Back on the Road

I’m back on the road. Arrived in Mumbai this morning and will be in Bangalore tomorrow, Calcuta, Pune, and then Gujarat.

Stay tuned for updates but I can tell you that the rumors about India being hot and humid in June are true.

bollywood wallpapers, utorrent

How Blackjack Helped Save My Mom

It’s been quite some time since I’ve written a blog. For most of September, October and November, I was traveling. Then the last few months, I’ve been busy trying to figure out my next move in life.

So busy is one excuse but the real reason is that there is a blog that I’ve wanted to write that is so personal that I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to write it and that dilemma has turned me into a procrastinator.

Well here goes nothing.

A subject I speak about in my talks and discuss extensively in my book  is avoiding cognitive biases. One such bias called omission bias rears its head often in blackjack.  Wikipedia defines omission bias as “the tendency to judge harmful actions as worse, or less moral than equally harmful omissions (inactions).” So basically it’s our natural inclination to favor inaction over action.

In blackjack, it’s the average player standing on a 15 against the dealer’s 7 hoping against hope that the dealer has less than a 10 in the hole and will need to draw a card and bust. Even though the statistically sound decision is to hit (draw a card), many players will stand not wanting to be the cause of their own demise.

UCLA professor Bruce Carlin published fascinating study on blackjack, where he found the average player makes four times more mistakes at the table based on inaction or conservatism versus action or overaggressiveness. People like to delay the inevitable.

So what does this have to do with my Mom?

Rewind back to the morning of September 14th. I was in Incline Village, Lake Tahoe, about to give a speech at an event for Miller-Heiman. I got a strange text message from my sister Yvette, asking me to please call her.

I did and she was crying hysterically. “Mom had a stroke,” she said over the phone to me.

I collapsed and began weeping. I have faced some difficult times in my life. In my mid 20’s, I dealt with the death of a close friend, my grandmother and my fraternity big brother all in the span of one month. I, myself, had a near fatal sickness when I was five. Originally misdiagnosed with Reye Syndrome, I faced a two week bout with spinal meningitis, luckily ending up unscathed.

But this was wholly different. This was my mom.

I went downstairs and battled through an hour speech to 300 people, wearing my best happy face and basically ran out of the room when I was done. I raced back to San Francisco and made preparations to return home to Worcester MA that night to be with my family.

When I got home, it was clear that my mom was in bad shape. She could not speak, barely recognized me and could not move her entire right side. During the first few hours I sat with her she was getting worse and worse, starting to look lethargic and unconscious.

The doctors informed us of an important decision. Given the size of the clot in her brain, we had two choices – do nothing and hope the blood eventually resorbs or operate on her brain and actively suck the blood clot out of her brain. The staff was actually divided on the right action. There was no clear data that operating would help and in fact the decision to operate on the brain of a 73 year old woman may have been a fatal one.

The only data before us was that only 22% of patients in a similar situation to my mother would live past 60 days. I sent a copy of my mom’s CAT scan to my good friend Omar Amr, an ER doctor. He immediately stressed to me how bad this stroke was and after performing some diligence recommended operating despite the obvious risks.

It was at this point that I remembered the lesson of omission bias in blackjack. Just like the average blackjack player who knows that hitting 15 against a 7 is the right decision, I was starting to believe that operating was the “right” decision. But just like the average blackjack player, I didn’t want to be the one that forced my mom to bust.

As I sat with my family, I thought about what I would have done at the blackjack table. “If we think operating gives mom the best chance of leading a high quality of life going forward, we need to do it regardless of the risks.”

My father and sisters agreed and we told the surgeon to operate as soon as he could.

I’m not sure if I can describe the next six hours as we sat and waited for my mom to come out of surgery. We tried to go eat and tried to be “normal” but soon after trying to spend some time at home, we found ourselves back at the hospital waiting for the surgeon to come out of surgery.

Finally, at around 10 PM, Dr. Richard Moser, who we have come to know as the miracle worker, emerged with a smile on his face. He reported that the surgery could not have gone better and he expected a speedy recovery or at least a speedy beginning to a recovery.

