Pluralistic: 24 Mar 2020

Today's links

  1. This year's Nebula Awards will be held online: It's $150, and raising funds to bail out corona-shattered writers.
  2. Make America Well Again stamps: from the artist who brought you the Trump Zero Cents stamp.
  3. Data is the new toxic waste: It never was the "new oil" (my latest podcast).
  4. Stock Jump: A ski-game that lets you play the stock charts of cratered businesses.
  5. Murdering 20% of elderly Americans is bad strategy for the GOP: Terrified old people are the turkeys who vote for plutes' Christmas every four years.
  6. Join me on the Quarantine Book Club: April 1, 3PM Pacific.
  7. The Party of Death: It's a good time to buy exterminism futures.
  8. Financial stability vs economic stability: Debts that can't be paid, won't be paid.
  9. Quarantine reveals the falsity of the automation crisis: Augmentation isn't replacement.
  10. Bailouts and moral hazard: If we never teach big business, it won't ever learn.
  11. MIT's ingenious manual/automatic open source ventilator: Now in FDA testing.
  12. This day in history: 2005, 2010, 2015, 2019
  13. Colophon: Recent publications, current writing projects, upcoming appearances, current reading

This year's Nebula Awards will be held online (permalink)

This year's Nebula Awards weekend is moving online, thanks to decisive action from SFWA and Mary Robinette Kowal.

It'll include "panels, solo presentations, conference mentorships, workshops, forums, chats, and virtual room parties (including a dance party hosted by John Scalzi)." Part of the proceeds will go to relief for sf writers who are in covid-related financial distress.

It runs May 29-31, including a livestream of the Nebula Awards banquet. Registration is $150 and comes with a year of access to archived materials and the SFWA Bulletin.

Make America Well Again stamps (permalink)

I bought some of Ben Hannam's Trump No Cents stamps in 2017 and never looked back. I still put 'em on letters.

Now he's got a Make America Well Again stamp, which you can lick (if you dare) and stick for the duration. Remember, USPS is profitable and unsubsidized and Trump's swamp-dwellers want to shut it down and replace it with donors like Fedex and UPS!

Data is the new toxic waste (permalink)

My latest podcast is a reading of “Data – the new oil, or potential for a toxic oil spill?” — a column arguing 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.

Here's the podcast:

Here's the MP3:

And here's the link to subscribe to the podcast:

Stock Jump (permalink)

Last week, those of us lucky enough to have retirement savings joined the rest of the world, because our 401(k)s all cratered and all the promising stocks (teleconferencing, guillotines) are all way, way overpriced thanks to panic buying by Republican Senators.

But when life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla.

Enter Stock Jump, a ski-jump game whose courses are procedurally generated by the stock charts of shares from around the world.

It's really fun! If you can see through the tears.

Murdering 20% of elderly Americans is bad strategy for the GOP (permalink)

A thread by Patrick Nielsen Hayden on Making Light crystallized a thought that literally had me tossing and turning all night, about Trump's decision to risk the lives of ~20% of elderly Americans to goose the stock market.

The thing I find baffling is how short-term this thinking is.

Not for Trump, of course, who is legendary for his view of life as a game of running across a river hopping from the back of one alligator to another before he can get his leg bitten off.

But for the right-wing establishment, whose whole schtick is "rationality" and "long-term thinking" and "self-control" (think of the gleeful repetition of the discredited Marshmellow Test and the rhetoric about the "poor life choices" that lead to single parenthood, addiction, and inadequate retirement savings or health insurance).

How is it that these self-congratulatory long-game-players can't see that murdering one in five American seniors is a self-limiting move when frightened old white people are the primary source of turkeys who can be counted upon to vote for Christmas every four years?

The right has an antimajoritarian, elitist agenda. Right-wing thought is essentially the belief that some people are destined to rule, and others are destined to be ruled over by their betters, and the world is best when the right people are atop the pyramid. Splits in the right are about who should rule: Dominionists want Christian men in charge; libertarians want bosses in charge, imperialists want America in charge, racists want white people in charge, etc.

Antimajoritarian projects struggle in democracies, for obvious reasons. When your platform is "only 1% of us should be making decisions" it's hard to win 51% of the vote. That's why the right focuses so hard on gerrymandering and voter suppression, and why the otherwise untenable coalitions — finaciers and young-Earth Creationists, say — persist.

But the biggest source of ballots in support of rule by elites is frightened people, especially frightened bigots who think that the elites will promote their interests ahead of the disfavored minorities (think: Dixiecrats).

So murdering 20% of the most reliable source of votes for elite rule is a farcically shortsighted thing to do.

I am terrified of a Biden candidacy not merely because I think his policies are poor, but because I think he is really bad at being a candidate, and will struggle to win.

