Pluralistic: 02 May 2020

epidemiology,prisons,class war,guillotine watch,meat packing plants, monopolies,nursing homes,superclusters,exposure notification,contact tracing,human rights,privacy,security,red teaming,ksr,livenation,mister bone saw,ksr,mbs,ticketmaster,monopolism,science fiction,climate,climate emergency,

My talk at Republica online; Prisons, meatpacking plants, nursing homes; How "contact tracing" apps could be worse than useless; Ticketmaster gets $500m from Mohammad bin Salman; Kim Stanley Robinson on "our rewritten imagination"

Pluralistic: 02 May 2020 rewriting-our-imaginations


Today's links

My talk at Republica online (permalink)

One of the best conferences I've attended is Re:publica in Berlin, which manages to both attract and criticize the tech industry. This year's conference is (obviously) online only, and I was honored to be asked to record a keynote for it.

My talk is called "The Collapse: How institutions, trust and truth are annihilated by monopoly and corruption." It's on May 7 at 8:25 Berlin time.

"The pandemic isn't the only disease that's annihilating our society: alongside of it, there is an epidemic of mistrust in institutions and a growth in conspiricism, a panic to save yourself and let everyone else fend on their own."

"Blaming Big Tech for the collapse in trust and commonly held truth is backwards: Big Tech's bigness is en effect, not a cause, of the corruption that made our institutions so untrustworthy."

Prisons, meatpacking plants, nursing homes (permalink)

There's really three phrases you need to know to understand the spread of the pandemic in America:

  • Prisons
  • Meat packing plants
  • Nursing homes

That's the message of Gina Neff, an Oxford sociologist who points out that when you look at the actual outbreak statistics, that's pretty much all you see, along with the odd Navy battleship.

Every other kind of outbreak pales by comparison, whether it comes from a cruise-ship, a conference, rich people coming home from European holidays, airplanes, or outsiders coming to America.

"One meat packing plant in South Dakota ALONE is responsible for more than 1,000 Coronavirus cases in the US."

The first worker to die at the Sioux Falls Smithfield plant kept going to work after he became very sick.

Not coincidentally, Smithfield was offering workers in that plant a $500 "responsibility bonus" if they didn't miss a single shift in April. As Neff points out, paying people to show up for work with dangerous, highly contagious diseases is not "responsibility."

Smithfield didn't shut down and clean its facility, even after the deaths began. They're not the only one. Here's Neff's list:

  • JBS in Green Bay, WI (348 cases)
  • JBS in Greeley, Colorado (245)
  • JBS in Grand Island, Nebraska (230)
  • American Foods in Green Bay (197)

The thing these superclusters all share: they're "WORKPLACES where people very have little say in how to do their work, and often no paid sick leave."

Nursing homes are particularly vulnerable since they pay so little that workers have to take jobs in multiple homes to make ends meet. That means they bring contagion between homes.

More Neff: "At the first worst cluster in the US, a nursing home outside of Seattle, staff

1) worked while symptomatic
2) worked in more than one facility
3) did not have safety training
4) had "inadequate supplies of PPE and other items (alcohol-based hand sanitizer)"

Neff points out that we're already blaming these victims, saying they didn't do things "the right way" (working from home). But these people are doing what they must because they have no choice.

Neff cites Singapore, where the disease came roaring back thanks to underclass workers in crowded dorms.

"Public health has always known the truth. The care of the most margnialized members of society is important for fighting infectious diseases."

This sheds some important light on other stories of breakdown and profiteering in the pandemic, like the fact that 98% of US beef is processed in 50 factories and 88% of US hog processing is in facilities that hold >1,000,000 animals.

And also why the GOP's emphasis has been on shielding employers whose employers or customers die of coronavirus due to unsafe conditions. These industries are designed to run in unsafe ways and can't conceive of operating safely.

How "contact tracing" apps could be worse than useless (permalink)

The apps that we call "contact tracing" apps don't do contact tracing – they do "exposure notification." Exposure notification is a useful adjunct to the labor-intensive work of contact tracing, but it is no substitute for it.

In an important analysis, Ryan Calo (cyberlaw), Ashkan Soltani (infosec), and CT Bergstrom (epidemiology) discuss the pitfalls of automated exposure notification apps in the field already, and those that are planned, including Google/Apple API-based ones.

They start out affirming no one has managed automatic contact tracing, "despite numerous concurrent attempts"; and discuss the limits of exposure notification: "this could, on the margins and in the right conditions, help direct testing resources to those at higher risk."

