Book review: Zero Alternative skewers “too-big-to-fail”

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From the recession of 2008 was born a litter of woes.  Mortgage defaults.  Foreclosures.  Cram downs.  Lay-offs.  Furlough days.  Stagnant wages.

Was the recession caused by exotic financial instruments like mortgage-backed securities?  Was it the result of excessive pressure from the federal government on banks to issue home loans to borrowers who couldn’t pay the bills?  Or just the boom and bust of the business cycle?

That’s not the way that Scott “Yours” Walker (surely, an unintentional homonym with no relation to the governor of Wisconsin), the main character in Luca Pesaro’s financial techno-thriller Zero Alternative (2014), sees it.  Walker, an investment banker with a skeptical mind, inhabits a darker world, where friends and enemies alike work for larger, shadowy entities pulling strings behind the scenes.

The story begins with a banner performance by Walker, making millions in one day of trading when everybody in London but him predicted the worst.  It’s all downhill for Walker from there.  Walker’s friend D.M., who is just finishing the creation of a powerful predictive analytics software that can anticipate ups and downs in the market, is murdered.  The killer attempts to frame Walker, who has the next most knowledge of the software.

Walker goes on the lam with a hired gun on his tail.  Hired by a rival investment bank, perhaps.  The sexy woman at his side, Layla, was working for the hired gun, after she quit working for a foreign spy agency.  While on the run with her, Walker must trust her when she says she’s working for herself now.  They travel from London to France to Switzerland to Italy to the U.S., facing close shaves at every turn and doubting but seducing each other along the way.

The computer program is valuable enough to kill for.  While Walker isn’t above using the program to make money for himself or his allies while in hiding, he mainly wants to use the application to bring down an odious investment bank.  This is his act of rebellion against the too-big-to-fail financial system which is rigged to make money for itself regardless market direction or morality.  The adventure of Zero Alternative is in Walker’s personal, international life-and-death cage match against overwhelming forces of greed.  Whether Walker’s his pursuers will steal the computer program, whether he will be able to use the program against the financial system, and the question of Layla’s reliability, are compelling elements.

There is stock market terminology and information technology jargon in the book, but it is not excessive.  The movement of Walker and Layla across the borders of Europe into Italy are plausible for a man of Walker’s resources.  Where things get a little shaky are the oracle-like foresight of the computer program.  It might have been more plausible if the application occasionally predicted the wrong outcome, required input of more data in order to make a prediction, or if it had a lot of bugs to be worked out.  Also, the politics—the allegation that the recession is mainly the result of corporate greed—is not for all tastes.  But the excitement of the international chase and the tense romance make up for that.  Recommended.

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Big data highlights big delays in veteran care

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The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) are capitalizing on the power of social media, analytics tools, and data visualization technology.  They’re using these capabilities not just to recruit and serve members, but to monitor and report on the quality of veteran care across the country.  These projects help public officials shift resources to underserved veterans.  The website 1to1 Media recently interviewed IAVA’s CEO about these initiatives:

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Gives Data a Seat at the Table

The nonprofit organization uses data visualization and social media tools to uncover insights about female veterans and more.

By Judith Aquino | Published 01/20/2016 in 1to1 Media

For-profit businesses aren’t the only organizations that are leveraging data analytics and online tools—nonprofit organizations like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) are also investing in better member experiences.

As the largest organization for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, IAVA helps veterans successfully transition back to civilian life. 1to1 Media spoke with IAVA Founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff about the organization’s use of data collection tools and social media.

1to1 Media: In what ways did your organization need help to better reach and engage veterans?

Paul Rieckhoff: Our veterans’ population is young—the average age is in the late 20’s. They’re also digital natives, but extremely geographically and ethnically diverse. One of our biggest challenges is trying to connect 3 million people who are spread out across the world. Technology provides their connection to home.

We began working with Salesforce six years ago and they’ve empowered us to do a lot from a shoestring budget, from getting the veterans connected to their families, building an online community, and collecting information to better understand a veteran’s needs. On Veterans Day, for example, we organized 144 events around the country in one week. Salesforce allowed us to do everything from marketing to check-ins to social media integration to getting people in touch with a therapist.

Do you have an example of an insight about your members that you discovered and were able to implement to improve your service?

Our generation of veterans is different in a lot of ways but one aspect in particular is that 20 percent of our members are women. And they’ve had unique challenges accessing healthcare and getting child care support. We were able to drill down and find out what their experiences were like in the Veteran Affairs system.

What we found out was a female veteran’s experience was much worse than their male counterparts in getting support. We were also able to share that data with Congress. We testified before Congress at least 18 times [in 2015]. Every time we go before Congress, we use this data to share what’s happening on the ground for women veterans.

In some ways we have better data than the Secretary of Veteran Affairs. We’re able to explain to him where the gaps are and what women veterans are looking for from the VA. Many of our women members are also frustrated in getting recognition as veterans. So it’s a cultural transformation that has led all the way to women registering as rangers and the military allowing women into combat roles. We’re part of that movement in making the case that women can do anything that men can.

How do you gather data?

We have systems in place that allow us to connect with the veterans on their cellphones or via social media. For instance, if a woman is having challenges getting healthcare, and she reaches out to us on Twitter, one of our case managers can get in touch by phone, email, or social media within 24 hours. That gets entered into a case that goes into our systems.

We get other data on a regular basis from web traffic, phone calls, and donations. A lot of it is user generated…