Pluralistic: 04 Mar 2020

Today's links

  1. A brokered convention will produce a powerless presidency: Transformative change requires a movement, not a plan.
  2. What the Siege of Gondor teaches us about medieval warfare: 40,000 riveting words from Roman military historian Bret Deveraux.
  3. ICE's risk assessment algorithm only ever recommends detention: NYCLU suing to force them to admit what we've all figured out.
  4. Probing China's Covid-19 censorship: Outstanding work from Citizen Lab.
  5. America is uniquely at risk from coronavirus: 77 million un- and underinsured people.
  6. This day in history:
  7. Colophon: Recent publications, current writing projects, upcoming appearances, current reading

I'm coming to Kelowna, BC tomorrow! I'll be at the library from 6-8PM with my book Radicalized for the CBC's Canada Reads. It's free, but you need to RSVP (and most of the seats are gone, so act quick).

A brokered convention will produce a powerless presidency (permalink)

Hoping for a brokered convention is basically saying, "Hey, go fuck yourself" to every doorknocker and phone canvasser in your base. It says, "Let's not use votes to choose the candidate. You little people were for show. We choose our leaders by gathering the people who matter in smoke-filled rooms."

Any candidate hoping to enact a transformative program from the presidency is going to need a powerful, motivated base to whip establishment Dems into order: "I want to do it, now make me do it." Jettisoning the idea that your supporters get you nominated is the most demoralizing thing I can imagine, short of shutting off the server your organizers used to get you elected as soon as they succeed (looking at you, Barack Obama).

It's pure technocratic hubris, the kind of thing that turns promising wonks into figureheads who accomplish nothing. Saving America from plutocracy and white nationalism requires a movement, not a savior with a plan.

What the Siege of Gondor teaches us about medieval warfare (permalink)

Last spring, Roman military historian Bret Devereaux published over 40,000 words of analysis of the Siege of Gondor as depicted in Peter Jackson's Return of the King. It is by far the best use of fiction as a tool for teaching history that I've ever read.

It's in 6 parts, broken down by themes. By far my favorite section was the opener, on the logistics of sieges. I am a quartermaster by temperament, and the logistic of moving 200,000 orcs (plus trolls, elephants, siege engines, etc) is FASCINATING.

"The road the orcs are on allows them to march five abreast, meaning there are 40,000 such rows. Giving each orc four feet of space on the march, that would mean the army alone stretches 30 miles down a single road. At that length, the tail end of the army would not even be able to leave camp before the front of the army had finished marching for the day." (!!)

The section on the siege's opener, part II, is likewise fascinating and contains some great craft notes.

"LOTR doesn't rely – as so much fiction does – on the ‘good guys’ making stupid mistake after stupid mistake in order to create tension. Instead, Gondor executes its plans admirably, and yet it is so outmatched in military might that it remains in peril."

Part III is more in the weeds on weapons and tactics. It gets into some really gnarly deep nerd stuff about the immediate preamble to a siege that I loved.

"The paths the siege towers will take must be cleared and leveled (even a slight grade will tip them over). Earthwork cover for the approach on the gate should be set up, along with obstructions to prevent the army within the city from advancing at an inopportune moment. In assaulting a fortified city with a large army, the spade is often the most important weapon. Even building a ramp right up the enemy walls to enter the city was a common and successful tactic, if the assaulting army had enough labor to do it quickly enough."

My favorite part of the section on calvary charge was the notable absence of NCOs in the orc ranks, maintaining discipline.

"The orc general, Gothmog has to push through the ranks and reorder his infantry, while the orcs stare dumbfounded at the new threat. This is a task that should have been taken up by a hundred-hundred NCOs up and down the line, which speaks to problems of command structure."

By far the most intensely geeky section is in Part V, which deals with the math for calculating whether the trolls could possibly heft the hammers that deal the damage that we see.

"If a troll really is around 9 times as strong as a strong man, we might figure that a troll sledgehammer might be something like 81kg, and a troll warhammer only 5.76 – 13.59kg. Wildly short of the massive clubs and hammers the trolls wield in these scenes."

