Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Is Wall Street Bluffing?

According to the Los Angeles Times, some Wall Street firms don't care if a new job applicant went to business school or studied finance. The applicant probably didn't even have to graduate from high school. The firms are much more interested in how the young man or woman plays poker. That's right, sometime during the job interview, the interviewer takes out a deck of cards and deals. Another demonstration of Wall Street's love affair with poker is that at least one trading firm has their new traders play poker for one full day a week.

Many of those who apply for investment jobs are good at poker because of their experience playing online and watching on television. What is the typical personality of someone who spends hours alone at home playing poker with other people who are alone in their homes? He or she doesn't exactly sound like a "people person." In televised poker tournaments, the players who are successful are often dressed like cowboys or sport heavy jewelry like Mr.T used to wear. In this time of precarious finances, would you want these people to handle your money just because they once won a big pot with a six-high-straight?

Some financiers take this poker thing quite seriously. Aaron Brown, an executive director at Morgan Stanley has written a book called "Poker Face Wall Street." In it, he advises investors to embrace risk, not avoid it. Isn't that what got America in so much trouble? Is that what we need now, more risk and less caution? Are these "experts" so unhappy with the economy making somewhat of a comeback that they want to see it fall apart again? Try telling the autoworkers in Detroit who have finally gone back to work that risk should be what guides their pension plans again. They'd be tempted to run you over with that new Camaro.

Some point to the fact that people like Bill Gates, H.L, Hunt, and Kirk Kerkorian liked to play poker when they were younger. They probably also liked to sleep, but nobody is pointing to a good mattress as the key to riches. I have the feeling that there were other things besides playing poker with his buddies that made Bill Gates one of the most successful people in the world. It's just possible that in addition to knowing that a flush beats a straight, Gates is inventive, smart, and creative.

I'm not saying that game playing can have no part in preparing one for success. If you were to ask President Obama about games, I have the feeling he'd say that basketball teaches the player about preparation and teamwork, and about winning and losing. I'd have to agree, but I still wouldn't ask Charles Barkley to invest my money for me.

About those poker playing investment traders: While there is something to be said for people having the experience of gambling with their own money before they gamble with a client's, I don't want someone who's investing my money to think of it as a game.

Poker might not even be the best game that prepares a young trader for his profession. How about leapfrog? That teaches people how to jump over others, not caring if they knock them over. That could be a game that helps Wall Street types get ahead. Tic-tac-toe teaches you that some people will play the same game over and over again even if nobody wins. That's perfect training for grinding out commissions over and over again. One of my favorites is the preschool game of "Duck, Duck, Goose." I have no idea how this game could prepare someone for Wall Street, but I'd still love to see a video of those guys in their three piece suits, telling their assistants to hold their calls while they run in a circle calling out, "Duck, Duck, Goose."

Theoretically, a poker face makes it impossible for anybody else to know what you're holding. Then you can bluff and finally you can put all the money in the pot. They call that "big time poker." A little while ago, that kind of manipulation was called, "selling sub-prime mortgages and worthless paper."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

What Are You Doing?

You probably don't know his name, but Jack Dorsey came up with what might be the most important invention of the 21st century -- Twitter. It must be important, because the Library of Congress is going to house every "tweet" that's ever been twittered. So here's a memo to those who work at the Library: Move that copy of the Declaration of Independence out of the way, put that first edition of de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" somewhere in the back, and find some other place for the contents of Abraham Lincoln's pockets on the night of his assassination. Make room for messages like, "I should really wash my hair."

In case you don't know, Twitter is an online "social network" in which people say just about anything they want as long as it's 140 characters or less. You can reach millions of people instantly. It's as if you were shouting out your window. Really loudly. Every message is called a "tweet." Some 55 million tweets are posted every day. That makes billions of them so far. Approximately 75,000 tweets have been sent since you started reading this column. I guess they're going to have to install a few new shelves in the Library to make room for all those tweets.

The Twitter folks suggest that those using Twitter answer the question, "What are you doing?" So the vast majority of tweets are similar to the ego-thoughts that appear on Facebook and MySpace. You find things like, "My head itches," "I don't know what to make for dinner," or "I look really good in green." These are the kind of statements that will be shelved next to rare copies of the Bible, notes from the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and that 130-year-old edition of Whitman's "Leaves of Grass."

Maybe I'm not being fair. In addition to daily drivel, there
have been some news scoops on Twitter. That's one of the interesting things about it. If you happen to see a tsunami coming your way, all you have to do to let the rest of the world know about it is to type something like, "Whoa, big wave coming. Looks like a tsunami. Get to safety, but first warn everyone you know about it." Of course, I don't know if sitting and typing while a tsunami is heading your way is the wisest course of action.

Another example of the site being used for an important purpose occurred when President Obama announced that Joe Biden would be his running mate simultaneously using e-mail, text messages, and Twitter. Presumably, the next time the United States decides to go to war, we will announce our intentions on Twitter: "We warned you, you didn't listen, so here we come." On the other hand, just think of all the lives that would have been saved if Twitter had been available in the past. When a warring country was ready to quit, instead of calling for a peace conference and waiting for it to convene while the war raged on, heads of state could have just written, "Surrender. Enough already."

One drawback of Twitter when it is used for newsworthy events is the 140 character limit. This could cause problems like this: "Have just discovered a cure for the flu virus. I haven't told anybody else what the secret is. It was really very simple. All I did was syn" Then what happens if the person typing that important message has a heart attack before he's able to finish his thought, start up another tweet, and pass on his secret to anybody else? If he had just told the researcher who sits across from him instead of tweeting...

If you have the same first reaction that I did, you're probably thinking that the trivial stuff that's usually on Twitter has no business in the Library of Congress. However, after thinking about it some more, I feel it's perfect for the Library to tackle the tremendous task of tagging all the tweets that have been twittered every since twitterers started talking in tweets. Yes, most tweets are trivial. However, this kind of personal trivia is precisely what millions of people are involved in every day. So it will certainly give future generations an idea of how people spent their time in the beginning of the 21st Century. Don't you think it's important for those future earthlings to understand why people in our time cared whether a stranger was just about to shave? I'd certainly like to know.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Immigration: Deal With It

Those who know me may be surprised, and you can call me whatever you want: a racist, a bigot, or even a Republican. However, someone of my ilk has to step forward and say that immigration has gotten out of hand. I know they are our "next-door neighbors," but that doesn't mean they can crash into "our house" whenever they want. These people have a different culture, and I don't think we should weaken our culture by having so many of them around. That's why I feel we definitely have to address the situation of Canadian immigrants.

I'm not talking about profiling. I'm not suggesting that border guards be guided by skin color. People should not automatically be considered to be Canadians just because they look like they've never been in the sun. A law enforcement official should not just walk up to somebody and ask, "Are you from Canada?" They have to be more sensitive. For example, the official can walk up to a man and say, "May I help you, sir?" If the guy answers, "I'm just going to be hanging oot here for aboot five more minutes, eh?" the cop is within his rights to ask for the Canadian's papers.

There is probably nothing as controversial as the problem of children who were born in this country to immigrant parents. It's a tough question. Take the actor, Brendan Fraser. His story is typical. He was born in this country, but both of his parents are Canadian. In other words, they obviously came into this country so their unborn child could be an American citizen and then could star in some really goofy movies.

This year might be remembered as the Year of Health Care. The Canadians can mess things up there, too. If you travel around Canada, you won't hear people complaining about their health care like we do here. Canadians are happy with their system. Disgusting. If more and more Canadians move to this country and start talking to their new U.S. neighbors about how health care works in Canada, more Americans are going to want the same kind of health care set up here. Think of what that's going to do to our poor drug and insurance companies.

Don't even get me started on Canadian football, which will probably be invading us soon. It's just what you want your kids to be exposed to: a 110-yard field and three, not four, downs per series. You might as well just show them pornography.

Here's why we should be upset in a nutshell: A Canadian invented instant mashed potatoes. Why would anyone want dehydrated potato flakes instead of good old American mashed potatoes?

There are few things more insidious than the way Canadians have infiltrated our culture though the toothless sport of hockey. You don't have to drive very far from Santa Monica to see an NHL game, and you can probably hear screaming kids playing on some rink no matter where you live. When I was a boy, there were only four National Hockey League teams in the United States. Today, there are 24 U.S. cities that host NHL teams. That's a 600% increase of this Canadian sport, gaining a foothold in American life all over our country. At that rate, the next generation of Americans will be hosting 144 hockey teams and the one after that, 864, and the one after that? 5,184. And after that, there will be 31,104 hockey teams in America. 31,104. It's a slippery slope. You let a few teams into the country, then they tell other teams back in Canada how great things are here, and before you know it, there are 31,000 of them in our country. Where are we going to put all of them? Who's going to pay the medical bills when some goon smacks another player on the head? At the very least, are we going to insist that they speak American English?

There are fathers and grandfathers of today's U.S. children who never thought they'd say the words, "Even Phoenix has a hockey team." Phoenix! They're playing a sport on ice in Phoenix, a city who was used to only seeing ice when it was in a cocktail. That's right. A cold weather, winter Canadian sport is being played in the middle of the desert. No wonder all those people in Arizona are upset about immigrants.

New Bob Newhart Video

Check out Bob Newhart's first internet video by