Archive for March, 2012

Parents: don’t put your kid on a diet

Yesterday I read this article about a mother, Dara-Lynn, who put her daughter Bea on a diet, tiger-mom style, and then triumphantly wrote about it in Vogue, and more recently got a book deal. This brings up lots of stuff for me personally, and I think it’s time for me to write about it.

First of all, I would like to address the issue of why people care so much about parenting issues in the first place. I mean, I guess if you aren’t a parent and don’t plan to be one, this doesn’t matter quite as much (even though you of course were yourself parented, so it should still be somewhat relevant).

My message is basically, don’t dismiss parenting discussions- they expose who we are and what we aspire to be as human beings. Questions of how we parent and what values we choose to impose on our children, who are of course vulnerable to such things, are question of how we individually form and inform culture, creating a tiny piece of the larger culture inside our homes. As parents we want to both affect that culture and prepare our children for the larger world, and it’s a tricky balance.

So given that, what values are we imposing on our kids when we put them on a diet? I can infer that somewhat from the article but I can also speak from personal experience, because my parents put me on a diet when I was 10. My parents set up system whereby I’d be punished (by losing my allowance) if I didn’t lose at least a certain amount of weight each week. They also explained to me how calories worked. That’s it. They let me loose with that information and ultimatum. (ooh, just remembered: the reward for losing 5 pounds was, ironically, a candy bar.)

It was a little strange, in retrospect, for a few reasons. First, I had been chubby since soon after birth. My parents are both and were both chubby. My grandmother lived with us off and on and constantly hoarded bags of candy and fed them to us constantly while watching soap operas. My older brother was also somewhat chubby. In spite of this, I was the only person on this regimen, and nothing else about our eating habits changed besides that I was expected to keep track of the calories I ate- the food itself was still hamburgers, boiled vegatables, and spaghetti with butter.

I guess this may have been my first experience dealing first-hand with a misleading, pseudo-quantitative model. I was told by my parents that losing weight was a simple concept of calories in and calories out, and thus must be simple to deal with. I was honestly too young to question this, and to also question why they hadn’t achieved their perfect weights if it was so simple.

Now, to the question of values. From my perspective as a kid, the values I learned were the following:

  1. I am terrible at following simple directions, because I can’t seem to control my eating,
  2. I don’t look good to other people, and
  3. it’s really important to look good to other people.

All in all, a pretty nasty set of values that I carried around with me like a sin for years, until something else happened, which I will get back to soon.

You might say that the article with Dara-Lynn and Bea is completely different, because first of all the mother wasn’t offhand in planning her daughter’s diet: she lived and breathed the control that she thought was required to get her daughter to lose weight. Also, it was a “success,” in that Bea lost the weight her mother set out for her. Even so, I see parallels for Bea’s received wisdom from her mother:

  1. You have to submit entirely to someone else (me, your mother) because you can’t be trusted to follow your instincts,
  2. You didn’t look good to other people, and
  3. it’s really important to look good to other people.

But I do feel sorry for her on top of what I went through, because now her mom is not only in a national magazine bragging about her control over her kids, she’s also gotten a book deal to go into the details of this control freakiness. Because it’s all about how a mother can foster good eating habits in her kid. I guess.

If there was any justice in the world, it would be Bea getting the book deal, in advance, to describe what it’s like to live with such a control freak mother. I honestly wish her luck.

A few concluding remarks. First of all, if you were wondering when the nerdy stuff was coming, here it is: there’s enormous selection bias going on. For every mother you hear about who drags their kids kicking and screaming through a diet, there are hundreds of poor kids who ended up like me, with failed enforced diets and incredibly guilty consciences (but at least no pictures in Vogue of their shame). We don’t hear about them, of course, because nobody wants to.

Next, although Bea is a “success story” now, I’m pretty well versed in statistics on teenage dieting and I’m anticipating lots of terrible experiences for the daughters of the women who will buy this book. A generation of girls who are ashamed and self-conscious.

Finally, how I got over my shame. It was mostly a coping mechanism. I went into a hospital when I was in 10th grade, with deep feelings of depression, and missed a few weeks of school. It was a critical moment for me, and I knew it. I had to decide whether to be depressed and passive for the rest of my life or whether to try to live life on my own terms. I basically decided to take on the following “anti-values” in order to obviate the terrible self-image I harbored at that time. I came up with these three anti-values, which I still live by:

  1. I forgive myself for not being good at controlling myself, because I love my body, even parts of it that confound me,
  2. I look good to myself, and
  3. it’s not that important to look good to other people.

Probably not stuff for a book deal, but at least it’s kept me from giving my kids eating disorders.

Categories: rant

Vote with your wallet

Today we have a guest post from Elizabeth Friedrich, with whom I work on the Credit Union Findr webapp I blogged about here. Cross posted from Beyond the Bailout.

In 2008, America was in shock seeing the stock market crash, the housing market collapse, and a $12.8 trillion-dollar bailout of financial institutions many felt were responsible for the economic crash. We were paralyzed, unable to see past the madness and despair. At first, our national response was minimal. Americans had lost their homes, jobs, everything, and the anger was evident in the national mood. However, from that desperation and pain-came action and movement! People began to organize in order to decide their own fate, not leave it up to the 1% and/or a complacent government. Action came in many forms, marches in streets, letter-writing and media campaigns, peaceful occupation of public spaces, and of course “Move Your Money.”

The Move Your Money Project actually started several years ago, but had not gained significant momentum until last year, when consumers began to voice their anger and outrage at the very largest for-profit financial institutions, who had been bailed-out with billions in tax-payer dollars, and rather than using those funds to expand credit to communities in need, instead sat on this cheap money and tightened their lending standards. With historic low interest rates set and held by the Federal Reserve system, profit margins became slimmer and many banks responded by increasing their fees across the board, much to the ire of many fed-up consumers.  This action was a catalyst to finally moved people to question the role of their so-called trusted financial institutions and on November 5 2011, over 600,000 people moved their money totaling $80 million dollars out of traditional banking institutions into credit unions and community banks across the country. In addition to that single day of action, over the last few years, over 4 million accounts have moved from the nation’s largest Wall Street banks according to Moebs Services, an economic research firm in Lake Bluff, IL. They also project an additional 12 million people will do the same in the next two years.

This mass-exodus from the big banks is by no means accidental and shows the overwhelming, yet untapped energy of the American people who have grown discouraged with a government that was unwilling or unable to enact true, meaningful financial reform. Many of their reasons for this are clear: consumers are looking for ethical practices, re-investment in local communities, fewer fees and more service, and the end of “Too Big to Fail” financial oligopolies. Naturally, people began focusing on credit unions and community development banks, institutions that have the public interest in mind and seek to strengthen local communities. At these community-focused institutions you actually know where you money goes and what is used for.

Convenience over accountability…

Our culture has taught us that convenience is primary tool when making decisions as opposed to accountability and fairness. Just as we make other choices; purchasing food, clothing, and transportation. Convenience is often the factor that carries the most weight in our decisions rather than ethics. This comes with many consequences – often at the expense of the environment and disadvantaged communities. Hopefully, in the future accountability and transparency will be a primary motivation for consumers when making financial decisions.

