Pluralistic: 06 Mar 2020

Today's links

  1. The most beautiful RPG dice I've ever seen: And you can also make your own.
  2. The king of Dutch climate denial was secretly in Shell's pay: Frits Böttcher was a packrat, and his papers detail exactly how he was paid to sow climate doubt. He was very good at it.
  3. American Catholic officials helped priests who preyed on children escape to Mexico: At least 51 "credibly accused" priests left the US and took up positions abroad.
  4. A grifty AI company conned the state of Utah into giving access to everything: Banjo claims it will predict and head off terrorist attacks, mass shootings, and child abductions without invading anyone's privacy.
  5. Clearview AI says it only lets cops use its facial recognition tool but it's lying: Investors, cronies and pals got to literally use it as a party trick.
  6. South Korea's beating covid-19 with free testing: Testing is part of the free national health system, and 140,000 tests have been administered.
  7. The web is unusably beshitted with terrible ad-tech: "No, I don't want great articles."
  8. For $3, a robolawyer will automatically force data brokers to delete you and sue the ones who don't: Donotpay meets the CCPA, it's like peanut butter and chocolate.
  9. This day in history: 2005, 2015, 2019
  10. Colophon: Recent publications, current writing projects, upcoming appearances, current reading

The most beautiful RPG dice I've ever seen (permalink)

Sasha is a spectacularly talented RPG dice-maker, whose online store features the most beautiful dice I've ever seen – and as if that wasn't enough, she also sells dice-making kits to use at home.

Last month, ahead of the C2E2 con, she posted a series of new, not-for-sale (argh) dice that embed a variety of materials inside large D20s to form nebulas, clouds, alien landscapes, menacing eyeballs, and eldritch scenes. Check them out for yourself!

It's hard to say what these will cost; comparable dice on her site sell for $400. They're handmade, beautiful sculptures, after all.

At that price, they're maybe too expensive for a gift for yourself, but as a graduation present, maybe? And that said, it's exactly the kind of thing I sometimes buy to celebrate selling a new novel, and that's on my roadmap for THE LOST CAUSE, my post-GND, truth-and-reconciliation novel, so I'm definitely putting a reminder in my calendar.

The king of Dutch climate denial was secretly in Shell's pay (permalink)

Club of Rome founder Frits Böttcher was the Netherlands' leading climate denier. He died in 2008. Investigative journalists combing through his papers, discovered that he was paid €500K by Shell and others to sow doubt about climate change.

His network pushed out scientific frauds like the idea that excess atmospheric CO2 would be "good for plants" through books, lectures and reports.

He was good at it. His work was crucial to stalling action on climate change in the 1990s. Despite this, his 24 sponsors dumped him in 1998 after the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, worried that outright climate denial had lost credibility.

No wonder! This was the guy who'd called climate science "a witch-hunt on CO2" and declared "Our planet is not a greenhouse."

In his papers, Böttcher notes that after he published these frauds, Shell contacted him and offered him giant sums to keep it up and amplify it. The work was personally commissioned by Shell managing director Huub Van Engelshoven. Böttcher was a packrat. His papers in the Noord-Hollands Archief in Haarlem stack 15.9m tall. Inside of them is an eye-wateringly detailed account of how wealthy, planet-wrecking firms deliberately and maliciously paid for climate denial.

That means that we now can name names. We think of climate denial as a kind of emergent property with no human agent, but as the world drowns, roasts, and writhes with pandemic, we have the names and addresses of the people who engineered that situation for their own gain. We know who his political allies were: the VVD party. When the Netherlands' dikes fail and the country begins to drown, these politicians might still be running for office.

It's tempting to think of the climate crisis as something we all bear responsibility for, because we didn't sort our recycling or because we didn't use the underfunded, anemic public transit options available to us. But efforts like this – from Platform Authentieke Journalistiek and Follow the Money – show we were corralled into our complicity by a network of super-rich plutes for their own gain, who knew they were wrecking the world and dooming our children but did not care.

American Catholic officials helped priests who preyed on children escape to Mexico (permalink)

A new instalment in Propublica's outstanding coverage of the Catholic Church's complicity in sexual abuse by priests shows that dozens of American priests who raped children were relocated to Mexico, where they continued to rape children

These priests found new postings thanks to glowing letters of recommendation from church officials who knew that they had been accused – or, in some cases convicted – of raping children in their parishes. Some fled to Mexico to avoid prison, resisting extradition for years.

Not just Mexico: Propublica found 51 "credibly accused" US priests who are currently working in Mexico, Ireland, Nigeria, and the Philippines. Some of them continued to draw pay from their US parishes while they settled in abroad. Parishoners' donations paid for the predators who victimized their children to escape justice.

One priest, Jose Antonio Pinal, wrote letters to Church officials blaming the boy he raped, saying, "that he is not innocent of the situation he wants to blame me for completely." Pinal is still ministering in Cuernavaca. He claims his longrunning rapes of a 15-year-old were consensual, but "he was a minor; so, legally, I am screwed."

