Pluralistic: 11 Mar 2020

Today's links

  1. Obesity and unsaturated fats: Blaming unsaturated fats for obesity is very plausible, but likely wrong, alas.
  2. The satiety index: Which foods cause or satisfy cravings?
  3. Sensor Tower's VPNs and adblockers spied on users: Like sneaking laxative into Immodium.
  4. Twitter's new Terms of Service help academics: Good bots welcome.
  5. Italy's "I Stay in the House" law: The comprehensive quarantine plan.
  6. Scam-buster hacks into a scam-factory: He gets their CCTVs, recordings of their calls, transaction data, Whatsapp chats, and more. Delicious.
  7. Postmortem: the catastrophic EU Copyright Directive. Testimony from yesterday's Senate hearing.
  8. Podcast: A Lever Without a Fulcrum Is Just a Stick: My latest Locus column, on how copyright failed artists and enriched corporations.
  9. This day in history: 2010, 2015, 2019
  10. Colophon: Recent publications, current writing projects, upcoming appearances, current reading

Obesity and unsaturated fats (permalink)

Scott Alexander does a very deep dive into the literature on diet, weight, and saturated vs unsaturated fats.

The most important elements for me were first, the validation that something really has changed: average US adult men's weight went from 155lbs to 195lbs from the 1800s to today. The 90th percentile 1800s man weighed 185lbs, today, it's 320lbs. US obesity rates in the 1800s were 1%. Today, they're 25%.

But the usual culprits can't explain the change: they ate more bread and potatoes in the 1800s, for one thing.

In China, obesity rates were very low even with a diet dominated by white rice.

1970s France had 1800s US obesity rates, on a diet of "baguettes, pastries, cheese, meat. Lots of sugar, white flour, and fat."

It's true that some tactics (intermittent fasting, low-carbing) work for some people, but they're not what worked in 1970s France or 1800s USA. So if those things work, they're "hacks" – not an indictment of carbs or eating three meals a day.

There's a widespread theory that the change is driven by the switch from saturated to unsaturated fats, which was driven by spiking heart disease in the 1950s. It's likely this heart disease epidemic can be attributed to the vast increase in smoking a couple decades earlier, but the tobacco industry's denial machine meant that the blame fell on diet, and the US (and then global) diet's fat composition shifted dramatically.

We ate a lot fewer animal-derived fats and a lot more plant-derived fats. These fats had lots more Omega 6s and (to a lesser extent) 3s, and the ratio of these Omegas also changed dramatically, both in our diet and in our bodily composition. Intriguingly, these play a significant role in metabolism. There's a plausible ring to this whole business – particularly as a way of crisping up what we mean when we say "avoid processed foods." What is "processing?" Maybe it's doing something that requires vegetable fats.

Unfortunately, neither the literature nor the lived experience of experimenters support the theory. Studies don't support it. Meta analyses don't support it. Reddit forums skew heavily to people saying it didn't work for them (dotted with people for whom it did).

Which makes weight gain a mystery. It can't be (just) exercise: we're exercising more now than we did 40 years ago, and we're heavier now. Studies about causes are inconclusive overall, but clear that weight gain is more explained by diet than exercise. What's more, we're seeing weight gain in lab rats, pets and feral animals, so exercise seems an unlikely culprit here.

Alexander ponders other possible causes: plastics or other contaminants in our diet, or that it's a "ratchet" (once your weight set point changes, it doesn't change back.). Both have little evidence to support them.

He concludes that he's "more confused than when I started it," but will avoid unsaturated fats where possible, with the exceptions of Omega-3 rich oils (fish/olive oil).

I am likewise confused, but also better-informed than I was before I read his post.

The satiety index (permalink)

I lost ~100lbs in 2002/3 with a low-carb diet. The thing I immediately noticed when I started eating (lots) more fat and (lots) less carbs was that I was always satiated, with none of the food cravings that had plagued me all my life.

No other diet since has had that effect. I really struggle with cravings (and have put 50lbs back on through my 40s, though some of that is muscle from a much higher level of exercise). For me, satiety is the barrier to sticking to any diet. I don't just get ravenous, I get these all-consuming cravings that I can't put out of my mind, even if I resist them (and the longer I resist, the more likely it is that I'll really blow it out when I give in at last).

So I was really interested in this 1995 open access study, "A Satiety Index of common foods," which offers a league table of the foods that made subjects feel full.

The meaty (heh) parts are in these charts on pp682-3.

Sensor Tower's VPNs and adblockers spied on users (permalink)

Sensor Tower, a company that made apps billed as privacy-protecting, installed man-in-the-middle certificates on your devices that let them spy on everything you did online.

They made 20+ VPN apps for Android and Ios, but didn't disclose that all those apps were owned by analytics company, Sensor Tower. The apps had names like "Free and Unlimited VPN, Luna VPN, Mobile Data, and Adblock Focus."

The apps installed a "root certificate" in users' devices. With this cert, the company could insert itself in all the device's otherwise secure, encrypted sessions – web browsing, email, etc. Sensor Tower admits that they collected data using this cert, but insists that it was "anonymized," which is something most computer scientists agree is likely impossible for this kind of data. Re-identification of anonymized data is devilishly hard to avoid.

The claim is made even less credible when you listen to the company's other claims about its practices, such as the idea that they hid the authorship of their apps "for competitive reasons."

Or this howler: that "the vast majority of these apps listed are now defunct (inactive) and a few are in the process of sunsetting." Well, yes, they were removed for violating their users' privacy. It's not like the company had a change of heart or anything.

And then there's this: "Apple and Google restrict root certificate privileges due to the security risk to users. Sensor Tower’s apps bypass the restrictions by prompting users to install a certificate through an external website after an app is downloaded."

Twitter's new Terms of Service help academics(permalink)

Twitter just published a new, and much-improved developer policy, one that permits academics to field bots for research and auditing purposes.

"Researchers will be able to share an unlimited number of Tweet IDs and/or User IDs, if they’re doing so on behalf of an academic institution and for the sole purpose of non-commercial research, such as peer review."

Twitter's also creating a bot registry that must include contact info for the botmaster, so that "it’s easier for everyone on Twitter to know what’s a bot – and what’s not."

Italy's "I Stay in the House" law (permalink)

The FAQ for the Italian government's "I Stay In the House" decree is a fascinating document:

Most notably, Italy has kicked out its tourists. As Bruce Sterling writes, "It’s a tourist-ectomy. An Italy devoid of all tourists. It’s fantastic, unheard-of. Surely this hasn’t happened in at least 700 years."

People are allowed to go to work, to shop, and to run errands, provided it is for an "essential purpose," which you must prove "by means of a self-declaration which can be made on pre-printed forms already supplied to the state and local police forces. The veracity of the self-declarations will be subject to subsequent checks and the non-veracity constitutes a crime."

Business travelers are permitted to enter and leave the country, cab, delivery and freight drivers are allowed to do their jobs, and "outdoor motor activity is allowed as long as not in a group."

Public offices are open. Training activities are suspended. Government offices need to provide hand santizer, but if they run out, they have to stay open ("disinfectant is a precautionary measure but itstemporary unavailability does not justify the closure of the office").

Bars, pubs and restaurants may open from 6AM to 6PM, but have to cancel live music, games and screening events. Theaters, cinemas and museums are closed.

Schools are closed. Universities are closed. Exams and graduations will be conducted by video-link. Med schools are not closed. Research institutions are not closed.

Masses and funerals are canceled. Islamic Friday prayers are canceled.

Farms are open.

Scam-buster hacks into a scam-factory (permalink)

Jim Browning is a talented and prolific scambaiter. He calls the numbers listed in pop-up tech support scams and has the scammers log into a specially prepared system that lets him trace them.

In his latest adventure, Browning thoroughly turns the tables on , a Delhi travel agency that was the front for a sprawling network of tech-support scammers taking in millions every year through fraud.

Browning not only traces the scammers: he breaks into their unsecured CCTV network so he can watch them work. He compromises their phone system and listens to the recordings of all their scam-sessions.

