Pluralistic: 01 Apr 2020

Today's links

  1. Wood-metal worry beads: Chris Bathgate's latest, "The Woody."
  2. Overly descriptive color palettes: Handpicked from the Colorschemez bot.
  3. American Prospect high-school essay contest: An antidote to the Ayn Rand Institute contest.
  4. Snowden's Box: The logistics of leaking are a mix of tradecraft and philosophy.
  5. Alteon cuts covid-fighters' pay: $20k paycuts for docs fighting covid-19.
  6. Tiktok Kremlinology: Systematically exploring Tiktok's algorithm.
  7. American employment exceptionalism: Why the US is losing jobs much faster than other countries.
  8. Solar as a beneficial fad: How good ideas spread.
  9. This day in history: 2015, 2010, 2019
  10. Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming appearances, current writing projects, current reading



Wood-metal worry beads (permalink)

I love the work of machinist sculptor Chris Bathgate, especially his small fidget toys, which started off relatively simple:

https://chrisbathgate.blogspot.com/2016/11/my-second-act-for-those-of-you-who-have.html

And then got delightfully sophisticated:

https://chrisbathgate.blogspot.com/2017/10/introducing-bathgate-ratchet.html

Recently Bathgate branched out into terrifying knife-sculptures like these vases:

https://chrisbathgate.blogspot.com/2020/01/sculptural-knife-vase.html

Now, he's fused some of that knifemaking praxis with his fidget toys and created a mixed-media, wood-and-metal worrystone called "The Woody."

https://chrisbathgate.blogspot.com/2020/03/the-woody-worry-stone.html

The choice of a worry-stone is deliberate and inspired by our trying times: "There is just no better time to be making art. If anything, just to create a sense of normalcy and put something positive out into the world."

He'll be opening up for preorders later this week and will donate part of the proceeds to support his fellow Baltimore artists.



Overly descriptive color palettes (permalink)

The @colorschemez twitterbot creates swatches of matched colors with autogenerated names for each color drawn from a database of 20,000 superlatives.

At colors.lol, Adam Fuhrer anthologizes his favorite "Overly descriptive color palettes," along with hexadecimal values for web-authors. You can filter them by dominant color as well.

https://colors.lol



American Prospect high-school essay contest (permalink)

Bravo to the American Prospect for launching a high-school essay competition as an antidote to the Ayn Rand Institute's competition, whose past winners include ghastly sociopaths like Paul Ryan.

https://prospect.org/essaycontest

Essays should address themes from four progressive classics:

  • “Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few” by Robert B. Reich“

  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson

(juniors/seniors)

  • “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Matthew Desmond

  • “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich

(sophomores/freshmen)

Top prize is $10k, with several $5k, $2.5k, $1k prizes and 40 $100 runners-up.

EiC Jonathan Guyer: "As our country faces a climate crisis and a crisis of confidence in institutions, among so many other crises of policy and politics, we’re excited about pushing students to think about how we got here."

“We also want to look beyond the policy, and talk about the political factors that lead us to this particular menu of policy choices. We want students to reflect on who sets the agenda and how we can step back and change that agenda.”

https://www.teenvogue.com/story/american-prospect-high-school-essay-contest



Snowden's Box (permalink)

The story of how Snowden physically got a hard-drive of NSA leaks to the journalists who reported the stories is a remarkable tale.

Laura Poitras asked her old pal Dale Maharidge to give her a trusted address to get a mysterious parcel delivered to.

https://boingboing.net/2020/03/31/94-1054-eleu-st.html

He asked his old friend Jess Bruder if she would receive a parcel, no questions asked.

A few weeks later, a box turned up on Bruder's doorstep, with the return address "B. Manning, 94-1054 Eleu St, Waipau, HI 96797."

It was Snowden's Box.

The tale of how this box got to Bruder – and Maharidge, and Poitras, and all of us — is part opsec spy-thriller, part meditation on the nature of trust, social cohesion and surveillance.

It's a tale of how friends rise to the challenge to support one another, sometimes on a no-questions-asked basis. It's about how that social cohesion and trust is the thing that keeps our society together.

It's also the story of how surveillance weakens that social cohesion, poisons our relationships with suspicion, makes us unsafe in the most profound way imaginable.

