Monday, March 30, 2015

Eating bugs in Mexico (and beyond)

I was in Mexico City last week, and one of the things I was most excited about was not late-night greasy taco stands (although that was a highlight), but the opportunity to eat bugs. There aren't too many restaurants in the Western first world where you can get insects. But I wanted to eat insects in Mexico quite badly, not necessarily for the taste or experience, but because I believe entomophagy is the future, and I want to put my money where my mouth is.

I'm happy to report that Restaurante Limosneros in Mexico City did a great job preparing these tasty bugs.


Left: Beetles with various salsas. Right: Ant eggs.

From the gift shop: "Tequila salt" made from grasshoppers. But you can put it on anything; very tasty!

Not only are bugs delicious, they are an awesome source of nutrients. Check out how they compare to beef, chicken, and salmon.

Insects stack up well nutritionally with the meats we commonly eat.

Bug farming is also much more environmentally friendly than animal farming, requiring far less feed, land, water, and carbon. Also, many of the issues that surround animal cruelty in factory farming are not an issue with insect farming.

(As an aside, vegetarianism is not an answer to the environmental issues of meat. First of all, I do not accept as a premise that humans do well without getting some measure of their food from animal meat. I'm willing to accept that it doesn't need to be a high percentage, but it's almost certainly not zero. I'm quite convinced need some animal product to thrive.)

Fact is, if we're going to meet growing nutritional needs while recognizing that we have a finite amount of land and energy, people in the first-world West need to get over the stigma of eating bugs.  This is not without precedent, of course. Lobster was considered an undesirable food for the lower classes and even prisoners until the mid 19th century.  Now it's a luxury food and often the most expensive item on the menu.

Now, I don't know whether anyone out there makes a cricket steak that's as good as a North Atlantic lobster or an Argentine rib eye. But bugs can't only be the domain of fancy restaurants in the West. Farmers in the West are trying to cram more chickens, cows and pigs into tinier and tinier spaces which is not only bad for the animal, but unhealthy for the end consumer. (Animals crammed into small spaces get diseases.) We need to start creating demand for bugs. The cricket-based protein bars by Exo are a great start. But that's only a start. It can't just be a niche product for health nerds or hippies. This stuff needs to be in casual restaurants and ubiquitous in supermarkets. That's the best way to reduce our reliance on factory farming.

Buen provecho!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A tale of two bikeshares: Mexico City and Melbourne

Earlier this year I visited Melbourne, Australia. One of the highlights of that trip was using the bike share system they have in place there. For those who have never been to one of the 712 cities that have a bike share, it is pretty straightforward. You go to a station, insert a credit card for payment as well as a damage deposit, and you rent a bicycle. Usually the cost is either free or very small for short periods and go up exponentially. Here's Melbourne's:


This of course, to increase bike turnover and prevent people from hoarding bikes. The consumer's ability to reliably have a good expectation that a bike will be available when and where they need it is critical to success of the system.

Melbourne's bike share is great for tourists. As a tourist, one often places oneself in neighbourhoods where the walk is very long, but taking a cab seems wastefully short. Additionally, taxis are a little sterile and boring, as they do not easily allow for the ability to randomly stop, change directions, or do something impulsive, which is one of the most fun components of the tourist experience. Cycling is the best compromise between the two.

The Melbourne bike, in my experience, was extremely tourist-oriented. According to its Wikipedia page, it is underperforming ridership expectations. (This is not surprising; estimates for public transit usage are consistently too high so it's not surprising that bike share would be the same.) The vast majority of people I saw using the bike share had obvious tourist tells. While Melburnians do ride bicycles a lot, most of them tend to own their own bikes.

In Mexico City though, the Ecobici system seems to be well-utilized by locals. One reason certainly must be the price discrimination at work:


That is an insane price gap: the first 7 days cost 300 pesos ($19.50 US), and the next 358 days cost another 100 pesos ($6.50 US).

The Melbourne prices offer a big discount for the yearly subscription as well, but they are far more tourist-friendly:


Considering that $8 Australian is the equivalent of 95 Mexican pesos and that Australia's per capita income is over 2.6 times that of Mexico, renting a bike for a week in Melbourne is more than 8 times cheaper than renting it in Mexico City. Of course, another way of putting it is that Mexico City's yearly price is more friendly to locals (58 AUD = 686 MXN).

Mexico's lower relative wealth would also make renting bikes more attractive than buying. Buying a bike can be expensive, so investing capital up front on a bike makes more sense for a Melburnian than it does a Chilango. I would also suspect that people feel less likely that an unattended bike will be damaged or stolen in Melbourne than they do in Mexico City, making ownership more attractive down under. So it's no surprise that I notice that less than 30% of those using the bikeshare in Melbourne were locals, more than 90% of those using it in DF live here. (Note that these estimates are pretty arbitrary since they rely on my subjective snap assessment of who is, and is not, a tourist.)

There are other factors beyond price that will affect utilization. Melbourne has only 51 stations while Mexico City has 444. True, Mexico City is a larger and much more populous city, but check out this comparison of station density (both screenshots are approximately, but not exactly, 11 km^2):

Mexico City

Melbourne

It makes sense that residents of Mexico City use the bike system a lot more than those of Melbourne. They're more easily able to commute, run errands, and so forth with confidence that there is a station near their destination. When catering to tourists, a higher density and distribution of stations is not nearly as critical; you simply need to prop them up where all of the tourist attractions and hotels are.

