Pluralistic: 02 Mar 2020

Today's links

  1. My new podcast, "Disasters Don’t Have to End in Dystopia": Tired: Look for the helpers. Wired: Be the helper.
  2. The next frontier for school censorware is spying on kids all the time: It's how we'll stop ISIS, apparently.
  3. I'm coming to Kelowna on March 5: It's my first-ever trip to the BC interior and more than half the (free) tickets are gone. RSVP now!
  4. Cool Mules, an investigative series on a Vice editor's cocaine-smuggling ring: From the people who brought you the stunning "Thunder Bay."
  5. Soviet Space Graphics: Cosmic Visions from the USSR.
  6. Apple, Nike and Dell's supply chain includes enslaved Uyghurs: Xinjiang Phase II.
  7. Drugs Without the Hot Air: The best book I've ever read on drugs and drug policy, in an expanded new edition.
  8. This day in history: 2005, 2010, 2015, 2019
  9. Colophon: Recent publications, current writing projects, upcoming appearances, current reading

My new podcast, "Disasters Don’t Have to End in Dystopia" (permalink)

I just posted a new podcast! "Disasters Don’t Have to End in Dystopia" is an essay I wrote for Wired about the ways that the stories we tell ourselves make the difference between rising to meet a crisis and devolving into catastrophe.

The podcast is here:

The Wired essay is here:

Though I wrote it in 2017, it really applies today. Our beliefs about whether we can trust our neighbors to have our back in times of crisis informs whether we behave in a way that shows THEY can trust US in times of crisis.

And since every crisis is (eventually) overcome by people pitching in to get things fixed, the belief that our fellow humans are untrustworthy means that crises are more likely to turn into disasters – and the stories we write can instil or dispel that belief.

I know that there's some controversy about Mr Rogers' famous "Look for the helpers" speech – that it's advice for children, not adults.

But the adult version is "BE the helper." That is, prepared to run towards the emergency, not to cower in a luxury bunker while better people than you get the machine started again.

The next frontier for school censorware is spying on kids all the time (permalink)

We spend a lot of time bemoaning the lack of privacy-consciousness among kids, and then we spy on them at school with censorware and punish them for taking any action that might protect their privacy from us.

Meanwhile, censorware companies – whose primary customers have always been oppressive regimes seeking to control political oppositions – have morphed into full-on student surveillance companies, and their sales pitch is a terrifying slurry of war-on-terror/active shooter FUD.

When companies like Gaggle and Securely pitch school-boards on their products, they claim that they can detect incipient in-school ISIS attacks and the like, and use that as justification to spy on kids in-school and out-of-school online activities. These companies are mini-NSAs-for-hire, tracking social media usage and every keystroke and click on school networks and devices, storing it (insecurely) for years, if not decades.

They make bizarre claims ("the average 7th grader has 6 Instagram accounts" – which would make 7th graders 25% of the entire IG user-base). And they find terrified parents to endorse spying ("If it’s going to protect my child, I don’t care how you get the info, just get it"). People who sell security need to sell fear. If we want our kids to care about their privacy, we can't make them "safe" by spying on them all the time and banning any steps they take to make us stop.

I'm coming to Kelowna on March 5 (permalink)

I'm coming to the BC interior for the first time ever, talking about my book Radicalized at the Kelowna library as part of Canada Reads. I'm being hosted by the CBC's Sarah Penton from 6-8PM! It's free to attend but it's ticketed, and the majority of tickets are already gone — if you want to come, now's the time to RSVP.

(and if you can't make it, it's OK! The CBC will broadcast the audio and I'll put it my podcast, too)

Cool Mules, an investigative series on a Vice editor's cocaine-smuggling ring (permalink)

Back in 2015, Slava Pastuk was an editor at Vice, and he abused his position there to pressure young, desperate would-be journalists into smuggling suitcases full of millions of dollars' worth of cocaine into Australia.

