The New York Real Estate Mafia

Sometimes your conspiracy theory turns out to be absolutely true.

Over the past few years, primarily due to conversations I’ve had at my weekly Alt Banking meetings, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the crazy real estate industry in New York City and New York State. A few pertinent facts:

I am really hoping we can clear up this mess and end the corruption in the New York real estate market soon. Housing is a big deal.

Categories: Uncategorized

Occupy Summer School #OWS

I’m super excited to announce that the Alt Banking group is creating a summer school program, which we’re calling Occupy Summer School. The project has a webpage with more details, but briefly:

  • It will last three weeks, taking place in a downtown Brooklyn high school.
  • The first week we will bring in cool and inspiring organizers and activists who will hopefully connect with the kids
  • The second week we will delve into topics and the kids will decide what they care about and, by the end of the week, what they will protest and how,
  • The third week the students will plan the protest, including training on safe protesting techniques, they will stage it and write it up, and hopefully help the issue get media attention.
  • So far we have ideas for the first week, including a few of our really interesting and thoughtful members going to facilitate conversations around what’s going on in Baltimore, and how to stage a creative protest, involving our very own Marni Halasa:marni
  • We are starting to line up speakers for the second week, but we are waiting on a focus group to come back to us from the students to see what topics they get really excited about. We want them to more or less lead the way.

What an exciting project! I can’t wait for it to start.

Categories: #OWS

China announces it is scoring its citizens using big data

Please go read the article in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant entitled China rates its own citizens – including online behavior (hat tip Ernie Davis).

In the article, it describes China’s plan to use big data techniques to score all of its citizens – with the help of China internet giants Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent – in a kind of expanded credit score that includes behavior and reputation. So what you buy, who you’re friends with, and whether you seem sufficiently “socialist” are factors that affect your overall score.

Here’s a quote from a person working on the model, from Chinese Academy of Social Science, that is incredibly creepy:

When people’s behavior isn’t bound by their morality, a system must be used to restrict their actions

And here’s another quote from Rogier Creemers, an academic at Oxford who specializes in China:

Government and big internet companies in China can exploit ‘Big Data’ together in a way that is unimaginable in the West

I guess I’m wondering whether that’s really true. Given my research over the past couple of years, I see this kind of “social credit scoring” being widely implemented here in the United States.

Aunt Pythia’s advice

People! PEOPLE! Aunt Pythia needs your help!!

Here’s the thing, dear readers. Aunt Pythia screwed up royally. She told you a couple of weeks back that she had plenty of questions, and in a sense she did, but that was misleading, and moreover it has backfired tremendously.

You see, Aunt Pythia finally read all those questions, and for some reason they were almost entirely spammy, nonsense questions, and moreover none of them were at all about sex, so that’s also a terrible fact. Don’t do this to me, it’s uncalled for.

But the worst part is that, since Aunt Pythia (wrongly) declared her mailbox full, she’s not receiving new letters! In fact, it’s a dire situation, and Aunt Pythia might be shutting down the advice bus and selling it off for spare parts before the week’s end unless something is done.

Is this not the saddest sight in the whole wide world? And it's made even sadder because it's in black and white.

Is this not the saddest sight in the whole wide world? And it’s made even sadder because it’s in black and white.

We’re talking urgent sex questions, down below, stick ’em in, and pronto. Aunt Pythia desperately loves her job and doesn’t want to stop. Her standards are low but please make it coherent and sex-related.

That request once again:

ask Aunt Pythia a made-up sex question at the bottom of the page!

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,

Super Pi day = “Once in a century”?

What about in Europe where dates are written:

So April 31, 2015 is:

Dated in Europe

Dear DiE,

First, condolences for your unfortunate sign-off.

Second: hey, I was thinking the same thing – what if you write it in some other base? Like, using this online calculator, you can convert any base 10 number into whatever (integral) base you’d like. They even have the option to use “pi” or “e” or “sqrt,” because they are good nerds! That gives you a ton more “Super Pi Days,” if you’re creative enough.

And if you do it more generally, you could even choose a non-integral base! Hey, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that, allowing the base to be arbitrary, and allowing dates to be written European or American style would mean that most dates qualify as “Super Pi Days.”

To be clear, it doesn’t mean those days becomes less super, just that almost every day is super. Or maybe pi is always super. In any case, it would be an awesome excuse to party every day whilst feasting on pie.


Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

When I grade, I spend about 10 minutes grading. Then I spend 5 minutes thinking the world is doomed. Then I calm down a bit, and spend 5 more minutes thinking that just my students are doomed. Then I spend 5 minutes thinking about how it’s all my fault because I’m an incompetent teacher. Then I spend 5 minutes thinking about how little anything I could have done differently would have made a difference. Then I spend 5 minutes thinking about how I’m wasting my time with these idle thoughts, and 5 more minutes considering that not having these idle thoughts would be intellectually dishonest. Around this time, I’m ready to go back to grading, at which point the cycle repeats itself.

Obviously, I can’t really afford to always spend 4 hours doing grading that should really take 1 hour.

Any advice for dealing with this?

Feeling Absolutely Incompetent Looking Upon Results on Exams


Here’s the thing. Your expectations are all wrong. Instead of being disappointed when not everyone understands everything, you have to be overjoyed when someone understands something. Also, you need to learn how to trick yourself into a success story. Let me tell you how it’s done.

What I do when I grade is create an internal environment inside my head, kind of a suspension of disbelief zone, where I lower my expectations to to the point where I’m like, man I hope someone passed this test.

Then I charge ahead with grading like a steamroller, practically holding my breath the entire time, and I don’t let myself breath until all the grades are added up and plotted in a histogram. At that point I’m like, ok here’s the distribution of scores, I will define the grades so that, by construction, a good portion of people have passed. That way my fantasies always come true, even if the scores are crowded down around 17.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

What is your take on what is happening in Seattle with restaurants? To me, it was predictable that restaurants would not be financially viable with $15 an hour wait staff. We apparently assumed that it would work and so forced the issue on that basis. Was this another case where our left-wing activist buddies ignored science and economics, or am I just too much in the hip pocket of rapacious big business?

Between Planets

Dear Between,

Wait are you talking about recent closures of Seattle restaurants blamed on the minimum wage hike? Well, I google “Seattle restaurants minimum wage” and immediately came upon this article arguing that it is a bogus claim.

In any case restaurants go out of business all the time, it’s a crazy industry. Anybody looking for evidence that they are going out of business for a given reason would have plenty of statistical noise ready and willing to distract them. I’d have to look at many years of data to be convinced.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I try not to pay attention to politics, but I have become increasingly worried as I can’t help but hear about things that seem threatening. I want to live in the same country that I grew up in, where we were free to think what we wanted, and if we dared, to speak about it. I also liked the fact that we voted for representatives who served in Washington, making votes for us. I don’t want to live in a new Venezuela with a new supreme leader. I hope that I am panicking needlessly. Sorry for a political topic. I am generally an insurgent, in that my first vote for president was for Eldridge Cleaver. In 1980, I voted for John Anderson. I am sorry that I voted for Ron Paul in 1988, but that is water over the dam. I would like to vote for Elizabeth Warren, if she would dare to run. What can we do?

Sonoma Soul


Good news, Bernie Sanders is running. Bad news, money in politics paired with the new micro-targeting strategies probably mean that no insurgent will ever win again. This is ironic considering that Obama was an insurgent and won but also built the modern micro-targeting machine. He closed the door behind him.

Aunt Pythia


Congratulations, you’ve wasted yet another Saturday morning with Aunt Pythia! I hope you’re satisfied, you could have lazed about in your pajamas for longer. Oh wait, you’re still in your pajamas, I take it all back. Well done.

But as long as you’re already here, please ask me a question. And don’t forget to make an amazing sign-off, they make me very very happy.

Click here for a form or just do it now:

Categories: Uncategorized

In defense of dowdy

I’ve been thinking recently about the definition of “civilization.” What makes a society civilized? I have some guesses, here are a few guesses, kind of in order of obviousness:

  • A place where grown men don’t get harassed when they walk around minding their own business. I’m looking at you, broken windows policies.
  • A place where young girls don’t get sexually harassed when they walk around minding their own business. I’m looking at you, India rape culture.
  • A place where young girls and grown women aren’t constantly bombarded by messages that they are expected to conform to a male fantasy definition of beauty. I’m looking at you, almost everywhere. But specifically Brazil.

Here’s what I’d like to see: a series of articles in places like NY Magazine, that directly contrast to articles about how French women use makeup – but spend only 15 minutes on it per day – and still look amazingly sexy, or don’t diet and still look amazingly sexy, and so on.

I’d like instead an article specifically written for the woman who wants to know where they can walk around minding their own business and being utterly indifferent to their appearance, and they won’t be bothered. Let’s defend our right to be dowdy as shit.

Special kudos to places where young women can walk around dressed in anything they want and still be left alone.

So tell me, do you know of any places like that?

Categories: Uncategorized

Looking for big data reading suggestions

I have been told by my editor to take a look at the books already out there on big data to make sure my book hasn’t already been written. For example, today I’m set to read Robert Scheer’s They Know Everything About You: how data-collecting corporations and snooping government agencies are destroying democracy.

This book, like others I’ve already read and written about (Bruce Schneier’s Data and Goliath, Frank Pasquale’s Black Box Society, and Julia Angwin’s Dragnet Nation) are all primarily concerned with individual freedom and privacy, whereas my book is primarily concerned with social justice issues, and each chapter gives an example of how big data is being used a tool against the poor, against minorities, against the mentally ill, or against public school teachers.

Not that my book is entirely different from the above books, but the relationship is something like what I spelled out last week when I discussed the four political camps in the big data world. So far the books I’ve found are focused on the corporate angle or the privacy angle. There may also be books focused on the open data angle, but I’m guessing they have even less in common with my book, which focuses on the ways big data increase inequality and further alienate already alienated populations.

If any of you know of a book I should be looking at, please tell me!

Sharing with whom?

I’ve been skeptical of Uber and other so-called “sharing economy” companies for a while. It seems like they are making money by skirting regulation and pretending not to have employees; they are a “platform” for matching people who want services with people willing to provide them, and as such they don’t have the legal responsibility of a traditional company. Or at least that’s the idea. Plus it is offensive to think of the word “share” in this context.

But my complaints have remained relatively vague, until this morning, when I read two articles about the issue.

First, Sharing and Caring by Tom Slee, published by Jacobin. He nailed it:

Meanwhile delivery giant DHL has launched its MyWays delivery service, powered by “people who want to deliver parcels and earn some extra money.” TaskRabbit and others call their workers “micro-entrepreneurs,” but that is a poor description of precarious piecework. The preferred phrasing of “extra money” harks back to women’s jobs of forty years ago. And like those jobs, they don’t come with things like insurance protection, job security, benefits — none of that old economy stuff.

Next, The Class-Action Lawyer Shaking Up the Share Economypublished in The Recorder (hat tip Nathalie Molina). It profiles a lawyer named Shannon Liss-Riordan who is going after the sharing economy companies to first acknowledge, then pay their employees better wages and benefits. From the article:

“Uber is what, the most highly valued startup in the world right now?” she asked. “Valued at over $40 billion? I think they can afford to pay for workers’ comp and unemployment.”

Categories: Uncategorized

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