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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Is it illegal to lie to the police?

The question of whether it is illegal to lie to the police (brought to my mind by the viral video of Amy Cooper falsely telling the NYPD that "an African-American man is threatening me") is a great window into the epistemology of law.

Here is the answer I contributed to the question on Quora, where the answers were deeply inadequate:

Most of these other answers do a poor job of conveying the reality of what “illegal” means, in reality.

There are tons of laws that could be argued to apply to any given action. For instance, if you tell a police officer you had one drink when you really had three, it’s conceivable that that act in and of itself could be prosecuted as a crime in many states. But it basically never would be, because to police, it doesn’t really matter; they’re not really asking you if you drank tonight to gain information, but to hear how you answer, and to smell your breath.

On the other hand, if you called and falsely told the police that there was a police car on fire at some location and an officer bleeding in the street, and there had been a rash of false reports to the police in your area, then you very well might face prosecution.

What’s the difference? Is one act legal, and the other illegal? Well, you could read this law or that law and make a case for various interpretations, but in practice what matters is what the effect of your action is, and if police and prosecutors feel motivated to focus on it. Most states have enough laws on the books that significantly inconveniencing, harassing or impeding the work of police officers is something they can punish, on the basis of one law or another.

Note also that the most common punishment for crime is NOT prosecution. That is, most crime that gets punished in the US never goes before a judge, even as part of a plea deal. Most crimes that are punished are punished simply by arrest and release—police make someone stop and search them a bit, or make them sit in the car, or put them in handcuffs and take them to the station, maybe make them spend a night or a weekend in jail (arresting people on a Friday, so they’ll not be fully processed and released until Monday, is a common practice). Filing paperwork for someone is a hassle, and also sometimes police officers feel sympathetic to some people and don’t think an offense deserves prosecution. So, often police will just inconvenience the person. Often that person has indeed broken some official regulation; often they haven’t, or the police suspect that they did but don’t really know. So did they “do something illegal”? It’s not really easy to say, and that’s really not the right question.

Often there are no charges filed at all, or there are charges initially filed and then withdrawn. (Often, as well, the person’s belongings are stolen by police—they never make it to the itemization list when the person is processed, or they are listed but then come back with money or other contents removed. I’ve witnessed multiple people pleading with the NYPD at local stations for the return of their belongings taken this way, and they would have absolutely no reason to lie.)

It also matters a huge amount who you are, and how much attention the police expect your arrest and/or prosecution to attract. People are often rounded up with zero suspicion by the police that they have committed crimes, for instance at protests; in NYC, people have been thrown into paddy wagons while on their way to work, totally mystified at why they’re being arrested, only to be released hours or days later, never having been charged.

It’s simplistic, and essentially incorrect, to say “Yes, lying to police is a crime, it’s called _____________” or “No, lying to police is not a crime”. Smart lawyers never talk to each other that way! The idea that some things “Are Crimes” is a simple gloss that the unthinking public is told, but not at all how crime and punishment actually work.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Anti-vaxxers are a bastion of diversity of opinion

A friend asks: "Honest question: are anti-vaxxers against any and all vaccines?"

Without looking, I'm sure there's a vibrant online community with lots of discussion, lots of evaluations of various vaccines, and many people not opposed to all of vaccines.

This is how nonsense works. It's only outsiders who assume a nonsense community is internally absolutist. You'll find a huge diversity of expressed opinion within, for example, QAnon, biohacking, Tim Ferriss's books of hacks, etc. There can be that diversity because no one is there to hold anyone, least of all themselves, accountable. People watch, read, and listen to a ton of content, with no one bothering to really sort it out and find the coherent and repeatable truths in there. That's not what they're there for -- they're there for the certainty, for the community, for the sense of superiority, and for the escapism.

So these communities have a high tolerance for incoherence. Anti-vaxxers aren't against any and all vaccines. Except when they are. Sure, they'll give their kid a coronavirus vaccine. They'll also repost conspiracy theories about it. They have no shame about their own intellectual rigor or hypocrisy. They are warriors fighting a battle and need ammunition, leeway, and allies. They aren't keeping score of their own intellectual consistency!