Melbourne's system is more tourist-oriented than local-oriented in another way, not nearly as obvious: a lower barrier to registration. In Melbourne, you simply insert your card and authorize it at the machine. In Mexico City, most of the stations are only for pickup and dropoff. To actually purchase a subscription, you must go to a "fourth-generation" machine, which are far less common (they are marked with triangles in the above pictures). Once at one of these machines, you have to enter full name, phone number, e-mail (twice), and date of birth on a touchscreen. Not only that, there are serious issues accepting non-Mexican cards. I've been trying for days, and I still haven't actually been able to take one of the bikes! Frustrating!

I haven't read a lot of reliable data on the ROI of civic and regional governments spending money to promote tourism, but from a libertarian perspective I'm always going to be skeptical about any project that takes money from the residents in an attempt to increase tourist dollars. Bike shares in heavily congested cities like Mexico City, or perhaps those in China, make more sense to me than they do in cities that are simply "pretty", like Melbourne and Vancouver. In non-congested tourist cities, it seems like the private sector should be able to handle the tourist bike rental market just fine.

Despite my libertarian bias, having a convenient city-wide bike share program is great for frequent tourists like myself. With a sufficient density of well-stocked bike stations, a bike share provides nearly as much autonomy as your own car while getting exercise and seeing the sites. Riding a bike to the grocery store or even the museums and tourist attractions make you feel more like a local.

Now, if only the one here would take my credit card.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

How To Consume Media

In the latter half of the 20th century, the western world got so good at creating excessive amounts of food that we ate too much and became obese.  Now in the early 21st century, we have also gotten so good at creating content that we overconsume that, too. There has been a lot written about how to eat responsibly so that you don't get fat, but much less written about how to consume media responsibly and avoid brain rot.

In an attempt to fill that need, I present Terrence's Guide to Quality Media Consumption. Follow this guide, and I'm confident that you'll nourish your brain with high-quality content. Please let me know what you think in the comments below!

tl;dr

The people who need this guide the most are the ones who will view its length and want to skip it. So like a surgeon in a war hospital, I'm going to do the tl;dr summary for the people who need rescuing the most, then expand later for everyone else. The key points:

  • The #1 fundamental key to good media consumption is to be deliberate. Know in advance what content you want to consume so you are not easily tempted by garbage.

  • Choose movies/TV shows ahead of time. Watch TV, but never channel surf.

  • Don't link-surf either. Click on articles that your friends send you directly, not the ones you see on Facebook.

  • Avoid current events and temporal content (newspapers/magazines).

  • Liberally unfollow (hide) Facebook friends who share lousy content.

  • On Twitter, don't follow your friends, follow people who post good stuff.

  • Use Pocket to create a reading queue.

Okay, feel like reading more? Onward to the good stuff.

How to consume content: Be deliberate

The biggest problem with 21st century media consumption is that people do it mindlessly. Sure, people eat junk food mindlessly too, but there's plenty of awareness that eating junk food is bad, plus there is a built in satiety system called the stomach that prevents you from eating way too much of it. By comparison, there is relatively little awareness of the dangers of bad media consumption, and your body has no known built-in mechanism to prevent overconsumption.

However, you can both moderate your media consumption and increase the quality of it by being deliberate.

Being deliberate doesn't mean you plan for days or even hours in advance what you'll read or watch. It means taking a few seconds to select for things you had planned to read or watch, instead of consuming the thing that just happened to pop up in front of you.


How to be deliberate: television/movies


If you want to watch TV, cool, watch TV. But don't channel surf. Channel surfing means you don't have anything you actually want to watch, you just can't figure anything better to do. It is anti-deliberate.

Choose your movies and TV shows ahead of time. Watch whatever you want to watch, just be deliberate about it. When you find yourself watching TV for a long time, you should check in with yourself and ask "is this what I want to be doing most of all right now?" If you're in the midst of a great TV series and you're loving it, the answer will probably be yes, so keep going. If you're a big NFL fan and it's the Super Bowl, obviously the answer will be yes. But if the answer is no, it’s most likely you’re just watching for the mild low-level brain stimulation — so stop, and turn it off.

Many people have a list of movies or TV shows that they have wanted to watch for a while, but haven't gotten around to. It is extremely unlikely that there is something on right now that you would enjoy more than those movies or shows. It's a matter of simple math -- the number of shows that are on right now is dwarfed by the number of shows that have ever been created.

Use Tivo/DVR to create viewing queues and skip commercials. Most people already do this, so I won't waste time talking about it.

Written Word (books, essays, articles, and online content)


Tend to choose books over articles*. Books are generally going to be more thoughtful because of the lengthy process from conception to publication. But there are lots of awesome articles out there, so I don't want to speak poorly of articles. (And hopefully you are enjoying this one.) Articles and essays are like a good stir-fry. It can be healthy and taste great. But a good book is a meal slow-cooked for hours, broth full of flavour and meat falling off the bone.

* I know it's inaccurate, but for the sake of brevity, I'll refer to blog posts, features, columns, essays and so on simply as "articles". 

Thus, read articles, but tend towards avoiding newspapers and magazines. All major news outlets are garbage. (As much as people like to take shots at Fox News, they are like the high-fructose corn syrup versus table sugar; you're not going to convince me that one is really that much worse.) Magazines, by their nature, force their writers to come up with content on a deadline and so quality must necessarily take a back seat to timeliness.

