Ack, Man

The only Oxman I want to hear about is the minotaur.

Last week, Harvard President Claudine Gay resigned rather than continue to fight the racist attacks, death threats, and multiple daily front page articles of a bad faith ostensibly anti-plagiarism campaign organized by Chris Rufo and Bill Ackman and largely carried out by The New York Times, whose executive editor Joe Kahn happens to be Harvard University’s biological son. This was already hard to follow before Business Insider’s Katherine Long and Jack Newsham reported that Ackman’s own wife, former MIT professor Neri Oxman has a bit of a plagiarism problem herself, but now even a general overview of what’s going on requires nearly twenty years of Lore to explain. Regrettably, that is my job. This morning Tabs Senior Managing Editor for Graphics Alison Headley texted me:

Text bubble from Alison today at 10:41 am, which reads: “do I need to find out what an ackman is”

…and I’m sorry to say that if you keep reading, you’re going to find out, whether you want to or not.

Who is Bill Ackman?

Bill Ackman is a hedge fund guy who runs Pershing Square Capital Management. He’s supposedly worth four billion dollars, so you would think he must be very good at running a hedge fund, but he seems to be most famous for two big trades:

First, the time he lost a billion dollars shorting Herbalife, an obvious scam and pyramid scheme which was forced to settle with the FTC for two hundred million dollars for being an obvious scam and pyramid scheme. If you want to know how he managed to lose a billion dollars betting against a scam, you’re going to have to ask Matt Levine because I have no idea. And second, the time he lost four billion dollars investing in a US pharmaceutical company called Valeant. Losing money on a pharma investment in the United States is so perverse it almost seems like an achievement, but the fact is that to be a hedge fund billionaire you don’t have to be good at anything but convincing other rich people to give you money. It’s basically running a lemonade stand for Masters of the Universe types.

Ackman loves the new infinitely long tweet format so much that FT’s Bryce Elder reported that “between Dec 1 and Jan 8 at 14:00 GMT, @BillAckman tweeted 28,200 words (not including retweets).” For a sense of Ackman’s vibe, please see the rest of that FT post, which is a quiz titled “Bill Ackman or American Psycho?” I’ve read American Psycho and I still only got eleven out of twenty right.

Who is Neri Oxman?

In 2019 Bill Ackman married Neri Oxman in a small private ceremony performed by The New York Times. Oxman, an MIT Ph.D. and a Media Lab professor until 2020, looks like the actress who would play her in her own biopic and possesses a generational talent at spouting what Slate’s Rachelle Hampton called “a Stream of Majestic Gobbledygook.” For example [deep bong hit]:

Hell yeah bro. Hell,,,,, Yeah.

In September Oxman spent more than two hours on the Lex Fridman podcast saying things like: “is there a way in which all things technosphere are designed as if they are part of the biosphere?” and “if you could grow an iPhone, if you could grow a car, what would that world look like?” like some kind of hyper-credentialed Shingy.

You Wouldn’t Grow A Car

Oxman has intrigued Björk, been publicly courted by Brad Pitt, and in 2017 had her Media Lab students “send a token of appreciation to [Jeffrey] Epstein: a grapefruit-sized, 3-D printed marble with a base that lit up. It came with a pair of gloves to avoid getting fingerprints on the surface,” according to The Boston Globe. In 2020 Oxman moved on from the Media Lab to found her own design studio, OXMAN, a company dedicated to generating blocks of pseudo-profound text, like:

By placing a multiplicity in the form of an × between Nature and humanity, we call for a radical realignment between grown and built environments. We transition from the current dichotomy of consumption on the one hand and preservation on the other to a relationship that embodies complete synergy, acknowledging that the interconnected whole is far more than the sum of its parts.

Hell. Yeah. Pass that shit this way.

Obviously, she is “an intensely private person.”

Ok, so what happened?

Taking inspiration from Ackman’s newfound dedication to academic integrity, Business Insider looked at his wife’s dissertation and found several instances of plagiarism which Oxman promptly admitted were accurate and apologized for. All good, right? But Business Insider is not new at this. They had some more in the can:

In her response, Oxman described her mistakes as instances in which she "omitted quotation marks for certain work that I used." The cases she apologized for were similar in character to some cases that the Washington Free Beacon found in Claudine Gay's academic history — failures to use quotation marks around passages from works that were otherwise cited.

But a thorough review of her published work revealed that Oxman's failure to cite sources went beyond that — and included multiple instances of plagiarism in which she passed off writing from other sources as her own without citing the original in any way. At least 15 passages from her 2010 MIT doctoral dissertation were lifted without any citation from Wikipedia entries.

Ackman had a meltdown, invoking “the sacred code of the road” (???) and threatening to call Business Insider’s daddy, his good friend KKR which owns Axel Springer which owns Business Insider. He also mentioned that “[t]he Editor of the Investigative group of Business Insider who is leading the attack on my wife is John Cook,” which doesn’t seem relevant unless Ackman also slept with Bubba the Love Sponge’s wife at some point.

In his logorrheic freakout Ackman also posted a list of (Just Asking) questions about Wikipedia, which summoned a delightfully educational response from Molly White. White answers his question “Has anyone (other than my wife) ever been accused of plagiarism based on using Wikipedia…” by cheerfully pointing him to the Wikipedia list of people accused of plagiarizing Wikipedia, which of course now includes Neri Oxman. Is this enough to add Ackman to the list of people killed by their own inventions?

Max Tani reported that Axel Springer is “divided over the… article.” While everyone agrees the story is accurate and it has not been meaningfully disputed, Ben Mullin notes-apped a weaselly “questions have been raised about the motivation and the process” statement by Axel Springer into the discourse. So on the one hand: an accurate story. On the other hand: some self-interested bullshit from a billionaire. Who can say which is more important.

At the Times, Harvard campus correspondent and notoriously difficult question in the “New York Times reporter or scientific name of a species of deep sea polychaete annelid worm?” quiz Anemona Hartocollis passive-voiced her own way out of the narrative despite this literally being her nineteenth article in a row about all of this nonsense.

And Ian Bogost took a look at his own dissertation with an AI plagiarism detection tool, finding it difficult, expensive, time consuming, and inaccurate but nonetheless somehow concluding that:

The very ease of the self-investigation, conducted at a relatively modest cost with the help of powerful technology, hints at how a full-bore plagiarism war could end up playing out.

I guess! He didn’t find any plagiarism in his own work, so “it does at least refute the case that this was nothing more than academic jaywalking, or, in its purest straw-man form, that everybody does it.

Post by “Same” above two frames from Bob’s burgers, where Bob says “It’s been a rough year, and Louise replies “It’s the first week of January.”

That’s it! I had a ton of other stuff bookmarked for today but it’ll keep. I had to learn all of this and now you had to as well, it’s the Circle of Life.

Today’s Song: babyMINT, “Hellokittybalahcurrihellokitty美味しい” (I think??? I’m doing my best here.)

Thanks to SME Graphics Alison for the “You Wouldn’t Grow a Car” graphic. Thanks for today’s song to Music Intern Sam who is so back. Thanks to you for indulging this deep dive into something none of us should know anything about. Join me here tomorrow for: Other Stuff.

And hey, while you’re at it, why not become a paid subscriber? Last Friday we talked about the Times coming out as a Gaylor and had a nice open thread. The first year is just $35, you’ve got nothing to lose! I mean, I guess technically you’ve got $35 to lose but you won’t!