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!


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 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 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.


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!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Introducing ... Life After Poker, a series of interviews

[Edit: On the September 3, 2014 edition of the 2+2 PokerCast, an edited version of the Matt Hawrilenko interview was played. If you got here through the PokerCast, you'll want to click through to the Life After Poker page to see what parts of the interview were excerpted.]

Like most people, I enjoy conversation with my favourite people. I've been fortunate enough in my life to find truly fascinating people, and I often wish that I could capture these conversations with people and present them to the world.

I've also been a big fan of audio content and podcasts for many years. I'm a huge fan of those who do it well. I've had some experience with podcasting including being an occasional co-host on the Two Plus Two PokerCast and had my own brief foray into hosting my own show with Under The Gun +1 at Ultimate Gaming when I interviewed some of my coworkers. But until now, I have never had a full creative outlet to have a candid conversation with personal friends and acquaintances, made for public consumption. I've also never had to manage all the other, non-talking aspects of content creation and putting it online. That changes today.

Today, I'm introducing "Life After Poker", a series (I hope) of interviews with former professional poker players who have moved on either partially or completely from playing pro poker. Many of the people I hope to talk to were big winners during the poker boom of the mid-2000s, but for some reason or another, decided to move on from full-time play. Given my own personal situation where I did the same (giving up pro poker to work for Ultimate Gaming) and then subsequently retired from that position, I feel that this is a great time for me to have some conversations with these individuals and explore the themes associated with a life after poker.

My reasons for doing this are to improve my own skills at speaking and interviewing, to learn about what people are doing in their lives after poker, and because I'm a self-obsessed egotist who likes hearing the sound of his own voice.

This first interview is with one of the people I know best in the entire poker world, Matt Hawrilenko. Matt is one of my best friends, which made my first outing into the solo interview world very easy. The interview went well and was a lot of fun mostly because Matt is an eloquent, thoughtful speaker. We cover a really wide range of topics including his academic career in clinical psychology, being on the mats in Brazilian Jiujitsu, optimizing utility in life, how to assess your own life decisions, and what Bill Chen thinks of him as a poker player.

I would really love to hear your comments on anything that pertains to the interview whether it's content, length, audio quality -- whatever! Specific is always better than general, but even if your only comment is "I loved it!" or "I hated it!" I'd still love to hear it. Also, if you have ideas for future guests (I have about 6-8 people in mind already), that'd be great too.

http://lifeafterpoker.libsyn.com is where all episodes will be.
And this is the link to the first (and presently, only) interview.
Finally, here's the iTunes link.

Thank you for listening!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

First-time float tank experience

I first heard about isolation tanks (aka float tanks or sensory-deprivation tanks) on the Joe Rogan podcast. I'll try nearly all non-injurious things once so when an offer showed up in my e-mail for Float House Vancouver, I was pretty excited to give it a try.

I'll skip the generic trip report that you can read about on every site: you watch a video, you get undressed, shower off, and get into the chamber which is filled with water heated to skin temperature and with so much salt in it that the density matches that of the human body. The chamber is completely black on the inside, there is minimal sound, a fairly neutral smell, and the only sensation you feel is the water on your body which again is very minimal and very comfortable. You can get out at any time, you can prop the door open, and they give you a foam pillow to support your neck if you want it.

The allure of float tanks, as I understood it before my experience, is a tremendously deep meditative state. I've heard many people say they experience very deep thoughts, perceive the world in a different way, achieve some form of creative enlightenment, and so on. Perhaps comments like those overly raised my expectations. I would say the most adequate description of what occurred in my 90 minutes in the float tank was that it was just like the feeling that you have just before you fall asleep. One does think very thoughtfully about things in your life, in a way very different from what one's typical conscious mind thinks about them. But the thoughts are not absurd or dissonant with reality the way they are in a dream. Thus it seems to be in an "in-between state" where your consciousness is very aware of the rules of reality, but is perhaps willing to bend them. I'm not confident that's a great assessment, but it's about as close as I can elucidate.

So what did I actually think about?