But Trump murdering 20% of his base might just be enough to make him lose. It may be that while he could murder someone in the middle of 5th Ave and get away with it, he can't sentence 20% of US pensioners to gruesome deaths and get away with it.

I'm not gleeful at this prospect. I am totally aghast. I barely slept last night, waking up dozens of times with this genocide playing out in my imagination.

But I am incredibly surprised. How does the self-declared Party of the Long View not see that this is going to destroy it?

The stock market is circling the drain and obviously this is very distressing for the donor class, but almost no Americans own any significant stocks, because most Americans have NO savings. The idea that rescuing share prices by killing the elderly will get the turkeys out to vote for Christmas is clearly wrong.

For more on antimajoritarianism and the right, read Corey Robin's outstanding book, "The Reactionary Mind."

Join me on the Quarantine Book Club (permalink)

I'm going participate in a session of the Quarantine Book Club on April 1 at 3PM Pacific, where we're discussing my book Radicalized. Tickets here:

If $5 is a burden for you, you can get in free with the code ALLAREWELCOME.

Hope to see you!

The Party of Death (permalink)

In his 2017 book Four Futures, Peter Frase uses science fiction to sketch out four ways our society could go as capitalism ruptures, from communism to exterminism, this being the expression of bosses' fear and dependence on workers.

Frase posits a possible mass-automation event that makes workers superfluous (I'm skeptical of this: climate change guarantees 2-3 centuries of full employment, e.g., relocating every coastal city).

But in light of the Current Situation, he imagines a different form of exterminism.

It's not just the GOP's willingness to murder 20% of seniors in the hopes of rescuing the Dow.

Plutes and their bootlickers have been calling for mass-deaths as a preferable alternative since the crisis first manifested, as when Tea Party founder Rick Santelli suggested "Maybe we’d be just better off if we gave it to everybody."

And of course, there was Boris Johnson and Dominick Cummings' plan to infect all of the UK to create "herd immunity." As Cummings said, "if that means some pensioners die, too bad."

Now Trump wants to potentially murder 20% of American seniors to rescue share prices, and the GOP is going along with him.

The Republicans have become the Party of Death, with establishment figures like Thomas Friedman providing ideological cover ("“let many of us get the coronavirus, recover and get back to work").

Frase: "The ghoulishness of this strategy will become apparent when it is too late, when the hospitals fill and the health care system and the economy both collapse."

"Those in power will be held blameless, and those with wealth will sadly lament the foolishness of the lesser orders."

"Socialists have always insisted that human needs should take precedence over profit, that the stock market is not the economy, and that we need to utterly transform an economy that is immiserating working people and destroying the planet. That message will only become more urgent as our opponents across different parts of the ruling class come to the conclusion — mournfully for some, gleefully for others — that in the contest between loss of profit and loss of life, they choose death."

Financial stability vs economic stability (permalink)

Michael Hudson is a fascinating thinker, an expert in the history of debt and debt-forgiveness. See, e.g., this:

In a new interview, Hudson delves into that history: interest-bearing debt was invented in the third millennium BCE, and quickly kings learned that they had to have periodic debt forgiveness, or compound interest would render all debts unpayable.

Greeks and Romans did away with the practice, and so had to live with six centuries of debt-revolts, as ever-larger fractions of their populace ended up in a form of debt slavery.

Greek Democracy was created to allow commoners to serve in government and so vote to cancel debts. Roman emperors conquered Greece and did away with debt-cancellation, creating an increasingly unstable oligarchy.

That's not far off from where we are today. 90% of debts are held by the richest 10%, and these oligarchs own the political process and refuse to countenance debt-cancellation.

Obama promised to write down mortgages, but instead he bailed out finance, who kicked us all out and bought our houses out from under us, and then rented back to us. Since then, the Fed "has created $4.5 trillion of credit to support prices for real estate."

"The aim has been to make housing more expensive, enabling the banks to collect on their mortgages and not go under. Credit keeps the debt overhead in place, thereby keeping the financial system afloat instead of facing the reality that debt needs to be written down."

Trump's gonna do it again, giving $50b to airlines/Boeing. Since 2008, Boeing has spent $45b on buybacks. Trump's message: "Spend 92-95% of your income to buy your own hares, and the government will print money so you can do it again, because our priority is stock prices."

"Financial stability" is incompatible with "economic stability." Financial stability means never writing down debts so that the bad loans oligarchs made never turn into bad debts. Economic stability requires debt write-downs so that people can be productive.

Obama's bailouts increased big banks' Too Big to Fail status. That's why since 2008, "GDP per 95 percent of the American population is actually shrunk. All the growth in America’s GDP has occurred only to the wealthiest 5% of the population."

