Aug 17, 2008

Yesterday's Boston Globe featured a column by Alex Beam expressing his reservations about Twitter:

You have heard about Twitter. Maybe. It's something other people do, mainly younger people. You subscribe to the service, then you can post little messages on people's cellphones, or on their instant message accounts. About nothing.


The perfect twitter is a lapidary techno-haiku: I send these pointless little messages, gobbling up Internet bandwidth for no reason. Because I am a twit . . . er.

In honor of Beam's article, I've created a blog badge for those of us who are the targets of his derision. Feel free to use the badge however you like. I have one in the sidebar of my page that links to my Twitter profile.

Many of you know I post to Twitter several times a day on average, but it took me several months of using (and more often NOT using) the site before I started to get anything out of it. Once I found a substantial number of people to follow (many of whom are fellow law librarians) and who followed me in return, however, the conversation took off. I am now in constant contact with librarians all over the country every single day.

I posted my own favorite Twitter experience as part of a comment to a post at Out of the Jungle about Beam's column:

A few weeks ago a librarian in Chicago Twittered that she was interested in an AALL session on empirical research. I replied to her -- via Twitter -- that I was also interested in this topic because I was working with such materials at work. Two days later, a librarian in LA who isn't even on Twitter asked me about my empirical research after she had a phone conversation the Chicago librarian. Minus Twitter, I wouldn't have made either of these valuable professional connections.

So I will continue to send pointless little messages.

Aug 4, 2008

Just finished watching Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and I'm extremely disappointed. Filmaker Alex Gibney completely missed the mark in this adaptation of Peter Elkind and Bethany McLean's book of the same name. What should be a complex dissection of CFO Andy Fastow's financial shenanigans, an unforgiving examination of Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay's dealmaking corporate environment, and a scathing indictment of Wall Street in the bull market of the 90s is instead little more than a dumbed down story of the big company that fell down and went boom.

Gibney inexplicably spends 30 minutes, well over a quarter of the movie, discussing Enron's role in the California electricity crisis of 2000-01. Nevermind that Enron, as Elkind and McLean clearly explain in the book, 1) never broke the letter of the law with their California transactions, 2) was just one of many companies engaged in profiteering during the crisis, and 3) actually made money from these transactions (whereas Enron went bankrupt because it ultimately lost money from other transactions -- most of which are ignored in the film). As if wasting our time with an irrelevant tangent isn't enough, Gibney concludes this segment of the film by implying that Enron is to blame for Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming governor of California.

The film also tries to make much of alleged links between Enron and the Bush family, but as any reader of the book knows that while Ken Lay did little to deny a close tie to each President Bush, in reality his ties were tenuous at best, and in the case of the younger Bush virtually nonexistent.

Oh, and Arthur Andersen is barely mentioned.

The heart of Enron's misconduct was the creation of several partnerships by Fastow designed both to keep Enron's losses off the books and to make millions of dollars for Fastow and his cronies, yet Gibney devotes only about 10 minutes to these schemes. Most of those 10 minutes are consumed by Fastow's own conflict of interest and provide little information on what the partnerships were or why they were illegal. While it's true that descriptions of these special purpose entities are hard to follow (I suffered a lot of headaches while reading about them), their inexplicability was one of the reasons they succeed for so long -- because Wall Street analysts couldn't make enough sense of them to see the frightenting truth.

All in all, it seems Gibney simply wanted to make a movie everybody could watch and understand without actually dealing with the details. To accomplish this he played up the human (Lay and Skilling) and emotional (California and lost pensions) elements while downplaying the financial (everything that mattered). What this leaves is an oversimplified version of events that is nearly as deceptive as the one told by Enron itself.

Read the book.

Aug 3, 2008

A few minutes ago I rented the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room from Amazon's Unbox video download store. Until today, every video I've rented from Unbox has had the same restrictions: You have 30 days to watch the movie, and once you hit play you have 24 hours to finish it. After the expiration of either limit, the movie disappears from your hard drive (in my case my TiVo).

