Schrödinger’s Convict: Actually Innocent, Actually a Felon

Megan Rose’s exhaustively researched piece in ProPublica, co-published with Vanity Fair, traced the trial, conviction, and sort-of exoneration of Fred Steese: after a judge declared him innocent of the murder he was alleged to have committed, he signed a little-known (and totally constitutional!) deal called an Alford plea. Rather than submitting to what could have been years of additional hearings to have his conviction formally set aside, the plea got him out of jail immediately — but kept the lid on the prosecutorial misconduct that put him there in the first place, and kept him on the books as a convicted felon.

Though unfamiliar even to some lawyers, the Alford plea has been around since a 1970 U.S. Supreme Court case. Henry Alford, a 35-year-old black man, had said he was innocent of murder but pleaded guilty to avoid an automatic death sentence. He later appealed, claiming that his plea was made under duress, violating due process. The Supreme Court disagreed. The justices ruled that it wasn’t unconstitutional to accept a guilty plea despite protests of innocence, so as long as a defendant had intelligently made the decision and was counseled by a lawyer.

Unlike the better-known no-contest plea, in which a defendant accepts a conviction without admitting guilt, the Alford plea lets a defendant actually assert his innocence for the record. The defendant acknowledges that the state might be able to get a conviction despite his or her innocence. All but three states allow the plea, but the federal government says it should be used only in “the most unusual of circumstances.” The Alford plea is most often used in bargaining before a conviction, like a typical plea deal, and could very well be taken by guilty defendants who simply won’t own up to their crimes. How often it is offered and accepted, and by what sort of defendants, isn’t tracked. Many prominent legal scholars, such as Cornell law professor John Blume, contend that prosecutors are using the plea to quickly and quietly resolve newly challenged convictions. It’s undeniably coercive for a prosecutor to tell someone who has been in prison 5, 10, 20 years that “you don’t have to admit guilt, just sign this plea and we’ll let you go,” Blume said.

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Teaching a Stone to Fly

Ever tried to skip a flat stone across a body of water? Happy with a few skips? Elated at five or more? To be the best stone skipper in the world, you’ll need 89 skips to beat current Guinness World Record holder Kurt “Mountain Man” Steiner (88 skips). At Minnesota Monthly, Frank Bures tries his luck at stone skipping at The Mackinac Island Stone Skipping Competition.

But I’d been skipping stones my whole life, ever since I was around my daughters’ ages, always getting better and better. There was almost nothing I loved better than the feeling of knowing—even before it hit the water—that you had a perfect throw, one that defies nature by making a stone both fly and float.

To reach the upper echelons of the skipping world was not easy. Mackinac was divided into two heats. First there was the “Open” division, in which every fudge-eating tourist on the island was welcome. Usually there were a few hundred people who entered. Only by winning the Open can you move up into the “Professional” division, which features heavy hitters such as Russ “Rockbottom” Byars, whose Guinness World Record held for years at 51 skips; Max “Top Gun” Steiner, who took the title from Byars with 65; and Kurt “Mountain Man” Steiner (no relation to Max) who currently holds the title with 88.

What you want, according to reigning champ Kurt Steiner, is a stone that is not perfectly round but that has points, or lobes, that act as spokes. As the stone spins, these points will push the stone up off the water, keeping it airborne and preventing it from sticking.

“If you spin it fast enough, the stone will essentially walk on those spokes,” Steiner told me, when I had called him for skipping advice. “A really good skip tends to walk like that.”

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For the New York Times, a Bittersweet Ending for its Public Editor Role

The publisher of the New York Times announced in a staff memo Wednesday that the position of public editor — an ombudsperson of sorts, meant to be an advocate for the paper’s readers — is being eliminated. The current occupant of the role, Liz Spayd, was expected to remain until summer 2018, but her tenure will now end on Friday.

According to a screenshot tweeted by Times reporter Daniel Victor, the memo read:

The public editor position, created in the aftermath of a grave journalistic scandal, played a crucial part in rebuilding our readers’ trusts by acting as our in-house watchdog. We welcomed that criticism, even when it stung. But today, our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be. Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.

NPR media reporter David Folkenflik noted on Twitter that the first public editor’s tenure also “coincided with growing outcry over failed WMD/Iraq coverage.” But as Huffington Post media reporter Michael Calderone noted, the “grave journalistic scandal” the publisher referred to was in 2003, when reporter Jayson Blair’s plagiarism and fabrications were revealed. In a lengthy story on their own investigation into Blair’s wrongdoings, Times reporters wrote that “something clearly broke down in the Times newsroom. It appears to have been communication — the very purpose of the newspaper itself.”

Calderone also pointed out that several other major news outlets have eliminated similar positions in recent years. Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron did so in 2013, making the same case that the Times’ publisher did: Essentially, watchdog-style criticism comes aplenty “in this Internet age.” And in this seemingly unending age of cash-strapped, fiscally floundering journalistic entities, it’s also notable that it comes for free.

The elimination of the public editor position was announced alongside buyouts for Times editors, as the paper seeks to streamline its editing process. Calderone also noted that a memo sent out on Tuesday established a new “Reader Center” aimed at improving how the paper responds to and interacts with its audience.

Spayd has been a controversial public editor, as criticized as her predecessor, Margaret Sullivan (now a columnist at the Washington Post), was beloved. Sullivan seemed to have gained the respect and trust of the newsroom in her tenure there, sometimes getting ideas for columns from the paper’s staff themselves (an apparent motivation for her ongoing scrutiny of the paper’s diversity in hirings). Spayd, conversely, was criticized for contradictory positions — agreeing with less daily coverage of New York City, while arguing for more ESPN-style, minute-by-minute mainstream sports coverage — and for giving credence to fringe readers who launched a campaign attacking a Times writer of color, Sopan Deb, for a joke tweet.

Looking at Twitter — one of the platforms where the Times’ publisher evidently plans to find his criticism now — the widespread reaction appears to be a mix of lamenting the loss and blaming Spayd. Folkenflik’s suggestion on Twitter that it “could return after [the] next big scandal” was met with outcries about the paper’s coverage of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election — perhaps proving the Times’ publisher’s point, that readers will make themselves heard without an in-house conduit. Still, some argue that the value of the public editor can be seen in the difference between how Spayd and Sullivan did the job.


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Further Reading:

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What is ‘Covfefe’? The Internet Wonders

Late Tuesday night, President Donald Trump tweeted the word “covfefe.”

An evident typo in a clumsily prematurely-sent tweet, the word took Twitter by storm. Jokes abounded. Reporters lamented that they would be up all night, as the errant tweet remained undeleted for several hours. Around 6 a.m., it disappeared, and the President tweeted, “Who can figure out the true meaning of ‘covfefe’ ??? Enjoy!”

Who, indeed? Well, linguists and lexicographers, maybe. Gretchen McCulloch, who is writing a book on internet language and hosts a podcast, noted on Twitter that “no words in English end in fefe,” adding, “This lack of similar words is why no one knows how to pronounce ‘covfefe.’ Same problem as with ‘doge,’” a fake word popularized by an internet meme.

McCulloch goes on to say time will tell whether “fefe” becomes a “libfix”: “a prefix or suffix that’s BROKEN FREE,” like how -gate broken off from “Watergate” and is now attached to various words to indicate a scandal. It’s unclear what “fefe” would indicate — Trump clearly meant to type “coverage,” but so far, McCulloch notes, “fefe compounds… are self-referential, referring to the covfefe meme itself.”

The Oxford Dictionaries blog, run by the lexicographers who decide which words get added to the dictionary every year, posted about “covfefe,” noting that several words we use (sneeze, syllabus), and some we don’t (helpmeet, nenuphar), came about because of typos or mispronunciation. The internet has given birth to several of the more recent additions to the OED, including “pwn,” which OED notes “emerged in the early 21st century as a verb meaning ‘utterly defeat’ or ‘completely get the better of’” and “resulted from a common mistyping of own, due to the proximity of the letter P to the letter O on a keyboard.”

