Pluralistic: 15 May 2020

Today's links

Understanding Qanon (permalink)

Both left and right politics have seen surges of conspiratorial thinking, but without question the most organized and politically salient conspiracy theory at the moment is Qanon. In The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance dives deep into Q and its context.

As comprehensive as LaFrance's account is, there's one blank spot: why is belief in conspiracies is surging in the first place?

The main explanation – a subtext running through LaFrance's excellent piece – is that algorithmic persuasion is to blame.

That is, the systems that Big Tech built to convince us to buy refrigerators and acne cream are now being hijacked to convince us that pizza parlors are harboring pedophile rings in their (non-existent) basements. I am very skeptical of this account.

First, because the best evidence we have for Big Tech's power to perform these persuasive miracles comes from Big Tech's own marketing puffery, what they tell potential advertisers to justify their rate-cards, and what they tell investors to buoy their share prices.

Neither the source nor the claim is particularly credible. If there's one thing we know, it's hard to convince people of stuff. That, in fact, is the hard problem of advertising, religion, politics, art, and social change. No one has systematized it in an enduring way.

What Big Tech does VERY well, however, is find people. It can find people who are thinking of buying a fridge (a diffuse, hard-to-locate cohort) by targeting people who've shopped for fridges or kitchens, or perused reviews. This isn't a persuasive miracle, it's just spying.

Likewise, Big Tech can help people with fringe ideas locate each other. This is true irrespective of how much you like those fringe ideas: it doesn't matter if the idea is #BlackLivesMatter and gender is a spectrum or white nationalism and the Earth is flat.

I believe what we call "persuasion" is primarily "targeting." If the major barrier to the spread of your message is that you can't find the people who would be receptive to it, Big Tech's people-finding systems can supercharge your ideas.

This works especially well for ideas that invite social disapprobation if you publicly embrace them – which is why the internet is such a godsend for queer kids who fear discussing their sexuality with intolerant friends or parents.

It also works great for conspiracies.

Which raises a different question: why is it so easy to find people who want to believe in conspiracies. My answer: because so many of the things that have traumatized so many people ARE conspiracies.

The opioid epidemic was a conspiracy between rich families like the Sacklers and regulators who rotate in and out of industry. The 737 crisis was caused by Boeing's conspiracy to cut corners and aviation regulators' conspiracy to allow aerospace to regulate itself.

Senators conspire to liquidate their positions ahead of coronavirus lockdown, well-heeled multinationals conspire to get 94.5% of the "small business" PPP fund, Big Tech conspires to fix wages with illegal collusion while fast food franchises do the same with noncompetes.

In a world of constant real conspiracy scandals that destroy lives and the planet, conspiracy theories take on real explanatory power. This is beautifully discussed in Anna Merlan's 2019 book, "Republic of Lies."

All of this is the context for Qanon. Add to that the fact that Q is also a literal industry whose superstars make fortunes – and not necessarily cynically, because, after all, what better proof could you ask for of the truth of Q than the fact that it's making you rich?

Another consequence of making it easier to find people is that groups can coalesce around loosely defined principles. Pre-internet, the high cost of group-forming meant that you would be wasting a lot of effort by grouping with people who disagreed with you on fundamentals.

Eventually, those disagreements would drive you apart and all your group-forming work would be wasted. But lower-cost group forming makes it easier to take risks on making common cause with people you disagree with.

People who criticized Occupy for the lack of a crisply defined program missed this point: by refusing to narrowly define its cause, Occupy could be a broad tent.

Q's gnomic utterances are perfectly suited to exploit this increased appetite for risk in group forming.

Q's nonsensical utterances become an oracle that different kinds of conspirators can project their own fears and aspirations onto, creating multiple, irreconcilable interpretations for these pronunciations.

And that very vagueness and imprecision allows Q followers to find post-facto interpretations that show that Q was right all along (a favorite pastime of mystics from Revelations to Nostradamus).

Q is both a rehash of historical conspiracy pathologies and utterly of this moment, then. It's a phildickian phenomenon, a conspiracy whose gospel reads like the cryptic notes I get from stalkers who are having terrible, paranoid hallucinations.

Q is both a rehash of historical conspiracy pathologies and utterly of this moment, then. It's a phildickian phenomenon, a conspiracy whose gospel reads like the cryptic notes I get from stalkers who are having terrible, paranoid hallucinations.

One of the milestones in my understanding of conspiracists was this outstanding interview with a leading Flat Earther by the Oh No Ross and Carrie podcast:

He describes his satisfaction with Flat Earth as compared with other conspiracies.

By which he means that the community bonds and his ability to have high stature in it are satisfying and that makes it feel true.

These feelings, along with the trauma of real conspiracies, make conspiracism a powerful temptation. That should guide our thinking on Q.

Not the junk science of the nonreplicating, discredited "backfire effect" (which is a polestar for Facebook's approach to conspiracy despite its lack of rigor):

Meanwhile, if you want to get deeper into the bizarre mythology of Q, I highly recommend this "Qanon exit briefing."

Devo Emergency Dome (permalink)

Looking for PPE? Devo's got you covered. Their Energy Dome PPE Kit combines a face-shield with the classic upturned flower-pot. Pair with a boiler suit for the full look.

If that's not your thing, or if you want another look for formal occasions, there's Etsy seller WellDoneGoods's $30 Cthuhlu masks (available in "XXL/Beard" at a higher price). #fhtagn

Covid Seuss parodies (permalink)

These covid/Dr Seuss mashups from art director Jim Malloy are INSPIRED.

They're a tribute to the power of remix and the fair use that enables it. Alas, the Seuss estate is among the vicious foes of remix, as is demonstrated by their all-out war on Comixmix's "Oh, the Places You'll Boldly Go."

Self-cooling sweaty solar panels (permalink)

Peng Wang and an environmental engineering team at Hong Kong Polytechnic University have developed a way to increase the efficiency of solar panels by allowing them to "sweat" during the day.

Solar efficiency decreases as photovoltaic panels heat up, so the team tried coating their undersides with hydrogels – "a mix of carbon nanotubes in polymers with a water-attracting calcium chloride salt" – that absorb atmospheric moisture during cool night hours.

During the day, the moisture evaporates, conferring an evaporative cooling benefit to the panels. It's very efficient: in a 35% humid desert environment, every square meter of PV panel needs just 1kg of gel (that goes down to 300g in an 80% humid environment).

The panels are cooled by up to 10'C, and produce up to 15% more energy.

Best of all: its a retrofit, so existing installations can benefit from it.

Google's GDPR reckoning (permalink)

When Max Schrems was an Austrian law student doing a study-abroad semester at Stanford, he wrote a paper on Facebook's noncompliance with EU privacy law, based on a fumbled by FB's privacy counsel to his class. This led to a privacy complaint against Facebook in Ireland.

The ensuing legal wrangle dealt a serious blow to all of Big Tech, ending the "safe harbour" system that allowed it to store Europeans' data on servers outside of the EU. This laid the groundwork for the GDPR (Schrems is currently pursuing action against FB under GDPR).

Now, Schrems is taking on Google. He and his nonprofit NOYB (None of Your Business Nonprofit) have asked the Austrian privacy regulator to find that Google violates the GDPR by not obtaining consent before assigning users an ad-tracking ID.

They further allege that Google's remedy to a GDPR request to halt processing of a users' data is merely to assign you a new tracking ID and continuing to track you.

Here's the complaint:

Google's response boils down to, "We have to spy on you to figure out if you told us to stop spying on you."

The complaint challenges the entire ad-tech industry. That's what the GDPR was designed to do, after all. Alas, for the first few years, the major impact has been to annihilate EU-based ad-tech companies while US Big Tech got free rein.

There's two reasons for that: first, smaller ad-tech companies have less capital to spend on compliance, and second, they're more money-hungry and play fast and loose and are more demonstrably in violation with GDPR rules.

But Big Tech's GDPR compliance has been smoke-and-mirrors from day one, risible garbage that made it clear that they were treating GDPR as a convenient way to clear the field of competitors, not a signal to fundamentally change their business.

Schrems and NOYB are the kinds of dedicated, driven, principled actors that can force regulators to finally do their jobs. If I was Google, I'd be worried.

(Image: Manfred Werner-Tsui, CC BY-SA)

A people's vaccine (permalink)

UNAID and Oxfam have coordinated a letter signed by 140 current and former world leaders, economists and public health experts calling on every government in the world to ensure that any covid-19 vaccine is available for free.

There are obvious humanitarian reasons for this – letting people die of a preventable illness because they can't afford vaccination is barbaric.

But there's also a practical reason: if we are to attain herd immunity, we have to get everyone vaccinated who can be.

It's not enough to vaccinate people who can afford it. Not all of them can be vaccinated – due to illness or other conditions – and not everyone who is vaccinated will be immune.

Having some places were the disease has been stopped and others where it rages on is like having a pool with a "no pissing" end and a "pissing" end. We're all in the same pool.

But it's no better to declare the whole pool a "no pissing" zone and then tell half the people in it they're no longer allowed to use the toilets. Everybody poops. Telling people they're not allowed to use the toilet doesn't mean they stop needing to use the toilet.

Accordingly, the letter calls on world governments to institute worldwide free sharing of "all COVID-19 related knowledge, data and technologies"; to require rich countries to fully fund production of any vaccine and to make all products available "at true cost."

To recruit an army to distribute vaccines, with "vaccines, diagnostics, tests and treatments provided free of charge to everyone, everywhere," with first priority to " front-line workers, the most vulnerable people, and poor countries with least capacity to save lives."

(Image: NIAID, CC BY)

Whistleblower warns of massive mortgage fraud (permalink)

The 2008 financial crisis was precipitated by massive mortgage-backed securities fraud, in which corrupt bankers colluded with bond-rating agencies and regulators to trick people into thinking that bonds based on mortgage payments were safe bets.