ICE's risk assessment algorithm only ever recommends detention (permalink)

The New York Civil Liberties Union and Bronx Defenders have filed suit against ICE, trying to force it to respond to a FOIA request about risk assessment algorithm that has put people in detention 97% of the time.

The algorithm was tweaked after the 2016 election (prior to then, it only recommended detention for 53% of cases), and by classifying virtually everyone it evaluates as a public safety risk, it violates the law's requirement of "individualized determinations" for detentions.

People in immigration detention have yet to see a judge or be found guilty. They can be locked up for weeks or months, and detention can cost them their jobs — or even their children. The Trump administration has exponentially increased the number of immigration arrests; coupled with automatic detention-by-algorithm, this has put thousands of New Yorkers in harm's way.

Investigative journalists and activists have previously shown that the algorithm was changed to eliminate all possible outcomes (bond, release, etc), so that it could only recommend detention. So the problem here isn't the usual one of not knowing how the black-box works. We know exactly how it works. You ask it, "Should this person be detained?" and it says "Yes."

"The no-release policy is particularly tough on people with disabilities or health problems. 'This practice of widespread detention is both cruel and needless.'"

Probing China's Covid-19 censorship (permalink)

Citizen Lab's new report on Chinese coronavirus censorship is outstanding. By decompiling the YY client (which stores blacklist words on the client-side) and probing Wechat (which uses server-side blacklisting), they build up a detailed picture of Chinese epidemiological censorship.

Most importantly, they demonstrate how the Cyberspace Administration of China's threat of "thematic inspections" of platforms to ensure coronavirus censorship led to indiscriminate blocking of vital public health information.

It's "authoritarian blindness" in the making, "where people too scared to tell the autocrat the hard truths makes it impossible for the autocrat to set policy that reflects reality"

"Censorship of COVID-19 content started at early stages of the outbreak and continued to expand blocking a wide range of speech, from criticism of the government to officially sanctioned facts and information."

By contrast, the sheer volume of "sarcastic homonyms or word play related to COVID-19" that appear on the blacklist are really a testament to the ingenuity and spirit of Chinese netizens.

"A number of these keyword combinations are critical (e.g., “亲自 [+] 皇上,” by someone + emperor), criticizing the central leadership’s inability or inaction in dealing with COVID-19 (“习近平 [+] 形式主义 [+] 防疫,” Xi Jinping + formalism + epidemic prevention). Many of them refer to leadership in a neutral way (e.g., “肺炎 [+] 李克强 [+] 武汉 [+] 总理 [+] 北京,” Pneumonia + Li Keqiang + Wuhan + Premier + Beijing)."

America is uniquely at risk from coronavirus (permalink)

Among rich countries, the USA is uniquely vulnerable to coronavirus. Thanks to its title to "by far the worst system among rich countries, it is much worse than that of many poorer countries when it comes to confronting a fast-moving epidemic."

The US has 77m un/underinsured people. "and the vicious, right-wing ideology of the Republican Party has wrecked the government's ability to manage crises of any kind, " with "unqualified cronies" running important agencies.

"Now they are resorting to the only thing they know how to do really well — lying, concocting conspiracy theories and blaming Democrats and the media for any bad news. It does not bode well."

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago EFF is hiring a new IP lawyer (the ad that led to the hiring of Corynne McSherry!)

#10yrsago Guardian column on LibDem proposal to block web-lockers

#1yrago Fox News was always partisan, but now it is rudderless and "anti-democratic"

#1yrago Leaked memo suggests that Google has not really canceled its censored, spying Chinese search tool

#1yrago Terra Nullius: Grifters, settler colonialism and "intellectual property"

#1yrago Tim Maughan's Infinite Detail: a debut sf novel about counterculture, resistance, and the post-internet apocalypse

#1yrago Financialization is wearing out its welcome

#1yrago How the patent office's lax standards gave Elizabeth Holmes the BS patents she needed to defraud investors and patients

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (, Slashdot ( and Kottke (Kottke).

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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