Today, however, I received a slightly different confirmation message. "Once you have pressed play for the first time, you will have 168 hours to watch that video." That's 7 days, quite a step up from what I'd seen in the past. David Pogue would be pleased.

Apparently the 24 hour deadline still holds for most major studio content on Unbox, but quite a few documentary and independent films now give the renter a week long rental. Let's hope this expands to more movies in the coming months and that Amazon can strike similar deals with the big studios.

Jul 30, 2008

Last night I finally started reading Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, by Peter Ames Carlin. After reading a section about Brian's adoration of Phil Spector in the early 1960s, I started thinking about the group of session musicians Spector used on many of his recordings. Known collectively as "The Wrecking Crew," these professional players turned up on many of the biggest hits of the sixties for a wide array of artists, including The Beach Boys. (In fact, they were the studio musician's for the 1966 BB masterpiece Pet Sounds.)

With my curiosity piqued, I began to wonder whether there were any books or movies out there that would tell the Wrecking Crew's story, even telling M. that I wished there was a documentary about the group, something like Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the 2002 film about the Funk Brothers, a group of Detroit musicians who played on numerous Motown hits.

I kept reading the Brian Wilson book, all the while thinking about the need for a Wrecking Crew documentary, even being so bold as to think that if there was nothing suitable out there, perhaps I should look into making the documentary myself (because, you know, I have SO MUCH filmmaking experience!).

After I put my book down and started getting ready for bed, I did a quick Google search to see if such a documentary already exists.

It does.

Not only does the film exist, but it starts THIS FRIDAY at the IFC Center in Manhattan. This freakin' Friday. Two days from now. What are the odds?

The movie is titled, fittingly, The Wrecking Crew and was directed by Denny Tedesco, son of Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco.

Anyway, looks I'll be in NYC this weekend if anyone wants to join me.

Jul 28, 2008

In a different year, I never would have finished this book.

I have a long sordid history of not finishing books. It's not uncommon for me to start and stop reading 9 or 10 books over several months before something finally clicks and I finish a book. Even during my more prolific reading years in my teens and early 20's, I still suffered from a sort of literary ADD that made me put down a lot of books after only 20 or so pages.

Well, maybe I've turned a corner of some sort because last night I finished The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron, by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, one of the slowest reads I have ever experienced.

I know very little about management, investment and corporations. I know even less about accounting. For this reason, The Smartest Guys in the Room was a very difficult book to read. But that shouldn't detract from the book's quality at all. Indeed, it is a high compliment. This is a remarkably written and researched book that actually managed to get me to understand quite a bit of what happened at Enron.

The events that transpired at Enron were far more the result of incompetence than malice. Sure, the finance people were plenty malicious, but had higher ups like Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling had the slightest interest in running a company's day to day operations, the financial shenanigans would never have have gotten off the ground. Skilling, meanwhile, made ridiculous promises to investors about Enron's growth and earnings that all but required the accountants to lie at every turn. In truth, the only people at Enron who seemed to be halfway good at what they were doing were the ones intentionally breaking the law (most notably CFO Andy Fastow). And there actually weren't that many of them. Everyone else was just willfully blind or painfully stupid. (Skilling does, however, deserve a substantial amount of blame for moving Enron from a stable asset-based company to an illusory one built on high-risk energy trading and dealmaking.)

Highly recommended.

52B/52W Progress: 8 down, 44 to go.

Currently Reading: TBD

Jul 17, 2008

I finished my 7th book of the year a little over a week ago: A Firing Offense, by George Pelecanos.

I decided to read something by Pelecanos because of his connection to the television series "The Wire." (Pelecanos was a writer on the show.) A Firing Offense is his debut novel, and the first entry in Pelecanos' Nick Stefanos series of books.