The simple fact is that coherent and repeatable truths, which stand up to scrutiny and encounter with reality, are few and far between. Those of us who insist on them know how infrequent they are, how meager and paltry. We only settle for that meal because we care so much more about reality than illusion. We'd rather eat the hardtack we made ourselves than plug into the Matrix and eat Agent Smith's filet mignon.

Of course, that's nothing new! Religion has been working this way for millenia. As soon as you separate belief from the need to be coherent, anything goes -- which means you can actually tolerate a high degree of disagreement within a cult. The guru preached celibacy? But he also just slept with my friend? I can synthesize that, no problem -- I already have my bag of nonsense from the guru in the first place.

My favorite, most straightforward example: many people who claim to believe Jesus was the most important person in the history of the universe definitely do not act like it. Most never even bother to learn what his name was. Who cares? Most aren't trying to investigate real stuff, they're just enjoying the belief, being part of the tribe, having a firm sense of purpose.

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Thursday, December 26, 2019

Thoughts on Cuarón's Roma

I just finally watched Alfonso Cuarón's Roma, and absolutely loved it.

I'm aware of the critique that the story of Cleo/Manita, the indigenous domestic worker who is the main character of the film, wasn't Cuaron's to tell, and isn't his to know, anyway.

But I thought the film operated from an awareness of that, not an ignorance of it.

I experienced Roma as a movie about external surfaces--of places, events, people--and how unknowable others are if we only know them by their surfaces. Cleo is certainly treated like an alien cipher. But so are the parents, grandma, kids, and political background; the real workings of people and the world are hidden everywhere, with the realities of labor, nature and even physics subsumed beneath a facade that the ruling class (and ruling race) thinks it has bought and paid for.

Some critics have complained that Cleo has little texture as a character. But I didn't read her as boring or shallow at all; in Yalitza Aparicio's focused performance, and the camera's steady focus on her, I saw a wide range of experiences and thoughts. It was that inner life, in contrast with the narrow opportunities for agency open to her, that felt so arresting to me.

Her relationship with the children, among whom Cuarón clearly seemed to see himself, was fascinating, lovely and also disturbing. I read the class and racial structures around Cleo as forcing her to do emotional labor--often unpaid--to appear loving, without allowing her to be known. The children think they love her, and they do, in a sort of way that is steeped in her service to them, and mostly--but not completely--one-sided. They know nothing about her, and never will. Cuarón shows us that even when the family acts familial toward Cleo--taking her furniture shopping, for example--they still have so little curiosity about her that they have no idea when she was born, when the question comes up.

And yet, through all this exploitation, Cleo still struggles persistently to build a life. Meanwhile, around her, a movement for an economy of greater human meaning explodes: the one outward expression in the movie which is genuine and unfiltered, and not presented for its surface imagery or its pantomime.

The possibility of a deeper change is there; but it's stolen by the state, by patriarchy, and by the ways Cleo's life is made to conform to her exploitative work. Her employment, her betrayal by men, and the movement's destruction by the state are all connected by a common thread.

That was my read, but it also comes through my own lens, and I'm sure there's lots that that's missing!

Sunday, November 17, 2019

We've been working on "I've Been Working on the Railroad"

Friends have been posting this call, by Katya Ermolaeva, for songs with a history in minstrel performance not to be sung in kids' music classes.

I disagree with that call.

The racism in our folk music heritage is real. But I'm not sure the song's origin in racism renders the process that removed its racism irrelevant -- in this case, by changing the lyrics used in racist versions of the song, and framing the song differently.

Because the creative work that people do to remove racism from our cultural and political heritage is also real. It's as real as the racism that is in that heritage in the first place.

The US flag meant family separation, rape, and murder for people of color when it was first created, and still means imperialist violence for people today; but it can be a very real symbol of freedom.

Same with the national anthem; when I sing it, I'm singing to Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Fred Hampton, Daniel Ellsburg, Chelsea Manning, Sally Hemmings, Mark Twain, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Can't I sing "I've Been Working on the Railroad" in that spirit too?

Aren't I part of the creative labor that creates that performance?

