Archive for August, 2012

Automated call centers and superorganisms

Once upon a time there were people who worked in the insurance office and you could talk to them on the phone or even in person (annoying emphasis intentional).

Now everything is online and you need to call an automated call center to try to conduct business if there’s been an accident or they made a mistake or if you have a question which isn’t “how much do I owe the insurance company?”.

Recently my friend Becky got stuck in the penetralia of an automated call center and she likened the experience to the life of an ant and specifically to the “superorganism hypothesis” of myrmecologist E. O. Wilson (BTW, who here doesn’t love the word “myrmecologist”?). Her description:

Whether or not this is an accurate representation of their inner state, ants have long been described as having an automaton’s machine-like nature, one in which individual identity is subsumed under the totalitarian will of the collective in Borg-like, Communist wetdream fashion.

That’s how I feel when I’m lost in the labyrinthine bowels of automated customer service hell. I’m part of a network that works profitably at the superorganism level, but doesn’t serve the interests of the individual in the slightest, nor cares to nor purports to, driven as it is by the spare logic of collective efficiency.

Question: what is less human than the rigid caste societies of Army ants marching hollowly and inexorably on their prey, driven by the dictates of their genes?

Answer: only the hollowed-out computer-generated voice of the quasi-British phone operator who demands that you enter your social security number over and over again as an exercise in surrendering your will to a corporation whose power role in the financial arrangement is made ever more apparent to both parties by the dawning impossibility of ever speaking to a human at the end of the interminable and ultimately futile phone call.

Powerful analogy; I’ve tended to use the herded cows analogy myself. To entertain myself in the painful waits, I often emit audible “moos” to emphasize the forced passivity I object to. It sometimes backfires and interprets my sounds as a menu choice, though, so I’m thinking of going with the ants, who I don’t think make much noise.

A few thoughts:

  • If you know you need to talk to a person eventually and that there’s no point going through all the stages, sometimes just dialing “0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0” a bunch of times will put you straight through. I usually try this straight away the first time I call. Sometimes it works, sometimes it totally fails and I have to call back. Worth a try.
  • I wonder how efficient these call centers really are. I have a theory that people simply give up and pay (or default on) their incorrect bills rather than having to deal with this irredeemably opaque system.
  • I also wonder what the built-up learned passivity does to us as a society. Having worked as a customer support person myself, I know that there are probably nice people at the other end of the system, and if I could only get through to them, which is a big if, they’d be super informed and helpful. But most people probably don’t think of it that way.
Categories: musing

Citigroup’s plutonomy memos

Maybe I’m the last person who’s hearing about the Citigroup “plutonomy memos”, but they’re blowning me away.

Wait, now that I look around, I see that Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism posted about this on October 15, 2009, almost three years ago, and called for people to protest the annual meetings of the American Bankers Association. Man, that’s awesome.

So yeah, I’m a bit late.

But just in case  you didn’t hear about the plutonomy memos (h/t Nicholas Levis), which were featured on Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: a Love Story” as well, then you’ll have to read this post immediately and watch Bill Moyer’s clip at the end as well.

The basic story, if you’re still here, is that certain “global strategists” inside Citigroup drafted some advice about investing based on their observation that rich people have all the money and power. They even invented a new word for this, namely “plutonomy.” This excerpt from one of the three memos kind of sums it up:

We project that the plutonomies (the U.S., UK, and Canada) will likely see even more income inequality, disproportionately feeding off a further rise in the profit share in their economies, capitalist-friendly governments, more technology-driven productivity, and globalization… Since we think the plutonomy is here, is going to get stronger… It is a good time to switch out of stocks that sell to the masses and back to the plutonomy basket.

The lawyers for Citigroup keep trying to make people take down the memos, but they’re easy to find once you know to look for them. Just google it.

Nothing that surprising, economically speaking, except for maybe the fact that their reaction, far from being outrage, is something bordering on gleeful. But they aren’t totally complacent:

Low-end developed market labor might not have much economic power, but it does have equal voting power with the rich.

