Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Great deals on Hotwire.com

I have found great deal on hotels and car rentals at hotwire.com enough number of times that I have no hesitation in recommending it as one of the best sites to hunt for great deals.

Only draw back, if you want to call it that way, is that you are not able to claim benefits such as frequent flier miles etc. for the bookings you make thru hotwire. This is because companies sell their seats / deals to hotwire.com at discounted rates and do not want to offer additional incentives to customers in the form of frequent flier miles for car rentals and hotel accommodations. Many times price difference is great enough to ignore a few reward miles and other forms of reward.

Web site is well designed. Reservations are a breeze. Check it out for yourself.

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Full Service Bank: How BCCI stole billions around the world

This is a great non-technical book which can serve as an introduction to forensic accounting.

BCCI was once a high flyer  banks because of who's who did business with it. It clients included infamous and notorious people such as Panamanian strong man Manuel Noriega, dread terrorist Abu Nidal, shady arms dealers such as Adnan Khashogi among many others.

BCCI is classic story of a business entity which burnt out like bright star too much glitter too short. It collapsed under the weight of its own misdeeds. The bank ignored every rule of ethical business with a sole aim of growth. It did not mind cutting corners, flouting rules with gay abandon, took money without caring for the source, incorporated itself in pieces in several countries. Even auditors could not construct a full picture of this bank till government agencies had some undercover operations going. BCCI is supposedly the biggest "ponzi" scheme in the history.

BCCI was started by an ambitious Pakistani called Agha Khan Abedi. After serving in several banks, this smart banker wanted to be his own boss and using his contacts in rich sheikdoms, he started the bank with initial deposits from several rich sheikhs of the middle east. BCCI bought several banks in the world and thus became one of the leading banks.

US customs and DEA were conducting under cover operations on drug mafia at the same time as when BCCI was growing. When undercover agents started understanding how the drug mafia used banking system, they stumbled upon on many innovative schemes employed by several banks. But BCCI was at the top of the list with unheard of practices and making use of every loop hole in the system. So the focus shifted from drug busts to banking system investigation.

One dare devil agent from US customs systematically went after BCCI and brought about its collapse. How this undercover agent went about cultivating the contacts within BCCI, how he used his other operation (drug busts) to provide impressive business to BCCI and how at the end he had both drug smugglers and their bankers in his net.

The finale of the bust of quite funny. All kingpins from drug mafia and BCCI were invited to fictitious wedding of this undercover agent. His fiance was also an undercover agent. When the guest came to the wedding, after initial food and drinks, they were asked to join a bachelor party. When the guests showed up at the bachelor party and got out of their limousines, they were promptly arrested and their rights were read out to them.

It was coordinated effort across many countries that effected the closure of BCCI. It was a good thing to have closed the bank. Sad thing is many small time depositors lost their life's savings. Many people who had toiled their lives in their jobs with bank had to see their career gone to dogs.

The final closure and legal actions against BCCI were the subject of many controversies. UAE Sheiks allege that Western world did not want to see a small bank from Islamic world becoming one of the biggest banks. They say they really wanted to pump in around 5 billions even at the end which could have saved small time depositors from the ruin and would have given another chance to the bank. But, regulators say it would have been the worst thing to allow some shady bank like BCCI to continue to operate if one had any respect for law and interest in curbing bad things such as drugs and terrorism.

BCCI brought a new meaning to dirty word "money laundering". If it were not to be detected and closed in time, money laundering would have been formalized and become more important than making money legally.

Great book. Fast read.


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The pursuit of happiness

A very nice movie starring Will Smith and his kid.

This movie is based on the real life story of legendary investment professional Chris Gardener. It is a movie to watch when you feel you are getting into self pity mode. The hardships the hero of this movie goes thru should put all your sufferings and miseries to shame. The determination and committment the hero of the movie shows to his goal should be an exmaple when our determination wavers.

Netflix review of the movie is at - http://www.netflix.com/Movie/The_Pursuit_of_Happyness/70044605?trkid=203957

More about real life Chris Gardner at - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Gardner

The movie strieks philosophical notes at time. In the declaration of independence, it is written "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness". When life and liberty are written as such, why happiness is mentioned in transient sense? Is it only the pursuit and no happiness is really achievable? Or the pursuit itself is the happiness. As Indian mystics say "pleasure and happiness are temporary. Joy is permanent once obtained."