For the first 15 (10? 25? 40? It's truly hard to say) minutes, I was simply getting used to the sensation and decreased sensory input. Unless you live near the Dead Sea, it is a very foreign feeling to be completely suspended in the water without any external resistance, and with minimal feeling on your skin. The complete darkness means that you get the sensation of movement, often rotating or drifting from side to side, and the tank was large enough that I wasn't constantly bumping into the walls, although it did happen. But for the most part, I thought about the same things I think about during my conscious day: martial arts, friends, work I want to do, and so on. I did not ponder the origins of the universe, the meaning of life, the key to enlightenment, or such thing.

At some point I'm pretty sure I did fall asleep, though I wouldn't be able to guess the duration. It could have been anywhere from 2-30 minutes. I do know that a few minutes after waking up, I started to become slightly antsy for the session to be done. I have a slightly pathological tendency to always want new experiences to be "as intended" so even though the intro video said specifically that it was fine to crack the door open or take a break, or do any of a number of comfort-increasing things, I didn't do any of them. But somewhere around probably the 70th minute, I started to become a bit anxious to quit or at least take a break. I stuck it out and waited, considering it a mental challenge and telling my brain to calm down, and it did not feel too long before the 90 minutes expired. I do suspect that being very awake, well-rested, or caffeinated would probably be a bad idea for the float tank. As one person on Yelp says:
don't go when you're super well-rested. I find that you need to be right in that Goldilocks zone of being not too sleepy, but not too awake either. If you're too well-rested, you tend to get a bit shifty and therefore unable to get comfortable in the experience.
I think that is a very accurate description.

Afterwards, I still felt slightly disoriented. It wasn't as bad as a typical "nap hangover", but I certainly did not feel in any hurry to move too quickly or use my brain too aggressively. I chatted with some girls in the waiting/recovery area and they seemed to feel the same way.

So, the obvious questions.

Do I recommend that other people do this? Absolutely yes. This is the kind of thing that I suspect has dramatically different results for different people. It's unique, reasonably priced, and available in most big cities. Some people will love it and think it's the greatest thing ever, others will absolutely hate it and quit in 10 minutes, others will likely be indifferent. But you don't know if you don't try. So you should do it.

Many people have expressed the idea that they would feel uncomfortable in complete blackness, or without any sound, or lying in an enclosed area that vaguely resembles a coffin. Sure, I'm sure this would cause some anxiety. I don't much like closed spaces myself, and my brain is super active all the time. But I would argue that this is more a reason in favour of doing it as opposed to against. People with fear of heights skydive. So suck it up.

Would I do it again? The answer to this is harder. I think I will probably do it again. I think it's unlikely that it needs to be a highly regular part of my life, or that it will be dramatically life-changing for me. And if it were the case that I never did this again, do I think that I would be tremendously disappointed? Probably not. But overall, I would say it was positive, and I think that doing it occasionally will provide value.

Happy floating!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Peer-based marketplaces are awesome!

I recently got back from visiting friends in Boston. Like almost every civilized city in North American now, Boston has Uber. Two major cities which don't have Uber? Las Vegas and Vancouver, the place I just moved from, and the place I'm in right now. The reason, naturally, is taxicab companies being dickheads and using their lawyers to protect their government-granted monopolies (VancouverVegas) . So until my trip to Boston, I'd never used Uber, but I was seriously impressed! It does seem that any consumer mentions Uber, it is with the most glowing of terms.

Is there any doubt that these peer-based marketplaces are the future? Uber and Airbnb seem like the biggest and most used ones so far. I also just hired someone off of Odesk.com to do some software work for me. It's not that it was cheaper (though it was), it's that I literally probably wouldn't have been able to find someone with the skills I was looking for without combing through my social network and asking everyone I know.

This is some serious democratization of both the capital and labour markets, which is awesome. Uber reduces the cost of transportation, Airbnb reduces the cost of housing, Odesk reduces the cost of skilled freelance work. And in many ways, they're not just cheaper than the traditional model, they're better. I way prefer apartments to hotels. I want a fridge and a kitchen, not maid service and a lobby bar. Airbnb was freakin' made for me. Uber has your payment information pre-stored, so you don't have to carry around cash and cards. Odesk -- well, I don't even know where I would have found the person I was looking for if it weren't for Odesk.