Isn't my contribution valid, my vision of appreciating the unpaid labor of others, of mourning their pain, of celebrating their workplace humor and nicknames for machinery (both hated and loved), and of reclaiming this twisted remnant of their lives for them?

Another question: is there really no place for pieces of history that were wrong about things in our classrooms? Isn't it important to read the original draft of the Constitution, with its enshrining of the power of white male landowners, in order to understand its part in oppression? Shouldn't we study expression that was wrong, as well as expression that was right?

Not that any creative work is entirely one or the other. I think sometimes when people rule works of art, folk art or otherwise, as no longer enjoyable, they fall prey to an illusion -- promoted by capitalism's discovery that art sells best under this illusion -- of thinking art has a single creator and a single true inherent purpose.

But all art is the contribution of many intentions and efforts, and your part in it, as a viewer or singer, is part of its creation.

I do want to take the concerns that Dr. Ermolaeva is speaking to seriously, at the same time as I balk at her approach. Should the ability of children to understand the complex history of art be a requirement before they experience it creatively? Should I keep my kids away from Jewish songs until they can explain Jewish persecution and Palestinian dispossession?

I think, as with concerns about cultural appropriation, that much of the concern comes from the notion of people somewhat mindlessly using, for their casual entertainment, something which deserves respect. I do see how careless use of songs with partial origins in racist minstrel performance just repeats the racism of the past, in more sugary form. And, I think that concern mixes in complex ways with the reality that each teacher, and each singer, creates a work of art anew through performance.

But I'm wary of responding to children's creative performance with the impulse to silence and cite history as being trampled by the children. Is that impulse really about a problem with the children and what they are creating when they sing a song that has unclear origins, was partially rewritten by racists, and then rewritten by anti-racists?

Or is this debate about adults, and we should leave kids' performance out of it?

"I've Been Working on the Railroad" may have been used by racists. But it doesn't belong to racists. Their racism doesn't get to live, rent-free, in our minds or in our classrooms. History is made by the people! Here we are, with our Huckleberry Finns, our Othellos, our Eddie Murphy: Raws, our Manhattans, and our "I've Been Working on the Railroad"s.

What are we going to do with them?

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Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The cultural appropriation that I cheer

Some cultural appropriation, without consent, which I not only tolerate but cheer, in honor of Halloween:

      A child who isn't any of these things dressing as a witch
      ...or a blood-sucking Central European nobleman
      ...or the Jewish hero The Thing
      When we dressed up as Shakers at Shaker village, and felt transported to another time
      Soviet Union teenagers seeing American rockers in jeans and leather jackets and copying their look
      Butch women rocking menswear
      Black people in the 19th century passing as white for th
    eir safety
      Me enjoying trying to pass as French when in France
      Me wearing the Puerto Rican jersey of Roberto Clemente, long past able to give his consent
      A black kid dressing up as Moana
      A Latina kid dressing up as Elsa
      A white kid dressing up as Aladdin
      David Bowie dressing up as Aladdin Sane
Many people wouldn't think of these as examples of cultural appropriation. The definitions I know run something like: "taking cultural signifiers that originated with others and using them for your own purposes". In my reading, such a definition must include the examples in my list.

Significantly, I think it's possible to imagine someone in each of these cases feeling offended by the taking of their culture by someone they see as outside it, for reasons that might seem superficial, thoughtless or inappropriate. I'd have some sympathy for some of those offended people, and none for some others!

Cultural appropriation is sometimes great, sometimes a mixed bag, sometimes unintentionally offensive, sometimes deliberately offensive, sometimes a purposeful way to oppress others while they're trying to feel fun and free.

Like a lot of things, it's the way it's done, why it's done, who it's done with and for, and how it reflects people's understanding of others that matters, not the lone fact of it's being cultural appropriation at all.

There are unimaginative people who work hard and just love a character from a movie and get the rare chance to dress up and look amazing. Yes, they should know history and know a wider spectrum of people and listen to people about what offends them. And, it can be wrong to treat them all as though in their appropriation, they have committed an act of deliberate cruelty.

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Sunday, September 08, 2019

The MIT Media Lab's greatest hits

With the MIT Media Lab in the news, friends have been asking me questions about it.

