Stanford Team Aims at Alexa and Siri With a Privacy-Minded Alternative

PALO ALTO, Calif. — It has been almost two decades since Google started to dominate internet search the way Microsoft dominated software for personal computers a generation earlier.

Now computer scientists at Stanford University are warning about the consequences of a race to control what they believe will be the next key consumer technology market — virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant.

The group at Stanford, led by Monica Lam, a computer systems designer, last month received a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant is for an internet service they hope will serve as a Switzerland of sorts for systems that use human language to control computers, smartphones and internet devices in homes and offices.

The researchers’ biggest concern is that virtual assistants, as they are designed today, could have a far greater impact on consumer information than today’s websites and apps. Putting that information in the hands of one big company or a tiny clique, they say, could erase what is left of online privacy.

“A monopoly assistant platform has access to data in all our different accounts. They will have more knowledge than Amazon, Facebook and Google combined,” Dr. Lam said in an interview.

Virtual assistants have access to a broader and more personal range of data than, say, a search engine. A virtual assistant can be like a personal secretary, with access to many of the most intimate details of your life.

Dr. Lam is collaborating with a group of Stanford faculty members and students to build a virtual assistant that would allow individuals and corporations to avoid surrendering personal information as well as retain a degree of independence from giant technology companies.

The system from Dr. Lam’s group is called Almond. In a recent paper, they argued for an approach in which virtual assistant software is decentralized and connected by programming standards that will make it possible for consumers to choose where their information is stored and how it is shared.

A first version of the service was released last year, and the Stanford researchers are now trying to build an alliance with larger technology and consumer companies.

The market for virtual assistants, which do tasks as varied as selecting music or turning on and off thermostats and lights, is booming. Earlier this year Google said that, including Android-based phones, it was nearing installing its Assistant service on one billion devices. Amazon said it had sold more than 100 million Echo and related devices.

Virtual assistants have not attracted significant scrutiny from government regulators because the market is still small. But a handful of companies — Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft — are already dominating it.

“This is the same situation as with operating systems and browsers,” said Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor who has written extensively on the concentration of economic power in the internet era. “It’s competitively dangerous.”

The Stanford researchers are hoping to gain support by making their software freely available to users of smartphones, computers and consumer appliances.

They are encouraging makers of consumer products to connect their devices to the Almond virtual assistant through a Wikipedia-style service they call Thingpedia. It is a shared database in which any manufacturer or internet service could specify how its product or service would interact with the Almond virtual assistant.

They also hope Almond can leapfrog existing virtual assistant systems in its ability to understand complex language. Virtual assistants are doing a better job of understanding what humans say, but they have made much less progress in understanding what those words mean. Context and nuance are difficult for a machine to understand.

While simple phrases like “What is the temperature?” or “Play a Beatles song” are now routinely handled by computer assistants, routine human interactions that require understanding of context or rely on something that was previously spoken are much more challenging.

The services now do best in specific domains, like all the questions you might get about controlling your Spotify account.

It has taken years of work to get to this point. Three decades ago, Apple commissioned a group led by the computer scientist Alan Kay to create a video showing how in the future humans might interact with computers using spoken language.

The video, known as “Knowledge Navigator,” featured an absent-minded professor who talked with a computing system to perform everyday tasks and academic research.

The demonstration inspired a number of developers, including the artificial intelligence researchers Adam Cheyer and Tom Gruber, who began research on virtual assistants while they were still at SRI International, an independent research laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif.

In 2010, Apple acquired the start-up and then released its technology for the iPhone the following year.

Since then, Siri has faced stiff competition. Last year, Amazon said it had 10,000 employees working on its Alexa service, many of them focusing on improving the ability to understand complex commands.

The Stanford researchers argue that Alexa’s approach, even with thousands of employees, will never be able to adequately deal with the complexity and variability of human language because it is incredibly labor-intensive and may not extend to more complex conversations.

Amazon researchers, on the other hand, have said that having access to vast amounts of data will give them a meaningful advantage in developing more sophisticated conversational software.

The Stanford researchers have developed a system named Genie that simplifies the task of training a so-called neural network. They are improving the accuracy of their service by creating test data, some of it generated by humans and the rest by sentences created by special test programs.

While machine accuracy in understanding spoken words is now routinely above 90 percent, accuracy in understanding complex natural language is substantially lower. A recent paper by the Stanford researchers, which described a significant advance in language understanding, still reached only 62 percent accuracy on “realistic user inputs,” actual statements produced by human test subjects in written form.

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Dr. Gruber, who recently left Apple after heading advanced development there, remains skeptical of any near-term technical breakthrough that will make it possible for virtual assistants to have humanlike understanding.

“When you get a question and you don’t know what domain it’s in, then you have this very complicated problem of massive ambiguity,” he said.

Dr. Lam said the threat to privacy cannot be overstated. For example, she noted that Wynn Resorts in Las Vegas last year installed Amazon Echo devices in rooms.

“Once they said that what happens in Las Vegas stays there,” she said. “Now that’s no longer necessarily true. Now it might end up in Seattle.”

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/14/technology/virtual-assistants-privacy.html?emc=rss&partner=rss

How to Make Perfect Sweet Potatoes Every Time

At some point during every cooking class I teach, I do my signature move: dramatically add handful upon handful of salt to a large pot of boiling water, then taste it and add even more. Across the room, eyebrows shoot up. Audible gasps are made. More often than not, someone (usually a man) will suggest that I’ve overseasoned the pot. But then I cook broccoli or green beans or asparagus and serve everyone. The first bite makes my point better than any words ever could: Vegetables need to be salted properly as they cook in order to taste good.

And yet, every time, someone timidly raises her hand and asks, “How do you feel about steaming?”

“Well, to be honest,” I usually respond, “I hate it!” Why steam when I can boil, allowing my food to become evenly salted from within? Steaming offers no opportunity for either seasoning or developing the brown, crisp textures that sautéing and roasting afford. The only good things I’ve seen emerge from a steamer are tamales, couscous and dumplings — maybe the occasional artichoke or delicate fish fillet. But baby turnips with their tender greens still attached should be boiled in water as salty as the sea until their flesh is silky and soft. Long-stemmed broccoli should be tossed with olive oil and flaky salt and roasted in a hot oven until the florets turn the color of hazelnut shells and shatter on the tongue.

