Pluralistic: 28 Apr 2020

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A new Marcus Yallow/Little Brother story!; DRM and CHI; Talking with Toronto Public Library's Shelve Under podcast; The law is free; "Absolutely faithful" Discworld TV adaptations; Read the prologue of "The Lost Cause"; Foreclosure vultures hold illegal auctions on courthouse steps; Hands-free door-handles; NYC will pedestrianize 40 miles of city streets; Citizen DJ; "Essential" workers will strike across America for May Day; Synonyms vs machine learning

Pluralistic: 28 Apr 2020 force-multiplier


Today's links

A new Marcus Yallow/Little Brother story! (permalink)

On Oct 12, Tor Books will publish ATTACK SURFACE, the third Little Brother book – unlike the previous two, it's not YA, and unlike the previous two, it stars Masha, the young woman who works for the DHS and then a private security firm.

It's a book about rationalization and redemption: how good people talk themselves into doing bad things, and what it takes to bring them back from the brink. I'm incredibly proud of it.

It's available for pre-order now, and if you send your receipt for your pre-purchase (from any retailer!) to Tor, they'll send you FORCE MULTIPLIER, a new Marcus Yallow story.

It's a story about stalkerware, technological self-determination, allyship, and the consequences of getting tech very, very wrong. I wrote it especially for fans of the series, and am forever in Eva Galperin's debt for her help with the ending.

If you like infosec, puzzles and justice, this is one for you. Please help me spread the word!

DRM and CHI (permalink)

For this year's CHI2020, Casey Fiesler presented a paper on the way that DRM interferes with Computer-Human Interfaces, drawing on the public record from recent US Copyright Office DMCA 1201 comment periods.

Fiesler summarizes her work in this article:

The foundational point (I think) is the clash of metaphors. People who buy devices or subscriptions to services believe that they have acquired property and thus should be free to use it as they see fit.

As one Copyright Office comment goes: "The seller only has the right to sell to me if I choose to buy from them. They DO NOT have the right to tell me how to use it. It would be like me buying a house from a contractor and them telling me I could NOT make ANY changes to it."

There's a very good reason that people who buy phones – or ebooks or juicers or pet-food dispensers or tractors or smart lightbulbs – think they're buying these things, not taking out a limited use license.

That reason is that the sellers tell them so. "Are you ready to buy this tractor, good sir? or "Buy the ebook now!"

None of these companies pitch their wares as, "Acquire a limited license subject to terms and conditions today!"

But the fine print, the technical countermeasures, and the representations these companies make to Congress and regulators tell a different story.

Companies know that no one wants a limited license to the things they view as property, so they only tell you you're not the owner of your stuff when you want to use third-party ink, or independent repair, or an alternative app store.

Then it's all "Well, actually, I think you'll find that you don't own this at all. Ha ha! Got you there, don't I?"

CHI is all about metaphors, from windows to trashcans, and metaphor shear is an occupational hazard at the best of times.

But with DRM, the metaphor shear is deliberate. Companies know you didn't wake up this morning and say, "Dammit, I wish it was illegal to take my car to an independent mechanic. Wonder what GM's got to sell me on those lines?"

So GM deploys a deliberately deceptive metaphor to sell you (or, rather, "to offer you a limited license to) a car. The metaphor fails not because it is incomplete or imprecise, but because it is a fraud.

Fiesler's work is an excellent exploration of the special problems that this culture of fraud creates for designers, users, and, especially, people with disabilities.

Talking with Toronto Public Library's Shelve Under podcast (permalink)

I chatted with the Toronto Public Library's Shelve Under podcast before the pandemic about writing science fiction as a political act — it was in honor of my (explicitly political) book Radicalized, which is a finalist for the CBC's #CanadaReads prize.

The interview is weirdly applicable to the moment we're in (as are the stories in Radicalized, dealing as they do with preppers trying to sit out the end of the world; everyday people trying to wrest control over their technology from distant, failing corporations, the limits of individual action in addressing structural racism; and the fundamental evil of privatized health care)

It's one of those moments when I'm at pains to point out that cyberpunk is a warning, not a suggestion.

But beyond that, we dug into the way that Toronto during my boyhood in the 1980s and 1990s offered the closest thing to a formal apprenticeship in science fiction writing the world has ever seen, thanks largely to the actions of Judith Merril.

Here's the MP3:

The law is free (permalink)

Well this is a hell of a day: it's the day that the Supreme Court affirmed that Carl Malamud was legally in the right when he removed the paywall from the state of Georgia's lawbooks and published its laws online for anyone to read.

Malamud is the rogue archivist who'd made a career out of acts of civil disobedience, lately scanning, transcribing, formatting and uploading laws (including safety standards incorporated into the law by reference) for anyone to read, for free.

He's done this based on the ancient principle – the principle as ancient as the the Magna Carta – that if the law isn't free for all to read, it's not the law.