He gets hold of their ledgers, which list how much money each scam nets for the gang. He doxes the scammers and learns their real names. He gets a confederate to fly a drone over their HQ and maps out their comings and going.

In part II, Browning treats us to a delightful scambaiting session in which he mercilessly trolls a scammer who claims to be in San Jose, CA, tripping him up in a series of ever-more-desperate lies.

It's part of a growing genre of journalists who explore and document the operations of overseas scam operations. See, for example, Reply All's excellent podcasts on this:

There are two more parts to come in Browning's series (you can watch them now on his Patreon, apparently):

He also turned his footage over to the BBC's flagship investigative programme, Panorama, which has produced its own doc based on it:

Postmortem: the catastrophic EU Copyright Directive (postmortem)

Yesterday, the Senate Subcommittee on Intellectual Property held hearings on "Copyright Law in Foreign Jurisdictions," at which two key copyright experts testified on last year's catastrophic EU Copyright Directive.

First up was Pam Samuelson, one of America's leading copyright experts, who explained in eye-watering detail how the compromises made to pass the Copyright Directive produced an incoherent mess that no one can figure out how to implement in law.

Next was Julia Reda, who served in the EU Parliament during the passage of the directive and helped spearhead the opposition to it.

Her testimony really shows you where the bodies were buried: how the EU knew it was making a pig's ear out of things.

Both are essential reading for anyone striving to understand Article 17 (formerly Article 13) – it is such a tangle of garbage lawmaking that these kinds of guides are indispensable.

Podcast: A Lever Without a Fulcrum Is Just a Stick (permalink)

I've just posted my latest podcast: a reading of my new Locus Magazine column, "A Lever Without a Fulcrum Is Just a Stick," on how copyright failed artists and enriched corporations and what we can do about it.

Tldr: Giving monopolies to artists doesn't help them gain leverage over the super-concentrated entertainment industry, because the corporations control access to audiences and force artists to sign away those monopolies to get past their gatekeeping.

The more monopolies we give artists, the more monopolies are transfered to corporations, and the more they dominate the market and thus the more they can retain from the earnings generated by the artists' works.

Fights like the EU Copyright Directive are a distraction, a fight over shifting some points from Big Tech's balance sheet to Big Content's – but without any mechanism to move more of that revenue to creators.

Enriching creators means thinking beyond more "monopoly"-style copyright: instead, we have to think about inalienable rights that can be taken away through one-sided contracts (like the "reversion right" that lets US artists take back copyrights after 35 years).

And we have to think beyond copyright itself, by beefing up competition laws to break up entertainment cartels, and by beefing up labor laws to let artists form unions.

There is a role for copyright, but in things like extended collective licensing that would allow all online platforms to access the same catalog and pay for it based on the number of users they have, so a new platform pays pennies while Youtube pays hundreds of millions.

These blanket licenses have been key to keeping other forums for artistic revenues open: think of what the world would be like if one club or radio station could buy the exclusive rights to play the hits of the day, and then use their ensuring dominance to squeeze artists.

If you prefer the written work, you can read the column here for yourself, of course:

Here's a direct link to the MP3 of the reading (thanks as always to Internet Archive for hosting – they'll host you too, for free!):

And here's the RSS for my podcast:

Now in its 14th year (Thanks to Mark Pesce for convincing me to start it)!

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago London Olympics: police powers to force spectators to remove non-sponsor items, enter houses, take posters

#10yrsago Leaked documents: UK record industry wrote web-censorship amendment

#5yrsago Piketty on the pointless cruelty of European austerity

#5yrsago Rightscorp loses big on extortion racket

#5yrsago UK foreign secretary: stop talking about Snowden, let spies get on with it

#1yrago Defect in car security system aids carjackers, thieves

#1yrago Former Archbishop of Canterbury cheers on students who are walking out to demand action on climate change

#1yrago Leaked Chinese database of 1.8 million women includes a field indicating whether they are "BreedReady"

#1yrago Why #Article13 inevitably requires filters

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Slate Star Codex (, Slashdot (, Fipi Lele, Matthew Rimmer (

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: A Lever Without a Fulcrum Is Just a Stick

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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