That marginal benefit comes at real cost, both in terms of stopping the spread and in terms of human rights.

These apps are going to generate a LOT of false positive AND false negatives.

The proximity sensing they do is going to miss out on people who don't have smartphones and/or don't have the technological savvy to install them. That overlaps broadly with the most at-risk groups: elderly people and poor people.

Epidemiology is a team sport and the most vulnerable people are the MVPs on the team. "Our app will tell you if you came in contact with an infected person (but not if that person is from the most likely group of infected people)" is a fundamentally broken premise.

But the apps are also going to send out alerts when your sealed car is at a stoplight next to a sealed car with an infected person, and in many other situations where there is no risk of contagion.

And the apps can't distinguish between your proximity to someone wearing a mask while you, also, are wearing a mask – and your proximity to someone who is licking your eyeballs while coughing in your face.

What's more, even "true contact" with infectious people does not mean you're infected. An R0 of 2-3 for people who take no precautions means that of all the (hundreds of) people a sick person comes into contact with, 2-3 of them will, on average, become infected.

That means that apps that flag every glancing contact with infectious people will generate tons of false positives, while apps that ignore those contacts will generate tons of false negatives.

Security researchers are familiar with this phenomenon, and you might be too. You've probably seen a whack of security warnings from websites about problems with their encryption certificates.

In theory, these might mean that someone has man-in-the-middled your connection to your bank, dating service or doctor's office. In practice, it ALMOST ALWAYS means that someone forgot to renew their certificate. Virtually every warning you've ever gotten was a false alarm.

Which is why you – and me, and everyone else – click OK and breeze past them. And that's why malicious hackers go on scoring wins, because when they DO impersonate your doctor or your bank, you will ignore your browser's warning and send them your login and password.

An exposure-notification app that forgets to notify you when you're at risk AND often notifies you when you are not at risk becomes a worse-than-useless frippery, as well an expensive boondoggle and distraction.

(more on the math of false positives:

But it's worse than that. Because installing apps that track users' movements on billions of devices is a risky business in and of itself: any defect in those apps exposes billions of device owners to malicious activity.

Some scenarios:

  • a voter suppression effort that falsely flags a polling station as an infectious hotspot
  • a business owner who attacks a rival by making false claims about their premises
  • trolls "sowing chaos" for the lulz
  • protesters "triggering panic as a form of civil disobedience"
  • foreign intelligence agencies shutting down entire cities in adversaries' nations

The developers and planners at Google and Apple have made good disclosures about their plans, but they need to go further, being candid about the limits of their tools, "including the fact that these approaches should never be used in isolation."

Then there are the human rights issues with apps becoming mandatory and then enshrined permanently, the way that post-9/11 surveillance measures became permanent.

These won't just weaken human rights through surveillance, but they'll also heighten inequality, by making people who can't afford smartphones – poor people – social pariahs who can't access businesses or services.

The authors make a series of legal and policy recommendations that reduce the likelihood of this, including sunset provisions, purpose limitations, rules against coercion, and other measures that reduce the harm these apps can do.

The message: these apps are already of limited use, and what use they have will worsen if we don't get them right.

Ticketmaster gets $500m from Mohammad bin Salman (permalink)

Ticketmaster are a rapacious monopoly that screws artists, venues and audiences through breathtaking acts of corruption, profiteering and fraud.

Incredibly, they just got worse.

Ticketmaster just sold a $500,000,000 stake in its Live Nation division to the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, which is to say, to the slushfund of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

That is, the Mister Bone Saw widely believed to have personally ordered the kidnapping, torture and dismemberment of journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi.

So now, every time you see a gig, you directly contribute to the enrichment of a torturing, murdering dictator.

That's because Ticketmaster/Livenation are effectively unavoidable: they sell 80% of the tickets in the USA, own 117 venues (and exclusively book 33 others),

They are the Mohammad bin Salman of entertainment, which is why this sellout fits so terribly, awfully well.

Kim Stanley Robinson on "our rewritten imagination" (permalink)

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of sf's most important utopians, and his utopianism is a model for what we can aspire to. With climate collapse novels like New York 2140, Robinson reveals a utopian vision that is about resiliency in the face of disaster:

While his novel Aurora presents an important rebuttal to the fundamentally dystopian idea that we cannot save the Earth and so must colonize space to ensure the continuance of our species:

This so infuriated the reactionary wing of "hard sf" that Robinson also wrote a nonfiction piece explaining both the science and philosophy behind that vision:

But my love affair with Robinson's utopianism began with "Pacific Edge," which remains my go-to novel to brighten my spirits in my darkest hour:

It's the book that's uppermost in my mind as I work on my own next novel, a utopian, post-Green New Deal book called "The Lost Cause."