When he moved to Mexico, Sacramento church officials wrote to him promising to support him, so long as the new diocese promised to "protect the diocese of Sacramento against any financial liability for any acts committed by you while working in that diocese."

Some of these priests are listed as "inactive" in Church websites, but are still ministering in Mexico. Rev. Jeffrey David Newell, admitted to sexually abusing another 15 year old, and called it a "mistake." He currently serves in Tijuana. Newell says it was a single slip up. Other survivors of his abuse have filed lawsuits against his old US archdiocese. Newell calls their claims "totally absurd." His name has been removed from Church lists of "credibly accused" sexual predators in the clergy.

These predators' survivors are alive and deeply traumatized. And thanks to the inaction, complicity and even encouragement of US Catholic church officials, these priests are ruining the lives of new children all over the world.

A grifty AI company conned the state of Utah into giving access to everything (permalink)

The State of Utah has secretly contracted with "Banjo," a grifty "AI" company, to analyze all the surveillance and internal data generated by all the state's agencies.

Banjo gets all the 911 calls, CCTV camera feeds, license plate readers, and internal state databases, and its proprietary, secret algorithm will comb through all that to direct law enforcement.

The company claims there are no privacy concerns because it has a patented system for anonymizing data. The patents do not disclose their anonymization method, and every other attempt at this kind of anonymization has fallen prey to "re-identification" attacks.

Banjo gets to locate a facility inside the Utah DOT HQ, and will operate in all 29 counties, state university campuses and 23 cities (including Utah's 10 largest cities). The company's making $20.7m on this contract over five years.

Using FOIA requests, Motherboard retrieved records showing how Banjo got Utah officials to help it sell its services ot the state. When Motherboard questioned the officials about this, they flat-out lied and denied it. The Banjo pitch claims that they'll head off terrorist attacks, mass shootings and child abductions in realtime. The company provides zero evidence that they have ever done such a thing, or that they ever could.

But that lack of evidence didn't deter Utah AG Ric Cantrell:

"They do have case studies. I'm waiting for case studies from Banjo. I'm still waiting for information from them."

Uh, maybe you should have seen the studies before putting Banjo's servers behind your firewall?

Clearview AI says it only lets cops use its facial recognition tool but it's lying (permalink)

Clearview AI is another grifty "AI" company cutting secret deals with law enforcement to use its facial recognition tech, which relies on a database of nonconsensually scraped social media photos.

They claim only cops get to use this. It's a lie.

Clearview investors, clients and cronies all have logins to the system. Long before it was selling to cops, these people were literally using it as a party trick, getting people at parties to give them photos to subject to Clearview analysis, just for shits and giggles.

For example, billionaire John Catsimatidis used it to freak out his daughter, sneaking a pic of her data while she was at a restaurant and then IDing the guy and texting her with the guy's bio while she was still eating with him.

An investor named David Scalzo gave the app to his children: "They like to use it on themselves and their friends to see who they look like in the world. It’s kind of fun for people."

It sure seems like Ashton Kutcher also got to run around and use it without limit or accountability. Last time I checked, he was also not a police officer.

One tech expert, Nicholas Cassimatis, uses the app as "a hobby."

Your 21st Century panopticon, folks, brought to you by compulsive liars who ask us to trust them not to get it wrong.

South Korea's beating covid-19 with free testing (permalink)

South Korea has tested 140,000 people for Covid-19. The tests are free for all as part of the nation's public health program. Testing has led to world-leading containment of the disease.

President Moon Jae-in calls it a "war" and has put the country on the kind of footing that you'd expect of any existential threat, sidelining the interests of industry in favor of national survival. They're testing 10,000 people/day. Results are available in hours. You can get tested at drive-through testing centers. The kits are 90% accurate and were developed by a domestic producer, Seegene Inc.

America is learning that offshoring high-tech manufacturing to save on labor costs and allowing its private sector to dominate its healthcare resulted in a brittle situation where it can't produce reliable tests, and the unreliable tests are only available to the wealthy.

The fate of uninsured, untested, untreated Americans is not theirs alone. They're the ones preparing wealthy Americans' food and cleaning their homes.

We have a shared microbial destiny that no amount of neoliberal doctrine can handwave away.

The web is unusably beshitted with terrible ad-tech (permalink)

The web is unusably beshitted and encrufted with popups, interstitials, rolldowns, nagware, paywalls, autoplaying video, ads that scroll with the page, and worse. I haven't looked at the web without an adblocker in years and it's still barely usable.

The modern web's equilibrium is "as terrible as possible, without being so terrible that you stop reading," or, worse, "as terrible as is necessary to get you pay to bypass the paywall."

In the CJR, David Roth publishes one of the most pitiless, accurate, evocative descriptions of using the modern internet of cruft.

"The page loads, and a little video ad box rises from the bottom left of the screen and begins buffering. Then a big box pops up over the small one with an offer to subscribe to the paper at a special promotional rate… As you contemplate it, the video begins to play in a muted spasm. This throws a scrim of gray over the rest of the page, making it impossible to read…While you’ve been triaging a second small video player has floated up into the middle left of the screen. You manage to close these various boxes, and now you can scroll. For a few seconds, anyway, until another ad creeps down from the banner ad above the headline."

