Pluralistic, your daily link-dose: 24 Feb 2020

Today's links

  1. How "Authoritarian Blindness" kept Xi from dealing with coronavirus: Zeynep Tufekci in outstanding form.
  2. The Snowden Archive: every publicly available Snowden doc, collected and annotated.
  3. Key computer vision researcher quits: facial recognition is a moral quagmire.
  4. My interview on adversarial interoperability: you can't shop your way out of late-stage capitalism.
  5. 81 Fortune 100 companies demand binding arbitration: monopoly and its justice system.
  6. I'm coming to Kelowna! Canada Reads is bringing me to the BC interior, March 5.
  7. A flat earther commits suicide by conspiracy theory: conspiracies are comorbid with corruption.
  8. This day in history: 2019, 2015, 2010, 2005
  9. Colophon: Recent publications, current writing projects, upcoming appearances, current reading

How "Authoritarian Blindness" kept Xi from dealing with coronavirus (permalink)

Xi Jinping's refashioning of the Chinese internet to ratchet up surveillance and censorship made it all but impossible for the Chinese state to use the internet to detect and contain Corona Virus, writes Zeynep Tufekci in The Atlantic. Tufekci talks about "authoritarian blindness," where people too scared to tell the autocrat the hard truths makes it impossible for the autocrat to set policy that reflects reality.

(Cue Mao telling China to "eat 5 meals a day" because his apparats were too scared to warn him of impending famine, then selling off the nation's food reserves for foreign currency because he thought it was surplus. Food production collapsed.)

Before Xi, a certain amount of online dissidence was tolerated because it helped root out dangerously corrupt local leaders before they could do real damage. It's always hard to make autocracies sustainable because corruption and looting leaves them hollow and brittle.

When Xi took power in 2012, he restored "one man rule" and began a series of maneuvers, including purges, to consolidate power for himself. The rise and rise of China's mobile internet made this far more effective than at any time in history.

"Authoritarian blindness" kicked off the Hong Kong protests because the state so badly misjudged the cause and severity of the grievances there. The same thing happened in Wuhan when doctors and netizens faced retaliation for describing early virus outbreaks.

The reality-debt built up by official denial always results in reality bankruptcy, eventually – so finally, the reports of the virus were so widespread and alarming they could no longer be suppressed. But by then, the virus had proliferated. This is an important point: "the killer digital app for authoritarianism isn’t listening in on people through increased surveillance, but listening to them as they express their honest opinions, especially complaints."

That's how you stabilize the unstable: by using digital authoritarianism to fine tune the minimum viable amount of good governance to diffuse public anger. It's how you maximize your looting without getting strung up by your ankles.

The Snowden Archive (permalink)

The Snowden Surveillance Archive collects "all documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that have subsequently been published by news media."

It's indexed and searchable, created by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and the Politics of Surveillance Project at the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto. (Canada is a "Five Eyes" country that partners with the NSA on global mass surveillance)

There's a "Portable Archive" version – a tarball with all the docs so you can create your own mirror:

They provide instructions for turning this into a kiosk they call a "Snowden Archive-in-a-Box." Costs about CAD120.00

Key computer vision researcher quits (permalink)

Joseph Redmon is the creator of YOLO (You Only Look Once), a key Computer Vision technology. He's just announced his resignation from computer vision work, citing ethical concerns with Facial Recognition.

His thread is really important, calling out the gap between what ML researchers SAY they want to do about ethics and how they actually deal with ethical issues: "basically all facial recognition work would not get published if we took Broader Impacts sections seriously."

"There is almost no upside and enormous downside risk." That's some serious Oppenheimer stuff right there. The kicker? "For most of grad school I bought in to the myth that science is apolitical and research is objectively moral and good no matter what the subject is."

My interview on adversarial interoperability (permalink)

The Firewalls Don't Stop Dragons podcast (which offers information security advice and analysis for non-technical people) just posted part 2 of our interview on Adversarial Interoperability, Right To Repair, and technological fairness.

Part one went live last week:

In this one, I try to explain how John Deere's war on farm-based repairs is connected to Apple's war on independent repair, and how consumer choices can't solve either problem — but collective action can!

It'll take a movement, not individual action. Thankfully, such a movement exists. EFF's Electronic Frontier Alliance, a network of groups nationwide working on local issues with national coordination. It's the antidote to individual powerlessness.

81 Fortune 100 companies demand binding arbitration (permalink)

Binding arbitration was originally created as a way for giant corporations to resolve their disputes with each other without decades-long court battles costing tens of millions of dollars. SCOTUS ratified the principal in 1925: firms of similar size and power could use binding arbitration as an alternative to litigation.

In the century since, corporations have eroded the idea of arbitration as something reserved for co-equals and have turned it into a condition of employment and of being a customer.

In an era of both monopoly and monoposony, it can be hard to find a single employer OR vendor who will conduct business with you unless you first surrender the rights your elected lawmakers decided that you are entitled to.

Today, the largest corporations in the world require you to "agree" to binding arbitration before you can conduct business with them: your monopolistic ISP or cable operator probably does.

As do Walmart, Uber, and Amazon (and not coincidentally, all three have crowded out all the competitors you might choose to take your business to if this strikes you as unfair).

In 2019, SCOTUS ratified the practice.