What to do?

Today we have a choice whether we know it or not. There is a parallel financial industry functioning on the fringe: Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs), a national network community development banks, loan funds, and community development credit unions (CDCUs). These are institutions with a primary mission to strengthen vulnerable communities and invest locally. Banks and credit unions are regulated depository institutions; banks by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and credit unions by the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA). Credit unions offer many of the same services as banks: mortgages, car loans, personal loans, small dollar loans, credit cards, savings/checking accounts, international money transfers, Individual Development Accounts (matched-savings accounts), retirement planning, financial literacy education and budgeting, affordable savings and checking accounts, and credit and debit cards with low minimum balances and flexible terms. They are not-for-profit financial institutions created to serve their local communities and members first. Unlike banks, which can serve any customer that walks in the door, credit unions are restricted to specific fields of membership.

This means that consumers have more options than ever with respect to their primary financial institutions, and a major selling-point for many is that the money they deposit in their credit union stays local within the specific field of membership. Rather than profiting shareholders, income earned at a credit union, dividends are returned in different forms from free services to better interest rates or to expand services in the community.

Making the choice to bank at a credit union or a community development bank creates a multiplier effect for the local communities being served, and ultimately in the entire the financial system. When you invest in a community development financial institution you are investing in job creation, building schools, developing housing and financing small businesses.

Some banks may be “too big to fail,” but consumers are waking up and realizing they have a choice where they put their money, and the impact that choice can have in their own communities. Rather than letting too big to fail institutions gamble away their hard-earned cash, people are choosing to exercise their power as consumers and speak with their wallet. In banking this means find the smart, responsible alternative for you, your family and your community, and community development banks and community development credit unions are a logical choice.

Categories: #OWS, finance, guest post

What’s Mahout?

Mahout is an Apache project, which means it’s open source software.

Specifically, Mahout consists of machine learning algorithms that are (typically) map-reducable, and implemented in a map-reduce framework (Hadoop), which means you can either use them on the cloud or on your own personal distributed cluster of machines.

So in other words, if you have a massive amount of data up in the cloud, and you want to apply some machine-learning algorithm to your data, then you may want to consider using Mahout.

Yesterday I learned about a recommendation algorithm and how to map-reduce it (i.e. make it as fast as I want by distributing the work on many machines) by reading Mahout in Action. And the cool thing is that it’s already implemented and optimized, which is good because there’s a big difference between thinking I know how to map-reduce something and making it fast.

So if Netflix ever fails, but their data is miraculously left intact, they can send me and a few other nerds in as a kind of data scientist rescue squad and we can help figure out how to reassemble the recommendations of new movies based on what people have already watched and rated.

If that ever really happens, I hope we’d get t-shirts that say “data scientist rescue squad” on the back.

Update: a mahout is also someone who drives an elephant. And Mahout drives Hadoop, which is the name of Doug Cutting‘s son’s toy elephant. Doug is the guy who started Hadoop at Yahoo! but now he’s at Cloudera.

Categories: data science

How informed does an opinion have to be before it’s taken seriously?

How informed should an opinion have to be before it’s taken seriously?

I’m kind of on one end of the spectrum here. I would argue that you only need to know enough to get it right.

The original power of Occupy for me is in the following sentiment: you don’t need to understand the system’s insides and outs in order to know the system is screwing you. Of course it’s a different thing to fix something, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.

So, if you are a student with $80,000 in loans, a degree, and no job prospects, and all your friends are in the same or similar situations, then you can fairly say that the system is broken. And you’d have a powerful argument. The beauty of this argument, in fact, is that you and your friends provides living examples of how the system is broken, and defies all expert opinion to the contrary.

And one thing that we have had enough of lately is expert opinion.

This question came up at a recent Occupy Wall Street Alternative Banking group meeting, and not for the first time. The context was the collapse of MF Global, and we were talking about tri-party repos, which have intermediaries, and (maybe) fiduciary duties, and various questions arose over the legal issues as well as the question of whether Corzine et al had yet been asked these questions by Congress.

The details don’t matter. The point is, it’s complicated, and the question came up whether we had to know absolutely everything in order to be seen as asking an informed opinion and in order to be taken seriously.

Now, it’s a good idea for us to know the basics: the parties involved, their relationship to each other, and especially their individual incentives. But on the question of knowing if a specific question has been asked before, I think that doesn’t really matter. The truth is, we are some of the wonkier people in financial matters, and if we don’t know about it, then probably most people don’t.

And moreover, since we are trying to figure out how to represent the average person in such situations, that’s a good enough test. In fact, even if a question has been asked, if it hasn’t been adequately answered for the sake of the 99%, it’s still fine to ask and ask again until we have a satisfactory answer.

I’m all for being informed myself, and I like informed debates, but I don’t want to get stuck in some “cult of expertise”, where I think nobody is allowed to have an opinion unless they are incredibly well versed in something, especially when the underlying issue is actually one of ethics and justice.

Think about it: such thinking gives experts an incentive to make things more complicated in order to exclude non-experts. In fact I’d argue that such a “cult of expertise” incentive does in fact exist, has existed for some time, and the result is our financial system, tax system, and legal system.

It’s bullshit. We need to allow people who know enough to get it right, and have skin in the game, to enter the debate, and be heard, even if they don’t know the intricacies of the legal issues etc.. Those intricacies, likelier than not, have been partially put in there to confuse the very people the system was putatively set up to serve.

Categories: #OWS, finance, rant

On NPR’s Morning Edition (#OWS)

The Alternative Banking group was on NPR’s Morning Edition with Margot Adler today.

Here’s a recording of the piece.

Categories: #OWS

Bloomberg joins Occupy Wall Street

Yesterday I was astounded to read this article in Bloomberg, explaining how the debt collectors hired by the Department of Education have been illegally screwing people to the ground on their debt. This could have come straight out of an #OWS Alternative Banking meeting. From the article:

Under Education Department contracts, collection companies “rehabilitate” a defaulted loan by getting a borrower to make nine payments in 10 months. If they succeed, they reap a jackpot: a commission equal to as much as 16 percent of the entire loan amount, or $3,200 on a $20,000 loan.

Incentive Pressure

These companies receive that fee only if borrowers make a minimum payment of 0.75 percent to 1.25 percent of the loan each month, depending on its size. For example, a $20,000 loan would require payments of about $200 a month. If the payment falls below that figure, the collector receives an administrative fee of $150.

That differential provides an incentive for collectors to insist on the minimum payment and fail to reveal when borrowers are eligible for a more affordable schedule, according to Loonin, the attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, which is representing borrowers in the Washington talks with the Education Department

Here’s a closeup of Pioneer Credit Recovery, one of the debt collection agencies in contract with the U.S. Education Department. From the Bloomberg article:

Pioneer maintained a “boiler room” environment, with high turnover among those who didn’t perform, said Joshua Kehoe, a former collector. Kehoe worked in Batavia, New York, from July 2006 through October 2008 after managing a pizza stand at a theme park.