One common question is, what are the Lab's greatest accomplishments? It's easy to see its open academic model as vague and prone to hot air, and that's not always wrong. If you compare the Lab's output to most similar-sized departments at elite universities, the record seems impressive. But of course the more immediate and common comparison is to hard science departments at MIT, and that's a tall order.

The Lab's mission is to avoid incremental work within existing lanes of research, and to explore the possible future in more ambitious and inter-disciplinary ways. (Or, as former director Joi Ito has put it, anti-disciplinary ways.) The hope is that this widening of perspective can open up new kinds of possibilities, ones that might not be conceivable if the faculty were subject to the traditional mechanisms by which departments use research to demonstrate their value.

All that said, here's my short list of greatest hits:

* CRISPR (teams there are among the many teams around the world that contributed to its discovery and refinement)
* One Laptop Per Child (no one thought a $100 laptop was close to possible, but they shipped tens of thousands of them, pushed innovations that demonstrated that devices like the Chromebook could be built and had a market, and several Central and South American countries still use the actual OLPC device)
* the Kindle (key e-ink research was done at the ML)
* Scratch (where I work now; programming website for kids; about 10mm monthly active users in 100+ countries, and around 50mm kids per year create projects, mostly in school)
* LEGO robotics (developed through a 30-year partnership with Scratch's group)
* tons of innovations in mechanical prosthetic limbs
* innovation in airbags that was used in improving their rate of false deployments
* Guitar Hero (first created at the lab and then spun off)
* BuzzFeed (lots of Jonah Peretti's research on viral storytelling was at the lab)
* AdaFruit (hardware and custom microcontroller store, created by ML alum Limor Fried, aka LadyAda)
* Sifteo cubes
* the Computer Clubhouse Network of international, free creative tech learning centers for kids
* RFID research that led to ambient RFID being usable, hologram research that is used in most holograms
* the UI ideas that were used in Minority Report
* some of the core research in collaborative filtering
* wireless mesh networks
* the MPEG-4 video codec
* and the "Stop SOPA" campaign.

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Thursday, September 05, 2019

Questions for the Media Lab

My current questions for the Media Lab, in the wake of the scandal around having solicited, and received, donations from Jeffrey Epstein:
  • Is it possible that Epstein's involvement in Joi Ito's funds created a relationship where it was harder for him to see the question of soliciting, or accepting, Epstein's money for the Media Lab in an independent light? Harder, that is, than if the ML had a policy of not soliciting or accepting donations or investments for both the Media Lab and the director's own funds from the same donors?
  • Did Epstein invest in Joi Ito's outside funds before his Media Lab funding? During? After?
  • Did Epstein ever appear on the various public lists of funders of the ML? If not, was his absence unusual? Are there other funders who are not listed now, even as an anonymous donor?
  • In what forms would it have been possible for professors or students in the ML to see that Epstein was funding the ML, before Ito's email? Is it fair to call the funding "secret"?
  • When did other people in the ML communicate with Joi Ito about whether or not to accept Epstein's funding? Were there any group or public discussions?
  • When discussions did take place between Joi Ito and other ML people about whether to accept Epstein's funding, at those times did Ito already have an outside financial relationship with Epstein? If so, did Ito reveal this during the discussions?
  • What is the nature of the funding and support from Epstein that Push Singh's 2005-ish dissertation refers to? Did Singh ever travel to an Epstein property?
  • While visiting Epstein properties, did Ito ever hear about or see evidence of Epstein getting a massage? Was Ito ever offered a massage, and did he ever receive a massage?
  • According to some sources, there was at least one press release by Epstein that claimed he was funding something Media Lab-related, which he wasn't. The ML denied it, and I've read elsewhere that it was a total fabrication by Epstein. My question is, what was the ML's internal response to this? It strikes me that a former criminal, lying about funding the Lab, is something of a red flag. Were there ever discussions about cutting him off from further funding?

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Thoughts on the Media Lab's all-hands disaster

Here are my thoughts, coming out of the Sept. 4th, 2019 Media Lab all-hands meeting (which you can read about here), which I attended.