This equal voting power seems to be a pretty serious concern for their plans. They go on to say:

A third threat comes from the potential social backlash. To use Rawls-ian analysis, the invisible hand stops working. Perhaps one reason that societies allow plutonomy, is because enough of the electorate believe they have a chance of becoming a Pluto-participant. Why kill it off, if you can join it? In a sense this is the embodiment of the “American dream”. But if voters feel they cannot participate, they are more likely to divide up the wealth pie, rather than aspire to being truly rich.

Could the plutonomies die because the dream is dead, because enough of society does not believe they can participate? The answer is of course yes. But we suspect this is a threat more clearly felt during recessions, and periods of falling wealth, than when average citizens feel that they are better off. There are signs around the world that society is unhappy with plutonomy – judging by how tight electoral races are.

But as yet, there seems little political fight being born out on this battleground.

This explains to me why Occupy was treated the way it was by Bloomberg’s cops and the entrenched media like the New York Times (and nationally) – the idea that people are opting out and no longer believe they have a chance of being a Pluto-participant is essentially the most threatening thing they can think of. Interestingly, they also say this:

A related threat comes from the backlash to “Robber-barron” economies. The
population at large might still endorse the concept of plutonomy but feel they have lost out to unfair rules. In a sense, this backlash has been epitomized by the media coverage and actual prosecution of high-profile ex-CEOs who presided over financial misappropriation. This “backlash” seems to be something that comes with bull markets and their subsequent collapse. To this end, the cleaning up of business practice, by high-profile champions of fair play, might actually prolong plutonomy.

This is what Dodd-Frank has done, to some extent: a law that makes things seem like they’re getting better, or at least confuses people long enough so they lose their fighting spirit.

Finally, from the third memo:

➤ What could go wrong?
Beyond war, inflation, the end of the technology/productivity wave, and financial collapse, we think the most potent and short-term threat would be societies demanding a more ‘equitable’ share of wealth.

Note the perspective: what could go wrong. Lest we wonder who inititated class warfare.

Categories: #OWS, finance, rant

School starts next week

I know I’m not alone when I say, thank god school starts next week. These kids need to be back in school.

Not that I don’t adore the little lovemuffins, or that I don’t enjoy spending time with them, or that I enjoy hearing them whine about homework. It’s been great, and we’ve watched quite a few good movies in the past few days (for some reason they didn’t enjoy “12 Angry Men” or “Contact” as much as they should have, though).

Don’t get me wrong, I am happy for them to have summer vacation. I just wish we could all take a pill about a week before school actually starts that puts us in a coma for exactly one week. Is that too much to ask?

It wouldn’t help to make summer one week shorter, either. That would just move up the insanity one week sooner. No good. We need that pill.

I’m not employed right now, and I’m trying to find time to write and to plan my future. But it’s kind of hard to do that when my three sons are actively coming up with ways to simultaneously talk louder than anyone knew was humanly possible and to fight ferociously about such things like who gets to play with the cardboard boxes from the last Fresh Direct delivery.

I’m not gonna lie, I’ll be glad when they’re gone. I’m counting the hours. T minus 166.

Categories: Uncategorized

The country is going to hell, whaddya gonna do.

Yesterday I finished reading Chris Hayes’s book “Twilight of the Elites,” and although I enjoyed it, I have to say it was more about the elites than about their twilight.

He focused on the enormous distance between people in society, how the myth of meritocracy is widening that gap (with healthy references to Karen Ho’s book Liquidated, which I blogged about here), and how, as the entrenched elite get more and more entrenched, they get less and less competent.

But Hayes didn’t really paint a picture of how things would end, although he mentioned the Tea Party and Occupy as possible important sources of resistance, not unlike Barofsky’s recent book Bailout (which I blogged about here), in which Barofsky appealed to the righteous anger of the people to whom government is no longer accountable.