Robinson's nonfiction is every bit as good as his fiction, and, more importantly, every bit as visionary. Some of us may find it "easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism," but not Robinson.

Importantly, his vision of a sustainable future is both "deep green" and "bright green," grounded in the use of technology to contain and ameliorate the human footprint on our planet.

Robinson is a high-tech pastoralist, a guy who disappears into the Sierras with nothing but a backpack for months at a time (he recently told me that he's not writing fiction for a while so he can concentrate on his definitive history of the Sierras).

Robinson was offline in the Grand Canyon when the pandemic struck, rafting down the Colorado River. When he emerged, "it was into a different world. I’ve spent my life writing sf…But I was still shocked by how much had changed, and how quickly."

Robinson says the pandemic is "rewriting our imaginations. What felt impossible has become thinkable. We’re getting a different sense of our place in history. We know we’re entering a new world, a new era."

(This is what I love about his work!)

Robinson talks about the pandemic as a kind of training-wheels practice run for the climate emergencies in our near future – a chance to realize how unprepared we are, and how urgent it will all be, and how much we need to do.

"When disaster strikes, we grasp the complexity of our civilization—we feel the reality, which is that the whole system is a technical improvisation that science keeps from crashing down."

Coronavirus slays the science denialism that is the ideological basis for climate inaction. "Do we believe in science? Go outside and you’ll see the proof that we do everywhere you look. We’re learning to trust our science as a society."

Science fiction does crucial work here: "Science fiction traces the ramifications of a single postulated change; readers co-create, judging the writers’ plausibility and ingenuity, interrogating their theories of history. Doing this repeatedly is a kind of training."

"We’re now confronting a miniature version of the [climate] tragedy of the time horizon. We’ve decided to sacrifice over these months so that, in future, people won’t suffer as much as they would otherwise… the time horizon is so short that we're the future people."

"To my mind, this new sense of solidarity is one of the few reassuring things to have happened in this century. If we can find it in this crisis, to save ourselves, then maybe we can find it in the big crisis, to save our children and theirs."

"This knowledge that, although we are practicing social distancing as we need to, we want to be social—we not only want to be social, we’ve got to be social, if we are to survive. It’s a new feeling, this alienation and solidarity at once."

"We’re hearing two statements. One, from the President: we have to save money even if it costs lives. The other, from the CDC: we have to save lives even if it costs money. Which is more important? Money, of course! says capital. Really? people reply, uncertainly."

He's got something really important here, it's what's given me hope in my darkest hours.

Before the crisis, I worried that by the time the climate emergency was so manifest that it annihilated denialism, it would be so far gone that nihilism would spring up to replace it.

As in, "OK, fine, you were right, we should have done something about the rhinos. But since there's only one left, why don't we find out what he tastes like?"

The crisis feels like, as a civilization, we were that asshole who refused to wear a seatbelt, but then had a car-wreck that put him in a coma — from which he miraculously recovered, and now he wears his seatbelt every time.

And like that asshole, we (unforgivably) had to kill a bunch of innocent bystanders to learn a lesson we should have taken to heart a long time ago.

But the only thing worse than our world paying that ghastly price would be to pay it and learn nothing from it.

This isn't the worst crisis of our lifetime. Probably not even the worst pandemic. We've got more coming, in the form of waves of climate emergencies. This was a wake up call — it's time to get our asses in gear.

BTW, that Pacific Edge book that I read every time I get low? It's just been reissued with the other books in the Three Californias trilogy as a "Tor Essential" with an intro by the amazing Francis "Red Plenty" Spufford.

Image: Rob Beschizza

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Haunted Mansion executed in sand

#15yrsago Discrimination victims experience worst artery-hardening

#15yrsago Katamari Damacy sequel in depth

#15yrsago 3D printer made from Meccano and hot-glue

#10yrsago Star Wars Loteria tribute

#5yrsago Every question in every Q&A; session

#5yrsago FBI replies to Stingray Freedom of Information request with 5,000 blank pages

#1yrago Tumblr is for sale…again

#1yrago Elizabeth Warren proposes debt relief for Puerto Rico

#1yrago Trump's former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley has joined Boeing's Board of Directors

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Marginal Revolution (, JWZ (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 558 words (10850 total).

Currently reading: Facebook: The Inside Story, by Steven Levy.

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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