Pluralistic: 12 Apr 2020

Today's links

LA begins randomized covid testing (permalink)

LA County is beginning a program of randomized serological Covid-19 tests, using a marketing agency's tool for selecting representative samples to administer 1,000 tests at drive-up windows.

They want to conduct this test fortnightly for three months, which will cost $1.1m.

It's a crucial step, one that will infuse our policy (health, economic, educational, etc) discussions with much-needed facts.

Getting a baseline of infection rates versus people reporting (even mild) symptoms will help us get a better handle on the danger presented by the virus, correcting for the selection bias that attends only testing people known to have been exposed or presenting with symptoms.

It's true that we don't know if the presence of antibodies indicates immunity. There have been some reports of reinfections by people who had symptoms, tested positive, then tested negative (some even had multiple negative tests).

This is a separate, massive unknown that randomized testing won't necessarily help clarify. If it's true that recovering from coronavirus doesn't confer immunity, it will be very dire, because it means that we won't be able to attain herd immunity without a vaccine (~18 mos).

I am tentatively optimistic that this is not the case, based on analyses like this:

Tldr: if you administer a lot of tests, then even very rare errors will crop up (a 1-in-a-million error will happen about 5 times in 5m tests)

It seems, on balance, that it's more likely that the very unlikely event that someone had a malady other than coronavirus also had a false-positive coronavirus test, got better, then actually got coronavirus, than it is that recovering from covid doesn't confer immunity.

The former is very, very unlikely. My lay understanding of virology suggests that the latter is very, very, very unlikely. When a phenomenon is very, very, very, very widespread, both outcomes are possible.

(But also: motivated reasoning is a thing. All our lives would be much, much better if recovery conferred immunity, so it may be that I'm unconsciously overweighting that possibility for self-serving reasons).

(Image: Not on display, CC BY-SA)

Trump and the Rapture Right (permalink)

US politics over the past 40 years have been dominated by a coalition of plutocrats and evangelicals, whose priorities are weirdly out of step with anything resembling Biblical Christianity. It started with Reagan, but reached a peak with Trump.

On its face, this is weird. Trump, after all, is the least Christian prominent mainstream US politician in recent memory: a philanderer, a cheat, a liar, a cruel xenophobe, a buck-chaser. He's devoid of empathy, charity, or kindness.

As Bob Moser writes, understanding how self-described "Christians" could back such a man requires that you delve into their theology, which is so selective in its view of the gospels that it's practically heretical.

"The Christian nationalist movement today is authoritarian, paranoid and patriarchal at its core. They aren’t fighting a culture war. They’re making a direct attack on democracy itself." -Kath Stewart

Pence's worshipful glances at Trump don't reflect a marriage of convenience. Pence literally believes "we’re in the bloody final period of history before Jesus Christ returns to vanquish Satan" (so do Pompeo and Mark Meadows).

Rapture Christians long for the end-times when a cruel God torments their enemies while they are swept up to heaven. The end of the world is a feature, not a bug.

"[The future is] a never-ending struggle … until the Rapture. Be part of it. Be in the fight." -M. Pompeo.

Their leaders have declared Trump "a pagan king" …"placed in the White house to help speed events along toward the Apocalypse."

Republicans have long reveled in being really bad at governing. When your philosophy is "Governments are incompetent and their powers should be yielded to rich businesspeople," then administrative incompetence only proves your point.

Bad as that is, it's made infinitely worse if the Christmas-voting turkeys you rely upon to win office view each catastrophe as a step towards the Big One that precipitates the Rapture. Talk about perverse incentives!

Trump probably didn't know much of this before he got elected. He's the machine-learning President, an unsupervised algorithm that doubles down on whatever gets him the most cheers. He's GIGO embodied.

But now he knows all about it and he loves it, because Rapture Christians cheer on his stupidest decisions. Which explains a lot about how badly he bungled the pandemic response.

That belief started to wear thin when evangelical pastors started dropping dead of coronavirus, of course.

Understanding the nature of the bond between the worshippers of Mammon and self-proclaimed Christians is key to understanding the current situation, from epidemiology to economics.

The more I learn about evangelicals' "Christianity" the more I feel like I'm trapped in "A Fish Called Wanda": "Aristotle was not Belgian, the principle of Buddhism is not every man for himself, and the London Underground is not a political movement. I looked it up."

Foxconn's potemkin "Innovation Centers" (permalink)

Trump and Scott Walker promised billions to the giant Chinese electronics company Foxconn and let them start bulldozing Wisconsinites' family homes, but there's no sign of the promised megafactory Foxconn said they'd build in exchange.

Foxconn, after all, has a long, long, long history of securing massive credits and incentives to build factories and then never building those factories.

A year ago, Josh Dzieza described how Foxconn was buying up buildings, gutting them, and leaving them empty. Foxconn called them "innovation centers"

Foxconn told Dzieza that he had it all wrong and promised a full and forthright correction, and also swore that a year later, the "Innovation Centers" would be humming with industry. The correction never appeared, and a year has gone by and…

They're still empty shells.

I mean, duh.

Profs at the universities that Foxconn swore it would recruit from report "no visible activity whatsoever" on that front. Foxconn isn't even showing up for the university's grad recruiting fairs.