There's others that I've heard of but never used like Etsy (arts and crafts), Prosper (loans), Taskrabbit (errands) that continue to break down commerce walls in unique ways to unite buyers and sellers. Of course, the traditional companies (taxi companies, hotels, b&m retail, banks) will try to use their corporate goons to prevent this, but it can't be stopped. It's too awesome.*

This is all exciting as hell to me, and makes me wonder what other peer-based marketplace companies I might not be aware of. Is there a complete list of these anywhere? Please tell me of ones you know of in the comments.

* The more I think about this, the more that I think that the Ubers, Airbnbs, etc of the world have the potential to unify people of differing political views. Left-wing folk often complain about the power of major corporations and that they leverage their size and economies of scale to such an extent that it is bad for the consumer or worker. Right-wing folk are theoretically supposed to be in favour of free markets and lack of government intervention, so it'd be pretty damn hypocritical of them to oppose this. In the end, getting an Uber off a random guy who owns a car and knows the city well is basically the transportation equivalent of buying your produce from the farmers market, instead of the supermarket.

Monday, July 21, 2014

“There’s nothing to eat” - the first-world problem with a real-world solution

Like many people, especially those people who claim to live a healthy lifestyle, I have opinions on what people should eat. I can never be sure my opinions are certifiably correct, but I make an effort to read and research things, experiment on myself, and attempt to draw conclusions based on a sample size of one. But I also realize that there is very little consensus on what one should eat, regardless of whether we are talking about the population of dieticians, doctors, scientists, or laypeople.

But I do think I can propose a concept in eating that fits regardless of whether the diet one follows is Paleo, Whole 9, Mediterranean, Zone, low-fat, low-carb, low-sodium, alkaline, vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, or holds no label whatsoever. The proposal is: when there is no food that is good for you, you should not eat anything at all.

As I compose this post, I’m at 30000 feet. I’m presently in the midst of a 13-hour flight from Vancouver to Hong Kong, which door-to-door is closer to 17 hours. To help my circadian rhythm adjust to the new time zone, I requested that my dinner and breakfast be served together. I’ve eaten the fish, chicken, vegetables and fruits, but skipped the bread, rice and dessert. Without the “filler”, this really only constitutes one meal, especially for a big eater like me.

I will be hungry when I land. My hormones will surely express the desire for food by the end of this flight. I’ll be uncomfortably hungry.

But in the end, I will be fine. In fact, I would say I’ll be much better off than those filling up on the provided meals. Skipping the bread and the desserts means I’ll be operating on a short-term caloric deficit. But unless I hit the one-in-a-zillion parlay of: 1) this plane going down, 2) surviving the crash, and 3) ending up in a place where I do not have access to food, I won’t really miss those bread and dessert calories. In all likelihood, I’ll get them back when I land safely. (Spoiler alert: I landed safely.)

It may feel very “first-world” to have the luxury of casting aside the grains and sweets. I see it differently. I think the first-world attitude is the idea that people should never go hungry. I used to subscribe to the idea that people - especially athletes - would waste away if not constantly nourished; that muscular hypotrophy and fat storage would quickly ensue if a person did not get five small meals a day. But I think in the first world, the opposite is far more of a problem: the abundance and ease of food is too great.

We have food whenever we want it. If you are reading this and you have $10 in your pocket, I’ll bet you can get some kind of food within 15 minutes. But we don’t always have good food available. Sometimes we are on a plane and at the mercy of the airline. Perhaps it is 3am and the only thing open is McDonald's. Or we are at a restaurant that someone else chose, and absolutely nothing on the menu is conducive to what we think we should eat. Too frequently, I hear people rationalize their poor choices with, "well, I don't have time, and I have to eat something." I write this post to challenge that idea. You don't have to eat "something" at all.

Beyond the direct health benefits of intermittent fasting and consuming fewer empty calories/bad things, I think there are some second-order benefits to the “don’t eat when there’s no good food” approach as well.

1) You will make better meal-planning decisions. If you know that you will be “punished” for a failure to prepare your meal in advance (whether that means grocery shopping, cooking food in batches, or even intelligently planning your restaurant choices), then you will teach yourself to make better decisions.

2) You will appreciate food more. We in the first world are very fortunate to have access to very cheap and very available food. I am not a hippie liberal by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it is important for us to feel some gratitude towards the availability of our food.

To be clear, I don’t think that you need to do this often (especially athletes and active people). Once a week or a few times a month is likely enough to enjoy any health benefits.