In general, skip current events and news. Similarly, avoid anything with a "Trending" tag attached to it. People like to follow the news under the misconception they should "stay informed". But very little that happens right now is relevant six months or six years from now. (Quick - what was the biggest news story during the first week of this past October?) If an article looks like it would be just as relevant six months in the past or in the future, then it might be worth your time. (Same goes for movies -- everyone is talking about "The Interview" right now, and I don't care. But if people are talking about it three months from now, it's far more likely I'll watch it.)

Read articles (and books) your closest friends send you directly. Your closest friends know you best. They know your quirks and areas of interest. As a result, they're probably your single best source of quality content, especially online content.

Facebook


Facebook deserves its own special mention since it's such an important medium now. Ideally, I wouldn't use Facebook at all other than to keep in touch with people, but we’re all human, and we all waste time sometimes, just like we all eat junk food sometimes even when we’re trying to eat healthy. So here’s a realistic guide.

Don't scroll down your News Feed. If something is shared by multiple friends or friends you value, Facebook's algorithm will likely bump it to the top anyway. It's unlikely anything good is beyond the first screen or two.

Avoid clickbait. "Shocking Ingredients In McDonald's French Fries" is a perfect example. Anyone who shares this article probably doesn’t eat McDonald’s french fries to begin with. Anyone who has made the life decision to eat McDonald’s french fries isn’t going to change their mind; it’s not like they don’t realize they’re bad for you. So who the fuck needs to read this article? The answer -- nobody.

If you're shocked by this, you're probably easily shocked.

Get rid of your annoying friends. This is the big one. Be VERY liberal about unfollowing friends who share crappy links. We all have Facebook friends who share basically everything because they have too much time on their hands. Get rid of them.

This feature, right here, is the best part of Facebook

As illustrated, you'll still be friends and they won't know. In my opinion, Facebook is not usable unless you have unfollowed at least 10% of your friend base, and probably more.

Once again, you should not use Facebook as a media source, although it's true that it's easier said than done. (Just like most normal diets fail, most "Facebook diets" do too.) The problem is that content providers optimize for Facebook, so they know how to create images and headlines that lead to better click-through rates.

Twitter



Twitter is a little better for making good content choices, because the interface is a little bit more minimalist and a little less clickbait-friendly. But there's still room to improve your Twitter consumption habits.

I have only one key rule for Twitter: Don't follow your friends. Twitter is not Facebook; contrary to popular belief there is no good reason to follow someone just because they follow you. (Unless you think it will increase your chances of having sex with them. I guess that's fair.) Instead, follow people on Twitter who are very good retweeters/link sharers. I used to be very anti-twitter because I thought it was very mentally masturbatory and self-indulgent. And in fact, >99% of users do just post banalities about their lives. I do not follow a lot of people I consider friends. (So don't take it personally if I don't follow you - it doesn't mean I don't like you.) And on the other hand, I do follow a lot of complete strangers and casual acquaintances because they are good content providers.

Pocket To The Rescue


Final tip: Get a Pocket (or similar page-saving app). Pocket (getpocket.com) is something I've discovered in the last couple of months. It's a one-click browser extension that saves web pages. It sounds simple but it is a huge step up from the bookmark feature in any web browser (is there anyone who still uses browser bookmarks?). When you encounter an article that you want to read but you don't want to read it immediately, save it to your Pocket reading list. Then when you have free time and want something light to read, instead of mindlessly going to Facebook or Twitter, you can go to some well thought out content pre-selected by someone you respect -- yourself.

This is my own unread queue from Pocket. Everything I've already read has been whisked out of sight, but saved for later.


An additional benefit: using Pocket has slashed my number of open browser tabs by 50-70%, because like so many people, I use the open browser tab as a "I'll save this for later".

Basically, we are doing for the written word what we do with Tivo for television -- creating a list, then digging into that list at a time that’s good for us, and when we are in the mood for consumption.

With every link you click on, as soon your eyes do that first brief scan, you should ask yourself — “do i need to read this right now?” Sometimes the answer is yes, but the huge majority of the time, you should save it for your to-read list on Pocket.

This brings us back to my key to good media consumption. Being prepared is the key to being deliberate. Don't allow your ADD mind to be the one driving. Channel surfing and random internet clicking/browsing is basically the same thing, but in different form. If you want to watch TV, watch something you had planned to watch. Something that you've heard good things about, and are excited to watch. Similarly, if you're reading, read a book on your book list, or an article you've previously saved. Your ADD mind is not very good at making quality choices in real time, so protect yourself from it.

It’s the difference between planning a dinner (you think about what you want, go to the supermarket, buy all the ingredients, come home and cook) and pulling into the drive-thru (you see something on your drive, decide in about 10-30 seconds about what you want, then you get it immediately). You're always going to make better choices when you're deliberate.

So there you have it, my guide to good media consumption. Do you have thoughts on how to better consume media? Do we mindlessly consume too much media? Let me know what you think in the comments below. And thanks for choosing to consume my content. :)

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Occupy ending in Hong Kong - here's what I fear



It's looking like the end of the line for Occupy Central in Hong Kong. The protests are expected to cleared at 9am local time tomorrow, and what hardcore resistance remains is likely to be brushed by the police force. It's unfortunate, because putting politics aside, it was truly a beautiful protest. It was well-organized, polite, clean, and almost entirely peaceful. Unlike other movements which claim peace, the Occupiers practiced what they preached and drove a truly pacifist movement. There was art and there was song. Hell, there was free wifi.

Video I took today walking through Occupy. Not the most exciting video, but if you haven't been to the protest site, you'll get more of a sense of what it was like than the news reports will show.

