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Sunday, January 17, 2021

Vaccine prioritization

At this point, sates have all sorts of criteria on who has what priority.
But whose job is it to decide if a given person fits the criteria? 
Like, I have had cancer. I haven't had any tumors detected in several years. But do I "have" cancer? I mean I hope not, but I still spend medical money because of my cancer, and I'm still at elevated risk for recurrence. 
I got hit by a car on my bike a few years ago and got a concussion, which we now know causes permanent brain damage, even if each instance doesn't cause much. Do I have a neurological impairment? 
I suppose one answer is, if I can get any licenced doctor to write a note saying I do, then that should be acceptable. But still, whose job is it to look at my documentation, compare it to the state's criteria, and confirm that I qualify? 
That's the sort of question that can be surprisingly murky in healthcare (for example, there's a concept of "primary" insurance and "secondary" insurance but no one knows whose job it is to classify a patient's insurance that way)

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Monday, January 11, 2021

Who has the ability to approve an active-crisis deployment of the National Guard to DC?

There's a key question here that it's bafflingly difficult to find journalists trying to answer: Who has the ability to approve an active-crisis deployment of the National Guard to DC?

The NYTimes has been vague on whose authority is actually required to send in National Guard troops; they don't seem to have made any mention of the "it was Pence who approved the National Guard" claim, that Matt Yglesias and others have mentioned. (See search here: )

In today's main article, the NYT alludes to a Pentagon official needing to get approval, but leaves it at that, which strikes me as frustratingly lax reporting. Does the NYT know whose approval was required? Obviously if Trump commanded it it would happen; but how far down the chain does that ability go, in theory? "Deployment" is a vague term itself, of course, and all military troops (and police) have some kind of standing authorization to defend violent situations in their immediate vicinity. But if there were, say, active shooter terrorists attacking the White House and the president was unreachable, it's not like the military would just shrug and wait for orders. How is this stuff supposed to work? If reporters can't find anyone who knows, that's a huge story in and of itself, isn't it? And if they can find people who know, why the heck aren't they reporting the answer?

Matt Yglesias seems to suggest that it was Trump's responsibility to approve the National Guard deployment, but I also haven't seen that mentioned in other coverage, and it's not mentioned in the article he links to.

Who has the ability to approve an active-crisis deployment of the National Guard to DC?

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Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Attempting to understand support for Trump

Here's my best attempt at explaining Trump's unflagging support.

Trump's flaws are a feature, not a bug. Liberals felt similarly about Bill Clinton -- Clinton was a relatable shmuck who needed us, and that need made us feel passionately defensive of him in the face of the fact that he committed a serious crime, perjury.

Trump shouldn't make it in Washington -- Washington thinks it's better than him, and sneers at Trump supporters. It's only because of the fierceness of their adulation that his career survives. His supporters aren't listing their values and finding that he aligns best with them; they're being unlikely heroes, and making an unlikely hero succeed. When Luke Skywalker is douchey, Star Wars lovers don't cringe and regret their support for him -- his doucheyness is why he needs our faith, and what makes his coming through glorious. That glory simply doesn't exist with, say, Marco Rubio or John Kasich.

To be clear, I think Donald Trump is probably the single worst human being in the United States, and it's a testament to the corruption of the justice system that he has never spent time in jail for his innumerable crimes. I think it's likely he literally committed a crime every day of his adult career.

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Sunday, December 20, 2020

Dry landscape, a poem

I miss this, getting into mischief in the hills
and figuring our way back
creeping down the ravine on our butts
like 2 year olds, holding
hands over the unsteady parts
and not letting go after.

It’s so hard to get lost these days,
adventure is just a Yelp category
and the broad strokes of human history,
persecution and misery and bombs
are something we have
opinions about
but aren’t real to us
the way thirst is real.

I never even go this long without water,
this out of balance.
Having small sips at my fingertips
makes me forget true thirst,
the thirst that leaves your tongue
and burrows into your bones.

