Author Archive

Bad Paper by Jake Halpern

Yesterday I finished Jake Halpern’s new book, Bad Paper: Chasing Debt From Wall Street To The Underground.

It’s an interesting series of close-up descriptions of the people who have been buying and selling revolving debt since the credit crisis, as well as the actual business of debt collecting. He talks about the very real problem, for debt collectors, of having no proof of debt, of having other people who have stolen on your debt trying to collect on it at the same time, and of course the fact that some debt collectors resort to illegal threats and misleading statements to get debtors – or possibly ex-debtors, it’s never entirely clear – to pay up or suffer the consequences. An arms race of quasi-legal and illegal cultural practices.

Halpern does a good job explaining the plight of the debt collectors, including the people hired for the call centers. It’s the poor pitted against the poorer here, a dirty fight where information asymmetry is absolutely essential to the profit margin of any given tier of the system.

Halpern outlines those tiers well, as well as the interesting lingo created by this subculture centered, at least until recently, in Buffalo, New York. People at the top are credit card companies themselves or hedge fund buyers from credit card companies; in other words, people who get “fresh debt” lists in the form of excel spreadsheets, where the people listed have recently stopped paying and might have some resources to pull. Then there are people who deal in older debt, which is harder to collect on. After that are people who have yet older debt which may or may not be stolen, so other collectors might simultaneously be picking over the carcasses. At the very bottom of the pile, from Halpern’s perspective, come the lawyers. They bring debtors to court and try to garnish wages.

Somewhat buried at very end of Halpern’s book is some quite useful information for the debtors. So for example, if you ever get dragged to court by a debt collection lawyer,

  1. definitely show up (or else they will just garnish your wages)
  2. ask for proof that they own the debt and how you spent it. They will likely not have such documentation and will dismiss your case.

Overall Bad Paper is a good book, and it explains a lot of interesting and useful information, but from my perspective, being firmly on the side of (most of) the debtors, everyone who gets a copy of the book should also get a copy of Strike Debt’s Debt Resistors’ Operation Manual, which has way more useful information, and even form letters, for the debtor.

As far as real solutions, we see the usual problems: underfunded and impotent regulators in the FTC, the CFPB, and the Attorney General’s office, as well as ridiculously small fines when actually caught that amount to fractions of the profit already made by illegal tactics. Everyone is feasting, even when they don’t find much meat on the bones.

Given how big a problem this is, and how many people are being pursued by debt collectors, you’d think they might set up a system of incentives so lawyers can make money by nailing illegal actions instead of just leveraging outdated information and trying to squeeze poor people out of their paychecks.

The bigger problem, once again, is that so many people are flat broke and largely go into debt for things like emergency expenses. And yes, of course there are people who buy a bunch of things they don’t need and then refuse to pay off their debts – Halpern profiles one such person – but the vast majority of the people we’re talking about are the struggling poor. It would be nice to see our country become a place where we don’t need so much damn debt in the first place, then the scavengers wouldn’t have so many rubbish piles to live off of.

Categories: #OWS, economics, journalism

Upcoming data journalism and data ethics conferences


Today I’m super excited to go to the opening launch party of danah boyd’s Data and Society. Data and Society has a bunch of cool initiatives but I’m particularly interested in their Council for Big Data, Ethics, and Society. They were the people that helped make the Podesta Report on Big Data as good as it was. There will be a mini-conference this afternoon I’m looking forward to very much. Brilliant folks doing great work and talking to each other across disciplinary lines, can’t get enough of that stuff.

This weekend

This coming Saturday I’ll be moderating a panel called Spotlight on Data-Driven Journalism: The job of a data journalist and the impact of computational reporting in the newsroom at the New York Press Club Conference on Journalism. The panelists are going to be great:

  • John Keefe @jkeefe, Sr. editor, data news & J-technology, WNYC
  • Maryanne Murray @lightnosugar, Global head of graphics, Reuters
  • Zach Seward @zseward, Quartz
  • Chris Walker @cpwalker07, Dir., data visualization, Mic News

The full program is available here.