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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Triple cross. Israel. The atom bomb & the man who spillled the secrets by Louis Toscano

This is one more book about sensational Mordechai Vanunu story that happened almost two decades ago.

It was a huge story because it is not easy to divulge secrets about Israel. And divulging secrets of secrets that too about atomic program - unheard of.

Vanunu was a technician in Israel's Modena reactor which was meant to generate energy only for peaceful purposes. At least that was Israel said to everyone else including US. But, in fact, it was the place where Israel was merrily making atom bombs, hydrogen bombs while proclaiming ' Israel won't be the first to introduce nuclear weapon in the middle east.' They were right making nuclear weapons and introducing then - there is a world of difference.

Vanunu was a restless young man who was not happy with himself or his life. Being an immigrant from Morocco, he was not thrilled about the kind of treatment non-european Jews like him got in Israel where European Jews dominated most of the fields and held all important affairs in their control.

Vanunu was also a hardcore leftist with strong inclinations towards Palestinians and their cause. He sympathized with them and openly took part in their rallies and was also interested in communism. How come a person with so many risks was hired and retained to work on most sensitive departments of Modena is inexplicable especially in the case of Israel which turns down people even when it perceives of slightest risks.

After being disillusioned by his job, one fine day Vanunu  took many pictures of sensitive areas of the reactor which when published would prove beyond any doubt the Israel had WMDs.

After resigning from his job, Vanunu went for a world hike traveling across many countries in south Asia, finally landing in Australia where he spent significant time. He shared his secrets with some people in Australia and one of them was an international con-man who felt he could make a ton of money if he could broker a deal between Vanunu and some rich tabloid which was willing to pay any sum for Vanunu's story. Thus Vanunu got introduced to Sunday Mirror tabloid in England.

Sunday Mirror which felt it had landed on the story of the millennium got Vanunu to England and spent weeks verifying and corroborating all that he had to say. Vanunu did not want any monetary payments from his story. He just wanted the world to know about Israel's true intentions. Or at least that's how he came across to everyone.

It was not long before such a news that some former Modena employee was planning on sharing secrets reached Israel's administration through its famed intelligence agency - Mossad. If Israel were to go by text book rules regarding how to handle such situations, it was easy for them to bump off Vanunu anywhere using the stealthy power of Mossad. But, a few things came in between. At least during those times, it was against government policy to kill Israeli citizens especially fellow Jews. Secondly, it was already late in the game and quite a few people and press knew about Vanunu and killing him would have only made any rumors about Vanunu, his plans about sharing secrets about Israel's nuclear capability credible to the world.

This is when the shrewd politicians like Pees, Shamir etc. played a game of genius. They demonstrated how to make lemonade if life hands you a lemon. Here was a man who was going to declare to the world that Israel had nuclear weapons. Israel in fact wanted the world in general and Arab countries in particular that it indeed had nuclear weapons and its enemies be better careful. Israel felt there was not going to much better opportunity than this to get some indirect publicity without any accountability at all. With evidence Vanunu had it was going to be clear beyond any doubt that Israel had bombs and Israel could repeat its broken record tune of not going to be the first to introduce the bomb.

So, Israel gave enough time for Vanunu and tabloids to get ready to publish the story. Just before when it was time to publish the story, Israel put its Mossad machinery into game. Using time tested honey trap (i.e. using sex as a tool in espionage), Vanunu was terribly lonely in London was tricked to follow an attractive woman to Italy. This woman was a Mossad agent and once in Italy it was easy for Mossad to transfer him to Israel where he was going to undergo due course of law.

By doing this Israel played a master stroke. By making Vanunu disappear just in time, there was none to provide any substantiation to what got published in tabloids but the news story was credible enough as it had photos and all details. By announcing to the world the arrest of Vanunu, Israel came clean that it had not killed Vanunu as many would have gone to belieive if Vanunu were to disappear without any trace. By charging Vanunu on very general counts of violation of his employment contract, Israel no where gave an impression that it put any value on his actual disclosures. As far as Israel was concerned it was trying one of its citizens because he had violated his employment contract which did not necessarily mean that he was being tried for disclosing actual nuclear secrets. This is one stone and multiple birds kinda scenario. Great deal for Vanunu.

