Pluralistic: 21 Mar 2020

Today's links

  1. My appearance on Cool Tools: My favorite gadgets.
  2. UK emergency science panel predicts mass altruism: Reality has a well-known collectivist bias.
  3. Don't Look for the Helpers: The text version of my essay for the new Nightvale anxiety podcast.
  4. After the crisis, a program for transformative change: Pandemic reveals the systems' failures, and what to do about them.
  5. Pandemic stimulus, realpolitik edition: Stephanie Kelton and AOC on a people's bailout.
  6. Beautiful judicial snark: "No, your unicorn trademark is not an emergency."
  7. Marc Davis's Haunted Mansion: What if Marc Davis had sole control over the ride's design?
  8. This day in history: 2005, 2010, 2015, 2019
  9. Colophon: Recent publications, current writing projects, upcoming appearances, current reading

My appearance on Cool Tools (permalink)

This week, I appear on the Cool Tools podcast to discuss my favorite, most indispensible gadgets and services and why I love them.

My top picks were my Crkt Snap-Lock knife – a one-handed-opening, lightweight, super versatile pocket knife that I carry everywhere.

I also chose my Chinese OEM underwater MP3 player. I swim every day for my chronic pain maintenance and this is how I make it bearable, getting through 1-2 audiobooks/month.

My third choice was, the DRM-free, indie-bookseller friendly way to listen to audiobooks. Basically the same catalog as Audible, at the same price, the only difference being that buying from them supports neighborhood booksellers, not Amazon.

It was a really fun! @Frauenfelder and @kevin2kelly are super smart about gadgets.

Here's the MP3:

UK emergency science panel predicts mass altruism (permalink)

SAGE is the UK Government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. This is their hour to shine.

They have just published a spectacular, plain-language set of technical reports on the pandemic.

This is the most interesting: "on risk of public disorder."

The expert panel affirms the conclusions of Rebecca Solnit in her indispensable book "A Paradise Built in Hell," a closely researched history of disasters that finds that they are the moment in which people spring to the aid of their neighbors.

SAGE's expert panel on disasters: "large scale rioting is unlikely. It is rarely seen in these circumstances. Acts of altruism will predominate, and HMG could readily promote and guide these."

"Where public disorder occurs, it is usually triggered by perceptions about the Government’s response, rather than the nature of the epidemic. A perception that Government response strategies are not effective in looking after the public may lead to an increase in tensions."

"Promote a sense of collectivism: All messaging should reinforce a sense of community, that 'we are all in this together.'"

For decades, Britain has been poisoned by Margaret Thatcher's sociopathic maxim, "There is no such thing as society."

It turns out that reality (and pandemics) has a well-known collectivist bias.

Don't Look for the Helpers (permalink)

I wrote a short essay about how I'm coping with The Current Situation for Our Plague Year, a new podcast from Joseph Fink of Welcome to Nightvale, called "Don't Look for the Helpers".

Today, PM Press published the essay in a new digital collection, "All We Have Is Each Other."

"Assuming things will break down does not make you a dystopian. Engineers who design systems on the assumption that nothing could go wrong aren't utopians, they’re idiots who kill people. 'Nothing could go wrong' is why there weren't enough lifeboats on the fucking Titanic."

"Every disaster ends with mutual aid. By definition. That's the only way a disaster can end: with people pulling together. If there’s one lesson to take from Mad Max, it’s that pulling apart only deepens the crisis, and the it will not end until we pull together."

"I’ve been telling stories of humanity rising to crisis for decades. Now I’m telling them to myself. I hope you’ll keep that story in mind today, as plutocrats are seeking to weaponize narratives to turn our crisis into a self-serving catastrophe."

After the crisis, a program for transformative change (permalink)

The Current Situation has revealed deep cracks in our system: replacing public transit with gig economy drivers who don't get health care or sick leave; the gig economy itself; the lethal inadequacy of private-sector broadband and private-sector health-care, and beyond.

The fact that we can simply abolish data-caps (without networks falling over) and the liquid ban (without planes blowing up) reveals that these supposed existential threats were, in fact, arbitrary, authoritarian, rent-seeking bullshit.

The people who've spent 40 years convincing us that we're just not free-marketing hard enough continue to insist that all of these problems are merely the result of not having fully dismantled the state (so much for "state capacity libertarianism"):

They're licking their chops for a 2008-style reboot: eviscerating public services, immiserating workers, fattening plutes and dissolving regulatory safeguards.

It's a playbook developed by Milton Friedman: the scheme to have "ideas lying around" when crisis strikes.

But as Naomi Klein reminds us, the Shock Doctrine cuts both ways. The manifest failures of plutocracy in the Great Depression got us the New Deal and the "30 Glorious Years" of shared prosperity and growth.

