Pluralistic: 24 Apr 2020

nyc,crowdfunding,comics,sf,bookselling,guillotine watch,hhs,alex azar,administrative incompetence, vaccines,brian harrison,poison,trumpism,media theory,emptywheel,both sides-ism,medicare for all,sicko,slate star codex,science,scholarship,masks,net neutrality,cable company fuckery,ajit pai,ajit fucking pai,opportunism,content moderation at scale,ad targeting,themepunks,minecraft,imagineering,disney,disneyland,california adventure,imagineering fun,wdi

Save Forbidden Planet NYC; Which guillotine is right for you; A labradoodle breeder is in charge of America's vaccines; "Inject disinfectant" vs both sides-ism; US healthcare fails insured people too; Masks work; US telcoms sector isn't doing better than Europe's; Amazon uses its sellers' data to figure out which products to clone; Facebook let advertisers target "pseudoscience" and "conspiracy"; Security expert conned out of $10,000; California Adventure, Minecraft edition

Pluralistic: 24 Apr 2020 slicey-boi


Today's links

Save Forbidden Planet NYC (permalink)

One of New York City great institutions of nerdy delight, the Forbidden Planet store off Union Square, needs your help. After serving the city's sf, comics and media fans since 1981, it is in grave danger.

As they writes, "At one point you couldn't walk a single block downtown without coming across an interesting shop, club or gallery space. Places like See Hear and Kim's Video lined the streets and liberated the minds of people who braved to enter their doors."

NYC has homogenized, squeezing out the quirky, the odd, the delightful – basically everything except chain health clubs, CVS, Citibank, and multinational convenience stores.

Stores like FP were already marginal outfits, and now they've exhausted that margin, thanks to a month of outgoings with no income. I don't have much slack in my own budget, but I'm donating. If you can afford to, I hope you will, too.

Which guillotine is right for you (permalink)

The guillotine index climbed steadily after the 2008 crisis. The pandemic – in which the rich get richer and the poor get the plague – has accelerated the process. Exhibit A: Current Affairs's roundup of "The Five Hottest Guillotines of 2020, Ranked."

The fashion-conscious first time guillotine acquirer is invited to choose from The Glam-otine (“an aspirational yet haunting metaphor for alienation"); The Guillotini ("alcohol and sedation agent not included"); The Slicey Boi ("Billionaires’ necks go brrrr"); The Me-otine ("it turns out you totally qualify as a member of the one percent"); and The Baby Yoda ("mini guillotine comes with an animatronic, life-sized, cuddly Baby Yoda").

Illustrations by Jason Adam Katzenstein.

A labradoodle breeder is in charge of America's vaccines (permalink)

The US Dept of Health and Human Services has a new vaccine czar, through whom all vaccine decisions are funnelled. His name is Brian Harrison, and he is, by vocation, a labradoodle breeder.

Harrison only ended his labradoodle-breeding career when he went to work for HHS Secretary (and former pharma lobbyist) Alex Azar as Chief of Staff.

Harrison's signature policy initiative to date is excluding FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn from the vaccine task force.





"Inject disinfectant" vs both sides-ism (permalink)

Trump told America to inject disinfectant. To read the press, you'd think that there were two sides to this story.

Both sides-ism is a form of false equivalency in which claims with no factual basis or expert support are treated as equivalent to widely accepted claims that have been bolstered by independent tests and confirmations.

We see it in the climate debate: "99% of climate scientists agree that climate change is real, but this guy has a doctorate in an unrelated field and he says its sunspots. ¿quién es más macho?"

Both sides-ism is the most effective tactic the establishment has for addressing the incredibly unfair left-wing bias of reality. "Climate change experts say the climate is changing. Oil barons say it isn't. We report, you decide."

"Independent experts say we should bail out people, not the finance sector. The finance sector says it really needs that helicopter money. Who's right? We report, you decide."

Both sides-ism can only be sustained for claims that can't be immediately verified. "He claims that being run over by a 16-wheeler is harmless. Experts disagree. Who's right? We report — Oh, gross."

