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.]