Pluralistic: 17 May 2020

Today's links

Instagram's slow-mo appeals court (permalink)

Proposals to deputize Big Tech platforms to moderate content always run up against the fact that even very low error rates, multiplied by billions of posts, add up to tons of accidental censorship of legitimate material.

And of course, algorithmic content moderation schemes don't have "very low error rates." Depending on the subject-matter, the error rates are pretty darned high (hello, Tumblr porn filter!).

Inevitably the answer from people who want Big Tech to perform the duties of a state is that there will be some "appeals court" where you can ask a human to review the computer's judgment.

Here's how that works in practice. JWZ had this video censored by Instagram 862 days ago. He appealed it. Today, Instagram reviewed his appeal and released the video.

Censoring the video took a nanosecond. Getting it out of content-jail took 28 months. And in the meantime, he's had another listing for his club censored:

I'm sure that people who find out about this gig once Facebook releases the announcement in 28 months won't have any trouble locating a time-machine they can use to see it.

I mean, honestly, it's JWZ's fault. If he wanted to advertise a gig, he should have listed it 28 months ago, had it censored, appealed it and then waited for it to be released this week, just in time to tell people about it.

DOD lie-detector manual leaked (permalink)

For years, has campaigned against the junk science of "lie detection," publishing leaked polygraph operators' manuals to show that the whole thing is basically an interrogation with some fancy props – basically, lie-detectors are E-meters for non-Scientologists.

The implications are profound, because lie detectors are used to decide who gets a job, or a promotion. They're used to decide who goes to prison, and whether they get out again. The manuals reveal that polygraph outcomes are basically whatever the operator says they are. started out with a bang about 20 years ago, publishing the leaked 1991 Department of Defense Polygraph Institute (DoDPI) interrogation manual, "Interview & Interrogation"

Since then, the DoDPI has changed its name to the National Center for Credibility Assessment, and Antipolygraph is on the case, with some more up to date leaks from the NCCA.

The NCCA 2013 Interview & Interrogation manual:

And the 2013 NCCA Counterintelligence Post-Test Interview Supplement:

Both stamped "For Official Use Only."

"No part of this handbook may be reproduced or distributed in any form or stored in a database or retrieval system without the written permission of the Director of NCCA."

Like the 1991 manual, these are a bonanza of junk science, impressionistic and vague instruction, and operator leeway that allows the user to treat the polygraph as a Ouija board, interpreting its squiggly line to reinforce their own biases.

Fun fact about lie-detectors: you can beat them pretty reliably by rhythmically clenching your anus (no, really):

I love this fact so much that it's a plotpoint in Homeland, the sequel to Little Brother (audiobook by Wil Wheaton, whom I also made recite 1,000 digits of Pi):

Buttholes don't appear in Attack Surface, the third Little Brother book, out in October, but there are many other little bits of infosec, physsec and counterintel weirdness for your delight:

Farewell to Beyond the Beyond (permalink)

In 2003, Eileen Gunn's pioneering online sf magazine shut down, and so did @bruces' early seminal blog, the Schism Matrix.

But thankfully, that wasn't the end of Bruce Sterling's blogging career: Wired gave him an (unpaid) online home for a new blog, every bit as cranky, esoteric, gnomic and darkly comic as Bruce himself: Beyond the Beyond.

Now, Beyond the Beyond is done. Wired publisher Conde Nast is in such deep financial trouble that they're realizing minuscule savings like those to be gleaned from shutting down an unpaid blog.

Sterling's written a fantastic farewell post.

Sterling has a long history with Wired and an even longer one publishing hugely influential (and paradoxically obscure) esoteric projects, most notably CHEAP TRUTH, the 300-circulation xeroxed free cyberpunk zine that set the direction for the whole field.

