Pluralistic: 29 Apr 2020

canada reads,cbc,books,radicalized,science fiction,banjo,utah,nazis,kkk,nashville,damien patton,skinheads,white supremacists,white terrorists,loveint,stalking,nso group,uae,uk,copyfight,creative commons,museums,open access,british museum,creative archive,debt,kevin kelly,advice,wired,whole earth review,debt,medical debt,johns hopkins,guillotine watch, monopolism,borkism,food,supply chains,the curse of bigness

Cigna claims to be rolling in dough and on the verge of bankruptcy; Bayesian reasoning and covid-19; Talking Radicalized with the CBC; Founder of AI surveillance company was a Nazi who helped shoot up a synagogue; NSO Group employee used Pegasus cyberweapon to stalk a woman; British Library releases 1.9m images; Kevin Kelly's unsolicited advice; Medical debt collection during the pandemic; Legendary troubleshooting stories; How monopolism crashed the US food supply

Pluralistic: 29 Apr 2020 banjo-nazis


Today's links

Cigna claims to be rolling in dough and on the verge of bankruptcy (permalink)

America’s Health Insurance Plans, the well-heeled insurance lobbyist, has been begging for a bailout, claiming health insurers are struggling in the pandemic. They want a bailout AND a subsidy for the Medicare and Medicaid programs they administer.

Which is super weird, because health insurers like Cigna are making bank, thanks to all the cancelled elective procedures, and handing out literal billions in cash to their shareholders through stock buybacks.

Indeed, the investment analysts at Morgan Stanley, UBS, and Goldman Saches who were briefed by Cigna on its economic outlook issued the rosiest of health reports for the insurance giant. 25 out of 27 Cigna analysts have issued a "buy" recommendation for its stock.

So how is it possible that Cigna is doing incredibly well when it talks to its investors, but its trade group is telling Uncle Sucker that Cigna is suffering and needs a bailout to survive?

It's a mystery.

"Cigna’s spokespeople did not respond to repeated requests to reconcile executives’ bullish comments to analysts with the gloomier perspective in AHIP’s letter."

Bayesian reasoning and covid-19 (permalink)

These are uncertain times, and uncertainty makes us anxious and sad. That's probably why the mathematics of uncertainty are so developed, and so important. It's the point behind XKCD's brilliant "Garbage Math" strip/explainer:

The key to modeling uncertainty is Bayes's Theorem, which is also a subplot of my 2008 YA novel Little Brother. It's named after Thomas Bayes, the 18th century mathematician who is buried in Bunhill Cemetery, a beautiful and notorious plague pit near my old flat in London.

Bayesian stats are key to all kinds of modern computing applications, including machine learning, which is interesting because they were kind of obscure for centuries and revived by electronic calculators, which make short work out of the tedious computation they demand.

Writing in Granta, Morgan Agnew and David Peters do a superb job of explaining Bayesian reasoning as it applies to coronavirus testing. Antibody tests have four possible states: true negative, false negative, true positive and false positive.

"The question we’d like to answer is: if you get a positive test, what is the probability you actually do have the antibodies you were tested for? Before we can get to a meaningful answer to that question though, we have to apply a certain amount of math and science."

Your intuition about the answers will likely lead you astray. If a test is correct about positive 90% of the time, and correct about negative 80% of the time, then in a world where 10% of people are positive, your own positive test will be wrong 66% of the time!

"The real chance that a positive test is correct – 33% – is a lot lower than the percentages we were given for sensitivity and specificity. We need to do work to get from those figures to the answer — for an individual, what is the chance that a positive result is correct?"

Frustratingly, getting the answer requires that we have a solid guess about what percentage of the population is infected – and we just don't know that. That's why it's so hard to be certain about anything else!

Any time you see a report about a new covid test, check to see what the false positive AND false negative rates. Without those two figures, you can't really begin to understand whether the test will make a difference to our picture of the pandemic.

Talking Radicalized with the CBC (permalink)

Last Friday, I sat down for a Facebook Q&A; with CBC Books to talk about my book Radicalized, which is a finalist for the national Canada Reads book prize. It was a little awkward as I'm a zuckervegan and don't have a FB account, and don't think you should, either!

But the folks at the CBC were troupers and they acted as intermediary for me, relaying questions to me by email and pasting my replies into FB. And what's more, they've posted the whole transcript to the actual, open web.

Some of our topics:

  • How did the book come together?
  • Why write political fiction rather than political essays?
  • How does the pandemic mirror the events of MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, the story about preppers at the end of the world?
  • What's the toughest kind of scene to write?
  • What fiction has the pandemic inspired?
  • What do I think of Akil Augustine, the book's defender in the Canada Reads debates?
  • What do I think of the US pandemic response compared to the Canadian response?

Founder of AI surveillance company was a Nazi who helped shoot up a synagogue (permalink)

Banjo is a grifty "AI" startup that has conned the state of Utah into giving it access to state's surveillance feeds with the promise of fighting crime using secret methods that Utahans (and independent reviewers) aren't allowed to understand.

The company has raised $223 million, much of it from Wework backers Softbank.

Also, Banjo's co-founder, Damien Patton was a Nazi skinhead who once helped a KKK leader stage a drive-by shooting that "sprayed bullets" into a synagogue.

The attack took place the month before Patton turned 18, when he was active in the Dixie Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Patton was the wheelman for a Klansman who fired a TEC-9 into a Nashville synagogue, and then was smuggled out of state by another Klansman.

He pleaded guilty to juvenile charges; his adult co-conspirators were charged with hate crimes. In pre-trial testimony, Patton called himself a "skinhead…a foot soldiers for groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations."

His testimony included this phrase: "We believe that the Blacks and the Jews are taking over America, and it’s our job to take America back for the White race."

Patton now says he no longer believes this to be true.

Writing in Onezero, Matt Stroud hypothesizes that typos in the court records prevented the investors who backed Banjo from discovering Patton's criminal past.

NSO Group employee used Pegasus cyberweapon to stalk a woman (permalink)

NSO Group is the scandal-haunted cyber-arms dealer whose Pegasus product was implicated in a string of ghastly crimes against humanity committed by the world's most despicable dictators, including the Saudi murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi.

"LOVEINT" is the cutesy NSA term for when one of its employees or contractors uses its vast surveillance system to stalk people they are sexually attracted to.

At least one NSO Group employee used Pegasus to do this.

The stalking occurred while an NSO employee was at a client site in the UAE. He broke into the client's office in order to access the Pegasus control tools on a client computer, and used it to spy on "a woman the employee knew personally."

The client is thought to be one of the UAE's state surveillance agencies: UAE State Security, the Signals Intelligence Agency, and the Military Intelligence Security Services.

"It's nice to see that NSO Group is committed to preventing unauthorized use of their surveillance products where 'unauthorized' means 'unpaid for.' I wish we had evidence they cared anywhere as much when their products are used to enable human rights violations." -Eva Galperin

(Not) coincidentally, this kind of creepy, sexualized stalking is the plot of the new Little Brother story, "Force Multiplier," which Tor Books released yesterday as a giveaway for people who order the third Little Brother book, "Attack Surface."

British Library releases 1.9m images (permalink)

The British Museum has placed 1.9 million high-rez images of objects in its holdings online under a Creative Commons license, which is excellent news!

What's more, they've got an advanced suite of tools for searching and downloading these images. It's a really impressive technical and cultural achievement.

But there's a fly in the ointment (more than one).

First, the museum takes the position that these public domain works acquire a new copyright once someone makes a high-quality photo of them. They have chosen a very restrictive CC license (CC BY-NC-SA).

This is wrong as a matter of UK law, as the UK Intellectual Property Office has stated:

"Copyright can only subsist in subject matter that is original in the sense that it is the author's own 'intellectual creation'. Given this criterion, it seems unlikely that what is merely a retouched, digitised image of an older work can be considered as 'original'."

Beyond that, the museum's claim to be the sole commercial exploiter of these works is a bad look, given how much of its collection was stolen – looted – from colonized lands.

"When we stole these artifacts, it was culture. When you sell our pictures, that's theft."

I'm very sympathetic to the museum's imperatives. They are struggling through both a decade of Tory austerity and a once-in-a-century economic apocalypse, so obviously they want to hold onto any revenue-generating possibilities they can find.

But the museum's long-term survival can't depend on philanthropists – plutes are dilettantes and most of the time they're not actually "giving," they're just laundering their reputations.

Nor can it rely on monopolizing the sale of t-shirts and postcards with photos of looted artifacts on them. That'll bring in pennies, while they need millions.

The future of museums – of the public sector overall – is public support. It's only through broad public recognition of the social value of museums and other cultural institutions that they can once again attain stable, long-term financing.

And one way to do that is to make the museum a daily part of Britons' lives – say, by allowing crafters and artists to make and sell works derived from the collection, by not placing restrictions on the high-quality reproductions the museum commissions.

