Pluralistic: 18 May 2020

Today's links

Ada Palmer, being brilliant for 2.5h (permalink)

Last summer, I did an interview with the Singularity Blog podcast (my last interview was all the way back in 2012). As is my wont, I got to talking about Ada Palmer because she's just so durned brilliant.

This prompted host Nikola Danaylov to book in an interview with Ada, which has just gone live. It's 2.5h (!) and so worth every minute of it (!!).

I mean, I came for Ada's deep understanding of Renaissance history and how it relates to the current pandemic, and I was not disappointed:

  • This is the first pandemic ever experienced by a society that understands how pandemics work
  • "Herd immunity" to Black Death may explain autoimmune disorders in Europe-descended people (plague killed those without an otherwise pathologically overactive immune system)
  • Prohibiting selling meat from male and female animals at the same stall is largely ineffective

But it got so much weirder, gnarlier and more fascinating. Like, "Would I be an atheist during the Renaissance" (probably not, I'd be a deeply heretical theist); and "Why Michaelangelo wasn't a scientist."

But the part that made me sit up and shout "Holy smokes!" was the discussion of whether technology is making us smarter, and Ada talked about how poverty is a tax on cognition, an idea I'd encountered before:

Basically, if you are not economically precarious, you don't have to devote your attention to juggling your bills all day, so just giving people enough makes 'em something like 25% smarter – in the sense of "able to think about stuff that matters."

The connection Ada made for me here was to the whole idea of Singularity and human improvement, many of whose top proponents are true believers in neoliberal capitalism who accept poverty as the cost of doing business, and acceptable given capitalism's project to uplift us.

But even the most rapid nootropic huxter or "brain training" aficionado couldn't, with a straight face, promise to make you 25% smarter. And yet, here we have a simple and uncontroversial mechanism to do exactly that for the majority of the world.

And yeah, this is antithetical to neoliberal capitalism, which assumes that the cost of providing Great Men with the leisure to pursue their vision is keeping part of the workforce so desperate they'll risk their lives in their boss's illegally reopened electric car factory.

It was such an aha moment for me, though maybe it was obvious to you. Even if that's the case, I promise you there's something else in here that'll smack your gob. Just her definition of "science fiction" at the end is worth the ride.

Here's the MP3:

Here's the feed for the podcast:

(Image: Sanna Pudas, CC BY)

Restaurateur wreaks algorithmic vengeance upon Doordash (permalink)

Gig economy delivery apps claim that they're operating "two-sided markets," connecting delivery people with restaurants. Actually, they're useless, overcapitalized, predatory, money-haemorrhaging parasites.

They raise titanic sums of money from the likes of Softbank (a front for Saudi oil money) and then pay sub-starvation wages to riders while extracting such massive commissions from restaurants (disguised as "advertising fees," etc) that they lose money on the transaction.

The stupidest part? The gig delivery companies are also losing money. Like Uber, Wework and other Softbank-backed boondoggles, these companies aren't profitable and never will be. They exist solely to attain "scale" whereupon they can be sold off to suckers in an IPO.

If the investors can keep these bleeding giants alive long enough, they can give them the appearance of durability – "If Uber's lasted a decade, it must be sustainable" – which lets them cash out.

It's a con, and it demolishes the real businesses it preys on, the workers who do the gig work, and the investors that the con artists unload their worthless paper on.

Restaurateurs are on the verge of collapse as a result.

And it's self-reproducing. And it's spreading. It's a fucking pandemic. Restaurateurs with no way to fight the companies themselves end up taking it out on the drivers, their fellow infection-sufferers:

Sometimes, there's a better way. Rajan Roy is an options trader whose pal has a small chain of pizzerias that don't deliver – but that didn't stop Doordash from listing a delivery option for the restaurants, which Google dutifully added a button for in its search results.

But Doordash made a mistake: they underpriced the pizzas. They were offering to sell a $24 pizza for $16. Roy and his friend cooked up a plan to exploit this arbitrage opportunity, and experimented with bulk-ordering the discounted pizzas to a confederate's house.

Every pizza they bought this way represented "pure arbitrage profit." It got even better when the restaurateur stopped bothering to put anything on top of the crusts (which are so cheap as to be effectively free) for these orders.

Eventually they stopped. They also learned that Doordash's "mistake" was a predatory short con where they subsidized deliveries from a prospective business to create the illusion of demand for delivery services, then used that to rope the sucker into opting into Doordash.

But the real kicker is what Roy advised his friend about the game: "given their recent obscene fundraise, they would weirdly enough be happy to lose that money. Some regional director would be able to show top-line revenue growth."

