Pluralistic: 04 May 2020

Lovecraft Country; $150,000 "Magic" grants; Pandemic could make Big Tech our permanent overlords; Hospital CEOs making millions amid cuts; Wired workers have unionized; The failure of software licensing; XML inventor quits Amazon over whistleblower firings

Pluralistic: 04 May 2020 which-side-are-you-on


Today's links

Lovecraft Country (permalink)

In 2016, Matt Ruff published Lovecraft Country, a spectacular antiracist novel that revisits the Lovecraft mythos – and Lovecraft's despicable racism from the other side.

Ruff meets Lovecraft's problems straight on, while reclaiming the creepy intensity that makes people read Lovecraft long after his death.

It's so good that Jordan Peele optioned the book and put it in production for HBO.

The official trailer just dropped, and just…wow.

I am so excited about this!

$150,000 "Magic" grants (permalink)

The [Helen Gurley] Brown Institute offers an annual "Magic" grant of up to $150,000 "for people to pursue their passions"; many of the projects are political, but many are artistic, or just plain delightfully weird.

It's administered by Columbia's Brown Institute for Media Innovation, but anyone can apply. This year's applications are due on May 15. The Institute has a weekly Zoom session to guide potential applicants.

Thursday, May 7 at 4:30

Thursday, May 14 at 4:30 (for last minute questions)

Webinar Zoom Link (for each session)

Email for the password.

Pandemic could make Big Tech our permanent overlords (permalink)

This op-ed about the looming permanent monopoly power of the Big Tech giants by Kara Swisher perfectly articulates the thing that's kept me up at night since the crisis began.

The tech giants are making bank off the pandemic, hoovering up titanic sums by providing the comms infrastructure, ecommerce links, and entertainment/distraction while the world is in limbo.

On top of that, they have gigantic slushfunds thanks to their years of tax evasion, thanks to the pretense that every sale they make is consummated somewhere in international waters off the Irish Sea.

And on top of THAT, every budding competitor to the tech giants is starved for cash, circling the drain, out of runway, desperate for an acquisition (and for 40 years, the DoJ has abandoned any pretence of antitrust scrutiny when a dominant firm acquires a nascent rival).

All this has led to Big Tech operating with "unlimited power, Midas-like financial might, minimal oversight and very few actual consequences."

There are serious echoes of the way that the robber barons capitalized on the world wars here – like how Mellon used his government role to take sole possession of an actual element of the periodic table, aluminium, through his company Alcoa.

The abuses of the robber-barons and the way they capitalized on our national trauma ended their rule, triggering waves of dissent. Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Oracle and the other techlords were already attracting furious scrutiny before the crisis.

They may well emerge from the crisis stronger than ever, but that strength will also engender precarity, setting them up for a New New Deal that sees them broken into pieces and brought to heel.

Hospital CEOs making millions amid cuts (permalink)

Hospital CEOs across America are slashing health-care workers' salaries and hours, announcing layoffs and furloughs…all while pulling down seven-figure salaries that have grown ahead of inflation for decades while workers' wages stagnated.

I already knew about Denver Health, where health workers saw deep cuts at the same instant that execs received six-figure "performance" bonuses (for a hospital that lost money in 2019):

The average hospital CEO gets $3.1m/year. The average nurse gets $75k.

The differences are particularly acute in university-affiliated hospital systems, where administrative bloat and soaring executive compensation were rampant long before the crisis.

Even as these academic systems are staggering under losses resulting from the cancellation of discretionary procedures and treatment, their millionaire bosses are continuing to take home seven figures…while announcing cuts to nurses' and doctors' wages.

Like University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto, whose $1.5m/year pay is fully intact, even as he announces 1,500 furloughs for health-care workers in the UK system. (His VP, at $1.4m/year, also has nothing to fear from the cuts).

As UK grad instructor Zeke Perkins told Emily Shugerman for The Daily Beast, "We’ve been calling on the administration to provide for those who make the least and take cuts themselves. They could cut their salaries significantly and save hundreds of jobs."

Meanwhile, Michigan's McLaren Health Care execs took a 2% salary cut while furloughing workers at the 14 hospitals they oversee. CEO Philip A Incarnati's 2018 pay was $6.8 million. They're rejecting calls to limit exec pay to $1 million (!).

Even where execs are giving, there's more to the story. Tenet Healthcare CEO Ron Rittenmeyer donated 50% of his pay, but that's after the board increased his pay by 62% last year and gave him a $300K raise in February.

He's laid off thousands of workers.

Wired workers have unionized (permalink)

Workers at Wired Magazine have formed a union, organizing under Newsguild, along with staff from other Conde Nast publications like Ars Technica and Pitchfork.

The workers' motivations include wide disparities in compensation among workers who do the same jobs, and the uncertainty of life under Conde Nast, where "our jobs depend on the precarious approval of Condé Nast corporate leaders with whom we have no communication."

The timing is crucial. I've heard persistent rumors of cratering revenues for Conde Nast (unsurprising, given the ad market) and that means cuts. As Kickstarter's union showed, even when they're getting laid off, workers benefit from unionization.

The failure of software licensing (permalink)

Back in February, Jeremy Allison gave a barn-burning speech at the Copyleftconf 2020, entitled "Copyleft and the Cloud."

Allison starts by drawing the crucical distinction between "open source" (you can see the inner workings of the code) and "software freedom" (you can exercise technological self-determination), and explores the many ways that the former has eclipsed the latter.

From "tivoization" (where a vendor uses DRM to prevent users from modifying the code on the products they own) to moving everything to the cloud, where the underlying source code can't be modified except by the cloud's owners.