Injecting Lysol is a lot more like lying down in front of a 16-wheeler than it is like ignoring the climate crisis. Both will kill you, but the first one has a much tighter causal loop than the second, and therefore the "controversy" is much harder to sustain.

But as Marci Wheeler shows in her exhaustive survey of the responsible, grown-up press's handling of the President's Jim Jones moment last night, the habit of both sides-ism is so ingrained that even when it comes to consuming poison, the impulse can't be resisted.

Whether that's the Washington Post calling the advice "medical musings" that are "potentially dangerous" or New York Times calling it dangerous "in the view of some experts." It's "potentially dangerous" in the way that Russian Roulette is potentially dangerous: some will survive.

But as ingrained as this habit is, it's not universal. After all – as Jason Patinkin writes – there was no both sides-ism in the global press with ebola. The armed protesters and the miracle cures were never contrasted with the scientific consensus.

The last time Trump told people to take medicine into their own hands, one of his supporters poisoned himself to death within hours of the speech. Will there come a point at which the press is finally willing to say, "President advises us to kill ourselves?"

Or will they continue to report the controversy as people die?

US healthcare fails insured people too (permalink)

During the Democratic primary, Medicare for All opponents argued that "taking away Americans' insurance" would be unpopular because of all those Americans for whom insurance was working well.

The obvious defect with this argument has been revealed by the pandemic: that the person who is most likely to take away your employer-provided healthcare is your employer.

Millions of Americans have just lost their insurance and they don't get to keep seeing their doctors (the thing about Medicare for All is that while you DO lose your insurance, all that means is you get to continue seeing your doctor for free, without copays or deductibles).

But there's another argument against the US private insurance industry that we didn't need a pandemic to illustrate. Psychiatrist Scott Alexander enumerates a laundry-list of the ways that private coverage placed his patients in grave danger.

"The man who had a great relationship with his last psychiatrist, who saw him for 20 years, and who his issues. He switched jobs, got new insurance, the psychiatrist was no longer in network, so he had to see me. I know nothing about him."

"The bipolar man on a very important daily meds. He changed insurance. The new insurance refused to pay for his drugs until they got a form explaining why he needed the medication. I sent in the form. They said they couldn’t find the patient in their system."

"The depressed guy who was doing well on a complicated antidepressant regimen for a while, changed insurances, and was too depressed to do the work of finding a new psychiatrist. Now he comes to me saying it’s been five years."

"The depressed guy who was in remission for years and had a great job with great insurance. Then he had a relapse, became too depressed to go to work, got fired, and lost his insurance right at the moment when it finally could have been useful for him."

"Anything involving Kaiser."

"The anorexic woman who has Blue Cross, and the only good anorexia therapist in town only takes Aetna. The sex-addicted man who has Aetna, and the only good sex addiction therapist in town only takes Blue Cross."

There are so many more cases in the post.

As Alexander writes, these are the insured people who SHOULD be doing well for, the people who would notionally object to losing their coverage. Except they don't have coverage. They have the illusion of coverage.

(Image Molly Adams, CC BY)

Masks work (permalink)

NIH researchers used laser light scattering to detect the presence of infectious virus particles that are sent to float the air when someone is speaking, with and without a mask.

"Droplets generated during speech traversed approximately 50 to 75 mm before they encountered the light sheet." Some moved so fast that they couldn't be resolved at 60fps.

The test phrase they used was "stay healthy."

They compared the number of droplets from a speaker not using any barrier to a speaker with a damp cloth in front of their mouth: "when the speaker’s mouth was covered there was no increase in the flash count during speech over the background level."

Basically, when you speak through a cloth, the method they used could not detect any infectious particles.

So yeah, let's cover our mouths with cloth.

US telcoms sector isn't doing better than Europe's (permalink)

You may have heard telcoms shills declaring that America's internet is holding up during the pandemic while Europe's is collapsing, and it's all thanks to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's murder of Net Neutrality. As Karl Bode writes, "This entire narrative is fantasy."