None of this is meant to reflect the thoughts or experiences of my employer or anyone else.

First, Nicholas Negroponte's outburst is overshadowing the broader questions and concerns about how this meeting was organized, conceived and executed, but there were major problems there.

Others have other particular complaints, but to me the most tone-deaf aspect were the repeated dismissive remarks about social media and "extreme" voices. If someone is legitimately furious, they have every damn right to speak their mind, and social media is just other people who listen. It might not be a great forum for everyone to debate -- god knows -- but is in-person argument necessarily better? I felt insulted, not least of all because it had taken weeks for this carefully designed, officially sanctioned forum to take place.

Second, the feeling in the room when Nicholas Negroponte spoke up was awful. Seriously, he is supposed to be a leader, and his unscheduled speech and bickering was the worst example of leadership I've ever witnessed in person. It's important to point out how extremely precise the speaking order, and list of speakers, were. Yet when he called for an unplanned turn to speak, he was given a microphone immediately.

That's not to say that he wasn't honest, or that his remarks weren't valuable -- though, I think, not in the way he intended. I thought the portrait he painted of the reality of fundraising, and the deep coziness of the wealthy and powerful with those who, like Nicholas, can dispense meaning and purpose for their money, was revealing. As was his full-throated defense of the decision to take Epstein's money. It peeled back the veil on how power and money and gender operate -- in ways I don't think he intended to reveal.

In a sense, Joi Ito had been saying taking Jeffrey Epstein's money had been a departure from his values, and the Media Lab's values.

Nicholas was saying the opposite.

And in a way, that supports the students and faculty who are pressing for deeper, more substantial change. If this episode was part of the inseparable spine of the institution, and not just a boil, you can't exactly just lance it like a boil.

It also felt much clearer to me in his heated exchange that this episode is tied, for many, to long trends of how women are used and excluded in the institution. Joi and the admin team deserve immense credit for improving that, particularly with the percentage of Media Lab students who are women. But it felt clear to me that there is pressure, and need, for a deeper reckoning with the ways the billionaires' club and fundraising not just didn't include women, but didn't imagine women's concerns and voices. There is pressure and need for a deeper reckoning with the ways sexual harassment, assault and exploitation have been treated as a side issue, rather than one that -- absent a public relations crisis -- needs all-hands attention.

It may be that the Epstein money is getting that attention not because it's worse than what has been going on, but because it became part of the zeitgeist to the point that donors are skittish. Emblematic of this is that after the meeting, when Nicholas approached someone to resume arguing (not trying to be cagey about names, just not trying to tell someone else's story), there was quickly a group of several women pleading with him to stop. But it wasn't until Joi came and led him away that he actually did stop.

What if they had been men? What if they had been professors? What if they had been billionaires? And what if the women who Media Lab professors have hurt with their sexual exploitation were professors? Were the Provost? Were on the MIT board? Were billionaires?

What I keep thinking of is Joi Ito's promise to approach healing the Lab through "restorative justice." For that to be more than a catchphrase will take some serious work. How do you interrupt and rewrite the patterns by which mostly white men circulate power, permission, and authority? Should Joi bring women and people of color to those meetings with billionaires? Should he resign and be replaced by a leadership of women and people of color?

I also think it's important to realize how many people don't think taking the money was such a bad thing. That was only briefly alluded to.

Everyone has lines they won't cross. Everyone. It's just a matter of what outrages you, infuriates you and disgusts you to the point where you can't do business with someone -- even if the public will never find out. It's mind-boggling to me that Nicholas Negroponte still doesn't see that not only was it a strategic mistake for him to court Epstein as a donor and as a personal associate, but it is a sign that he, and the institution he built, were deficient in human understanding and ethics at the time.

And, clearly, still are.

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Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Complicity and civility

I'm struggling with this question right now: where is the line between making change through relationship, and enabling abuse?

I think it's a mistake to hold onto surface civility at all costs. And, I think there's a real tendency in the left to recast our own exclusion of others, dehumanization of others, and political violence in self-righteous terms.