We haven't been idle since 2008. We have "ideas lying around" too. Ideas for a just and resilient society that reorients human life around sustainable and just practices. Motherboard's editorial staff gives us a manifesto for that society, so that this crisis doesn't go to waste:

  • Free and universal healthcare ("healthcare is a basic human right" -B. Sanders)
  • Abolish ICE and prisons ("ICE is now a public health hazard")
  • Protect and empower labor ("Without these protections, everyone’s safety and health is put at risk")
  • A healthier climate ("If the 2008-09 financial crash is any indicator, carbon could shoot right back up as soon as the crisis is over")
  • Fast, accessible broadband ("Community owned/operated broadband networks, long demonized and even prohibited by law are looking better than ever")
  • Smash the surveillance state ("This pandemic mustn't be used to infringe on the civil liberties and privacy of millions")
  • Billionaire wealth ("They're sending people to work while jetting off to luxurious doomsday bunkers, getting Covid-19 tests while normal people can't, and also singing 'Imagine' from bucolic getaways.")
  • Public transit that works ("Congress is poised to prioritize bailing out airlines and the cruise industry before it takes a look at public transit")
  • The right to repair ("Right-to-repair has become a matter of life and death.")
  • Science for the people ("We were caught flat-footed by a fixation on 'innovation' and lack of public options")

The future will not be like the past. Whether it is worse or better is our choice to make. It is in our (well-scrubbed) hands.

(Image: Jolove55, CC BY)

Pandemic stimulus, realpolitik edition (permalink)

I've been thinking a lot about what a covid stimulus package could and should look like, and what the possible failure modes and transformative changes could be. Obviously, there's real risk of inflation if handled wrong, because production has halted, so more money could end up chasing fewer goods. That gets ugly quick.

Then there's the risk that we just infuse trillions of no-strings-attached dollars into the finance sector, who use it to make our society even more brittle and unstable by hollowing out reeling companies and grinding down brutalized workers.

Writing about this stuff in public makes a lot of Twitter people with "investor" in their bios very, very angry. They want giant bailouts for the companies they own stocks in, not transformative change. They use the neolib tactic of throwing out a lot of jargon to instil a sense of your technical illiteracy. Complexity is a con-artist's go-to tactic, after all – it's why proposition bets are so complicated, so you can't do the odds in your head (see also: craps tables).

But not every economist believes that sociopathy is pareto optimal. Leading lights like Stephanie Kelton, the mother of Modern Monetary Theory, who can go toe-to-toe with oligarch-apologists from the Chicago School, explaining how public debt really works.

Kelton and AOC appeared on this week's Deconstructed podcast with Mehdi Hasan to discuss the true scale of the bailout that will be needed (far more than $1T) to get the economy working again. That number can come down (by lowering working peoples' outgoings through rent/mortgage/student loan holidays, etc). But the lesson of 2008 is that to be credible, stimulus must be transparent and aimed at the public good, not the donor-class.

Otherwise, Congress risks having its hands tied: it might inject an inadequate and corrupt stimulus that benefits its cronies, then be unable to follow that on with a people's bailout that would help us all.

AOC: "Look at this kind of trash pile of legislation the Republicans have just introduced. I’ve never seen such a thing in my life of, we’re going to give the neediest people less. And we’re going to give people who are you know, need help but don’t need as much help more."

Kelton: "What people mean when they say, you know, oh, Senator Sanders, you want Medicare for All or you want to make public colleges and universities tuition free, you want to cancel student debt, how are you going to pay for it? Where is the money going to come from? What that means in beltway speak is how are you going to offset all of that spending with new revenue from somewhere else, or by spending less in defense or some other category, the budget?"

"When you do a piece of legislation that’s 'paid for,' it means you’re putting the 50 billion in and it goes to some parts of the economy, and you’re taking 50 billion out of some other parts of the economy so that you’re not deficit spending."

"We’ve been so badly educated to respond to deficits as something that’s fiscally irresponsible, reckless. It isn’t. The government is committing to dropping dollars into the economy without ripping them right back out again. It’s exactly what we want them to do right now."

Kelton's work on Modern Monetary Theory is transformative. Her lectures present both a powerful descriptive account of how money works in the economy and a prescriptive account of how we can use that knowledge to make a better, more prosperous world.

She has a new book about this coming in June, The Deficit Myth. This would be a good time to pre-order it. These are scary times for writers with books about to come out (signed, I have three new books out in 2020).

Beautiful judicial snark (permalink)

As Ken "Popehat" White is fond of reminding us, no one snarks quite like a federal judge. And despite being a Trump appointee, Steven C Seeger manages to rip off a couple zingers in this ruling.

At issue: Art Ask Agency is upset that someone is counterfeiting their unicorn-logo merch, such as this unicorn-scented candle:

But Illinois is in covid lockdown, so its case against a bunch of John Doe (alleged) counterfeiters is on hold. Their lawyer has sent a string of motions to the court asking for an emergency hearing so they can proceed, despite the fact that the court clerks are operating on reduced staff and only dealing with matters of the utmost urgency.

The judge is Not Impressed: "At worst, Defendant might sell a few more counterfeit products in the meantime. But Plaintiff makes no showing about anticipated loss of sales. One wonders if fake fantasy products are experiencing brisk sales at the moment."

