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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 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 (Alice!!) 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. This process ironed the laziness out of my thinking. 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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