I also think we undervalue the norms of surface civility that the cruel and hateful do often stick to. I think we're often dealing with people on the right who have a significant amount of desire watch the world burn, and make others as miserable as they are themselves; in other words, they're much more in the market for incivility than we are. I think from their perspective, an incivility arms race is winnable, whereas from ours it is not.

Most of all, I think it's a bit dangerous for us to act as though there is an easy answer to the question of what to do about all the powerful people motivated by cruelty. Don't appease and enable them! Of course. But then, what? What's the plan? Does the racist gang calling itself a militia really cower in the face of the show of force? Or does that mostly give them license to do much worse?

I think one of the most significant casualties in the Trump era is the rigor of thinking on the left. We are so obviously, incredibly obviously on the right side of history, I don't think we're doing much entertaining tough questions about how to win and hold power and what to do with it. Why was the CFPB so vulnerable to an illegal takeover by a Republican administration, when other federal offices aren't? What are the most important structural changes we could win to peel back the legal entrenchment of disproportionate Republican and white voting power? Do we want to make DC and Puerto Rican statehood core parts of our agenda? How do we pursue entitlements so that they will receive the widespread support that Social Security does, instead of the widespread derision that AFDC and WIC do? How do we use wedge issues like gay rights to our advantage, now that most Americans agree generally with the left? How do we incubate the next few generations of democratic leaders, so we don't wind up with so many lost opportunities to run competitive congressional and Senate races? How do we take seriously the ways that regulatory complexity allows large, powerful players to navigate the system better than new entrants?

I just see a dozen self-congratulatory posts about how awful the Republicans are right now for everyone that is asking difficult questions of Democrats or progressives.

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Thursday, August 29, 2019

Educational apps I recommend

A fellow parent recently asked me to recommend educational video games for an eight year-old, saying "her own research is being dictated by North Korean programmers as far as I can tell."

I asked if he meant educational as in "this is what i think would have developed my brain most at 8", or educational as in "pretty clearly is a version of school"? He said the former.

Here is my rough list. It's iPhone-centric, but many of these are available on Android too:

  • Music: iPhone: Beatwave, Keezy Drummer, Clapping Music
  • Coding: iPad: Cargo-bot, Code Monkey, Lightbot; web: Scratch,, CodeHS, Lightbot
  • Video creation: iPhone/iPad: iMove, My Create
  • Art creation: iPad: Tayasui Sketches School
  • Interactive art: iPad: Plug & Play, Metamorphobet; iPhone: Device 6
  • Social games: iPhone: Bounden, Heads Up
  • Physics and puzzles: iPhone/iPad: Build a bridge!, Monument Valley, Blackbox, I Love Hue, Time Turner
  • Math: iPhone/iPad: Dragonbox, Splash Math

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Friday, June 21, 2019

Alan Brinkley, an incurious historian

Columbia University history professor Alan Brinkley has died.

I took his lecture course on US history from WWI to WW2. I found his lectures very informative and clear, but I also got the sense that he dismissed historical interpretations to the left of the centrist historical consensus without really considering them.

When Seymour Hersh published a big takedown of JFK in 1997, Brinkley wrote a review for I think Newsweek or Time -- I can't find it online. I was a bit shocked that he dismissed most of Hersh's accusations -- the assassination attempts JFK and RFK orchestrated, the mob connections, the womanizing -- as old news, as if the public already knew as much of it as historians did, or as if it didn't matter.

He also dismissed conspiracy theories about the US military knowing in advance about the Pearl Harbor attack. I think he's probably right about that, but as I recall, he said it without even a sliver of doubt that we know everything everyone involved knew half a century ago, and without acknowledging that the attack solved a huge political problem for the military which could have provided an incentive to look the other way -- even unintentionally.

The distinction I'm making is subtle. I've never seen convincing evidence that the Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory is correct, and I think people convinced of it are not thinking rigorously. But that doesn't mean that there is no convincing evidence of the theory, or that we know of no compelling evidence of the theory. In particular, I think institutions have a powerful way of creating convenient blind spots that let a group of people act out intentions that no individual may be conscious of. There is evidence that the military at the time not only wanted to enter the war, but desperately wanted a decisive causus belli to sway a reluctant public into full-throated support for the war. And there has been lots of criticism by military tacticians since that points out how bizarre it was for the military to assemble so many targets in a single location without preparations for defense. Does that mean the military specifically knew of that specific attack? No, but it may mean that there was a practical strategy either not to apply the normal amount of precaution, or to tempt the Japanese military into a political and military tactical error.