In the end, apathy won the day for the government side. They simply waited out the protesters and waited for them to go home. Back in October, the decisions to use tear gas and violence simply galvanized the students. But it's hard to keep outrage up for 73 days, when most of those days are simply monotonous rather than inciting. In what seems like a last-ditch effort, some of Occupy's young leaders staged a hunger strike in hopes of opening up talks with government leaders. It was a fairly misguided and pathetic effort to gain sympathy, and like the movement itself, it was defeated simply by being ignored.

This "not with a bang, but with a whimper" ending to Occupy is a huge win for the governments in Beijing and Hong Kong. The protesters created awareness, but essentially got nothing.

What scares me about Hong Kong's future

While many of the young people see Hong Kong as truly distinct and unique, the older generation of Chinese have a pan-Chinese pride. The title of this commentary piece, Protesters must abandon fantasy of a 'Hong Kong race' free from the mainland (might be paywalled), is fairly typical. It closes:
Yet the reality is "Hong Kong race" has no place in the world and Hong Kong's destiny is intertwined with that of China.... Hong Kong people must muster enough courage and wisdom to find a new place of pride in the family of 1.3 billion.
For many Chinese, the "Chinese race" is what matters. There are many in Hong Kong who are "proud Chinese" and wish to be part of the motherland. It is very similar in my view to German or Japanese nationalism of the 1940s. Whenever anti-Occupy people speak negatively about the movement, there is always talk of "foreign interference"; the implication being that "true" Chinese would never turn against China and that therefore it must be those dastardly foreigners behind it all.

Hopefully Occupy has sent a message that this is far from a unanimous view. And Hong Kongers are starting to see themselves as more Hong Konger and less Chinese. (The link suggests that of those claiming a distinct identity, three times as many claim "Hong Konger" as "Chinese".)

Nevertheless, Beijing controls the media, including all social media platforms, and it ruthlessly punishes dissenting voices. Random citizens are thrown in jail, but even celebrities toe the line in fear of being blacklisted. Beijing will surely continue to slowly crush the unique Hong Kong culture and bring it in line with its bland, sterile, Orwellian positioning as a global power.

For now, Hong Kong remains special and different. Even if it has never seen democracy, it has enjoyed political freedom for such a lengthy period of time, and its culture has flourished because of it.

So even though this is the end, my hat is off to the young protesters. They fought hard to preserve the culture of their home, and anyone who loves the uniqueness of Hong Kong is indebted to them.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

I had a boxing match

I had my first ever amateur boxing match this weekend, hosted by a rival gym in Hong Kong. The fight was at 65kg (143.3 lbs) and I gave away a little bit of size, but I thought I did well.

The rule set was that if it was a draw after two rounds, that it should have gone to a third. I feel like while I started slowly, I at least won the second and should have gotten a chance to send it to a third round. What do you think?


Sunday, November 30, 2014

Why you shouldn't punch a celebrity

Just now, I was listening to the normally excellent Tim Ferriss podcast. His guest a math-guy turned business-guy named Nick Ganju, seemed great as well. Tim asked one of his stock questions where he asks the guest who is the first person that comes to mind when he says "punchable". Ganju, a seemingly well spoken and thoughtful guy, said that he would like to punch the people who are famous for being famous. He contrasted those people with the people who are famous for creating something great.

The statement hit me like a bolt. I immediately stopped what I was doing (stretching and movement exercises, if you must know) and started writing this blog post.

I think interest in celebrity culture is one of the most ubiquitous negative influence among most stable societies. This is a bold claim (hence the bold), and I will return to it shortly.

To be sure, celebrity culture is generally not seen to be one of society's greatest ills. It is not generally in the same conversation as governmental tyranny, violence against children or the elderly, corruption and embezzlement, or poverty. It is generally thought to be a mindless and harmless diversion. Perhaps at worst it is thought of as a silly distraction for silly people.

But I truly hate celebrity culture. I find it shocking that so many people are interested in the lives of people who are famous. That there is so much time spent thinking about what celebrities (actors, singers, professional athletes etc.) are doing and saying outside of their respective realms of expertise is honestly unfathomable to me. I would have guessed that there is some small group of the population that would have so little going on in their lives that they care about the lives of complete strangers, but it continues to baffle me that so many copies of People magazine and similar garbage are sold. On Facebook I get to block the offenders, but any time I am on an airplane, I am assaulted by seemingly normal people who are interested in this nonsense.

For as much as people are fascinated by celebrities, there is also a backlash against them. I am not actually sure what it is that Kim Kardashian recently did that has upset so many people -- and I will make no effort to find out -- but I do know that there are a tremendous number of people on Facebook/Twitter/blogs/print magazines who were upset by it recently. They will probably be similarly upset the next time someone famous does something they do not approve of. Why they have not stopped to consider why it is they care what Kim Kardashian or any other celebrity would do, I do not know.

This brings us back to the statement made by Nick Ganju who would like to punch people who are "famous for being famous"; the Kim Kardashians, Paris Hiltons, and others of the world.

As much as I hate the celebrity culture, I cannot fathom why it is the celebrities who are the ones who should be punched. I have no beef with Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton; nothing that they have done has ever caused me harm, at least not directly. Surely they are not to blame for the fact that a gigantic mass of total strangers pay a disproportionate amount of attention to their actions. If their presence bothers me, the problem is surely mine. If I am encountering news about their lives on an overly frequent basis, it likely means that it is my fault, not theirs, for hanging around the wrong people, following the wrong people on Twitter, and not defriending people quickly enough on Facebook.