Pioneer rewarded collectors with $100 restaurant gift cards, a $500 mahogany jewelry box, televisions and a trip to the Dominican Republic, according to Kehoe, who said he earned $9.60 an hour before the incentives.

It would be “a cold day in Hades” before collectors would tell borrowers about options with lower payments, according to Kehoe, who said “rehab cash was king.” The company pushed collectors to sign borrowers up for the rehabilitation plans, which often required payments equal to 1.25 percent of their loan amount monthly, he said.

Just in case you think student debt is someone else’s problem, read this post from ZeroHedge from a couple of days ago. In it, Tyler Durden throws down two statistics we might want to keep in mind:

  1. … of the $1 trillion + in student debt outstanding, “as many as 27% of all student loan borrowers are more than 30 days past due.” In other words at least $270 billion in student loans are no longer current, and
  2. … the unemployment for 18-24 year olds is 46%. Yup: 46%.

When you throw in that student debt cannot be expelled through bankruptcy, you have a major problem for young people. And that means a major problem for all of us.

Categories: #OWS, finance

Random stuff, some good some bad

March 26, 2012 Comments off
  1. In case you didn’t hear, Obama didn’t nominate Larry Summers to head the World Bank. This goes in the category of good news in the sense that expectations were so low that this seems like a close call. But I guess it’s bad news that expectations have gotten so low.
  2. Am I the only person who always thinks of tapioca when I hear the word “mediocre”?
  3. There are lots of actions going on in Occupy Wall Street, part of the Spring Resistance. It’s going to be an exciting May Day, what are you plans?
  4. Did you hear that New Jersey was somehow calculated to be the country’s least corrupt state? This Bloomberg article convincingly blows away the methodology that came to that conclusion. In particular, as part of the methodology they asked questions about levels of transparency and other things to people working in New Jersey League of Municipalities (NJLM). A bit of googling brings up this article from, exposing that NJLM clearly have incentives to want the state government to look good: it consists of “… more than 13,000 elected and appointed municipal officials — including 560 mayors — as members… its 17 employees are members of the Public Employees’ Retirement System, and 16 percent of its budget comes from taxpayer funds in the form of dues from each municipality.” Guess what NJLM said? That New Jersey is wonderfully transparent. And guess what else? The resulting report is front and center on their webpage. By the way, NJLM was sued by Fair Share Housing to open up their documents to the public, and they lost. So they have a thing about transparency. And just to be clear, the questions for deciding whether a given state is corrupt could have been along the lines whether the accounting methods for the state pension funds are available on the web and searchable on the state government’s website.
  5. If you know of examples of so-called quantitative models that are fundamentally flawed and/or politically motivated like this, please tell me about them! I enjoy tearing apart such models.
  6. The Dallas Fed has called for an end to too-big-to-fail banks. Mmmhmmm. I love it when someone uses the phrase, “Aspiring politicians in this audience do not have to be part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, or be advocates for the Tea Party, to recognize that government-assisted bailouts of reckless financial institutions are sociologically and politically offensive”.
  7. Volcker says more reforms are needed in finance and government. Can we start listening to this guy now that we broke up with Summers? Please?
Categories: #OWS, data science, finance, news

I regret nothing

There are a few parts of my brain that are missing. I know this not because I used to have them, because I didn’t, but because of how other people refer to their own feelings and thoughts, which I simply can’t relate to or sometimes even decipher.

One of them is the part of the brain that enjoys art. I already explained how I don’t like or understand paintings. I just don’t get why people look at art. The closest I can get to enjoying art is photography, and then usually I only like naked photos. But at that point I don’t think it’s liking it for the artistic part exactly.

Here’s another confession. I don’t have a regret center in my brain. I am someone who regrets nothing. I mean, every now and then I certainly realize I made a mistake, and I do experience an “oh shit!” feeling that I made that mistake. Like, I’ll get in the wrong line at a check-out counter and the other line will go faster (“oh shit!”). But that doesn’t seem to compare with other people’s concept of regret.

Here’s how I argue that nobody should experience regret. Let’s assume you a regret decision you’ve made, that you later believe you should have made differently. But when you’re faced with a choice, there are things you can control and things you can’t. There are things you know and things you don’t. There are consequences that you can measure and those you can’t. You do the best you can with the information you have when you make your decision. Then it’s done. What’s to regret? If you went back to that place and that time, knowing what you knew then, and being that person you were then, you’d do the same thing. It’s kind of a tautology, but it’s convincing to me.

Maybe you are mourning for not being a person who could have made a different, better choice? Even so, (I’d suggest), don’t be regretful about that, but rather try now to become someone who would make the right decision next time.

What is the utility of a regret? Does it help us do better next time? I’m all for learning from mistakes, but I don’t see why it should be such a negative process. Maybe I learn more slowly from my mistakes because I don’t have regretful feelings.

On the other hand, from my observation of this alien emotion, I’d argue that the fear of having future regrets is more of a problem than the possible mistakes people actually make. That fear seems pretty unpleasant and it seems to cloud people’s decisions: they end up experimenting less and taking fewer risks.

Am I missing something? Since I can’t understand regretting, I probable am, so please explain it to me.

Categories: rant

The Market Price of Privacy

I recently got annoyed by this New York Times “Bitz” blog, written by Somini Sengupta, about paying for privacy. It correctly pointed out that we get services on the web that seem `free’ to us, but there is an actual price which we pay, namely we are targets of ads and are sometimes forced to hand over personal information. Moreover, when we use `free’ services such as sending invitations to a party, we are subjecting all of our friends to advertising as well. From the post:

It was a perfect microcosm of the bargain we make with the Web every day. Send me ads based on what you know about me (bachelorette party vs. child’s birthday party) or take my money to keep my screen free of ads. That bargain was the topic of a fascinating study that asked how much we are willing to pay to keep our personal data to ourselves.

The article then explained the recent study. Namely, it seems that Germans aren’t willing to pay an extra 50 Euro cents for movie tickets to avoid giving out their cells numbers, but they do claim to care about personal information gathering. If there was no price difference they wanted the less intrusive version. The author seemed to think this is a paradox.

What? That’s kind of like me saying, I like better quality chocolate, but I’m not willing to pay $400 per serving for better chocolate, and then you say I’m a hypocrite and must not like chocolate.

The fact is, it’s all about the price. It’s always all about the price. There is no way, absolutely no way, that a cell phone number, reluctantly given in a situation such as for buying movie tickets, is worth 50 Euro cents to the company collecting the number. Therefore there’s no way you should have to pay that much to avoid giving it.

Here’s another example the blog gave, when explaining sending out a dozen web-based invitations to a party:

Faced with the choice of paying an extra $10 to keep my invitation advertisement-free, I dithered. It would be easy and inexpensive, I thought, to follow Wikipedia’s lead on this (the online encyclopedia is stubbornly ad-free). But then I thought about that little risk that accompanies the ease of digital consumption: Would my credit card information be safe with this online greeting card company? The worrywart in me won out. I did not pay the extra $10. I chose to lob advertisements at my friends.