Well, I guess Hayes did add one wrinkle which surprised me. He said it would be the upper middle class, educated class that actually foments the coming revolution. Oh, and the bloggers (because the mainstream media is so captured they’re useless). So me and my friends.

His argument is that we are the ones sufficiently educated and sufficiently insiderish that we will be at the window, with our faces pressed against the glass, looking in at the true insider elites, and seeing how stupid and incompetent those guys are, and how they are rigging the system against the rest of us, and we’ll eventually explode with disgust and righteous anger and that will signal the end.

Kind of feels like that’s already happened, but maybe I’m being impatient.

Two things I really enjoyed about his book:

First, the fact that practically everyone thinks they’re an underdog and has fought tooth and nail to succeed in this world. Absolutely true, including the guys I worked with in finance. I think the phrase he used is “people born on third base think they hit a triple”.

Second, he does a really good job describing the never-can-be-too-rich culture of our country; his example of going to Davos is an excellent one and brings that concept to life perfectly.

It’s enough to get you kind of depressed overall, though. If we are to believe this book’s thesis, our entrenched elite and dysfunctional political structure and economic system are doomed to fail at some future moment, and the best we can hope for is a moment where the hypocrisy collapses in on itself. What is there to look forward to exactly?

I asked that of a friend of mine, and how it was getting me down. His advice to me was to own it more. To make the coming apocalypse an event, kind of like the 4th of July or a vacation, that you plan for and enjoy thinking about.

He said plenty of people do this, it’s in fact a huge industry of doom and gloom. The country is going to hell, whaddya gonna do, he said, might as well have some fun with it.

What? Who are these doom and gloom people? Start here, where Dmitry Orlov compares the preparedness of the US to the former USSR for the coming inevitable apocalypse. He calls this the “Collapse Gap”.

It’s got some great points (although he can’t both say that lawlessness ensues and people take what they want, and also say that people behind in their mortgages will be homeless) and it’s really funny as well, in a completely cynical, Russian way of course. My favorite lines:

One area in which I cannot discern any Collapse Gap is national politics. The ideologies may be different, but the blind adherence to them couldn’t be more similar.

It is certainly more fun to watch two Capitalist parties go at each other than just having the one Communist party to vote for. The things they fight over in public are generally symbolic little tokens of social policy, chosen for ease of public posturing. The Communist party offered just one bitter pill. The two Capitalist parties offer a choice of two placebos. The latest innovation is the photo finish election, where each party buys 50% of the vote, and the result is pulled out of statistical noise, like a rabbit out of a hat.

Categories: musing

What makes us fat

I recently finished a book that made rethink being fat, and the cause of the worldwide “obesity epidemic”. Rethink in a good way.

Namely, it suggested the following possibility. What if, rather than getting fat because we are overeating, we overeat because we are getting fat? Another way of thinking about this is that there’s something going on that makes us both store fat away and overeat – that they are both symptomatic of some other problem.

In particular, this would imply that the fact of being fat is not a moral weakness, not a mere lack of willpower. Since I long ago dismissed the willpower hypothesis myself (I don’t seem to have trouble with other aspects of my life which require planning and willpower, why do I have so much trouble with this even though I’ve seriously tried?), this idea comes as something of a “duh” moment, but a welcome one.

To get in the appropriate mindset for this idea, think for a moment about all of the studies you hear about feeding animals such as rats, rabbits, monkeys, pigs, etc. different diets, and noting that sometimes the diet makes them super fat, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the animals are bred to have a genetic defect, or a pituitary or other gland is removed, and that has an effect on their fatness as well. In other words, there’s some kind of internal chemical thing going on with these animals which causes this condition.

Bottomline: we never accuse the fat mice of lacking will power.

So what is this thing that causes overeating and fat accumulation? The theory given in the book is as follows.

Fat cells are active little chemical warehouses which accept fat molecules and allow fat molecules to leave in two separate (but not unrelated) processes. Rather than thinking of fat as being stored there until the moment it is needed, instead think of the flow of fat molecules both into and out of each fat cell as two constant processes, so it’s actually better to consider the rate of those flows, the inward rate and the outward rate.

