Pluralistic: 18 Mar 2020

Today's links

  1. Ethiopian factory sports Jack Ma quotes: Global trade currents are shifting fast.
  2. Charter orders all workers to keep showing up: Even the 15% of its workforce who could work from home.
  3. MAGA firefighters dismiss coronavirus as Democrat hoax: And/or a Chinese bioweapon.
  4. Flatter Me, a compliments card game: Kickstarting now.
  5. American Airlines blew billions, now it wants a bailout: Socializing losses, privatizing gains.
  6. John Green's mutual aid manifesto: The only way through is together.
  7. How to split a single ventilator for four patients: Peer-reviewed simulations.
  8. Bigoted Republican Congressjerk votes against coronavirus relief because it might cover same-sex partnerships: Rep Andy Biggs wants to send us all to meet Jesus.
  9. Epidemiology and public health in 14 minutes: An epidemiologist and an sf writer make an outstanding science communications team.
  10. 3D printed ventilator hero got a patent threat: Human rights vs property rights.
  11. If nothing is for sale, how will covid stimulus work? Can you fix a supply shock with stimulus?
  12. How to make your own toilet paper: A craft for your isolated kiddos.
  13. Plague precautions from 1665: No feasting, but you can tipple in a bar until 9PM.
  14. This day in history: 2005, 2010, 2015, 2019
  15. Colophon: Recent publications, current writing projects, upcoming appearances, current reading

Ethiopian factory sports Jack Ma quotes (permalink)

This pic was taken by researchers from Caribou Data at a textiles factory in Ethiopia. Every curtain on every window bore silk-screened quotes from Jack Ma's book (the name of the factory has been redacted to preserve the owner's privacy).

The researchers told me that 72 hours after Alibaba moved into Rwanda, every coffee farmer using the platform had sold out of their inventory.

It's a potent and visually arresting reminder of how global trade currents are shifting.

Charter orders all workers to keep showing up (permalink)

My local monopoly ISP is Charter. They're terrible in every single way. What's more, my city, Burbank, owns 100GB fiber that runs under my home's foundation slab, but I can't access it because of Charter's deal with the city. In addition to delivering slow-as-molasses connectivity at nosebleed prices (and relentlessly advertising upsells, dozens every week, print and digital), the company is also forcing all workers to show up in person during the pandemic – even those who could work from home.

They basically forced Nick Wheeler, an engineer who complained about this, to resign, calling his short, measured complaint about the policy "irresponsible," accusing him of "inciting fear."

Charter gives its workers a single annual week's worth of sick-leave. Workers have to use that leave time if they are worried about contracting or transmitting coronavirus. Medical advice for coronavirus infections is to self-isolate for two weeks, though.

Even other telcos (AT&T, Comcast) are asking workers to work from home. Charter CEO Tom Rutledge has doubled down on his infect-the-world policy, because "While back office and management functions can be performed remotely, they are more effective from the office."

Charter is a tremendous beneficiary of public largesse. It gets access to our rights-of-way, something they couldn't hope to afford at market rates. It received billions in tax-cuts (which it squandered on stock buybacks). The company got Net Neutrality dismantled, and is given monopolies wherever it operates.

This largesse is predicated on the idea that Charter views itself as a steward and can be trusted with monopoly self-regulation. If you had any doubt that the company can't be trusted to pour piss out of a boot with instructions printed on the heel, this should dispel it forever.

What I'm saying is, if you ever have a Charter exec in your home, count the spoons before you let him leave.

MAGA firefighters dismiss coronavirus as Democrat hoax (permalink)

"IAFF Union Firefighters for Trump" is a 27,000 member Facebook group of first responders who split from their union over its endorsement of Biden; Trump himself has endorsed the group.

Today, it is full of firefighters and EMTs who say that coronavirus is no big deal.

Some of the group's members are posting evidence to the contrary from their working experience, talking about the devastation they're witnessing firsthand. Their colleagues reply with poop emojis and "Trump2020."

