Review: Clean House, by Tom Fitton

While trapped in limbo with no internet, I read, well, the only thing available that wasn’t about cancer (thankfully I don’t have cancer), Tom Fitton’s Clean House: Exposing our government’s secrets and lies.

Overall: This book is four years old and kind of boring. It makes some interesting points, however, which I will try to summarize for you.

The good: It’s a fairly comprehensive review of the major scandals of the Obama Administration/government during Obama’s term.

Cons: The book doesn’t provide a solid comparison of the Obama admin to other administrations, and a lot of the stuff it tries to make political hay over seems like ordinary bureaucratic crud.

Why even bother with reading a book about old scandals? Aside from the lack of choice in the matter (I suppose I could have done more crosswords,) it is good to occasionally look back at the things we were previously concerned about and evaluate whether our concerns were justified or not. Did that thing turn out to actually be a big deal, or did it fizzle away?

One thing you’ll immediately note is that pretty much all of this has faded away. Remember the scandal about Hillary Clinton’s private email server? Well, the server didn’t disappear; we just don’t hear anything about it anymore. It was a political tool for one side to wield against the other side during an election, and once it had served its purpose, it was dropped.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Hillary’s server stopped mattering. Whether it ever actually mattered from a practical, legal, or national security standpoint remains whether it’s a useful political bludgeon or not.

The author, Tom Fitton, is president of Judicial Watch, an organization that exists for the purpose of filing FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests. They seem to target primarily liberal administrations; it would have been good if the book gave more details about anything from the Bush administration for comparison.

The scandals outlined in the book cover Hillary Clinton’s email server, Benghazi, the ATF’s “Fast and Furious” program, voter fraud, Congress and the Senate claiming to be “small businesses” to take advantage of DC taxpayers, the IRS targeting of conservative political orgs, and immigration/border enforcement. There’s also the general theme of “they keep denying our FOIA requests” that runs through the whole book.

The author makes a big deal about the Obama administration denying more FOIA requests than any previous administration, but here we are lacking some critical details, like whether the Obama admin received more FOIAs. Fitton doesn’t explore whether this increase in denials is due to some specific Obama-era policy or appointee, or if it’s just the latest incident in the incremental development of more lawyerly bureaucracies that find reasons to deny whatever you’ve filed a request for. I am personally inclined toward the latter theory, because I see the same trend everywhere in society. A form stars out as a way to request something a procedure as a way to get it done, and then they transform into a way to deny, slow down, and prevent things from getting done.

Here’s a quote from the book about “defying the inspectors general”:

The cavalier and obstructive attitude of the administration and its Justice Department was also demonstrated by the fact that agencies within the executive branch like the FBI have started refusing to comply with requests from the government’s own Inspectors General [IGs] to provide requested records, information, and documents the IGs need to conclude their investigations… In 2014, a majority of the IGs signed an unprecedented letter to Congress, complaining about the administration’s actions… asked Congress to use “all available powers” to enforce access.

Of course, this is not necessarily Obama’s fault–many government employees are career guys who work for many administrations or enforcing policies set up by their predecessors. I get annoyed when people attribute to the “X administration” things that really had nothing to do with it. Are there riots going on under Trump? Yes. Are these “Trump’s riots?” No.

I’m sure I don’t need to relate the fine details of Benghazi, which you probably know more about than I do. I did find Hillary’s first statement on the matter (at 10:08 PM) interesting, though:

Some have sought to justify this behavior as a response to inflammatory material on the internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation.

Now, this is an incredible statement on many levels, not just the obviously incendiary content (borderline 1st amendment violation, too.) But I don’t think we should take this at face value–in fact, I suspect the statement’s entire goal is to be so asinine that it distracts conservatives away from asking “Wait, what caused this?” and toward arguing about whether or not it’s appropriate for a woman who attends “spirit cooking” events to claim that the US Government has an opinion about people denigrating other people’s religious views. It certainly takes willpower not to argue against the the statement’s surface-level claims, but let’s try.