So I was surprised to find myself fascinated by a recipe for steamed sweet potatoes in “Where Cooking Begins,” the new cookbook from the food writer and editor Carla Lalli Music. The accompanying photograph of a platter of still-hot sweet potatoes split open, doused in tahini butter and showered with sesame seeds and fresh lime juice sitting seductively in golden-hour light was so enchanting that it challenged my career-long aversion to steaming. I almost always cook sweet potatoes the same way: sliced into thick rounds, brushed with coconut oil, salted and roasted until dangerously dark. The crisp, salty edges, haunted by a rumor of the tropics from the oil, contrast with the creamy interior. The combination is so irresistible that I usually eat a few pieces, still blazing hot, straight from the baking sheet, inevitably burning my fingertips and tongue in the process.

But Music’s potatoes practically beamed off the page; I would have to try the recipe. I still refused to spend $8 on a metal steamer, though — I was certain I’d never use it again. Instead, I set a footed colander inside my stockpot, added a couple of inches of water and laid several small, pale-fleshed Japanese sweet potatoes inside to cook. As they steamed, I mashed together tahini and softened butter, wondering — with some annoyance — why I’d never thought to combine the two myself. The butter takes the tahini from spoonable to spreadable. I added the soy sauce, sesame oil and lime juice, then waited impatiently for the sweet potatoes to finish cooking.

When they were done, I ripped one open, salted and spread tahini butter over it, then stood eating it over the sink. Steam had fluffed the potato into a sponge, ready to absorb the golden butter as heat transformed it from solid to liquid. I gobbled up that first potato and, licking my fingers, forced myself to stop — I’d forgotten there was a table of dinner companions waiting in the other room. Once I managed to serve them, we all agreed that steaming had performed some kind of alchemy that roasting never does.

Over the next few days, I couldn’t stop thinking about the dish, so I made it a second time with orange sweet potatoes, spiking the tahini butter with a little more soy sauce and some pounded garlic because I knew potatoes could take a little more umami and pungency. Now the sauce made my mouth smack. I lavished lime juice and toasted sesame seeds over the platter and called over my neighbors. As I watched them eat the hot potatoes, unable to resist taking another bite even as the threat of burning their tongues loomed, I explained how incredibly simple the recipe was, realizing with a start that Music had turned me into a steaming evangelist.

Music has always struck me as a cook just as obsessed with salt, fat and flavor as I am, so I was curious to know why she chose to steam rather than roast the potatoes. “Well, steaming is one of the core cooking methods that I felt I needed to include in the book,” she began, “but I’ve always felt like it’s [expletive].” Laughing, she explained over the phone that her one exception has always been sweet potatoes, which she got into steaming for baby food after her first child was born. The potatoes, she said: “are so fibrous and they have so much of their own natural moisture that they’re actually a terrible vegetable to roast, and I don’t understand why people are constantly roasting them. Roasting just makes them more fibrous and leathery, and they never, ever really get crispy.”

Music may have changed my feelings about steaming — at least when it comes to the sweet potato — but I’ll never be much of an ascetic in the kitchen. I asked her if, like me, she views the method as little more than an opportunity to make a salty, creamy, acidic and umami-packed accompaniment. “Absolutely,” she replied without hesitation. “The tahini butter might seem like too much until you start eating it. And the lime wedges aren’t a suggestion — you need them to balance out the potato’s overwhelming sweetness.”

That was all the permission I needed to start viewing broccoli, green beans, cauliflower and beets as blank slates ready for the creamiest, most savory sauces I could dream up. As soon as I got off the phone with Music, I ordered a steamer basket. I even splurged on the fancy $18 one.

Recipe: Sweet Potatoes With Tahini Butter

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/11/magazine/sweet-potatoes-tahini-butter-steaming-recipe.html?emc=rss&partner=rss

A Dad Defends Dad Jokes

Last Sunday morning, during parental small talk at a kids’ birthday party in Brooklyn, one dad told me he had just “cobbled together” summer camps for his child, to which I replied that camps in the area are very “cobble-able.” Sensing a prime opportunity, his eyebrows rose. “Cobble Hill,” he said, referencing a nearby neighborhood.

Then we paused, heads shaking with a smidgen of shame. We knew what had just happened. Dad jokes had been committed.

What is it about procreating that turns men into miserable comics? In honor of Father’s Day, I’d like to float a theory while also making the case for the virtue of our much-mocked brand of humor.

Dads have, of course, been telling bad jokes forever, but the term “dad joke” didn’t enter the lexicon until the past decade. In the last few years, it has become a ubiquitous if affectionate insult online, and even its own booming comedy genre, the subject of popular Twitter and Instagram accounts and a cottage industry of books with titles like “101 So Bad They’re Good Dad Jokes” and “Exceptionally Bad Dad Jokes.” (No fewer than eight dad joke books have been published since 2017.).

‘What do you call a fish without eyes? Fsh.’

I’m a comedy critic, so being a dad can seem like an occupational hazard. It may be professional suicide to admit, but since having children, I often find myself making lame puns as well as poop jokes. In subway stations, I have been known to silently mouth words to my daughters when a loud train goes by until the noise quiets and I add: “ … and that’s the secret to life.”

Look, I’m not proud.

The demise of a dad’s sense of humor begins in early parenthood while workshopping jokes in front of babies, tiny philistines who think peekaboo is a hilarious bit of misdirection. It isn’t long before these drooling rubes turn into trash-talking toddlers and fall in love with the scatological. Like so many lazy comics, we parents pander. If jokes work, they stay in the set. Gradually, we become hooked on cheap laughs. Some of us even delude ourselves into thinking we are actually funny.

This may sound like I’m blaming children for dad jokes, but only partly. Once dads develop this new sensibility, it doesn’t evolve, while our audience does. When their humor matures, they mock ours and, in their search for a critical language to express their contempt, the dad joke was born.

Some fathers balk at the term. Earlier this year, Andrew Beaujon wrote in Washingtonian magazine that it carries “the sting of ageism.” Perhaps. But one of the pleasures of this humor is it gives fathers license to joke like they did as small children. Part of this is nostalgia, but not entirely. The most common dad joke relies on puns. (“What has two butts and kills people? An assassin.”) To redeem them, you needn’t point out that Shakespeare used such jokes. Just listen to the raucous crowd at the popular Punderdome contest, essentially an excuse for young people without children to tell higher quality dad jokes.

‘If at first you don’t succeed, don’t try skydiving.’

Dad jokes are also the training wheels for cringe comedy. Part of their purpose is to embarrass and create discomfort, a benign troll. The goal often is to get not a laugh but a groan. It’s probably no accident that the oldest collection of dad jokes you can buy on Amazon is from an English writer (Ian Allen, who wrote “The Very Embarrassing Book of Dad Jokes” in 2012), since the British comic tradition has always been best tuned to the delight of embarrassment.