In short, in both of these areas, I think there is much there that a curious historian can and should engage. But Brinkley seemed to find these areas of inquiry unworthy of consideration, of focus or of respect. I think that's a mark of poor history scholarship.

But I was also looking for excuses to criticize my professors in those day... and probably still am!

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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Should teachers instruct kids to use "academic language"?

A colleague sent me a link to a lesson guide about teaching students "academic language".

His reaction was horror, especially at lines like:

When they hear themselves “sounding smart,” it is a source of excitement and motivation in the classroom.

A few scattered thoughts:

First, I share my colleague's worry that focusing on "sounding smart" sends the exact wrong message, as if only the elite have complex or worthwhile ideas, and as though the goal is to imitate the elite's worst and most superficial traits rather than developing complex thinking and articulation organically.

That said, I think one thing to keep in mind is that some of us, including me, come from backgrounds where we can take many educational privileges for granted. Growing up, I could take for granted that I would be immersed in language and knowledge that would make me familiar with a wide vocabulary and a wide breadth of experience. I could take for granted that I'd have decent ability to adjust my phrasing and terminology to match formal or academic situations.

This isn't just a matter of learning some rote rules--it means the ability to communicate clearly and convincingly. For instance, in my programming work, when I write a bug report issue, I know to be specific and explicit because I'm very familiar with how hard it can be to parse someone else’s casual and vague language, even when they know exactly what they mean. To my colleague, I'd ask them to imagine if I wrote in an issue just that something vaguely “worked”, as opposed to writing more specifically “I was able to see the user’s profile” or whatever. My guess is they'd feel left in the dark a bit.

I’m a bit playing devil’s advocate, because I share a lot of my colleague's reservations about this type of approach. But I think it’s worth noting that there are specific pieces of knowledge and experience that are not available to many learners, if teachers are not specifically introducing them. To skeptics, I'd challenge them: are you so sure it does the students a service to act as though it’s ok if they never learn or experience this background information, or only learn it if they organically come to the intention of learning them?

Still, I agree this piece is awkward. I think much of the point doesn’t need the “academic language” framing to hit on something valuable.

One of the most valuable learning experiences I ever had was to write a regular opinion column in my college newspaper, because my editor insisted that I present my thinking clearly, and wouldn’t print it until it was good--at least, good at presenting the argument that I set out to present. I had had no idea how little rigor I was applying to my own thoughts, and how much I had a tendency to hide behind vagueness, rhetorical tics, and assumptions.

I think it’s hugely valuable to be forced to be more specific about what you mean, and I don’t think that needs to be a question of academic context specifically, though I can see how that could be a convenient entry point to it. A lot of this piece is really just talking about learning to write, which requires organizing your thoughts, examining what you said against what you meant, and empathizing with a reader who doesn’t have extra context.

A hard thing about prescriptive academic proposals is that most of the time, it’s possible to imagine some teacher and student for whom the proposal would work well. And, it’s possible to imagine others for whom the proposal would get in the way of authentic learning.

I think it’s hard to summarize the quality of a proposal overall; a more valuable step might be to imagine situations where it would and wouldn’t be appropriate, and try to add it as a tool to your toolbelt, and also to remember the inappropriate version so as to avoid it.

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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Thoughts on Bird scooters

Just tried a Bird for the first time, in Mexico City of all places. (Kind of symbolic that innovation would be embraced more avidly here than in the hand-wringing cities I've lived in the US in the past few years.)


1) My daughters (7 and 10 years old, I'm sure this violated the terms) had such a great time riding it back and forth that we spent over an hour, just on one block.

2) It was super easy to ride and I felt very, very safe. My daughters got the hang of it quickly. They had a few close calls with pedestrians, but they're kids. Kind of made me resent the adults who crash into people and ruin it for the rest of us. 

