Illegal PayDay syndicate in New York busted

There’s an interesting and horrible New York Time story by Jessica Silver-Greenberg about a PayDay loan syndicate being run out of New York State. The syndicate consists of twelve companies owned by a single dude, Carey Vaughn Brown, with help from a corrupt lawyer and another corrupt COO. Manhattan District Attorneys are charging him and his helpers with usury under New York law.

The complexity of the operation was deliberate and intended to obscure the chain of events that would start with a New Yorker online looking for quick cash online and end with a predatory loan. They’d interface with a company called, which would immediately pass their application on to a bunch of other companies in different states or overseas.

Important context: in New York, the usury law caps interest rates at 25 percent annually, and these PayDay operations were charging between 350 and 650 percent annually. Also key, the usury laws apply to where the borrower is, not where the lender is, so even though some of the companies were located (at least on paper) in the West Indies, they were still breaking the law.

They don’t know exactly how big the operation was in New York, but one clue is that in 2012, one of the twelve companies had $50 million in proceeds from New York.

Here’s my question: how did advertise? Did it use Google ads, or Facebook ads, or something else, and if so, what were the attributes of the desperate New Yorkers that it looked for to do its predatory work?

One side of this is that vulnerable people were somehow targeted. The other side is that well-off people were not, which meant they didn’t see ads like this, which makes it harder for people like the Manhattan District Attorney to even know about shady operations like this.

Categories: data science, modeling

Weapon of Math Destruction: “risk-based” sentencing models

There was a recent New York Times op-ed by Sonja Starr entitled Sentencing, by the Numbers (hat tip Jordan Ellenberg and Linda Brown) which described the widespread use – in 20 states so far and growing – of predictive models in sentencing.

The idea is to use a risk score to help inform sentencing of offenders. The risk is, I guess, supposed to tell us how likely the person is to commit another act in the future, although that’s not specified. From the article:

The basic problem is that the risk scores are not based on the defendant’s crime. They are primarily or wholly based on prior characteristics: criminal history (a legitimate criterion), but also factors unrelated to conduct. Specifics vary across states, but common factors include unemployment, marital status, age, education, finances, neighborhood, and family background, including family members’ criminal history.

I knew about the existence of such models, at least in the context of prisoners with mental disorders in England, but I didn’t know how widespread it had become here. This is a great example of a weapon of math destruction and I will be using this in my book.

A few comments:

  1. I’ll start with the good news. It is unconstitutional to use information such as family member’s criminal history against someone. Eric Holder is fighting against the use of such models.
  2. It is also presumably unconstitutional to jail someone longer for being poor, which is what this effectively does. The article has good examples of this.
  3. The modelers defend this crap as “scientific,” which is the worst abuse of science and mathematics imaginable.
  4. The people using this claim they only use it for as a way to mitigate sentencing, but letting a bunch of rich white people off easier because they are not considered “high risk” is tantamount to sentencing poor minorities more.
  5. It is a great example of confused causality. We could easily imagine a certain group that gets arrested more often for a given crime (poor black men, marijuana possession) just because the police have that practice for whatever reason (Stop & Frisk). Then model would then consider any such man at a higher risk of repeat offending, but that’s not because any particular person is actually more likely to do it, but because the police are more likely to arrest that person for it.
  6. It also creates a negative feedback loop on the most vulnerable population: the model will impose longer sentencing on the population it considers most risky, which will in turn make them even riskier in the future, if “length of time in prison previously” is used as an attribute in the model, which is surely is.
  7. Not to be cynical, but considering my post yesterday, I’m not sure how much momentum will be created to stop the use of such models, considering how discriminatory it is.
  8. Here’s an extreme example of preferential sentencing which already happens: rich dude Robert H Richards IV raped his 3-year-old daughter and didn’t go to jail because the judge ruled he “wouldn’t fare well in prison.”
  9. How great would it be if we used data and models to make sure rich people went to jail just as often and for just as long as poor people for the same crime, instead of the other way around?