He describes how "open source" was a technocratic proposition, concerned with giving hackers technological self-determination while leaving users behind to take whatever they're given – and how the failure of software licensing takes away self-determination even for hackers.

It reminds me powerfully of Mako Hill's absolutely crucial 2018 Libreplanet keynote on the way that corporations have figured out how to use open source to hoard all the software freedom, while taking it away from the rest of us.

Allison excoriates software freedom orgs – like FSF and The Software Freedom Conservancy – for their focus on licenses, saying that licenses only really work for business-to-business negotiations, and are all but useless to individuals who lack wherewithal to sue big companies.

Instead, Allison calls for a focus on protocol documentation, saying that in a cloud-based era, real software freedom comes from being able to make compatible clients for existing servers, and compatible servers for existing clients.

I'm not entirely convinced; I think protocol documentation is incredibly imporant and agree with the analysis of the limitations of licenses and the rapacious hoarding of software freedom through DRM and cloud computing.

Protocol documentation will do something to address these, but not enough. There's a legal side to this, and while Allison explicitly says that he's more interested in engineering approaches than legal ones, there are limits to the engineering-only approach.

The reason that companies are able to resist license enforcement, and the reason that their enclosure of software commons is so effective, is that tech has become monopolized by a handful of firms, and they attained that monopoly through anticompetitive acts.

The traditional antitrust world did not permit firms to attain dominance through mergers with major competitors, catch-and-kill buyouts of nascent startups, or vertical monopolies where companies that owned platforms competed with the companies that used them.

These rules were heavily nerfed by Reagan, then further eroded by every administration since. Now, we have the an internet made of five giant services filled with screenshots of the other four.

The reason that companies adopted software freedom even before open source came along was their terror of competitors who might take away their customers by offering more freedom to them. Today, that terror has been eliminated, thanks to monopolization.

Facebook is losing millions of users every year…to Instagram.

The incredible profits created by monopolies allow Big Tech firms to create new legal weapons – new laws and new interpretations of existing law – that allow them to punish people who make interoperable products without permission.

This legal power to block Adversarial Interoperability is one of the critical ways that Big Tech maintains its monopolies. I think Allison's analysis of the practical limitations of licenses is spot on.

But interop isn't just a matter of documentation, there's a crucial legal dimension to it as well.

XML inventor quits Amazon over whistleblower firings (permalink)

Last month, Amazon fired some of its hardest-to-replace tech workers in retaliation for solidarity activism on behalf of Amazon warehouse workers, who are enduring life-threatening conditions even as Jeff Bezos's personal fortune has grown by $26B.

Now, Tim Bray – co-inventor of XML, Amazon VP and Distinguished Engineer – has resigned from the company in protest, walking away from $1m in unvested stock.

He calls Amazon's justifications for firing organizers Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa "laughable; it was clear to any reasonable observer that they were turfed for whistleblowing."

According to Bray, "I escalated through the proper channels and by the book…remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised. So I resigned."

The people whose firings he resigned over: " Courtney Bowden, Gerald Bryson, Maren Costa, Emily Cunningham, Bashir Mohammed, and Chris Smalls….I’m sure it’s a coincidence that every one of them is a person of color, a woman, or both. Right?"

Bray: "Here are some descriptive phrases you might use to describe the activist-firing."


“Kill the messenger.”

“Never heard of the Streisand effect.”

“Designed to create a climate of fear.”

“Like painting a sign on your forehead saying ‘Either guilty, or has something to hide.’”

And while Bray believes that Amazon is working to make warehouse conditions safer, "at the end of the day, the big problem isn’t the specifics of Covid-19 response. It’s that Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential."

"If we don’t like things Amazon is doing, we need to put legal guardrails in place to stop those things. We don’t need to invent anything new; a combination of antitrust and living-wage and worker-empowerment legislation, rigorously enforced, offers a clear path forward."

Bray points out that workers in AWS, his division, get very good treatment: "It treats its workers humanely, strives for work/life balance, struggles to move the diversity needle (and mostly fails, but so does everyone else), and is by and large an ethical organization."

But AWS workers "have power…Anyone who’s unhappy can walk across the street and get another job paying the same or better."

"It’s all about power balances. The warehouse workers are weak and getting weaker, what with mass unemployment and job-linked health insurance. So they’re gonna get treated like crap, because capitalism. Any solution starts with increasing their collective strength."

Here's something to think about, tho: with the mass-extinction event that's hitting the tech industry right now (except for Big Tech), there will be more unemployed techies looking for work than at any time in history. That bargaining position is about to get a lot weaker.

Solidarity between techies and warehouse workers isn't just a matter of ethics, it's also a matter of self-preservation. As Bray points out, the bosses that give techies such a nice work-environment don't hesitate to put warehouse workers' lives in danger for a few dollars.

The instant that they can get away with treating tech workers the same way…they will.

Final word to Bray: "That’s not just Amazon, it’s how 21st-century capitalism is done."

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Neil Gaiman's Nebula toastmaster speech

#10yrsago Viacom is becoming a lawsuit company instead of a TV company

#10yrsago Six reasons to hate Facebook's new anti-privacy system, "Connections"

#10yrsago Satellite photos catch Greek tax-evaders

#10yrsago Student cover for Little Brother

#10yrsago Rupert Murdoch dabbles in Socialist Realism

#5yrsago The microbes on your phone are different from the microbes on your shoes

#5yrsago UK bigotry party hates Time Lords, too

#1yrago The new Creative Commons search engine is out of beta, with more than 300 million images!

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Fipi Lele, Slashdot (, Ari (, Naked Capitalism (, Beyond the Beyond (, Simon Phipps (

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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