Generally networks have help up well in most places because they're managed by engineers who are good at their jobs. The EU's request to streaming companies to lower their video resolution by 25% was a pre-emptive precautionary measure, not a response to actual problems.

The actual data reveals that, irrespective of Net Neutrality policies, most networks are generally performing at the same level.

That level is…not good, overall. After the FCC killed Net Neutrality, the carriers' network investment plummeted.

The carriers extracted the savings from starving their network upgrade budget and paid them out to shareholders in a series of ruinous stock buybacks that let rich people cash out tax-free, thanks to the Trump tax scam.

As Bode points out, the carriers don't need to make false claims about how great network discrimination is for Americans because FCC employees – who used to work for the carriers! – will make those claims for them, at public expense.

Bode: "It takes a particular type of person to look at a brutal pandemic and think that it provides a wonderful opportunity to justify one of the most controversial, scandal prone, and fact-averse regulatory policy decisions in modern history."

Amazon uses its sellers' data to figure out which products to clone (permalink)

Amazon told Congress that it doesn't spy on its sellers to figure out which products it should clone. Instead, the company has argued that its longstanding practice of knocking off the most successful products on its platform represents a string of incredible coincidences.

But internal Amazon whistleblowers told the Wall Street Journal that they totally do this, all the time. I mean, OBVIOUSLY.

Amazon told the WSJ that anyone who engages in such conduct is a rogue employee and has launched an "internal investigation."

The whistleblowers told the Journal that Amazon's own-label planning meetings often featured data ganked from the platform's third-party sellers, which suggests that the practice – rogue or not – was hardly a secret.

The temptation is obviously irresistible. OBVIOUSLY.

The right likes to talk about "moral hazard," by which they mean, "If we give poor people the means to avoid starvation, they won't get jobs."

But the real moral hazard is trusting companies not to be unethical because…that would be wrong.

As usual, actions speak louder than words. Walmart founder Sam Walton favored unlimited campaign spending and argued that this wouldn't lead to political corruption.

Walmart founder Sam Walton ALSO forbade his buyers from taking so much "as a handkerchief" from a salesman because he feared that even the most trivial temptation would lead his employees astray.

Moral hazard exists. It's why companies cheat.

Lawmakers (used to) know this. Until the reforms to antitrust law in the Reagan era (carried on by every president, R or D, since), large firms were subject to "structural separation."

Banks weren't allowed to own businesses that competed with the firms they lent to.

Railroads weren't allowed to own freight companies that competed with the firms whose freight they carried.

But platforms, from app stores to Amazon, are allowed to produce products that directly compete with the products they sell.

The law should prohibit this.


To understand how Amazon cheats, you don't have to refer to whistleblower reports about knock-off trunk organizers. Just look at publishing.

Amazon is a publisher. They're also the dominant retail channel for the entire publishing industry.

If you're a publisher, Amazon knows how your books sell – not just how many, but HOW. They know which search terms brought the customer to your book. They know where your customer lives. They know everything else your customer bought.

They know who your customer lives with. For ebooks, they know where your customer reads, when they stop, and when they start again. They know who your customers loan their books to. They know which books by rival publishers your customer also bought.

And also they know how your books are selling. To the second. Publishers get that data quarterly, or every six months. Amazon knows how many copies translate to which salesrank. Publishers never ever get that data.






They are in direct competition with the firms whose products have generated that data, and they do not share that data with those firms.

So yeah, you don't need knock-off trunk organizers to understand why this is cheating.

Facebook let advertisers target "pseudoscience" and "conspiracy" (permalink)

Facebook has an automated system for creating classifiers for its advertisers to use in their ad-targeting. This is a a terrible idea, whose idiocy has been obvious since 2017, when this system started allowing people to advertise to "Jew-haters."

But FB has 2.5B users, and while the impossibility of doing that responsibly is obvious to those without a financial stake in it, FB's got Upton Sinclair disease:

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

That's why FB is still running the system that coughed up "Jew-hater" 3 years ago.