This book stands out among several books that have been published regarding Vanunu affair. Major emphasis in other books is on the honey trap. No wonder people would salivate on raunchy details of a female spy using her charms to lure Vanunu from the safety of London to Rome only to be arrested by Israel. This book is probably the first book which provide details about the political machinations that went behinds the screens and how master diplomat Simon Peres convinced others of his plan to let Vanunu talk and bringing him back at the right time and they trying him for very generic offense. That's a master stroke.

Great book!

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Winning Spirit: 16 Timeless Principles That Drive Performance Excellence (Audio Book)

Inspirational, motivational self-help book from Joe Montana (star football player of yesteryears) and Tom Mitchell (executive coach).

Nice book with time tested self-help principles to achieve success. All illustrated with foot ball similes. So, if one does not understand football and its nuances, it may be little hard to get the full effect. Nevertheless, good one to spend a couple hours listening to it.

One thing very impressive about the authors is that after they excelled in their respective careers, they started an investment fund with no background in investment management. They approached this new field like anything else they did in the past. Start small, get hang of basics, grow at a sustainable rate, get some early wins, practice makes perfect and rest is history. At the time the book was published, according to authors, the fund was 500 million dollars and more. Good for them and their clients.

Joe Montana is really good and highlights how important his family was behind his success. So, good to remember to make families a heaven for self-help and also remember to be grateful for all the families did for us and recognize contributions to whatever we are today.


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Sunday, May 06, 2007

Aggressive go-getter

Many job descriptions, especially the ones from startup or early stage companies, desire that their ideal candidate is be an "aggressive go-getter". Individual interpretations of "aggressive go-getter"  vary. Some companies have a meaning which conflicts with core values of any seasoned professional. In their parlance "aggressive go-getter" means someone who is inconsiderate of everything and everyone that does not help him get what he wants. He will use any one and any means to achieve his goals. Usually we bump into some such people all the time. Depending on our own persona, we are troubled by these kind of people in varying degrees. These are the same people who barge into your cube, pick up conversation without giving a damn to you and your priorities, no time for any niceties, always urgent, their task has the highest priority. You get the picture.

In companies where majority are "aggressive go-getters" there is no problem at all. Everyone steps on each others toes, hurt one another's sentiments, cause a lot of grief and the story repeats day after day. If people do not end up committing serious crimes, such work places should thank their stars. If a true professional ever happens to be in one of those companies, his life will be miserable in no time. He can not imagine being an "aggressive go-getter" per their definition. He also can not take more and more crap being dumped on him. Sooner or later he departs and the culture thrives for good or bad.

But, have you paid close attention to the productivity of such  place? It's way too low. Why? Because a lot of time is spent bitching and moaning. Everyone has one or the other pet peeve. They need more than usual time to vent out their frustrations. Overall alcohol consumption, substance abuse etc are perpetual problems. These are the work places where despite no-alcohol rule, people routinely start drinking after 6 PM while still attending conference calls with customers. Many people calling in sick on Monday mornings is so common in such work places that calling in sick unofficially means nursing a bad hangover or what not. Productivity is way too low. On top of it, when people are seething inside and scheming against one another, they make so many mistakes that rework is more than the work. It's no wonder some companies with around hundred employees are able to attend to 1 customer and 1 release. What a gross waste? OK, they have to get some outside contractors too because they get tired of harassing each other. So they spend money to get contractors and traumatize them with their usual behaviors. Contractors will either run away in a week or stay put browsing the net all the day and taking crap and laughing from inside. All in all a place full of aggressive go-getters is a jungle.

It's amazing that corporate world has missed fundamental principles of productivity beats me. Their best practices include established worst practices. For example multitasking, insensitivity, scant or no attention to relationships and personal side of a professional. Opposites of these are what will make companies great.