If you live in the first world, then you should eat well. You should eat enough to satisfy your caloric requirements and to meet your physical goals. But you should also be choosy in what you eat. Being choosy doesn’t mean simply substituting the fries for the salad (and the ranch for the balsamic). It means throwing out the idea that you will eat something from the vending machine simply because you were too busy to eat lunch. If you didn’t eat lunch, too bad. You should have planned your day better. So you end up going from 1pm to 6pm (3% of your week, mathematically) feeling like you're "starving". Well, suck it up -- you'll live.

Actually, you'll live better.

Monday, June 30, 2014

moving on - saying goodbye to Ultimate Poker

Well, the post title is pretty self-explanatory: I'm saying goodbye to Ultimate Gaming and stepping down as Director of Player Operations.

Over the past 15 months I've had the wonderful opportunity to help with the launching of the regulated online poker era in the United States. I've built the well-received Ultimate Poker Player Care team, something I'm tremendously proud of. In certain ways, I'm even more proud of this customer service team than the PokerStars one, because of all the various challenges and difficulties that UP's service team has faced.  I am very confident that their service will continue to be best-in-breed in US poker after my departure.

I've met some wonderful people throughout the organization, people with whom I hope to continue relationships. That's what's made it hard to say goodbye to them.

I'm not going to go into detail at this time regarding the reasons for my departure, other than to say the move is mostly a personal one and the departure is one that has been in the works for a while. I gave this company my 100% and now I want to take some time for myself personally and see what the next challenge for me should be. I've been taking a lot of thoughtful walks and thinking about would bring me fulfillment and joy in life. I'd really like to find the next thing that gets me up in the morning and excited about my day. I haven't quite figured it out yet, but I'm sure I'll be blogging about it when I do.

Thanks to everyone who has been so supportive in this venture. On to the next!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Making home a computer-free zone

The last week, I've been experimenting with not having a personal computer at home on weekdays. Instead, I've simply been leaving both my work and personal computer at the office. Now that I work a day job (and try to go to the gym afterwards), I find there's no real strong reason to be online after dinner and before bed.

I've found that I have definitely improved sleep over this period. There's obviously a gigantic body of evidence that electronic screens before bed will harm your sleep quality. Even ignoring issues like blue light and melatonin production, I've simply had more relaxing evenings. I'm not too worried about the crisis du jour -- if it's a legitimate crisis, someone on my staff will phone me. Everything else which isn't a crisis, can wait until the morning, when I find that I am more productive anyway these days.

The biggest difference though, is that I waste *way* less time browsing random garbage on the internet. If I choose to watch a TV show or movie (actual cable, Netflix, Youtube), I'll actually watch it with intent. Since I still have my phone and tablet at home, I'm still not fully out of the habit of checking work e-mail -- but because phones and tablets are still largely onerous to type with, I don't feel nearly as tempted to make sure I respond immediately to that e-mail.

Additionally, the computer is no longer the first thing I check when I wake up in the morning. For my entire adult life, I have habitually gone straight from the bed to the computer. Now in the morning, I take one lap around my apartment complex to gather my thoughts and think about what things I want to accomplish for the day. When I get back, not having a computer means I get ready for work far faster with no procrastination. (I'm writing this at 6:50am.) My overall time spent being productive is actually the same number of hours and minutes, but the productivity itself is way higher because when I am actually at the computer now, I have focused, specific tasks.

Anyway, this is a small thing, and far from groundbreaking, but it has helped me a lot and I will continue with this experiment for a little while.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Why You Should Play Credit Card Roulette, Even If You Don't "Gamble"

(Alternative Title: The Value Of Being Uncomfortable, Part 3)

Ultimate Poker's Director of Poker Operations, Scott Yeates, sits in the office next to mine. In the hallway outside of our office sits our Data Analysis Manager, a very bright guy named Justin. Scott has come back from lunch at the excellent Vegas burger joint, Holstein's, bragging that he won at credit card roulette and didn't have to pay for his lunch.

Despite being an occasional gambler/poker player himself, Justin inquires why we would ever just gamble for the bill. It doesn't make sense to him. Keep in mind that Justin's occupation is very math-oriented, and he understands long-run expectation as well as any poker pro. He just doesn't see the value in gambling for gambling's sake.

