Pluralist: 19 Feb 2020


  1. The Woman Who Loved Giraffes: a documentary about Anne Innis Dagg, the magnificent feminist biologist and critic of pseudoscience like evolutionary psychology.
  2. Machine learning doesn't fix racism: experiments in using machine-learning "risk assessment" for bail hearings collapse in ignominy.
  3. Rethinking "de-growth" and material culture: great commentary from Kate "McMansion Hell" Wagner.
  4. Bernie Sanders is a clear favorite among "regular Democrats." 71% approval and 19% disapproval!
  5. Trump's border wall defeated by 99 pesos' worth of rebar.
  6. Capitalism without capitalists: companies are not their shareholders' property. Companies own themselves.
  7. Rental car immobilizes itself when driven out of cellular range: Unauthorized Bread, but for cars!
  8. Nearly half of medical devices haven't been patched against the Bluekeep vuln
  9. Glowing Randotti skull-prints: Coop revives the golden age of Haunted Mansion merch.
  10. Ios is now a vehicle to deliver unblockable adware
  11. Colophon

The Woman Who Loved Giraffes

Anne Dagg was my undergrad advisor at U Waterloo. She's a pioneering biologist and feminist scientist whose scorching critiques of sexist pseudoscience (especially evolutionary psychology) led to her being denied tenure for 40 years.

Now there's a doc about her life. It's called "The Woman Who Loved Giraffes" because of Anne's spectacular work about giraffes: she was the first woman scientist to study them, and, unlike the dudes who preceded her, she described how awesomely gay giraffes are.

The Woman Who Loved Giraffes is playing in limited release right now, and it's coming to LA this week. Here are the LA showtimes:

I'm going to try to shuffle things to see it on Feb 27 in Pasadena

Anne is a treasure. (BTW, her maiden name was Innis, and father, was Harold Innis, Canadian media-theory royalty)

Dagg's work on the unfalsifiable nonsense of evo-psych makes her a kind of polar opposite of Jordan Peterson. Her book LOVE OF SHOPPING IS NOT A GENE is one of the most eye-opening science books I've ever read. I can't recommend it enough.

And this, at long last, appears to be her moment! This year, she was awarded the Order of Canada:

Machine learning doesn't fix racism

GIGO is an iron law of computing, Part MMLVI. Feed a ML model racist criminal justice outcomes and it will give you racist suggestions, shellacked with a layer of empiricism.

New Jersey tried to replace cash bail with algorithms, and bail outcomes became more racially biased, with the added complication that "the computer said it was fair."

"Patterson of PJI says the group changed its view of algorithms in pretrial justice because since 2018 it placed more emphasis on racial justice, and begun listening more to grassroots orgs. 'We heard people in these communities saying these are tools of harm.'

Rethinking "de-growth" and material culture

Outstanding work from Kate Wagner, evoking some of Bruce Sterling's "Viridian Green" manifesto for embracing material culture, rather than telling people they don't like stuff.

Wagner cites the recent Oslo Architecture Triennale and its theme of "de-growth." As it happens, I wrote a short story for that project that is skeptical of "de-growth" and instead is geared at making material choices that reflect a good's duty-cycle:

It's not a sin to value the convenience of a single-use shopping bag. The problem is that the bag embodies a ridiculous amount of energy, labor and materials, and is made out of very long-lived materials that do not gracefully re-enter the material stream.

A thing you use for 10 minutes should not last for 10,000 years. And the converse is true, too: things you want to use for years should not break in minutes. And all of it should be designed for graceful re-entry into the material stream.

I love Wagner's "upcycling" take on material efficiency; the bricolage/collage version of material goods, made from other good that hearken to their use history and their usefulness is just my favorite thing (Tangentially, I really miss Junky Styling and their amazing clothes).

As Leigh Phillips wrote convincingly, the "carrying capacity" of the planet is a function of material efficiency, not the Club of Rome's simplistic "Cars have Xkg of steel, the world has Ykg of steel, thus the largest number of possible cars is Y/X."

Bernie Sanders is a clear favorite among "regular Democrats."

Sanders has the highest national approval rating among Dems (71%) & the lowest disapproval rating (19%). His approval is 6% higher than Warren, 16% higher than Biden, 18% higher than Buttigieg…




Yet the Democratic Pearl Clutching Caucus is convinced that he is "divisive" and will spark "civil war."

Translation: Every 4 years, we demand that racialized and poor people eat a shit sandwich, from which we handsomely profit.

Sanders is not a shit sandwich, and we're not gonna get our cut. THIS IS CLASS WAR!

"According to an In These Times study of MSNBC’s prime-time coverage, in August and September of last year, Sanders received less coverage than Biden and Warren, and the coverage he did receive was more negative."

To avert this notional "civil war," the Dems' finance wing wants a brokered convention in which they sabotage the party's popular wing and install a bespoke Bloomberg Shit Sandwich, possibly with a slathering of Mayo Pete for lube to help us swallow it.

Trump's border wall defeated by 99 pesos' worth of rebar.

"Show me a 20' high wall and I'll show you a 21' high ladder."

In this case, the ladders are SO CHEAP AND EASY to make. Rebar ladders are exactly the same rusty metal color as the fenceposts, so they blend in. They're skinny enough to pass between the posts, so you can reposition the ladder after you reach the top and use it to descend.

The Border Patrol's conviction that the whole thing is a creature of Big Rebar and its Elite Ladder Barons is touching:

"Somebody is making money off those ladders" -CBP Agent Joe Romero

6m of rebar costs 99 pesos at the Ciudad Juarez True Value Hardware. That's $5.30.

"Old-fashioned illegal crossings are on the rise in El Paso, according to Border Patrol."

The classics never go out of style, especially when they're priced to move at a mere 99 pesos.

Capitalism without capitalists

One of the most exciting, eye-opening articles I've read in AGES. Showing how shareholder capitalism is a lie BY ITS PROPONENTS' OWN TERMS…Genius.

Marx thought individual property would end up being socialized, and he was right…but also wrong. The state hasn't socialized property, corporations have. Corporatism is "capitalism without the capitalist."

The corollary of "limited liability" is "entity shielding." Shareholders aren't on the hook for the company's debts, but the company can't be dunned for the shareholders' debts, either.

Shareholders "cannot use the [company's] assets, exclude others from them, lend them out, borrow on them, sell them, and they have no legal claim to the proceeds from the sale of assets or to company profits." They are not, in short, owners.

Who owns the company? The company owns itself. "The corporate entity is the residual claimant, and this residual profit is then allocated at the discretion of management."

Shareholder capitalism is a word-game: "All the specialized law-and-economics vocabulary for corporate firms is but an artifact of the false premise that the stockholders are its owners."

Corporations can only exist at the largesse of the state, which charters them. Limited liability and entity shielding cannot be accomplished by contract alone. Corporations are the original public-private partnership.

Boards don't derive their power from stockholders, they get it from the state. The board is formed BEFORE the company has stockholders.

"Our world teems with abstract legal entities, chartered by public authority as owners & principals, managed by fiduciaries."

"Corporations are not creatures of the market, but public-privatehybrids licensed to colonize the market. This greatly heightens the 'political' in 'political economy.'"

This is such a crisp articulation of what some sf writers have assayed as a way of thinking about the AI panics of our billionaire class, such as Charlie Stross and his "Slow AI":

Or Ted Chiang:

Or my own modest contribution:

Rental car immobilizes itself when driven out of cellular range

Yes, it's Unauthorized Bread, but for cars! But actually, Unauthorized Bread is this bullshit, but for carbs. I've been tracking it for >10yrs.

The tech started in leased cars, but quickly migrated to short-hire vehicles.

Being able to immobilize a car whose driver missed a payment sounds nice, maybe, but recall that no language on Earth contains the phrase "As secure as the IT at a used car dealership."

Which is how, periodically, hackers pwn a car dealer's network and IMMOBILIZE EVERY CAR THEY'VE EVER SOLD.

Designing a computer (including a car) to treat its user as an adversary works well, but boy howdy does it ever fail badly.

Immobilizers are fuelling a quiet, ugly subprime lending bubble with contours that are markedly similar to the runup to the 2008 crisis, with the difference that used cars are worthless, while at least many of the repoed houses were actually useful.

The plight of Kari Paul (author of the OP) is illustrative of the Shitty Technology Adoption Curve. We try out the worst technology ideas on people who don't get to complain (poor, racialized, imprisoned) & then work our way up the privilege gradient to everyone else.

20 years ago, if a CCTV observed you eating dinner at home, you were in a supermax prison. Now it means you've bought a Ring, Nest, Alexa or Apple Home (or whatever that Facebook abortion is called – I CBA to look it up).

"At first, GIG Car Share's plan was to send a tow to tow the Prius a few miles closer to civilization, but [then] GIG's customer service unhelpfully suggested Paul and her companion spend the night sleeping in the car and trying to start the car again the next morning."

It's Biblically terrible tech: "Whatever IoT nightmare you inflicted upon one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you eventually inflicted upon me."

Want to read the toaster version of this? Ars Technica has you covered:

(Hugo nominators take note! This is eligible for this year's award in the Novella category!)

Nearly half of medical devices haven't been patched against the Bluekeep vuln

These are "foreverday" bugs: present in systems unlikely to ever be patched. The systems are either not physically accessible or can't risk being borked by a bad patch. Medtech is both: some implants require surgery to field-update and machines used for surgeries (etc) ABSOLUTELY cannot be put into an unstable condition.

As a result, hospitals are being pwned by digital superbugs on the reg now, and though it's mostly encryption-based ransomware, there's no reason grifters couldn't pivot to ransoming hospitals by threatening to brick mission-critical devices.

