Jan 252015

Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker by Kevin Mitnick with William L. Simon 

Kevin Mitnick is a man obsessed with other people’s information. In this autobiography, he details how he became the world’s most wanted hacker, breaking in to corporation after corporation, just because he could. He would steal source code, email and other software, setting himself up to make free phone calls on masked phones to cover his tracks. Why? He never used any of the things he stole to actually make money. He did use his vast telephone system knowledge to rig radio phone contests so he would win. But, all he did with the valuable things he stole was stash copies in various places on the Internet. Most of the time, he didn’t even use the software. Occasionally, he would study it to see how he could exploit it for the next target. It was obvious throughout the book, Mitnick is mystified why others consider this a crime. In his mind, no harm was done other than to show companies the vulnerability of their security from someone who truly would steal it. Now, out of prison, he make incredible money ‘legally’ hacking into companies as a security consultant, having leveraged his fame into a lucrative business.

There are those who agree with Mitnick. I am not one of those. I do agree the government, in his prosecution, went way beyond the mark and strayed into illegalities. He was held without a bond hearing, just because (according to Mitnick) she had decided beforehand there was no way she would grant his release. He was barred from seeing the evidence against him because the information was all electronic and the court was afraid to even let him look at a computer, believing he could somehow hack systems without touching a computer. He was denied the use of a telephone because they believed he could “whistle into the phone can launch a nuclear missile strike from jail.” Granted, he could manipulate the phones to do amazing things, but launch missiles from systems not even connected to phones? Really? Do your homework, people.

What scared me the most was Mitnick’s accounts of how he would social engineer the information. Social engineering is getting people to give you information that can be used to gain access. He would call up someone in a targeted company and say, “This is Frank over in engineering. We are doing an audit of the passwords on the VMX system. We have your pin code as 1234. Is that correct?” More often than not, the person would reply, “No. it is 4854.” Duh… I would like to think most people wouldn’t fall for that, but they did time after time. This is a real problem for corporations even today. People try to be helpful and end up giving away information that is then used to hack into the computer systems. Mitnick’s greatest contribution by writing this book is to show just how easy it is. Perhaps knowing this account will make me more aware of the attempts that happen on a daily basis all over the world. Any little tidbit of information is useful to a hacker, who often piece together enough innocuous pieces of information over time to create the entire picture. Minick, hero or villain, at least showed me that much.

Jan 192015

The Death of Corporate Reputation: How Integrity Has Been Destroyed on Wall Street (Applied Corporate Finance) by Jonathan Macey 
It will probably come as no surprise to anyone reading this book, but corporate reputation is at an all-time low. Once upon a time, a company’s reputation was a prized asset, guarded jealously. In this book, Jonathan Macey shows how that time is long gone, that companies who have lost their reputations have not lost business and sometimes even gained because of wrong-doing or even illegal activity. He picks apart everything from companies, brokerages, banks, the people who run them, even the regulatory agencies tasked to make sure they play by the rules. It is a disheartening look into just how corrupt commerce and government has become. Who loses? The consumers. Who do we trust? Who can we depend on to help make decisions? The simple answer is no one. And that is the saddest commentary of all.

The book is not an easy read. Macey does a good job of explaining the complex strategies employed. I understand junk bonds for the first time in my life from this book. But unless one is very interested in this topic, it will be a hard slog. I admit I used this book as a sleep aid more than one night. It is one of the best documented books I have read. I think the footnote references were half as long as the chapters.

Jan 112015

MONEY Master the Game: 7 Simple Steps to Financial Freedom by Tony Robbins  

The premise of this new book by Tony Robbins is listed right on the cover: Secrets from the world’s richest financial minds. Isn’t that what everyone who doesn’t have $1 million in the bank want to know? How did they get there and how can I get access to all the tricks the 1% of the world’s richest possess? What are the magic schemes they use to hang on to their money when all the rest of us seem to constantly be investing in the wrong thing?

I was asked to give an advance review of Tony Robbins’ new book, Money: Master the Game as part of their pre-launch marketing strategy. For the price of shipping and handling, I was sent a copy of the book. The problem? I didn’t receive it until after the launch. I was given the first two sub-chapters electronically, but about all those accomplished was to irritate me (and hundreds of others, based on Amazon reviews) by teasing me with everything I was going to be told in subsequent chapters that I didn’t have access to yet.

When I finally got the book, I started reading in earnest. Yes, I want those secrets. The first one? I am part of the richest 1% of the world. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the first thing Tony points out is that if you make more than $50,000 per year, you are part of those evil 1%-ers the protesters all rail against. We in America are among the most blessed on the planet with what we have been given. With that out of the way, he then launches into questioning WHY we want to become rich. Make not bones about it, he absolutely expects everyone who reads this book to know why they want to have money, how much is ‘enough’ and what they will do with it once they get it.

Tony was frustrated with the lack of information given to the majority of the people in the world on what works and what doesn’t. Time and again, he would see people lose their life savings by turning their money over to “financial analysts” who would legally steal the money through fees, commissions and other legal methods. He was doing well with his pile, but he was able to hire the best and brightest in the world and had access to the smartest people on Wall Street through his myriad of connections. Four years ago, he decided to do something about it and enlisted those bright minds to get the information out in a format for everyone to see. The result is this book. He interviewed everyone from Sir John Templeton to Warren Buffet and asked them simple questions. Over the course of several years, he built up and extracted the strategies that are contained in the book.

Are they earth-shattering, market-rocking or super-secret? Nope. I have read every one of them before in one place or another. What IS helpful in this book is the way he puts it all together. For the very first time, someone showed me HOW to calculate just what I needed to retire on. Not only did Tony do that, he showed me how to calculate 5 different levels of retirement. I am thrilled to say that come this time next year, I will have achieved the bare bones retirement level. I won’t be having fun, but I will be able to live in my house, have food to eat, transportation and insurance for the rest of my days. It is very comforting to know that little fact/milestone. The next level up, a few other things added in, will be reached in 5 years. If everything stays the same as it is now, I will be able to retire at my current lifestyle one year before I actually retire. Well, that’s cool! I never knew that before. That in itself made me sunny and happy for the next two days! I’m not doing all that much for retirement beyond my 401(k) contribution right now, so I thought I was going to be living in a box, eating food out of a dumpster. At least, that is what the popular media had led me to believe.

What I do like about this book is the way everything is laid out. He explains things pretty well for the most part. There were a few times I got lost in some of the explanations. I even fell asleep several times throughout. But I have turned down several pages to go back and review as I work through implementing the plan. I enjoyed the interview transcriptions from the many people he interviewed. One of my favorite was with Kyle Bass and his concept of investing without risk of loss. That part was new to me and very profound.

One of the things I appreciated the most from this book was in the last chapter. Tony created a checklist to the entire book. I am a lover of checklists and this was welcome. I had been contemplating going back and rereading the book to make my own checklist when I turned the page and found it all assembled for me. The only addition I would recommend to Mr. Robbins is to add page numbers to the checklist for quick reference.

Good book, great stories, fantastic interviews and actionable advice I can go implement. Yes, there are a few times when it felt like a sales pitch for some of Tony’s companies or seminars, but he makes a point to saying they are not required. That’s all I would ask from a guy who makes his living from providing services. This book was a gift to the world – he is donating all the profits to his foundation to feed 40 million people a meal this year. I can live with that. In fact, I am planning on donating to it as well.