I have no venom for Kardashian, Hilton, Bieber, Clooney, or the others. I am not bothered by the actions of any of the Hollywood actors, singers, or pro athletes who make the headlines for sleeping with a given person, having an eating disorder, or wearing an unfashionable outfit. In truth, most of them are doing what any rational actor would do: finding a way to monetize society's idiotic worship of them.

So why do I think so poorly of those who follow celebrities? Quite simply, it is because I am convinced that their lives must necessarily be empty. I do not believe that it is possible to live a fulfilled life and be interested in celebrities.

Why? Think about most peoples' social circles. Most people have an immediate family; spouses, parents, siblings, children. They also have an extended family of cousins, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces and such whom they may or may not be close to. But even if they are not close to them, they likely have some close friends and confidants. Even those without a "best friend" or even close friends have someone in their social network that could reach out and talk to. If a person chooses to immerse himself in the goings-on of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt rather than send an e-mail to an old friend (even if one hasn't spoken with that friend in years), then their lives must truly be devoid of social meaning.

One might argue that being interested in Angelina and Brad does not preclude keeping up with family or friends. Is that likely true, though? Social networks are so vast and wide (I have 900+ Facebook friends, and I don't accept requests from strangers) that most busy people are likely never going to be able to keep in contact with most of those people. So these people are actively choosing to engage in the lives of Angelina, Brad, Paris and Kim instead of people they actually know and can contact.

To be sure, celebrities live lives that are far more interesting than the average person who just goes to work, runs errands, raises the kids, and so on. To that end, they are surely more interesting than cousin Jane, or Bob the accountant. But most gossip magazines do not talk about the fascinating things that celebrities get to do -- those items are well-hidden from the prying eyes of the media. If you look at these magazines, the emphasis is on what these people are wearing, where they're vacationing, what they're eating, or whom they're fucking. Well, everyone wears clothes, goes on vacations, eats things, and fucks other people. In fact, if you were to interview cousin Jane or accountant Bob, you're likely to get a lot more access to detail about their activities, if that's what interests you. And who knows, perhaps Bob quit accounting and is now a professional surfer in Bali. Maybe Jane just started a company, and you happen to know someone who would be a great fit for her team.

And that is why I think there is a true cost to celebrity culture. I'd say it's a bigger problem than say, growing wealth inequality (and that's not because I'm a cold-hearted libertarian). Because I think about what we could do, what things we could accomplish, if instead of focusing on strangers who happen to be famous, we focused on creating great things and the bonds we have with people we actually know.

In closing, Mr. Ganju, don't punch a celebrity. Punch the people who follow them.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Ultimate Poker post-mortem

On the day that Ultimate Poker is shutting down in Nevada, putting all my thoughts into writing would have taken a really long time, so I created this video blog detailing my time at Ultimate Gaming.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Is regulation to blame for the PokerStars rake hike?



The biggest news of the month in online poker and indeed online gaming is PokerStars increasing its rake across a number of ring games and SNGs. Unsurprisingly, most of the online poker community is up in arms about it. While I don't play very much poker these days, I do see it as another step towards the eventual extinction of the online poker pro, at least as we know it now. In the economic parlance, Amaya/PokerStars are now capturing back a ton of the rents that poker players have held for a long time.

Among others, Steve Ruddock of Online Poker Report, has mentioned that the policy changes of the new-look austere PokerStars is part of the cost of regulation. Ruddock writes,
[O]ver the past five or so years, more and more countries have legalized and regulated online poker. This has forced operators to apply for licensing in different jurisdictions, resulting in sometimes-hefty licensing fees and local tax bills. 
These expenses were virtually nonexistent in the unregulated online poker markets during the poker boom.
Ruddock also notes that Amaya pulled out of 30 grey markets (albeit mostly small poker markets) and that would cost some revenue.

I've seen the following on 2+2 written many times in many different ways, and it rings true: "You guys wanted regulated poker, and now you're getting it."

Regulation always costs money, and costs are always passed down to the consumer, in this case, the poker player. What's more is that the costs of regulation are not always obvious. Taxes, license fees, and lost revenue from exiting grey markets are obvious. But I suspect the average poker player (or journalist) does not have any idea how much regulation truly costs the online poker industry.

The truth is, the regulatory bodies attempting to regulate online poker do not understand it very well, if at all. The most recent example came of this is when PokerStars was required (and then apparently, not required) to remove its auto rebuy feature in the UK. Players hated this change, with good reason: players immediately realized there would be situations where they would pay the blinds, get stacked on a hand, then to add insult to injury, miss free hands. But this is the kind of thing that only a poker player would understand. A regulator who does not play poker in any serious way sees only that an auto rebuy feature bypasses the psychological hurdle of needing to click to reload, and could thereby potentially exacerbate problem gambling.

The auto rebuy regulation got a lot of press, but it is downright sensible compared to many of the regulations that I know exist in Nevada and New Jersey. While I was working for Ultimate Gaming, we were prevented from launching Omaha games in Nevada because they required a separate game tab to distinguish Hold'em from Omaha. Because of the way Ultimate Poker's software worked, this was not as trivial a change as it sounds, and Omaha games were delayed.  A situation came up in New Jersey where the Division of Gaming Enforcement were on our case over a promotion where we gave away t-shirts on Twitter. Seriously, t-shirts. If they can give sites a hard time over t-shirt giveaways, you can be assured that quite a lot of more substantive promotions got either shitcanned or altered beyond recognition.