But Roth isn't merely complaining here. He's also digging into the underlying reality: dwindling margins, short-term thinking, monopolization of the ad-market, and a buyer's market for ads that lets advertisers demand worse and worse of publishers. Publishers are staffed with people who are "perpetually maxed-out and stressed and scrabbling for a dwindling and finite amount of money." They're choosing chumboxes and other garbage because they want to keep the lights on.

This happened before, of course. It's an HTML5, CSS-enabled reprise of the pop-up wars, where exploding inventory and finite advertising allowed advertisers to play publishers off against each other with increasingly obnoxious, intrusive pop-ups.

These were unbelievably terrible, even by modern standards. Pop-ups would spawn at 1px X 1px, making them invisible, autoplaying audio. Others would sense your mouse heading for the close box and move themselves away from your pointer. They'd spawn 3 more pop-ups for every one you closed, or 300, until your computer ran out of RAM and crashed, taking all your work with it.

These pop-ups didn't go away because publishers won the battle. They went away because of pop-up blocking.

When Opera, and then Mozilla, turned pop-up blocking on by default, users finally had a meaningful reason to prefer one browser to the others. One browser was usable. The other one let pop-up ads crash your computer and eat your unsaved docs. As users switched en masse to blocking browsers, publishers could tell advertisers, "Look, we'll run any garbage ad you tell us to because we need your money. But if it's a pop-up it will be blocked by the majority of our users. They just won't see it."

The pop-up wars were won because technologists helped users exercise technological self-determination. But increasingly, browser vendors are ad-tech companies. Even when they're not, browsers are being designed to serve publishers (who are under advertisers' thumbs), not users.

We should address monopolies in ad-tech and browsers, we should create meaningful privacy protections via a federal privacy law with a private right of action. But all of that needs to be accompanied with legal cover for users who assert the right to unshittify their web sessions.

This won't just protect users, it will protect publishers. It's one thing to prohibit publishers from intrusive advertising. But it's another altogether to make that kind of advertising literally technically impossible.

For $3, a robolawyer will automatically force data brokers to delete you and sue the ones who don't (permalink)

The always-amazing Donotpay has a new robot-lawyer service: as part of your $3/month, they'll serve every data-broker with a demand to purge your records under the CCPA, and sue the ones who don't.

Data-brokers don't just drive nuisance calls, they also expose you to risks like being doxed and swatted, or having your identity stolen, including by stalkers and bounty hunters who exploit mobile phone tracking to get your realtime location. Every single person should purge their data from every single data-broker, period. Donotpay targets the top 20 brokers and facial recognition companies, including Clearview AI.

Donotpay automates opt-outs for these companies. It also automates suing companies that don't comply or those that make illegal demands like requiring you to send a scan of your driver's license before they'll purge your records. Once you're signed up, you can opt out your whole family, and even your friends. If you don't want a $3/month sub (which gets you tons of other awesome robolawyering), you can just sign up once, pay $3, purge your records and cancel.

Fulfilling deletion requests costs companies about $10. You can use them punitively. Any time a company pisses you off, you can just file a data-deletion demand under CCPA.

When Donot pay started, it was Ios only and I couldn't use it. Somewhere along the way, they got a web interface, too. I just signed up. I'm gonna pay for the wifi on my flight this afternoon just so I can explore all its options.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Bram Cohen's Stanford talk on BitTorrent

#5yrsago DMCA abuser ordered to pay $25K to WordPress

#5yrsago Albuquerque PD encrypts videos before releasing them in records request

#5yrsago Judge who invented Ferguson's debtor's prisons owes $170K in tax

#5yrsago Hartford, CT says friends can't room together unless some of them are servants

#5yrsago Finnish millionaire gets EUR54K speeding ticket

#1yrago Zuckerberg announces a comprehensive plan for a new, privacy-focused Facebook, but fails to mention data sharing and ad targeting

#1yrago Ruminations on decades spent writing stories that run more than 1,000,000 words

#1yrago A thorough defense of Modern Monetary Theory

#1yrago GOP lawmaker driven mad by bill that would decriminalize children who take naked photos of themselves, delivers a frenzied rant about anal sex on legislature's floor

#1yrago Bounty hunters and stalkers are able to track you in realtime by lying to your phone company and pretending to be cops

#1yrago From prisons to factories to offices: the spread of workplace surveillance and monitoring tech

#1yrago NH GOP lawmakers mocked gun violence survivors by wearing clutchable pearl necklaces to gun control hearing

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Emptywheel (, Slashdot (, Naked Capitalism (, Super Punch (, Bas van Beek (

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'm rewriting 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 also working on "Baby Twitter," a piece of design fiction also set in The Lost Cause's prehistory, for a British think-tank. I'm getting geared up to start work on the novel afterwards.

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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