I explain, to be an effective gambler, you have to embrace the sting of defeat. It has to hurt a little. It shouldn't hurt so much that it seriously damages you, but constantly exposing yourself to small financial pain is beneficial, in exactly the same way that getting regular exercise makes your body healthy. Exercise is a stressor that makes you perform better the next time you exercise. Losing money is a stressor that makes you more emotionally prepared to lose money.

Of course, many people will respond to this line of reasoning with, "I don't gamble". But, as anyone reading this blog knows, everyone gambles. They gamble on buying (or not buying) insurance, buying (or not buying) a home, having (or not having) children, crossing (or not crossing) the street, asking Alice or Mary out on a date, or vacationing in Hawaii instead of Paris.

Since everyone gambles, everyone should be exposed to losing at gambling.

So, tell your non-gambling friends: CCR makes you a better person.

(Bonus content: Here's a CCR blog post from 2006, when it wasn't nearly as big a thing as it is now.)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Job satisfaction correlators -- my foray into HR metrics

I love measuring performance. When MMA training was my absolute #1 priority, I tracked my own physical performance metrics constantly.

These days I'm on the mats less and in the office more, overseeing Ultimate Poker's Player Care team in Nevada and New Jersey. Our team has performed very well, earning high grades for customer service from media and our own players.

The praise for that is not mine; it belongs to the professional men and women who make up the team and who show up to work with great attitudes. My job, in part, is to manage the people and the processes surrounding this team. Thus I need to know things like: Are they happy with their work? Do they understand why we do things the way they were?

It wasn't enough to be told by my superiors (or the media) that I was doing a good job, though that's obviously important. I wanted to know from the people who work for me whether they think that I and the rest of my management team are doing a good job. So I created a fully anonymous survey for them to fill out, and it asked these questions:

I like my job.
I feel empowered to do my job.
When I do very good work, it is recognized.
I have confidence in my manager.
I feel that my manager treats me fairly.
I have confidence in the department leadership.
I get helpful feedback on a regular basis.
I feel that I have been put in a position to learn and develop skills.
I feel that information is easily accessible and available.
I feel that communication within the team is good.
I like the people I work with.
I am happy with my compensation (salary/benefits).
I am confident about the future of this company.
If I have a problem, I feel there is someone I can go to.
I feel that as a team, we are continuously improving.
I understand the reasons behind our policies and procedures.
I am happy with the shift management of the shift leader I work with most frequently.
I feel I have the opportunity to grow in this company.
I didn't know what to expect, but the results turned out to be extremely enlightening. My original goal was, of course, to see how well we were doing in these various categories. And as expected, we ended up discovering that we were great in some areas, and also identified improvement opportunities in others.

But where the fun really started was when I started correlating the data. I decided I wanted to see how well "I like my job" correlated to all the other results. It was also the first question on the survey, so that the subsequent questions wouldn't bias that one. Here are the results of that correlation data (n=18):
I feel empowered to do my job. 0.95
When I do very good work, it is recognized. 0.54
I have confidence in my manager. 0.58
I feel that my manager treats me fairly. 0.62
I have confidence in the department leadership. 0.47
I get helpful feedback on a regular basis. 0.34
I feel that I have been put in a position to learn and develop skills. 0.79
I feel that information is easily accessible and available. 0.31
I feel that communication within the team is good. 0.46
I like the people I work with. 0.58
I am happy with my compensation (salary/benefits). 0.48
I am confident about the future of this company. 0.53
If I have a problem, I feel there is someone I can go to. 0.11
I feel that as a team, we are continuously improving. 0.45
I understand the reasons behind our policies and procedures. 0.82
I am happy with the shift management of the shift leader I work with most frequently. 0.34
I feel I have the opportunity to grow in this company. 0.66

All of the responses correlated positively, which at least suggests that I didn't ask any overly dumb questions. I was surprised that getting feedback and having confidence in management is not tremendously correlated with job happiness. On the other hand, I have always felt that empowerment was very important to job satisfaction, but never would have guessed a nearly 1-to-1 relationship. With the usual correlation =/= causation caveats in mind, it seems that it is at least conceivable that empowering employees -- or at least, my employees -- and doing a good job explaining our policies and procedures might go a long way towards improving job satisfaction.