The Supreme Court's ruling – while fabulous news – is kind of a mess, as Mike Masnick writes in Techdirt:

The decision turns on whether someone working on behalf of a government can be an "author," which, again, is kind of a weird way to get there. And as Masnick writes, the judges throw in some good, spicy stuff.

For example, "The animating principle behind this rule is that no one can own the law. 'Every citizen is presumed to know the law,' and 'it needs no argument to show . . . that all should have free access” to its contents.'"

And the judges also say that the fact that their decision might make it hard to convince giant corporations like Lexis-Nexis to help Georgia write its laws, that this is Lexis-Nexis's problems, not copyright's.

And finally, as Masnick points out, the judges use the traditional term for copyright, "monopoly protection," which, as Masnick points out, "seems to make a lot of copyright maximalists lose their minds."

Anyway, huge congrats to Carl and his little nonprofit, Public Resource: you made good law, about the law!

"Absolutely faithful" Discworld TV adaptations (permalink)

Some lovely news: there's going to be an "absolutely faithful" TV adaptation of some of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, which are some of my all-time favorite reading.

Most Pratchett adaptations weren't been great (though the audiobooks are nothing short of incredible, especially with Stephen Briggs or Tony Robinson narrating), with the obvious exception of Good Omens, which benefitted from big budgets and Neil Gaiman's direct involvement.

I don't know anything about the production companies, though they have the blessing of Rhianna Pratchett, and she is a very reliable steward of her dad's work, so I provisionally trust them, despite one of them having the frankly terrible name of "Endeavor Content."

The news stories are light on details, including which books will be adapted. It will really make a difference! Pratchett is a writer who got (really) good in public, so his early books are more about latent promise than promise fulfilled.

After all, he started out as a teenager. As my old writing teacher Damon Knight used to say, even if you're a talented writer, you generally have to wait a few years before you have anything to writer about.

I think that's very visible in Pratchett's bibliography. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of reading through his work is to see him first mature as a prose stylist, then as a plotter, and then as someone with something to say.

By the time he finished the series, there's just so much heart – as well as formal excellence – in the books that they warrant multiple re-reads.

So it makes a huge difference which Discworld books get adapted, as well as how faithful and talented the adapters are. But I am tentatively enthusiastic about this!

Read the prologue of "The Lost Cause" (permalink)

The Decameron Project is an open access, crowdfunded storytelling project for the coronavirus lockdown, inspired by Bocaccio's classic tale of people in plague quarantine who spend their days telling one another stories.

Writers participate in the project by supplying fiction, poetry, and fragments for all to read. Patrons of the project fund donations to Cittadini del Mondo, a charity running a library and clinic for refugees in Rome, which badly needs extra support during this crisis.

One of the organizers, the most excellent Jo Walton, asked me if I had anything to contribute, and I told her about "The Lost Cause," a new novel I'm working on about truth and reconciliation after a successful Green New Deal saves our civilization from collapse.

She agreed that it would be perfect for the project. Last Friday, I finished the novel's prologue. Today, it's been published on The Decameron Project.

I'm plugging away at the book in the meantime, writing 500 words/day, 5 days/week. At this rate, I expect to be done by New Year's. You can follow my progress here:;=default&q;=from%3Adoctorow%20%23dailywords

Foreclosure vultures hold illegal auctions on courthouse steps (permalink)

Superior Default Services is a Bay Area real-estate immiseration factory that has continued to hold its "privately run, extrajudicial auctions" of foreclosed houses on the SF City Hall steps in violation of pandemic control measures.

The houses they're selling belong to people who couldn't pay their mortgages during the pandemic and couldn't get into superior court to argue against their foreclosure because the court is all but shut down.

They convene groups of "investors" (AKA pandemic profiteers) and hold open-air auctions for these houses. City Hall officials have forced them to move down the street, so now they're holding their auctions on the sidewalk nearby.

Evictions are prohibited during the pandemic, so these "investors" won't be able to force the people whose houses they've snapped up our from under them to move out for some time.

But even so, it takes a special kind of sociopath to violate social distancing orders so that you can buy up some desperate person's house during a global pandemic.

Hands-free door-handles (permalink)

Door handles are a particular problem during the pandemic – even if you're wearing gloves, they could become contaminated when you go through a public door.

Dezeen's Tom Ravenscroft rounds up 5 improvised inventions for hands-free door opening.

These share a lot of DNA with accessibility adaptations for people with motor disabilities, like Adapta's doorknob-to-lever adapter and Materialise's 3D printed forearm adapter.

Others have different affordances. I'm also fond of these 3D printed hooks from Stanford's Matteo Zallio.

Accessibility adaptations are wonderful things, and highlight how much "disability" is a spectrum, not a condition.

I am not legally blind by any stretch but my low-contrast vision is incredibly poor

I wouldn't be able to read half the web if it wasn't for low-sight tools intended for blind people. Designs like these remind us that making the world accessible benefits everyone, even the (temporarily) able-bodied.

