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from Stoke by Sam Wade

My highest recommendations, in a nutshell:


Other years

2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014

We were, collectively, miserable in 2020. But a silver lining was that we were miserable in ways that felt like a shared experience. To twist Tolstoy’s line from Anna Karenina, there were ways that we were unhappy in different ways — I never had to risk my life in my day-to-day job, and everyone I loved who got the coronavirus survived — but there was at least some amount that we were unhappy in the same way. …

Unlike most other progressives, I think Constitutional originalism is perfectly reasonable.

In my understanding, “originalism” means to interpret the Constitution, or any law, as having had all of its legal meaning set at the time of its enactment, with the precise words it consisted of, as understood by those who made it law.

That approach is embraced mostly by conservatives, and it’s often derided as leaving society stuck with the rules of the 18th century. But I think that’s a mistake. …

The primer that everyone needs

Recently, a family member of mine got scammed by some clever crooks. They sent her an email that appeared to be an Amazon receipt for expensive items she did not order, and she did what she thought was the responsible thing — she called the fraud number on the email. A nice person on the other end “helped” her out, and smoothly and gently talked her into making a bunch of credit card charges that she did not understand.

MasterCard thankfully agreed to not put her on the hook for the money they stole, so everything’s OK. But this seems like a good opportunity to talk to everyone about how to avoid being scammed, because professional criminals can be very, very good at seeming legit. …

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photo by Filip Filipović

How a common dismissal of racism actually points to its persistence

A New York Times piece about racial bias at Amazon got me thinking about one of the most common misunderstandings that smart White people have about racism.

I’ll call it the “color of money is green” theory.

Here’s the theory, as it might be used to defend Amazon:

“Come on man, Bezos didn’t start the company to do racism, he’s trying to make money and innovate in a hurry. They need smart people constantly — why would they deny promotions to qualified Black and Latin people?”

Of course, this theory is partially right. There’s a lot that it correctly understands about the importance of competence in overriding racial prejudice. In the past few generations, plenty of racist White people who would have preferred a White doctor or lawyer or teacher, ended up choosing a Black doctor or lawyer or teacher because they were simply too excellent at their profession to deny. …

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. …

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Illustration that accompanied the BBC radio play of Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness

My highest recommendations, in a nutshell:


Other years

2019 was a year of settling in to my new job at the MIT Media Lab — until a wrench was thrown into the works, in the form of the revelation that the Lab had accepted donations from sex trafficker eugenicist Jeffrey Epstein. This resonated for months, and upended my working life more than I could have imagined. Meanwhile, my wife Kate’s amazing play Love, about an accusation of workplace sexual exploitation, had its world premiere announced; and my daughters edged towards a terrifying, TikTok-fueled preteenage focus on image and beauty. …

Here’s the letter I wrote today to my doctor, who I won’t be able to keep seeing in 2020:

Dr. ________, one note — I just did some online research and I see that chlorhexidine mouthwash is also available over the counter. It would have been good for our conversation about my care, I think, to find that out and let me know. Managing to procure prescription medication can be difficult and expensive! …

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.

The racism in our folk music heritage is real. But I’m not sure a song’s origin in racism — or, as it often seems to be, its having had a version, in its path from folk origins to the canon, written to be racist — renders the process that removed its racism irrelevant. …

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Bari Weiss, opinion columnist for the New York Times, has a new book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, and has been making the political talk show rounds.

This has brought up an episode from her past: in the early 2000s, she led a campaign at Columbia University against a group of professors, accusing them of bias against Jewish students and claiming that they tried to silence Jewish students’ voices. Weiss’s group helped produce a documentary making those accusations, Columbia Unbecoming, and succeeded in getting the story enough attention to push the university to conduct an investigation.

I was one of the students who testified to the investigation committee about my experience as a Jew in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department. And my point of view was drastically different from Weiss’s. …

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Columbia University history professor Alan Brinkley has died.

I took Brinkley’s lecture course on US history from WWI to WW2, as part of my history major. 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. Reading it, 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. …


Ben Wheeler

Independent programmer, chatterbox.

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