One appealing aspect of dad jokes is how they can be self-mocking and teasing simultaneously. An ironic distance is baked into them. No wonder they’re popular among Generation X parents.

But they have deeper roots. Dad jokes tend to be clean, generic and short, requiring no context or explanation. In many ways, they are throwbacks to the days when comics leaned on bits that started with a trio of religious figures walking into a bar, or evergreen one-liners that began with, “Did you hear the one about … ?”

Professional comics once trafficked in these jokes, but they went out of fashion as stand-up became more ambitious, and also more personal, putting a premium on original material that reflected a specific point of view.

What’s striking about the new dad joke books is how similar they are to once-essential, long-forgotten gag books from the middle of the last century, the kind written by prolific quip collectors like Robert Orben, whose work was plundered by entire generations of comics as disparate as Joan Rivers, Steve Martin and Dick Gregory.

Say what you will about a joke like, “What do you call someone with no body and just a nose? Nobody knows,” but it doesn’t age.

The history of comedy is not a linear story of steady progress, and the dad joke may just be the latest incarnation of a genre whose appeal is deep-seated and will never die so much as be reborn in different incarnations. (A cousin of this genre can be found in the quips in “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” a website that was turned into a hit Off Broadway play.)

‘What rhymes with orange? No it doesn’t.’

The best argument for dad jokes is that bad art can be tremendous fun. Anyone who tells you differently has never cackled their way through an abysmal movie as they made fun of it with good friends, or gleefully beat a joke into the ground, or seen Norm Macdonald spoof a roast by telling the most hackneyed jokes with complete conviction. Some of the biggest laughs of my life have been from bad jokes, because what’s funnier than failure?

Bad jokes clarify the feat of good ones, but also show their limitations. Stale punch lines rarely segregate those who get it from those who don’t, but they unify everyone in sighing condescension. They’re inclusive, the opposite of inside jokes.

In a time when bad jokes often mean jokes that offend, dad jokes carve out space to hate comedy for purely aesthetic reasons. Politics are involved, of course, because where is the mom joke? That the term doesn’t exist says less about mothers’ senses of humor, which are just as corny as fathers’, than about restrictive gender roles that cast women as humorless disciplinarians.

And yet, with our nation so divided, and our popular culture increasingly following suit, surely one of the few things that everyone can agree on is that “What do you call a fake noodle? An impasta” is an absolute abomination.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/12/arts/television/dad-jokes.html?emc=rss&partner=rss

California and Water: Half Environmental Nightmare, Half Remarkable Success Story

Little about the agricultural situation in today’s California seems wildly out of tune with this long history of rapacity and environmental abuse. True, the current kings and khans of the Central Valley may not have the colorful nicknames of the giants who preceded them, but their appetite for growth seems just as keen. The difference is that now they can inflict far more extensive damage on the landscape. Thanks to the implementation of major 20th-century engineering efforts like the Central Valley Project and the California Aqueduct, farmers have been able to bring tremendous amounts of marginal and often barely arable land into cultivation. In wet years this is not a problem, and many of us enjoy the bounty of almonds, pistachios and citrus in our supermarkets. But California is subject to extreme annual variations in precipitation. (“There’s no average here,” Arax writes, noting that the state’s rivers and streams can produce anywhere from 30 million to 200 million acre-feet of water from one year to the next.) So when the inevitable multiyear droughts set in, farmers must rely on excessive groundwater pumping to irrigate those endlessly expanding acres of fruit and nut trees, endangering the vast underground aquifer that is arguably the state’s most valuable natural resource.

Given California’s reputation for legislative overkill, it’s astonishing that groundwater pumping has been absolutely unregulated in the state for its entire history. (A new law was recently passed, but farmers have up to 20 years to comply.) With no restrictions in place, landowners have been free to sink as many wells on their property as they like, drilling ever deeper as the water table falls and the shallower wells dry up. In the troubled Westlands Water District, for instance, aggressive pumping during the recent drought depleted the aquifer at a rate of 660,000 acre-feet per year — about as much water as a city of 6.6 million people would use annually.

Maybe the most alarming consequence of this kind of unrestrained pumping is the dramatic subsidence of the land that can occur as the aquifer recedes. In one large area of the Central Valley near a place called Red Top, the earth is sinking nearly a foot per year, buckling infrastructure and rearranging the local topography virtually overnight. And this is not a temporary phenomenon. Once the soil is compressed, even floods on a biblical scale won’t bring it back to its former state. No one knows what this kind of rapid alteration of the landscape will mean over the long term. “As far as impacts go,” one United States Geological Survey employee observes, “we’re in uncharted territory.”

Fortunately, not all of the news in “The Dreamt Land” is so bleak. The chronicle of California agriculture has always been mixed — half environmental nightmare, half remarkable success story — and Arax gives himself enough room to report on the positives as well, profiling a few small growers who have produced marvels (a grape that tastes like cotton candy!) while remaining sensitive to the land and water resources under their stewardship. Granted, there are times when “The Dreamt Land” feels overstuffed and chaotically organized, as if Arax decided to include every relevant newspaper feature he’s ever proposed to an editor. But I suspect that few other journalists could have written a book as personal and authoritative.

Having lived in the Central Valley for most of his life, Arax knows the people and their problems, and he’s spent decades writing about them for The Los Angeles Times and other publications. And as the son and grandson of local farmers (his grandfather Aram grew raisins near Fresno after emigrating from Armenia in 1920), he seems to have a fundamental sympathy for those who till the soil. Maybe that’s why he saves his harshest scorn for the titans of Big Agriculture who, without ever getting their own hands dirty, try to monopolize California’s water, maximizing their own yields while robbing from their less powerful neighbors. As Arax makes plain in this important book, it’s been the same story in California for almost two centuries now: When it comes to water, “the resource is finite. The greed isn’t.”

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/12/books/review/the-dreamt-land-mark-arax.html?emc=rss&partner=rss

How to, Maybe, Be Less Indecisive (or Not)

Should you order tacos or tikka masala? Stay at the hotel with the free breakfast or the one with all the succulents? Melt into the couch or drag yourself to happy hour?

If you’re like me, even the simplest decisions can make your pulse race. And when it comes to big, life-altering choices, the need to get it right (because life is short!), combined with ever-looming F.O.B.O. (fear of better options), can cause a state of near paralysis.

While this abundance of choice is a result of incredible privilege — not everyone has the freedom to select where they work or live, or how to spend their time or money — it can still be overwhelming. As Barry Schwartz, the author of “The Paradox of Choice,” said, “I’m reasonably confident we’re operating with far, far more options in most parts of our life than we need and that serve us.”