The thing we’re not supposed to notice is that the stated rationale for the attack–that it was in response to some random Youtube video–doesn’t make sense. It is more sensible to assume that the attack was a response to something more substantial, like other US actions in the Middle East (eg, the killing of Al-Qaeda’s Aboyahiye in Pakistan and a reprise of 9-11, since the attack happened on 9-11-12.) These people are terrorists/militia guys, not YouTube fans.

Here’s what I suspect was actually going on: The Obama administration wanted to support the so-called “Islamic Spring” because it was supposed to bring democracy to the Middle East, but honestly, when’s the last time a revolution in the area did anything good? (If there was one and I just haven’t heard of it, let me know.) Iran had a revolution, and look how that turned out. No, stable governments in the Middle East are generally better for their people and the rest of the world than civil war and lawless zones that get taken over by groups like ISIS.

Regardless, Obama and Hillary had decided they didn’t like governments of Syria and Libya, so they were arming the “pro democracy” forces there, which just coincidentally happened to be terrorists connected to the same terrorists who attacked the embassy in Libya. What they don’t want us to ask is, “Wait a minute, why are we funding a civil war in Libya?”

I suspect there are people somewhere in the government who really believe that we can finally have peace in the Middle East if we can just swap out this leader for that leader, much like some people think that sooner or later, their lottery number has to come up.

It never works.

If we think of human societies like natural ecosystems, then we know an ecosystem is in balance when it produces or has enough resources to feed everything in it; it goes out of balance if some disaster like a volcanic eruption or death of all of the wolves messes things up. Humans have to eat; societies also trade for useful goods and appreciate peace, health, and security. Every society tries to achieve a balance of strong enough government forces to keep people safe from invaders or local malefactors, but without harming innocent citizens or costing too much in the process.

When the US goes an mucks around with other countries, we change the balance of their ecosystems and like birds at a feeder, our inputs become part of the system. When those countries are complicated systems that we don’t understand, our involvement can quickly become a total disaster. (You can’t half-ass colonialism.)

This is where, as far as I can tell, Trump has so far done a better job than Obama (or Bush): he hasn’t gotten involved in any of these quagmires. When there was a question of Syria violating the Genevia Convention by using poison gas, he dropped a few bombs, but mostly he’s left other countries alone.

I don’t completely blame Obama for his Mid-East interventions, because many of these policies were simply continuations of terrible Bush-era policies, and it is difficult for most people to to question things that are just handed to them as received wisdom. Which is a bit of an insult to Obama’s intelligence, I suppose.

Next we have the Hillary Clinton email scandal, which you probably know all about already. It’s remarkable how quickly the media and everyone else stopped caring about Hillary’s emails once Trump got into office. The scandal does raise the question of how much technology is contributing to our notions of both secrecy and access. There wouldn’t have been any missing minutes from the Nixon Tapes had Nixon not tape recorded things in the first place. There wouldn’t be any missing Hillary emails had email not yet been invented. Just 50 years ago, before email, text messaging, and ubiquitous electronic record keeping, Washington produced far fewer documents than it does today. 100 years ago, they couldn’t have tape recorded everything; 200 years ago, they didn’t have typewriters or telegrams. What would there have been to FOIA during the Monroe administration? What if someone had tried to request all documents related to the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark’s expedition? Perhaps a law might declare that citizens have a right to attend sessions of Congress, but at what point do letters between George Washington and his cabinet become government documents? My basic inclination is that all government documents should be public by default, with exceptions only for matters of national security and the like, but this is not necessarily reasonable.

On the other hand, perhaps this new electronic media makes it easier for people to lie, because they can coordinate their stories faster.

In sum, yes, Hillary had an illegal email server and it was probably vulnerable to hacking.

The book spends a while discussing documents related to Huma Abedin’s financial disclosures, required as part of changing her job title. This sounds less like “corruption” and more like “people trying to deal with a byzantine, sclerotic bureaucracy.”

A bigger issue is whether the Clintons (Bill and Hillary) have benefited financially from their time in politics in a manner that is unseemly or inappropriate (again, it would be good here to have some comparison with other presidents and their speaking fees.)