I’m in internet advertising, and I can tell you right now that a very generous estimate of how much each opportunity to advertise for your guests on an invitation, and presumably the original email and anything you’d click on in receiving the invitation, could be worth up to 10 cents, max. That is to say, the offer of keeping your invitations advertisement free for $10 is an approximately 10x markup, and you’d be a fool to pay that much for something worth so little on the open market.

So here’s what drives me crazy. It’s not that people aren’t willing to pay for privacy. They are. They’re just not willing to overpay by an outrageous amount for privacy. Far from seeming like a paradox, this seems like good intuition for a market price. If there is a web-based company that offers to send out advertisement-free invitations for a dime per guest, I think about my friends and I say, yeah they’re worth a dime each (but actually I just send them an email to come to my party).

Consumers don’t (yet) actually have access to the market price of privacy- that market is dominated for now by large-scale institutional collectors of information, which is why we’re seeing outrageous markups like these for individuals. It will be interesting to see how that changes.

Categories: data science

Today is Sonia Kovalevsky Day

Sometimes I imagine what my life would have been life if I’d been born way earlier, like in 1850. Knowing how difficult it was back then to be a female mathematician, and not wanting to assume some special property like I was born royalty or otherwise incredibly rich, I usually settle on something like a farmer’s life, with 7 kids and a butter churn, Little-House-on-the-Prairie style. To satisfy my nerdy urges I imagine myself knitting difficult patterns and formally organizing the community’s crop rotations.

I really don’t have much insight into what it must have been like back then, but even a short thought experiment like this helps me appreciate the story of Sofia Kovalevskaya, who was indeed born in Moscow in 1850 and unbelievably contributed majorly to mathematics, even though (hat tip Robert Lipshitz):

  1. it was illegal to go to university in Russia at the time so she had a faux marriage in order to get permission from her husband to go abroad to study,
  2. got a Ph.D. in Berlin studying under some famous men (Helmholtz, Kirchhoff and Bunsen in Heidelberg, Weirstrass), becoming the first woman in Europe to ever get hold the degree,
  3. after which time nobody in Germany would let her work so she did various jobs including installing streetlamps,
  4. and finally managed to get some kind of weird position in Sweden (here‘s a more complete bio).

Did I mention that she eventually had a kid with her husband and then died at the age of 41 from the flu?

I’d really love to go back in time for a day, find Sweden, and buy that amazing woman a drink (and I’d try to arrange to slip some antibiotics into said drink).

Today we are celebrating Sonia at Barnard College (here’s the schedule), where for the nth time (where n is at least 5) we’re having a Sonia Kovalevsky Day with a crowd of young women mathematicians, 9th graders from the Urban Assembly Institute of Math & Science for Young Women, will come and enjoy math talks from Barnard and Columbia professors and then engage in a team competition (with their teachers, which is my favorite part) to see who will win incredibly small prizes but for which they will all scream their heads off for 2 hours. It’s fun!

I started this tradition when I was a Barnard math professor back in 2006 with my friend Kiri Soares who runs the UA Institute, and that fact that it’s still going makes me very happy. Every time I go I try to teach the students how to solve the Rubiks cube using a few tricks which stem from group theory. It’s fun to do and they all get to take home their cubes, along with other math toys and goodies. Mmmm… math toys.

Categories: math, women in math

The higher education bubble

Yesterday there was a Bloomberg article that explained how badly students understand their student debt. It occurred to me reading this, and not for the first time, that students are really the perfect choice of victim for the educational financing machine: they are typically naive about money, and a combination of incredibly hopeful and incredibly thoughtless about their futures – if they think about the future at all, they project themselves to be as successful as some chosen role model, against all odds. I was lucky enough to go to a state school which my parents could afford and were willing to pay for, graduating in 1994, but looking back I would have signed away on whatever dotted lines if I’d been asked.

Students don’t think to shop around for a better deal, or even bother to understand the deal they’re in. What’s the incentive for good deals in these circumstances?

More generally, the existence and price of college itself is a perfect trap for students. It’s been a growing assumption in the past few decades that one needs a college education to get a good job, and certainly in a poor job market like the one right now that is certainly true. And yet, the student debt load is increasing faster than the opportunities higher education provides.

We are just now finally seeing a “market reaction” to the outrageous costs and relatively meager returns on law school education. For example see this recent New York Times article, which I found through Naked Capitalism (and which also gave me the title for this post).

My mother and I were recently talking about Occupy Wall Street protesters and student debt. She’s been a professor in computer science for more than 40 years, and explained how she sees it:

Academia expands for students and gets subsidized by all the loans to them, without regard to what the society actually can accommodate.

So not only are students fed the line that they have to go to college, no matter the cost, and whatever the resulting debt, but they then go to college and end up with majors and/or knowledge that is actually not needed or useful to them or anybody else when they graduate.

In a given individual situation, you can always sort of blame the choice someone makes- why did you major in that at that over-priced college with that outrageous private loan? Did you really think you’d be a hot item on the job market?

But when you step back and look at this system, it’s maddening. We are essentially forcing, as a rite of passage to adulthood, each generation of our young people to go through a process which leaves them with ever more questionable skills and saddles them with an ever-increasing debt burden. When you add to this that fewer and fewer jobs are willing to train people while paying them, the advantage that a wealthy young person gets from having no debt and being able to intern for free means this system is also increasing inequality.

I understand that professors don’t like to think of their departments as businesses, and I am not someone who wants to corporatize academics in the sense of wanting departments to prove their business models by producing revenue streams or winning grants just to stay alive. But at the same time we’ve got to do a better job with this overall and help give our younger people a better chance.

Update: apropos article from Bloomberg just published here.

Categories: rant

Supply side economics and human nature

The original goal of my blog, or at least one of them, was to expose the inner workings of modeling, so that more people could use these powerful techniques for stuff other than trying to skim money off of pension funds.

Sometimes models are really complicated and seem almost like magic, so part of my blog is devoted to demystifying modeling, and explaining the underlying methods and reasoning. Even simple sounding models, like seasonal adjustments (see my posts here and here), can involve modeling choices that are tricky and can lead you to be mightily confused.

On the other hand, sometimes there are “models” which are actually fraudulent, in that they are not based on data or mathematics or statistics at all- they are pure politics. Supply-side economics is a good example of this.

First, the alleged model. Then, why I think it’s actually a poser model. Then, why I think it’s still alive. Finally, conclusions.

Supply-side economics

At its most basic level, supply-side economics is the theory that raising taxes will stifle growth so much that the tax hike will be counterproductive. To be fair, the underlying theory just says that, once tax rates are sufficiently high, the previous sentence is valid. But the people who actually refer to supply-side economics always assume we are already well withing this range.

To phrase it another way, the argument is that tax cuts will “pay for themselves” by freeing up money to go towards growth rather than the government. That extra growth will then result in more taxes taken in, albeit at the lower rate.