I’m happy to say that he was right. The next day we looked at the scans and almost all of the blood was gone from her brain. A few hours after the anesthesia started to wear off, my mother started to return to life – slowly, of course.

Now less than six months from that fateful day, my mom has many of her facilities back. She can walk without incident and has actually started working out a few times a week with a physical trainer. Her speech has come back and although she struggles at times to say exactly what she means (don’t we all), she has come a long way in a little time.

I’m incredibly proud of my mom for her recovery and equally as proud of my father who has worked tirelessly to help her to get to where she is. I will forever be grateful to Dr. Moser who performed a miracle and gave my mom a chance when many surgeons would have been scared to even try.

It’s funny because people always scoff at the idea that blackjack or gambling can teach you anything about business or real life. But the next time you are faced with a difficult decision hopefully this lesson of avoiding omission bias will help you do the same.

Party in the Middle East

Anyone who has been to a club with me in the last year knows that I have an unapologetic love of Miley Cyrus’ Party the USA. My friends think it’s a joke or perhaps a disorder but the fact is whether I’m in a club in Vegas, San Francisco, or New York, the DJ is going to play my song.

So it should come as no surprise that Saturday night after a few cocktails while in a club in Karachi, Pakistan, I decided it was high time to impose my Hannah Montana will on the unsuspecting Pakistani’s. My hosts, powerful people in Karachi were nice enough to use that power to threaten the DJ with termination (professional not personal) unless they played my song.

The DJ complained that playing this song would certainly clear the dance floor. While I’ve heard this same claim many a time in the US this was clearly a different circumstance. See what has become clear to me in my tour of the MENA region (I’ve been to Dubai, Oman, Pakistan and Bahrain so far) is that the unfortunate side effect of 9/11 and the Bush administration is very mixed emotions towards our beloved country.

And I do believe it is mixed emotions. Close to 75 percent of the YPO’ers that I’ve spoken to on this tour were educated in the states and to a man they look at that time
in the states as some of the best in their lives. They understand the measures the US has had to take in reaction to 9/11 but it still doesn’t change the fact that many of them no longer want to visit the US. It’s nothing personal – in many ways they still love the US – it’s simply too hard to get in and out of our country.

Another side effect is that they are becoming less likely to send their children to the US to study. Again, it’s simply a matter of convenience.

It’s been sad for me to meet these amazing people and realize how important their presence in the US is and how fleeting that presence may be. Although, I was born in the US I only ended up there because my parents came over from Taiwan for graduate school so I realize the importance of foreign students.

I’m not completely sure what the resolution is but I have to believe that analytics and data may be able to lead a helping hand. See the main issue is not the increased level of security in the US, it’s the unnecessary harassment that they receive each time they come into the country. Four hours in a back room where irrelevant and useless questions like, “Have you ever had explosives training?” or “do you know many months old your mom is?” is simply unnecessary for people who have already received a visa from the US or are in some cases US Citizens.

I have no idea what algorithm our government uses to flag potentials terrorists at the border but as far as I can tell it may be as simplistic as “WHERE religion = ‘Muslim'”.

In my new book, I talk about the way credit card companies use data to detect fraud, looking at patterns in the data to target questionable behavior. Shouldn’t a similar process be used as a first pass to determine potential terrorist activity? Wouldn’t that be more effective and less obtrusive than detaining every Muslim who lives outside of the US.

One of the real values of analytics is the ability it gives you to avoid asking personal questions. With a more sophisticated algorithm and improved use of analytics, we could avoid detaining visitors who pose no risk to our security and by doing so would make our country approachable again to an important segment of the world.

As I watched the Pakistani crowd dance to Miley’s jam, I couldn’t help but see a parallel with their reaction to this song and their reaction to our country. When the song started their were some growns and grimaces but at the end of the song everyone was dancing and smiling. Hopefully better use of analytics by Homeland security can get them Partying in the USA again.

In Sri Lanka – 7, 4, 5, 3, 4

Well, a week without blogging and in large part it’s because I haven’t been behind a computer long enough to get some thoughts down. As great as the iPad is, it is still a bit difficult to blog on. I arrived in Sri Lanka last evening and arrived at my hotel, The Galle Face Hotel, with the pleasant suprise that from my room I can hear crashing waves from the ocean. Obviously Sri Lanka is an island but I han no idea that my hotel would be on the ocean.