Suppose the outward rate of the fat molecules is somehow suppressed compared to the inward rate. So the fat molecules are being allowed into the fat cells just fine but they aren’t leaving the fat cells easily. What would happen?

In the short term, this would happen: lacking the appropriate amount of energy, the overall system would feel internally starved and get super hungry and quickly cause the animal to overeat to compensate for the lack of available energy.

In the longer term, the number of fat cells (or maybe the size of the average fat cell) would increase until the energy flow is sufficient to satisfy the internal needs of the system. In other words, the animal would gain a certain amount of weight (in the form of fat) and stay there, once the internal equilibrium is reached. This jives with the fact that people seem to have a certain “set point” of weight, including overweight. Indeed the amount of fat an animal has in equilibrium allows us to estimate how suppressed the outward flow of energy is.

What causes this suppressed outward rate? The book suggests that it’s elevated insulin. And what causes chronic elevated insulin? The book suggests that the main culprit is refined carbohydrates.

In particular, the author, Gary Taubes, suggests that by avoiding refined carbohydrates such as flour, sugar, and corn syrup, we can bring our insulin levels down to reasonable levels and the outward rate of fat from fat cells will no longer be suppressed.

Not everyone reacts in exactly the same way to refined carbs (i.e. not all insulin responses are identical) and scaled definitely matters, so eating 180 pounds of sugar a year is worse than 90 pounds a year, according to the theory. Moreover, things get progressively worse over time and it takes about 20 years of carb overloading to have such effects.

It’s easier said than done to avoid such foods as an individual living in our culture (nothing at Starbucks, nothing at a newsstand, almost nothing at a bodega), but one thing I like about this theory is that it actually explains the obesity epidemic pretty well: as the author points out, massively scaled refined carbohydrates have only been consumed at such rates for a short while, and the correlations with weight gain are pretty high.

Moreover, and I know this from personally avoiding most carbs for the past 6 months (which I started doing for another, related reason – I hadn’t read the book yet!). I’ve lost weight easily, and I haven’t ever been hungry, even compared to what I used to experience when I wasn’t dieting at all. According to the theory, my fat cells are releasing fat easily because my insulin levels are low, which means I don’t have internal starvation, which in turn explains my complete lack of hunger.

Also in the book: he claims we don’t actually know eating saturated fat raises cholesterol, nor that high cholesterol causes heart disease except when it’s super high, but then again it also seems to be bad to have super low cholesterol.  I gotta hand it to this guy, he’s not afraid of going against conventional wisdom, at the risk of being ridiculed, which he most definitely has been.

But that doesn’t make me dismiss his theories, because I’m pretty sure he’s right when he says epidemiology is fraught with politics and bad selection bias.

It’s certainly an interesting book, and who knows, he may be right on some or all scores. On the other hand, maybe it doesn’t matter that much – not many people want to or are willing to avoid carbs, and maybe it’s not environmentally sustainable, although I don’t eat more meat than I used to, just more salad.

We are now ruling out the idea that people don’t exercise enough as the cause for being fat, and as we’ve attempted to follow the advice of the so-called experts, everyone seems to just get fatter all the time. As far as I’m concerned, all conventional bets are off.

Categories: musing, statistics

#OWS update

I’m happy to show you that Alternative Banking now has a working blog, thanks to a newer member Nicholas Levis. He blogged recently about a Reality Sandwich event I went to last Wednesday, where David Graeber, author of Debt: the first 5000 years was speaking. Interesting and stimulating.

We also have a playing card project called “52 Shades of Greed” which is coming out soon. Check out some of the amazing art here.

Finally, we are about to launch a Kickstarter campaign for our “move your money” app, as soon as I figure out how to accept the money without doing something illegal. Please tell me if you have experience with such things!

More exciting things in the works which I can’t talk about yet. I’ll keep you updated.