Today, plutes "hope to use the crisis not to revive the economy, but to just pound it into debt deflation, leaving the debts in place while bailing out the banks and the landlord class."

Here's what "financial stability" looks like: "you have to pay this exponential growth in debt, [and] have less and less to buy goods and services."

Quarantine reveals the falsity of the automation crisis (permalink)

Automation-based unemployment has always been overhyped. Any work that robots take over merely frees up human workers for the 2-300 year project of climate remediation, including relocating every coastal city in the world.

But automation is also vastly overhyped. Take the oft-repeated claim that "truck driver" is the most common job in America, and first in line to be automated. It's just wrong.

First, because the BLS "truck driver" category includes long-haul truckers, delivery drivers, couriers, and dozens of other subprofessions, most of which are far, far away from being automatable.

(More importantly, though: the most automatable category is long-haul driver, and an automated long-haul truck in its own dedicated lane is just a shitty train).

The overhyped nature of technological displacement is on perfect display during the pandemic quarantine. As many "low skilled" (which is to say, "low waged") workers withdraw from the workforce, the economy has ground to a halt.

So much so that the right is now prepared to throw 20+% of seniors into the volcano to appease the market gods.

The category error committed by automation-fretters is to confuse "automating a job" with "augmenting a worker."

"We know that robots are great at repetitive work. they can do that forever. What's not so great is anything with a human-centered context, a cultural context.” -Julie Carpenter

Bailouts and moral hazard (permalink)

It's been barely a decade since the USG bailed out big businesses and the fact that we're here again reveals some of the glaring failures in the last bailout. Any new bailout should correct those errors by putting restrictions on bailed-out companies.

There have been some good proposals on these lines, like those from AOC and Stephanie Kelton:

(whenever I write about this in public, I'm inundated with angry tweets from sociopaths with "investor" in their bios)

We're running out of time to get this right. DC is so filled with money-hungry lobbyists that they can't practice adequate social distancing, and they're collectively seeking trillions in string-free public money for their paymaster.

At a minimum, any bailouts should come in exchange for convertible corporate bonds that let the USG take an ownership stake in any business that fails to repay its public debts. That's a minimum, as is a ban on stock buybacks for bailed out companies.

We need very strict limits on lobbying by bailed out firms: "If we are not to finance our own bamboozlement, any company receiving bailouts must be required each month to file full reports on political contributions and lobbying expenditures to candidates and parties."

This goes for dark money contributions, including 527 funds, and corporate/exec contributions to trade associations and other lobbying fronts, think-tanks, and other political influence vehicles.

"Unlike last time, when Hank Paulson, Tim Geithner, and Ben Bernanke failed to give the public a serious share of the upside, the bailed out firms should be compelled to issue convertible bonds to the government."

"Those bonds should make the government the senior creditor to the firm for the value of the principal as long as the debt is unpaid…As firms and the economy recover, the shares can be sold on the open market, yielding a handsome return to the Treasury."

The right likes to harp about "moral hazard" as an excuse for cutting aid, to, say, single mothers ("It only encourages them"). But what about businesses that needed trillions in 2008 and now need trillions more? What lesson are we teaching them?

(Image: Alex Proimos, CC BY)

MIT's ingenious manual/automatic open source ventilator (permalink)

At the end of last week, a crowdsourced design for an open-source hardware ventilator entered testing with the Irish regulator, a week after work began on the project.

Now, hot on its heels, an MIT open source hardware ventilator team has submitted its design to the FDA for testing and approval, under the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) authority.

It eliminates many possible sources of failure by replacing an electric pump with a manual one, which can, in turn, be operated by a separate, very simple, Arduino-controlled system (which can be readily swapped out for a human hand if it fails).

As Hackaday points out, "Almost as interesting as the device itself is the comments people are leaving about the design."

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Record sales up, P2P sales up — RIAA's story doesn't add up

#15yrsago Octopuses dressed up as sea coconuts sneaking on two legs

#10yrsago Pooh vs Alien: Webcomics realize their full potential at last

#10yrsago Airport worker caught photographing screen as female worker passed through naked scanner

#10yrsago UK record lobby: democracy is a waste of time

#5yrsago How medical abortion works

#5yrsago ACLU sues TSA to make it explain junk science "behavioral detection" program

#5yrsago Randomized dystopia generator that goes beyond the Bill of Rights

#1yrago Man stole $122m from Facebook and Google by sending them random bills, which the companies dutifully paid

#1yrago Chelsea Manning is being held in prolonged solitary confinement, a form of torture

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: (, Naked Capitalism (, Slashdot (

Currently writing: I'm getting geared up to start work my next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation.

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: Data – the new oil, or potential for a toxic oil spill?

Upcoming appearances:

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:

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