"Friends will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no friends" goes double for museums and other cultural institutions.

Without the political will that comes from being treasured by the public, the trajectory of these institutions is to eventually become entirely dependent on rich donors, who have no reason to fund or maintain them as public bodies.

Not when those treasures will look ever so much nicer in their summer homes.

Kevin Kelly's unsolicited advice (permalink)

For his 68th birthday, Kevin Kelly (Whole Earth Review, Wired, Cool Tools, etc), has posted "68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice." As you might expect, it's a very provocative list!

Here's my highlights list (not all are things I agree with, but they all made me think!):

  • Always demand a deadline. A deadline weeds out the extraneous and the ordinary. It prevents you from trying to make it perfect, so you have to make it different. Different is better.
  • Being able to listen well is a superpower. While listening to someone you love keep asking them “Is there more?”, until there is no more.
  • Gratitude will unlock all other virtues and is something you can get better at.
  • Pros are just amateurs who know how to gracefully recover from their mistakes.
  • Rule of 3 in conversation. To get to the real reason, ask a person to go deeper than what they just said. Then again, and once more. The third time’s answer is close to the truth.
  • Never use a credit card for credit. The only kind of credit, or debt, that is acceptable is debt to acquire something whose exchange value is extremely likely to increase, like in a home. The exchange value of most things diminishes or vanishes the moment you purchase them.
  • The purpose of a habit is to remove that action from self-negotiation. You no longer expend energy deciding whether to do it. You just do it. Good habits can range from telling the truth, to flossing.
  • Promptness is a sign of respect.
  • Optimize your generosity. No one on their deathbed has ever regretted giving too much away.
  • To make something good, just do it. To make something great, just re-do it, re-do it, re-do it. The secret to making fine things is in remaking them.
  • If you are looking for something in your house, and you finally find it, when you’re done with it, don’t put it back where you found it. Put it back where you first looked for it.
  • If you are not falling down occasionally, you are just coasting.
  • Separate the processes of creation from improving. You can’t write and edit, or make and analyze at the same time. If you do, the editor stops the creator. While you invent, don’t select. While you sketch, don’t inspect. While you write the first draft, don’t reflect.
  • Friends are better than money. Almost anything money can do, friends can do better. In so many ways a friend with a boat is better than owning a boat.
  • When you die you take absolutely nothing with you except your reputation.
  • Be prepared: When you are 90% done any large project (a house, a film, an event, an app) the rest of the myriad details will take a second 90% to complete.
  • You really don’t want to be famous. Read the biography of any famous person.
  • Before you are old, attend as many funerals as you can bear, and listen. Nobody talks about the departed’s achievements. The only thing people will remember is what kind of person you were while you were achieving.
  • A vacation + a disaster = an adventure.

(Image: Christopher Michel, CC BY)

Medical debt collection during the pandemic (permalink)

Even if you've managed to keep your job through the pandemic, you can still end up being destroyed by it, because the medical debt collection industry is still going full-force, taking money out of poor peoples' already reduced paychecks.

These are all old debts, either! Milwaukee's Froedtert Hospital filed 46 claims after WI's state of emergency was declared on Mar 12. They're not alone: WI hospitals have embarked on an orgy of debt litigation against patients since the pandemic.

When questioned by Propublica, Froedtert blamed its litigation on "miscommunications" and said it had dismissed the claims from after the start of the emergency.

One of the worst offenders is Johns Hopkins, the largest private-sector employer and the top beneficiary of Michael Bloomberg's charitable giving. The hospital has continued its long tradition of industry-leading aggressive debt collection through the crisis.

They have perfected the art of garnisheeing former patients' wages, and just one branch of the hospital, Bayview, has filed 60 more cases since the start of the crisis.

Victims of hospital debt collection are especially burdened now, and not just because of the crisis: they're also receiving late notifications of legal proceedings against them, so they are often unable to defend themselves before their wages are seized.

Some of the victims are health-care workers. Propublica tells the story of Cheri Long, a nurse at a WV assisted living facility, who is borrowing gas money to get to work because West Virginia University Hospitals took all her pay to cover her husband's old medical debts.

The hospital issued new guidance to its arm-breakers: "“At WVU Medicine, we need to balance our need to liquidate patient balances with the needs of our community, especially during times of disruption,"

The hospitals involved are in line to receive shares of a $100b relief packaged voted in by Congress. For large hospitals, unpaid bills typically represent "less than one-tenth of a percent" of overall revenues.