Now, The Markup has identified some of its other categories, like "pseudoscience" and various conspiracy theories ("New World Order," "Chemtrails," etc).

FB has now deleted those categories. But it hasn't deleted the system that generated them.

These categories are partially to blame for the spread of 5G/coronavirus conspiracies, as well as the promotion of ineffective and dangerous quack "medicine." They're used to target vulnerable people with messages that are shrouded in secrecy.

"A a test by Consumer Reports in April showed Facebook approving ads containing coronavirus misinformation, including false claims that the virus was a hoax or that people could stay healthy through small daily doses of bleach."

Security expert conned out of $10,000 (permalink)

Earlier this week, I posted about a phishing scam that was using fake covid contact-tracing warnings to trick people into clicking on links to malicious sites:

Some of the responses to that post were sadly typical: Internet Tough Guys asserting that anyone duped by such an obvious scam had only themselves to blame. I actually took the time to try to explain why this was so wrong.

That explanation is well-complemented by Brian Krebs's report of a security researcher who was scammed out of $10,000 by some pretty clever con artists who managed to man-in-the-middle themselves between him and his bank.

Some of their tactics: they called the target after using his stolen debit-card number to commit some small-dollar frauds, and they told him about them, pretending to be his bank alerting him to the frauds they'd just committed.

When the target looked at his bank balance, he discovered, yeah, he had been the victim of fraud, so he was probably talking to his actual bank. They didn't ask for any info, and assured him a new card was on the way.

Then the fraudsters called back, pretending to be his bank again. Just to be sure, he called the bank from another line to confirm that he was in conversation with a bank employee.

The bank confirmed that he was – because the fraudsters had simultaneously called his bank, impersonating him and telling them that he was on vacation in Florida and to ignore any out-of-state ATM withdrawal fraud flags.

The con artist who was talking with the bank then started to set up a wire-transfer, while the con artist who was talking with the victim said, "We, the bank, need to confirm your identity. I'm sending over an SMS with a one-time code. Please read it back to me."

Of course, they were man-in-the-middling him. The one-time code was sent by the bank…to confirm the wire transfer. When the target read it to the fake banker, they passed it on to the crook who was talking to the bank, who read it to them.

The target had several moments where his suspicions were roused, but the con artists figured out how to smooth out these rough moments. The entire con took place over the phone – the crooks never once compromised the target's online banking.

The target could have kept himself safe by hanging up and calling the bank back to complete the conversation, but he didn't. There have been times when i didn't, either (like when I get a call after I know a big wire transfer is coming in and the bank wants to check on it).

I won't be doing that anymore.

On that subject, here (again) is the true story of how I was phished. If you think you will never be phished, you are wrong.

California Adventure, Minecraft edition (permalink)

Imagineering Fun is a Minecraft server that has delighted users with its incredible, high-fidelity, playable re-creation of the Disneyland Park in Anaheim.

They have just unveiled a Minecraft re-creation of the park's second gate, California Adventure, and it is available for anyone to play.

It's a linear descendant of the old tradition of making Doom and Quake maps based on Disneyland and its rides.

This is my local park, the one our family pass gets us into with almost no blackout dates, and we've been missing it like crazy. What a treat to re-visit it virtually!

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Protect your copyrights, boycott DRM-locked platforms

#10yrsago UK's super-rich get even richer

#5yrsago School bus driver bans little girl from reading

#5yrsago Senators announce "Aaron Swartz Should Have Faced More Jail Time" bill

#1yrago Nest's "ease of use" imperative plus poor integration with Google security has turned it into a hacker's playground

Colophon (permalink)

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

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 508 words (7400 total).

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: Podcast swap: Wil Wheaton on Little Brother
Upcoming appearances:

Upcoming books: "Poesy the Monster Slayer" (Jul 2020), a picture book about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Pre-order here:

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

One thought on “Pluralistic: 24 Apr 2020”

  1. A dog breeder as virus czar? I'm surprised they couldn't find a chicken farmer.

    At least we got Incompetent Hitler, I guess.

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