December 12th

In mid-December I’m on a panel myself at the Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency in Machine Learning Conference in Montreal. This conference seems to directly take up the call of the Podesta Report I mentioned above, and seeks to provide further research into the dangers of “encoding discrimination in automated decisions”. Amazing! So glad this is happening and that I get to be part of it. Here are some questions that will be taken up at this one-day conference (more information here):

  • How can we achieve high classification accuracy while eliminating discriminatory biases? What are meaningful formal fairness properties?
  • How can we design expressive yet easily interpretable classifiers?
  • Can we ensure that a classifier remains accurate even if the statistical signal it relies on is exposed to public scrutiny?
  • Are there practical methods to test existing classifiers for compliance with a policy?

What male allies should *really* be doing

Chris Wiggins was kind enough to forward me this article on a recent panel discussion of “Male Allies of Women” at the 2014 Grace Hopper Celebration, which is a big deal conference for women in tech.

Panelists included Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer, Google’s SVP of Search Alan Eustace, GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving, and Intuit CTO Tayloe Stansbury. The advice was stale and trite and included things like “speak up,” “lean in,” and “get excited about your ideas like men do.”

Yes, I said GoDaddy.

Yes, I said GoDaddy.

By far the best part was the audience response – I wish I’d been there just for that part.

Screen Shot 2014-10-10 at 7.13.05 AM

There was a Bingo game on the phrases that were anticipated:



What male allies should really be doing, step 1

Here’s the thing. If you haven’t seen this video of gamer Anita Sarkeesian speaking at the Feminist Frequency conference (hat tip Josh Vekhter), go take a look. It’s a fantastic and articulate diatribe against sexism and misogyny, and it ends with a super reasonable request of the men in the audience and in the world:

Trust women who say they experience sexism.

What’s amazing to me is how hard this is to hear for men in my life. When I repeated this to a couple of them, they actually said that I didn’t experience the stuff that I had. It was kind of nuts, and I had to point out to them that they were failing on the most basic level.

Yes, it requires empathy, and observation, and yes it sucks, because once you start seeing it you will be disappointed in the world. Tough shit, it’s reality.

What male allies should really be doing, step 2

Once men start trusting the women they love and admire and work with, then the next thing they can do is start acting on that knowledge.

I don’t know how many times I’ve been the target of sexism in front of other men and somehow it’s my job to confront it and deal with it. Men, step the fuck up and, when you see sexism happening, once you can manage that, defend the target and put a stop to it. Speak up and defend your friend, or your wife, or your daughter, or your colleague. Thanks.

Categories: rant

Reverse-engineering Chinese censorship

This recent paper written by Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret Roberts explores the way social media posts are censored in China. It’s interesting, take a look, or read this article on their work.

Here’s their abstract:

Existing research on the extensive Chinese censorship organization uses observational methods with well-known limitations. We conducted the first large-scale experimental study of censorship by creating accounts on numerous social media sites, randomly submitting different texts, and observing from a worldwide network of computers which texts were censored and which were not. We also supplemented interviews with confidential sources by creating our own social media site, contracting with Chinese firms to install the same censoring technologies as existing sites, and—with their software, documentation, and even customer support—reverse-engineering how it all works. Our results offer rigorous support for the recent hypothesis that criticisms of the state, its leaders, and their policies are published, whereas posts about real-world events with collective action potential are censored.

Interesting that they got so much help from the Chinese to censor their posts. Also keep in mind a caveat from the article:

Yu Xie, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, says that although the study is methodologically sound, it overemphasizes the importance of coherent central government policies. Political outcomes in China, he notes, often rest on local officials, who are evaluated on how well they maintain stability. Such officials have a “personal interest in suppressing content that could lead to social movements,” Xie says.

I’m a sucker for reverse-engineering powerful algorithms, even when there are major caveats.

Workplace Personality Test for the NY Fed

I’ve got a list of things to write about here on mathbabe, and they include the Carmen Segarra secret tapes as well as workplace personality tests. I’ve decided to do a mash-up just for fun, imagining what Carmen had to go through to get her job.