Here's the full run as ebooks (donationware in support of the Transatlantic Fan Fund):

Here's some gloriously grainy scans:

Then there's Sterling's long association with Wired: he was on the cover of the first issue (!) and had a column for several years. Fun fact: I dropped out of university after reading that issue and got a job as a multimedia programmer.

Sterling's run on Beyond the Beyond was wide-ranging, prescient, cranky and fascinating. As he notes, BtB was the cradle of both "design fiction" and augmented reality.

But BtB's real purpose was as a novelist's "commonplace book" – a kind of mood board for writing. This is exactly what my own blogging has been: a way for me to make notes to myself, but for an audience, which demands a rigor that personal writing lacks.

Unlike me, though, Sterling keeps extensive paper notebooks and (jfc) destroys them: "You don’t have creative power over words unless you can delete them."

This is so right on: "The writerly act of organizing and assembling inchoate thought seems to helps me. If I blogged something then I had tightened it, I had brightened it. I had summarized it in some medium outside my own head."

"Posting on the blog was a form of psychic relief, a stream of consciousness that had moved from my eyes to my fingertips; by blogging, I removed things from the fog of vague interest and I oriented them toward possible creative use."

Preach, brother.

And also: "Often, it’s the determined act of writing it down that allows one to realize the true sterility of a silly idea; that’s how the failure gets registered in memory; 'oh yes, I tried that, there’s nothing there.'"

Sterling's epitaph is such a good eulogy/summary of tech era: "People often paid me to write, and to speak, too, but the pay was never commensurate with the impact of the work. What people cheerfully paid for, and what they actually cared about, were different things."

"I came to understand that creative work that pleased the markets did not much affect people personally."

"Also, critical recommendations are powerful: 'If you think you like this thing, then you should look at that other, better thing, because that’s the real deal!' Nobody ever paid me for this countercultural guru activity, but man, that action really messed with people."

That's so good, and so right. There's no pleasure – and no power – more satisfying than shining light on things you love and awakening others to them.

Now, some vintage Sterling Nuggets:

"'Real artists ship,' and yes, they do have to ship something, or else they’re not artists. But they don’t have to ship everything they know. That’s because they’re artists, and they’re not a shipping service."

"I knew from the beginning that my weblog would surely cease some day, and I frequently warned readers that 'blogs,' the 'internet,' desktop computers, browser software and so forth, were all passing phenomena."

"If I was a young person, and starting over today, I would not experiment with a weblog supported by a West Coast US technology magazine. Instead, I would try something more youthful in spirit, less conventional, more beyond-the-beyond."

Godspeed, Chairman Bruce.

Neoliberals won't waste this crisis (permalink)

"Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown" is Philip Mirowski's 2013 book on how neoliberalism's true nature and virulence were exposed by the 2008 crisis.

Now, in a new interview with Jacobin's Alex Doherty, Mirowski lays out a sharp-eyed and alarming analysis of how neoliberalism is capitalising on the pandemic crisis and making ready to finalize its dominance over the human race and our planet.

Mirowski says that the one ideology that binds together all strains of neoliberalism is the belief that "people are inherently bad cognizers — they can’t work their way out of their problems just by thinking."

And the corrolary to that is that markets' function as a corrective for our irrationality. Markets aren't an allocator of resources, they're "the greatest information processor known to mankind" – that's the Hayek conception and it runs through every strain of neoliberalism.

The implication of these two facts is that people don't know what's good for them, so they have to be led into a system of governance-by-market, by trickery, force, honeyed words, whatever it takes.

Hence the circular neoliberal debate:

"Why can't democracies tell companies to stop polluting?"

"Because companies' success is will of the people."

"I thought democracies were the will of the people?"

"No, that's what people say. Markets are what they do."

The conviction that people don't really know what explains the neoliberal project and its vast array of rigidly disciplined thinktanks and pundits – the so-called "Neoliberal Thought Collective…a deep bench of ideas and people able to move very quickly when crises arise."