Take me away from my comforts,
to the place where I politely
left my desire.
I thought I’d used up my fair share,
but now I’m tearing my bones open
to be poured into. Lose me
and let me be completely


Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Supportive unanimity

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt proposes an explanation for some difference in the worldview of conservatives and liberals by showing experimental results that suggest conservatives are more considerate about sanctity and desecration than liberals. There is a fixation on purity, which connects to an affinity for tradition and an aversion to violations of tradition, real or imagined.

In recent years, I have wondered if his framework was missing a parallel aspect of the liberal mind: something you might call "supportive unanimity". On issue after issue, I find myself surprised that progressive friends take any deviation from a "protective" worldview as a sort of betrayal. What's interesting to me is that there is relatively little curiosity about the landscape of these "protective" views; the safe place seems to be in assuming everyone sees a long list of make issues the same way.

So you get, for example, surprisingly little interest in gender identities that don't fit the popular progressive view, such as Eddie Izzard's identity of frequently switching from man to woman and back again; and work by allies that isn't easy to categorize, like the wonderfully queer short story "I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter", gets pilloried and censored.

It's important to recognize the positive value of supportive unanimity. As with other core values that Haidt points to, there is nothing inherently good or bad about it; it performs a function, and that function can be good or bad, at different times and from different perspectives. I think the positive function it plays is protection of the weak; it is a sort of overreaction to potential bullying by the majority, that signals to bullies and the bullied alike that abuse won't be tolerated.

I think you can credit a form of supportive unanimity for the degree to which, say, it is unacceptable for leaders to entertain anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. In a sense, bigotry and oppression beget a reaction of supportive unanimity, by making "to each their own" unacceptably destructive. If Palestinian citizenship and land ownership rights were respected by the laws of Israel, in one example of supportive unanimity, the Movement for Black Lives wouldn't be compelled to oppose Israel's policies in its official platform.

It's not perjorative to say that supportive unanimity is a form of "groupthink" -- all community standards are groupthink, and groupthink can be a tremendous force for good. The danger is that the same fierce urgency that fuels supportive unanimity in support of the powerless can become its own justification. That can make it hard to change course when supportive unanimity is being repurposed in ways that are destructive. Almost anything goes, if it is presented as a defense of supportive unanimity; lamenting the pogroms against Asian-Americans carried out in the 1992 L.A. riots, for example, runs afoul of supportive unanimity for desperate Black rioters.

As with so many forms of suppression, supportive unanimity often ends up contributing to the oppression of the least powerful. It shouldn't be discarded -- but progressives should work to keep it grounded in other values, and to be open to violations of that unanimity if there are other progressive values that are being cited.

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Saturday, December 05, 2020

Candle: a short story

When he learned his dad died, Peter immediately realized two things: he had to move to Buffalo to help sort out his dad’s stuff; and somehow, somehow, his brother and sister were going to be dicks about it. And his mom wouldn’t back him up. And no one would appreciate what hard work it was. And they wouldn’t help. So, not two things.

The whole bus ride, it didn’t seem to Peter like he was mourning. He spent the snowy hours imagining going through the shelves and boxes in the garage, excavating and cataloguing. He couldn’t wait to start. Why hadn’t he ever thought to do this while his dad was alive? It felt so right, thinking ahead to opening each mysterious bin, touching each thing that his dad had cared about enough to sort and keep. Peter’s toes were soggy and distractingly cold in his sneakers, but imagining his explorations in the garage kept him warm.

To keep a thing — what a curious idea that seemed, in a way. Why is an album on a shelf, an album that you haven’t played in probably twenty-five years, any more yours than if it weren’t there? He knew the album he’d reach for, absolutely confident that his dad had kept it, even as he’d given up the storage space in a concession to family budgeting, and whittled his LPs and CDs down to a single shelf.

He remembered the first time his dad had played it for him, waiting for a time when it was just the two of them, knowing that his mom, Kristen and Jeff wouldn’t respect the delicate and sacred risk of sharing a piece of music that really means something to you. He remembered the cover, a single candle, a photograph, blurry in a way that made him realize he’d entirely overvalued camera focus. The opening guitar, both impossibly lush and dangerously aimless. Kim Gordon playfully coming in, barely audible, barely singing. He didn’t know a woman could sound like that, not entertaining him, not entertaining anyone.