Glowing Randotti skull-prints

Randotti skulls were the absolute apex of the golden era of Haunted Mansion merchandise. Coop's long-range experiments with 2D adaptations of these 3D works are such a delight to me!

I owned so many of these as a kid (one of them is still in a storeroom at Toronto's BakkaPhoenix, I believe).

I think this might be my favorite treatment of the subject to date. The glow-in-the-dark is SUCH a sweet touch!

What I REALLY want, though, is a modern Coop treatment of these changing-portrait/glow-in-the-dark cards, which I owned for <24h as a child, only to lose them when our rental car broke down and my souvenirs were not transferred to the replacement car.

I've been searching for them for >30 years now and have never seen them for sale.

Ios is now a vehicle to deliver unblockable adware

The whole basis of Ios is not "walled garden" but "benevolent dictatorship." In exchange for irrevocably locking yourself to a platform defined by DRM and aggressive litigation to prevent interoperability, Apple implicitly promises that it won't abuse that privilege.

This is a system that works well, but fails badly.

It requires that you rely on the outcomes of goings-on between executives and shareholders at one of the world's most secretive corporations, a company that has threatened to sue journalists who refuse to narc on their sources.

But lock-in creates a distinctive microeconomic culture within a board-room or a company. Absent any lock-in, when one exec proposes something profitable (but bad for users), others can warn that this course of action is bad for the firm's long-term health.

Once customers are locked into the system, though, the managers who have abusive ideas win the argument, provided that it's a tiny, incremental wickedness that only makes things a LITTLE worse and holds out the promise of a LOT of money.

Compromise is the death of a thousand cuts. The next abusive idea will be measured not against how bad it seems compared to the original state of grace, but relative to its distance from the current, lightly stained condition.

Our cognitive apparatus is like our sensory apparatus: attuned to differences, not absolutes. One compromise at a time, the ethos is eroded until nothing remains but the sense that you're on the side of the good guys — and whatever you're doing is therefore good. "We're the good guys, so what we do is good" (tautologies are a hell of a drug).

To use an Ios device is to be blitzed by an unblockable carpet-bombing of ads for Apple's upsell services. Every screen in Itunes Store tries to trick you into signing up for Apple Music.

"Browse and For Now are entirely Apple Music ads. Radio has some free content but that largely exists to pull people into Apple Music, and Search will happily pull you in to Apple Music if you tap the button."

Same goes for TV, which trips, tangles and shoves you into TV+ upsell ads, which violate Apple's own rules against deceptive and intrusive advertising.

News App? Same same. "If you open a story on the Wall Street Journal, the screen it takes you often has a large banner ad at the top of the screen for the Apple News+ service. This seems to be intermittent, but it cannot be dismissed, hidden, or disabled."

"Every time you try to add a credit/debit card to Apple Pay, you are asked if you want to sign up for Apple Card instead."

Walled gardens are a moral hazard. The formulation that "If you're not paying for the product, you're the product" is simply wrong. The right formulation is, "If a company believes it can turn you into a product, it will try to turn you into a product."

Which is to say that the issue is monopolies and their anticompetitive legal weapons, not "who pays for what, when." John Deere sells you a $500k tractor and then turns you into the product by forcing you to get official repairs.

Apple's been productizing its users for a generation, and has reached terminal velocity. The company led the coalition that killed TWENTY #RightToRepair bills in 2018. Then in the first week of 2019, Tim Cook told shareholders that his biggest profitability risk was users keeping – rather than junking – old Apple hardware. Controlling repairs means you control what can't be repaired – what has to be "traded in" for a new device.

Apple is not your friend. Google is not your friend. Facebook is not your friend. Amazon is not your friend. Microsoft is not your friend.

Monopolists are not disciplined by the fear of losing customers, so every good impulse around the whiteboard is erased by sociopaths who get promoted by securing monopoly rents for their employer.


Hugo nominators! My story "Unauthorized Bread" is eligible in the Novella category and you can read it free on Ars Technica:

Upcoming appearances:

  • The Future of the Internet: Protocols vs. Platforms (San Francisco, Feb 20):
  • Canada Reads Kelowna: March 6, details TBD

Currently writing: I just finished a short story, "The Canadian Miracle," for MIT Tech Review. It's a story set in the world of my next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation.

Currently reading: I'm getting really into Anna Weiner's memoir about tech, "Uncanny Valley." I just loaded Matt Stoller's "Goliath" onto my underwater MP3 player and I'm listening to it as I swim laps.

Latest podcast: Persuasion, Adaptation, and the Arms Race for Your Attention:

Upcoming books: "Poesy the Monster Slayer" (Jul 2020), a picture book about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Pre-order here:

(we're having a launch for it in Burbank on July 11 at Dark Delicacies and you can get me AND Poesy to sign it and Dark Del will ship it to the monster kids in your life in time for the release date).

"Attack Surface": The third Little Brother book, Oct 20, 2020.

"Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a very special, s00per s33kr1t intro.

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