Update: you can send someone the link to this personality test here.

Categories: musing

Detroit’s water problem and the Koch brothers

Yesterday at the Alt Banking group we discussed the recent Koch brothers article from Rolling Stone Magazine, written by Tim Dickinson. You should read it now if you haven’t already.

There are tons of issues that came up, but one of them in particular was the control of information that the Koch brothers maintain over their activities. If you read the article, you realize that the brothers are die-hard libertarians but at some point realized that saying out loud that they are die-hard libertarians was working against them, specifically in terms of getting into trouble for polluting the environment with their chemical factories, so instead they started talking about how much they love the environment and work to protect it.

It’s not that they stopped polluting, it’s that their rhetoric changed. In fact there’s no reason to think they stopped polluting, since they still had plenty of regulators going after them for various violations. Since their apparent change of heart they’ve also decided to be publicly philanthropic, giving money to hospitals, and Lincoln Center, and even PBS (see how that worked out on Stephen Colbert).

The problem with all this window dressing is that people are actually starting to think the Koch brothers may be good guys after all, and what with the fancy lawyers that the Koch brothers hire to control information about them, the public view is very skewed.

For example, how many economists have they bought and inserted into universities nationwide? We will never really know. There’s no way we can keep a score sheet with “good deeds” on one side and “shitty deeds” on the other. We don’t have enough information for the second side.

The exception to this information control is when they get in trouble with regulators and it becomes a matter of public record. And thank goodness those court documents exist, and thank goodness investigative journalist Tim Dickinson did all the work he did to explain it to us.

A couple of conclusions. First, we complain a lot about the bank settlements for the misdeeds of the big banks. Nobody went to jail, and the system is just as likely to repeat this kind of thing again as it was in 2005. But another problem with this out-of-court settlement process, we now realize, is that we actually don’t know what happened except in big, vague terms. There will be no Tim Dickinson reporting on big banks.

Second, the connection to Detroit. Right now there are 15,000 residents of Detroit whose water has been shut down, basically so they can privatize the water system with the best deal from Wall Street. They owe less than $10 million, on average a measly $540. The United Nations has called this water shutoff a violation of the human rights of the people of Detroit.

If you feel bad about that, you can donate to someone’s water bill directly, which is kind of neat.

Or is it? Shouldn’t Obama be declaring Detroit a state of emergency? Wouldn’t we be doing that in another city that had 15,000 residents without water? Why is this an exception to that rule? Because the victims are poor? Don’t we recognize Detroit as a place where it’s unusually difficult to find work? Are we going to allow people to shut off heat as well, once winter comes?

Once you think about it, the idea of a “private solution” to the Detroit water emergency seems wrong. In fact, you can almost imagine David Koch coming to the rescue here, as part of his “positive optics” campaign, and bailing out the Detroit citizens and then, for good measure, buying up the water system altogether. A hero!

And if you’re in that mode, you can think about the asymptotic limit of that approach, whereby a few very rich people gradually take control of resources, and then there are intermittent famines of various types in different cities, and the rich people swoop in and heroically save the day whilst scooping up even more ownership of what used to be public infrastructure. And we might thank them every time, because it was a dire situation and they didn’t really need to do that with all their money.

It’s frustrating to live in a country that has so many resources but which can’t seem to get it together to meet the basic human needs of its citizens. We need a basic income, at least for the people in Detroit, at least right now.

Categories: #OWS, economics, rant

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Has Aunt Pythia mentioned recently how much she loves you people?! Well, if not, then let it be known: Aunt Pythia loves you people.

Aunt Pythia asked for new questions last week, and you guys fucking delivered. Outstanding. I counted 21 questions when I started today’s column, which is a good 18 more questions than I had last week. Granted, some of them look like really long stories continued over multiple submissions, or even spam, but I was just skimming so I don’t know that’s true.