Here are five strategies for spending less time agonizing over decisions and more time appreciating the results:

Go for good enough

Since perfectionism and indecision often go hand in hand, Dr. Schwartz said your first step should be moving from a mind-set that “only the best will do” to “good enough is good enough.”

“In the current world, where choice is virtually unlimited, seeking the best is a recipe for misery,” he said. Instead, he encourages over-thinkers to aim for good enough, whether they’re choosing which job to accept or which cereal to consume.

When setting the good-enough bar, it helps to reflect on your original goal. Did you begin your online shopping odyssey to find a toaster that could clean itself, roast carrots and also charge your cellphone? Or were you just looking for something that would brown your bread?

“We’re seduced into caring about every aspect of the things we’re thinking about,” Dr. Schwartz said, “because all that information is out there for us to evaluate.” Remembering your purpose can simplify the process.

Outsource your decisions

Research has shown that choices sap our willpower and lead to decision fatigue. Which might be why Sheena Iyengar, the author of “The Art of Choosing,” encourages indecisive people to pick their battles — or, in her words, “to be choosy about choosing.”

When it comes to wine, for example, all Dr. Iyengar wants is a good glass with dinner. So rather than poring over varietals and vintages, she outsources the decision to her local wine store, asking it to send her a case of surprises every few months. “Wine continues to be an actual joyful part of my life because I don’t put in the effort,” she said. “I’m happier when I have fewer decisions to make.”

In addition to leaning on experts, you can share the onus with those around you. When my partner and I make dinner plans with his brother and sister-in-law, no one ever wants to pick the restaurant. So we began taking turns as the designated chooser, allowing each of us to let ourselves off the hook for a jubilant 75 percent of our shared dinners.

For similarly trivial choices, you don’t even need another human. You could rely on habits and routines, like wearing a work uniform or eating a salad for lunch every day, to reserve mental bandwidth for more important decisions. Or you could emulate the man who coined “F.O.B.O” and base your choices on the second hand of your watch.

Employ the ‘90 Percent Rule’

Ever hemmed and hawed over whether to attend a social event or accept a new freelance project? When a yes-or-no decision has ample pros and cons, try the “90 percent rule” from Greg McKeown’s book “Essentialism.”

This involves evaluating an opportunity on a scale from 0 to 100. If your interest falls anywhere below 90 percent, reduce its score to zero and reject it. “It just gets you back to sanity,” Mr. McKeown said. “If it’s not a definite yes, then it can become a definite no. You don’t have to worry about it too much.”

For the aforementioned social event, maybe 80 percent of you thinks it would be fun, but the other 20 percent would rather cuddle with your children. For the freelance gig, maybe 50 percent of you would like the cash, but the other half knows you’re already spread too thin.

This rule makes the decisions easy; because neither is a 90, it’s rejected. “Think about how you’d feel if you scored a 65 on some test,” Mr. McKeown wrote in his book. “Why would you deliberately choose to feel that way about an important choice in your life?”

Create thought experiments

In his popular blog Wait But Why, Tim Urban has advised readers on making major decisions like getting married or picking a career, often using thought experiments as guidance.

Say you’re having doubts about your current relationship, but can’t decide if you should call it quits. Mr. Urban might suggest envisioning a button: Pressing it would propel you into a future two months post-breakup. You would have already had the hard conversations and the overly public subway sob sessions, and your ex’s side of the closet would be empty, nary a stray sock in sight. Would you press it? If the answer is yes, then it’s not the breakup you’re dreading, it’s the pain and hassle that accompany it.

Or, if you’re deciding whether to move across the country, imagine you’ve asked your best friend to choose for you. On the big day, she hands you an envelope; inside, it announces you’re leaving next month. Do you feel excited? Or disappointed?

Using these types of thought experiments to isolate important variables, Mr. Urban said, can help you “cut through fog to see clarity” — and help logic-based thinkers better trust their gut.

But one of the most important things for recovering un-deciders to realize — and accept — is that they will never have all the information. Referencing Steve Jobs’s famous line that you can connect the dots only looking backward, Mr. Urban urged anyone frozen by indecision to simply pick a “good next dot,” saying, “It doesn’t have to be perfect — it’s just a dot along the way.”

Dr. Schwartz would agree. “The privileged among us live in a world where mostly we’re choosing among really good options,” he said. “And the difference between really good and really, really good is not worth your effort to discern, even when the stakes are high.”

By picking the next dot, and the next one, it will allegedly get easier. Mr. Urban, for the most part, has come out on the other side, having reduced his indecisiveness through years of reflection, journaling and thought experiments.

“Decision making is the steering wheel of your life,” he explained. “And you want to get good at driving.”

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/13/smarter-living/how-to-be-less-indecisive.html?emc=rss&partner=rss

Letter of Recommendation: Bug Fixes

I work in the software business, which means that I live in a world ruled by computer code. A lot of that code is proprietary and secret. You can see what it does, but you can’t see how it works unless you work at the company that makes it.

We can, however, see some of it. A lot of the world now runs on “open source” code. That means it’s free and reusable, under the terms of its license. The Firefox web browser and the largest parts of Chrome and Safari are open source; whole operating systems, including essential parts of MacOS, are open source; the server software that powers our digital cloud, driving data to our phones, enveloping us in wonderful and terrible ways — much of that’s open source, too. If you’re reading this online, you’re almost certainly using open-source code right now.

The gates of the open-source palace are always open. You can enter by way of websites like GitHub (which is built on top of version-control software called Git, which was created by Linus Torvalds, the same person who created Linux). GitHub serves more than 100 million different code repositories. It’s owned by Microsoft, which is another sign of how things have changed: Microsoft used to write memos about how to ruin free software.

In 2019 you can track every change anyone makes to a codebase, whether they’re fixing one typo or changing 5,000 files. You can see who made the change, and read a description of the change. If something suddenly doesn’t work, you can backtrack to an earlier version and figure out why.

The secret history of the 21st century is written in code “commits” — which is what coders call changes like bug fixes and feature updates. I like to read commits like a newspaper, especially for software I use. I do this partly because I want to know what I can do today that I couldn’t yesterday. Little things add up; perhaps there’s a new way to use the cursor keys to add minutes back to my days, or a search function that could help me better organize my email.

In every commit, you can see how the code is growing, changing and reacting to the world: “Make image scaling work without ImageMagick support in eww” (from the Emacs text editor). “Disables autofill/autocomplete/spellcheck in the hex input field” (from a pixel editor that runs in the browser, called Make8BitArt.com). “Fix the bell sound when Alt+key is pressed. (#1006)” (from Microsoft’s command-line terminal app).