It's happening again.

Last year, John Flynn, a senior figure in the commercial mortgage-backed securities, filed a whistleblower complaint with the SEC detailing billions in fraud from Wells Fargo, Deutsche Bank and other major financial players.

These are the same banks that destroyed the world's economy in 2008 and got bailed out. Flynn shows that they've followed the same playbook that they used then, but this time, it's mortgages on commercial real-estate. These loans are packaged as bonds and sold on.

If the banks can convince investors to buy the bonds from them, they can issue bonds on the basis of cooked financials that hide the fact that the businesses taking out the loans are destined to fail, and then offload the risk onto suckers who'll be on the hook later.

He's telling the truth. Propublica pulled paperwork on these loans and discovered properties listed twice under different addresses, lies about historic profits, existing debts omitted, etc. Flynn's found $150B worth of fraud…so far (the market's worth $592B).

Bankers rely on the fact that no one ever reads the whole prospectus, just the summary (no one, that is, except Flynn).

These companies are mostly doomed, thanks to the coronavirus crisis, but because of this fraud, they'll cost the rest of us MUCH more when they tank.

(Image: Daniel Tuttle, CC BY-SA)

Tear gas ice-cream (permalink)

An ice-cream shop owner in Hong Kong is selling tear-gas-flavored ice-cream as a gesture of solidarity with the pro-democracy movement which has been in limbo during the pandemic.

Anna Wong, a customer who was gassed at the protests, said that it did indeed taste of tear gas: "It feels difficult to breathe at first, and it’s really pungent and irritating. It makes me want to drink a lot of water immediately…"

"It’s a flashback that reminds me of how painful I felt in the movement, and that I shouldn’t forget."

The shop also has a "Lennon wall" where people can leave political messages on postit notes.

Lockdown Haunted Mansion theme (permalink)

One of the great joys of Disneyland is its street performers, who are drawn from the massive LA-area pool of talented singers, dancers and musicians of every kind. One of my favorite acts is the Dapper Dans, a barbershop quartet act that performs on Main Street.


During the annual Halloween nights, the Dans are recostumed in ghostly outfits and they haunt New Orleans Square, performing a spooky barbershop rendition of "Grim Grinning Ghosts," X Atencio and Buddy Baker's amazing Haunted Mansion theme song.

The Dapper Dans are all on lockdown, but they've been reunited virtually for a pandemic edition of their rendition of GGG: it's all singing, all dancing, and just fantastic.

As ever, if you want to learn about something Mansion related, you should start at the Long Forgotten blog. Predictably, the entry on Grim Grinning Ghosts is fantastic:

A Furiosa movie (permalink)

George Miller's next Mad Max movie is a prequel, telling the story of Fury Road's Imperator Furiosa, easily the best character in the entire franchise: a compromised and principled badass who's far tougher than Max himself.

The new movie will tell the tale of the matriarchal "Green Place" and will doubtless infuriate many manbabies. Fuck them.

Alas, Charlize Theron will not reprise the role, but production designer Colin Gibson and cinematographer John Seale are back.

No word on whether editor Margaret Sixel – who won the Oscar for Fury Road – will be back, but I sure hope so. She is phenomenal.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Jargon: Treeware — a dead-tree book

#10yrsago Will 3D plans for bongs become illegal, too?

#5yrsago MAME going open-source

#5yrsago The Subprimes: a novel of the Piketty/Klein apocalypse

#5yrsago Stephen Harper extended music copyright to please US record industry lobbyist

#5yrsago BB King, RIP

#1yrago Discovering whether your Iphone has been hacked is nearly impossible thanks to Apple's walled garden

#1yrago After retaliation against Googler Uprising organizers, a company-wide memo warns employees they can be fired for accessing "need to know" data

#1yrago Axon makes false statements to town that bought its police bodycams, threatens to tase their credit-rating if they cancel the contract

#1yrago Naked Capitalism reviews Radicalized

#1yrago European telcos want the right to perform "deep packet inspection" on our data

#1yrago Foxconn promised it would do something with the empty buildings it bought in Wisconsin, but they're still empty (still no factory, either)

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (, Super Punch (, Geeks Are Sexy (, Fipi Lele, Slashdot (, Marginal Revolution (, Alice Taylor (, Neatorama (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 505 words (15824 total).

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

Latest podcast: Rules for Writers (

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

3 thoughts on “Pluralistic: 15 May 2020”

  1. I thought about your theory of conspiracies today, reading this comment about the dystopian state of affairs in the medical field:

    Quote: "It has been well known in the Mayo community that backdoor deals exist with the insurance companies. These deals allow Mayo to overcharge for their services."

  2. RE: "A people's vaccine"
    Canada and USA are accusing China of stealing their companies' proprietary, for-profit vaccine tech:

    "As a result, CSIS is working with these organizations to ensure that their work and proprietary information remains safely in their control. Its focus is on protecting Canadian intellectual property from these threats — and jobs and economic interests with it."

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