The last week has been both enjoyable and educational. In seven days, I have been in four countries, five cities, played golf three times (terribly once and mariginally better the other two times) and spoken to four different groups YPO/EO groups.

Last Friday, I played golf in the Phillipines with local members from the EO chapter. A few observations from the Phillipines. 1) everyone speaks English, 2) Pizza Hut is alive and well, 3) driving around the city presents more moving obstacles then the latest edition of Grand Theft Auto, 4) there is no middle class.

The fourth point has become a major theme as I have trekked through Asia. I have always taken for granted the financial structure we have in the US. When my parent’s arrived in the states for graduate school they were coming from the lower class of Taiwan but after graduating with advanced degrees in the states they quickly became part of the US middle class. Their work, support and resources gave me the opportunity to be where I am today.

The existence of such a large middle class in the United States is in large part what defines our country and makes it the amazing place that it is. But I worry if the fallout from the financial crisis may be a disappearance of that middle class.

When we talk about where jobs will come from in the next 10 years, we often list health care, energy, technology as the sources but most of those positions will need to be highly skilled and highly educated. What will come of the over two million that lost jobs in this recession and worked in construction? Are they going to be able to redefine and reeducate themselves in these other burgeoning fields?

The other point I have noticed is the number of Americans, either ex-pats or those educated in the States, that are now flourishing in Asia. The opportunities here are plentiful and in some cases simply too good to pass up.

As I sit in the business center of my hotel, I reflect on this country. After 25 years of civil unrest, Sri Lanka has become safe and a great land of opportunity. The stock market here has seen massive increases in the last two years and many are still bullish. China is investing in infrastructure that will connect many of the beautiful once remote locations with the main airport. Also, the Chinese are providing aid to build stadiums, civic buildings and housing.

The Chinese obviously have ulterior motives for friending Sri Lanka with its proximity to India but regardless of the motivation this type of help will fast forward Sri Lanka’s economy and clearly make Sri Lanka another country to keep an eye on.

Asia by the Numbers: Part 2

160 years, 2 hours, 2 weeks

Just landed in the Philippines and am relaxing in my hotel before dinner. Hong Kong was a blast. I spoke at a YPO event at the iconic Jockey Club. After the event I played a couple hours of Hold’em with some of the YPO’ers.

The next day was my first off day of the trip and I met up with an old friend, Jennifer Woo. Jennifer is the President of department store Lane Crawford. For lunch, Jennifer took me to the China Club, a private restaurant which serves Hong Kong’s best dim sum. The food was unreal.

After lunch we headed over to Jennifer’s flagship store in the IFC Center. The Lane Crawford experience immediately made me realize why China is starting to kick our ass in so many ways. It felt like I was touring a cross between a fashion museum, ode to reality fashion TV and adult amusement park. The company, 160 years old, is the fashion gateway to China. 

They have built a whole campaign around that 160 years of heritage working with designers to create artistic takes on the iconic trench coat and Ming chair. In both cases the designer’s interpretations are displayed throughout the store. I would show you some photographs but they don’t allow any to be taken.

In addition every detail of the store had been thought out. The layout, the service, the music were all perfect. In fact if you liked the music you could cozy up to the cd bar, make yourself an espresso and listen to more of the same until you found a cd you wanted to buy. (Lane Crawford has a musicologist whose job it is to find fun music to play in the store)

The entire experience of being at Lane Crawford was exactly that, an experience. I contrasted it with my last department store experience in the States. The Bloomingdales’s at Stanford was disheveled and depressing. I don’t remember if they been played music but the moment I walked in I couldn’t wait to get out.

Jennifer left me to shop and before I knew it I had spent two hours exploring the store. I thought about the last time I spent two hours shopping and I realized that it was actually not in person but online. As I reflected on this, I remembered the words of my friend Kevin Compton, owner of the San Jose sharks among many other things. We were talking about how to keep fans coming to games rather than staying at home and watching on their HD televisions. Kevin explained that you simply need to give fans an experience that they can’t get in their living room.