Five of them went to prison, but Slava Pastuk did not (at first). When Pastuk's role in the affair became public and he was indicted and tried, he refused to talk to the press at all, making the whole thing something of a non-story cipher (despite its spectacular details).

Incredibly, though, Canadaland got Slava to talk. At length. And they got the other side of the story, too, both from Slava's victims and those who risked career suicide by turning him down. The result is a new, six-part investigative series called Cool Mules, hosted by Kasia Mychajlowycz, whose work I discovered through the spectacular On The Media.

It's modeled on Canadaland's last, spectacular miniseries, Thunder Bay, easily the best investigative series I ever listened to.

This morning's Canadaland features an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the making of the series between Mychajlowycz and Jesse Brown, and it has me licking my chops for the series itself.

Soviet Space Graphics (permalink)

When my grandmother was 12, she was inducted into the Leningrad civil defense corps during the 900 day siege of Leningrad (I wrote a science fiction novella about this called "After the Siege").

The story is also available as a five-part audiobook reading by Mary Robinette Kowal:

Eventually (years later) my grandmother was evacuated with the women and children across the winter ice and ended up in Siberia, where she met my grandfather, got pregnant, fled to Azerbaijan and birthed my father. They made their way to Canada over six years, through a series of refugee adventures and crises that could each be a novella of its own (the part where she married my grandfather's one-armed partisan fighter brother, for example, and got caught in a pogrom).

My grandmother completely lost contact with her family in Leningrad, for years. More than a decade. My father vividly recounts how he, as a little boy, heard his mother in Toronto answer the phone and say, "Mama, mama" and begin to cry for the family she thought was dead.

Over the years that followed, my grandmother and grandfather traveled to the USSR several times to see her family, and my Leningrad family came often to visit us in Toronto. Whenever they came, the brought Soviet space-program memoribilia.

There was SO MUCH of this stuff (in the early 90s, Russian sf fans used to pay their way to US conventions by shlepping suitcases full of astrosovkitsch to sell at the event), and it was gorgeous and magical. Some of the best art of the Soviet era was produced to celebrate the space program, and my most cherished toys and knickkacks growing up featured Sputnik, Gagarin, and Valentina Tereshkova. Today, much of that stuff is in our home, thanks in part to Ukrainian Ebay sellers who've taken over the astrosovkitsch market from Russian sf fans.

I'm awfully excited, therefore, by the news that Phaidon is bringing out "Soviet Space Graphics: Cosmic Visions from the USSR." It's a lavishly illustrated volume, produced in collaboration with the Moscow Design Museum.

If you're ever in St Petersburg and you want to see some amazing historical examples of Soviet space and tech materials, visit the Popov Museum.

Incidentally, my grandmother's baby brother Bora, who stayed behind in Leningrad, grew up to be curator of the Popov. I last saw Uncle Bora in 2005, shortly before his death, and he gave us a curator's behind-the-scenes tour of the museum. You can see my photos from the visit here:

Apple, Nike and Dell's supply chain includes enslaved Uyghurs (permalink)

Phase II of China's Xinjiang concentration camps for ethno-religious minorities (mostly Uyghurs but also other Muslim minorities) is creating slave-labor factories that serve major US brands.

Nike, Apple and Dell's supply chains are all implicated.

As a reminder, the Xinjiang concentration camps used torture, punitive rape, brainwashing, forced medical experimentation and other tactics to "retrain" a disfavored minority.

"Between 2017 and 2019, the ASPI think tank estimates that more than 80,000 Uighurs were transferred out of the far western Xinjiang autonomous region to work in factories across China. It said some were sent directly from detention camps."

The revelations come from a report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute:

The workers enslaved in these factories spend their off-hours in brainwashing sessions, living "in segregated dormitories, with Mandarin lessons and 'ideological training', subjected to constant surveillance and banned from observing religious practices."

Drugs Without the Hot Air (permalink)

I first read "Drugs Without the Hot Air," David Nutt's astoundingly good book about drug policy back in 2012; in the eight years since, hardly a month has gone by without my thinking about it. Now, there's a new, updated edition, extensively revised, and it's an absolute must-read.