NYC will pedestrianize 40 miles of city streets (permalink)

New York City is closing 40 miles of roads near public parks to give people more room to exercise during the lockdown without violating social distancing guidelines. They're shooting for 100 miles in all.

Other cities are experimenting with similar measures: Mexico City opened a bunch of new bike paths for people avoiding close quarters on buses; Milan has also pedestrianized large numbers of its central roadways to give pedestrians room to spread out.

We are (rightfully) worried that when the pandemic passes, some of the extraordinary measures put in place (eg contact-tracing) will persist. But many of the pandemic adaptations – more pedestrian space, a ban on evictions – are long overdue and should become permanent.

(Image: Marius3011, CC BY-SA)

Citizen DJ (permalink)

The Library of Congress has announced Citizen DJ, a huge online repository of 100 years' worth of public domain and open access music clips intended to be remixed in new hiphop music.

You can search the repository by sound/metadata, mix new tracks over hiphop beats, and pull curated "sample packs" to use for more ambitious projects.

It's the project of the LoC's innovator-in-residence Brian Foo, who says that he wants to bring back the golden age of hiphop sampling, before clearances and permissions began to determine who could make which music.

"Today, collage-based hip hop as it existed in the golden age is largely a lost (or at best, a prohibitively expensive) artform. If there was a simple way to discover, access, and use public domain material for music making, a new generation of hip hop artists and producers can maximize their creativity, invent new sounds, and connect listeners to materials otherwise be hidden from public ears."

"Essential" workers will strike across America for May Day (permalink)

On Friday, a coalition of low-waged "essential" workers across America are staging a walkout. They work for Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, Walmart, Target, and FedEx.

It's an unprecedented labor action that comes at an unprecedented moment: a time in which the work of the historically disposable and easily replaced workers has become both essential and irreplaceable.

The companies that employ these workers have been slow to get the memo. Even as they've added billions to their balance sheets (Bezos is $24B richer since the start of the pandemic), they've offered no/small-dollar hazard pay and no/inadequate PPE to their workers.

And things are getting worse, not better: Amazon just announced that "it was ending its policy of unlimited, unpaid time off on April 30." That means that workers with underlying conditions who cannot expose themselves to risk in Amazon warehouses will lose their jobs.

Workers report that their managers are sympathetic to their demands for more protection, but that the corporate HQ will not bend. Whole Foods has experienced at least 249 cases in at least 131 stores.

The workers are reinventing May Day, a traditional workers' holiday, for the pandemic era. Despite decades of prohibitions on labor unions and organizing, they are bargaining from a position of strength, at a moment of utmost urgency.

Synonyms vs machine learning (permalink)

Adversarial Examples are a favorite infosec topic: these are the small, human-imperceptible alterations to things in the real world that fatally confuse machine learning classifiers – like small changes to images that cause classifiers to think faces are turtles.

Here's a really good one: Textfooler substitutes synonyms into candidate texts that do not alter meanings for human readers but totally confound natural language parsing sentiment-analyzers

Here's the MIT researchers' paper on their work:

When Textfooler change "The characters, cast in impossibly contrived situations, are totally estranged from reality" to "The characters, cast in impossibly engineered circumstances, are fully estranged from reality" it upends otherwise reliable classifers' judgements.

"For example, Google's powerful BERT neural net was worse by a factor of five to seven at identifying whether reviews on Yelp were positive or negative."

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Dirty tricks at WIPO

#10yrsago Mississippi school purges top student from yearbook for being lesbian

#10yrsago Music industry spokesman loves child porn

#10yrsago Canadian record industry won't say what it wants

#5yrsago UK Tories forged letter of support in the Telegraph from "5,000 small businesses"

#5yrsago FBI's crypto backdoor plans require them to win the war on general purpose computing

#5yrsago Lifting the lid on Scientology's fatally woo version of rehab

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 501 words (8662 total).

Currently reading: I'm finally finishing Anna Weiner's memoir about tech, "Uncanny Valley" and I wrapped up reading Jo Walton's forthcoming novel "Or What You Will" this weekend.

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 01)
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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5 thoughts on “Pluralistic: 28 Apr 2020”

  1. Re: the Georgia code copyright ruling; I'm not a lawyer so I can't understand the gist of why Ginsburg dissented in this ruling. Does anyone know?

    1. Ginsburg is consistently, universally awful on copyright. It's a huge blind spot for her. Her daughter is also a noted copyright maximalist who has cycled in and out of top legal spots in the entertainment industry. Any time a copyright question is before the court, you can rely on RBG to come down on the wrong side of ti.

  2. Do I need to buy Attack Surface from Tor books to receive the short story? Is it only for US bookstores, or is it available globally?

  3. Please, if possible, kindly work on other non-commonwealth countries, (such as Spain ;)) also. Eagerly pre-ordered the book, but did not read the small print. It's very annoying to have one internet with 200+ walls for digital products.

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