He’d broken up with his eighth grade girlfriend days later, and he knew, consciously at the time, that Kim Gordon on that track was the reason. That album freed him, in a way, opened his eyes to how much more was possible, and how much around him was fake. But in that room, hearing it for the first time, he also knew that his father was sad, and incomplete. Some part of his father was still in that room, stuck. And Peter was heading there too, on the fastest ticket he could afford.

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Body literacy

I recently read a nonpublished account of recovery from surgery, written by a longtime professional dancer and performance artist, and I was struck by the piece's breadth of physical observations.

Certainly, any account of surgery and its effects will involve the physical. But it will not necessarily explore the full space of the physical.

I've read that non-literate people generally have trouble following complex explanations and discussions; you need to have years of reading and writing to develop many aspects of thinking, because literacy gives you tools for interacting deeply and frequently with others' thinking, and with your own. Similarly, I think there is something you might call "body literacy" -- tools for noticing and interacting with body processes, which open up deeper levels of physical understanding.

There are people who have so little connection with their body that they don't notice disease for years; there are even accounts of people giving birth, who didn't realize they were pregnant. (I've never quite believed those -- that just sounds too impossibly alien.)

I struggle with this in terms of my body's reaction, and my mind's reaction, to drugs and medicines: it's often hard for me to tell if I'm experiencing an effect, whereas others immediately notice a difference, and doctors are often surprised that I can't say if a given drug "is working". I know people describe feeling "hangry", and I imagine that I probably shift emotionally when I'm hungry or tired as well; but I can't see it, maybe because I don't have enough experience, enough tools, for mapping out the aspects of body and mind along the way.

For many of us, there is an undiscovered country of body literacy: an unmapped landscape of physical experience. My old friend Ben Spatz works, in part, on the related project of getting physical expression and embodiment to have a place in academic institutional work.

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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Why do White people pretend to be Black?

Why do some White people pretend to be Black? Or Latin, or Native American?

I think, for some white people who are stuck thinking in the ways that racism has taught us--stuck even more than they think they are--it seems like taking on the identity of a person of color will add to their interestingness and power, and give them entry to a fellowship of people of color that they think they couldn't enter otherwise. Of course, there's so much actual ability to enter into fellowship with anyone just by being an actual friend or colleague, listening, owning your own history and noticing your assumptions! And, adopting a false identity as a person of color does not require actually going through the experiences that really being a person of color would; so the white person does not actually have to give up the power or privilege they have received. 

There is also a piece of legitimate uncertainty in the race some people identify as. As many people have pointed out, membership in a Native American tribe is not necessarily dependent on ethnic ancestry. And some people, like Shaun King, legitimately do not know who their parents were; and if you think about it, few people in the world could truly be said to know who their father is. I have sympathy for people like Elizabeth Warren, who were told as children that their family included and ethnicity that turns out to be at least partially false. In my own family, there is some evidence that a recent ancestor was Cherokee, but not all people in the family tree agree that that's likely.

As I've unlearned racism--an ongoing process--I've realized the ways that even in my support for people of color, I have sometimes engaged in a version of racist thinking. To pretend to be black -- whether overly, or in  the partial impression you might give -- is to essentialize race, as though you couldn't communicate the things you bring and the things you need without using race as a manipulative tool.

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Saturday, September 05, 2020

What "Nice White Parents" leaves out

I've been listening to Nice White Parents. First of all, it's wild to hear so much reporting about something I've spent so much time inside -- I was a parent at an integrated charter school less than a mile from IS 293, I visited around 20 schools in the neighborhood, and I also worked as a substitute teacher in schools in the neighborhood. I also worked for several years teaching math and college counseling with mostly black high school students from nearby Bed-Stuy.

There's much in the show that I recognize and appreciate. And, I think the show has a tendency to fall into progressive assumptions and simplifications that make the answers look easier than they really are.

One thing that rankles me is the way the show vaguely references white parents getting more "resources" than parents of color. (Or "hoarding resources".) For all the reporting they've done, they haven't really identified significant funding gaps between white students and students of color. But it seems like if those gaps were there, the show would be talking about them. 

