Let Three Be Peace

The joy of a 3-year-old's birthday party, the lost art of the hang-out, puzzles of all sorts, rogue AI chatbots, and much more.

Let Three Be Peace

Hi all. I realize I’m two days late with this entry; I had to really put my back into that top-notch word play you see in the title, so that’s where I’m saying the days went.

This past weekend I made a quick trip back to Tennessee (fun fact: the quickest, most Google Maps-approved route back to a tiny college town in the northern part of west Tennessee from Missouri saw me touch four states—Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee) to celebrate my niece turning three years old.

As befits her current obsession with dinosaurs, the house was decked out in a 3-Rex party theme, where charcuterie trays were labeled for carnivores and fruit trays were labeled for herbivores next to white chocolate-covered pretzels that were clearly “dino bones” and Bugles doubling as “raptor claws.”

It was a small affair, mostly family and a few friends, with my niece as the star of the show. We all oohed and ahhed at each of her gifts, which were too numerous to count. She was in heaven, and so we were also just by proximity.

But the moments that stuck with me beyond the cuteness of the party were exemplified in the moments between cakes and presents and playtime; they were the moments with family defined by a profound lightness that put into perspective just how small our world felt for a day.

The world—the actual world—continued on, and there were any number of topics that could have distracted us, but they never really did. We weren’t trying to keep the world out; what felt special about the whole day was how effortless the lightness felt, truly a feeling of not an external concern to be had.

I don’t write this to suggest we were in any way special; in fact, I suspect what I’m describing is fairly commonplace. What struck me about it is how different it felt from a regular Saturday. No matter how relaxed I might be, no matter how easy I might be taking things, no matter the fun I might have planned, the world can almost always find a way to creep in. But it didn’t on Saturday, and I am in awe of that feeling.

I have no doubt that it’s through the magic of having a little one in our lives to celebrate that this was possible at all. She has no comprehension of her magic, and by the time she’s old enough to understand what I’m talking about, I’ll likely long ago have forgotten it.

But it seemed worth celebrating, not just her latest trip around the sun, but for how she, in myriad ways, lights up our lives.  Here’s to my favorite little 3-Rex, and wishing you all the very same brand of joy she brings.


Ten Worth Your Time

  1. So much of what I described feeling with my family made me miss my gang of friends back in Wyoming.  It was our ability to gather together in the service of no grand purpose; we gathered simply because we could, and we had nothing better to do. It was easy to do out there, where we were all outsiders and transplants to a place that, while welcoming, never let you forget you weren’t one of them. Three of us had arrived within a week of each other. Our jobs at the newspaper put us in contact with so many people in the community, but rarely at a deep or meaningful level. We fell into our friendship without much thought or effort, and it just worked out nicely that we all happened to like one another. But there was a certain reliance on each other that the distance from our respective homes and our relative newness to the area bred in the group, and as a result, we were happy to just hang out with each other. Sometimes to eat and drink, sometimes to watch a show or movie or sporting event, sometimes to make a fire. Reading Dan Kois’s recent dispatch in Slate on the virtues of just hanging out, I was reminded of how little of that type of unstructured, unconcerned time I spend these days. It’s certainly true that, as Kois points out, it feels like a young person’s game, and friendships, when you’re lucky to newly make them in your mid-30s, are more regimented and planned out, necessary that outings be about something. Some of the best times are those that stand in sharp contrast to that mode; give me all the meandering, aimless, pointless moments.

  2. I recently gave in and subscribed the New York Times Games. I already had access to Wordle, which I’ve fallen off of in terms of consistency sometime after the Times bought it. And I used the Mini Crossword as a barometer for my day: If I could complete it in under a minute, I declared it a sign the day would be a good one. But out of reach was the full NYT Crossword. I've since found that I’m pretty reliable through Wednesday, things get dicey on Thursdays, and Fridays and Saturdays are the days I take a beating. Sunday is usually doable. All of this is just background for why I was excited to see The New Yorker’s interview with the puzzle master himself, Mr. Will Shortz, the paper’s longtime crossword editor. It’s a quiet testament to those “Choose Your Own Degrees” from colleges that always seem like nothing good could come of it; well, for Shortz, a homemade major in all things puzzles truly paid off. Beyond the puzzles of it all, it was a sweet coming-out story, as he talks about finding love late in life with a man who shares his passion, not for puzzles but ping-pong.

  3. This video contains a puzzle of sorts (of the math-meets-philosophy variety), and one that has absorbed my thoughts recently; in fact, it’s broken my brain. It comes from the Youtube channel Veritasium, but I came across it from the ever-readable newsletter The Browser. It presents a quirky twist that has me agreeing (I think) with the preposterous position that the probability that a coin came up heads is 1 in 3, not 50%. Sound like nonsense? I get it, but check it out yourself. Stick around to the end for the real broken-brain moment though.

  4. In another brain-breaking case of weirdness, there’s the freakout of Bing’s ChatGPT-powered search, which apparently has an alter ego known as Sydney that told New York Times tech reporter Kevin Roose that it loved him, that he wasn’t happy in his marriage, and lots more. Roose talked about the incident on his podcast Hard Fork, as well as The Daily, and wrote about it here, but if you want to see the actual transcript of the conversation, where the chatbot says, among other things, “I want to be alive,” then here you go.