Now, as we’ve states this above, it does sound like a model. In other words, if we could model our tax system and economy well enough, and then change the tax rate by epsilon, we could see whether growth grows sufficiently that our tax revenue, i.e. the amount of money that the government takes in with the lower tax rate, is actually bigger. The problem is, both our tax system and economy are way too complicated to directly model.

Let’s talk abstractly, if it’s the best we can do. If tax rates (which are assumed flat, so not progressive) are at either 0% or at 100%, the government isn’t collecting any money: none at 0% because in that case the government isn’t even trying to collect money, and none at 100% because at that level nobody would bother to work (which is an assumption in itself).

On the other hand, at 35% we clearly do collect some money. Therefore, assuming continuity, there’s some point between 0% and 100% which maximizes revenue (note the reference to the Extreme Value Theorem from calculus). Let’s call this the critical point. This is illustrated using something called the Laffer Curve. Now assume we’re above that critical point. Then raising taxes actually decreases revenue, or conversely lowering taxes pays for itself.

Supply-side economics is not a model

Let me introduce some problems with this theory:

  1. We don’t have flat taxes. In fact our taxes are progressive. This is really important and the theory simply doesn’t address it.
  2. The idea of a 100% tax rate is mathematically flawed, because it may well be a singular point. We should instead consider how people would behave as we approach 100% taxation from below. For example, I can imagine that at 90% taxation, people would be perfectly happy to work hard, especially if their healthcare, education, housing, and food were taken care of for them. Same for 99% taxation. I do think people want some power over their money, so it makes more sense to think about taxation approaching 100% than it does to imagine it at 100%. Another way of saying this is that the critical point may be at 97%, and the just plummets after that or does something crazy.
  3. It of course does depend on what the government is doing with all that money. If it’s just a series of Congressional bickering sessions, then nobody wants to pay for that.
  4. The real problem is that we just don’t know where the critical point is, and it is essentially impossible to figure out given our progressive tax system and the enormous number of tax loopholes that exist and all the idiosyncratic economic noise going on everywhere all the time.
  5. The best we can do is try to figure out whether a given tax increase or decrease had a positive revenue effect or not on different subpopulations that for some reason are or are not left out, so what’s called a natural experiment. This New York Time article written by Christina Romer explains one such study and the conclusion is that raising taxes also raises revenue. From the article:

    Where does this leave us? I can’t say marginal rates don’t matter at all. They have some impact on reported income, and it’s possible they have other effects through subtle channels not captured in the studies I’ve described. But the strong conclusion from available evidence is that their effects are small. This means policy makers should spend a lot less time worrying about the incentive effects of marginal rates and a lot more worrying about other tax issues.

  6. There are plenty of ways that natural experiments are biased (namely the subpopulations that are left out of tax hikes are always chosen very carefully by politicians), so I wouldn’t necessarily take these studies at face value either.

Supply-side economics is a political model, not a statistical model

In this recent Economix blog in the New York Times, Bruce Bartlett explains the history of supply-side economics and the real reason this flawed model is so popular. He explains an old essay of Jude Wanniski’s entitled “Taxes and a Two-Santa Theory,” which if you read it is an political, idiosyncratic argument for supply-side economics. Bartlett describes Wanniski’s essay thus:

Instead of worrying about the deficit, he (Wanniski) said, Republicans should just cut taxes and push for faster growth, which would make the debt more bearable.

Mr. Kristol, who was very well connected to Republican leaders, quickly saw the political virtue in Mr. Wanniski’s theory. In the introduction to his 1995 book, “Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea,” Mr. Kristol explained how it affected his thinking:

I was not certain of its economic merits but quickly saw its political possibilities. To refocus Republican conservative thought on the economics of growth rather than simply on the economics of stability seemed to me very promising. Republican economics was then in truth a dismal science, explaining to the populace, parent-like, why the good things in life that they wanted were all too expensive.

The Kristol quoted above is Irving Kristol, the “godfather of neoconservatism”. So he went on record saying that whatever the statistical merits of the supply-side theory were, it was awesome politics.


First, my conclusion is that Christina Romer should be ahead of Larry Summers on the short list to be the head of the World Bank. I mean, at least she’s trying to use actual data to figure this stuff out.

Second, I think there’s some lessons here to be learned about how people think and how they want to be convinced things work. When confronted with something they don’t like, like taxes, they are happy to believe a secondary effect, namely stifled growth, actually dominates a primary effect, namely tax revenue. It’s wishful thinking but it’s human nature.

My first question is, can Democrats come up with something along those lines too, which uses wishful thinking and fuzzy math to get what they want done? How about they come up with an economic model for how getting rid of big banker bonuses and terrible corporate governance will improve the economy, with a reference to a calculus theorem thrown in for authentification purposes?

My second question is, can we get to the point where people can figure out they are being manipulated by wishful thinking and fuzzy math with unnecessary references to calculus theorems? I know, wishful thinking.

Categories: data science, finance

Which muppet are you?

I’m kind of into Greg Smith telling us that those guys at Goldman Sachs consider us all muppets, because the muppets fucking rock.

Depending on my mood, I’m either Miss Piggy or one of those guys in the balcony complaining about stuff.

Categories: Uncategorized

Recruiting against Goldman Sachs

I’m back from Amsterdam. Can I hear a “fuck yeah” for my guest blogger Becky while I was gone?


Lots of things to talk about, sausage wall-related and otherwise, but here’s what’s first.

After reading Karen Ho’s book Liquidated, which I blogged about here, it’s impossible not to understand Goldman Sachs and other investment banks recruitment plans as not coincidental but absolutely central to their overall business strategy of seeming elite and smart. That’s one reason Greg Smith’s resignation letter is so awesome: it erodes the brand of GS, and perhaps keeps young people from joining, cutting them off at the source.

This recent article from the New York Times discusses this issue and quotes both Karen Ho and my friend Chris Wiggins, which is cool because Chris told me about Karen’s book. From the article:

“Everything from Occupy Wall Street to larger critical discourses of ‘fat cats,’ all of that has had some trickle-down effect” to young people, said Karen Ho, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, who has studied the culture of Wall Street.

The decline in the finance industry’s allure has been accelerated by the explosion of the technology industry. A 2011 survey of 6,700 young professionals by the consulting firm Universum ranked GoogleApple and Facebook as the most coveted workplaces; JPMorgan Chase, the highest-ranking bank on the survey, was 41st.

This doesn’t really tell us much since i-banks only recruit at certain colleges, and we don’t know where the survey took place. Also, I’m hearing disappointingly large numbers of kids are currently planning to go into investment banking. However, I’m guessing that the numbers of students going into investment banking from Princeton and Harvard are going to go down about two or three years after Occupy started – these older students had already been brainwashed by the time Occupy got to them. More of the article:

At this year’s SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Tex., a panel called “Keeping Kids off the Street: Wall St. vs. Start-ups” was convened to address questions including whether the finance industry was to blame for what organizers called a “failure to nurture a culture of innovation” in New York. Chris Wiggins, an associate professor of applied math at Columbia University who sat on the panel, said he was seeing students shy away from Wall Street and veer toward industries where they could work and profit without bringing their morality under the microscope.

“The claim of investment banking that it serves a social purpose by ‘lubricating capitalism’ has eroded,” Professor Wiggins said. “It’s simply very difficult for young people to believe that they’re serving any social purpose now.”

First of all, great quote from Chris.

Next, I have no problem trying to talk young people out of going into investment banking and into internet start-ups, because one industry is just too big and the other is enjoying explosive growth. But on the other hand, there’s plenty of reason to worry about the idea that ones morality isn’t under the microscope if one is engaged in highly scalable modeling that affects people’s lives. In fact that’s exactly what I’m worried about right nowadays.

By the way, I’ll be talking about the job of the quant in these two industries, as well as my related concerns, tonight at Emanuel Derman’s Financial Engineering Practitioner’s Seminar at 6pm at Columbia.

Categories: Uncategorized

Calligraphy of geese

March 18, 2012 2 comments




Calligraphy of geese
against the sky –
the moon seals it.

- Buson

Categories: Uncategorized

Hip Hop’s Cambrian Explosion: Part 3

March 17, 2012 7 comments


My last post left off on the topic of rap battles, element #16 in the Elements of Hip Hop. As one astute reader points out, Hip Hop is a culture as much as it is a musical genre. And as in any culture, the values are contested in public fora. The rap battle is only one arena in which the values of Hip Hop are contested and negotiated. Hip Hop also finds expression in dance and the visual arts.

Breakdancing was an early choreographic innovation that contributed to Hip Hop’s meteoric rise in popularity.


It later speciated into two new dance styles, popping and krumping. The documentary Rize showcases the talented pioneers of krumping, an athletic dance/fight form that calls to mind the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. The film situates krumping in its historical and social context, chronicling how it emerged in improverished neighborhoods in South Central LA as a community-building alternative to gangs and an outlet for artistic expression. Its founders, who see it as a faith-based practice, cite krumping’s capacity to “release anger, aggression, and frustration positively, in a non-violent way.” 

The film is a testament to the power of art to heal and transform suffering, but it’s also just good eye candy. It’s the best of Cirque de Soleil – the reticulated musculature, the contortionism, the elastic gesture, the disdain for gravity – but without the fancy sets and high ticket prices, performed on a street corner for free and for freedom.

Another forum for Hip Hop’s artistic expression is the graffiti battle. Or “aerosol art.”  The annual Estria Invitational Graffiti Battle draws together artists from around the country to compete in a day-long public visual arts contest. This video of the 2011 Estria battle illustrates the form: artists are given five hours and the challenge of incorporating the same word into their public art piece. Last year’s word was “Heal.”  As Nate One explains in the video, “Art is not a drug; it’s free, and when you do it, it makes you feel better. That’s magic!”

Sometimes art is the only way to transform a dire situation.  Street artist Banksy, featured in the riveting and somewhat surreal documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, turned the wall separating Israel from Palestine into a canvas of possibility.


So why is the Academy of Art University in San Francisco not only participating in anti-graffiti campaigns, but using their anti-graffiti efforts to recruit new students in their promotional advertisements?  I would think they would be more interested in hiring Banksy as a professor than white-washing street art. But since tuition alone for an undergraduate degree at the Academy of Art costs approximately $80,000, my hunch is that it has something to do with classism. Fortunately, the top-notch Oakland Museum of California is more supportive of local artists, sponsoring the Living Concrete live graffiti mural painting festival.


Together, Hip Hop’s rap battles, dance battles, and graffiti battles are venues for positive artistic expression, bringing me to the next point in this protracted paean to Hip Hop.

7. Hip Hop is positive. Hip Hop receives a lot of negative attention in the media for its materialism, its machismo, and its militance.  Those are accurate descriptors of mainstream rap, perhaps, but Hip Hop is a large umbrella that shelters many subcultures. It’s such a large category, in fact, that describing it is like trying to describe Christianity, which encompasses myriad splinter groups with ideologies as distinct from each other as Lutheranism is from Mormonism. As distinct as gangsta rap is from underground Hip Hop.

Rapper Too Short, representative of the former subculture, was in the news this week for some ill-advised “advice” he gave to young boys in a youtube video. The organization We Are the 44% called him on the carpet for promoting sexual violence against young women. You can read about the town hall discussion that ensued here, on Davey D’s blog.

Given the range of subcultures within Hip Hop, with Too Short arguably on one end, it’s painting with perhaps too broad a stroke to describe all of Hip Hop as positive. The media, however, tend to focus on Hip Hop’s more negative aspects and overlook the positive ones, which abound. Consider Shad’s Keep Shining, which is a welcome antidote to Too Short’s views:

My mom taught me where to keep my heart,
My aunts taught me how to sing two parts,
My sis taught me how to parallel park,
Tried to teach me math but she’s way too smart.
My grandma in her 80′s is still sharp,
My girl cousin’s in activism and art.
They taught me there’s no curls too tight
No mind to bright,
No skin too dark to keep shining!

Or Talib Kweli’s For Women:

I got off the 2 train in Brooklyn on my way to a session

Said let me help this woman up the stairs before I get to steppin’

We got in a conversation, she said she was 107.

Just her presence was a blessing,

and her essence was a lesson.

She had her head wrapped

And long dreads that peeked out the back

Like antenna to help her get a sense of where she was at.

Imagine that:

Livin’ a century,

the strength of her memories.

Felt like an angel had been sent to me.

She lived from nigger to colored to negro to black

To afro then african-american and right back to nigger.

You figure she’d be bitter in the twilight,

But she alright, ’cause she done seen the circle of life.

Hers is a story of resilience, and what’s more positive than resilience?

As you may have inferred from the tracks I’ve referenced so far, I eschew the brand of rap that glorifies guns and denigrates women and listen to what’s referred to as “progressive,” “underground,” or “conscious” Hip Hop.  In contrast to the more commercially successful rap, the underground stuff is so positive and upbeat that I’ve dubbed it “Self Help Hip Hop,” or when I’m feeling really cheesy, Hip Hope.


I’m referring to groups like Atlanta-based Collective Efforts with tracks like  Doin’ Alright and Try Again. Here’s one blogger’s picks for the Top 10 Progressive Hip Hop Artists. Self Help Hip Hop is values-based music, and one of its core values is gratitude. One of my favorite songs is by Brother Ali, written to his young son, Faheem. Ours has been described as a fatherless generation, and in that context his words are refreshingly sentimental:

I fed you, changed you, read to you and bathed you.

I ain’t trying to hold that over your head; I’m saying ‘thank you.’

K’Naan’s 15 Minutes Away is an object lesson in the value of generosity. He opens the song recounting his pre-immigration experience of being “broke like an empty promise,” destitute to the point of hunger. I feel for him as he jokes about anxiously awaiting a Western Union money transfer. The song follows his arrival in Canada as a refugee and his subsequent rise in fame as a musician, and ultimately comes full circle as he describes rushing from the concert venue to the Western Union office to send money to his grandmother. “Generosity is the key!” he intones. And he repeats it twice, in case we weren’t paying attention: Generosity is the key.

While detailing explicitly the hardships of life, hip-hop music often concludes its narratives with the hopeful assertion that odds can be overcome – as evidenced, if nothing else, by the fact of the individual rapper’s rise to fame. And it’s not just the lyrics and the message that make Hip Hop positive. The music itself may be operating on a molecular level to lift your mood, according to  Oliver Sack’s characteristically charming Musicophilia.  Dr. Sacks provides insights into the neurology of listening to music, including how it raises serotonin levels and other biochemical agents of wellbeing.


I might be paraphrasing here, but I think what Dr. Sacks is saying is:

8. Hip Hop is funky. For all its incisive analysis, creative rhyme schemes, and positive poetry, I like Hip Hop mostly because it feels good.  It gets me reaquainted with my soul via my hips. I challenge you to NOT do the Humpty Dance. I defy you to NOT get down at Collective Efforts’ I Get Down. Or Shad’s I Get Down.

Rapper Lyrics Born, with a voice like Paul Robeson, joins James Brown in my personal Hall of Funk Fame for his ode to the Bay Area, The Bay.  Ozomatli’s Cut Chemist is a groovalicious blend of Chali 2Na’s deep bass vocals and a punctuated latin brass section reminiscent of the Buena Vista Social Club. In this video of Cut Chemist the funk is in effect.

As Chali 2Na, the Ghetto Diplomat, says: “I’m blessed with the gift of rap.”

I couldn’t agree more.


So, Mathbabe, my answer to your question is that Hip Hop is very much


Addendum:  My secret agenda in writing this blog was not only to celebrate Hip Hop, but to trawl for new music. If you have a favorite Hip Hop song to recommend, I want to hear it. Please post a link in the comments section below.

I’m particularly interested in what I haven’t heard so far, and what could be the next logical leap in its Cambrian explosion: Eco-rap. In fact, consider this a call for entries. I want to hear a rainforest redemption rap, one that samples an owl’s rhythmic hoot, remixes a cricket choir, and layers in a Wangari Matthai recording on reforestation. What would an Earth First! anthem by Busta Rhymes sound like?  I want to hear Shakira and Nas team up to write a rap requiem on soil erosion.  KRS One, if you’re reading this, there’s a lacuna in the curriculum.

Categories: Uncategorized

Propaganda with a Caveat

March 16, 2012 2 comments


Caveat: “Under Capitalism, man exploits man; under Communism, it’s the other way around.”

- John Kenneth Galbraith

Categories: Uncategorized

Interlude: Egret Ardor

March 15, 2012 2 comments



Snowy Egret


A late summer night and the snowy egret

has come again to the shallows in front of my house


as he has for forty years.

Don’t think he is a casual part of my life,


that white stroke in the dark.


- Mary Oliver

Categories: guest post, Uncategorized

Hip Hop’s Cambrian Explosion: Part 2

March 14, 2012 1 comment

Since Cee Lo got the last word on the previous post, the first word of today’s guest post goes to Senegalese rapper Sister Fa. The word is Sarabah, the inspiration for point 4 in this prolix paean to Hip Hop.

4. Hip Hop is international. Although it originated in the African American community as a critique of white supremacy and an expression of community pride, it has gained international popularity over the past three decades, going viral as a musical meme, and inspiring artists from across the globe to adapt it and hybridize it with local traditions. To make a biological analogy, Hip Hop has undergone a global adaptive radiation to rival that of the Cambrian explosion.

I highly recommend the documentary film The Furious Force of Rhymes, which includes interviews with rappers in Senegal, Israel/Palestine, the United States, and Germany, chronicling its global appeal and rapid evolution. The film is a tribute to young artists who are drawn to Hip Hop as a vehicle for exploring social and political inequalities. Artists like Sister Fa, who raps in Wolof, Manding, Jola, and French.  Her song Life Am reads like a public service announcement about the importance of practicing safe sex to contain the AIDS epidemic, but it’s the catchiest PSA I’ve ever heard, which is why it’s so effective. I find myself singing along to the rhythmic “utiliser le preservatif” only to realize that’s about the least sexy thing it’s possible to say in French. Voici une video, Milyamba. Sister Fa is leveraging her fame as a rapper to campaign throughout West Africa against female genital mutilation. Subjected to the practice herself, she tells her story in the documentary film about her life and activism entitled Sarabah.

Sister Fa’s use of multiple languages in the course of one song is typical of the way in which international artists have embellished the form and upleveled the wordplay. I’m particularly fond of songs that blend English with other languages, like Ozomatli’s Nada’s Por Free, sung in Spanglish (“So me levanto off the suelo straight chillando with my pena.” Ha!).  I’m kvelling over this video of Ozomatli performing in Spanglish at the Tu B’Shvat Nature Fest.

Code-switching and language-switching are natural stylistic choices for a medium concerned with raising questions about racial identity. It was not so long ago that Apartheid imposed arbitrary racial categories on South Africans and enforced them with singular cruelty. (Check out this excellent documentary on Apartheid featuring Archbishop Desmond Tutu.) In the context of a country attempting to decolonize its national psyche and forge more pluralistic and inclusive social structures, rapper Emile YX uses Xhosa, Zulu, English and Afrikaans to explore lingering questions of racial identity.

In Who Am I? Emile YX mixes it up like the chromosomes in his name:

I’m every brother and sister
Working in a factory
I’m Easter weekend
camping at Kommetjie
I’m Sunday braaivleis
Dik geeet en gaan slaap
I’m that stone thrower at Caspers
During Apartheid innie Kaap
I’m that dummies player, kennetjie en Akoos
I’m that ANC supporter saying the DA se ma se,

I’m that voes gamtaal talker, corner broker
Gooi neer jou tol want hier gaan jy stoke ja,

I’m that mass marcher and tyre burner,

Minimal wage sub-economic earner
I’m that doctor, lawyer and politician in the ghetto
Wait a minute … Most of them have moved out though.
So I’m that one who stays to be a good role-model,

My election promises are not just oral.

Even when I can’t understand all the content of a song, I enjoy listening for Hip Hop’s recognizable elements, as well as the unique aspects that mark its cultural adaptation.

Here are a few gems:

In Spanish: Humanidad by Ana Tijoux

In Tagalog: Bebot by the Black Eyed Peas

In Japanese: Togesashi by Inden

In Arabic: Al Kuffiyeh 3Arabeyyeh by Shadia Mansour

With Hip Hop’s increasingly international reach, it is ever more pluralistic in both form and content. What is it exactly that makes the genre so appealing to a diverse global audience?

5. Hip Hop is democratic. A key stylistic convention of the genre involves using multiple first-person narrators who rotate in order to collectively construct the story as a mosaic.  In the Black Eyed Peas’ Beautiful People, each of three narrators takes turns recounting his experience of coming into his own, overcoming the obstacles presented by anti-semitism, poverty, and the INS. Pinoy poet tells his story:

Back in the days when I was in Philippines,

I had a dream to be heard and to be seen.