White people don’t talk about racism

Here’s what comes up in conversations at my Occupy meetings a lot: systemic racism.

Maybe once a week on average, whether we are talking about the criminal justice system, or the court system, or the educational system, or standardized tests, or chronic employment problems, or welfare rhetoric, or homelessness. There are many very well-informed people in my group which can speak eloquently and convincingly about how the system itself, not any particular person (although they do exist), discriminates against minorities in this country.

As a group we cheered when Ta-Nehisi Coates came out with his Atlantic piece entitled The Case for Reparations. So much resonated, especially the parts about widespread reverse redlining of mortgages to minorities in the run-up to the credit crisis. And it finally taught me how to think about affirmative action.

Another thing that comes up sometimes, although less often: how white people, even liberals like Elizabeth Warren, don’t talk about racism anymore. They want to address education inequalities through class-based or income-based measures rather than race-based ones. They talk about unemployment and joblessness and the need for criminal justice reform without referring to the enormous and glaring racial disparities.

I’m left feeling a lot like I felt in 7th grade social studies when we studied the period of mass genocide of American Indians and called it “Manifest Destiny.”

This recent study entitled Racial Disparities in Incarceration Increase Acceptance of Punitive Policies might explain why white people are so reluctant to talk about racism. Namely, because white react strangely when you specifically point out systemic racism (they are OK with it).

So in other words, if you tell them how many people are incarcerated in this country compared to other countries, they think it’s terrible and we should stop putting so many people in jail. But if you tell them most of those prisoners (60% in New York City) are black, then they’re less likely to think it’s terrible. They also remember the number wrong, thinking it’s higher than it is. Here’s a succinct summary from this Vox article:

The question seems to be which instinct wins out: the belief that our prison system isn’t fair, or the assumption that a prisoner must be a criminal. According to the study, when whites are primed to think of prisoners as black, it’s the latter that wins out.

The conclusion of the Vox article is this: politicians and activists have figured out that, if they want to agitate for criminal justice reform, they can’t mention systemically racist unfairness, because that just doesn’t upset powerful people enough. Instead, they need to focus on important stuff like saving money, which is how you get white people people up in arms. That’s what flies in the focus groups, apparently.

It explains why Elizabeth Warren doesn’t talk about race when she talks about student loans, preferring to talk about “young people”, even though the problem is worse for non-Asian minorities. Similarly, Obama is targeting for-profit colleges without reference to race (but with reference to veterans!) even though for-profit colleges notoriously target minorities.

The problem with understanding stuff like this is that it’s primarily used to be politically cunning, which is not enough. I’d like to talk about how to get people to directly confront racism, starting with liberals.

Categories: rant

Aunt Pythia’s advice: delicious crepes edition

Aunt Pythia is going to brag about something this morning.

Namely, how delicious her crepes are. And here’s the thing, she’s generous and like to share. If you were willing to get to her house at 8:06am on a weekend morning, she’d also make you some crepes with fresh fruit. You could sit right there, between two of her darling children covered in nutella. Here’s an idea of what you’d be getting:

We don't usually fold our crepes like that, but you get the idea.

We don’t usually fold our crepes like that, but you get the idea.

But you aren’t here at 8:06am, are you? Too lazy? That’s what I thought. You don’t get any crepes.

But the good thing about the interwebs is that you don’t have to be awake at any particular time to enjoy Aunt Pythia’s advice whenever you so please. Therefore, feast your eyes on the column and then:

please think of something to ask Aunt Pythia at the bottom of the page!

I am almost out of questions!!!

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,

This is not an Aunt Pythia question, I just want to bring to your attention the following post on math overflow entitled How Does One Justify Funding for Mathematics Research.

Also, I guess you don’t read the Daily News – two Aunt Pythia questions I asked were front page on it, but you hadn’t heard about either (Belle Knox and the philosophy professor at Miami). I just read it to mostly find out about the (violent) crime going on in NYC. It makes me depressed and want to leave this town. It isn’t worth it living here: it is way too expensive to live here, too crowded and dirty, and too cold. Do you ever wish you were back in Massachusetts or Berkeley?


