Archive for June, 2009

Questions: The Michael Jackson Edition

Michael Jackson dead?? That’s what the LA Times and AP are reporting, anyway (CNN hasn’t yet confirmed). Unbelievable.

Earlier today, my brother was bemoaning Farrah Fawcett’s death, trying to come to grips with the loss of his most common inspiration for those special, intimate teenage moments. (I kind of remember Farrah as being a sexy icon, but she was a bit before my prime mastubatory years).

Michael Jackson, however, was kind of like my Beatles. So I’m in shock, and surprisingly sad to learn of his premature death.

Thriller may be the album (and I do mean ‘album’) I remember playing the most as a child. I remember ordering and breathlessly awaiting a Michael Jackson biography from one of those Scholastic book forms we used to get as kids (I think it was called Thriller).

And despite all his successes, to me he seemed like such a tragic figure.

To honor of the loss of the undisputed King of Pop, I present the Michael Jackson edition of Questions.

1) What’s the first word you think of when I say Michael Jackson?

2) What Michael Jackson songs/albums do you have on your IPod?

3) Which Michael Jackson song is your favorite? (Jackson 5 Tunes included)

4) What about your favorite Michael Jackson video?

5) Which non-musical Michael Jackson moment/situation do you think is most memorable (eg moonwalk dance, neverneverland, plastic surgery, pepsi ads, his kiss/marriage with Lisa Marie, his pedophile trials, his fatherhood (baby holding), etc.)

6) Did you think Michael Jackson was guilty of pedophilia? If you think he was, as I do, do you also think, as I do, that he in some ways was as much of a victim as perpetrator given his unusual upbringing? Or do you think there can be no excuses for that kind of crime (pointing out that none of his siblings have ever been accused of similar behavior)

7) In the entertainment world, whose death do you think would generate more international attention and sadness than Michael Jackson?

8) Give me the over/under on how long it takes for a book publisher to take advantage of his death by coming out with a new Michael Jackson title? Will the book come out before the first posthumous record album? Will it be written by a Jackson family member, and if so, which one?

9) Why do you think Michael Jackson got all those plastic surgeries? Do you really believe it was medically necessary as he asserted once on Oprah (I think)? Couldn’t he tell the damage he was doing?

10) Some dude on CNN just compared Michael Jackson to John Lennon? Whose death was the bigger shock? Which one was the better performer? More influential musician?

The Audacity – and Righteousness – of Citigroup

Citigroup executives have decided in their infinite wisdom to increase base salaries for many of their employees by as much as 50 percent.

The bank says the raises – which will be partially offset by a reduction in bonuses, though overall compensation packages could be higher or lower – are necessary to remain competitive … in an environment where the official unemployment rate will soon be in the double digits no less.

It’s easy and probably fair to accuse Citigroup management of being at a minimum extremely audacious and tone-deaf to the current environment. This is, after all, a financial institution that did everything in its power to run itself into the ground – egregious compensation, dubious loan-making, wanting risk management, overambitious acquisitions, questionable business line expansion.

As a result of its shoddy strategy and the crumbling economy, the company lost a whopping $27 billion in 2008.

The only reason Citigroup even exists today is because the government decided in its infinite wisdom that the company was ‘too big to fail’ and stepped in with capital several times – $40 billion in direct investment and another $300 billion in loan guarantees – to save it from bankruptcy.

Now the government owns a huge chunk of the company, which still apparently doesn’t give it the right to have a say in determining compensation for the rank and file.

The funny thing is, Citigroup executives may be doing the right thing, although they certainly could have done a better job explaining/defending their action.

One of the reasons – though certainly not the primary one – this country and its financial institutions got into the mess it did was because compensation policies were so heavily tilted to short-term performance, encouraging all employees, even those in areas like compliance, to woefully undervalue risk.

The decreased reliance on bonuses as an assumed form of regular compensation should help mitigate that carefree behavior in the future (though it will also likely stifle innovation as employees focus more on keeping their jobs as opposed to generating outsized profits – well, you can’t have everything and if i had my druthers, I’d rather our banking system be more preoccupied with stability than unnatural growth).