I wouldn’t expect a nonprogrammer to understand the above, but you can intuit some of what’s going on: that we don’t need ImageMagick to scale images anymore, because the text editor can scale images on its own; that it’s bad form to spell-check hex values, which specify colors; that the bell is doing something peculiar if someone holds down the alt key; and so forth.

But there’s also something larger, more gladdening, about reading bug fixes.

My text editor, Emacs, is a free software project with a history going back more than 40 years; the codebase itself starts in the 1980s, and as I write this there are 136,586 different commits that get you from then to now. More than 600 contributors have worked on it. I find those numbers magical: A huge, complex system that edits all kinds of files started from nothing and then, with nearly 140,000 documented human actions, arrived at its current state. It has leaders but no owner, and it will move along the path in which people take it. It’s the ship of Theseus in code form. I’ve probably used Emacs every day for more than two decades. It has changed me, too. It will outlive me.

Open source is a movement, and even the charitably inclined would call it an extreme brofest. So there’s drama. People fight it out in comments, over everything from semicolons to codes of conduct. But in the end, the software works or it doesn’t. Politics, our personal health, our careers or lives in general — these do not provide a narrative of unalloyed progress. But software, dammit, can and does. It’s a pleasure to watch the code change and improve, and it’s also fascinating to see big companies, paid programmers and volunteers learning to work together (the Defense Department is way into open source) to make those changes and improvements. I read the change logs, and I think: Humans can do things.

Technologists, being who they are, often suggest that we Git-ify everything: congressional legislation, newspaper articles and so forth. Sometimes I wish the “real” news worked like GitHub. But how could it? There’s no central code repository, no one source, for American culture. Most people aren’t living their lives thinking, If only this were more like software. When you love technology, this is a hard lesson to learn.

I like knowing how things are made. That’s the great lesson of software, to me: With open code and version control, the foundational document and the human process are one. We’re usually told to turn away from the sausage-making. With laws, TV shows, chicken nuggets or corporate mergers, it’s better not to know. Not in software, in which nothing is ever finished. Watching the commits, you can see the story taking shape. Or possibly shape the story yourself.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/11/magazine/letter-of-recommendation-bug-fixes-git.html?emc=rss&partner=rss

A Place the Entire Family Can Call Home

Every Thursday, Henk and Elly Oving take care of their young grandchildren. They don’t have to travel far. They just go downstairs.

The Ovings share a five-story home in Amsterdam — two apartments stacked on top of each other and joined by a central staircase — with their daughter Jantien and her husband, Auguste van Oppen.

“It’s two fully independent houses that are intertwined with one another,” said Mr. van Oppen, an architect who could just as easily be describing the 4,900-square-foot home’s two households.

The van Oppens and the Ovings are among a growing number of families sharing multigenerational residences. From Amsterdam to Australia, architects like Mr. van Oppen and his team at BETA, the local firm he co-founded with Evert Klinkenberg, are designing striking homes that make cross-generational care for aging baby boomers and overworked parents as easy as a walk down the hallway.

“It’s about being there together,” said Mr. van Oppen, who designed the home along with Mr. Klinkenberg. “It’s about being there for one another.”

The trick is coming up with designs that incorporate privacy, senior-friendly spaces and flexibility for the future. At the same time, the concept can help address one of today’s more stubborn issues — housing affordability.

Multigenerational homes allow family members to maintain their independence while benefiting from interdependence.

In the 3 Generation House, as it is called, the van Oppens opted for the 1,750-square-foot lower level to take advantage of direct access to the garden for the children, while the in-laws, retired and in their 60s, chose the 1,870-square-foot upper level with an elevator. “We wanted more privacy and the roof terrace,” Mr. Oving said.

Including subtle details like wider doorways and level, uninterrupted floors, their apartment has been designed to be senior-friendly — but discreetly so.

“It doesn’t look like a senior apartment, but it is,” Mr. van Oppen said.

Similarly, in Helsinki, the actors Vilma Melasniemi and Juho Milonoff built House M-M, a three-story home that includes a ground-floor apartment for Mrs. Melasniemi’s grandmother.

“We had long conversations about degrees of privacy,” said Tuomas Siitonen, who designed the timber-clad home, “so they could all live quite close to each other, and the grandparents could take care of their kids, and they could take care of the grandmother, but still everyone could live their own lives.”

The house is on land owned by Mrs. Melasniemi’s parents, who still live nearby in the 100-year-old home where she grew up.

The fully accessible 270-square-foot ground-floor apartment, which was financed by Mrs. Melasniemi’s parents, includes its own entrance and sheltered outdoor space. There is also a common garden area that can be shared by all members of the family.

“When we were building the house, I asked my father to draw the line on paper: Which is the land that we pay for, which is our common space and which is the land of their house,” Mrs. Melasniemi said. “I liked that he made it, as he knows the garden and he knows what he likes to think is their space.”

Mrs. Melasniemi’s grandmother, who was 91 when she moved in, has since died.

“My father got the opportunity to visit and talk to his mother every day,” said Mrs. Melasniemi, who has two children.

But the home is already being used for another phase in its planned long life.

“We discussed the kind of life span of the house,” Mr. Siitonen said. “We thought of how they could use the space when the kids move out, and then when the grandmother passes away. And of course, in the future the parents, one or both of them, might move in there. So it was kind of like we thought of things in five years and 10 years and 50 years.”

As with the 3 Generation House, which was designed to allow for expansions and conversions as the family evolves, House M-M was designed so that the children’s rooms, on the second floor, could be combined. Mrs. Melasniemi and Mr. Milonoff could then move down and turn the spaces on the upper floor into a studio. “And then maybe one of the kids could move into the apartment where the grandmother used to live,” Mr. Siitonen said. “Now it’s rented.”

In Kent, England, Caring Wood is another multigenerational home built with the future in mind. Commissioned by the in-laws of the architect James Macdonald Wright, of London-based Macdonald Wright Architects, it was designed by Mr. Wright and Niall Maxwell, of the firm Rural Office for Architecture, as a country house for the 70-year-old couple and the family’s three daughters and seven grandchildren. “There’s 15 of us,” Mr. Wright said. “The idea really was that we would all spend as much time as possible there.”

Set on 84 wooded acres, the family home takes a pinwheel shape with four corner apartments, one per family.

These are connected to the home’s common spaces, including a central inner courtyard where a family tree cast in glass by the artist Colin Reid sits in the center of the courtyard’s shallow pond.

“Internal walls are all partitions, so they can be reconfigured,” Mr. Wright said. In terms of lifetime use, he said, “there is a lift that gives access to all levels of the house.”