That's of course if job satisfaction is a goal. Ironically, there is an indication that job satisfaction is not necessarily well correlated to job performance, especially for high-skill jobs. Nevertheless, I'm still of the opinion that it's good business, and simply the right thing, to have motivated, happy employees. This is far from rigourously scientific stuff and I'm sure many people much smarter and more experienced than me have dived into this more thoroughly, but it seems to me that companies who value employee satisfaction could still benefit from this sort of HR data analysis.

Monday, April 28, 2014

interview with me on FIGHTLAND

In case you missed on Twitter, here is an interview with me and UFC veteran (and aspiring poker player) Martin Kampmann. The interviewer, Eli Kurland, called me up and pretty much just let me ramble on, so it's fairly off-the-cuff and spontaneous responses on my part.

I'm a big fan of the FIGHTLAND blog overall, so check out some of the other stuff there. There's some excellent written and video content on topics as diverse as the training lifestyle in rural Thailand, to great technique breakdowns of big-name fighters as well as some beautiful documentaries about MMA in some of the last places you'd imagine.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Value of Being Uncomfortable, revisited

Not long ago, I made some hand-waving, decidedly unscientific comments on the value of acute discomfort.

Yesterday, on Tim Ferriss' very popular blog, there is a post discussing the science of sauna exposure and improved health and performance. Among the highlights of that post:
One study demonstrated that a 30-minute sauna session two times a week for three weeks POST-workout increased the time that it took for study participants to run until exhaustion by 32% compared to baseline.
two 15-minute sauna sessions at 100°C (212°F) dry heat separated by a 30-minute cooling period resulted in a five-fold increase in growth hormone.
Fifteen minutes in a 100°C sauna is pretty rough, but the point is that the exposure has to be difficult or prolonged enough to be uncomfortable. It's supposed to be difficult. And so it goes with exercise, fasting, or any other kind of physical stressor. Suffer, endure, recover.

What I found most interesting was that there is actually a "discomfort chemical" produced in the body, dynorphin:
Beta-endorphins are endogenous (natural) opioids that are a part of the body’s natural painkiller system, known as the mu opioid system, which block pain messages from spreading from the body to the brain in a process called antinociception. What is lesser known is that the body also produces a peptide known as dynorphin (a “kappa opioid”), which is generally responsible for the sensation of dysphoria. The discomfort experienced during intense exercise, exposure to extreme heat (such as in a sauna), or eating spicy food (capsaicin) is due to the release of dynorphin. The release of dynorphin causes an upregulation and sensitization of mu opioid receptors, which interact with beta-endorphin.46 This process is what underlies the “runner’s high” and is directly precipitated by the discomfort of physical exercise. 
Anyway, it's certainly not a scientific be-all and end-all on the matter, but it's an interesting read and potentially one more point in favour of acute discomfort.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Bigger, Faster, Stronger - why I no longer believe in banning steroids in sport

Over the weekend, I watched and quite enjoyed the 2008 documentary  Bigger Stronger Faster* on Netflix. I found it an honest assessment and good treatment regarding the controversy of steroids in professional and amateur sports, and enjoyed the combination of the director's personal anecdotes and paneling of relevant experts. I recommend watching it regardless of what side of the steroid debate you are on.

My own opinion on steroids in sport has changed significantly in the last couple of years. Not long ago, I was staunchly against steroid users. I thought all users were cheaters, that enforcement needed to be stepped up, and punishment needed to be harsher. I read the book Numbers Rule Your World, which included a chapter on how it was probable that the vast majority of steroid users are not caught, because Type 1 errors (false positives) are far more rare than Type 2 errors (false negatives). In a nutshell, the author argued that almost no one claiming innocence after testing positive is actually innocent, and that there are numerous athletes who are not testing positive but really are on the juice.

At some point, I started to change my mind on the issue. My position just didn't continue to make logical sense to me. It is definitely clear that steroid usage is in fact "cheating" in the sense that it is against the rules. But it's clear that not all forms of cheating are treated the same by sports fans. A basketball player who pushes the bounds of contact with his opponent but doesn't get whistled for a foul is not considered a cheater, he's considered a good defensive player. We have a culture of "it ain't cheating if you don't get caught", especially if you happen to be a fan of the individual committing the foul. And so it is with steroids. The most successful steroid users are those who are able to cycle off steroids in time, so that they don't get caught. What effectively is happening at this point with respect to steroids is that only the dumb, poor, or overly aggressive users are getting caught.

Difficulty in catching steroid users is not itself sufficient to argue that steroids should be legal, of course. Just because something is difficult to enforce does not mean you stop enforcing it, if it is deemed beneficial to do so.

The problem is that I no longer believe that it is beneficial to continue to try to ban steroids. The argument against steroids usually goes something like this:
  • Steroids create an unfair playing field between users and non-users.
  • As such, non-users would feel at a disadvantage; everyone would have to use, or risk being at a competitive disadvantage.
  • Steroids are dangerous/have dangerous side effects. If athletes feel compelled to use steroids, then you are encouraging these athletes to harm themselves.
  • Legalization would encourage children/teens to use them, since their idols would be known to use them.

The Unfair Playing Field

This argument is probably the most common, but the easiest to take apart. The playing field is not fair. Never has been, never will be. Some people were born with better genetics. Some people were born into a better socioeconomic path to athletic stardom. We like to think that with hard work, anyone can become a world champion in any sport, but the hard truth is it's bullshit. If you're not from a village in Kenya or Ethiopia, you're probably not going to be the best long distance runner in the world. Conversely if you *are* from a poor village in Africa, I don't much care for your chances of winning the America's Cup or the PGA Championship.

I find it hard to believe that there are still reasonable people who think that it's totally fair if you're genetically predisposed to having higher testosterone, red blood cell count, bone density, better body composition, and so on, but arbitrarily draw an ethical line at using technology to improve any of the above.

Additionally, I think it's worthwhile to explore the effects of non-steroid enhancement. No one thinks laser vision correction, or surgery to repair injured body parts is cheating.  Nick Diaz, an MMA fighter known for great striking but also famous for always getting cut (a marked disadvantage in a sport where a doctor can stop a fight if he thinks the cut is dangerous), had surgery to shave down some of his facial bones, making it less likely for him to get cut in the future. Absolutely no one in the MMA community thinks this is cheating, at least certainly not on the level that anabolic steroid usage is considered to be.

Even if we're just worried about hormone levels, there are many different ways to increase testosterone. Getting more sleep increases testosterone. Lifting weights increases testosterone. Having sex increases testosterone. Supplementing with Vitamin D increases testosterone. Same with creatine, zinc, and anecdotally, taking cold showers. And some people have genetics that lead to them having higher testosterone. You can't realistically ban these things, and you also can't provide universal access to these things.

It's Dangerous, So It's Unethical To Make People Feel Like They Have To Do It

I think this is the stronger argument. The side effects of anabolic steroid abuse are pretty well known, and they are real. What I find unfortunate about steroid education are the exaggerations and misinformation spread about it. I've never done steroids (nor even been tempted to), but from everything I understand, it's not like users immediately grow hair everywhere, get massive roid rage, grow breasts and have their testicles shrink. I think it's far more likely that if used under proper supervision from a qualified and ethical endocrinologist, steroids probably enhance performance with a small, but significant, amount of side effects.

Like we've seen with criminalization of other drugs like marijuana, exaggerating effects and providing misinformation about steroids inhibits what society really needs -- an open dialogue about the matter. "Bigger, Stronger, Faster" draws a parallel to "Reefer Madness", an absurd 1930s propaganda film which claimed that marijuana would turn users into violent sociopaths (as opposed to useless, lazy stoners). While there is likely more truth in claims of steroid damage, the point remains that providing exaggerations and misinformation prevents a useful dialogue.

Suppose that a given person has decided that he or she will use steroids, and you cannot talk him or her out of it. This person is committed to being the best football player, track and field competitor, powerlifter, bodybuilder, fighter, golfer, or whatever. This person rejects the idea that he cannot be the best, and is willing to go to whatever means necessary to do this. While we wouldn't want our son or daughter to be this person, what is the best situation for this person? The status quo, where this person orders a bunch of steroids over the internet, or perhaps makes a trip to Mexico to get it from a veterinarian? Or one where he or she can have an open dialogue with someone qualified to dispense the steroid; someone who can provide good, honest, ethical advice?