3) The same speed felt a little scary on the scooter that would feel completely normal on a bike. This makes me wonder if I'd ever use one for commuting if a bike were available.

4) It seemed like the highest speed was unnecessarily fast. I was surprised it goes that fast; setting the max speed a bit lower would make me feel better about everyone else riding then.

5) The price is great, and I could try it for a buck. I love paying as I go without having to worry about subscriptions and such. The least you can possibly spend on Citibike is like $10 which I think is exclusionary and also the wrong upfront pitch.

6) the brake felt stiff and hard to reach, even for my big hands. My daughters could barely pull it at all, and it didn't seem to have anything wrong with it.

7) The wheels are just big and bouncy enough; it really rode well on CDMX's cracked sidewalks.

All in all, an amazing (and belated) experience! I hope the Boston area gets these.

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Monday, May 27, 2019

A personal taxonomy of Hogwarts houses

My family's current favorite topic is which Hogwarts house various people should be in. This requires a bit of reinterpretation, because in the Harry Potter books, the house identities are not very fleshed out, and they encourage the sense that Gryffindor is the best, and Slytherin and Hufflepuff the worst. (Or rather, the most despicable and unimportant, respectively.)

Here's how we've redefined the houses:

Gryffindor: summarized in the books as those who are brave, though that's not a very helpful definition. We've settled on a definition of those who are concerned first and foremost with justice and principles, even at the cost of some discord. Gryffindors want to make a point of things, and might have a hard time compromising or communicating. Examples: Liz Warren, AOC, Bill Russell. You might map the Enneagram personality types 1 (the Reformer) and 8 (the Challenger) to Gryffindor.

Ravenclaw: summarized in the books as those who are clever. We've decided this doesn't only mean those who like to study schoolbooks! In our telling, it means people who relish the world of the mind: they use intellect and reasoning as their first line of encounter with the world, and they seek wisdom, experience and exposure to new things. They're more concerned, ultimately, with understanding new ideas and parsing arguments than with who is ultimately helped or hurt. Ravenclaws could have a hard time in situations where their theories aren't working. Examples: Barack Obama, Anthony Bourdain, Matt Yglesias, Gregg Popovich. You might map the Enneagram personality types 5 (the Investigator) and 7 (the Enthusiast) to Ravenclaw.

Hufflepuff: kind of never defined in the books; I think there's one line that calls them "loyal". We've decided this means people who are first and foremost helpers, whose instinct is to help before they might, say, try to articulate a view of the systemic roots of a problem, or put themselves out there to change it. Might have a hard time when their good intentions aren't appreciated. Examples: doctors, Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Bradley, Pete Carroll. You might map the Enneagram personality types 2 (the Helper) and 9 (the Mediator) to Hufflepuff.

Slytherin: in the books they're basically the evil ones, but if you try to articulate their identity positively, I think you get something like Ayn Randism: power as something of the natural right of each person, and the focus of life as a struggle of various powers for their due, and space to be heard. Might agree that the ends justify the means. Examples: Fidel Castro, Ayn Rand, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant. You might map the Enneagram personality types 3 (the Achiever), 4 (the Individualist) and 6 (the Loyalist) to Slytherin.

An interesting wrinkle is that people can change over time, or have layers -- e.g., pre-Hajj Malcolm X was a Ravenclaw whose public face was a Gryffindor, but El-Hajj Malik El Shabazz became a Hufflepuff. Oprah's brand is Hufflepuff, but behind the scenes she's super Slytherin. Running against Obama, Hillary Clinton positioned herself as a Slytherin, but by all accounts she's a total Ravenclaw.

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Thursday, April 25, 2019

Intersectionality is conservative

It's striking that conservatives dismiss intersectionality as "any claim of oppression excuses any misbehavior", when it actually very much argues the opposite -- that patterns of oppression exist within each oppressed group, and not just without.

It's actually a very conservative philosophical critique -- that progressive claims to redress by feminists, people of color, LGBTQ folks, religious minorities, and people with disabilities should not be taken as a license by anyone to ignore the duty to be decent and just.

It's an appeal to timeless values, in the face of the tendency for them to be obscured as artificial social hierarchies and poisonous ideologies are brought down.

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