While privacy is built in, Mr. Wright said the children, ages 3 to 17, have no qualms about breaking it down. “They kind of just charge in between all of the individual apartments,” he said.

In Torekov, Sweden, a coastal village north of Malmo, the firm Maka Arkitektur designed a multigenerational weekend home for a mother and the families of her three children, currently including three grandchildren.

“Torekov has always been a kind of generational meeting point for the entire extended family,” said Daniel Hedner, the home’s architect along with Ylva der Hagopian.

Forming an outdoor courtyard that serves as a connecting social space for the family, the 1,740-square-foot home comprises a main building with two wings.

A slightly detached 280-square-foot guesthouse has its own kitchenette and bathroom.

“Access to separate rooms, nooks and corners for privacy are essential in multigenerational houses,” said Ms. der Hagopian, Mr. Hedner’s associate, “as well as generous social space that can gather a lot of people.”

Though large families living together is not a new idea, and mother-in-law apartments are common in many places, purpose-built multigenerational homes are largely “a new phenomena in Western society,” Mr. van Oppen said. But they have a strong tradition in Asian society.

That figured into the thinking of a couple with Asian roots who commissioned Charles House, a multigenerational home in Melbourne, Australia. “For them it was kind of a natural way to have a house,” said Andrew Maynard, whose firm, Austin Maynard Architects, designed it.

For this project, Mr. Maynard turned the traditional Australian “granny flat” (normally akin to a shed out back) on its head by incorporating it into Charles House as an adaptable space on the ground level. Although multigenerational homes are not typically part of Australian culture, Mr. Maynard said the country could certainly benefit from them.

“Sydney and Melbourne are among the top 10 of the most unaffordable cities to own a home in the world. And there’s a whole generation of younger people, millennials, who just can’t even buy into the market,” he said.

Designers and builders have responded to these challenges with a range of less conventional dwellings, including so-called tiny houses. But Mr. Maynard is not a fan of such extreme downsizing.

“I think multigenerational housing is a beautiful way for people to live, if you design it well,” he said. “What I don’t want it to be is another way to basically jam lots of people into a small space. Because nobody’s solving the economic equation of affordable housing” that way.

For Mr. van Oppen and his in-laws in Amsterdam, the only challenge of multigenerational living is the uncertainty of what’s to come. “The challenge is when they get older — how we will organize it,” he said.

Mr. Oving added, “We can’t expect them to care for us 24 hours a day.”

But for the moment, the family is enjoying the benefits of living so close.

“We have dinner together at least once a week, but usually more often,” Mr. van Oppen said. “And we hang out throughout the entire house. So, in the garden, on the roof terrace, in the kitchens.”

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/12/realestate/a-place-the-entire-family-can-call-home.html?emc=rss&partner=rss

My Husband’s Will Pits Me Against Our Daughter. What Can I Do?

Here’s the question: I don’t include working there on any form, application or résumé. The questionnaire, however, only asks if I’ve ever been dismissed — full stop. If I include the fact I was dismissed twice, once including a court case, I feel as if that’s a huge black mark against me and essentially immediately removes me from the candidate pool. If I don’t include the second dismissal, I’m afraid that this may also give me problems, namely that it could be unethical, that I’d be lying on a government application.

I didn’t have a problem not mentioning it when I was hired at my current job, and that was directly coming off unemployment. Gut instinct says not to, but I’m still unsure. What should I do? Name Withheld

You have a perfectly good explanation for both of these job terminations. In the second instance, you have a court’s decision in your favor. A reasonable manager, given these explanations, shouldn’t remove you from consideration. On the other hand, if it ever comes out that you lied on the form — which, let’s be clear, is what you’re considering — they’d have reason to fire you for doing so. (This is an ethical, not a legal, observation.) Go with the truth and an explanation. It isn’t a serious offense to omit from your résumé a brief episode that would require lengthy context. It is a serious offense to lie about something you’ve been asked about explicitly.

I have an elderly friend who sold real estate until the market crashed in 2008. Although the market rebounded, she did not. She has no pension or savings and is struggling to live on her modest Social Security check, food stamps and handouts from charity organizations. She is not in the best of health, so getting a part-time job would be difficult but not impossible. I am in my 50s and doing O.K. financially; I saved my money, and I still work.

I have helped her out occasionally by buying her necessities and giving her money, but I’m becoming resentful. I don’t think she has done everything to help herself. For instance, she refuses to move to a subsidized apartment or give up her health insurance for Medicaid. She does have a grown son who could help her, but she doesn’t want to ask, because they do not have a good relationship. I have even offered to pay her to do basic bookkeeping for me, but she says she can’t work for a friend.

What is my ethical responsibility here? I have real concerns that she could be evicted and end up homeless. I want to be a good person and a good friend, but I don’t think I should have to support her. Suzanne Kolasinski

It’s often useful to distinguish between the question “What am I obliged to do?” and the question “What would it be good to do?” What you’ve done for her — offering her work, buying her necessities, giving her money — is what a friend would do, not something you had a duty to do. A lot of what’s valuable about friendship flows from our wanting to do things for our friends; doing them out of a sense of duty is at odds with this idea.

The strict answer to your question about your responsibility is that you’ve already done more than you had to. There’s a great deal more that it might be good to do, however. You don’t make it clear whether you’ve actually discussed with her the various ways you think she could be helping herself. You should. Helping her think straight about her situation could be a gift of friendship. She may balk at accepting your advice, as she balked at accepting your offer of work. But it can take a thoughtful analysis by someone who cares for us to get us to accept the realities of our situation. And unless you press these issues with her, your resentment may well poison your friendship.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/11/magazine/my-husbands-will-pits-me-against-our-daughter-what-can-i-do-ethicist.html?emc=rss&partner=rss

Suiting Up Hockey’s Stars, One Stitch at a Time

MONTREAL — It’s a ritual broadcast widely every year during the N.H.L. playoffs: powerful hockey players in their power suits entering the arena.

And for decades, one bantam-sized tailor has outfitted more than his share of hulking hockey stars. Giovanni Vacca, 86, stands about 5-foot-5 and sports a black suit, V-neck sweater and dress shirt. He plies his trade in the heart of Montreal’s Little Italy, where he has stitched suits for hundreds of professional hockey players and executives — including members of this year’s Stanley Cup finalists, like Boston Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney and St. Louis Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo.

Vacca’s client list reads like a page out of the N.H.L. record books. From the 1990s and early 2000s: Wayne Gretzky, Rob Blake, Kevin Stevens, Theo Fleury, Brian Leetch and Mark Recchi. His roster includes the likes of Sidney Crosby, Shea Weber, Joe Thornton and Brent Burns.