81 out of the Fortune 100 non-negotiably require binding arbitration if you want to conduct business with them. "Arbitration is often confidential and the outcome doesn't enter the public record" – if you get screwed you won't know if it's a one-off or a pattern.

This is especially pernicious in the realm of US health care. There is ONE pain specialist in all of Southern California that my insurer covers who doesn't require binding arbitration. When I took my daughter to the ER with a broken bone, they threatened not to treat her unless we signed an arbitration waiver – and that ER is now owned by a PE firm that bought every medical practice in a 10mi radius and now they all do it.

We are literally replacing public courts with private corporate justice, where the "judge" is paid by the company that maimed you, or ripped you off, or killed you.

I'm coming to Kelowna! (permalink)

I've never been to Kelwona, BC or anywhere in BC apart from Victoria and Vancouver, so I am SO TOTALLY EXCITED to be appearing in Kelowna for Canada Reads on Mar 5. Please come and say hello! (it's free!)

The event is a collaboration between the Kelowna Public Library and CBC Books, and I'm being emceed and interviewed by Sarah Penton. It's going to be recorded for airing later as well (I'll be sure to fold it into my podcast, which you can get here:

A flat earther commits suicide by conspiracy theory (permalink)

A(nother) flat-earther has tried to prove that the Earth is disc-shaped by launching a homemade rocket. This one ("Mad" Mike Hughes) killed himself by pancaking into the desert.

This is awful. Jokes about "Darwin Awards" don't change that.

When you scratch a conspiracist, you generally find two things:

  1. Someone who knows chapter-&-verse about real conspiracies (e.g. "If you think antivax is so outlandish, let me tell you about the Sackler family")
  2. Someone who has been traumatized by conspiracies (belief that the levees were dynamited during Katrina to drown Black neighborhoods are often embraced by people whose family were flooded out in 58 when the levees in Tupelo were dynamited to drown Black neighborhoods).

A belief that the aerospace industry engages in coverups and conspiracies is not, in and of itself, irrational. Aerospace is the land of conspiracies and coverups. Look at the Boeing 737 Max!

Conspiracies are an epiphenomenon of market concentration. "Two may keep a secret if one of them is dead": the ability to conspire is a collective action problem, wherein linear increases in the number of conspirators yield geometric increases in the likelihood of defections. When an industry is reduced to 3-5 giants, the likelihood is that every top exec at each company worked as a top exec at one or more of the others (to say nothing of the likelihood of intercompany friendships, marriages, etc). Moreover, an industry that concentrated will almost certainly be regulated by its own former execs, as they are likely the only ones qualified to understand its workings.

Many of us were appalled by the sight of the nation's tech leaders gathered around a table at Trump Tower after the inauguration.

But we should have been even more alarmed by the realization that all the leaders of the tech industry fit around a single table.

We are living in both a golden age of conspiratorial thinking and of actual conspiracies. The conspiracy theories don't necessarily refer to the actual conspiracies, but "conspiracy" is a plausible idea with a lot of explanatory power in 2020.

We spend a lot of time wondering about how we can fix the false beliefs that people have, but some of our focus needs to be on reducing the plausibility of conspiracy itself. Make industries more competitive and diverse, make regulators more accountable.

Put out the fires, sure, but clear away the brush so that they don't keep reigniting.

I strongly recommend Anna Merlan's REPUBLIC OF LIES for more.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago: Labour MP Brian Sedgemore excoriates his own government's terror laws in the speech of his lifetime:

#10yrsago: How ducks, Nazis and themeparks gave America its color TV transition:

#5yrsago: Alex Stamos, then CSO of Yahoo, publicly calls out then-NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers on crypto backdoors:

#5yrsago: A chronology of the Canadian Conservative Party's war on science under PM Stephen Harper:

#5yrsago: Citizenfour, Laura Poitras's movie about Edward Snowden, wins the Academy Award for best documentary:

#1yrago: Every AOC staffer will earn a living wage:

#1yrago: Richard Sackler's "verbal gymnastics" in defending his family's role in killing 200,000 Americans with opiods:

#1yrago: German neo-Nazis use Qanon memes to signal-boost their messages:

#1yrago: French courts fine UBS €3.7b for helping French plutes dodge their taxes:

#1yrago: Apple to close down its east Texas stores to avoid having any nexus with America's worst patent court:

#1yrago: Small business cancels its unusably slow Frontier internet service, Frontier sticks them with a $4,300 cancellation fee:

#1yrago: Fast food millionaire complains that social media makes kids feel so entitled that they are no longer willing to work for free:

#1yrago: Apps built with Facebook's SDK shovel incredible quantities of incredibly sensitive data into Facebook's gaping maw:

#1yrago: Super-high end prop horror-movie eyeballs, including kits to make your own:

#1yrago: EU advances its catastrophic Copyright Directive without fixing any of its most dangerous flaws:

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Four Short Links (, Slashdot (, Naked Capitalism (").

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

Upcoming appearances:

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. I'm getting geared up to start work on the novel now, though the timing is going to depend on another pending commission (I've been solicited by an NGO) to write a short story set in the world's prehistory.

Currently reading: I finished Andrea Bernstein's "American Oligarchs" this week; it's a magnificent history of the Kushner and Trump families, showing how they cheated, stole and lied their way into power. 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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