Categories: #OWS, finance

NSA mathematicians

When I was a promising young mathematician in college, I met someone from the NSA who tried to recruit me to work for the spooks in the summer. Actually, “met someone” is misleading- he located me after I had won a prize.

I didn’t know what to think, so I accepted his invitation to visit the institute, which was in La Jolla, in Southern California (I went to UC Berkeley so it wasn’t a big trip).

When I got to the building, since I didn’t have clearance, everybody had to stop working the whole time I was there. It wasn’t enough to clean their whiteboards, one of them explained, they had to wash them down with that whiteboard spray stuff, because if you look at a just-erased whiteboard in a certain way you can decipher what had been written on it.

I met a bunch of people, maybe 6 or 7. They all told me how nice it was to work there, how the weather was beautiful, how the math problems were interesting. It was strangely consistent, but who knows, perhaps also true.

One thing I’d already learned before coming is that there are many layers of work that happen before the math people in La Jolla are given problems to do. First, the actual problem is chosen, then the “math” of the problem is extracted from the problem, and third it’s cleansed so that nobody can tell what the original application is.

Knowing this (and I was never contradicted when I explained that process), I asked each of them the same question: how do you feel about the fact that you don’t know what problem you’re actually solving?

Out of the 6 or 7 people I met, everyone but one person responded along the lines, “I believe everything the United States Government does is good.” The last guy said, “yeah, that bothers me. I am honestly seriously considering leaving.”

Needless to say, I didn’t take the job. I wasn’t yet a major league skeptic, but I was skeptical enough to realize I could not survive in such an environment, with colleagues that oblivious. They also mentioned that I’d have to stop dating my Czech boyfriend and that I’d need to submit information about all my roommates for the past 10 years, which was uber creepy.

Nowadays I hear estimates that 600 mathematicians work at the NSA, and of course many more stream through during the summer when school’s not in session, both at La Jolla and Princeton. Somehow they don’t mind not knowing how their work actually gets used. I’m not sure how that’s possible but it clearly is.

This mindset came back to me, and not in a good way, when I read this opinion piece and watched this video in the New York Times a couple of days ago.

William Binney, a mathematician, was working on Soviet Union spying software that got converted to domestic spying after 9/11. In other words, they used his foreign spying algorithm on a new data source, namely American citizen’s raw data. He objected to that, so strongly that he’s come out against it publicly.

The big surprise is how come they let him know what they were actually up to. My guess is he was high enough up the chain that they thought he’d be okay with it – he’d been there 32 years, and I guess he was considered an insider.

In any case, watch the video: this is a courageous man. The FBI came into his house with guns drawn to intimidate him against his whistleblowing activities and yet he hasn’t been cowed. Indeed, after getting dressed (he was coming out of the shower when they exploded into his house), he explained to them the crimes of George Bush and Dick Cheney on his back porch.

As he explains, “the purpose is to monitor what people are doing”. He explains how people’s social media data and other kinds of data are linked over domains and over time to build profiles of Americans over time: “you have 10 years of their life that you can lay out in a timeline, that involves anybody in the country”.

Describing the dangers of this program, Binney was extremely articulate:

  1. “The danger here is that we could fall into a totalitarian state like East Germany”
  2. “We can’t have secret interpretations of laws and run them in secret and not tell anybody. We can’t make up kill lists and not tell anybody what the criterion is for being on the kill list”
  3. “Just because we call ourselves a democracy doesn’t mean we will stay that way.”

There you have it. The good news is that that guy is no longer helping the NSA do their thing.

But the bad news is, plenty of mathematicians still are. And if you want to find a community more trusting and loyal than mathematicians, I think you’d have to go to a kindergarten somewhere. Not to mention the fact that, as I described above, the problems are intentionally cleaned to look innocuous.

Another example, possibly the most important one of all, of mathematics being manipulated to potentially evil ends. We will have trouble proving actual evil consequences, of course, since there’s no transparency. The only update we will get is via the next whistleblower who can handle guns pointed at him as he leaves his shower.

Categories: data science, math, news, rant