These things may seem small, but they cost the companies a lot of money cumulatively. They also create technological overhead for the product development team. The end result is a poorer experience for the players, which means players play less, which means the liquidity pool shrinks, and the cycle repeats. The cost of regulation is very high, and much of it cannot be measured on a balance sheet. It manifests in promotions that never run, players that never play, games that never get started, extra payroll expense, redundant and replicated work, and more. As you can see, the costs of regulation go beyond simply higher rake.

Here's another insidious thing about onerous regulations, whether ridiculous or legitimate. It's that once regulations are established, the existing operators are often incentivized to ensure they stick around. If some regulator requires that the river card must be exactly 17 pixels from the turn card or that the geolocation be accurate to 75 metres instead of 100, then once the operator has made that required change, they actually want it to stay, because it creates more future work for their competitors. Thus the regulation game, at times, is simply throwing up one barrier after another at your opponent like an action movie chase scene. As soon as one company passes the apple cart in the crowded alley, they try to knock it over to trip up the next guy.

(By the way, this is not unique to online poker. One need only look at what the taxi companies are presently doing in Las Vegas. After months of desperately trying to keep Uber out of Las Vegas and protecting their regulated monopoly, Uber is now operational. The result? The taxi companies are on a rampage of bullying and intimidation, including this disgusting case where a cab company employee hired an Uber, contacted the taxi authority, who in turn showed up in bulletproof vests and masks posing as police officers.

This is an extreme example of government-protected business running amok, of course, but it is to the point: when companies are granted a special legal privilege to operate in an arena, they will do anything to protect that status against outside competitors.)

As should be fairly apparent, very little of this actually benefits the consumers. I should say that the majority of the online poker regulations that I have come across are reasonable, but they are also things that any legitimate operator would do anyways. At no time did I ever come across a regulation and think, "wow, that's a great idea, and no one is doing that!" Again, it's not reasonable to expect them to - they're not poker players and they don't understand poker.

It isn't all hopeless, of course. There are certainly some people who will be attracted to regulated poker who might not have played if the situation were the same as the mid-2000s. There is the hope of legalized poker in major markets like California, shared liquidity pools across state lines, and so on. But I cannot see the monstrous profits of online grinders from 2004-2008 ever coming back. I empathize with the individuals who have invested so much into developing their poker game and playing for a living. I think this tweet from Mike "Timex" McDonald encapsulates how many online pros must be feeling (obviously -- it got 89 retweets).
As seemingly unfair as this moving of the goalposts seems to the players, we all knew the era of big money for the 90th-98th percentile players would not last forever. I don't think the era of the poker pro is done with entirely, but if I were a poker pro, I'd be thinking long and hard about transitioning to the real world. Might I make a recommendation?

[Edit: A few hours after this posted, Ultimate Gaming announced it is closing operations in Nevada. Sadly, a lot of good people there will lose jobs because of it.]

Thursday, October 16, 2014

podcasts, those I'm doing, and those I'm listening to

First, thanks to the numerous people who have e-mailed (and tweeted) me regarding the Life After Poker podcast. Some have wondered when more are coming out and the answer is basically, "when I have time". I think there is still no shortage of interesting guests and I hope to do more.

But if you follow me on Twitter you're probably aware I've been the co-host, along with longtime host Adam Schwartz, of the 2+2 Pokercast, for the last 7. weeks. I'm having a great time with it and hope to continue for a while, at least as long as logistics allow. But of course, some people avoid Twitter and social media (good for you!). For those people here are the links to those shows:

Episode 336, October 16
Episode 335, October 9
Episode 334, October 1
Episode 333, September 25
Episode 332, September 19
Episode 331, September 12
Episode 330, September 3

I was also a guest on the Thinking Poker podcast with Andrew Brokos and Nate Meyvis on September 9 as part of my very podcast-promiscuous September.

What podcasts have I been listening to lately, you didn't ask? Tim Ferriss pretty much always has great guests, especially in the startup/tech world. The TED Radio Hour is a good weekly that summarizes the best of the TED talks. I tell everyone with even a passing interest in history to listen to Hardcore History, whose epics are closer to audiobooks than they are podcasts. Serial is a spinoff of This American Life and it seems very promising so far. Freakonomics is like candy for me, good for when I don't want to think too much. Finally for the MMA crowd, I consider Cheap Seats the best fight discussion available.




Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Standing up for, if not in, Hong Kong

The world's eyes are on Hong Kong this week, including mine.

I wish it weren't my eyes though. I wish it were my feet. I wish my feet were just two of these feet:



I'm not a tremendously political person. Like anyone else, I have beliefs, and I do feel strongly about them. But I generally don't engage people in political conversation, and anyone who reads this blog knows I don't really use it to espouse my views. For the past decade of my life at least, my focus is more on the micro side than the macro side of humanity, and how one person can make his or her life better. I'm generally more interested in analyzing decisions and improving the self than I am in politics. I have a somewhat Talebian approach to the news. I've never marched in a protest or demonstration.

But Hong Kong is special. Not just to me, but to the world. For about as far back as I can remember, Hong Kong has topped the major worldwide economic freedom indices. Despite being nominally controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, it has been a haven for investment, growth, and free markets. It is not perfect on the social liberties axis (e.g. harsh drug laws, no gay marriage), but it has enjoyed reasonably free press and is one of the best "live and let live" societies out there.

It is orderly. Tremendously so. There is virtually no violent crime. Taxes are low, but infrastructure and public services are generally excellent. It's not a libertarian paradise or anything, but it's about as close as we have here on this planet.