Does this omission matter? I would argue that it's indicative of a shell game that the series is playing. When an opportunity arises to show an imbalance of resources--say, the fundraising for the French dual language program that isn't shared with the broader school--the show pounces, and summarizes the trend in phrases like "hoarding resources". But contrary evidence is either skipped over or never explored. Is there a difference in effective per pupil expenditure for white students in Brooklyn public schools, vs students of color? If so, that seems like it would hugely support the show's thesis. But they either never found out, or never thought to try, or perhaps they looked into it and the answer didn't fit their thesis. In another example, consider the effect on resources of a white student's parents sending them to private school. The city doesn't give a refund to families for not using the public school system; to opt out of it is effectively to contribute significant resources. It may seem like a stretch to look at the effect of these parents' decisions on funding this way, but is it as much of a stretch as describing the overall situation as white parents "hoarding resources"?

Another gripe is that there is so little credence given to the legitimacy of a school being "bad". Early on they interview one white parent who says she didn't send her kid to a school because it seemed like the kids were misbehaving, not listening, and chaotic. The host points out that these perceptions can be colored by racism, which is absolutely true. But they are also perfectly real and valid. The host mentions sending her child to their "zoned" Brooklyn public school, which she describes as integrated -- in other words, she lives in an expensive gentrified neighborhood. (Many or most white parents in that part of Brooklyn send their kids to a school outside their "zone" -- I'm going to say the odds that she considered that are 99%.) I'm guessing that here are dozens of schools near to her that have few white students. It would serve the overall quality of education much better for her to send her child to one of those schools, but she instead chose a more white and upper middle class school. Why didn't she? Why doesn't she talk about that?

I also think the show fudges aspects of the intersection of race and class in gentrified Brooklyn. The show mentions "the projects" a few times, but what people not familiar with NYC might not understand is that in neighborhoods such as IS 293's Gowanus, the gap between the income of a random black person and random white person is much higher than it is nationally. In other words, even more so than the main as a whole, in these neighborhoods, segregation is more economic than racial. That's not to excuse it, at all. But I know many middle class and upper middle class black parents in Brooklyn who advocate, shop around, and fundraise much like the white parents the show focuses on. They also avoid nearby public schools where the students' families are overwhelmingly poor, and they don't do that because they are racist. How much would it have depend the show's portrait of the situation--and undercut its confrontative thesis--to include them in the picture? And, conversely, to exclude them?

These may be nitpicks, but I was very disappointed by the series. I think there are truly difficult problems in education and that integration is vital -- we sent our kids to one of the most integrated publicly funded schools in Brooklyn, and they rode the school bus every day as the only white kids on the bus. From everything I've seen, the problems that the show identifies are real. The system, as it plays out, isn't fair. But the show doesn't seem serious about trying to understand the way the system works, and instead prefers a progressive fantasy that there's "one weird trick"--white parents not being so racist--that would meaningfully solve things.

Some schools really are more chaotic or dangerous than others, and this isn't just the racist perception of white visitors--teachers, parents and students are asked about this, and the numbers are reported. Some schools really don't notice if teachers aren't teaching, and kids aren't learning. I've been on a scheduled school tour in Brooklyn public schools when the school staffer leading parents around realizes, in a shock, that a teacher is asleep at her desk with a class full of students. I've been on a scheduled school tour (at a different Brooklyn pubic school) when the school staffer leading parents around realizes, in a shock, that none of the classrooms have students in the because practically the whole school is watching Monsters, Inc. in the auditorium. I've been in New York public schools where teachers turn on Netflix, to occupy second graders with Spongebob because they have nothing else to do. I've spoken to a Brooklyn pubic school principal, during a school tour, and heard her make half a dozen grammar mistakes in just a few minutes of conversation. Critics such as Diane Ravitch insist that claims that public schools are failing are nothing more than propaganda. Other critics cite the need to replace equality of service with equity of outcome in our apportionment of resources. I have sympathy for those arguments. But it's significant that these philosophical arguments seldom come with a frank description of the reality on the ground in New York's public schools, as I've seen them. It's as though the real problems are too hard to even begin to address, and so clever critics have come up with more attractive and intriguing problems to replace them--a sort of Malcolm Gladwellification of the school reform issue.