I definitely didn't love this book. The plot was extremely thin, centering on Stefanos' search for a missing teen. However, Pelecanos spent far more time describing the seedy beer-soaked world in which his characters live than on the story at hand. Thanks to Stefanos' sometimes endless hours at his day job, a consumer electronics store, I now know a great deal about the deceptive methods employed by such stores to extract as much money as possible from each customer. Sadly, I now know very little about finding a missing person.

Given that this was Pelecanos' first novel and that he has built quite a reputation in the years since, I suspect I'll find his later novels more impressive than this one.

52B/52W Progress: 7 down, 45 to go.

Currently Reading: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Jul 10, 2008

Tomorrow morning I'll be in the air headed to Portland, Oregon, for the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Law Libraries. I'm excited to be returning to AALL following a ridiculous budgeting kerfuffle by my former employer a year ago that caused me to throw my hands in the air and say, "Screw you, guys! I'm going home."

Things have been much smoother this year. So smooth, in fact, that I got a complimentary upgrade to first class for tomorrow's flight. Nice. (Sounds like a good time to catch up on the Lullabot and Acquia podcasts.)

There's a lot to look forward to. On Saturday evening I'm going to dinner with several colleagues (including Portland's funniest law librarian, Rob Truman) at Andina with several colleagues, then when the conference officially starts on Sunday I have David Pogue's keynote and the bloggers' meetup to keep me busy. Monday brings a CS-SIS roundtable, two CS-SIS hot topics, the Indiana University (see you there, fellow Hoosiers!) reception, and of course the infamous West party. On Tuesday I'll be up bright and early for the CS-SIS breakfast and business meeting (though due to a registration error there'll be no breakfast for me). If that's not enough to keep me busy, I think there's an educational program going on, too. (Perhaps I should look at the program sometime.)

One of the great things about AALL is that it recharges my librarian spirit and makes me want to be excellent at what I do. It's a great feeling. I also get to see a lot of people I rarely communicate with outside of email, IM, and Twitter. Heck, I'll probably be meeting a couple of them in person for the first time.

I doubt I'll ever match the exhaustive (and exhausting) coverage I gave to the 2006 meeting over on Library Laws, but hopefully I'll be able to give people a taste of what's going via Twitter, flickr and this blog. (Look for the "official" conference tag: aall2008.) See you in Portland!

Jul 8, 2008

On a recent trip to Wal-Mart, we were treated to the store's usual array of messiness: dirty floors, open packages and poorly retaped packaging from returned merchandise, misplaced merchandise, and generally uncontrolled dingy clutter. This seems to be the case at every Wal-Mart location in the country -- except the brand new ones. When a new location first opens its doors, it is always a sparklingly clean example of retail efficiency. Not only is the store pristine, but every single one of those 30+ checkout lanes is open for business. Come back six months later, however, and you'll find a dumpy, dirty store standing in its place. By then, the corporate gods of cleanliness -- and the people who man those extra cash registers -- will have moved on to another new location (or as is more likely these days, a newly refurbished location).

So I wondered, how does Wal-Mart get away with this in city after city, neighborhood after neighborhood? The obvious answer is price. With the country in the midst of a full scale recession, low price is big motivator for customers.

But I think there's more to it than just that. I recently listened to audio version of Super Crunchers, a book by Yale Law School professor Ian Ayres that discusses the growing use of statistical analysis of datasets to make more precise business decisons. One example Prof. Ayres outlines in the book involves an airline that tests three separate strategies on customers who had a triggering negative event (e.g., a cancelled flight) during their travel with the airline. The first group received nothing, the second group received a letter of apology, and the third group received a letter and a trial membership in the airline club. Members of the second group were far more likely than those in the first to book future travel with the same airline even though they received nothing more than a form apology. As for the third group, about a third of those actually renewed their club membership when their trial expired, meaning the scheme actually resulted in additional revenue for the airline -- from customers who had a negative experience with the airline, no less!

