Good Reads: From migrant workers, to tai chi at Goldman Sachs, to online surveillance

This week's roundup of Good Reads includes a look at migrant workers in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; how Bill Gates influences Washington, D.C.; what it is like to work at Goldman Sachs; how the Pentagon runs wars; and privacy software.

Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters/File
A foreign worker uses his cellphone at a construction site in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Migration is as old as human history, the National Geographic notes in its January issue, but it is likely that today more people than ever before have traveled thousands of miles from home to take jobs that enable them to send money back to relatives in poorer countries.

While the United States is the place with the most international workers, the city with the highest concentration of them is Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where only about 1 in 10 of the residents is Emirati.

Author Cynthia Gorney tracks the experience of a Filipino couple, Luis and Teresa Cruz, working in Dubai while two of their children remain outside Manila in the Philippines. “[T]his isn’t a story about work and wages and GDP,” Ms. Gorney says. “It is a love story: about family bonds, colliding duties and loyalties, and the immense barriers to providing for loved ones’ material and emotional needs....”

Bill Gates: the Washington player

At a time when Bill Gates says he will spend more time at Microsoft advising its new chief executive, Politico takes an in-depth look at how Mr. Gates has expanded his influence on policymaking in Washington, D.C.

Using the vehicle of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with its $40 billion endowment, Gates has become a force on education policy, agricultural issues, immigration reform, and even clean energy, write coauthors Stephanie Simon and Erin Mershon.

The foundation itself does not lobby. Its enormous megaphone is powered by the $3.4 billion in grants it makes each year to a wide variety of politically active organizations. Gates’s influence is also cultivated by making trips to Washington to advise members of Congress and by donating to Bill Clinton’s foundation and appearing alongside the former president.

Gates got off to a bad start in dealing with Congress during 1998 antitrust hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. When his performance before the committee was panned, Gates responded by sharply increasing the company’s Washington lobbying presence and its participation in electoral politics. 

Teamwork appeal of Goldman Sachs

Anne VanderMey, writing for Fortune magazine, looks at how Goldman Sachs, a firm at which competition is fierce and 70- to 80-hour workweeks are routine, ends up 45th on the magazine’s list of the 100 best places to work. Of course, average pay of $380,000 (skewed by million-dollar paychecks at the top) is one reason Goldman Sachs ranks so well in the survey conducted by the Great Place to Work Institute for Fortune. 

But 40,000 words of unfiltered employee comments revealed that more than anything else, Goldman workers said they valued being part of an ultra-elite organization; it’s twice as hard to be hired at Goldman than it is to get into Harvard. Other factors in high employee satisfaction, Fortune says: a tai chi club; Pilates classes five times a week; a champion dragon boat team; and a 10-week, internship-like program to help people return to the workforce after a voluntary career break of two years or more. 

How to run the Pentagon right

“The troops are at war, but the Pentagon is not,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates once famously said. The Defense Department has a fairly good record of making smart, long-term acquisitions of weapons systems that give the US an advantage over potential enemies. But, as Mr. Gates’s acid comment highlights, the Pentagon proved less adept at meeting the immediate needs of troops on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the January issue of Foreign Affairs, former Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter says, “the Pentagon is ill equipped to address urgent needs that arise during wartime.” He outlines steps he and others took to help remedy that problem on an ad hoc basis and calls for the Pentagon to “institutionalize those lessons so that it does not have to start anew the next time they are relevant.”

Stranger than fiction

Irony abounds in the Jan. 23 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek. Dune Lawrence examines the computer privacy software called Tor, which stands for “the onion router.” By disguising where computer messages originate, experts say, Tor is perhaps the most effective means of defeating online surveillance by intelligence agencies including the National Security Agency. Tor was almost certainly used by Edward Snowden, who stole and turned over to journalists massive amounts of secret NSA documents. In photos, Tor’s logo can be seen on the cover of Mr. Snowden’s laptop.

It turns out that Tor started as a government project with heavy involvement by the US Navy. Businessweek found that half of the revenue for the Tor Project, which updates the software and runs the system of 5,000 computers that conceal Internet traffic, comes from government grants. While the software can be used by criminals seeking to avoid detection, it also can provide privacy for potential victims. “Tor’s biggest problem is press,” says Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties advocacy group in San Francisco. “No one hears about that time someone wasn’t stalked by their abuser.”

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