This is bad for many reasons, but most of all because systemic racism is very real, and very destructive. Systemic racism doesn't care that you have come up with a clever reframing of the problems facing education equity. Systemic racism laughs at the parent, who chose not to send their kid to the school that needed their family's involvement the most, and who wags their finger at another parent for doing the same. Systemic racism knows it can let black and Latin kids watch cartoons in school on a regular basis, and there's no chance that will get mentioned in progressive media because it sounds like something a conservative might say.

What do I think would solve things? I think you need to start by acknowledging that professional parents, of all races, often put necessary pressure on schools to improve; and by acknowledging that it is rational for involved parents to choose schools based on a combination of perceived quality, transportation convenience, and societal goals like racial integration.

The "pressure" piece is huge, and I think Nice White Parents misses the implications of its own reporting. There needs to be more pressure applied from professional parents, not less. I agree with the show that parent choice allows more active and informed parents to collect in a small number of schools; a goal should be to distribute them among more schools, while not incentivizing them too much to leave the district, the city, or the public school system.

This distribution is also important because advocating for your school to improve takes a lot of real labor. Parents who would be willing to be one of, say, a dozen active families working on replacing an abusive teacher or an incompetent principal, will balk at being one of, say, three. I've seen this multiple times; parents have told me that they worked for years to improve their kid's public school, but finally gave up and moved to a different neighborhood.

As I've argued with Nicole Hannah-Jones, this is fundamentally a collective-action problem, more than a problem with the values that individual parents are applying. That means it needs a collective-action solution, like assigning families to a school that may not be the nearest school to them--AKA "busing".

Currently in Brooklyn, there are school "zones" within school "districts". Everyone is assigned a zone based on their home address, and that essentially guarantees their children entry into the zoned school. A school "district" may contain two dozen "zones", and parents who send their kids outside their zone get preference within the district, over parents from outside the district.

The zones and districts seem to be to primarily function to help real estate buyers see the schooling implications of a location. Needless to say, this fuels housing segregation. They should be done away with entirely.

Instead, the NYC Department of Education should assign parents to one school, and give them a small cash incentive to go there. The assignment can be chosen to emphasize racial and economic integration, while also staying reasonable about transportation. Parents can send their kids to other schools if they prefer, but there wouldn't be a preference for schools near them, and they wouldn't get the cash.

If professional parents know that dozens of other professional parents are also being assigned to the school, they will consider it, even if it is day from their first choice. And poor parents who don't know as much about how to work the system, and who would prefer a closer school, will be more willing and able to send their kids to a "better" school in a different neighborhood, having been assigned the school and knowing that other people near them will be going to. The cash incentive would help everyone stick to the system, while still allowing parents to get their kid out of a school that's a bad match for them, or to keep them with extended family.

Key to this working would be transportation. The DOE's system of buses is antiquated and underfunded; the buses are too large to navigate city streets quickly, and there is too much car traffic. There needs to be a citywide fee system for cars, and higher taxes on Uber. Every family with kids in the school system should get a student unlimited MetroCard, plus one adult 20x/month MetroCard for accompanying them. And every family should be guaranteed school bus service that will take no more than 1 hour each way, so long as they attend their assigned school.

One thing that Nice White Parents gets right is how difficult a political sell this sort of integration policy would be to parents. For how much the system is failing, people still seem to prefer their neighborhood schools. Many white parents would resist, though I think there would be much more than racism fueling their resistance. Many parents of color would resist, too. But consider that there would be little taken away from parents--just the guarantee of admission to their zoned school.

It would be worth it, and, I think, ultimately could become a popular policy. 

Integration is really, truly crucial, but I think it can only be achieved by facing how the system actually works now, not by hiding our heads in the sand and repeating fairy tales.

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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 sees himself, is fascinating, lovely and also disturbing. I read the class and racial structures around Cleo as forcing her to do emotional labor--often unpaid--to perform acts of love, without allowing her to be known in return. 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. But they know nothing real 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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