Do not get into such companies with a view that by being a positive minded professional, that you are, you can stay cool and calm and change the environment with your charisma. Unfortunately positive thinking does not help here at all. If anything helps it's pragmatism. Being pragmatic, either you choose to stay put because you have more important goals than to worry about horrible personal treatment or you get the hell outta there. This culture fosters from the top. Management team of such companies is also full of similar professional who are clueless about what the real achievement is. They think they got  a few million bucks in funding from some VC and they can drive the company like slave masters. They may not be slave masters but they think they are entitled to screaming, humiliating their people and all forms of behavior which we prohibit in other places. They  achieve short term success because aggressive go-getters are focused and achieve some goals faster than others at least in the short term. They are rewarded for that and it only makes them bold and perpetuate their culture. However if anyone does any analysis of money being pumped and what is being made, this truth wills tart emerging.

So, isn't there a good "Aggressive go-getter"? Why not? Many successful companies breed such people. It's just that they have gotten it absolutely right as what they have to aggressive about and what they have to go-after. First be aggressive with problem. Be soft on people and hard on problems. Go after things that matter in 1 2 or 5 years not in next 3 months. Even big companies which were great companies at one point in time have vanished due to some temperamental CEO who came on board, treated people with disdain and ran a smooth sailing ship aground.

Many soft mannered professionals are sometimes considered to be ineffective. But, they are the ones who sometimes are most effective. They strike a chord within you and you willingly do more for such people than an "aggressive go-getter" who does not care to spoil your weekend with his incessant e-mails to get him or her some answer.

So, what do you do? If you can, do not join such companies. They are not good for your soul. If you pay attention, aggressive go-getting should become apparent to you in interviews. If you can avoid, pass these companies. There are way too many nice people in this world to require us to put up with some AHs. If you are in dire need of a job, accept it. Give it 6-8 month and then rethink. It is unlikely but possible that you thrive in such place. If not, start looking for a new job then.

Not showing to meetings on time and keeping everyone waiting is the subtlest form of "aggressive go-getters". Every time a meeting is rescheduled, it wastes so much time of everyone, that itself done over and over can run a company aground.

Read Bob Sutton's - "No ass hole rule" to get a scholarly treatment on such toxic work places. I say scholarly because Dr Sutton is a distinguished professor in Stanford business school. If something is compelling to an academician, you can attach some value to being away from toxic work places.


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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Debugging the Development Process: Practical Strategies for Staying Focused, Hitting Ship Dates, and Building Solid Teams by Steve Maguire

Very good book with tonnes of field proven techniques useful for any software professional. Although written almost 15 years ago, the insights in this book are timeless. Moreover, as someone said "all good things in software engineering were found long time ago. It is just that we never followed them. From time to time we remember some of them and thus comes a new book. All old wine in new bottle."

The author who perfected his skills thru his successful tenure at Microsoft shares a lot of good tips and tricks, insights, wisdom in this book. Good mix of technical topics, project management, people management. All this presented in a very effective fast read style. Good use of casual style.

One thing stuck in my mind. It's common among managers to say things such as "always bring solutions to problems. Don't just bring problems.Be part of the solution. If you are not, then you are the problem." The intention normally behind saying such things to people on your project is to exhort them to think thru the problems, become good at making decisions, reduce dependency on you. These are good motives but if caution is not exercised while insisting that one must always bring a solution to a problem, it may make people not raise problems at all. Not all problems are such that people who find them can also find one or more solutions for them. If we are not open to that possibility, then we risk people not raising issues just because they are afraid that they do not have a solution to the problem they see and you do not want them to bring problems to which they have no solution. Author makes a good point by giving a simple example. Suppose a worker in a nuclear plant sees some problem. But he does not know how to fix it. Do you rather have the worker come and report you the problem or have him not do that because that poor soul does not know how to fix the problem in the nuclear reactor? So, why not have the same attitude when we deal with people? First priority to encourage people to uncover problem regardless of whether have solution or not. After sometime you start seeing a pattern among people who come with problems. If they are not thinking thru even when they can, you can gently steer them in right direction and make them think for themselves. If the people really do not have enough experience or judgment, you should thank them for identifying the problem and bringing to your attention and work with them to come up with a solution. Bottom line is to make sure that people feel absolutely free to raise problems. So, use caution when we say ' be part of the solution else you are the problem.'


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