The Informant

Over the past week, I’ve been lugging this 600+ page book around the city, sneaking glimpses at it whenever I could, in waiting rooms and during lunch breaks, wishing that this week’s busy social calendar didn’t get in the way of my devouring this book. Last night, I stayed up late finishing it, and it was worth the effort.
Hands down the best non fiction of the year for me. The price-fixing scandal at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM, supermarket to the world) that took place in the 1990s (and before), conversations taped by a high level executive that implicated the heads of the company in fixing the price and volume of at least a dozen of their products (lysine, citric, etc.). The effect of price fixing was to increase prices for the farmers which in turn increased food prices for the world. Companies in Japan, Korea, and Europe were also involved.
Mark Whitacre the key informant to the FBI, only he turns out to be a wee bit imbalanced. As in, completely loony and untrustworthy. He goes through a variety of FBI handlers, telling them he’s cooperating, and yet perpetrating fraud during the same time (funneling $9M to Swiss and Cayman accounts). Interesting perspective on the infighting at the Department of Justice, where the anti-fraud case against Whitacre requires a Chinese Wall from the price-fixing case the DOJ is fighting.
Reads like a thrilling spy novel in the best of senses; sadly, it’s also a true story and a look inside the corporate board rooms of the last decade. This can’t be an isolated incident… but luckily Whitacre was crazy enough to give us all a peek inside.

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Resource Wars

It all boils down to oil and water. Although the two elements don’t mix well, they do combine as necessary but limited resources which the 21st century needs for physical and economic survival. This was a fantastic, pre-9/11 look at the global situation, which accurately predicts the US invasion of Iraq to secure its oil supply.
My biggest takeaway from the book is that yes, (duh!) our war in Iraq is about oil. A stated strategic concern for the US since WWII, we’ve made no bones about needing to secure our supply of a resource vital to our economy and military. I’m just not sure why our politicians aren’t more forthcoming about the real reasons for our wars. Do they think we can’t handle the truth of needing to kill or displace millions of Iraqis in order to keep our $4/gallon gas flowing freely?
I had another “Aha!” moment while walking around town during the time I was reading this. Bumper stickers railing against the war in Iraq are simply ridiculous; you’re against the war, and yet you’re driving a car fueled by the reason for the war. These bumper stickers are better served adorning bicycles, which are not petroleum-free either, with nearly 2 gallons of oil making up the tires and lubricants.
In reading the footnotes for one of the most engaging chapters (“Oil Conflict in the Persian Gulf”), I stumbled onto a 1996 NYTimes article about Saudi Arabia/Bin Laden. It posited that Saudis were getting restless since overpopulation was cutting into the benefits the royal family had given out to everyone to keep people appeased (education, health care, good jobs), and Saudis were particularly angry at the US from a misperception (?) that we had profited from the 1992 Gulf War and the outrage at having 5,000 US military on the sacred Islamic ground of the peninsula.
Also in the footnotes, related to the 1945 meeting of Roosevelt with Ibn Saud to assure him of American support, Dick Cheney (1990 Defense Secretary) cited this relationship as a key factor in the US decision to intervene in the Gulf, “We do, of course, have historic ties to the governments in the region, that hark back with respect to Saudi Arabia to 1945, when President Roosevelt… affirmed at that time that the United States had a lasting and a continuing interest in the security of the Kingdom.” There never has been any doubt, moreover, about the reasons for this commitment: “We obviously also have a significant interest because of the energy that is at stake in the Gulf,” Cheney affirmed. “Within a couple of hundred miles of the border of Kuwait, in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, reside… 24 or 25 percent of the world’s known reserves.” — Senate, Armed Services Committee, Crisis in the Persian Gulf Region, p 10.
Besides the Persian Gulf, keep your eye on the Caspian Sea and South China Sea for upcoming conflict over oil and natural gas reserves.
From the final chapter:
“The conflict scenarios discussed in this book… all possess distinctive characteristics, and so tend to be viewed by analysts and policy makers as isolated phenomena. But the resource wars of the post-Cold War era are not random or disconnected events. Rather, they are part of a larger, interconnected geopolitical system. Whereas international conflict was until recently governed by political and ideological considerations, the wars of the future will largely be fought over the possession and control of vital economic goods – especially resources needed for the functioning of modern industrial societies… It is the central thesis of this book that resource wars will become, in the years ahead, the most distinctive feature of the global security environment. This is so for all of the reasons outlined in the previous chapters: the priority accorded to economic considerations by national leaders, the ever-growing demand for a wide range of basic commodities, looming shortages of certain key materials, social and political instability in areas harboring major reserves of vital commodities, and the proliferation of disputes over the ownership of important sources of supply. ”
On the water conflict in the Nile, Jordan, Tigris-Euphrates and Indus River Basins:
“Clearly, each of the river systems described above harbors a significant risk of violent conflict. This risk stems from the fact that the demand for water is growing while the supply is not, and from the failure of the riparians in these systems to establish an integrated, basinwide regime for the equitable distribution of the shared resources.”
Reco’d by Paul Ehrlich during a recent SALT talk