And while I want to scoff at Citigroup’s explanation that the salary increases are necessary to “ensure its employee compensation practices are competitive,” as a company spokesman put it in a Bloomberg article, it’s not entirely untrue. The irony is that because the government stepped in to save Citigroup as well as dozens of other troubled banks, the market for financial services employees is not nearly as bad as it would have been. Many of Citi’s competitors have already paid back the TARP money or plan to do so soon and will likely be offering better compensation packages to top employees.

You may think this is all a good thing, because the economic fallout of a collapse in our banking institutions could have been disastrous, certainly much more damaging than the destruction caused by the dislocations in the automotive industry.

I unfortunately believe for all the hundreds of billions of dollars we’ve spent, we’ve changed very little structurally, and only put off our economic day of reckoning a little while longer.

I also think this focus on compensation is mostly noise and beside the point. What the government really needs to do is start breaking up some of these institutions which we deemed necessary to save because they were ‘too big to fail’ and crafting regulation to limit this kind of concentration of power within the financial services industry.

Alas, if anything, mostly I’ve been seeing it go the other way, as stronger players in the industry snap up the weaker ones and get even bigger. Combined with the moral hazard we’ve perpetuated with our reliance on bailouts, that consolidation is likely a recipe for disaster.

But Kate Edmonds Donner, an event planner in New York, said the best plan is to leave children at home or send them home after the ceremony.

“If it’s a formal wedding, children should go home after the cocktail hour,” she said. Practicing what she preaches, Ms. Edmonds Donner and her husband, Alex Donner, the society band leader, did not invite children to their wedding last year in Garrison, N.Y.

Apple’s First Law of Inertia

I’ve always sucked at making decisions. Leave where we’re having lunch up to me and we’ll likely be having dinner there.

If there’s one thing about modern life I cannot stand, it’s the plethora of options we have. Sure the freedoms we now enjoy are terrific, the new opportunities exciting, the potential adventures limitless, but instead I like to focus on all the bad choices we can now make.

Lately, my indecisiveness is getting worse. And if I had to place blame on a particular culprit (and I must as implicating my own neuroses is not an option), I think Apple has had a lot to do with it.

It’s just the way they relentlessly make great products and then have no problem making those products obsolete – and dramatically cheaper – in a matter of months.

This weekend, the new IPhone – the 3GS – launched and is doing quite well, thank you very much (apparently, others have so far resisted Apple-induced indecisiveness). It certainly sounds like a great device – it’s got video, a faster processor (the S in 3GS stands for ‘Speed’ and who wouldn’t want that), more memory, such revolutionary new technologies as Cut & Paste and MMS (note the very subtle sarcasm) – and all of it, for the same $199 price as the original IPhone 3G (which was slashed in price by $100).

But that’s what Apple always does. Faster, better, cheaper. You may call it progress. Innovation. I just call it infuriating. How can they possibly expect me to take the plunge and buy a device – enslaving myself to AT&T Wireless’ piss-poor customer service track record for 2 years, no less – when I know something better is right around the corner.

Do you remember when Apple launched the first IPhone in 2007 and less than three months later cut the price of the device from $600 to $400 in order to spur sales. I remember joyfully snickering at all those Apple fanatics who rushed out to buy the original Iphone at launch and were given a lousy store credit voucher to reward them for their loyalty … “Suckers!”

Now as I sit here holding a cracked, crappy Motorola RAZR, listening to a Nano that’s several generations old and doesn’t even play video, typing on a single-core Dell computer that runs like molasses, I can see the truth: The joke’s on me.

I’m paralyzed from the gadget down.

MOLFT: Episode 1 (Priceline sucks)

I’m usually an easy customer. It doesn’t take much to please me. Just treat me fair and show me respect. Work with me if you’ve made a mistake. Just basic, simple stuff.

Do this and I’m yours forever. Because I’m loyal, too. I’ll return over and over again to your business and I’ll sing your praises to everyone I know. Amazon.com is a company that fits this bill. If I can find it on Amazon, I’m buying it there, even though they include sales tax now in New York and their prices are rarely the best available. In years and years of buying stuff on Amazon, they have rarely done me wrong, and when they have, they quickly made it right.

But if you do something stupid, even if it’s something little, and treat me like you don’t care about having me as a customer, then it’s bad news. As Bruce Banner often warned potential transgressors, ‘Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” No matter how much I may like your product or service, if you cross me and don’t make amends, I will never spend another dollar with you again.

A couple of years ago, I started using a JetBlue AmEx credit card almost exclusively, spending thousands and thousands of dollars on it so that I could earn free tickets on an airline I absolutely loved (the new planes, the leg room, the fair pricing, the friendly employees, the TVs – just awesome).

Then I found out that their much-advertised promise that your miles will never expire as long as you use the credit card wasn’t quite accurate – the miles may technically not expire, but once you fly or spend enough so that those miles turn into a free ticket award, that ticket does expire. It’s a joke of a system, and while I should have read the fine print more closely, I thought the company was being deliberately misleading. And I didn’t realize this until it was too late and a couple tickets expired.

When I continued to get canned negative responses to my elaborate, detailed requests to have an expired free ticket reinstated, I told JetBlue I was tearing up the card and using the airline only out of necessity or convenience. It wasn’t an easy decision, but as a customer, sending your dollars elsewhere is the only recourse you really have. Dell (a classic story of corporate arrogance and ineptitude) and AT&T Wireless are two other companies to which I have vowed not to send any more of my money.

(I may relax the AT&T ban since their offense of atrocious customer service was many years ago, and I can at least rationalize to myself that it’s a new company now that they’ve merged with Cingular – but mostly I just really want an Iphone. I hear AT&T’s service still sucks, however, and I really like my current provider T-Mobile, a company that knows how to treat its customers)

Unfortunately, Priceline has become the first My One Least Favorite Thing of the week award recipient, and may soon become the next blacklisted company on my shopping shit list.

Until yesterday, I’ve always loved using Priceline, so when I wanted to find a reasonably priced four-star or better hotel on the Las Vegas Strip for a trip I’m planning there this Labor Day, it was one of the first sites I checked out. Unfortunately, my ‘Name Your Own Price’ bid was accepted by a hotel – the Westin Casuarina – which markets itself as an ‘off-strip’ venue. Granted its only a block and a half off the strip – but these are Vegas blocks we’re talking about here, and in any case, it’s more a matter of principle.

Now Priceline says that the area I checked was ‘Strip Vicinity’ and that the Casuarina is located within that region. But as I told them in my letter, I’m no cartographer; how am I supposed to know which hotels are within the poorly defined shaded circles on the map – the site gives you no way of checking in advance, a sorely lacking feature. All I know is when I clink on a box saying I want a ‘Strip’ hotel I should get a Strip hotel.

Priceline has a policy where they cannot cancel or change a reservation made using their ‘Name Your Own Price’ system. I understand that policy as a general rule, given that the whole reason hotels agree to offer their rooms to users at much lower rates is because they believe they are dealing with brand-indifferent consumers. But there are times when exceptions must be made, or at the very least something should be offered as a way to compensate an aggrieved consumer, perhaps a significant discount on a future purchase.

Again, maybe I should have been a more diligent researcher. But I wasn’t trying to game the system, and the bottom line is I didn’t get what I expected or wanted. Why can’t the company make a relatively small gesture to keep me happy and a returning customer?

What truly pissed me off the most about the experience was the hour-long call to the customer service hotline, where two different agents did nothing more than repeat the line – over and over again, like it was some sort of holy mantra – ‘I’m sorry. Our contract with the hotels does not allow us to refund or cancel your reservation.’

I stayed as calm as I could, begged them to go off script for a second, to just really listen to me for a moment, and at least pretend to understand where I’m coming from. But they were no better than robots.

Afterward, I sent an email to management, which I think was pretty clever (attached below). Alas, I don’t expect a response, at least not one of the non-canned variety.

And if I don’t get one, it’s goodbye Mr. Shatner and Priceline, and hello Hotwire. My business may not mean much to them and they may not give a damn, but it will sure make me feel better.

Kinda like this blog post.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————–

My Letter to Priceline Management:

Hello there. First of all, I want to say I appreciate Priceline offering customers this ability to contact management in order to address issues and problems. Not all companies do that, so it’s very nice to see, and I sincerely hope someone high up enough to make a difference reads the entirety of this email (it’s a long one!) and follows up in a reasonable time.

I just got off the phone with customer service regarding a problem I had with Request Number: 628-999-***-**.

I was looking to book a hotel and name my own price for a Vegas trip I am taking this Labor Day with my fiancee. After a couple of failed offers trying to bid for 4- and 5-star hotels on the North Strip, I checked the South Strip box and tried again.