Dear NYDN,

I decided that, by the end of that non-question, it was a question worth answering. And thanks for the link, I’ll take a look!

As far as living in New York City, it’s perfect for me for a bunch of reasons which might not resonate with you. For example, I’ve been hugely fortunate to be living in a great and subsidized Columbia apartment since moving here, so that makes it alot easier.

Second, I like the weather to actually change, maybe because I grew up in Boston. It bothered me in Berkeley not to have an autumn. I love autumn. Plus the people in Berkeley get too soft and can’t handle cold weather. So yes, I’m also kind of a macho weather person, although the weather lately has been too temperate to be macho about.

Next, I really really hate regular commuting, with traffic jams and such, and New York is a place where I can walk, bike, or subway anywhere. That’s so cool! I don’t own a car and I never want to again.

Also, and here’s the thing, I like things crowded and dirty. I like people of all ages and races and ethnicities sweating on each other in the subway. So many people! So many languages! It’s incredibly cool, and I never get enough of it. That’s why I like it when the subway stops for an hour in the tunnel and we all end up missing whatever appointments we had and we talk to each and behave like human beings. That’s New York!

Sometimes I even like it when people are rude to each other (as long as nobody is picking on anyone, which bothers me) because it gets out my urban aggression by proxy: just seeing other people be pushy and pointy helps me find my zen. I don’t know how people in suburbia deal with hostility! Maybe through those commuter traffic jams? Too passive aggressive to me, I want it to be face-to-face.

Finally, as for violent crime, it’s inevitable we have some, but overall it’s an incredibly peaceful city. I’ve never been threatened here. By contrast I was definitely threatened in Berkeley a few times, although the early 90’s was a different time. I feel perfectly fine sending my kids outside to walk around by themselves, for example.

Thanks for asking!

Aunt Pythia


Hi Aunt Pythia,

This is not a question. I just wanted to share this song I heard on the radio this morning with you:

It is called Dangerous from Big Data :)


Big Data Strange Music

Dear BDSM,

Three things.

  1. That video is bizarre and awesome, and I’m not surprised you thought I’d love it, especially considering my above confession that I like violence, although it kind of went too far, but on the other hand they kept it silly, which made it tolerable.
  2. I am through with people sending me non-questions. From now on, everything’s a question. I don’t have enough questions left to remove the ones called non-questions.
  3. Nice sign-off!


Auntie P


Aunt Pythia,

Why should the world care about mathematicians? Note that I didn’t say mathematics.

Alter Egoist

Dear AE,

Great question. There does seem to be an obsession with The Mind Of The Mathematician. Maybe because it represents an extreme of sorts? And because people respect mathematics as an achievement of human culture? But that doesn’t explain all the profiles and such. Not sure. I’ll think about that one. Happy to take reader suggestions on this one!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a tenured professor in a good department with many coauthors both senior and junior to me. Like everyone, I have had some failed collaborations, usually because the project didn’t progress and we mutually decided to abandon it. But most of my collaborators have collaborated with me repeatedly on a number of papers.

However there is one strange type of failed collaboration that has happened twice to me in recent years which I cannot comprehend. Perhaps you and your readers might have some insight as to what is going on.

In both collaborations, I proposed the topic and we had good discussions and some exchange of tex files with proofs. Then one day, complete and total email silence. Both times the silence was in response to a request that might take a little while to carry out and so could easily lead to temporary email silence. It could take time to devise a proof of some lemma or decide that it cannot be proven.

Eventually I send a second email mentioning the same question and asking if there is a concern that we need to discuss. I send a third email completely off topic about something else. Usually, when a coauthor is silent for awhile, switching the topic restarts the email exchanges. When this didn’t work I sent an email suggesting we meet in person at an upcoming conference or at one of our departments (funded by me). Finally, after a few months, I emailed the secretary in their respective departments and asked them to print out a note that they should email me and leave it in their mailbox. Still nothing and so I give up some 4 months later.