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Best (Business) Books Ever

NYTimes blogger lists the best business books, and I’m no snob, I’ll give them a whirl! Expect to see several of these reviewed in the coming weeks.
His list and comments, in no particular order:
“Liar’s Poker,” by Michael Lewis (even though I’ve since become convinced that the anecdote that gives the book its title never happened).
“The Devil’s Candy,” by Julie Salamon. (Greatest dissection of the movie business ever written.)
“The Box,”, by Marc Levinson. (Hard to believe you can write a great book about the rise and importance of the shipping container, but he pulled it off.)
“Indecent Exposure,” by David McClintick. (Published in 1982, it single-handedly created the business narrative genre).
“The Go-Go Years,” by John Brooks. (The best book by the most elegant writer to ever make business his subject.)
“The Kingdom and the Power,” by Gay Talese. (Yes, the subject is The New York Times, but how can you leave it off any list of great business books?)
“Titan,” by Ron Chernow. (Chernow’s magisterial biography of John D. Rockefeller.)
“Do You Sincerely Want To Be Rich,” by Godfrey Hodgson, Bruce Page and Charles Raw. (Hard to believe that this committee of authors could write a sensational narrative about the rise and fall of Bernard Cornfeld, but that they did.)
“Disney Wars,” by James Stewart. (”Best corporate psychoanalysis I’ve ever read,” says John Huey.)
“The Informant,” by Kurt Eichenwald (Forget his Enron book, “Conspiracy of Fools.” This book, about the strange saga of Mark Whitacre and Archer Daniels Midland, is his masterpiece.)
“Father, Son and Co.: My Life at IBM and Beyond”, by Thomas J. Watson and Peter Petre (The only great ghost-written C.E.O. autobiography ever written. No one else — not even Lee Iacocca or Jack Welch — even comes close.)
“When Genius Failed,” by Roger Lowenstein. (Another one of those “how-did-he-do-it?” books: this account of the fall of Long Term Capital Management, which by all rights should be a tough slog, is crackling good read.)
“Greed and Glory on Wall Street,” by Ken Auletta. (This book, about the crack up of Lehman Brothers, has a great cast of characters, starting with Steve Schwartzman.)
“The Smartest Guys in the Room,” by Peter Elkind and Bethany McLean. (O.K., O.K., they are former colleagues of mine, and I was deeply involved in editing this book — but I have to say, I think it turned out pretty well!)

Reclaiming San Francisco

Essay collection curated by City Lights detailing the history of San Francisco’s growth and political bent. Filled with good stuff, from articles on the horrible “weeding” done at the SF public library to fit into the new building with fancy computer equipment that quickly went out of date, to an article on early SF’s history of Shanghai-ing people into sea voyages to China with a dose of opium in their beer.
The story of San Francisco is a complex one. Filled with adventurers instead of the church-fearing people, the band of seamen, prospectors, shady characters started this small town, which underwent rapid growth during the Silver Rush (1860s). Millionaires would strike silver in the Comstock Lode, then immediately come back to SF to build their mansions on the hills of the city.
The city successfully repulsed several growth initiatives that would have turned SF into a Manhattan or Chicago skyline, and stymied the 1950s Highway movement by preventing freeways from being plopped into the city. Local citizens banded together to make the ubiquitous Cable Cars a historical treasure when they were slated for the scrap heap to make way for more cars. Tenant power and rent control, of which I am a beneficiary, came into its own only as recently as 1994.
Moscone and Milk’s assassination by Dan White (of the Twinkie Defense) put Diane Feinstein in the mayor’s seat. The non-profit “window-dressing” on the Presidio, the National Park System’s for-profit park. The murals in the Mission, Diego Rivera’s mural in the upscale social club downtown, suiciding off the Golden Gate bridge, the city’s land grab in Mission Bay to turn this landfill (watch out Earthquakes!) into the next spot of high rises. The 1994 “tourist bus” conceived by the Marin Headlands Center for the Arts where the bus went to several non-tourist spots, empty spaces, considering the meaning of tourism and the DIsneyfied image of San Francisco. Ken Dowlin painted as the villainous head librarian who used the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake to rid himself of the troubling excess of books at the public library.

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Cellist of Sarajevo

A beautiful and quick read; condenses the 3 year siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s into a month of fiction. True stories inspire main plot points, like the cellist who watches 22 of his friends and neighbors die when a shell lands on them whilst waiting in a line for bread. To recover from this shock, he plays a beautiful sonata on the spot of the massacre, for 22 days. A talented sniper, Arrow, is assigned to protect the cellist from enemy snipers, and she does her job then gets mixed up in a power struggle with the defendants. Instead of killing her pursuers (as she had the opportunity to do), Arrow decides to meet her fate head on and is blasted to death by their bullets. Two other story lines make up the rest of the fabric, that of Kenan, a father out to gather water for his family, and Dragan, an older man trying to get to the bakery where he works, for his free meal. The mere act of crossing an intersection becomes a nerve-wracking ordeal, as snipers kill civilians at will.
Reco’d by Tom Peters

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The Witch of Portobello

“Just be different,” Athena tells us. This spiritual character loses herself in dance and calligraphy, filling up her blank spaces with activity, and eventually discovering the Mother spirit, then teaching people how they could find the Mother as well. An orphan adopted in Lebanon, daughter of gypsies, brought up in London, Sherine changes her name to Athena and begins exploring her spirituality. The story is told in bite-sized increments through various interviews with people who knew her before her brutal murder. The mysterious Scotland Yard boyfriend makes an appearance at the very end.
Overall, very readable, albeit choked full of the kind of spirituality references that sometimes drive me crazy.
Reco’d by Tamara

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