The group is infected with the conspiracy theory that coronvirus is a panic cooked up by Democrats to discredit Trump, or that it's a Chinese bioweapon, an idea that Trump and his Congressional and Senate supporters have tacitly (or explicitly) endorsed.

This is especially worrying as EMTs and firefighters are at high risk of contracting coronovirus. If they don't take the risk seriously, they could spread it to vulnerable people, or reduce emergency capacity while they are quarantined (they also risk their own health).

Group founder Kelly Hallman told Propublica that "There’s never been this much hoopla given to the other things. They’re doing it to crash the economy and make Trump look bad…If you had to point a finger at why the leftist media and the left in general has a smile on their face about this, it’s the Dow. My wife and kids are scared, believing what they’re seeing on TV. I'm telling them it’s not as bad as the media makes out."

Flatter Me, a compliments card game (permalink)

Flatter Me is Ami Baio's latest kickstarted card-game: "a two-player game for all ages with 250 unique compliments to play with friends, family, and partners."

Its creator Ami Baio specialises in games that turn on kindness and connection; her last project was "You Don't Know Me."

A $20 pledge gets you one Flatter Me deck, $35 gets a two-pack. The cards are also designed to be given as gifts: "given to friends who need a boost, tucked into cards or gift bags, or left for friends to find."

Baio is seeking $12k in pre-orders and is delivers in Oct.

American Airlines blew billions, now it wants a bailout (permalink)

Since 2014, American Airlines has accumulated a $30B debt. It did so while paying its shareholders $15B through stock buybacks, and while raising prices on fliers, nickel-and-diming on bag charges and other extras. Now its industry group – whose members spent 96% of their free cash-flow on buybacks – is seeking a $50B coronavirus bailout, with no strings attached. That's 300% more than the industry got after 9/11.

This is shareholder capitalism working as intended. As Matt Levine writes, "it is optimized to extract money for shareholders when things go well and minimize the amount of shareholder money that is at risk when things go very wrong."

But as Tim Wu writes, bailouts should come with strings attached. The airlines engineered this situation for themselves. If we let them socialized their losses and privatize their gains (again), they'll do it again (again).

  • "Change fees should be capped at $50 and baggage fees tied to some ratio of costs. The change fees don’t just irritate; they are a drag on the broader economy, making the transport system less flexible and discouraging otherwise efficient changes to travel plans."
  • "We should end the airlines’ pursuit of smaller and smaller seats, which are not only uncomfortable and even physically harmful, but also foster in-flight rage and make the job of flight attendants nigh unbearable."
  • "Finally, we have allowed too much common ownership, permitting large shareholders to take a stake in each of the major airlines, creating incentives to collude instead of compete."

As Naomi Klein has reminded us, the Shock Doctrine (can) cut both ways: the Great Depression catalyzed transformative change and the New Deal. Let's not permit this disaster be seized by the people responsible for it.

John Green's mutual aid manifesto (permalink)

This video from John Green is a tonic: a reminder that humanity has a shared destiny and that cooperation is the human condition. and that mutual aid is key.

"The only way out is through, and the only way through is together."

How to split a single ventilator for four patients (permalink)

In 2008, Greg Neyman and Charlene Babcock Irvin published "A Single Ventilator for Multiple Simulated Patients to Meet Disaster Surge" in the peer-reviewed Society for Academic Emergency Medicine journal.

In this video, Dr Babcock demonstrates how to split a single ventilator to safely and effectively treat up to four patients.

As she points out, there have been no studies of this, but it has been (temporarily) used successfully in the field.

Bigoted Republican Congressjerk votes against coronavirus relief because it might cover same-sex partnerships (permalink)

You may not get paid leave during the coronavirus crisis in part because
Rep Andy Biggs (R-AZ) voted against it because his homophobia was more salient than his empathy.

He claimed (wrongly) that this was novel federal legislation in that it included domestic partnerships.