"I imagined their systems might even be built to discourage catching these mistakes because it would detract, or at a minimum distract, from top-line revenue."

After all: Grubhub lost $33m on Q1 revenue of $360m.

Doordash lost $450m on $900m revenue in 2019.

Uber Eats lost $461m on Q419 revenue of $734m. It is Uber's most profitable division!

The world's economy is being ravaged by a pandemic and may not survive. That pandemic? Capitalism.

England's storks are back (permalink)

Some lovely news (for a change): for the first time in 600 years, storks have hatched in Britain. It's thanks to the work of The White Stork Project.

The last recorded stork hatching in Britain was in 1416, when a pair nested on the roof of Edinburgh's St Giles Cathedral.

But hunting, along with the draining of British wetlands for agriculture, eliminated storks, spoonbills, and cranes from the region.

The White Stork Project released 100 storks in the UK – it's part of a wave of reintroductions across Europe undertaken by different charities. Storks are an "umbrella species" – making habitats hospitable to them incidentally creates habitats for many other species.

One important note: this isn't the result of humans absenting themselves from the built environment. Humans may have broken the planet, but we can (and must) also fix it. The White Stork Project is about human action, not inaction.

The damage to our climate and environment is not the result of your poor individual choices. It's structural. Everybody staying indoors for months has barely dented our CO2 problem.

"The Tragedy of the Commons" was a fraud that smuggled ecofascism (the idea that we need to exterminate "surplus people" to save the planet) into the mainstream of discourse.

Humans are capable of – and obliged to – act as stewards and co-equals with our habitats and the other living things we share them with. "Doing nothing" is something your dead relatives are good at. We don't need more "doing nothing" in our lives.

Very shortly, you will embark upon a "doing nothing" project that lasts about 7.5b years, until the sun starts to burn out. You've got "doing nothing" absolutely covered. Now is the time to do something.

See through walls with free software (permalink)

Spoiler alert for a 21-year-old novel!

In Neal Stephenson's amazing, seminal Cryptonomicon, a key plot-point relates to Van Eck Freaking (AKA TEMPEST), in which tuned radio antennas are used to read a computer screen through a wall by intercepting its electronic noise.

Van Eck Freaking is real! And you can do it at home!

The GNU Radio project is a free software implementation of a software-defined radio: a radio whose tuning and de/modulating properties are determined by code, rather than by the vibrational frequencies of a crystal.

Tempestsdr is Martin Marinov's six-year old, Java-based implementation of TEMPEST using GNU Radio:

Recently, Federico 'Larroca' La Rocca reimplemented the tool in a new package called GR Tempest:

It's designed to eavesdrop on keyboards, HDMI, VGA, and other electronic I/O systems through solid barriers.

All of this is cool and gnarly, but even better is the historical context of GNU Radio.

In 1992, EFF fought the Bernstein case, the case that legalized civilian access to working cryptography, striking down the NSA's longstanding ban on crypto.

EFF's winning argument was the "code is speech" – that is, source code is a form of expressive speech for the purposes of the First Amendment and thus any law that controls source code infringes on our Constitutional rights.

That 9th Circuit Appeals decision paved the way for all the security tools you use today – everything from checking to make sure that your pacemaker upgrade hasn't been tampered with to keeping your financial transactions secure.

GNU Radio was created by Eric Blossom and funded by John Gilmore as a way to use the Bernstein decision to lock in freedom for software defined radios and the general purpose computers they ran on.

They understood that the regulatory model for radios – designing them to only operate on specific frequencies – would come into conflict with software freedom as SDRs proliferated. Eventually, commercial radio devices would just be computers running SDR code.

When that happened, the only way to ensure these devices were incapable of straying from their approved use would be to prohibit users from changing the code on those computers – and since ANY computer could be an SDR, this collision could mean lockdown for ALL computers.

The idea of GNU Radio was to have a functional, free/open SDR when that day came. It was possible that a court would find that compiled code was also protected speech, but sourcecode is obviously more speechlike, and so FLOSS tracked better with the Bernstein decision.

This may sound like a remote possibility, but within a couple years of the project's founding, this EXACT scenario cropped up.

The Broadcast Flag was an effort to do an end-run around the fact that it's illegal for US terrestrial broadcasters to encrypt their signals.

Instead, the broadcasters, studios and CE/IT companies proposed that the unencrypted signals would have a "flag" (a single bit) that all devices capable of being a digital TV tuner would have to look for.