Both sets of my grandparents lived through the poverty and bloodshed of Mao's Cultural Revolution and had their assets seized by the state. In the 1970s, they found a way to send my parents to Hong Kong, still under British rule at that time, in hopes of a better future for them. (My paternal grandfather would eventually raft and swim from mainland China across a dangerous channel to freedom in Hong Kong, and would later become a Canadian citizen.)

My parents were in turn fearful of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, and came to Canada. And so I was born and raised in Vancouver. But after the handover, it seemed that China was going to respect the laws of the land in China. Why mess with a good thing, after all? And so, my parents started to spend more time in Hong Kong. They encouraged me to get HK residency, which I did. It seemed like all that panic about Communist China gobbling up Hong Kong was for nothing. But fast forward to today and it seems we are on a critical threshold for the future of the freest city-state of the modern world.



Although I have always been in favour of an autonomous Hong Kong, I always felt ambivalent about the "Occupy Central" movement, as in my mind I associated it with Occupy Wall Street. But this is clearly different. What's amazing about the current events in Hong Kong right now is that seemingly the whole city is rallying in support. These are no longer just "student protests". The completely unprovoked pepper-spraying of peaceful students (and this old man below) has led to a tipping point where businessmen, professionals, and conservative elderly have joined with students and labour in a unified cause.



In typical Hong Kong fashion, the protests have been peaceful and orderly. Aside from one bizarre incident where a car randomly plowed through the crowd, there has been almost no incidence of property damage or violence. The intent is not to destroy or damage or cause anyone economic hardship, and this has led to the pervasive surge of support currently being felt throughout Hong Kong.

Another unique aspect of this protest is that it is ethnic Chinese people protesting against China. Historically, protests over self-determination have usually involved an ethnic minority controlled by the perceived aggression or oppression of a distant government representing an ethnic majority. But the vast majority of those protesting in Hong Kong are ethnic Chinese ("Han people", as they would be called on the mainland. But they realize that Hong Kong is special, and that it is different, and that it is worth fighting for. They know that their brethren on the mainland do not have access to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Wikipedia, and that they can be jailed indefinitely for opposing the views of the state.

And so you have a movement is not divided along ethnic or socioeconomic lines. The two sides are simple: there is the side that believes that Hong Kong should be able to freely elect its leadership, and the side that believes Beijing should be able to install a puppet leader.

What scares me here is that even with right on their side, Hong Kong could easily fall without support from the international community. Foreign governments have not exactly demonstrated great backbone when it comes to standing up to the bullies in Beijing. As Tom Grundy of the "Hong Wrong" blog pointed out, Britain even made it a point to officially turn its back on Hong Kong, despite former Prime Minister John Major's 1996 promise that "Hong Kong will never have to walk alone".

And so I am fearful for the future of this great city. For so many years it has stood as a beacon of freedom and a shining pearl in the shadow of the world's largest dictatorship. I fear that it will be swallowed up, despite the brave people putting boots on the ground and umbrellas in the air in Central, Admiralty, Mong Kok and the rest of the city. As I said, I've never been a marching sign-carrier, but I've never wanted so badly to be part of something.

I actually feel significant guilt that I am not there. I'm not being asked to pick up a gun and shoot someone, or take a bullet myself. The only thing that is being asked of me or anyone else who has an interest in the future of the great city is to put two feet on the ground.

Soon. Very soon.

香港加油!


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

How to defeat mediocrity: making stress work for you

Imagine any form of strenuous physical exercise. Lifting the heaviest weight you can, running your fastest possible 5k, sparring against the toughest fighter in the gym. You are trying to get through the last rep, the last hundred meters, the last 30 seconds of the last round. You are a full 10-out-of-10 on the effort scale.

Drenched in sweat, you hit the showers. You've earned yourself a nice cool shower and you start to feel better immediately. Now, depending on how well you manage your lifestyle, one of the following two scenarios result:

Scenario 1: Your lunch hour is almost over, and you've got a huge meeting with the boss. Or your wife is landing at the airport in ...oh shit, eight minutes! Time to cut the water, towel off, and still sweating, you throw on your clothes. You grab your gym bag (oops, forgot your water bottle), sprint to the car, and start speeding out of the parking lot. Two hours later, you're exhausted, but there's still lots of work to do, so you reach for another coffee or energy drink to get back to baseline.

Scenario 2: You take a long, cool shower for ten minutes. You towel off and have a smoothie at the juice bar. You take a 15-minute walk home, grab a quick power nap, then move on with the rest of your day.

Obviously, I think most people would prefer to be in Scenario 2.

Since our body always wants to be at a state of equilibrium, I've tended to look at health and wellness through this lens of equilibrium. One of the most important interplays in our body is that of the one between the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is the "fight-or-flight mechanism" that engages the body for action. The PNS is the "rest and relax" part of your nervous system. The two systems ebb and flow like yin-and-yang. Neither is ever completely inactive, but throughout the course of the day, the two work together to keep the body in equilibrium.

Activities and experiences can either be sympathetic-dominant or parasympathetic-dominant as well. For example, contrast any of the following:

  • intense hill sprints / a slow nature hike
  • waking up in the morning / falling asleep at night
  • an ice-cold shower / a warm bath
  • daydreaming and fantasizing / executing and building
  • rigourous studying / escapist pleasure reading
  • deep tissue massage / gentle foam rolling
  • intense intellectual thought / quiet meditation
  • hunting for food / eating and digesting it

These pairs are not "opposites", and neither is one in the pair "better" than another; I simply wanted to show the types of activities that are SNS or PNS dominant. The only thing that is actually bad is too much of one and not enough of the other. Also, I didn't just list physical activities; in fact, for most people who aren't serious athletes, mental stressors (and factors such as diet and sleep) probably have the greatest nervous system impact.