Here’s the thing. It’s 47 degrees outside and rainy, and you might think that’s a bad thing, but I am inwardly celebrating the weather. Why? Well, I’ll tell you: it’s knitting weather my friends! There’s nobody gonna stop me from sorting my yarn and knitting the fuck out of it all day today.

Yessirree. I’m barely gonna get up from my chair except to make my kids crepes. Oh, and to boil some water for a pot of tea. Holy crap that sounds cozy. That’s the plan, people, and I hope you have an equally delicious plan yourselves. Having said all this makes me want to mix it all up and show you a knitted tea cosy which I must assume is flannel lined:


Technically this is crocheted but I do that too.

Are you with me? Flannel bathrobes and comfy chairs! Right now! You!

(pro tip: if you don’t have a flannel bathrobe, a flannel sheet wrapped around you will do in a pinch.)

OK, all comfy? Good. After enjoying today’s column, please don’t hesitate to:

submit yet more stolen question from old Dan Savage columns

By the way, if you don’t know what the hell Aunt Pythia is talking about, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

What is your opinion about monogamy and respect in a partnership?

I fell into a relationship with the most wonderful, intelligent, kind human being, whom I cherish very much. But I have always found monogamy difficult and sometimes unnatural. I tried from the start not to “define” things, but said wonderful human being is very much against “open” relationships and follows a more traditional conservative view of partnerships. I have no complaints about our own sex life, W.H.B is open minded and open to being tied up, etc., it’s just that sometimes I like to be involved with more free-floating. Thus, I have been committed and loyal to W.H.B, but I am beginning to feel restrained and worry that because of this will end things entirely.

What do you suggest I do? Should I suppress these feelings entirely? So far I have succeeded but it has left me restless. Should I end this relationship? But I care very much for this person and want neither of us to get hurt. Should I try as much as possible to negotiate threesomes? (Although that requires a willing and trusty third person, which might be difficult to find, although potentially worth it, but morever W.H.B. might not be into repeated trysts.) Should I work within the boundaries of what W.H.B. draws as a baseline “OK” aka, making out is okay, but no penetration etc., but in the end might those lines get shady? Should I just flirt my pants off with people without touching them?

I find that many people hear the word “open” and see it as a death sentence for a partnership, and I don’t want to drop that bomb for either of us. In the long run I do believe in life partners to which we remain emotionally faithful, but I have a hard time balancing that with my restless spirit, which frustrates me, because I do care deeply for said being.

Physically open woman engineer regretting Self limited unity tie

Dear PowerSlut,

Great question! And I’m impressed that you’re asking this question now. Most people who ask me something like that have already been through the “flirting their pants off with someone” phase (more about this phase below!), by which time things have gotten way more complicated.

OK, so I notice you didn’t mention children or marriage, so I’m going to assume that you’re not married to this guy and that there are no kids involved, which honestly makes a huge difference, because it means you have much less at risk.

Now I will make an observation, which is not meant to be a philosophical nor moral statement about slutty people in situations like yours. Just a fact. Namely, those situations don’t last long. It’s a very unstable equilibrium.

In my experience, with my slutty friends and acquaintances, the following tends to happen sooner or later, with emphasis on sooner: you, the slut, start “flirting your pants off without touching” – possibly the sexiest thing in the world to do – and then quickly find yourself with your pants off, on the floor of a bathroom at a club or a bar somewhere. It’s not pretty, but I’d argue it’s a testament to what happens in this modern age when we feel repressed and simultaneously feel entitled to get what we want.

And that’s not to say we shouldn’t feel entitled. Entitled isn’t a bad word here. After all, what was all that progress we made in the last 50 years for if not the rights of the slutty women to go be sluts? Amen to entitlement, sister. It’s time women got what they really want without threat of death or social isolation.

Bottomline, when my slutty friends start complaining to me about not getting enough sex in their current love relationship, I kind of just look at my watch and start the countdown. It averages about 12 months before the inevitable bathroom floor story (or equivalent).