And that is what Lane Crawford has done – they have given the shopper a unique experience impossible to replicate via a website. Every two weeks they make significant changes to the store to make the experience fresh.

There have been rumors that Lane Crawford will be entering the US market soon. I look forward to that day as it might get the people that run Neiman Marcus etc to get off their asses. 

Asia: By the Numbers Part 1

Since I’m supposed to be a numbers guy, as I travel Asia speaking to YPO/WPO and EO chapters, I thought I’d start a blogging series called Asia: By the Numbers.

Status: Currently I’m sitting in the Cathay Pacific Lounge, waiting for my delayed flight to Hong Kong. Last evening, I spoke to the Indonesia chapter of YPO. Great group, although I have to say I may need to update my US pop culture humor references for the international market.

I had been warned to be careful in Jakarta but after reading TripAdvisor, I felt comfortable that those warnings may have been Western media bias. I’m not sure if it made me feel more or less safe when I had to go through a medal detector to get into my hotel. In general, I felt very safe in my brief stint here.

The Numbers – 17,508, 245 M, #4, 30 M, #3, 27 M

In my 24 hours in Indonesia, I learned some fascinating stats. First off, Indonesia is an archipelago consisting of five major islands and 30 more groups of islands. All total, Indonesia contains 17,508 islands. Many of which are uninhabited. Want to buy one? You can.

Indonesia has a population of over 245 M people making it the #4 largest country in the world. Perhaps, this proves my lack of worldliness but before visiting, I would have had no idea that it even fell in the top 10.

Of it’s 245 M, only 30 M are online. Yet Indonesia ranks as the #3 country on Facebook (behind the US and UK) with a whopping 27 M Facebook users. You don’t have to know how to count cards to realize that that means 90% of the people that are online in Indonesia are on Facebook.

Furthermore, Twitter penetration (HR) in Indonesia continues to grow with it currently ranked as the number one Twitter penetrated country in the world. According to comScore, 20.8% of its online users are on Twitter, compared to the average country where only 7.4% of their online users are Tweeting.

An interesting anectodal side note comes from a YPO Indonesia member who commented that many of the younger Indonesians are learning English because of their desire to Tweet.

So what does all of this mean? I’m not sure if I know yet but one thing is certain. As I look for my next opportunity in technology, learning more about Indonesia and potential opportunities there is going to be at the top of my to-do list.

Oden vs. Durant: Let’s Beat the Dead Horse

Recently there’s been a lot written about my point of view that the Portland Trail Blazers should have drafted Kevin Durant NOT Greg Oden in the 2007 NBA Draft. it all stems from my new book where I talk about one of my early encounters with former Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard. Headlines like, “Blazers consultant would not have drafted Greg Oden” and “Blackjack King Jeff Ma saw the NBA’s future in 2007″ highlight my Nostradamus type qualities when using my magical slide rule to evaluate NBA players.

If only I were that smart.

Yes our numbers had Durant rated higher than oden but that is akin to saying Obama’s approval rating is dropping – pretty much a non-story. Durant had a phenomenal college season – one for the ages. Would have been hard for anyone let alone a guy playing with his off hand to top him statistically.

I’ve never approached a reporter or written a blog to highlight my displeasure with the Trail Blazer’s brass for picking Oden. That’s because there is no displeasure. Yes I admit at the time I was “disappointed” that they chose Durant but that isn’t sour grapes harbored for three years, that’s simply an answer to the question, “were you disappointed that they didn’t take Durant?” it’s a pretty natural reaction to have some level of disappointment when a decision goes opposite of what you hoped for. But that disappointment was quickly replaced by hope that my numbers were wrong.

Likewise, the statement, “I would have drafted Durant” is simply an answer to the question, “who would you have drafted?” People ask me all the time in passing – what did your number say – Oden or Durant? And each time I answer with candor that our numbers said durant. If I am giving up some trade secret with that admission I apologize to the Blazers’ organization. 

