Pluralistic, your daily link-dose: 25 Feb 2020

Today's links

  1. Russian Multiplication: turning hard multiplication into easy addition with binary.
  2. Cops' qualified immunity: so long as it's not identical to an established atrocity, it's fine.
  3. Bloomberg's Plan B: buying the DNC: I don't care who does the voting, so long as I get to do the nominating.
  4. Private equity looters underperform the S&P 500: Believing that you are accomplishing extraordinary things merely because you are paid extraordinary amounts is top-grade self-delusion.
  5. New podcast about the history of Gopher and adversarial interoperability: It's judo for network effects.
  6. This day in history: 2010, 2015, 2019
  7. Colophon: Recent publications, current writing projects, upcoming appearances, current reading

Russian Multiplication (permalink)

"Russian Multiplication" (AKA Ethiopian Multiplication) reduces complex multiplication problems into a series of simple addition problems, essentially by reducing the multiplier to a binary number.

It was allegedly practised by Russian peasants as well as English yeoman farmers and others — similar methods date back to ancient Egypt.

Here's that Egyptian method:

Cops' qualified immunity (permalink)

"Qualified immunity" for cops is weirder thank you think – as Tim Cushing describes, all a cop needs to do is show that their human rights abuse is not one that has been previously ruled illegal, and thus it's not "clearly established" as illegal.

The Fifth Circuit Appeals Court just found that a guard who pepper sprayed a prisoner in the eyes between the bars of his cell for no reason gets qualified immunity, because no guard had ever been tried for doing this before.

A prison guard known only as "Mr Alamu" says he "went blank" when a prisoner threw water in his face, and then came back later and asked a different prisoner for his name and number, and then sprayed him in the eyes when he approached the bars to answer. The court found that "Mr Alamu" had violated the prisoner Prince McCoy's rights, that he "crossed the line," but that "it was not beyond debate that it [crossed the line] so the law wasn’t clearly established" and so Alamu gets qualified immunity.

Usually "moral hazard" is invoked to explain why we should let poor people starve ("why work if the food is free?") but this is real moral hazard: "If you're a cop, you can abuse people without limitation, provided you do so in novel ways."

Bloomberg's Plan B: buying the DNC permalink)

"Buying the presidency" is Bloomberg's Plan A, but Plan B seems to be "Taking over the DNC and waging war on President Sanders" so his administration gets nothing done.

Bloomberg's pledged to pay the salaries of 500 DNC staffers through November. Regardless of whether he wins the nomination, he'll be running the DNC during the election.

"Would you bet that the rich who rule us wouldn't spark such a confused and violent rebellion that even they would be forced at last to flee — won't do all this out of animus, pique and world-historical hubris?"

Private equity looters underperform the S&P 500 (permalink)

Over the past decade, private equity (who loot companies through debt-loading, stealing pensions, ripping off suppliers and raffling off real-estate/plant) has underperformed the S&P 500, largely composed of businesses being run for the long-term.

PE companies insist that their model "encourages operational excellence" with a "top-dollar management team," "carefully set incentives," and the ability to operate "outside of the highly-scrutinised world of public markets."

But PE earnings don't reflect that story. For one thing, PE acquisitions are REALLY bad at hitting their profit targets.

The PE story is interesting because it shows that people who claim to be doing extraordinary things, and believe they are doing extraordinary things, and are being paid extraordinary sums for delivering extraordinary things, are often just wrong about their own performance.

This is a recurring motif, also seen in the world of ad-tech companies like Google and Facebook (and their parasites like Cambridge Analytica). Their sales brochures claim that machine learning and big data can create mind-control rays. That is, given enough data about you, an "AI" can figure out how to persuade you of anything. I think that lots of top people at these firms believe that's what they're doing, and I know their sales-force believes it. Their customers might believe it too!

I'm sure there are plenty of people in the Trump 2016 campaign who think that Cambridge Analytica fashioned them a mind-control ray to turn decent people into racists, though it's infinitely more likely that they found racists and turned them into Trump voters.

Because Big Data and machine learning ARE very good at finding people: whether it's people thinking about buying what you have to sell, people who believe Black Lives Matter, people whose lived experience tells them there are more than two genders.

But that's connection, not persuasion. Connection is a great tool for facilitating persuasion, but the idea that sending fridge ads to people who've searched fridge reviews is the same as convincing people that they need new fridges is obviously wrong. The point being: the fact that you believe you're doing something heretofore impossible (beating the market, controlling peoples' minds) is neither proven out by your sales literature, nor by your customers' satisfaction, nor by your own certainty.

New podcast about the history of Gopher and adversarial interoperability (permalink)

I've just posted my latest podcast, a reading of my EFF Deeplinks essay about adversarial interoperability and the history of the pre-WWW protocol, Gopher.

Gopher's such a good case study: a group of support technologists who decided to circumvent the terrible ideas of the ruling mainframe administrators. These techlords expected each user to memorize a distinct set of command-line incantations to access their services.

Gopher used terminal automation and other "internet duct-tape" to bypass these obscurantists and provide a menu-driven front end to every conceivable networked service.

The best part is what happened next: Webspace swallowed Gopherspace, by the simple expedient of adding gopher:// support to the URL bar. Gopher both lived and died by adversarial interoperability. Try to do that today: to create an itunes:// or a facebook:// or a tiktok:// robot that can simply pull stuff out of the walled garden and Web 2.0 it into a new service as a mere feature of that service, and you'd face unlimited criminal and civil liability.

The same companies that waxed fat by adversarially interoperating with the walled gardens that came before them have built new walled gardens, and they have made wall-scaling ladders illegal with patent, copyright, terms of service, contract, etc. Big Tech will tell you that it's big because of "network effects" and "first mover advantage." Gopher had both. The web swallowed gopher like a python swallowing…a gopher. It ate Gopher's network effect.

Blaming monopoly on network effects is a counsel of despair. It says there is no hope of restoring the competitive, diverse web and invites critics of the platforms to demand that they be converted into regulated monopolies instead. (not coincidentally, this is just fine by the platforms' shareholders)

Here's the text of the article:

And here's a direct link to the MP3:

Here's my podcast RSS:

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Golden-age computer manual encourages you to break DRM, rants against EULAs

#10yrsago Military Monitored Planned Parenthood, Supremacists

#10yrsago Australia’s chief censor redacts official website to downplay his role in censorship

#5yrsago Emma Thompson on tax-strike until HSBC tax evaders are jailed

#5yrsago Grim meathook future, Singapore style

#5yrsago UK Tory MP says astrology would improve NHS health outcomes

#1yrago AOC is the star of a new superhero comic

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Kottke (, 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: Gopher: When Adversarial Interoperability Burrowed Under the Gatekeepers’ Fortresses:

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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