If it was set to "1," these devices would have to encrypt the signal after they received it, and not allow unencrypted output. Basically, every device manufacturer in the country would be required by law to pretend that over-the-air broadcasts were encrypted.

And since ALL PCs were capable of being a DTV receiver with the addition of a software defined radio, that meant that we were on a track to banning all computers unless they were designed to refuse to run programs that hadn't been approved by a corporate consortium.

My first day on the job at EFF was going to the very first Broadcast Flag meeting (actually, it was the day before I was hired and we were still working on the paperwork, but this was important so I got on a plane to LA with Seth Schoen and Fred von Lohmann).

The Broadcast Protection Discussion Group was the most smoke-filled, dirty-dealing, skullduggery-filled room I ever sat in. Over the months and years that followed, I saw so much dirty-tricking, so many double-bluffs and backstabs. It was amazing and horrible.

And what's more, despite our best efforts to head off this disaster, they succeeded, and got the FCC to regulate the Broadcast Flag into existence (with the small win that FCC commissioners, not Hollywood studios, would be in charge of what programs were allowed).

But EFF has a diversity of tactics at its disposal. Where activism failed, technology and law prevailed. We sued the FCC along with the American Library Association and Public Knowledge and won!

And part of that victory turned on the fact that GNU Radio proved that the FCC wasn't just regulating radio devices – they had arrogated to themselves the power to regulate any device with a general-purpose computer in it.

The best part is GNU Radio is still finding new niches to fill, demonstrating the incredible power and potential of Turing-completeness. It's a powerful system – and just as importantly, it's a powerful weapon in the War on General Purpose Computing.

Universal broadband now (permalink)

As an idea, Broadband-as-a-Human-Right has followed the familiar path (misattributed to Gandhi): "first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then you win."

But the pandemic has made the notion concrete and urgent for obvious reasons: during lockdown, if you have internet, you're disconnected from the world – education, employment, health, family, romance. Lawmakers are taking notice.

America has the slowest, least available, most expensive broadband in the developed world. And when Frontier filed for bankruptcy, we learned way. Monopolists carriers deliberately choose not to roll out profitable fiber to millions of households.

That's right, Frontier chose to leave billions on the table because the investment would take 10 years to earn out, and the analysts that controlled their share prices hate >5yr investments, and Frontier's execs' mostly get paid in stocks.

Frontier's worst-served customers are rural, with no alternative (Frontier's filing book these customers as an "asset" because they can be charged arbitrarily high sums and provided with substandard service thanks to the lack of competition.

This isn't the first time this happened. When "electrification" was bringing prosperity to America, rural households were neglected and abused by power companies. During the New Deal, they formed electrification co-ops that worked with things like the TVA to extend service.

These co-ops later became "telephone co-ops" that provided connectivity to America's underserved, rural populations. Today, the surviving electrification and telephone co-ops are performing techno-economic miracles.

In the US's poorest predominantly-white county, a surviving co-op got fiber to EVERY household, using a mule called "Ol Bub" to get to the most inaccessible homes. The county was flooded with $25/h telework jobs – tech support, education and more.

The connection between electrification and broadband was first made, AFAIK, by the brilliant Susan Crawford, whose " Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution—and Why America Might Miss It" is essential reading.

Meanwhile, the idea continues to spread, fuelled by the revealed truths of pandemic: in a new Techcrunch column, Kevin Frazier (Harvard Public Policy/Berkeley Law) makes the case for a Universal Basic Internet.

Frazier's proposal is explicitly based on the FDR-era Rural Electrification Administration, whose two polestars were employing and empowering community members, and teaching people "how to make the most of their newfound light."

REA didn't create electricity users, it created electricity owners. Just as the Depression "showed rural America had been left in the dark, COVID-19 has revealed the plight of the millions of Americans left offline."

The pandemic and the Frontier bankruptcy make the private sector's inadequacy and unsuitability to provide broadband undeniable. We wouldn't let AT&T; decide where our interstate highways go – your ability to get connected shouldn't be at their whim, either.

Airgap-busting malware (permalink)

A new report from ESET describes Ramsay, a piece of malware designed to infect and exfiltrate data from airgapped computers – computers that are never connected to the internet.

Ramsay relies on the fact that doing useful work on airgapped computers requires transfering files with removable media like thumbdrives. So Ramsay travels by thumbdrive: it infects a non-gapped computer, which infects the drive, which infects the airgap system.

Then, when another thumbdrive is inserted into the airgap system later, Ramsay transfers a payload of stolen files to it, and then when that drive is inserted into a net-connected system, the payload is transfered to the system and sent back over the internet.