This time, my $85 offer was accepted by the Westin Casuarina. Even though I had never heard of the hotel or remember seeing it, at first I was happy about it because the price was decent and I am a regular Westin customer.

But then I went on the Westin website and noticed that the hotel itself markets it as being ‘off-strip’. And taking a look at the map showed clearly it was a block and a half off the strip, which posed a problem because my traveling companion sometimes has trouble moving around and as you know if you’ve been to Vegas a block and a half there is not your normal block and a half and pretty much means you’re looking at a 20-30 minute walk to get to any hotel on the strip.

I frankly felt duped by Priceline. I have used Priceline in the past many times, have sung its praises to friends and colleagues over and over again. I consider it a great, unique service and have never had a bad experience before, but this was just uncool.

My assumption is that the Westin is in fact within the circle on the area I selected in the name the bid process, and that Priceline wasn’t outright lying by including it. And perhaps I should have been more careful but I am not a cartographer, and can’t be expected to know every hotel that is offered within a poorly defined circle on a Website map (especially because Priceline does not have any way – that I could find – to show customers which hotels are in fact in that shaded circle area. That is a feature that should be added tout de suite). What I do know is that the Westin Casuarina is NOT a Strip hotel, which is clearly what I was after.

I know the ‘no-changes, no-refund’ policy of Priceline associated with the name your own bid process. And as a general rule, I understand it. But clearly there are times when exceptions should be made and I thought this was one of them.

So I called Priceline customer service expecting to get some customer service. Instead I ended up spending nearly an hour on the phone with two agents who had to be about as unhelpful as customer service people could possibly be.

As I tried in a very calm, respectful manner to explain my situation as fully as I could, the ONLY thing they’d say, and they kept repeating it like it was a holy mantra, was ‘I’m sorry. Our contract with the hotels does not allow us to refund or cancel your reservation.’

The second agent – who was I guess supposed to be higher along the customer service food chain – was as unhelpful as the first guy but even worse, in that he didn’t even seem sympathetic to my issue. His name was Matt, and his ID # was *********.

In any case, I’ve gone on long enough. But needless to say, if no one can help me out, then I suppose my much-anticipated trip to Vegas will be dampened unnecessarily. And given that it’s the only recourse as a consumer I have, I will have no choice but to not use Priceline ever again and try to convince others in my circle to not do so either and use Hotwire or some other service instead. I may not be as good at convincing people not to use Priceline as William Shatner is at convincing them to use it, but I will try my best.

Given that I really like Priceline, and love Shatner (heck, I feel just by writing this letter I’m being The Negotiator he is constantly imploring us to be), I’d much rather feel like someone at your company cared enough to go the extra mile to make me happy so I can continue to use your services and sing your praises. While for therapeutic reasons I was going to write this letter regardless (nothing is perhaps more frustrating that being stonewalled by two customer service agents who clearly enjoy not helping customers), I’m hopeful that it will get a non-canned response and a satisfactory resolution.

Thanks very much. Yours truly,

Ring the bell. School’s back in …

In my recent questions column, our own dagblogger Nebton says the biggest risk he ever took was to go to graduate school after 30.

With official unemployment nearing double digits (and the unofficial number much higher), a lot of people looking for something to do are following Nebton’s example and going back to school.

Now financially, going back to school to get another, or more advanced degree, doesn’t often pay off since the cost can be so high and the potential benefits often rather low. There are probably more productive ways to spend your time in a recession than going back to school. But still, who can blame these people?

I know I for one miss school a good deal. The friends and the camaraderie, the laid-back environment and the relative lack of responsibilities, the eclectic subject matter and the extracurricular activities. I miss it all (except for homework, of course, which still ranks up there as one of life’s more torturous inventions)

But perhaps what I miss most about school is the constant sense of accomplishment. School is designed in such a way that you always feel like you’re progressing toward something. To the next level of math, to a more complicated version of French, to the next grade, to the next placement test, to the next degree. It’s all neatly structured, with few opportunities for shortcuts and side paths. And all along the way, you’re being judged and graded. You know where you stand in school and the measurements for success are rather simple. And being smart was enough.

In the real life, it isn’t quite like that. It’s easy to feel adrift. Am I doing the right things? Am I progressing? Am I building a life that will matter? Do I know where I want to go and how to get there?

Now I happen to have a job – stock picking – where I actually do get graded constantly (the market declares its verdict every day and investors have little patience for poor performance that extends much beyond a year).

But even still, it’s not quite the same because there are so many things that feel out of my control. I know there’s been times where I’ve never worked harder and the stocks I picked stank up the joint, and other times where I decided to take it easier and couldn’t miss.

Some of that discrepancy is probably due to the fact that investing is more of an art than a science, and if you do enough research you can always find a reason not to buy a stock (ie mistaking the trees for the forest), but there are times when I question whether anyone can beat the market consistently enough to make a difference. There’s a whole pretty well-accepted theory out there in my line of business – the Random Walk – that says it’s darn near impossible to beat the market consistently.

In school there were certainly times when I got very good grades despite doing as little work as possible (that describes much of my tenure in fact), but I rarely felt I got a grade I didn’t deserve, in that if I knew the material I did well. In the ‘real world’ I feel like I get ‘grades’ I don’t deserve all the time, and the standards for success are so much more complicated – is it personal happiness, intellectual fulfillment, money, job title, goodwill, friends, lovers???

I want to know, please just tell me how to get on the Honor Roll.

Yeah, I’m still in love with our president … (Obama’s Speech to Muslims)

What can you add when one man says everything you’re thinking and says it with such clarity and such poetry??

All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart or whether we commit ourselves to an effort, a sustained effort to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children and to respect the dignity of all human beings.

It’s easier to start wars than to end them. It’s easier to blame others than to look inward. It’s easier to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There is one rule that lies at the heart of every religion, that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

MOFT: Episode 16 (PokerStars)

You’ve seen a lot less of me on dagblog lately, and while I’d love to put all of the blame for my absence on my Beyonce and the wedding plans which have been set in hot and heavy motion (It’s mostly painful, stressful stuff, but registering at Target was hella fun – come to Papa, Wii!!), but there is a much bigger badder beast than Mrs. All-Consuming Wedding at work here – and its name is PokerStars.

The truth of matter is, if we’re going to point fingers at anyone, Genghis is really the one to blame because it was partly due to his move to Philadelphia that our weekly NYC poker game, which has been going on regularly for more than eight years, has become very hit-and-miss, and I can’t have that. I need my cards fix.

So I decided to take the plunge and join Pokerstars, which easily earns the award for this week’s My One Favorite Thing. This isn’t the first time I played poker online – A few years ago I was on PartyPoker before that company decided to give up the U.S. market when Congress passed a law banning banks and other financial institutions from funding customer deposits.

The whole issue of the legality of online poker remains in flux, which is a complete joke considering the haphazard nature of this country’s gambling laws (yeah, state lottos and ‘riverboat’ casinos that aren’t even on the water, I’m talking to you) and considering that poker is a skill game enjoyed by millions and millions of Americans.

Indeed, poker is as American an institution as apple pie, and I’m pretty convinced now that the Democrats and card-loving Barney Frank are in charge that it’s only a matter of time before online poker becomes a fully regulated, fully taxed, fully legal activity. In the meantime, I had no qualms about rekindling my little addiction by joining Pokerstars, which along with a couple of other companies decided to take the risk and continue operating in the US.

As far as the site goes, it’s pretty good, very reminiscent of the PartyPoker look and feel. While Texas Hold ‘Em is far and away the most active game on the site, PokerStars offers up enough variety for a non-specialist like me to keep entertained, and I probably most enjoy playing Omaha Hi-Lo and 8-Game (which is eight different games that switch every 5 minutes or so).

And also like PartyPoker, I am convinced that the card distribution on PokerStars isn’t totally random – there are just way too many runner-runner flush suck outs that I see the bigger stacks hit. (This won’t make sense to you unless you know poker, but it basically means that the site’s algorithm seemingly has a mysterious way of moving games along – which if true makes the site a lot more money – by enticing people with few chips to call, only to nail them later in the hand. However, it’s possible it only seems that this happens a lot because you see so many hands playing online – I generally have three games going on at any one time).

I’m trying to keep my cardplaying to at least a reasonable minimum, but I have to admit it’s definitely eating into my blogging time, and sleeping time, and eating time. I’m just thankful we have such solid new contributors to keep the site active. I promise eventually I’ll start caring again about the real world – aside from poker and weddings that is. But right now, I have a game to get to.


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