Foxconn hasn't taken out permits to renovate most of its "Innovation Centers." No construction has taken place.

As to the factory, it will now be a tiny little thing, and may or may not open in May.

Ladeez and gennulmen, I give you…The art of the deal!

The power of collaborative note-taking (permalink)

I really like Willow Bloo's guidelines for collaborative note-taking in videoconferencing, using Google Docs to allow three editors to simultaneously edit the doc in realtime.

That kind of notetaking requires intense engagement with the speaker, which is especially important when you're in a situation that makes it hard to pay attention (like a videoconference).

My first experience with this was when Jamie Love brought me to WIPO to be an observer for the Broadcast Treaty. WIPO is one of those processes that is so performatively dull that it's virtually impossible to follow, which is how so much terrible stuff gets done there.

But Wendy Seltzer had a brilliant idea: we'd make an ad-hoc wifi network (in those days, there were no data-plans for phones and WIPO did not have wifi in the sessions) and connect our laptops to them. Then we'd use Etherpad to collaboratively transcribe the sessions.

At least three of us would do this at a time: one person would transcribe verbatim, one would correct typos and add formatting, and one would annotate with plain-language translations of diplomatese so that the process was rendered legible to laypeople.

Then we started to publish these twice per day, going up to the mezzanine where there were shared PCs, and crawling beneath the tables to unplug an Ethernet cable and plug it into a laptop with a wifi card to make an ad-hoc network that was connected to the internet.

This proved to be utterly transformative to the process. WIPO meetings are notionally public and nonsecret, but the Secretariat would publish minutes six months after the meeting, and only after each speaker was given a chance to edit the record of their remarks.

Combine the staleness of the minutes with the rampant redactions and revisionism with the opaque argot spoken by diplomats at UN specialized agencies and you ended up with impenetrable, irrelevant "records" of the process.

Publishing realtime, annotated, unredacted minutes twice per day upended the process. We got slashdotted and diplomats who had literally never heard from their capitols over WIPO meetings started getting midsession phone calls to congratulate or condemn them.

The discourse changed immeasurably. When nations had a change in government, the new diplomats who took over the WIPO brief began to rely on our annotated transcripts, rather than the official ones.

The normal WIPO process – whereby giant corporate lobby groups like IPFI, MPA and Pharma called all the shots and diplomats made regulations that served their goals – fell apart, as did the Broadcast Treaty.

Exposing the public to the substance of the meetings put strong curbs on corruption.

(WIPO hated this. Not only did our handouts disappear and turn up stuffed behind the toilets, but the Secretariat threatened to eject us for writing about their "public" deliberations)

Collaborative note-taking is a powerful tool. It doesn't just sharpen your engagement – it produces a record that is far superior to even a verbatim transcript.

AMC is going bankrupt (permalink)

AMC is America's biggest cinema chain, thanks to the lax antitrust enforcement that let it gobble up Odeon, UCI and Carmike, funded by massive cash infusions from private equity money a Chinese conglomerate. Now it's about to file for bankruptcy.

The company is a kind of poster-child for financialization. Its Chinese owners, Wanda Group, made their money speculating on Chinese real-estate, a hotbed of fraud. Its US owners, Silverlake Partners, are a notorious debt-loading looter specializing in leveraged buyouts.

The combination of effectively free money (Silver Lake don't just abuse leverage buyouts, they're also giant tax-dodgers) and a free hand to scoop up other companies put the majority of America's cinematic eggs into one basket, and its bottom just fell out.

Even if the company gets a bailout, they are so leveraged – that is, their corporate robber-baron owners have plunged them into such unsustainable debt – that bankruptcy is effectively inevitable.

It's such a ghost-ship that they've even furloughed the CEO.

Lucky for plutocrats everywhere, the DoJ is killing the rule that stops movie studios from buying cinema chains, meaning that the drained husk of American movie theaters will likely end up part of a vertical monopoly.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Agoraphobic ex-junkie metal singer invents natural penis enlargement technique

#15yrsago In decline: TV, radio, newspapers, books, mags

#10yrsago Hitting computers with rocks: the history of publishing

#10yrsago International trade can't ration finite fossil fuels or tuna, but enthusiastically restricts infinite knowledge

#10yrsago UK MPs call for ID cards and surveillance, but demand privacy for themselves

#1yrago Illinois almost passed a bill that banned devices that record you without your consent — and then Big Tech stepped in

#1yrago Talking Radicalized with John Scalzi in the LA Times

#1yrago Ford CEO: we "overestimated" self-driving cars

#1yrago Florida man convinces Western Union clerk to insert a thumb drive, steals $32K, does it again, gets caught

#1yrago The Pinkertons' plan for climate change: a mercenary army that guards one-percenters as the seas rise

#1yrago Artist designs a machine-learning assisted sculpture, then casts it in the powdered remains of the computer used to design it

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation

Currently reading: I'm getting really into Anna Weiner's memoir about tech, "Uncanny Valley" and Jo Walton's forthcoming novel "Or What You Will."

Latest podcast: The Jubilee: Fill Your Boots

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

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