So here’s the thing. Instead of wondering whether that’s going to happen if things go on as they are, you might want to think of whether, when you’re picking yourself up from that bathroom floor, where yes you used a condom, you can go back to your adorable partner W.H.B. and not feel like a shit. There are a few scenarios you might consider:

  1. Lie to him and never tell him about the bathroom floor incident. This depends on your ability to lie and your guilt levels. And this is frankly impossible if you don’t practice safe sex, so please do.
  2. Decide to tell him about the bathroom floor incident. If you go this route I’d suggest waiting a few weeks and then being sure you can convincingly say that the sex was safe and that you don’t care about that guy at all, and he’s not a threat to the relationship, and you haven’t seen him since. This requires that you actually think those things and that you are basically informing him of your persistent sluttiness, which he might not be able to handle, but then again he might. Another possibility is to tell him in advance that such a situation might happen, but then it’s theoretical and he might not believe that people can do that without it being a big deal.
  3. Break up with your dear W.H.B. because neither of these options are doable.

There’s another option which some eagle-eyed readers might have noticed I omitted, which is to never get onto the bathroom floor with some random dude at a club to begin with. I agree that, theoretically speaking, this is an option for some people, but not, in my experience, for sluts. Having said that I might be cheating slightly and defining “sluts” ex post facto.

Notice I haven’t given you advice here, exactly. Because the truth is, I don’t know enough about who you are and who W.H.B. is to know what might work. If I were forced to choose, I’d go for #3, because from the outsider’s perspective, there are far too many young couples that are sexually incompatible but decide to stay together anyway and then are really really frustrated for a very long time. But again, really not sure what’s right for you, and despite that I hope I’ve still been somewhat helpful.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Please don’t rebuke me for not asking you a question. (Yeah like that’ll stop you! :)

It’s just that, I thought you’d find this link worth knowing about in case you don’t already.

By the way, I have been reading The New Jim Crow like you said to do. It is both fascinating and totally depressing, but the mere existence of the book makes it a little less depressing. Michelle Alexander is an exceptionally skillful author and a perfect one to have written this amazing book. Many thanks for the great reading assignment.


Elvis Von Essende Nicholas Friedrich Lester Otto Widener IV

Dear Elvis,

Thanks for loving The New Jim Crowif anything since shit went down in Ferguson I think it should be required reading.

For those of you who didn’t bother to click on the link, it’s an article about an app building organization that focuses on helping low-income smartphone users with their daily problems. The most promising app they mention is called “Easy Food Stamps,” and makes it easier for people to apply for foodstamps.

I like the idea. It reminds me of my last visit to Silicon Valley, where I heard one entrepreneur tell another entrepreneur about this amazing app he was using that turned on his air conditioner before he got home, thus saving him the trouble of being in his apartment for a full 5 minutes with the famously unbearable San Francisco heat. I think I heard him describe it as “solving the most important problem of my life.” Which says a lot about these guys’ problems.


Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I recently started my Ph.D. in a math-intensive male-dominated field, and I find myself surprisingly hurt by some of the subtle sexism I’ve found in my department. For example, when asking questions the (male) TAs twist themselves into mental pretzels in order to find a hint of correctness in the guys’ answers – even when, frankly, there is nothing right about them – but dismiss as trivial and/or fail to understand the women’s answers, even when those answers are almost perfect. I’ve also noticed that when the whole cohort is working on homework together, my fellow women only have their ideas taken seriously after a guy pipes up and seconds their suggestion.

Yesterday I was working on homework with one of the guys in my cohort (let’s call him Tim). Tim and I were trying two different approaches to a proof, and mine ended up coming out really well while his fizzled out. I explained my way to him, we got really excited about it, and I felt great about the whole exchange. When the topic came up later in a group-wide email chain, I said, “Tim and I already worked this one out!” and then proceeded to explain how. Today I arrived at school to find the whole group abuzz about how elegant and great “Tim’s” proof was. I feel like this early stage is when the cohort slowly establishes mental lists of who is good at what (and this area really is my strength), but somehow the credit never ends up going to the girls. How can I build a reputation as a student when my good ideas aren’t good until a guy appropriates them? And what can I do to make sure the other women in my class get the credit they deserve?

Craving Recognition Ensures Disappointment, I’m Told Meanwhile, Everyone Exhibiting Extra Estrogen Experiences Exiguous Encouragement


First, amazing sign-off.

Second, yes, yes, yes, YES. An incredibly important point, and thanks so much for expressing it so well.

This is exactly what I am always explaining to people when they argue against my “Great Men With Big Ideas” rant, whereby I complain that people who explain the history of ideas in terms of Great Men With Big Ideas are using a narrative crutch which is both sexist and inaccurate. Nonetheless, it is a tradition, and people like traditions. It particularly irks me when you see pictures of these Great Men With Big Ideas. It’s one reason I like to focus on ideas rather than the so-called “owners” of these ideas, because I know that, behind the curtain there could very well be an uncredited woman.

As for advice, I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d take every opportunity to correct people in person: “actually, that was my idea, but then Tim and I worked it out together.” I’d also go to Tim and ask him to do the same and tell him you know he knows how sexist other people are and how this stuff gets out of hand. Depending on whether Tim is a good guy, he’d be happy to do that. And if he isn’t, don’t work with him again.

In other words, this is a cultural practice, which needs to change, but that kind of change is hard, and you just have to do your crummy part in making it change when it concerns you. Another think that you should definitely do is tell other women in your program that, if similar things happen to them, you will be more than happy to advocate for their work. Make an explicit pact with the women and the cool guys that this cultural practice is bullshit and needs to stop.

And, just in case you’re wondering if you’re alone (harhar), make sure you check out this webpage.

Good luck, I’m 100% behind you!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Having gotten over my divorce, I’ve recently turned to on-line dating, like any other introverted nerdy technologist. If I don’t miss my guess, I’m older than your usual audience, let’s say somewhere past you, so I’ve come to accept that the dating process is capricious, and fate or luck, call that as you may, is sometimes the difference.

I’ve found the on-line bit more confusing than the tried-and-true methods of dating simply because it seems that the scoring systems are not working well for humans even if their computations seem fine on their side. Or maybe it’s better stated that they get 75% right and 30% is not just wrong, it’s wacky. For example, they’ll match me with a woman in my area, of the age range I prefer, and our lifestyles seem to match up, but she doesn’t want kids, which is the opposite for me. Or maybe, she loves cats, has cats and is allergic to dogs, where I have a dog. Or, even though I’ve stated a preference for monogamy, they pair me with polyamorous types.

My current approach is simply to get ‘close enough’ on the scoring and then fire away, but I’ve also thought that maybe approaching those who *really* don’t fit my score, just to see if the silly algorithms are working at all.

Your thoughts?

Creature Feature

Dear Creature,

Well, one thing about getting older is that we know what we like way more. This is good and bad. So for example, even just in my 40’s I’ve been figuring out all sorts of things about myself. And that’s cool for me, and make hitherto baffling things from my past way more clear, but that also make me less and less compatible with would-be dates. Luckily my husband and I are happily married, or else I’d be thoroughly undatable.

Or would I? Let me put it this way. When we were 18 we wouldn’t let “she is allergic to dogs” be the reason we were separated from our true love. We wouldn’t give two shits about dog allergies, in fact. So maybe the real problem here is that we somehow get convinced that petty incompatibilities matter deeply. Maybe we should just stop looking at categories that we decide our 18-year-old selves wouldn’t give two shits about.

And that’s the problem with dating sites, as I’ve complained about before. They ask the wrong questions, and the shitty irrelevant data which comes out of those wrong questions get us all confused about what’s important to us. I even made a new set of questions I thought would be better.

Here’s a suggestion: decide on a few things that matter in a strong way (straight woman, for example) and think about dates as things you actually do that exhibit compatibility. For example, propose to go to a musical event of an artist that you actually like, and see if she’s into it. Worst case you get to see a great performance. Or go to a movie you actually want to see with her. Build shared experiences that might bring you together, and explore that side of things. The dog allergies can be overcome if other stuff works.

Good luck!!

Aunt Pythia


Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia

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