He was objecting to the provision of assistance to family members, including “biological, foster, or adopted child, a stepchild, a child of a domestic partner.”

As Lee Fang writes, "The exact same legislative text around domestic partnerships and committed relationships is found in several bills in Congress, including paid sick leave legislation proposed as far back as 2015."

Biggs also lied and said that he objected to coronavirus relief because it would repeal the Hyde Amendment ("Two provisions that have nothing to do with the coronavirus are basically thrown into this thing. That’s par for the course for the left").

The bill does not repeal the Hyde Amendment.

The Republican Party, folks. The party of death and poverty and tragedy and hate. Remember that in November.

Epidemiology and public health in 14 minutes (permalink)

Epidemiologist Dr. Ross Kauffman and sf writer Tobias Buckell teamed up to produce this short video explaining the costs of a runaway coronavirus epidemic to explain the need for drastic measures to their local Ohio town council.

It's a spectacular piece of science communications: grave without being alarmist, calm and measured, informative and plainspoken. It's a really important piece of video and I hope you'll watch it.

3D printed ventilator hero got a patent threat (permalink)

Remember the heartwarming story of the Italian makers who volunteered to fix their hospital's busted ventilators with 3D printed parts that they designed and produced on the spot?

It turns out that these makers weren't just saving lives, they were also taking a legal risk. That's because when they asked the manufacturer for help with the project, the manufacturer countered by threatening to sue them for patent infringement.

The part they printed cost them 1 euro, while replacing the system would cost a reported EUR10,000.

In a heartfelt, and soul-searching post, one of the people behind the project says he won't try to distribute the files he created.

I can't help but wonder if he's hoping to mollify the corporation whose threats he ignored to help save lives.

Postscript: If you're pondering the issues of open source/homebrew respirator design, check out this excellent thread on the material constraints and challenges of med-tech.

If nothing is for sale, how will covid stimulus work? (permalink)

I'm a believer in Modern Monetary Theory and the idea that state deficit spending is not intrinsically inflationary – only when the state is trying to procure things the private sector wants, so they get into a bidding war.

In theory, the covid contraction is a great candidate for MMT stimulus. If people are stockpiling cash and thus eliminating their discretionary spending (40% of US GDP!), then the state can procure the discretionary items without triggering inflation.

Or there could be a hybrid, such as distributing vouchers to the public, redeemable for discretionary purchases – instead of bailing out aviation, we could buy people plane tickets, for example.

But that runs into a big problem: there's another reason people aren't making discretionary purchases, which is that those goods and services aren't available (manufacture has been disrupted by social distancing) or aren't safe (flying is incompatible with social distancing).

In this case, it seems to me that stimulus spending runs the risk of being inflationary (when everyone tries to redeem their plane ticket vouchers at once) or useless (people throw away their vouchers). Stimulus + supply shock = ??

That's not to rule out stimulus altogether, but it does suggest that the stimulus needs to be targeted, especially considering the size of the bailout that Wall Street is bandying about: trillions, in a matter of days.

The GOP is calling for a $1,000/person bailout, but as Yves Smith says, this isn't much when it comes to the immediate expenses that affected people need to cover, like rent, mortgage, and, of course, treating covid-related illness without insurance.

Maybe, instead, help to cover mortgage and rent, along with anti-eviction/foreclosure rules; help with utilities, expanded food aid, and swift Medicare for All. Then, once the crisis is passed, a big stimulus package – for people, not banks – that gets us buying stuff again?

TBH, I don't know. It's weird to feel skeptical of stimulus, given how valuable demand-side relief would have been over the past decade+. Obviously we don't want another 2008 plute bonanza giveaway, but we also don't want to inject ever more money to chase ever-fewer goods.

How to make your own toilet paper (permalink)

Making toilet paper at home is a pretty on-the-nose craft to try with your covid-isolated kiddos. You need newsprint, leaves/grass (as a cellulosic binder) and baby oil.