Nutt came to fame when he served as the UK "Drugs Czar" under the Labour Government in the late 2000s; especially when Home Secretary Jacqui Smith fired him for his refusal to lie and say that marijuana was more harmful than alcohol, despite the extensive evidence to the contrary (Smith also threatened Nutt for publishing a paper in Nature that compared the neurological harms of recreational horseback riding to harms from recreational MDMA use, a paper that concluded that if horses came in pill form we might call them "Equasy").

Since then, Nutt — an eminent psychopharmacologist researcher and practioner — has continued to campaign, research, and write about evidence-based drugs policy that takes as its central mission to reduce harm and preserve therapeutic benefits from drugs.

Like the first edition of Drugs Without the Hot Air, the new edition serves three missions:

  1. First, to describe how a wide variety of drugs — benzos, cocaine, opoiods, cannabis, etc, but also alcohol, caffeine and nicotine — work in the body, in clear, nontechnical language that anyone can follow.
  2. Next, to describe the harms and benefits of drugs, considered both on individual and societal levels — and also to describe what the best medical evidence tells us about maximizing those benefits and minimizing those harms.
  3. Finally, to recount how governments — mainly in the UK but also in the USA and elsewhere — have responded to the evidence on drug mechanisms, harms and benefits.

Inevitably, part 3 becomes an indictment, as Nutt describes in eye-watering, frustrating, brutal detail how harmful, incoherent, self-serving and cowardly government responses to drugs have been, and how many lives they have ruined — through criminalizing harmless conduct, through treating medical problems as criminal ones, and through badly thought-through policies that caused relatively benign substances to be replaced with far more harmful ones (for example, Nutt traces the lethal rise in fentanyl partly to the successful global interdiction of opium poppies).

One important difference between the new edition and the original is visible progress on this last. In the years since Nutt was fired for refusing to lie about science, he has founded Drugscience, a research and advocacy nonprofit that has scored significant policy wins and made real therapeutic breakthroughs through hard work and rigour.

I don't think you could ask for a more sensible, clear-eyed, and useful book about drugs, from the ones your doctor prescribes to the ones your bartender serves you to the ones you can go to jail for possessing. Nutt is not just a great and principled campaigner, nor merely a talented and dedicated scientist — he's also a superb communicator.

Drugs Without the Hot Air is part of an outstanding series of technical books — mostly about climate change — that have greatly influenced my thinking. The publisher, UIT Cambridge, has several more that I recommend.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Media professors' SCOTUS brief on why P2P should be legal

#15yrsago Study: Used hard-drives full of juicy blackmail material,,2-1487674,00.html

#15yrsago Revolved: Beatles mashup album

#15yrsago 1121 phrases you can't put on personalized jerseys at

#10yrsago Brits: tell the LibDem Peers not to bring web-censorship to Britain!

#10yrsago If chess were redesigned by MMORPG developers

#5yrsago America's growing gangs of armed, arrest-making, untrained rent-a-cops

#5yrsago Bruce Schneier's Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World

#1yrago Man-Eaters: Handmaid's Tale meets Cat People in a comic where girls turn into man-eating were-panthers when they get their periods

#1yrago Massive study finds strong correlation between "early affluence" and "faster cognitive drop" in old age

#1yrago Comcast assigned every mobile customer the same unchangeable PIN to protect against SIM hijack attacks: 0000

#1yrago Improbably, a Black activist is now the owner and leader of the "National Socialist Movement," which he is turning into an anti-racist group

#1yrago Study that claimed majority of Copyright Directive opposition came from the US assumed all English-language tweets came from Washington, DC

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Slashdot (, Dark Roasted Blend ( and 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: Just started Lauren Beukes's forthcoming Afterland: it's Y the Last Man plus plus, and two chapters in, it's amazeballs. Last month, I finished Andrea Bernstein's "American Oligarchs"; 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: Disasters Don’t Have to End in Dystopias:

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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