Vacca came to Montreal from San Pietro Infine, a small town about 90 miles from Rome, in 1948 at the age of 15. He always had a sartorial instinct and apprenticed shops around Montreal before creating Giovanni Clothes in 1965.

“I wanted to advance, so I decided to go on my own,” he said. “I had a lot of cooperation with suppliers and a good name. People started to come. One tells the other.”

Despite being known for his hockey clientele, it was a baseball team, the Expos, that first made the trek up Boulevard St. Laurent to see Vacca.

“One of the first guys that came in was Rusty Staub,” he said, referring to one of the team’s first stars.

“Word got out that players needed to look good at a low cost,” said Warren Cromartie, an outfielder for nine seasons for the Expos. “They spent time with you to make you happy about the suit you are buying.”

The Vacca name spread within the Major League Baseball community and soon visiting teams would stop by the three-story shop. According to Cromartie, Vacca outfitted former home run king Sammy Sosa with his first suit.

“Andre Dawson told him to go to Giovanni,” Cromartie said. “Sammy got two suits, even though Andre told him to just get one!”

Count a New York Yankee great as another satisfied client.

“Joe Torre would come in,” Vacca said. “He was a nice man. We’d go have dinner afterward.”

Vacca also outfitted several members of the 1994 Stanley Cup champion Rangers, including Neil Smith, who assembled the team.

“He cares very much about his customers and his suits are of magnificent quality,” said Smith, the former Rangers general manager.

As professional sports morphed from the mom-and-pop types of operations in the 1960s to the billion-dollar businesses that exist today, Vacca altered his approach. No longer do players trek from their downtown hotels to Little Italy. Now his son, Domenico, goes on the road and outfits teams at their home rinks.

“The guys were always in our office, for years and years,” said Domenico during an interview in Nashville, where he had measured the Predators earlier in the day. “After the mid-80s, then curfews started and they weren’t allowed out late. It was Kevin Stevens who said, ‘Dom, why don’t you come see us on the road.’ Before I knew it, I was going everywhere.”

That player-centric approach is how Canadiens winger Jonathan Drouin, who grew up 62 miles from Giovanni Clothes, became a client. The two met a couple of years ago while Domenico was outfitting Drouin’s former team, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“Some of the guys told me to see him,” Drouin said. “I like the suits he makes, the fits, the brands. I always like going back to Domenico.”

Over the course of 50 years, father and son have seen fashion styles and body types evolve. The league has gone from valuing broad-shouldered, bigger players to emphasizing smaller, speedier types. The Vaccas have noticed the evolution.

“Players today want more slim fit, tight fit,” Giovanni said. “From the big suits, now we have the short suits.”

“Today, guys really know what they want,” Domenico said. “Go back 20 years, they were asking my opinion. Nobody had a clear view. Today they still ask for my opinion, but they have a clear view of what they want.”

Like the art of suit making, the art of relationship building is a delicate one that is taken seriously.

So after five decades outfitting home run kings and goal scoring champions, not to mention RCMP officers and corporate executives, what’s been the secret to keeping those relationships?

“A guy who comes in and buys one suit, he gets treated the same as the guy comes in and buys 10 suits,” Giovanni said. “Everybody’s equal.”

“It’s a story. What can I tell you?”

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/10/sports/suiting-up-hockeys-stars-one-stitch-at-a-time.html?emc=rss&partner=rss

Deceased G.O.P. Strategist’s Hard Drives Reveal New Details on the Census Citizenship Question

WASHINGTON — Thomas B. Hofeller achieved near-mythic status in the Republican Party as the Michelangelo of gerrymandering, the architect of partisan political maps that cemented the party’s dominance across the country.

But after he died last summer, his estranged daughter discovered hard drives in her father’s home that revealed something else: Mr. Hofeller had played a crucial role in the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

Files on those drives showed that he wrote a study in 2015 concluding that adding a citizenship question to the census would allow Republicans to draft even more extreme gerrymandered maps to stymie Democrats. And months after urging President Trump’s transition team to tack the question onto the census, he wrote the key portion of a draft Justice Department letter claiming the question was needed to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act — the rationale the administration later used to justify its decision.

Those documents, cited in a federal court filing Thursday by opponents seeking to block the citizenship question, have emerged only weeks before the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the legality of the citizenship question. Critics say adding the question would deter many immigrants from being counted and shift political power to Republican areas.

The disclosures represent the most explicit evidence to date that the Trump administration added the question to the 2020 census to advance Republican Party interests.

[Inside the Trump administration’s fight to add a citizenship question to the census]

In a statement issued on Thursday evening, the Justice Department said the accusations in the filing were baseless and amounted to “a last-ditch effort to derail the Supreme Court’s consideration of this case.” It said Mr. Hofeller’s 2015 study had “played no role in the department’s December 2017 request to reinstate a citizenship question to the 2020 decennial census.”

In Supreme Court arguments in April over the legality of the decision, the Trump administration argued that the benefits of obtaining more accurate citizenship data offset any damage stemming from the likely depressed response to the census by minority groups and noncitizens. And it dismissed charges that the Commerce Department had simply invented a justification for adding the question to the census as unsupported by the evidence.

Opponents said that the Justice Department’s rationale for seeking to add a citizenship question to the census was baldly contrived, a conclusion shared by federal judges in all three lawsuits opposing the administration’s action.

But a majority of the Supreme Court justices seemed inclined to accept the department’s explanation the question was needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act, and appeared ready to uphold the administration’s authority to alter census questions as it sees fit. The justices are expected to issue a final ruling before the court’s term ends in late June.

The filing on Thursday sought sanctions against the defendants in the lawsuit, led by Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr., who were accused of misrepresentations “on the central issues of this case.” Judge Jesse M. Furman of United States District Court in Manhattan set a hearing on the issue for Wednesday.

In nearly 230 years, the census has never asked all respondents whether they are American citizens. But while adding such a question might appear uncontroversial on its face, opponents have argued that it is actually central to a Republican strategy to skew political boundaries to their advantage when redistricting begins in 2021.

[How the Supreme Court’s decision on the census could alter American politics.]

Until now, Mr. Hofeller seemed a bystander in the citizenship-question debate, mentioned but once in thousands of pages of lawsuit depositions and evidence. Proof of his deeper involvement surfaced only recently, and only after a remarkable string of events beginning after his death in August at age 75.

Mr. Hofeller was survived by a daughter, Stephanie Hofeller, from whom he had been estranged since 2014. In an interview, Ms. Hofeller said she learned of her father’s death by accident after searching for his name on the internet, and returned to her parents’ retirement home in Raleigh, N.C., to see her mother, Kathleen Hofeller.