Well the first collaborator to leave me in total email silence did this about four years ago. I was told by other people he has done this to them as well. The project was very important to me but I have left it aside unsure how to proceed. Do I finish it alone and just put his name on it and send it to him when he’s done? I wasn’t sure. He is important and somewhat powerful. So I just left the project aside.

The second collaborator to leave me in total silence has also left a third junior collaborator in total silence. The junior collaborator and I worked on a different project together while we repeatedly tried to contact him. We finished our other project and contacted the silent partner about returning to the joint project but there is still silence. The junior partner and I are now returning to the original project but solving it in a way complete disjoint from the approach we had been working on with the silent partner. I do not want any suggestion that we stole work from the silent partner but we cannot delay the project any longer. Not when a junior colleague’s career is on the line.

What in the world is going on with these collaborators? What should I do about the first collaborator? At this point they have been silent so long, I do not wish to collaborate with them again even if they suggest returning to the project. I’ve had multiple collaborators in the past who gave reasonable excuses and asked we that postpone working on a project a few months or indefinitely while they handled a job hunt or a divorce or a new baby. In that case, I can wait. But this absolute silence with no reason at all seems to indicate some sort of mental block.


Angrily Bitter And
Notoriously Dangerously Ornery
Non-Existent Demon


Holy shit that’s the mother of all sign-offs.

Plus it’s kind of an awesome question as well. And super long! That makes up for rather short, non-questiony questions that I was making do with until yours.

OK so I think people are just sometimes lame. They drop off the face of the earth. Maybe they just get cold feet, maybe they have consuming mid-life crises, maybe their spam filters go crazy. Chances are, though, they just get overwhelmed with other projects and don’t quite want to shit and don’t quite want to get off the pot either. It’s your job to make them decide which one to do.

Just in case it’s the spam filter problem, do try calling. Also, try talking to a mutual friend? Poke them that way?

Once you’ve tried all those things, I would be very pragmatic about it. Email them and say something along the lines of, “you have two weeks to respond to this and then we are submitting our manuscript without your name on it since you have not been responsive.”

If you want to be double sure of them having a fair chance to get involved, also write them a letter with that message and send it to their department. Don’t hold it against them, they might be dealing with a divorce or a sick kid, you just don’t know, and it’s best to withhold resentment if possible. But no reason to hold back your publications either.

Good luck, ABANDONED!

Aunt Pythia


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Navigating the mindset for data journalism

I’ve been working my butt off this summer starting up a data journalism program and teaching in it. I couldn’t ask for a better crew of students and instructors: engaged, intelligent, brave, and eager to learn. And my class has been amazing, due to the incredibly guest speakers who have given their time to us. On Tuesday we were honored to have danah boyd come talk about her new book It’s Complicated, and yesterday Julie Steele talked to us about visualization and how our technological tools affect our design, which was fabulous and also super useful for the class projects.

I feel like it’s the picture perfect situation for the emerging field of data journalism to be defined and developed. Even so, there are real obstacles to getting this right that I hadn’t anticipated. Let me focus on obstacles that exist within the academy, since that’s what I’ve been confronting these past few weeks and months.

Basically, as everyone knows, academia is severely partitioned between departments, both physically and culturally. Data journalism sits more or less between journalism and computer science, and both of those fields have cultures that are unintentionally hostile to a thriving new descendant. Let me exaggerate for effect, which is what I do.

In cartoonish form, introductory computer science classes are competitive weeder classes that promote a certain kind of narrow, clever, problem-solving approach. If you get your code to work, and work fast, you’re done, and you move quickly to the next question because there’s an avalanche of work and technical issues to plow through.

You don’t get that much time to think, and you almost never address the question of how to do things differently, or why syntax is inconsistent between different parts of python, or generally why a computer language is the way it is and how it could have been designed differently and what the history was that made it so, because you don’t have time and you have to learn learn learn. In other words, it’s kind of the least context-laden and most content-heavy way of learning that you can imagine. You impress people by what you can make work, and how fast, and it is a deep but narrow way of working, kind of like efficient well-digging.

Now let’s paint an equally exaggerated vision of the journalist training. A good journalist collects a ton of information to create a kind of palette for the topic in question, and dives straight into ambiguity or history or bias or contradiction to learn even more, and then starts to build a thesis after such comprehensive information collection has occurred. In other words, the context is what makes a topic interesting and important and newsworthy, and the human and gripping example is critical to illustrate the topic as well as to make it into a story rather than a set of facts. You impress people by your ability to synthesize an incredible breadth of knowledge and then find the hook that makes it a compelling story and draw it out and make it real. This is a broad filtering method where you don’t take the next step until you know you should.

To make it even more dumbed down, journalists are ever aware of the things they know they don’t know, and desperately want to fill in their knowledge gaps because otherwise they feel fraudulent, like they’re jumping to unwarranted conclusions. Computer scientists don’t care about not knowing things as long as their programs work. They can be blithe with respect to messy human details, which of course means they sometimes don’t notice or figure out their data has selection bias because they got an answer, but also means they are super efficient.

Now you can see why it’s a tough thing to teach journalists to code, and it’s also a tough thing to expect coders to become journalists. Both sides emphasize a kind of learning and a definition of success that the other side is blind to.

What would a middle ground look like? In the ideal scenario, it would be a place that appreciates and uses the power of data and programming and spends the time learning the history and searching the inherent human bias of data collection and analysis. That scenario is exciting, but it clearly takes time to build and represents a real investment both by the academic institutions that build it and by the media that eventually hire the data journalists coming from it.

In other words, the outside world has to actually want to hire the emerging thoughtful fruit of that labor. It brings me to other problems for data journalism that largely live outside the academic world, which I might blog about at some other time.

Categories: data journalism

The economics of a McDonalds franchise

I’ve been fascinated to learn all sorts of things about how McDonalds operates their business in the past few days, as news broke about a recent NLRB decision to allow certain people who work in McDonalds to file complaints about their workplace and name McDonalds as a joint employer.

That sounds incredibly dull, right? The idea of letting McDonalds workers name McDonalds as an employer? Let me tell you a bit more. And this is all common knowledge, but I thought I’d gather it here for those of you who haven’t been following the story.

Most of the McDonalds joints you go to are franchises – 90% in this country. That means the business is owned by a franchisee, a person who pays good money (details here) for the right to run a McDonalds and is constrained by a huge long list of rules about how they have to do it.

The franchise owner attends Hamburger University and gets trained in all sorts of things, like exactly how things should look in the store, how customers should be funneled through space (maps included), how long each thing should take, and how to treat employees. There’s a QSC Playbook they are given (Quality, Service, and Cleanliness) as well as minute descriptions of how to organize their teams and even the vocabulary words they should use to encourage workers (see page 24 of the Shift Management Guide I found online here).

McDonalds also installs a real-time surveillance system into each McDonalds, which can calculate the rate of revenue brought in at a given moment, as well as the rate of pay going out, and when the ratio of those two numbers reaches a certain lower bound threshold, they encourage franchise owners to ask people to leave or delay people from clocking in. Encourage, mind you, not require. They are not the employers or anything remotely like that, clearly.

Take a step back here. What is the business model of a franchise? And when did McDonalds stop being a burger joint?

The idea is this. When you own a restaurant you have to deal with all these people who work for you and you have to deal with their complaints, and they might not like the way you treat them and they might organize against you or sue you. In order to contain your risks, you franchise. That effectively removes all of those people except one, the franchise owner, with whom you have an air-tight contract, written by a huge team of lawyers, which basically says that you get to cancel the franchise agreement for any minor infraction (where they’d lose a bunch of investment money), but most importantly it means the people actually working in a given franchise work for that one person, not for you, so their pesky legal issues are kept away from you. It’s a way to box in the legal risk of the parent company.