Typically, you want to ramp stress up, and then ramp it back down into recovery. That's why people do warmups before the tough workout. It's also why I take a short walk outside in the morning before I do any heavy mental lifting, as well. When I'm done with the stressful task and it's time to put the weights (or the laptop) down, I wind down, grab a drink, and do something relaxing.



Imagine that we had a way to determine, in real time, what a person's stress level was at any given moment. This guy is competing for a gold medal at the Olympics, he's at 10. This guy is delivering a career-defining presentation, he's at a 10. This guy is doing his usual morning workout, he's at a 7. This guy is getting a Swedish massage on the beach, he's at a 2.

What's useful is, of course, not the average or the sum of a person's stress level, but rather its distribution. Probably, most people in first-world countries are at a normal distribution:



(I should note that stress should not really be linearly evaluated in such a way, but I am treating it as linear to make a point here.)

Most people spend almost all their time in the middle. Their lives are fine. They get some exercise, but probably not enough. They get some sleep, but probably not enough. They are fairly good employees at work, but not superstars. They don't have financial troubles, but nor do they have great wealth. They watch a lot of TV and spend a lot of time on Facebook. They can also probably tell you a lot about the personal lives of their favourite celebrities and athletes. 

When they try things, they set low expectations. They half-ass a lot of different things, and are rarely too engaged in what they are doing. 

There's nothing wrong with these people, really. Society needs them, and luckily they are an abundant resource. They're just simply not serious achievers.



I don't want to be one of these people, either. You probably know some of these people. One could be your boss, your personal trainer, your teammate, your colleague. They might make a lot of money (or go broke gambling it all). Two hours after they leave the gym, they are reaching for another can of Monster or Red Bull just to get back to baseline. They are writing e-mails at 11:30pm and checking for responses at 5am. They certainly don't bother with meditation, or gentle stretching. Ain't got no time for that!

If they are professionals, they are running from one high-stress decision to another. If they are athletes, they are training multiple times a day to exhaustion (and never take days off). Sure, they might end up billionaire CEOs, Olympic gold medalists, or revolutionaries. Or they may drop dead of a heart attack. It's a coin flip.

Note that in spite of the fact that the huge majority of their lives are spent in the 7+ range, there is a big spike at the 1. That's because their lifestyles are so high-stress that they frequently get sick or injured, or get burned out, have nervous breakdowns, and so forth. At some point, their bodies have enough and shut them down. If you spend all of your life at the redline, don't be surprised when the engine blows up. 


Most of us don't know too many of these people. We probably don't know too many zen monks living in isolation on top of mountains. While these people might seem enlightened and happy, the vast majority of them probably aren't getting much done either.

In his fantastic book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that this approach is possibly even responsible for some of India's troubles:
"...the Indian fascination with advanced techniques for self-control, at the expense of learning to cope with the material challenges of the physical environment, has conspired to let impotence and apathy spread over a great proportion of the population, defeated by scarcity of resources and by overcrowding." 



This is what I'm looking for. As an athlete, I am trying to train hard, at high intensity, to improve in my sport. As a businessman, I am trying to work hard and think of creative solutions. As a student, I try to study with intent. As someone currently writing a blog post, I am trying to put aside distractions and focus on my words. But I also make sure to balance this with down time. I do some post-workout static stretching and quiet meditation. I eat well. I take naps, lots of them. I take caffeine in the morning, and magnesium at night.

You'll often hear people say (with pride), things like "I work hard and I play hard". This is great. But to this, we must add, "I rest hard". You might also hear someone (probably a millenial) describe him or herself as "pretty chill and laid-back". This person needs to add, "but I get shit done when I need to."

I am not putting myself out there to be better than anyone else. I often fail both at being too intense and being too lazy. I still spend more time at the 5s and 6s -- that wishy-washy level where you're not really doing anything useful, but not actually focused on recovering -- than I would like. But I put this out there as an ideal to strive for, not a goal to be reached.

Stress is not good, stress is not bad. Stress just is. It is a part of life and one that should be embraced as well as respected. One should not go through life trying to avoid stress, but rather actively managing it, and making it work for you.

If you want to be an achiever, then achieve. Work hard. Focus. Go all-in. But then, rest, recover, then do it again.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Life After Poker #2 -- Jason Strasser

I made it to two episodes, woohoo! That means this is officially a real thing. I think.

In show #2, I chat with Jason "strassa2" Strasser, one of the original young no limit hold'em superstars that burst on the scene in the early 2000s. Jason was making big money playing high-stakes NLHE from his college dorm room at Duke, and traded that career in for a lengthy and successful career as a trader for Morgan Stanley. But playing with the house money wasn't fulfilling enough, so he decided to start his own hedge fund. Jason joined me from his office in New York to talk about the time he spends on the 2+2 poker and investment forums, the fun of being in the financial markets, the pressures of managing the money of his friends and family, his attitudes towards poker today, what he misses about the poker lifestyle, and much more. Jason's is a true success story of how a player goes from beating the big poker games to making real money beating "the Street".

Here's where you can find it, and here's the direct download link. And iTunes here. Let me know in the comments what you liked, didn't like, or anything at all!