The judge takes notice of the time a telephonic hearing would consume, "especially given the girth of the Plaintiff's filings."

"Plaintiff argues that it will suffer an 'irreparable injury' if this court does not put a stop to the infringing unicorns and knock-off elves."

"The world is facing a real emergency. Plaintiff is not."

(Image: Karen Neoh, CC BY)

Marc Davis's Haunted Mansion (permalink)

Along with Passport to Dreams Old and New, the Long Forgotten Blog is the best source of information on the history, design, and evolution of Disney theme-parks.

But Long Forgotten focuses on a single ride, the glorious, brilliant Haunted Mansion.

The history of the Haunted Mansion was completely upended in late 2019, when Christopher Merritt published his "Marc Davis in His Own Words," a two-volume compendium of journals and interviews with the legendary Imagineer, who was Merritt's mentor.

This is probably the best book of Disney/theme-park history ever published, and that's no surprise, as Merritt has already written the definitive history of Knott's Berry Farm:

And Pacific Ocean Park:

Merritt is an Imagineer, an artist, and a historian, who has direct, lifelong connections with the original Imagineering team. He has unparalleled access, inside knowledge and perspective. So yeah, that is a fucking great book.

Marc Davis was the best character designer in the original Imagineer cohort: he created the Country Bears, the Pirates, and the Haunted Mansion ghosts. He was a spectacular visual gag master, too. And he was one of the (many) legendary Imagineers who had a hand in designing the Haunted Mansion. That ride had so many different iterations, drafts, plans and schemes, and the final product is so wonderful in part because of their remnants.

But Davis actually designed a full-on Haunted Mansion attraction, from start to finish, and those plans are kicking around. Based on those, Long Forgotten has created a narrative account of what it would be like to tour "Marc Davis's Haunted Mansion."

It's…interesting. Davis had some really fun ideas like meeting up with a talking bust (or raven).

And there are great gags (Davis designed the "three-part" stretching portraits, after all).

I mean. this would have been so freaking boss.

But the real meat is something called "The Most Dangerous Ghost":

"The final picture is perhaps behind black drapes which raise as the ghost host calls out attention to it. As the drapes part we see a painting that has everything in it except a figure. There is perhaps a vague image where the figure should be. The ghost host reacts in a frightened manner. He explains that this is terrible because this is the most dangerous ghost in the mansion. When he climbs out of his picture he mingles with the guests until he has turned one of them into a ghost. He describes the ghost’s appearance and its omnipotent powers. He suggests again that everyone should stay in a tight group; this evil ghost loves to pick off stragglers. He suggests that the group be wary of sliding panels, gusts of cold air and etc."

Long Forgotten: "The MDG character undercuts the intellectually sloppy notion that all Davis cared about was making the HM funny."

LF goes on to make a good case that Davis wanted to incorporate many of Rolly Crump's gorgeous "Museum of the Weird" designs into his Mansion.

Davis's seance room seems to flirt with MDG some more: "The presence of the villain ghost makes itself felt and these older retired ghosts are frightened. Whatever we have used to indicate the nearness of the villain ghost would be repeated here."

Davis once planned for a Mansion filled with "working class ghosts" (carpenters, soldiers, boxers, etc). The only ones that survived were the coachmen in the graveyard sequence.

And his bride sequence was very explicit about wedding-night murders, culminating with MDG manifesting amid the guests: "He starts a wild mocking laugh. It clouds up outside. The curtains blow inward. It starts to rain along with thunder and lightning. "Outside we see a figure take form and it moves into the room. The rain comes into the room with the figure and a pool of water forms around its feet."

This is gorgeously scary, but as Long Forgotten points out, it has little re-play value (similar to Tomororwland's Alien Encounter): "The gag about the Ghost Host revealing himself as the Most Dangerous Ghost has the obvious disadvantage that it can surprise you only once. Pretty soon everyone knows the 'secret,' and as its usefulness as a genuine shock or scare tactic fades its status as pure camp inevitably increases."

That all said, "We learn what we should already know but sometimes forget: Marc Davis was never an imperious, one-man show. He was a team player. He interacted creatively with the work already done by previous Imagineers, displaying in this outline nothing but respect for what was good in what they had done."

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Disney busts amateur Disneyland tour guide

#10yrsago James Randi is gay

#5yrsago Windows 10 announcement: certified hardware can lock out competing OSes

#1yrago Two arrested for hiding cameras in motel rooms and charging for access to livestreams

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Ok børge (, Beyond the Beyond (

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:

2 thoughts on “Pluralistic: 21 Mar 2020”

  1. Hey Cory!

    I was happy to see the Cool Tools episode (via rss) but it reminded me of This is How I Work post Lifehacker did on you a few years back and was curious to hear about updates on how your daily driver setup software and machine-wise looks.

    I imagine I might not be the only soul curious to see what is working for you to get things done (me: OSX, crazy emacs setup, lotta browser based stuff. Too much GoLang suddenly, but moving back to Linux.).


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