The post was ambiguous as to whether “covfefe” will join these words, partly because it doesn’t yet have a real definition. As McCulloch said, time — and likely the internet — will tell.

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Further Reading:

“Falling in Love with Words: The Secret Life of a Lexicographer” (Kory Stamper, March 2017)
“Smearch, Fidgital, Skinjecture: Creating New Terms for the Modern World” (Jessica Gross, April 2015)
“The Elements of Bureaucratic Style” (Colin Dickey, April 2017)

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Are We Swallowing Culinary Propaganda?

There are many fronts in the culture wars, but none so visceral as the tactical battleground of food. Cultural taboos make for easy bullying, whether that means slipping pork chops into the halal section of the supermarket or rebranding lamb as a meat that brings all Australians together (aside from vegans, of course). At Meanjin Quarterly, Shakira Hussein describes her encounter with a right-wing nationalist group doing culinary PR on the streets of Melbourne, and looks at how the food we eat — or don’t — is weaponized against cultures perceived as enemies.

Named for the Norse god of war, the Soldiers of Odin are the Australian off-shoot of a Finnish far-right organisation that claims to be protecting ordinary citizens against crime by conducting vigilante patrols on the streets, as well as providing succour to ‘The Homeless, Less Fortunate & The Elderly’. Like Reclaim Australia, the Q society, the United Patriots Front and of course Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, they also claim to be a frontline defence in the battle against Islamisation and sharia law. I had interviewed other members of the so-called patriots movement at their highly publicised rallies during which they had clashed with anti-racist protestors and the police, but somehow I felt more threatened by the four Soldiers of Odin than I had by the crowds at those earlier events. Perhaps the hate-speech against my religious community sounded more sinister in the darkness and the shadows, but most of all, I think it was the cupcakes.

‘Seriously, they were giving out cupcakes,’ I told my friends. ‘With love-hearts on them! It was terrifying.’

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‘Equality Keeps Us Honest’: Rebecca Solnit on the Ignorance of Privilege

In a muscular essay in LitHub, Rebecca Solnit pares away the trappings of power to poke at the needy, grasping, isolated core of Donald Trump, who can’t be satisfied with all the money or sycophants in the world.

Equality keeps us honest. Our peers tell us who we are and how we are doing, providing that service in personal life that a free press does in a functioning society. Inequality creates liars and delusion. The powerless need to dissemble—that’s how slaves, servants, and women got the reputation of being liars—and the powerful grow stupid on the lies they require from their subordinates and on the lack of need to know about others who are nobody, who don’t count, who’ve been silenced or trained to please. This is why I always pair privilege with obliviousness; obliviousness is privilege’s form of deprivation. When you don’t hear others, you don’t imagine them, they become unreal, and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it, and that surely makes you starving, though you know not for what, if you have ceased to imagine others exist in any true deep way that matters. This is about a need for which we hardly have language or at least not a familiar conversation.

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Cookie Tasting with Trump’s Billionaire Backer

At Politico, Sara Dickerman samples Trump mega-donor Rebekah Mercer’s cookies. That’s not a metaphor — Mercer owns the bakery Ruby et Violette and “is viewed as the major player in her family’s political patronage, which includes ownership stakes in Breitbart News and data mining service company Cambridge Analytica.”

I have rarely come across so many white chocolate confections in a bakery (see their Instagram celebration of the substance here). It’s tempting to take a big haymaker at white supremacist politics amid all these white chunks: Just imagine Jeff Sessions nibbling at an all-white chocolate assortment of cookies as he tells big-city police departments to stop worrying about racial bias. The truth is, however, that there is a place for white chocolate in baking, which is to sweeten and offset other flavors when they get to be too intense. The problem is that most of the cookies I tasted are far from intense. In fact, they merge on meekness, like the Lemon White, a fine-in-theory lemon cookie studded with grainy white chocolate chunks. The best lemon desserts toy with you on the edge of astringency, but the lemon flavor here is just an echo of the actual fruit: more like the soft yellow sweetness of lemon Jell-O.

What’s the culinary equivalent of TL:DR, too long, didn’t read? Is it TL:DE? Tastes lousy, didn’t eat?

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