Catalin Cimpanu's Zdnet writeup is really good and clear. He calls attention to ESET's observation that Ramsay seems linked to Darkhotel, a hacker group with ties to the South Korean government.

Deliveroo, without Deliveroo (permalink)

"Reclaiming Work" is a brilliant, 7-minute documentary on delivery platform co-ops around the world, created by Novara Media:

Delivery platforms like Grubhub and Deliveroo are parasitical, money-hemorrhaging dumpster fires that guts restaurateurs' margins and subject workers to brutal, precarious work, not to turn a profit, but to convince suckers to buy shares:

But food delivery itself is great! People who have good (well paid, stable, with benefits) jobs as delivery people enjoy the work! And as every Chinese restaurant in New York has proved, it's possible to deliver food and sustain a restaurant.

That's where "platform coops" come in. The apps that the platform companies created are not rocket surgery. Moderately skilled programmers can and do clone them without breaking a sweat.

A platform coop is a what happens when workers own the app and the service.

These are great for delivery: they professionalize it, with benefits, a living wage, predictable hours. It's a service that sustains workers and restaurants. It's the difference between a "two-sided market" (which gig companies claim to be) and a parasite (which they are).

It's not just delivery: Up & Go is a worker-owned home cleaning app that pays its worker-owners $25/hour:

While Austin's Ride pays its workers 25% more than Uber or Lyft. I'll never forget when I proposed that this could be done on a panel and an investor in the audience was outraged, convinced that Uber were fucking sorcerers or something.

Platform co-ops are proof that the most important thing about tech isn't what it does, it's who it does it to, and who it does it for

Podcast: Part 3 of Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (permalink)

My latest podcast is up! It's the third instalment of my reading of my 2005 novel, "Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town," which Gene Wolfe called "a glorious book unlike any book you’ve ever read."

It's the tale of a broadband-obsessed, retired serial entrepreneur living in Toronto's bohemian Kensington Market where he's helping crustypunk dumpster-divers build a citywide free mesh network. Also, his father is a mountain and his mother is a washing machine.

You can catch up on the reading here:

And if you want to hear an actual actor reading it, 10,000X better than I can, check out Bronson Pinchot's audiobook adaptation:

Here's the direct MP3 link (thanks as always to the Internet Archive for hosting – psst, they'll host your stuff for free, forever, too):

And here's the RSS feed to subscribe to my podcast (or just search your podcatcher for "Cory Doctorow Podcast"):

US insurers say paying for pandemic treatment is "selfless" (permalink)

The US health insurance industry is the only healthy thing in America. It's pulling down record profits and shelling out billions to its investors:

(Of course, that's not what they're telling lawmakers when they show up begging for a bailout – then they're crying into their hats about all their red ink):

The billions in pandemic profiteering aren't enough for the US health insurance industry, which is why its lobbying arm is demanding that Congress provide covid insurance through COBRA, a boondoggle that represents a massive industry profit-center:

Defending the proposal to the Senate, health industry spokesvillain Heather Meade of the Orwellian lobbying group "Alliance to Fight for Health Care" called it "a selfless act."

As David Sirota points out, health insurance is the only major industry whose normal procedure is for its customers not to know what they're getting. Insurers turn down 1 in 5 claims – they're basically, blind boxes, but for your life-saving healthcare.

The industry gobbles one in ten dollars of every US earner, and doesn't deliver. Insurance premiums have gone up 740% since 1984.

43 million Americans are projected to lose their insurance during this pandemic.

In America, health insurance is a product that safeguards your health, except when you're at risk of getting sick.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Saudi woman beats up religious cop

#10yrsago Ghostbusters attack budget cuts at the New York Public Library

#10yrsago Time to kill "Information Wants to Be Free"

#10yrsago New York Times headline writer allergic to the word "liar"

#5yrsago Blizzard bans 100,000 Warcraft players

#5yrsago Atlanta pays $20,000 to critic forced to post pro-cop message to Facebook

#1yrago Pangea raised $180m to buy up low-rent Chicago properties "to help poor people," and then created the most brutally efficient eviction mill in Chicago history

#1yrago Apple removed a teen's award-winning anti-Trump game "Bad Hombre" because they can't tell the difference between apps that criticize racism and racist apps

#1yrago AOC grills pharma exec aout why the HIV-prevention drug Prep costs $8 in Australia costs $1,780 in the USA

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Cassie Qaurless, Bruce Schneier (, Slashdot (, Four Short Links (, Naked Capitalism (, Metafilter (

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: The Case for a Job Guarantee, Pavlina Tcherneva

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 03)

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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