Pluralistic: 19 Mar 2020

Today's links

  1. The worst Democrat in Congress just lost his job: Dan Lipinski primaried by the amazing Marie Newman.
  2. Canada Reads documentary on Radicalized: The Great Canadian Book debate is indefinitely postponed, but here's an hour on my book!
  3. Africa's Facebook modders are world leaders: Technological self-determination through adversarial interoperability.
  4. Imagineering in a Box: Interdisciplinary theme park design lessons from Khan Academy and Disney.
  5. Data is the New Toxic Waste: It was never "the new oil."
  6. How to structure a fair covid bailout: Stimulus, not private jets.
  7. Fox News is a suicide cult: Telling your elderly viewers to perform tribal loyalty by engaging in high-risk behaviors is a career-limiting move.
  8. Grocery supply chains are resilient: One less thing to worry about.
  9. Magic in the time of coronavirus: Never let a good crisis go to waste, card-trick edition.
  10. This day in history: 2010, 2019
  11. Colophon: Recent publications, current writing projects, upcoming appearances, current reading

The worst Democrat in Congress just lost his job (permalink)

Congress's worst Democrat is Dan Lipinski, a corrupt, anti-abortion, corporatist, gunhumping asshole in a safe seat that he inherited from his father in 2004, who handed it to him after nominations had closed, bypassing the semblance of democracy.

He's a homophobic bigot who opposed the $15 minimum wage and allowed the rail-barons who fund his campaign to dismantle safety regulations.

He was primaried by Marie Newman (I'm a donor!) whose campaign was vicious sabotaged by the DNC.

Despite this, Marie Newman successfully primaried this piece of shit.

Like AOC's seat, Newman's is a very safe one, meaning she's all but guaranteed to go to Congress in November.

Canada Reads documentary on Radicalized (permalink)

The Canada Reads national book prize is indefinitely postponed, thanks to covid. In lieu of the televised debates originally scheduled for this week, the CBC is airing one-hour specials on each book, including mine, Radicalized.

If you're jonesing for The Great Canadian Book Debate, you can fill the gap with the whole series:

Africa's Facebook modders are world leaders (permalink)

In most of Africa, the most popular app by far is WhatsApp, and unofficial WhatsApp mods – including one that started life as a Syrian alternative at the height of its civil war – are offering local tools for local contexts.

"Nothing about us without us" has been a rallying cry for many movements, most recently the disability rights movement. Coders working for a Silicon Valley Big Tech firm shouldn't have the last work on how apps work for people half a world away.

The big WhatsApp mods accommodate lots of local needs: larger groups and filesizes, better privacy protection, multiple accounts on a single device.

But it's also hard to find reliable mods, because FB used legal threats to shut down the largest, most popular one.

Ironically, this has driven peer-to-peer app sharing, where people you trust will directly send the app from their phone to yours, assuring you that they haven't detected any spyware. That's just great.

What would be even better is if local coders could dismantle FB's digital colonialism and market their improved apps directly, come out of the shadows without fear of retaliation by distant juggernauts who want to capture "the next billion users" and own their digital lives.

The history of Adversarial Interoperability is full of users modifying their tools to improve them. Before John Deere was a monopolistic copyright troll, it used to send engineers out to farms to collect and integrate farmers' mods into its products.

Every human being should have the right of technological self-determination: the right to decide which tools they use, and to change how those tools work to suit their own needs.

Imagineering in a Box (permalink)

Imagineering in a Box is a joint project from Khan Academy, Pixar and Disney Imagineering. It's a series of interactive lessons and lectures on designing themed spaces, rides to go in those spaces, and animatronics to go in those rides.

It's interdisciplinary: land design is meant to be undertaken with physical materials, ride design uses art and math, and animatronic design is robotics – mechanical engineering and software development.

Data is the New Toxic Waste (permalink)

In a new article for Kaspersky, I argue that data was never "the new oil" – instead, it was always the new toxic waste: "pluripotent, immortal – and impossible to contain."

Data breaches are inevitable (any data you collect will probably leak; any data you retain will definitely leak) and cumulative (your company's data breach can be combined with each subsequent attack to revictimize your customers). Identity thieves benefit enormously from cheap storage, and they collect, store and recombine every scrap of leaked data. Merging multiple data sets allows for reidentification of "anonymized" data, and it's impossible to predict which sets will leak in the future.

These nondeterministic harms have so far protected data-collectors from liability, but that can't last. Toxic waste also has nondeterministic harms (we never know which bit of effluent will kill which person), but we still punish firms that leak it.

Waiting until the laws change to purge your data is a bad bet – by then, it may be too late. All the data your company collects and retains represents an unquantifiable, potentially unlimited source of downstream liability.