Elite Level Sports Performance Itself Is (Probably) Inherently Unhealthy

To get to an elite level in professional sports, you have to be willing to sacrifice your health. I think this statement comes as a surprise to people, because there is often an association between health and fitness. These two are not the same thing, even though they are so often used together. Elite level professional athletes are almost always very fit. They are stronger, faster, more flexible, and have better endurance than most people. But that does not mean they are healthy.

Elite professional athletes play through pain, injury, and illness. Those are bad things to do. The training required to reach the elite level in most pro sports is unhealthy, or at the very least, it is far from optimizing health. Optimal health for humans probably looks something like: walk a few miles every day, get some more intense exercise 3-4 times a week, and eat regularly while fasting intermittently. But elite level athletes train at a high intensity 5-6 days a week, often two or three times a day. They constantly eat a tremendous amount of calories to fuel that training, and when they are not training they are most likely sleeping, because they are exhausted. The level of fatigue and strain accumulated on an elite level athlete is hard for the average person to fathom, and it likely goes well beyond what is actually healthy in most circumstances. When you think of that way, it's very little wonder why so many athletes die prematurely.

The Maude Flanders Argument

 (I'll take any excuse to use this image.)

Even if it's not expressly stated, a lot of people feel that it's important to villify steroid users because if we don't, we are implicitly saying to children that it's okay to use them. We want our kids to eat their vegetables, so Popeye gulps down a canful of spinach; he doesn't jab a needleful of Winstrol in his ass.

And no, I don't think kids should be using steroids for athletic performance enhancement. But here again, I think it's far better to be able to have a healthy dialogue about steroids than it is to misrepresent and scare children and teenagers. Kids aren't stupid. If you treat them like intelligent, autonomous beings capable of making reasonable decisions, they're actually less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. I see no reason that steroids wouldn't be different.

In "Bigger, Stronger, Faster", one of the protagonists is a steroid user as well as a high school football coach. The coach has clearly lied to his teenaged students about the fact that he uses. You're left to wonder what those kids are supposed to think if they ever get their hands on the documentary that they appear in.

If Steroids Are So Great, Why Don't You Do Them?

Well, quite simply, I don't want to.

I don't want to use steroids simply because of the cost-benefit analysis. From a legal perspective, I'm unwilling to get arrested or otherwise get in trouble with the law to get the performance gains that steroids could potentially provide me.  From a health perspective, I'm not sufficiently knowledgeable about them to feel like I can use them correctly without screwing up my health. I also feel there is a lack of long-term evidence that anabolic steroids can be used safely without significant negative consequences. I'd like to have kids one day, and have no desire to risk infertility. In summary, I don't care so much about being elite that I'm willing to risk the associated health and legal issues.

Every serious athlete has to, at some point, make a choice about how far they are willing to go. Usually, the ones who make it to the top 0.001% of their sport are the ones that are willing to risk everything. They risk concussions, spinal cord injuries, knee surgeries, heart attacks, and more. That elite level athletes are willing to do damage to their bodies is nothing new to sports, but while we lionize the athlete who risks his brain, neck, back, or knees for his sport, we demonize the athlete who risks his endocrine system. This is not logically consistent.

The fact is, I'll never be an elite level athlete in my chosen sport. But I like watching sports, and I'll continue to watch elite level athletes do amazing things. I'll know the lengths they have gone to do these amazing things. They will have likely trained since a very young age, possibly being pressured or even abused by a parent or coach. They will likely have sacrificed academic pursuits in favour of time in the gym or on the field. They will sacrifice time with friends, staying out late, or their favourite foods. They will have pushed their bodies to the limit of failure in both training and competition. They will train and compete through cuts, bruises, aches, sprains, broken bones, and concussions. And I realize that quite possibly, they will have used exogenous hormones to get through all of these things.

Would it be cooler if I knew for certain that those athletes were able to do these things solely through their genetically-granted gifts and their hard work and discipline? Perhaps. To be sure, I think as long as steroids continue to be against the rules, sports organizations should continue to seek out and punish those who use them. But as a society, it grows increasingly hypocritical to demand that our athletes sacrifice their brains, bones, and joints while simultaneously demanding that they keep off the steroids that so many of their rivals are using.