For Mirowski, "the Koch group are unapologetic Leninists – their line is 'we have to take over.'" When your group takes Koch money, it also has to take Koch perspectives.

By contrast, lefty funders like The Democracy Alliance (ironically) operate a "marketplace of ideas" where groups are free to disagree with one another. The left's allergy to top-down governance is why "the Left is set up to lose, if it keeps operating in that way."

It's why there's no leftist Mount Pelerin Society, and why left populism is genuinely populist, rather than astroturf ops like the Tea Party and its weird offspring, the anti-quarantine Flu Klux Klan.

The left's disarray allows the right to own this moment. exploiting the crisis to gut FDA controls over drugs, to institutionalize telemedicine (whose long-run outcome will be to deny poor people the right to ever see a doctor), and to remake pharma as a "heroic" industry.

And, of course, it's the perfect opportunity to kill off the US Postal Service.

Mirowski is pessimistic about the left's chances to seize the crisis to advance its program: after all, House Dems haven't been able to get anything in the bailouts, not even a budget for comprehensive covid testing and treatment.

But he's just as pessimistic about the right's ability to retain control. Neoliberalism is going to destroy the economy and leave 30+% of workers in permanent unemployment. The paranoid militancy they fostered with the Tea Party will mutate into outright fascism.

Just as the Weimar establishment thought that Nazis were useful idiots who'd only terrorize their political enemies, only to lose control over these "fringe elements" that became "more fascistic, more racist, and more nihilist."

It's not the only parallel to the Holocaust to be drawn here. As Hamid Dabashi writes in Al Jazeera, the first move in Nazi esterminationism was the "involuntary euthanasia" of "life unworthy of life": people with mental and physical disabilities.

This normalized the idea of worthiness of life, paving the way for mass extermination campaigns targeting Jews, Roma and others.

Today, we're being told that chronically ill and elderly people are unavoidable "collateral damage" in the "war" on pandemic.

The right's become a full-on death cult, willing to sacrifice unlimited numbers of expendable and dispensable human lives for "the economy." Even their own stalwarts – the elderly voters who are the GOP's most loyal base – are slated for liquidation.

Right on cue, the US government is procuring vast stockpiles of antipersonnel equipment: "disposable cuffs, gas masks, ballistic helmets, and riot gloves, along with law enforcement protective equipment."

As Lee Fang writes in The Intercept, the newly armed Veterans Administration police are a microcosm of US elites' instinctual view of how the rest of us will act as things get hard.

It's a phenomenon familiar to readers of Rebecca Solnit's must-read 2012 book "A Paradise Built in Hell": the "elite panic" response that pre-emptively treats ordinary people as looters and rioters until proven otherwise.

A final word to Solnit, who updates "Paradise" with a crucial Guardian essay:

"When a storm subsides, the air is washed clean and you can see farther and more sharply than at any other time. When this storm clears, we may, as do people who have survived a serious illness or accident, see where we were and where we should go in a new light. We may feel free to pursue change in ways that seemed impossible while the ice of the status quo was locked up. We may have a profoundly different sense of ourselves, our communities, our systems of production and our future."

2005, 2010, 2015, 2019

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago WiFi crypto can be broken in 3 mins

#15yrsago HOWTO filter water with coffee grounds, clay and cowshit

#10yrsago HOWTO make a kosher worm (insert circumcision joke here)

#10yrsago Lost etymology of "fanboy"

#10yrsago SWORD OF MY MOUTH: Apocalyptic graphic novel about the tyranny of angels

#10yrsago Phishing as a day-job

#10yrsago Linda Stone on email apnea and continuous partial attention

#5yrsago Dolls with hearing aids, port-wine stains and canes

#1yrago The world's preeminent cryptographers can't get visas to speak at US conferences

#1yrago How can spies from democracies compete with spies from autocracies?

#1yrago Europe's top trustbuster thinks it'll be impossible to break up Facebook

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 515 words (16339 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:

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

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