Sorting through Mr. Hofeller’s personal effects, looking for items she had asked her father to save for her, Stephanie Hofeller came across a clear plastic bag holding four external hard drives and 18 thumb drives, backups of data on Mr. Hofeller’s Toshiba laptop. Her mother gave Ms. Hofeller the backups, which turned out to hold some 75,000 files — family photographs and other personal data, but also a huge trove of documents related to Mr. Hofeller’s work as a Republican consultant.

Late last year, Ms. Hofeller said, she contacted the Raleigh office of the advocacy group Common Cause, seeking its help in finding a lawyer unconnected to her father to help settle his estate. Only after several conversations with a staff member there did she mention the hard drives in passing, she said, remarking almost jokingly that an expert on gerrymanders might find a lot in them that was of interest.

“My understanding was that anything that would be on these hard drives was duplicative of things that had already been hashed out” in court challenges to Mr. Hofeller’s maps, she said.

In fact, Common Cause had recently filed a new lawsuit in state court, challenging gerrymandered maps of North Carolina’s legislative districts drawn by Mr. Hofeller himself. When the staff member told her of the lawsuit, Ms. Hofeller said, she thought, “Wow — this might be of use.”

Lawyers for Arnold & Porter, the law firm representing Common Cause in the North Carolina suit, subpoenaed the drives in February. By happenstance, the same firm was representing private plaintiffs pro bono in the principal lawsuit opposing the citizenship question, in Federal District Court in Manhattan.

The documents cited in the Thursday court filing include an unpublished August 2015 analysis by Mr. Hofeller, who was hired by The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news outlet financially backed by Paul Singer, a billionaire New York hedge fund manager and major Republican donor. Mr. Hofeller’s charge was to assess the impact of drawing political maps that were not based on a state’s total population — the current practice virtually everywhere in the nation — but on a slice of that population: American citizens of voting age.

At the time, the study’s sponsor was considering whether to finance a lawsuit by conservative legal advocates that argued that counting voting-age citizens was not merely acceptable, but required by the Constitution.

Mr. Hofeller’s exhaustive analysis of Texas state legislative districts concluded that such maps “would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites,” and would dilute the political power of the state’s Hispanics.

The reason, he wrote, was that the maps would exclude traditionally Democratic Hispanics and their children from the population count. That would force Democratic districts to expand to meet the Constitution’s one person, one vote requirement. In turn, that would translate into fewer districts in traditionally Democratic areas, and a new opportunity for Republican mapmakers to create even stronger gerrymanders.

The strategy carried a fatal flaw, however: The detailed citizenship data that was needed to draw the maps did not exist. The only existing tally of voting-age citizens, Mr. Hofeller’s study stated, came from a statistical sample of the population largely used by the Justice Department to verify that the 1965 Voting Rights Act was ensuring the voting rights of minority groups.

“Without a question on citizenship being included on the 2020 Decennial Census questionnaire,” Mr. Hofeller wrote, “the use of citizen voting age population is functionally unworkable.”

Roughly 16 months later, as President-elect Trump prepared to take office, Mr. Hofeller urged Mr. Trump’s transition team to consider adding a citizenship question to the census, the transition official responsible for census issues, Mark Neuman, said last year in a deposition in the Manhattan census lawsuit.

Mr. Neuman testified that Mr. Hofeller told him that using citizenship data from the census to enforce the Voting Rights Act would increase Latino political representation — the opposite of what Mr. Hofeller’s study had concluded months earlier.

Court records show that Mr. Neuman, a decades-long friend of Mr. Hofeller’s, later became an informal adviser on census issues to Mr. Ross, the commerce secretary. By that summer, a top aide to Mr. Ross was pressing the Justice Department to say that it required detailed data from a census citizenship question to better enforce the Voting Rights Act.

The court filing on Thursday describes two instances in which Mr. Hofeller’s digital fingerprints are clearly visible on Justice Department actions.

The first involves a document from the Hofeller hard drives created on Aug. 30, 2017, as Mr. Ross’s wooing of the Justice Department was nearing a crescendo. The document’s single paragraph cited two court decisions supporting the premise that more detailed citizenship data would assist enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

That paragraph later appeared word for word in a draft letter from the Justice Department to the Census Bureau that sought a citizenship question on the 2020 census. In closed congressional testimony in March, John M. Gore, the assistant attorney general for civil rights and the Justice Department’s chief overseer of voting rights issues, said Mr. Neuman gave him the draft in an October 2017 meeting.

The second instance involves the official version of the Justice Department’s request for a citizenship question, a longer and more detailed letter sent to the Census Bureau in December 2017. That letter presents nuanced and technical arguments that current citizenship data falls short of Voting Rights Act requirements — arguments that the plaintiffs say are presented in exactly the same order, and sometimes with identical descriptions like “building blocks” — as in Mr. Hofeller’s 2015 study.

In their court filing on Thursday, lawyers for the plaintiffs said that “many striking similarities” between Mr. Hofeller’s study and the department’s request for a citizenship question indicated that the study was an important source document for the Justice Department’s request.

The filing also says flatly that Mr. Gore and Mr. Neuman “falsely testified” under oath about the Justice Department’s actions on the citizenship question.

In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Neuman denied the charge, and said he had worked for years to increase Hispanic representation in public office. “I gave complete and truthful testimony in my deposition,” he said. “My mother immigrated to this country from Central America. Any reference that I would advocate actions that harm the interests of the Latino community is wrong and deeply offensive.”

The Departments of Justice and Commerce had no immediate comment on the filings. Common Cause, which first obtained the hard drives, said the revelations on them were a wake-up call to supporters of the American system. “Now that the plan has been revealed, it’s important for all of us — the courts, leaders and the people — to stand up for a democracy that includes every voice,” said Kathay Feng, the group’s national redistricting director.

Ms. Hofeller said her decision to open her father’s files to his opponents was a bid for transparency, devoid of personal or political animus. Although she believed he was undermining American democracy, she said, their estrangement stemmed not from partisan differences, but a family dispute that ended up in court. Ms. Hofeller described herself as a political progressive who despises Republican partisanship, but also has scant respect for Democrats.

Her father, she said, was a brilliant cartographer who was deeply committed to traditional conservative principles like free will and limited government. As a child, she said, she was schooled in those same principles, but every successive gerrymandered map he created only solidified her conviction that he had abandoned them in a quest to entrench his party in permanent control.

“He had me with the idea that we are made to be free,” she said. “And then he lost me.”

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/30/us/census-citizenship-question-hofeller.html?emc=rss&partner=rss