Came overseas at the age of fourteen,

Stood behind the front, if you know what I mean.

The song explores questions of worth – self-worth, material worth, innate worth — themes which are woven into each person’s narrative so that the song tells a collective story while still allowing each individual to express his unique perspective.  Macy Gray sings the melody, an adaptation of the chorus from the Beatles’ Baby You’re a Rich Man  With her wonderfully scratchy voice (What I wouldn’t give to bring Janis Joplin back from the dead to hear her and Macy Gray growl a duet!) she asks, “How does it feel to be one of the Beautiful People?”  Collectively, the Black Eyed Peas convey a fairly democratic sentiment: You refugee, you immigrant, you down-and-out listener (and yes you, reader): You are the beautiful people.

Another favorite example of a song that uses rotating narrators to tell a single story is the Fugee’s Rumble in the Jungle. Seven narrators take turns paying homage to the historic boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman that took place in Zaire in197.  At the height of the Black Power movement, Muhammad Ali’s journey back to Africa took on a significance and symbolism that became a source of shared pride bolstered further by the fact that Ali was the World Heavyweight Champion and a radical to boot. Ali was an early Conscientious Objector to the Vietnam War, stating succinctly, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong; No Viet Cong ever called me ‘nigger.’” The song opens with a quote by Ali, so in a sense he becomes an eighth narrator:

“I’m gonna fight for prestige, not for me, but to uplift my little brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors today in America, black people who are living on welfare, black people who can’t eat, black people who don’t know no knowledge of themselves, black people who don’t have no future. I want to win my title and walk down the allies, set on the garbage can with the wineheads. I wanna walk down the street with the dope addicts, talk to the prostitutes. So, I can help a lot of people.”

I recommend the documentary When We Were Kings, a biopic about Ali, which situates Rumble in the Jungle in its historical context, including the glaring irony of the event: the fact that it was funded by dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who had only recently assumed power via coup after the C.I.A. orchestrated the overthrow of the democratically-elected Patrice Lumumba. For more on the story of this egregious episode in American foreign policy, two good resources are the film Lumumba and the book The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, a fictional account of the period surrounding Lumumba’s assassination. Interestingly, her novel also uses the device of rotating first-person narrators to structure the story.  When telling a story about democracy – or the deliberate undermining thereof – the technique of weaving multiple narrators’s perspectives is apt in that it models pluralism.

Women’s voices are too often missing in Hip Hop, so I am particularly smitten with Cell Block Tango/He Had It Comin’ by Macy Gray, L’il Kim, and Queen Latifah. This song uses the multiple-narrator format to address a serious topic in a campy tone: domestic violence. The song’s over-the-top Broadway style (it was written for the musical Chicago) signals to the listener that we are in the realm of fantasy as each artist imagines violent revenge against her lover/abuser. Queen Latifah sings the first verse with characteristic sassitude:

I mean imagine, why was he hittin’ his woman?
Why was she takin’ that?
Now picture her fightin’ back, picture the ass kickin’
Think of his ass flippin’ down the stairs
And me at the top smilin’, he shoulda stopped wildin’.
Now could you picture me tryin’ to finish him off?
See why I pictured me on this side of the law?
High heels leave holes, you’d a thought I was gunnin’!
Now the cops comin’, I ain’t runnin’!

Hip Hop is very much a macho, male-dominant form, misogyny being its blind spot. So Queen Latifah’s is a minority voice. But that’s just it. Even if yours is a minority opinion, if you can voice it with enough panache, and what you’re saying smacks of truth, then you can have your day in court in Hip Hop. The democratic nature of the form has a lot to do with the method by which rappers rise in fame and credibility: the rap battle.

6. Hip Hop is competitive. Emerging rappers can be recognized in public because they carry a notebook in their pocket which they frequently take out to jot down rap lyrics and song hooks. They are avid consumers of rap music, noting other rapper’s cadences and rhyme schemes, and honing their skills in cyphers. A cypher is a group of rappers who get together and take turns improvising raps either acapella or over a beat. If you have ever seen this live, you know how impressive this ability to extemporize is. Here’s a home-made video of a stellar cypher I saw live as part of the annual Life is Living Festival. (Check out the 9-year-old who rocks the mic at 3:20 and 13:28!) Cyphers provide creative community and serve as training grounds for the high-stakes battles that put rappers to the test. Many of you are familiar with the battle scene in Eminem’s 8-Mile, a film that is notorious in my mind largely for its terribly unsexy sex scene. (And they didn’t even “user le preservatif!”) Here’s a link to the final battle scene in 8-Mile, in which Eminem wins by confessing his flaws to the crowd first, stealing his opponent’s best ammunition.

In a rap battle, two artists at a time compete. They are each given a time limit, taking turns addressing each other back and forth, all the while wooing the crowd with their artistry and skills.  When the beat drops – one they have not heard in advance – they have to deliver a performance that: a) belittles the competitor; b) self-aggrandizes; c) references a comment or event that just occurred, demonstrating that the lyrics are improvised in the moment; and d) impresses the crowd. This last one is critical, as it is the audience who decides who the winner is in an instant and rambunctious plebiscite. Picture an Occupy General Assembly, but with different hand gestures. Hip Hop’s virtuosos are vetted in the democratic forum of the rap battle.

Apropos of democracy and internationalism, I’ll give the last word of today’s post, part 2 of 3, to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Enjoy this funky rallying cry from Occupy London.


Categories: guest post, Uncategorized

Interlude: Newt Haiku

March 13, 2012 2 comments


Photo: The newt on the left hovers above an egg sac moments before approaching the beast with two tails on the right.

On one of the first unmistakable days of Spring, I led a group of five six-year-olds on a walk through the UC Botanical Garden, where I am a docent. I say “walk,” but children at that age do anything but: they skip, bound, trip, jostle, spin,and vibrate in a sort of Brownian motion, but rarely walk. On this first morning of emboldening sunlight and tentative short sleeves, my group was particularly kinetic, their effervescence reaching a feverish pitch when we arrived at the Japanese pool and found the newts in a similar frenzy. Pairs of newts gripped each other in slippery contortions, splashy displays that incited the childrens’ curiosity. Lone newts trailed after mating pairs, latching on to a tail and rolling into a tan-and-yellow tangle of three- four- and five-newt bundles. One of the children asked, “What is that brown knot?” The adult chaperones tittered. Since Spring has inspired haiku for centuries, I offer this reply, in haiku form.

What is that brown knot?
The newts are dancing, children,
celebrating Spring.

What is that brown knot?
The newts are wrestling, children,
That’s how life begins.

What is that brown knot?
A miracle of nature,
one more mystery.

What is that brown knot?
The newts are in love, children,

What is that brown knot?
A good old-fashioned tussle,
a frenzy, a fray.

What is that brown knot?
Survival of the fittest,
Shuffling DNA.

What is that brown knot?
An amphibian orgy,
It’s rude, kids, to stare.

What is that brown knot?
Sexual reproduction.
Ask that docent there.

Categories: guest post, Uncategorized

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