Soak the paper until ink is mostly gone, slowly boil with leaves/grass, simmer 1h, bring to boil for 30m, adding water and skimming foam. Remove, ladle out excess water. Mix 4tbsps of baby oil in with pulp. Scoop pulp onto a towel, press with a rolling pin.

Gently beat out lumps with a rubber mallet, add another towel on top. Cover with a board and add weights. Wait 30m. Flip over, remove towel and leave to dry in sun. Cut into strips and use (sparingly).

Plague precautions from 1665 (permalink)


Every parish needs examiners. Refuse duty and you go to prison: "persons of good sort and credit chosen and appointed by the alderman, his deputy, and common council of every ward, by the name of examiners, to continue in that office the space of two months at least."

Examiners must "inquire and learn from time to time what houses in every parish be visited, and what persons be sick, and of what diseases…[I]f they find any person sick of the infection, to give order to the constable that the house be shut up."

Infected homs get 24/7 surveillance two watchmen: "these watchmen have a special care that no person go in or out of such infected houses whereof they have the charge, upon pain of severe punishment."

They'll also get you groceries and lock up your shop.

Women "of honest reputation" are appointed by physicians as "searchers" to inspect the dead and determine cause of death. Searchers are helped by newly appointed "able and discreet chirurgeons," charged with ensuring that "a true report made of the disease."

Nurse-keepers have to be quarantined for 28 days after their patients die.

If plague is found in a house, the whole household is locked in for 28 days. Prior to sequestration, their personal effects have to be aired, treated with fire, and then perfumed. Anyone known to have visited a plague house is locked down for 28 days, along with their household, with the same airing, flaming and perfuming business.

Plague-dead may only be buried after sunset and before sunrise, with no mourners in attendance. No sermons or eulogies allowed. Graves must be 6 feet deep. All funerals are banned. Personal effects of the plague-dead must be destroyed, not given away or sold.

Public notice: "Every house visited be marked with a red cross of a foot long in the middle of the door.. and with these usual printed words… 'Lord, have mercy upon us,' to be set close over the same cross, there to continue until lawful opening of the same house."

Cab drivers can continue as normal, but if they carry someone thought to have plague they have to retire their hackney-coaches for 5-6 days and give them a thorough airing.

[[I sense that this may be a weak spot in the whole plan]]

There's also new sanitation rules requiring regular sweepings and rakings of "filth" from the streets, with all the human waste being dumped far from the city and not in local gardens. Smelly or rotten food-sales are banned.

Cops are charged with sweeping up and punishing beggars, who are banned from the streets.

No live entertainment: "all plays, bear-baitings, games, singing of ballads, buckler-play, or such-like causes of assemblies of people be utterly prohibited."

All restaurants are closed. Feasting is banned.

Bars are OK, but under suspicion, and must close by 9PM. The rule covers "tippling in taverns, ale-houses, coffee-houses, and cellars."

[[Again, this seems like a weak spot]]

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Andre Norton, RIP

#15yrsago Orrin Hatch is head of new IP subcommitee

#10yrsago Is the UK record industry arrogant or stupid?

#10yrsago Entertainment industry sours on term "pirate" — too sexy

#10yrsago YouTube: Viacom secretly posted its videos even as they sued us for not taking down Viacom videos

#10yrsago Michael Lewis's THE BIG SHORT, visiting the econopocalypse through the lens of LIAR'S POKER

#5yrsago Insider view of the cash-for-gold ripoff

#5yrsago Terry Pratchett's advice to booksellers

#1yrago Facebook's year-old "improvements" to the newsfeed have elevated enraging Fox News posts to the service's dominant form

#1yrago Electronic Health Records: a murderous, publicly subsidized, $13B/year grift by way of shitty software

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Mitch Wagner (, Kottke (, Laurent Stanevich (, Naked Capitalism (, Slashdot (

Currently writing: I've just finished rewrites on 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've also just completed "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 next.

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: The Masque of the Red Death and Punch Brothers Punch

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 new introduction by Edward Snowden: