at all. Wikipedia occasionally gets blasted for publishing complete fabrications, but then Britannica can’t come close to covering breaking news in a timely fashion. It is an interesting debate; if I was a librarian or professor I think I’d be skeptical of using Wikipedia as an authoritative source—not because of inaccuracy claims but because the content shifts so much it would be difficult to tie a source to a specific version—but I can certainly see using it as a preferred research venue.

I quite enjoyed this book, and there are a lot of powerful thoughts presented here. The biggest flaw is that much of the text discusses the concepts as a fait accompli instead of an ongoing shift in thought. Regardless, the basic ideas of sharing, peering, and acting globally are well represented and thought provoking. One final quote I liked: “The culture of generosity is the very backbone of the internet.” Idealistic, but pleasing—much like this entire book.

First Sentence:
It was late in the afternoon, on a typically harsh Canadian winter day, as Rob McEwen, the CEO of Goldcorp Inc., stood at the head of the boardroom table confronting a room full of senior geologists.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Number: How the Drive for Quarterly Earnings Corrupted Wall Street and Corporate America, by Alex Berenson

The Number: How the Drive for Quarterly Earnings Corrupted Wall Street and Corporate America, by Alex Berenson

Finance is not my forte, but I found this book both easy to understand and fascinating. Berenson attempts to explain how the bull market of the 1990s came about and the aftermath of the crash. He starts with a history of the Wall Street from its earliest days and follows the industry through modern times. Along the way he covers the formation of the S.E.C. (and its perennial budget problems) and the ethical collapse of the accounting industry. Enron, Tyco, WorldCom all get coverage here, as do the accounting firms and banks that were more-or-less partners in the frauds enacted on investors. After the historical groundwork, he addresses possible accounting and oversight improvements that would prevent future abuses. I found this to be less convincing as the answers seem to be mainly increased government oversight. More government is rarely a good solution to anything in my opinion; if any group is likely to be more corrupt than big business executives it is politicians.

For a book full of numbers, acronyms, and explanations of accounting methods, this is surprisingly readable. Berenson uses humor to offset the dryness of the topic, often to good effect. “Accountants like creating, merging, and disbanding trade groups almost as much as they like legal disclaimers.” “In Wall Street’s version of heaven, the strip clubs don’t have covers and every month is January.” Amusing stuff. I suspect that finance professionals (especially accountants) will be offended at the portrayal of the industry as largely self-serving, but for the average investor it provides a point-of-view that a broker certainly isn’t ever going to give you.

First Sentence:
It had been a very long week for J. P. Morgan Jr.

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