So how does this play into Wal-Mart and its messy stores? Well, at the checkout counter these days there is usually a question displayed for customers on the credit/debit card machine: "Was your store clean today?" Whether Wal-Mart actually uses the responses to adjust its store cleaning strategy is anybody's guess, though surely the higher ups are aware of the cleanliness problem in many of their stores and this is a clever way to pinpoint problem locations. But what this question definitely achieves is giving the customer the satisfaction of providing feedback. Thus, if I am appalled by the messiness of the store on a given day, I can angrily select "No." This will probably make me feel a lot better because Wal-Mart actually provided me with an opportunity to vent my frustrations. Better yet, I am able to do so in a non-confrontational way. As a result, I leave the store more satisfied with my shopping experience and am more likely to return.

Of course, as Wal-Mart surely knows, I'd be even more satisfied and likely to return if I had selected "Yes."

Jun 26, 2008

My reading has definitely picked up significantly since I cancelled my cable. Following last week's two books, I managed to read two more books this week.

The Informant, by Kurt Eichenwald
This is the story of the FBI's price fixing investigation of Archer Daniels MIdland, the so-called "Supermarket of the World." Investigators were first turned on to corporation's crimes by division president Mark Whitacre, who went on to record numerous incriminating conversations with ADM executives and competitors while wearing a wire. But although he helped the FBI build a solid case against the company over more than two years, it turned out that Whitacre wasn't exactly being honest with the government. Or the press. Or his family. Or anyone. Meanwhile, within the justice department there was so much political maneuvering going on between departments to make Boss Tweed nauseous. The Informant is currently being made into a motion picture by director Steven Soderbergh starring Matt Damon as Whitacre. HIghly recommended.

How I Learned to Cook, editied by Kimberly Witherspoon and Peter Meehan
This collection of essays features 40 well-known chefs telling tales of their formative years in the food trade. The list of authors is a who's who of the restaurant world, including Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, Anthony Bourdain, and Eric Ripert. There are a few too many tales of tyrannical yet wise mentoring French chefs, though Boulud and Ripert do manage to spin their yarns well. An enjoyable book for anyone who loves to cook.

To make my goal of 52 books, I will now need to read 46 books in 26 weeks.

Jun 17, 2008

As 2008 approaches its halfway point, that whole "52 Books, 52 Weeks" New Years Resoultion is looking pretty sad. As regular readers may recall, up to this point I've managed to finish exactly two books for the year and none since March. It's a shameful total, to be sure, and perhaps provides support to the recent claim in The Atlantic that the internet is making us stupid. (See Nicholas Carr, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?," The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2008.)

The numerous unfinished books (Atonement, How I Learned to Cook, A Long Way Down) strewn about my apartment right now is a testament to my shrinking attention span. And while some might find solace in the fact that they manage to read Entertainment Weekly from cover to cover every single week, it just makes me all the more ashamed.

Well, amidst this colossal failure I'm happy to report that I finished not one but TWO books yesterday.

The Camel Club by David Baldacci was a pretty pedestrian mass market political thriller. I'm not sure there was a single believable character or line of dialogue in the entire book, but Baldacci did execute the action sequences in the second half of the novel quite well. I seem to have grown tired of these kinds of pulpy thriller in recent years, a development I suspect is due in part to raised expectations for crime stories brought on by HBO's excellent procedural series, "The Wire." Which is why my next crime novel will be one by Richard Price, a staff writer on the series.

The Hamburger: A History by Josh Ozersky is a quick read, clocking in at under 140 pages, but it provides an enjoyable history of our favorite sandwich, focusing mainly on the rise of fast food hamburger chains in post-war America. Interestingly, the two biggest pioneers in the world of assembly-line burgers, McDonald's and White Castle, are the only two chains to have resisted buyouts from larger conglomerates and remain staunchly independent to this day (though each has taken a vastly different route from the other since their inceptions).

It's probably no small coincidence that I managed to double my reading output for the year in a single day right after I cancelled my cable television. So, with 2008 now in its 25th week: 4 down, 48 to go!