A joint examination by the Washington Examiner and Judicial Watch found that former President Clinton gave 215 speeches and earned $48 million while his wife presided over US foreign policy.

(A former president being married to a current high-ranking government official or politician is a new arena of political morality.)

There are a few interesting bits about Bill and Epstein. Quoting an interview with Virginia Roberts (one of Epstein’s victims) from the NY Post:

…Clinton also visited Epstein’s private Caribbean retreat… “I remember asking Jeffrey [Epstein], “What’s Bill Clinton doing here?”… [He] laughed it of and said, “Well, he owes me a favor.”

And from New York magazine:

… in 2002, Clinton recruited Epstein to make his plane available for a weeklong anti-poverty tour of Africa with [a bunch of people, some of them famous, including the now-imprisoned Ghislane Maxwell].

(I wonder if they realize there’s plenty of poverty they could be touring right here in the US. 48 million dollars could go a long way toward helping foster kids get a better start in life.)

The “Fast and Furious” scandal, like some of the others, actually started under Bush II. Obama decided to expand the program, though.

In Fast and Furious, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) agents directed people known as “straw purchasers”–low level illicit weapons purchasers who work for the Mexican drug cartels’ smugglers inside the United States–to buy guns at Phoenix, Arizona-area federally licensed firearms dealers. Those guns were then smuggled into Mexico by cartel operatives, after agents let the weapons get into the hands of these cartel operatives by not tracking them. The smuggled guns continue to turn up in disturbing places. Fast and Furious weaponry was in the arsenal of two terrorists who tried to storm a cartoon convention in Dallas, Texas, in 2015 and was owned by Mexican drug lord Jaquin “El Chapo” Guzman at the time of his final 2016 arrest.

In October 2009, the ATF Phoenix Field Division created a gun-trafficking division for the purpose of funneling weapons illegally to the Mexican drug cartels.

I wonder if this program had any connection to the mysterious Las Vegas shooting, which we still haven’t learned anything about.

The point of all of this was to hopefully later use the guns to track down the larger organization that was using them, not just the guys doing the purchasing, in order to build a larger conspiracy case. Unfortunately, the program did not come with a way to effectively track the guns.

The odd thing here (well, one of the odd things) is that despite this being a local ATF program that the president normally wouldn’t be involved in one way or another, “Fast and Furious” was the only scandal in which Obama used his “executive privilege” claim to withhold documents that had been requested by the House of Representatives. The book’s best specuation here is that Obama wanted to use the program to score an anti-second amendment propaganda victory:

At the end of March 2009, Clinton visited Mexico’s capital, Mexico City… While there, Clinton gave speeches bashing American gun stores and gun owners for the violence. …

The nation’s top diplomat’s trip was much heralded in the press and was an obvious attempt by the political figures at the top of the Obama administration to mislead people into agreeing with her claim that “90 percent” of the “guns that are used by the drug cartels against the police and the military” actually “come from America.” …

Clinton’s claim is actually false. A diplomatic cable uncovered by WikiLeaks shows that 90 percent of the weapons the cartels get come from Central America or from corrupt Mexican military officials. Oftentimes cartels will raid armories in Guatemala. Or crooked Mexican military officials will split up a shipment of new rifles among their troops and the cartels. For instance, if two hundred new fully automatic AK-47s come in, a dirty military leader might give a hundred to his troops and sell the other hundred to his buddies int he cartel. …

For organized crime purposes, the guns the cartels get from Central America or from corrupt military leaders are better than what cartels could get from America. … The ATF’s own figures show that only 17 percent of the guns found at Mexican crime scenes have been traced back to the United States.

The other, more mundane theory (also put forth by the book) is that the ATF guys were trying to build up the size of their case in order to get more funding. (I suppose we are all trying to get more funding, after all. If an organization is paid to stop crime, then it naturally develops a certain interest in there being plenty of crime around for it to stop.) The only problem, of course, is that crimes had to actually be committed with the guns before the ATF guys could get their funding, and most people prefer that the ATF not try to get people shot.