I have always believed in transparency, especially with bloggers. Ben Golliver was introduced to me through ESPN’s Henry Abbott so I was indeed very candid with Ben. Perhaps too candid. But that is my nature as I don’t believe in hiding facts so long as they don’t compromise competitive advantage. I don’t believe I did that.

It’s hard to know for sure without using the wayback machine but as i recall most people believed that oden should be the first choice that year, yet let’s forget about that right now and say that it was instead 50/50. With such a disparity in production with hindsight as our friend so far we would have 50 percent that were right and 50 that were wrong. I just happen to sit in the 50 percent that “look” correct at this point.

And “being right” here is not a testament that using stats works as much as our lauding of guys like Sean May and Kyle Lowry is not a testament that that stats don’t work.  Like any method the proof is in the results over a long time frame not one individual pick.

I do think Durant would have been the more unconventional choice (which i admit occasional bias towards) simply because Oden was the consensus pick of most experts. If I am wrong on that I apologize for my poor memory.

I have always tried to practice humility in my use of analytics and even within this interview I made a point to marginalize our role in the process for what it was – one of many pieces to the puzzle. And that is my only real issue with the reaction to my statements about Oden, etc. If I sounded like I knew I was right and like I think my crap doesn’t stink then I apologize because that is the worst mistake a numbers guy can make.

Maybe the BCS Isn’t So Bad

As I watched the amazing game last night between the Boise State Broncos and the Virginia Tech Hokies, I couldn’t help but laugh a little inside and relish the fact that our <a href=”http://sports.espn.go.com/ncf/news/story?id=4870657″>President hasn’t yet been able to “throw his weight around”</a> and we still have no playoff system in Division I football.

While bashing the BCS has become a popular and easy pastime – I even attack it in my <a href=”http://amzn.to/houseadvantage”>new book</a> – one thing is clear. The BCS system as it stands makes for an incredibly exciting regular season, unparalleled in any other sport.

Would last night’s game, in doubt until the final 30 seconds, have had nearly the same drama if we all knew that both teams’ national championship hopes would be largely unaffected by a loss? Of course not.

As it stood, this was Boise State’s most important game of the season – a near road game against a top 15 competitor. Already ranked number three in the preseason polls, a win would solidify Boise’s position in the BCS title conversation. A loss would relegate them out of the top 10 and would surely leave them out of the title conversation for the rest of the season.

A must win game in week one.

Contrast this to the NFL season starting in two days. While the anticipation of survivor pools and fantasy leagues adds drama to week one, the fact that Brett Favre contemplated sitting out the first four games of the season, tells you all you need to know about the value of one game in the NFL regular season.

While BCS bashing has become a national past time, games last night should remind us that there is tremendous value to the status quo. Two years ago, I wrote a <a href=”http://citizensports.wordpress.com/2008/12/01/easier-said-than-done-mr-president-elect/”>blog</a&gt; about the complications with a FBS playoff system. To summarize that blog, the ideal and most fair playoff system is unlikely to get approved by the NCAA powers that be and therefore whatever playoff system we get will be flawed so in this of all rare cases maintaining status quo seems fine to me.

I’m already getting excited for Penn State/Alabama next week!!!

Lies, Damned Lies, and Unemployment

In my new book, The House Advantage: Playing the Odds to Win Big in Business, I have a chapter where I discuss how the media uses “statistics” to lie. This is obviously not a novel concept as we know from the following age old Mark Twain quote, “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”

However, I was reminded of this theme when sitting in as a host on Varney and Company on Fox Business. All you liberals please hold back the boos. This is not a political argument as much as it is a discussion of the dangers that we all face as a country when influential people use numbers to push forward an agenda.

During the 90 minute show, we interviewed John Challenger of Challenger, Gray and Christmas. Challenger’s firm, experts in job placement, had just issued a press release which actually used recent employment statistics to paint a rosy picture of our current job market.

In the release, Challenger’s firm declares that “the job market is well on the road to recovery” citing “bigger trends, which indicate just how much the job market has improved over the last 12 months.”

Challenger asserts, “The statistics indicate that the job market has made great strides over the last 12 months and appears to rebounding sooner compared to the previous two recessions.”