This is a weird time to have a book out — it's a scary moment for all industries, but especially for those of us in those "nonessential" industries.

But this book is essential for this moment, as we consider deep, long-lasting surveillance that may haunt us for decades.

It's a sprightly, short book that's both thought-provoking and fascinating. But beyond that, boy is it ever timely.



Alteon cuts covid-fighters' pay (permalink)

Most US ERs do not hire their own staff; they hire they through an agency. One of the largest medical staffing agencies is Alteon Health. They just slashed benefits for doctors and nurses fighting coronavirus.

https://www.propublica.org/article/coronavirus-er-doctors-nurses-benefits

Admin staff got a 20% pay-cut. Clinicians had their hours reduced. 401(k) matching, bonuses and paid leave have all halted. One doc says it's a $20k paycut.

Many staffers are renting separate homes to keep their families safe, living in isolation while fighting the pandemic.

Alteon owned by Frazier Healthcare Partners, a private-equity firm. Of course it is.

Competitors like Teamhealth are not cutting wages.

Private equity-based staffing firms are also behind the epidemic of "surprise billing" at US emergency rooms.

Doctors at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center are having accrued wages held back. 1100 Atrius Health staffers will get paycuts or outright furloughs.

"If a company cannot support physicians during the toughest times, to me there’s a significant question of integrity." -Anonymous Alteon doctor.



Tiktok Kremlinology (permalink)

Tiktok is notorious for its casino-like jackpotting: users with few followers can find themselves catapulted to viral stardom when the algorithm suddenly promotes one of their videos to millions of other users.

There are at least three benefits to this: first, it puts users on a powerful intermittent reinforcement schedule, which gets them to keep producing in order to try to attain a payout.

Second, it creates rags-to-riched narratives about "nobodies" whom Tiktok made "somebodies." These are powerful stories, and were key to the growth of Youtube, who were fueled by stories about how Justin Bieber went from singing in his bedroom to filling stadiums.

Finally, it mitigates local maxima, in which Tiktok creators all converge on a small set of styles and forms, forcing them to seek out higher peaks elsewhere.

Of course, Tiktok users – especially business users – pour enormous amounts of energy into Tiktok algorithm Kremlinology, trying to divine the algorithm's parameters and intents.

https://www.kapwing.com/resources/we-tested-the-five-best-tiktok-algorithm-theories/

While it's possible to probe Tiktok systematically, it's hard to do so at any meaningful scale, and of course Tiktok's designers can silently change the rules at any moment. Trying to experimentally divine these rules is hard business.

It reminds me of the pre-Englightenment "natural philosophers" who weren't disciplined by peer-review and thus had terrible experimental methodologies that produced different results every time they re-ran a test.

They concluded that God was punishing them for their hubris by rearranging His laws constantly, to keep them from any kind of Promethean fire-stealing.

This is also the plot of Karl Schroeder's Sun of Suns, where every device is a one-off evolved by an AI, so it's useless taking apart two functionally equivalent machines to learn how they work because each is totally different beneath the surface.

https://boingboing.net/2006/12/04/sun-of-suns-novel-of.html

Kapwing's systematic exploration of the Tiktok algorithm is fascinating, both for the theories it advances and the holes in its experimental methodology.

They hypothesize that Tiktok shows prospective videos that meet minimum standards (image quality, clearance of copyright matching systems) to a series of ever-larger test user batches and evaluate each group's response.

Likes are low-quality signals (though there's a threshold at the 1:5 like:watch ratio), comments are better, but rewatching is best. Kapwing advises using quick cuts and text that disappears too quickly to read to garner extra rewatches. They also counsel creating loops.

They also hypothesize that "ghosting" the app – going dormant after a long intense run of new posts – triggers viral elevation as the app tries to lure you back in. This is an old con-artist's trick, giving the mark a small win when he looks ready to bolt.

It's also a tactic that's banned in digital slot machines, and it was a game-changer in Left 4 Dead, where a subsystem dramatically increased the likelihood of finding game-changing weapons when you faced your imminent demise (the "Hail Mary" AI).



American employment exceptionalism (permalink)

National economies the world round are crashing, but the US is leading the rich world in job losses, and that is by (stupid) design.

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/30/opinion/coronavirus-economy-saez-zucman.html

Other countries' governments are socializing wages, subsidizing the majority of employers' payrolls so long as they keep their employees on the rolls. That means that when the crisis lifts, employees just show up for work the next day and everything starts moving.

In the US, Congress has decided to beef up unemployment benefits. That means that laid off employees will be able to pay (most of) their bills — but when the crisis is over, the economy will be at a standing start, as millions (up to 30%!) of the country seeks employment.

This isn't just catastrophic for businesses (though it is). It's also a personal calamity multiplied tens of millions of times: grief for lost jobs, anxiety for economic futures, having to fill in paperwork in the midst of a pandemic with its health, childcare, etc demands.

To make matters worse, Americans who lose their jobs lose their healthcare…in the middle of a pandemic.

Congress needs to fix this in the next stimulus. It has guaranteed airline wages already – now it has to sort out the other US industries (including gig workers and other contractors). Ireland, the UK and Denmark were all able to build systems for this virtually overnight.

The package also needs to create Covidcare For All, universal health coverage for the duration of the emergency (and beyond, ideally – once Americans get a taste for it).

Denmark is also covering "essential business maintenance costs, like rents, utilities, interest on debt, health insurance premiums" so they can "hibernate without bleeding cash and risking bankruptcy." Italy's about to do the same.

As Zucman and Saez write in the NYT, we can avoid profiteering with a system that is "fair, comprehensive and transparent": high taxes on "abnormal profits" during the crisis, as was policy during the 1918 flu, WWII and the Korean War.



Solar as a beneficial fad (permalink)

Rooftop solar is (accidentally) perfectly designed to be a spreadable idea. The panels themselves have the distinctive look of well-engineered technology, and are intrinsically visible to others from the sidewalk/street.

https://www.wired.com/story/solar-panels-best-social-fad-ever/

They naturally invite conversations between owners about the benefits of solar. For us, rooftop solar has been a nearly perfect experience (the only downside was that our installer was horribly overstretched and thus unpredictable in 2019).

We lucked into the last year for tax-credits, and were able to bundle a new roof, storage battery, and EV charger together for a really big credit that made it all affordable. Now that our finances are strained and threatened, our power bills are incredibly low.

Solar's visibility means that it's easy to track its spread – you can literally see it from space. What's more, the patterns revealed by the spread are epidemiological – it's a social contagion, spreading by person to person contact.

https://academic.oup.com/joeg/article/15/4/815/2412599

Solar spread studies also reveal the power of social distancing: "In Switzerland, there are regions that speak Italian, German, French. If solar is spreading, it stops when it hits a language border."

As Clive Thompson writes, if you want to encourage solar, you need to violate these social distancing measures. That is, you get more word-of-mouth spread when you talk about solar more.



This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Principal bans blogging: "not educational" https://web.archive.org/web/20050426083959/https://www.rutlandherald.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article/?AID=/20050329/NEWS/503290316/1027

#10yrsago Labour MP's motion to subject Digital Economy Bill to full debate edmi.parliament.uk/EDMi/EDMDetails.aspx?EDMID=40883&SESSION=903

#10yrsago 20,000 US BitTorrent users sued; 30,000 more lawsuits pending https://web.archive.org/web/20100402051800/http://thresq.hollywoodreporter.com/2010/03/new-litigation-campaign-targets-tens-of-thousands-of-bittorrent-users.html

#1yrago Small stickers on the ground trick Tesla autopilot into steering into opposing traffic lane https://keenlab.tencent.com/en/whitepapers/Experimental_Security_Research_of_Tesla_Autopilot.pdf



Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Four Short Links (https://www.oreilly.com/feed/four-short-links).

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: Author’s Note from Attack Surface https://craphound.com/podcast/2020/03/30/authors-note-from-attack-surface/

Upcoming appearances:

Upcoming books: "Poesy the Monster Slayer" (Jul 2020), a picture book about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Pre-order here: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627?utm_source=socialmedia&utm_medium=socialpost&utm_term=na-poesycorypreorder&utm_content=na-preorder-buynow&utm_campaign=9781626723627

(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. https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250757531

"Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new introduction by Edward Snowden: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583


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