The next chapter was on the push for voter ID/to clean up voter registries. I wish the author had provided some examples of actual voter fraud, rather than just invite us to imagine it. For example, there was some brazen fraud during LBJ’s senate race. I think both sides here have settled on a political stance without checking whether it actually benefits them–perhaps Democrats would actually benefit more than Republicans from requiring voter IDs, for example.

More interesting is the matter of prosecutors, who certainly have agendas:

A prime example of intimidation at the polls reveals the Obama administration’s disappointing attitude toward election crimes occurred in the 2008 federal election when two members of the New Black Panther Party stood in a doorway of a polling place in Philadelphia …

The case against the defendants was strong… but the case was abruptly curtailed and all but shut down by the newly appointed officials of the Obama administration.

Eventually some of the older lawyers left because they felt sidelined by the new guys.

Chris Coates, the chief of the voting section… was another lawyer who didn’t go along with the administration’s radical agenda and wanted to enforce voting laws in a racially neutral, non-partisan manner. The Obama administration was particularly angry at him because he had approved the filing of the voter intimidation lawsuit… Popper says the Obama administration set up an entire structure to bypass Coates… there was in essence “a shadow Justice Department” with subordinates making recommendations regarding Coates and the cases Coates should have been consulted on.

Hawaii had some incidents in which it tried to set up elections that only Native Hawaiians could vote in.

Then there’s a funny controversy where Congress and the Senate claimed to be “small businesses” employing only 45 people in order to qualify for a health insurance exchange for small businesses set up by the Washington, DC city council. In reality, the House and Senate employ over 20,000 people. 12,359 Congressional employees signed up for an exchange intended for businesses employing 50 people or fewer, totaling 86% of people enrolled. To say that they committed fraud is a bit of an understatement.

Next we have the IRS scandal, which was fairly famous in its day. Simply doing away with 90% of the tax code would solve most of this problem, of course.

IRS officials, led by Lois Lerner… issued a “Be on the lookout” [BOLO] with the criteria to be used to flag applications… whether “tea party,” “patriots,” or “9/12” were used in the organization’s name; whether the issues outlined in the application included government spending, government debt, or taxes; whether the organization was educating the public about “how to make America a better place to live” or about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; or if there was a statement b the organization criticizing how the country is being run This… went on for years.

I have also heard that the IRS targeted liberal organizations, but the book doesn’t talk about that.

… Lois Lerner sent confidential taxpayer information to the Federal Election Commission… in violation of Federal law… According to other emails obtained by Judicial Watch, she had communicated with the FBI and lawyers at the DOJ about whether it was possible for the DOJ to criminally prosecute conservative tax-exempt organizations for supposed “political activities.”

(Are they not supposed to do political activities?)

… Lerner illegally sent the FBI 21 computer disks containing 1.1 million pages of confidential information about tax-exempt organizations.

(There was also some colluding with senators about which orgs they wanted targeted and shut down.) Skipping over some details, the IRS then played the “Oops, we deleted the emails game,” even though they had backups and probably weren’t even deleted.

Judicial Watch finally obtained IRS documents that showed the IRS went to absurd lengths… to harass organizations applying for tax-exempt status, asking organizations like the Tea Party for copies of all information on its Facebook and Twitter accounts, or asking an Ohio group, American Patriots Against Government Excess, for all of the books read in their book club meeting–including a summary or book report for each of the books! …

Another IRS email thread… revealed that the inappropriately obtained donor lists were being used for a “secret research project” that because of redactions and blackouts, could not be identified. Other documents… confirmed that the IRS started using donor lists… to target donors for audits. The House Ways and Means committee announced… “nearly 1 in 10 donors were subject to audit.”

The IRS tried to get people on non-payment of a “gift tax” on donations which had been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court back around 1982. Like Hillary, Lois Lerner also conducted gov’t business on her private email account. As you might expect, the gov’t investigated itself, found it had done nothing wrong, and dropped the case without any convictions.

Nothing in the chapter points to Obama being personally involved in or knowing about the scandal ahead of time, but it was certainly done to help his side.

The next chapter is on immigration and border control. There is definitely a fundamental difference in how liberals and conservatives approach the issue, with libs taking a “the more the merrier” approach, and conservatives wanting to actually have some say over who moves to their country. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that immigrants tend to vote for the Democrats, not the Republicans, so more immigration is in the Dems’ interests.

None of the administration’s border security and extreme immigration policies should be a surprise. The administration is filled with radical political appointees like Cecilia Munoz, who joined the administration as the Director of Intergovernmental Affairs and then moved up to be the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. Munoz, who was only able to join the admin after she was granted an ethics waiver from Obama’s supposed lobbyist ban, was a senior official at the National Council of La Raza. La Raza openly advocates for illegal alien sanctuary policies…

The Department of Agriculture sent the Mexican Embassy a Spanish language flyer advising Mexicans in the US that they would not need to declare their immigration status in order to get food stamps.”

Next chapter:

In May 2002, we sought information regarding Al-Qaeda as part of Judicial Watch’s terrorism Research and Analysis Project. It took the government 11 years to furnish the records we requested. … at the end of the [Bill] Clinton administration, the US disregarded an intelligence report about an Al-Qaeda plot to hijack a commercial airliner… because “nobody believed that Usama bin Laden’s organization or the Taliban could carry out such an operation…” The only reason the plot was not carried out was because the Chechen withdrew from the operation after the EU condemned Russian action in Chechniya.

Well, that’s about it for the interesting parts of the book. Judicial Watch may do valuable work (even if they’re partisan, well, there are plenty of partisans on the other side, too,) but the book itself is rather bland and, well, several years old. I hope you liked the review, though.

I’m back

Hey guys, sorry for going awol on you. I’ve been in the hospital. No, it wasn’t Covid and it’s not a baby. I did manage to write a little while I was cooped up without internet, so I’ll have something out soon. Good luck and stay healthy, everyone.

Now’s a good time to Homeschool

If you’ve ever wanted to homeschool your kids, but been afraid of funny looks and disapproval from other people, now is the time. Not only will everyone nod along and say, “Oh, yes, I totally understand why you are doing that,” right now, but also, if it doesn’t work out, you can just send your kids back to school when things return to normal.

The basic supplies you need for homeschooling are very simple: paper, pens/pencils, and books. If you’re reading this in the first place, you probably already own a lot of books, but if not, try the library: many are doing some form of lending. (Or ask your relatives if any of them have some extra books they’d be willing to loan you–my grandmother sent us textbooks on algebra, geometry, and linear algebra.)

Different kids need different things at different ages, so obviously you have to adjust what you are doing to match your kids. A typical 5 year old will spend most of their time learning letters, numbers, simple words, and simple equations. A 15 year old will be studying for the SAT and APs. You can supply a beginning reader’s need for books with simple text like “The cat sat” by yourself (see those pencils and paper above), but obviously you’ll want a real textbook for AP Calculus.

Workbooks: If you’re worried about whether you’ll hit all of the material you’re supposed to cover, get a workbook. It doesn’t really matter which workbook you get–I’ve never met a workbook I didn’t like. Workbooks tend state which grade they’re for on the front and all cover similar material inside, though different brands go at different paces. An “all-in-one” will be thick and cover lots of topics, or if your kid needs to slow down and do a lot more math problems, get the Kumon books. (I have even used second-hand workbooks that I got for free from a neighbor by simply copying out the problems onto fresh paper.)

Online/computer-based programs: We’ve used a variety of computer-based learning programs, including videos on Youtube, Zoom classes, and of course “educational” aps. These vary hugely in quality. Personally, I wouldn’t want to get tied down in any sort of long-term commitment right when starting out because it limits my ability to try different things, but my kids have benefited tremendously from math videos on Youtube. (YMMV.) Just remember that there are only so many hours in the day, so if you’ve just invested in a bunch of workbooks, you might want to hold off on that online literacy program.

The most important thing is actually just sitting down and doing it. Most kids are not super eager to do schoolwork, at school or home, so there will probably be some reluctance. It can be frustrating when they flop around like dead fish or give answers like “a really big number” instead of actually doing the work. This is when you have to take a deep breath and remind them that they don’t get to play Minecraft again until they finish their work. I also reward mine with Nerds and let them earn long-term rewards like “a trip to the pool” (though, obviously, that’s on hold right now). The important thing is to just sit down and do some school work each day so that they and you get into the habit and stop protesting.

And not everything has to be on paper. Go outside and toss a ball back and forth while practicing multiplication tables. Practice spelling words while in the car. Add biology and history questions to the Trivial Pursuit box. It does take a little effort to set up, but once you’re rolling, you’re good.

Reverse Psychiatry?

One of the big problems with psychiatric medications is they tend to stop working over time. Mundanely, they do this as your body processes and excretes the chemicals: they wear off. More annoyingly, brains will actually up- or down-regulate their own activities over time in order to reestablish normalcy. Alcohol, for example, is a depressant, so the brains of alcoholics actually become more active over time in order achieve a more normal brain state. At this point, if you remove the alcohol, the brain can no longer function, because it is now too active: alcoholics in withdrawal can go into seizures.

If you’re trying to give people medications to make them feel better, like anti-depressants or anti-anxieties, then you have to fight against these two problems: 1. you don’t want the medication to just wear off every evening, leaving the patient in a funk for the rest of the day; and 2. you don’t want the patient to become habituated to the medication, where it not only no longer works, but if they try to go off of it (perhaps to switch to another medication,) things get much worse.

So I was thinking, why not use the rebound effects? Suppose a depressed person took a medication right before bed that, like alcohol, was effectively a downer, but would wear off in 8 hours and leave them in a happier state? And after three months of constant use, maybe their brains would habituate to the medication by producing more of whatever counteracts an unhappy state?

Has anyone studied or tested any drugs that work like this?

There’s an obvious downside here, which is that you’re intentionally trying to make someone who already feels bad feel worse, which is why you’d probably want to couple it with some sort of sleep aid (and that probably wouldn’t work with anything that makes people anxious, so maybe it’s not an effective anxiety treatment). You’d want to keep a very close eye on people when starting such a treatment, of course.

But more generally, has anyone tried to use rebound states and habituation to get the brain to where they want it to be, rather than fighting against these? If it worked, we could call it reverse psychiatry.

2+2 is 4 and the world is flat: assumptions and approximations

The argument that “2+2=4” is a social construct not found in every society and that in some places 2+2=5 is an interesting exercise in sophistry.

It is true that you can redefine every part of an equation (or every word in a sentence) to mean something other than what a naive reader would normally assume based on all previous experience with words. Obviously if we redefine 2 to mean something other than 2, + to mean something other than addition, or chose to use a base other than base 10, then we can get an answer other than 4. For example, if we are using base-3, then 2+2 = 11. (Of course, when we convert back to base ten, “11” becomes plain old 4 again.)

This is true of every sentence: if I redefine all of the words in a sentence to mean something else, then the sentence means something else–but no one uses language in this way because it makes communication impossible.

In particular, when children are taught that 2+2=4, they being taught within a system where 2 means two of something, 4 means four of something, and + means conventional addition. When we use these definitions, 2 + 2 always equals 4. There are, in fact, zero societies on Earth where this equation, as used in elementary schools, comes out to five.

There is no mistake involved in assuming that other people are using common conventions when speaking and will specify when using terms in unexpected ways. This is how all communication works. Since we cannot define all words from first principles every time we use them (this is impossible because it would require us to define the words used to define the words used to define the words, etc,) we only bother to define them when using them in unconventional ways, and even then we use conventionally defined words to define them. If a word is not defined or otherwise marked as being used in unconventional ways, then the receiver assumes that it is being used in its conventional sense because language cannot function otherwise.

Behind the scenes trickery is simply that: trickery. The sentence as normally defined and automatically understood is always correct.

There is a story about the time Denis Diderot visited the court of Catherine the Great in Russia. Diderot’s atheism offended the great lady, so she had her court mathematician, Leonhard Euler, confront Diderot with a complicated algebraic equation, then proclaimed that this proved the existence of God.

The tale is perhaps apocryphal, but it has inspired the coining of the term “Eulering”: the use of a complicated argument to confuse your opponent into conceding, especially on some irrelevant point. Modern Eulering often consists of saying something that sounds blatantly false, then when this is pointed out, ridiculing your opponent for not knowing that you had secretly redefined the words. If you were a real expert, the argument goes, then you would know that 10=2 is just as valid as 10=10, because base ten is just a social convention we use to make writing numbers easier, and all other bases–including base pi–are equally legitimate from a mathematical perspective.

This is not expertise, but sophistry. There is no mistake involved in assuming that other people are using common conventions when speaking and will specify when using terms in unexpected ways. This is how all communication works.

It is true that math as taught to children is simplified: all subjects are simplified by necessity for introductory students.

When a child learns to read, he is first taught to pronounce the letters phonetically; complications like “silent e” and “-tion” are only introduced later. The full complexity of English spelling, from rhythm to pterodactyl, is only revealed to advanced students who have already mastered simpler words. If we attempt to reverse the order of instruction, chaos results: students are forced to learn every single word independently, instead of applying general rules that get them through most of the words and help them develop further rules for the exceptions.

The same happens in math; children are taught to count and add with the help of simplifying assumptions like “triangles are flat” and “base 10.” You don’t teach a toddler to count by beginning with -10 and then explaining that “3” is written as “11” in base two. It doesn’t work.

When you learn physics, you begin with Newtonian dynamics, because these are easy to demonstrate at normal human scales. It is only after mastering the basics of F=ma, objects falling at 9.8 m/s^2, and maybe a bit of calculus that you move on to topics like “What happens when you move close to the speed of light?” or “What happens at the atomic scale?”

Subjects are taught in a particular order that equips students with general rules that work in most situations, then specific rules that cover the most common exceptions. Most people will never need to know the “expert level” versions of most fields. For example, most people do not need to understand why airplanes can fly in order to make a reservation at the airport and go on a trip: it is sufficient to know simply that planes fly.

To argue about whether the “basic” or “expert” versions of these fields is more correct  generally misses the point: each serves a specific purpose. If I am calculating the distance between my house and my friend’s, I do not need to factor in the curvature of the Earth; if I am calculating the distance between my house and the antipodes, I do. If I am balancing my checkbook, I can safely assume that all of the numbers are written in base-10; if I am trying to figure out if the 16-bit integer limit will make my airplane crash, then it helps to know binary. If I tell my kids to “stay still so I can take your picture,” I don’t want to hear that Brownian motion technically makes it impossible to hold still.

The current bruhaha on Twitter over whether “2+2=4” is racist or not is half math geeks happy to finally have an audience for their discussion of obscure math things and half “school reformers” who wouldn’t know ring addition if it hit them in the face but want to claim that it has something to do with early elementary math. (Spoiler: it doesn’t.)

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In the case of math, yes, math is a social construct, inasmuch as we could use a different numerical base or different wiggly symbols to represent the numbers on paper. Spelling is also a social construct: there is no particular reason why “C” should be pronounced the way it is, much less should we have a silent “L” in “could” (the L in could is actually the result of a centuries-old spelling mistake: “would” and “should” both contain Ls because they are forms of the words “will” and “shall,” which contain Ls. Could is derived from the word “can,” which does not have an L, but because “coud” sounds like “would” and “should,” people just started sticking an erroneous L in there, and we’ve been doing it for so long that it’s stuck). Money is also socially constructed: there is no particular reason why little green pieces of paper should have any value, and in many cases (lost in the woods, hyperinflation, visiting a foreign country), they don’t. Nevertheless, you need to be able to count, spell, and use money to get along in society, which we live in. If math is racist simply because it is socially constructed, then so are all other social constructs. Pennies are racist. Silent “e” is racist.

This absurdity is no accident:

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h/t @hollymathnerd, quote by Shraddha Shirude, “ethnomathematics” teacher.

It’s not about the math.