Challenger references a decrease in planned job cut announcements and an increase in payrolls as two such “statistics” that contribute to his rosy picture. In all cases he refers back to previous recessions to draw the conclusion that we are recovering much faster than similar situations in the past.

While it is difficult to debate the statistical veracity of his claims, certainly Challenger does not try to himself, it is important to challenge Challenger from a scientist’s point of view. One of the techniques I espouse in my bookis to not simply accept numbers but instead to think like a scientist and understand the inherent underlying fundamentals.

The heroes of Michael Lewis’ book, The Big Short, literally flew to different regions of the US to see what these mortgages were all about. And that knowledge gave them the confidence to short the housing market.

Similarly if you drive around an area like Orange County, California, as I did last week, during a weekday you see lots of cars in driveways – former success stories in real estate, construction and mortgaging now out of work waiting for the market to turn.

And that is the real challenge with this recession and my gripe with Mr. Challenger’s use of statistics to paint a rosy picture. Where will the jobs come from? Challenger lists health care and energy as two major areas of growth, yet one quarter of the jobs lost in this last recession were construction related and it’s hard to see a construction worker suddenly picking up the skills necessary to work in either of these fields.

The reality is that many of the jobs lost in this recession are not coming back in the near future which may explain why both the democrats and republicans have taken to playing the blame game rather than proposing real solutions – nobody has the answer.

We all know that job creation is the key to turning this thing around but how in the world are we going to do that?

Is Investing in the Market Gambling: Answering the Age Old Question

During my recent House Advantage book tour that brought me to places like MSNBC, Google and TechCrunch, one question kept surfacing: Is investing in the market like gambling at blackjack?

The broader version of this question is a common one and for the most part has been answered with the explanation that if one invests passively in the market (index funds) or in a company that you are familiar with, it isn’t really gambling. Yet, the question is more complicated than that and I think very relevant in this sideways market.

To answer this question, let first look at the word gambling. The two most common definitions have to do with “betting on an uncertain outcome” or “playing a game of chance for stakes”. In addition, alternative definitions talk about “taking risks” or “engaging in reckless behavior”. Let’s settle on a definition of “risking something of value on an uncertain outcome for potential gain”.

With this definition most types of market investing would be classified as gambling. Certainly, the money you invest would fall under the category of “something of value” and the appreciation of a stock is far from a certain outcome. So investing in the market is gambling.

But is that really bad?

Let’s take a step back and ask another common question from my book tour: is card counting gambling? Going back to our aforementioned definition of gambling. Certainly we risked “something of value” (up to $50,000/hand) and each individual hand of blackjack we played was far from a certain outcome so, yes, what we did could be considered gambling.

Yet here in lies the difference. Card counting is a pretty simple concept. You track cards that you have seen so that you can predict cards that you are going to see. By doing such you can actually calculate your odds of winning and can bet more when your odds are better and bet less when your odds are worse. This strategy can be proven sound mathematically and with proper money management and time horizon you can give yourself a fairly high probability (greater than 95% and with more conservative strategies greater than 99%) of winning in the long run (sometimes it took us close to a year in the casinos).

So in a nutshell we used money management and time horizon to reduce the uncertainty of our outcome and therefore reduce the gamble of our gamble.

This analogy works well in the market where unless you are Jim Simons, the longer your time horizon the more certain your outcome. Of course, if you don’t allocate your resources properly based on your overall amount of cash you may never be able to see the end of that time horizon. Proper money management helps drive down the uncertainty of your outcome and helps reduce the gamble of your gamble.
So what does this mean practically?

First of all investing in the market IS gambling and we all need to be comfortable with that. But in order to reduce the gamble we need to reduce the uncertainty of the outcome.

There are a few ways to do that: 1) Invest in instruments (index funds) that have predictable movement over time. 2) Have a time horizon (longer than a year) that allows that predictable movement to occur. 3) Utilize a money management (don’t put all your eggs in one basket) strategy that allows you to remain in the game for the duration of your long time horizon.

Our success at the tables was not based on one hand of blackjack, rather it was based on the knowledge that we would play hundreds of thousands of hands of blackjack in order to ensure that we weren’t gambling.

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