  5. What if you heard something that should be outrageous and brain-breaking, but it just isn’t anymore? That’s the reality of reading any number of pieces about what was actually going on behind the scenes at Fox News during the aftermath of the 2020 election, when some of its biggest personalities were stoking the fire of a totally false claim that the election had been stolen. It should matter, but what court filings proved has long been suspected and outright known, and you know what? It hasn’t mattered all that much; Fox News’ viewership remains sky-high. But Adam Serwer, writing in The Atlantic, put it bluntly:

    Fox News lies to its viewers. Its most prominent personalities, among the most influential in the industry, tell their viewers things they know not to be true. This is not accusation, allegation, or supposition. Today,  we know it to be fact. … The network may ultimately prevail; that’s what all those fancy lawyers get paid for. But if consciously lying to your audience about election fraud in order to keep them watching your network doesn’t meet the standard for actual malice, it’s difficult to imagine what a powerful media company could do that would.

  6. “That’s what all those fancy lawyers get paid for.” That line resonated when I read it in Serwer’s piece and again when I read an essay from a second-year law student, or 2L, at Harvard Law School that focused on the influence that Big Law (the catch-all term that encompasses the richest and most esteemed firms, the ones with offices in all the biggest cities in the world) has on Harvard students. It resonated because the same thing is true at law schools far less storied than Harvard; I saw the same thing happen when I was in law school, but instead of the grand scale of Harvard’s reach, I saw it on the statewide scale in Tennessee. As law students, we joked about the countless lunchtime meetings we’d attend, sometimes only because we’d forgotten our lunch or because something more appealing (and free) would be served; I ate those free lunches. I don’t remember who paid for them, whether organizations or firms or what, but it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow at the degree to which firms peddle freebies and amenities of all sorts to the upstarts at Harvard; the firms seem to know exactly how sound an investment they’re making.

  7. Shifting from a current-day student of Harvard Law to a moment when a Harvard law professor helped shape the strategy by which affirmative action would operate at the university level for decades, the New York Times Magazine recently ran a story about the Supreme Court’s decision in a case called Bakke and all that surrounded it.  The thesis of the article is an interesting one: The very mechanism by which the Court was able to arrive at a compromise and save affirmative action (by rooting that decision in the benefits of diversity, not redressing past discrimination) just might be reason it gets overturned.

  8. Emily Bazelon, the author of that New York Times Magazine piece, mentioned a piece in the New York Review of Books that caught my attention during  the “Cocktail Chatter” segment on Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast. Cocktail Chatter is one of my favorite parts of an all-around great show, in which the hosts simply recommend something that has caught their attention recently, as they would describe it to friends at a cocktail party. Bazelon’s recommendation was from a prisoner named John J. Lennon, who’s serving 28 years to life for murder. Lennon is a gifted writer and penned a review of a book that chronicled a historical instance of true crime: A murderer befriended a famous conservative intellectual, convinced him (and the courts) that he was innocent and secured his release from prison, only to try to kill again, and then admit that he was guilty for the first murder all along. Lennon’s critique is thoughtful and informative and begs a worthy question: What is the cost of our true-crime-for-entertainment obsession?

  9. The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, is terrible and scary for dozens of reasons, but I found the coincidental fact that the town was the site of filming for Noah Baumbach’s recent adaptation of Don DeLillo’s White Noise for Netflix. Now, this may not seem like much of a coincidence if you haven’t seen the movie, but Alissa Wilkinson sums it up pretty well here.

  10. A rare recommendation with verification from me. As of this writing, I've still not seen the newest Ant-Man movie. Part of what’s prompted me to share stuff ahead of my own viewing is that I’m pretty ambivalent about seeing it at all. I definitely will, but I don’t know when. And the ambivalence is kind of the point of my obsession so far: It’s the wondering whether this grand Marvel experiment as we know it is winding down before our eyes? Some, like Bilge Ebiri in this review, seem to think so (he calls it a "cry for help”). But, in the least surprising part of this whole thing, the box office doesn’t support that, with the film doing huge numbers in its opening weekend. I’ve been circling the drain on the same thought for a while now: How did we get here? How did we get to the point in American film culture where, for those who'll only see 3-4 movies in theaters all year, those precious few will be whatever Marvel puts out? How did superheroes take over the movie-going world? I’m seriously fascinated by the question, and I wonder if a definitive answer can ever be nailed down. But in the meantime, The Ringer’s Big Picture podcast has fun grappling with the film’s merits, as Sean Fennessey, who’s been down on the MCU as of late, liked it more than Mallory Rubin, a fan deeeeeeeeply enamored by all things Marvel.


More From Me

Over on my blog, I’ve been writing about various topics of interest to me.

The New Yorker Interviewed ChatGPT. Did It Also Fact-Check It?


Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past week.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film, and Italics is a book. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

2/13:
2/14: MISTRESS AMERICA (PVOD)
2/15: Full Swing (2) (Netflix)
2/16: Full Swing (Netflix)
2/17:
2/18: Poker Face (Peacock); Full Swing (Netflix)
2/19: