Pluralistic: 02 Apr 2020

Today's links

  1. Private equity titan squats on empty hospital: But he'll get a massive stimulus bailout anyway.
  2. A promising, plausible plan for "privacy-preserving" surveillance: A thoughtfully designed, opt-in based way to do contact tracing.
  3. UK public health official endorses official reagents for covid tests: Chemicals is chemicals.
  4. An AI's prank suggestions: I have provisionally uncancelled April Fool's Day, but only for these.
  5. How David Got His Scar: A free story in the universe of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies books.
  6. Bird's "Black Mirror" mass layoffs: Revenge of the Kwak.
  7. At Home with EFF: An online discussion of covid-19 and digital rights.
  8. Ted Chiang on pandemics as idiot plots: We can't afford a return to the status quo.
  9. How you are subsidizing the otherwise unprofitable Fox News: Fox cheats.
  10. Ghostcrash: Car crashes with all but one of the cars removed.
  11. The paintings of Rod Serling's Night Gallery: Now streaming on Hulu!
  12. Borderlands is shipping books: Shop a science fiction institution, not Amazon.
  13. Coronavirus travel posters: Stay the fuck home.
  14. Turn on wifi sharing: Save a kid's future.
  15. This day in history: 2010, 2015, 2019
  16. Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming appearances, current writing projects, current reading

Private equity titan squats on empty hospital (permalink)

From 1848-2018, Philadelphia's Hahnemann University Hospital served low-income families. Then it was purchased for $170m by the LA base dprivate equity looter Joel Freedman of American Academic Health System LLC (part of Paladin Healthcare).

Ignoring community outcry at the loss of a critical health resource, Freedman mooted turning the hospital into luxury condos, but didn't make progress. It's still a hospital. A giant, empty hospital. In the middle of a pandemic.

Freedman has offered to rent his giant empty hospital in the middle of a pandemic to the city for $1m/mo, plus retrofitting/reopening expenses, to house covid patients or those displaced from other hospitals by the pandemic.

Freedman stands to make millions from the pandemic stimulus, which will allow him to claim retrospective tax credits by accellerating the depreciation schedules for his substantial real-estate holdings, including the hospital.

He's turned down the city's counteroffer, "to pay a smaller amount in rent and to cover costs of what would be time-consuming repair and upkeep to make the hospital usable again."

"Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate of the nation’s 10 most populous cities"

The city isn't going to use Freedman's hospital. Instead, they're using Temple University's Liacouras Center…for free.

Philadelphia City Council Member Helen Gym has called for the city to seize Hahnemann through eminent domain. Freedman's Philly pied-a-terre in fancy Rittenhouse Square has been spraypainted with JOEL KILLS and FREE HAHNEMANN.

(Image: Scott McLeod, CC BY)

A promising, plausible plan for "privacy-preserving" surveillance (permalink)

Epidemiologists call the stuff they do to trace the spread of disease "public health surveillance." The word "surveillance" there isn't an accident – doing things like contact-tracing IS surveillance, and it has enormous potential for abuse and accidental, terrible breaches.

As the pandemic spreads, some are rethinking their stance on surveillance, but this could go really bad – as we learned after 9/11, lots of people are committed to "not letting a crisis go to waste" – and authoritarianism is a one-way ratchet.

The holy grail is "privacy protecting surveillance," which is as much of a minefield as it sounds like. But this proposal, from a new nonprofit called PEPP-PT describes a plausible – even promising – approach.

Here's how I THINK it works: your phone runs an app that gathers your location data as it moves from through time and space, emitting a temporary, anonymous identifier to other nearby phones that are also running the app.

When your phone and another phone are close to each other for " an epidemiologically sufficient period of time," each of them record the other's unique identifier, but doesn't send it anywhere. Old records are deleted over time.

If you ever test positive for coronavirus, you get a cryptographically signed token from the health authority, and then you get to opt into sharing your recorded recent-contact identifiers with the system.

The system then broadcasts a message to all users saying, "Hey, if you had contact with a user with this identifier, you might have been exposed. Please get tested!" Your app interprets the message and alerts you if you have had contact with the positive-testing person.

Each national health authority has its own prefix or something for the unique IDs, so there's a way to know if you had contact with someone who's left the country and needs to be warned that you might have infected them (all this happens automagically in the background).

This sounds really good! But there are some caveats.

First of all, someone – not me – should audit both the high-level plan and the code that implements it. There are millions of ways this could go wrong.

And second, the consortium of 130 member orgs includes some really good academic institutions, but also (for obvious reasons) lots of phone companies and other historic privacy abusers.

Figuring out how we can trust this system without having to trust its creators (through source/binary transparency, and maybe something like Certificate Transparency's use of public append-only logs) is really important, too.

I am NOT qualified to audit the plan or the code here. At a high level geared to a dum-dum like me, this is plausible and promising. All I'm qualified to do is look at the metadata: who is doing it, and what have they done to show their working to smarter people than me?

UK public health official endorses official reagents for covid tests (permalink)

Yvonne Doyle of Public Health England answered press questions after a briefing on coronavirus testing delays in which she seemed to endorse the idea that only manufacturer-supplied reagents should be used in testing machines.

The Guardian's liveblog: "She added that the reagents that worked best were those that worked best with the machines they were intended for. As the head of the industry has said, there is a global market for this."

It is definitely the case that lab tests need high-quality chemicals to work accurately, but it is also definitely not the case that the only way to assure the quality of consumables is to buy them from the original manufacturer.

Not only does this introduce brittleness into the testing system by turning manufacturer-supplied reagents into a single point of failure — it also creates a moral hazard for manufacturers, who are assured sales irrespective of gouging.

At a Health and Safety Executive briefing, Dr. Cillian de Gascun of National Virus Research Laboratory revealed that one of the three reagents needed for the tests is being kept secret by its manufacturers to prevent third parties from making it.

I hope that Public Health England is open to third-party consumables for badly needed testing – these need to be checked for quality (as is generally necessary with consumables), but shouldn't be ruled out.

An AI's prank suggestions (permalink)

AI Weirdness Queen Janelle Shane fed the GPT-2 text-processing neural net a short list of April Fools Day pranks and asked it to suggest more. They are…weird.

She'll send you more if you give her an email address.

Look, I know April Fools is cancelled, but if you want to put your fear of insects in a lemon I absolve you.

If you want a whole book explaining why AIs are so great at doing things until they're terrible at them and then they're laughably bad at it, try her book, "You Look Like a Thing and I Love You."

How David Got His Scar (permalink)

The UGLIES books from Scott Westerfeld are some of my favorite YA novels — both to read and to recommend. They're often packaged as "girl books" but in my experience there's something for everyone in these books about beauty, dystopia and authenticity.

Westerfeld has just posted a new short story from the Ugliesverse,"How David Got His Scar", as a free read to his site. It's got some important backstory on David, a fantastic character from the original series.

Bird's "Black Mirror" mass layoffs (permalink)

A little over a year ago, Bird sent me literally the stupidest legal threat I've ever received. I mean, I've seen some incompetent dumbfuckery from butthurt lawyers in my day, but sheesh.

Even stupider was their nonpology, which amounted to, "We slipped and accidentally threatened to sue you."

It was a copyright threat, but the lawyer who sent it was an employment law specialist, so maybe that explains it, but…

…explain this?!

Here's how Bird laid off 406 people: They invited some (but not all) of their employees to a Zoo call, and then, two minutes later, all 406 of the invitees were fired.

"It should go down as a poster child of how not to lay people off, especially at a time like this"

The call started five minutes late. During those five minutes, all 406 were treated to a slide reading COVID19.

"It was not our brand color or font, which frankly was unsettling in a way I couldn't articulate."

"This is a suboptimal way to deliver this message" – a "robotic, disembodied voice"

"Unfortunately your role is impacted by this decision."

"Then their screens suddenly went dark and their company issued MacBooks restarted. By 10:40 a.m, everyone was locked out, just as employees were frantically trying to exchange personal numbers and emails on Slack and take screenshots of their contacts."

"IT will send a box with a return shipping label to retrieve company assets (e.g., Laptops, chargers, and badge. All items should be put in the box and mailed back to us by April 15."

"They said any personal items would be sent back to us 'eventually.'"

"It seems like they got rid of the majority of women and people of color"

"As far as I know, the folks that are left from my immediate team consist of all men, most of whom are white." -Jenny Li Alva

"The leadership at Bird handled this in an immature manner. The world deserves to hear about it."

(Images: Grendelkhan, Вячеслав Евдокимов, CC-BY-SA)

At Home with EFF (permalink)

The covid pandemic has forced more of our offline activities online than any other event in world history. EFF is working flat out to make sure that our civil liberties move with them.

Tomorrow at 5PM Pacific/8PM eastern, various EFFers (including me) are hosting a live Twitch/Youtube/Facebook stream to discuss threats to our digital rights in the age of pandemic and what we can do to defend them.

  • Cindy Cohn will give opening remarks, with an update on the dangerous new EARN IT bill that’s threatening encryption for everyone.

  • Elliot Harmon will talk to Cory Doctorow about emergency medicine and emerging tech like 3d-printed ventilator parts and open science

  • Staff Attorney Saira Hussain talk to Cindy about surveillance, the spread of coronavirus, and the need to preserve our privacy.

Have questions now? Send them to

Ted Chiang on pandemics as idiot plots (permalink)

Ted Chiang isn't just a fantastic writer, he's also a fantastic thinker about the world (these don't always go together, surprisingly). Here he is being incredibly smart about this current moment.

He reiterates the important observation that "good vs evil" stories are intrinsically conservative in that they are about a good world being upturned by evil, then returned to goodness in the happy ending.

Whereas sf is progressive in that it is often about the world being changed, not restored.

So the stfnal question about the pandemic is how will things change, not how will we put them back the way they were.

Irrespective of ideology, no one wants a return to the old status quo inasmuch as no one wants a return to a world where a pandemic leads to ventilator, hospital bed, and mask shortages. So everyone wants some kind of change.

Which kind of change is the question of the moment. Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine and its disaster capitalism perfectly predict the worst changes we see happening around us: unlimited corporate welfare and profiteering, authoritarianism and surveillance.

But there are other changes possible. Everyone could see how student debt, weak labor laws, and incompetent demagogues worked, but now we see how they fail.

It would be nice to convince your stubborn uncle to fix his brakes BEFORE the wreck, but if you can't, then you should seize upon the wreck as a teachable moment to change your uncle's attitude towards his brakes. How things fail is much more important than how they work.

As Chiang says, if this was an sf novel it would be an "idiot plot":

"…a plot that would be resolved very quickly if your protagonist weren’t an idiot. What we’re living through is only partly a disaster novel; it’s also—and perhaps mostly—a grotesque political satire."

(Image: Arturo Villarrubia, CC BY-SA)

How you are subsidizing the otherwise unprofitable Fox News (permalink)

Like so many cults, Fox News is a zombie business, whose profitability depends on blind loyalty from its cultists – not normal business fundamentals.

Its ad revenues have been in freefall for years – Tucker Carlson ad revenues, for example, are down $75-80m since 2017. They're missing sales targets by wide margins. But it's still in business, because, as Angelo Carusone writes, they cheat.

Like all cable news networks, Fox has a built-in cushion in the form of payments that cable operators make to it in exchange for including the network in their offerings. This means that every cable subscriber is keeping Fox in business (as well as other cable stations).

But Fox cheats. While MSNBC gets $0.33/customer/month from the cable operators, Fox gets more like $2. It gets that money by cheating: its newscasters lie to viewers and claim that any cableco that fails to pay 7X what MSNBC brings in is trying to silence conservative voices.

The threat of rabid Fox cultists is apparently what it takes to make the notoriously intransigent cable cos pliable. And that threat means that every cable subscriber is subsidizing the otherwise unprofitable, failing pile of garbage that is Fox.

Here's the kicker, though: 65% of Fox's cable contracts are up for renegotiation, seeking around $3/customer/month (!!).

The #UnFoxMyCableBox campaign needs your help to head this off and end Fox's cheating.

Carusone thinks Fox has tough times ahead no matter what when the inevitable lawsuits for coronavirus disinformation roll in – if nothing else, the discovery phase of those suits might reveal direct coordination with the White House on lethal disinformation campaigns.

Ghostcrash (permalink)

Donato Sansone's Ghostcrash is a brilliant, Ballardian 2018 video in which the visual artist digitally removes all but one of the cars from several real car-crash videos.

The result is positively eerie. So eerie, in fact, that it was shared (millions and millions of times) with titles like "Bizzare and Unexplainable: 8 Car Accidents That Were Recorded by CCTV."

The paintings of Rod Serling's Night Gallery (permalink)

Night Gallery was Rod Serling's followup to the Twilight Zone, which lasted a bare three seasons before it was killed by meddling from the producer, Jack Laird.

Episodes opened with a macabre painting from Serling's "gallery," most by Tom Wright, but the original 3 were by Jaroslav “Jerry” Gebr – these were sold or repurposed after the show ended production.

These are available at the official show site:

It's streaming on Hulu!

Borderlands is shipping books (permalink)

SF's beloved sf bookstore, Borderland Books, has been given something of a reprieve from the city's shelter-in-place order, which has been modified to allow the owners to pack and ship their existing inventory for mail order.

The store's entire inventory (including its excellent used and rare book selections) is available here:

Borderlands is more than a store, it's a community hub for readers and writers, and has done so much to support the sf writers you love. It's where we launched my first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

The shelter-in-place order's exemption for "essential businesses" has meant that for many of us, Amazon is the only way to get books during the lockdown. Here's a way to fight that monopolization of our culture. Please consider supporting them and other indie booksellers.

Coronavirus travel posters (permalink)

I love Jennifer Baer's "Coronavirus Travel Posters," which extol the benefits of staying the fuck home.

You can get 'em as print-on-demands at:

Turn on wifi sharing (permalink)

The decision to allow private sector monopolists – phone and cable companies – to build out the 21st century's electronic nervous systems was one of the most consequential errors of the digital revolution.

It's left billions with inadequate – and unaffordable – broadband, and boy are the chickens coming home to roost on that one right now.

Our daughter attends a Title I school, which means that some of her classmates are going to be receiving distance ed instruction via photocopied packets that their parents are expected to pick up and drop off from the school's office.

We've refurbed all the old laptops in our house – four of them – and are donating them to the school, but without broadband, those kids are still screwed.

That's where you (and I) come in.

If your home wifi router has a guest mode, turn it on.

Share your broadband with your neighbors.

It has some potential downsides (slower connections, mostly, and maybe your shitty monopolistic ISP getting on your case) but the upside is you might rescue a child's future, or their parents' economic future.

(Image: Chris Tamm, CC BY-NC)

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Why I won't buy an iPad (and think you shouldn't, either)

#10yrsago Digital Economy Bill: the last hours

#5yrsago DOT EVERYONE: a UK institution to promote the public, civic, noncommercial Internet

#1yrago RIP, science fiction writer Vonda N McIntyre

#1yrago Patagonia tells banks and oil companies that they can no longer buy co-branded vests

#1yrago Bernie Sanders raises $18.2m from 525,000 small-money donors (including me)

#1yrago Microsoft announces it will shut down ebook program and confiscate its customers' libraries

#1yrago After boasting about running his company from prison, Martin Shkreli gets solitary confinement

#1yrago Moderators for large platform tell all, reveal good will, frustration, marginalization

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Lexi Alexander (, Steve Lloyd (, Waxy (, Slashdot (, Paul Bennun (, Kottke (, Borderlands (

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

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:

This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commerically, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

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When live gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla

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