Restaurants aren’t the only business to learn that it’s easier to sell and manage a brand than it is to sell and manage an actual product. Hotels have been doing this for a long time, and avoid complaints and legal issues stemming from the huge population of service workers in hotels, mostly minority women.

For a copy of the original complaint that gave the details of McDonald’s control over workers, read this. For a better feel for being a McDonalds worker, please read this recent Reuters blog post written by a McDonalds worker. And for a better feel for being a McDonald’s franchise owner, read this recent Washington Post letter from a long-time McDonalds franchise owner who thinks workers are being unfairly treated.

Does that sounds confusing, that a franchise owner would side with the employees? It shouldn’t.

By nature of the franchise contract, the money actually available to a franchise owner is whatever’s left over after they pay McDonalds for advertising, and buy all the equipment and food that McDonalds tells them to from the sources that they tell them to, and after they pay for insurance on everything and for rent on the property (which McDonalds typically owns). In other words the only variable they have to tweak is the employer pay, but if they pay a living wage then they lose money on their business. In fact when franchise owners complain about the profit stream, McDonalds tells them to pay their workers less. McDonalds essentially controls everything except one variable, but since it’s a closed system of equations, that means the franchise owners have to decide between paying their workers reasonably and going in the red.

That’s not to say, of course, that McDonalds as an enterprise is at risk of losing money. In fact the parent corporation is making good money ($1.4 billion per quarter if you include international revenue), by squeezing the franchises. If the franchise owners had more leverage to negotiate better contracts, they could siphon off more revenue and then – possibly – share it with workers.

So back to the ruling. If upheld, and there’s a good chance it won’t be but I’m feeling hopeful today, this decision will allow people to point at McDonalds the corporation when they are treated badly, and will potentially allow a workers’ union to form. Alternatively it might energize the franchise owners to negotiate more flexible contracts, which could allow them to pay their workers better directly.

Categories: economics, news

You used to be a feminist before you got pregnant

Today I’d like to rant about a pattern I’ve noticed.

Namely, I have a bunch of female friends and acquaintances that I consider feisty, informed, and argumentative sorts. People who are fun to be around and who know how to stick up for themselves, know how to spot misogyny and paternalism in all contexts, and most of all know how to dismiss such nonsense when it appears, and then get on with whatever they were doing.

And then they get pregnant and the lose most if not all of those properties. They get doctors who tell them what to eat, and how much, even though they’ve been doing quite well feeding themselves for 30 odd years without help. They get doctors who tell them how much pain killers they should have during labor, when it’s months and months before labor and we don’t even know what’s gonna happen. What gives?

Here’s a guess. Partly it’s the baby hormones that make you generally confused when you’re pregnant. The other part is that the stakes are high, and you are not an expert, so you defer to your baby doctor. Plus there’s all those ridiculous and scary pregnancy books out there which just serve to make women neurotic and should be burned. Oh and sometimes the doctors are women so they don’t seem paternalistic. But that’s what it is:

Screen Shot 2014-08-04 at 4.16.49 PM

But here’s the thing, there’s not much evidence about exactly how you should eat when you’re pregnant, unless you are doing something absolutely weird. And, in spite of what a no-drugs doctor might suggest, it’s not all that dangerous to babies to have pain meds. In fact it’s super safe to have a baby now compared to the past, both for you and and your baby. And thank goodness for that.

On the flip side, a doctor has no business dictating to you that you will have an epidural either, which is what happened to my mom back in the 1970’s. It’s really your choice, and you should decide.

So if you have one of those pushy-ass doctors, fuck ‘em. This is your body, you get to decide that stuff. Go get a new doctor.

And to be sure, I’m not saying you shouldn’t inform yourself about risks and signs of pre-eclampsia and other truly important stuff, but for goodness sakes don’t forget your feminist training. It’s not just your baby here, it’s also you, and yes you deserve to eat food you want to eat and to moderate pain if it gets overwhelming. You will be happier, your baby will be just fine, and she or he won’t remember a thing. Consider it training for how to be a mom later.

Categories: rant

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