Legendary troubleshooting stories (permalink)

I've spent much of my life getting to the bottom of obscure technical problems in the systems I used, programmed, managed, supported, or was trying to get shut of. The bugs that I helped squash both haunt and delight me years later, as puzzles of enormous perversity.

Andreas Zwinkau's "Software Lore" archive of delightful bugs is enormously great fun to read (learning how someone else solved a horrible, vicious bastard of a problem has all the pleasure, and none of the pain, of living through it on your own):

For example:

A university mailserver that wouldn't send emails to others who were than more than 500 miles away (and the geostatisticians who tried to solve the problem themselves):

Why Openoffice refused to print on Tuesdays:

And my fave: a car that wouldn't start after ice-cream runs, but only when the family got vanilla ice-cream (if they got other flavors, it started every time):

For decades, designers, engineers and critics relied on Donald Norman's classic "Design of Everyday Things" and its injunction never to put form ahead of function:

But in 2004, Don Norman reversed himself in a brilliant book called "Emotional Design," whose thesis is that most things in our complex world are mostly broken, and that means that getting anything done is as much about troubleshooting as operations:

And troubleshooting is almost impossible when you're furious, and broken things tend to make us furious.

Norman argues that making things really beautiful makes it harder for us to get angry at them when they fail, and that means it's easier to make them work.

tldr: we are predisposed to be patient with beautiful things, and our patience is what makes beautiful things functional.

Reading these accounts of ninja troubleshooting, I'm reminded of Norman's brief for coequal form/function, and the role beauty plays in everyday life.

How monopolism crashed the US food supply (permalink)

Grocery stores are struggling to stock their shelves, but food suppliers are destroying their inventory (including livestock, in horrific and gruesome ways). What's going on?


It turns out that 40 years of allowing companies to grow through traditionally prohibited monopoly tactics – like creating vertical monopolies, merging with major competitors, and buying up and strangling small future competitors makes everything very brittle.

50 factories process 98% of America's beef. 88% of America's hog slaughtering is done in facilities that hold 1,000,000+ pigs at a time. With all our eggs (and chickens) in just a few baskets, a single hiccup shatters whole supply chains.

What's more, big facilities are breeding grounds for both human and animal pathogens. Both livestock and humans are crowded into these factories, so any disease roars through them like a wildfire.

Not just meat, either. Dairy and vegetable farmers are forced by big food companies like Heinz to use a single seed to grow a single product that has a single use – and can't be readily substituted with or for when things go bad.

Specialization in distribution channels means that egg farmers can only get product to market if certain specific facilities can process them – which is why contract farmers are slaughtering thousands of healthy egg-laying chickens due to Cargill plant closures.

In case there was any doubt that this is a disease of scale, just look at the way that small farmers have adapted: "they’re changing on a dime to online ordering systems and delivery." Small firms are nimble.

The same neoliberal "efficiency" drives that sucked all the slack and resilience out of food production also laid waste to the USDA's Depression-era public wholesale markets and food terminals, which used to cushion this kind of disruption.

Left to their own, all markets turn into financial markets, and all financial markets turn into ways to starve the real economy in order to enrich the wealthy, who find it cheaper to lobby for weaker rules than to comply with the rules we've put in place to protect ourselves.

The pandemic is a high-pressure instrument that has revealed the deep fault lines we've long argued were there all along. The system has shattered. The time for papering over its cracks is gone forever.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Danny O'Brien goes to work at EFF!

#10yrsago Timeline of Facebook privacy policy: from reasonable (2005) to apocalyptic (2010)

#10yrsago All of Gopherspace as a single download

#10yrsago Goodhart's Law: Once you measure something, it changes

#5yrsago British austerity: a failed experiment abandoned by the rest of the world

#5yrsago Translation: once they learn the truth, techies hate and fear us

#5yrsago Anyone can open a Master Lock padlock in under two minutes

#5yrsago Couples counsellor who assigns Ikea furniture assembly calls Liatorp "The Divorcemaker"

#1yrago Jimmy Fallon played a video game on air, meaning that streaming your own game gets you taken down as a pirate, thanks to NBC

#1yrago Facebook never delivered its "Clear History" feature,news-29944.html

#1yrago Thanks to the 2008 foreclosure crisis, a Kuwaiti ponzi schemer was able to single-handedly blight cities across America

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Patrick Ball (, Slashdot (, Four Short Links (, Beyond the Beyond (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 543 words (9205 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:

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

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