What's more, you probably aren't doing anything useful with it. The companies that make the most grandiose claims about data analytics are either selling analytics or data (or both). These claims are sales literature, not peer-reviewed citations to empirical research.

Data is cheap to collect and store – if you don't have to pay for the chaos it sows when it leaks. And some day, we will make data-hoarders pay.

How to structure a fair covid bailout (permalink)

It's a foregone conclusions that there will be a bailout. My first worry is that it will be inflationary, because production has ground to a halt. More dollars chasing fewer goods — not good.

But there's another risk, which is that it will just go to the finance sector, who will use it to buy private jets and political influence, repeating the 2008 pattern.

Financialization is how the economy got so fragile in the first place. Leveraged buyouts, debt-loading, payoffs for layoffs, looting corporate cash reserves, selling assets and spiking executive competition made companies brittle. As Matt Stoller writes, financialization's goal "is to eliminate production in favor of scalable profitable things like brands, patents, and tax loopholes, because producers – engineers, artists, workers – are cost centers."

Bush/Obama had huge leverage over corporations during their bailout, but they squandered it by making companies subservient to finance, instead of public priorities, workers' rights, or a fair deal for customers.

We must not repeat that blunder. Any company that gets a covid bailout should:

  • be permanently banned from buybacks, and banned from dividends for 5 years. Companies need to restore their financial cushions.
  • have their share price zeroed. Shareholders aren't getting a bailout. They "took the risk and upside, they should get the downside too."
  • have limits on executive comp. Tax dollars shouldn't make execs who presided over failure into millionaires.
  • a ban on lobbying, limits on PR – you can't spend public handouts to lobby for more public handouts
  • no M&A activity for 5 years. We're bailing you out so you can run a productive business, not become an acquisition target.

This crisis is different than 2008. It's worse. Let's not make the response worse, as well.

(Image: Bernie Durfee, CC BY-SA)

Fox News is a suicide cult (permalink)

Throughout the crisis, Fox News has been dutifully fulfilling its role as a state new organ for the Trump admin. When Trump's narrative was "no big deal," the network engaged in denial and urged its viewers to engage in high-risk conduct to perform their tribal loyalty.

TV news viewers are much older than the median American. Fox viewers are much older than the median TV new viewer. Old people are at the highest risk of covid complications. Linear increases in patient age yield exponential increases in mortality.

Fox has since changed its orthodoxy to match the president's new narrative. But it's too late. Many viewers will cling to their original denial in order to protect themselves from feeling like dupes.

Others are already incubating – and passing on the virus.

Fox News just murdered a substantial portion of its viewership.

But don't get smug. The Fox viewers' risky conduct will have spread the virus further, infecting people far beyond the circle of denialists.

And their cases and the cases of those they infected will contribute to the overwhelming of the health-care system.

People who have car-wrecks or burst appendices or complex births or other emergency hospitalizations will die as a result.

Fox didn't cause the pandemic, and its viewers aren't solely responsible for its spread. But their ideology and conduct made it much, much worse.

Grocery supply chains are resilient (permalink)

If you – like me – have been worried about empty US grocery shelves, it appears that you can rest easy (or easier).

US food distributors' warehouses are at 200-500% nominal, comparable to pre-Thanksgiving.

They saw this coming and stocked up.

Food production is also still very healthy.

The shortages appear temporary, driven by logistics bottlenecks that will ease with time, assuming the labor force for grocers/warehousers/shippers remains healthy and available.

(Image: Lyza, CC BY-SA)

Magic in the time of coronavirus (permalink)

I really dote on the "social magic" of Andy at The Jerx, a one-on-one style of conjuring and mentalism that often plays out over weeks and months. He's been doing a series of performing tricks during coronavirus, and the latest instalment is great.

“I have this trick I’m working on but I’ve run out of people to perform it on in person. Can you hop on Skype for a few minutes?”

This implies that you could do the trick in person, and you can use it to do something you couldn't do in person.

"The window of the Skype frame makes switching and ditching and that sort of thing incredibly easy. You don’t need a pocket index, you can have stuff just sitting on your computer desk off frame."

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Peter Watts found guilty

#10yrsago Icelandic Pirates soar: citizenship for Snowden?

#1yrago Uber used spyware to surveil and poach drivers from Australian rival service Gocatch

#1yrago Kickstarter employees want to unionize under OPEIU and have formed Kickstarter United to make that happen

#1yrago The European Copyright Directive: What Is It, and Why Has It Drawn More Controversy Than Any Other Directive In EU History?

#1yrago Matt Taibbi finally makes sense of the Pentagon's trillions in off-books "budgetary irregularities"

#1yrago New Zealand's domestic spies, obsessed with illegally surveilling environmental activists, missed a heavily armed right-wing terrorist

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Disney Parks Blog (, Naked Capitalism (

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: