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