Pluralistic: 21 May 2020

Today's links

Walt's grandson calls for Disney execs' bonuses to be canceled (permalink)

On its face, Disney's announcement that it was furloughing workers and cutting exec salaries made it seem like execs and workers were in it together – but as heiress Abigail Disney pointed out, top execs' compensation is mostly stock based:

Things are looking increasingly dire for the front line Disney workers who are going without salary.

Now, another Disney family member has raised similar concerns: Walt Disney's grandson Brad Lund told The Daily Beast that total exec compensation should be cut further and the sums distributed to financially insecure workers:

To its credit, Disney has cancelled plans to pay dividends to shareholders (another source of executive compensation) and has not ruled out cancelling bonuses at the end of the year.

The Lost Cause and MMT (permalink)

Last summer, I recorded a two-part interview with the MMT podcast, discussing how my activism and science fiction intersect with Modern Monetary Theory, a lens for understanding the role of money in our economies:

I was delighted to be invited back on to talk about the novel I'm writing, "The Lost Cause," in which MMT has enabled a just climate transition to a Green New Deal, but without getting rid of reactionary elements who stood in its way.

The episode is just out and it's awfully fun and funny, and we talk about a lecture I'm planning to give to a World Economic Forum AI workshop on why I think technological unemployment is a distraction.

The climate emergency will demand full employment for all of us and our children and their children for hundreds of years, doing things like relocating every coastal city in the world several kilometers inland.

That's just for starters.

Keynes once proposed a thought experiment for kickstarting a moribund economy by paying half of the unemployed workers to dig holes and the other half to fill them in.

We spent 150 years subsidizing our ancestors to dig up fossil fuels, and now we have to pay our descendants to spend 200-300 years getting them back into the ground.

Image: Molly Crabapple/The Intercept

Patent troll sues ventilator makers (permalink)

What's the lowest, scummiest thing a patent troll could do? How about suing a bunch of ventilator manufacturers during the coronavirus pandemic, for violating a bullshit patent that never should have been granted in the first place?

Swirlate IP is a patent troll (its whose sole product is lawsuits) that filed suit against five ventilator companies: Resmed, Livongo Health, Corning Optical Communications, Badger Mete and Continental Automotive, claiming they infringed on US patents 7,567,622 and 7,154,961.

These are classic bullshit software patents, claiming ownership to most forms of data-transfer. Panasonic (to its shame) applied for the patent in 2002, the heyday of bullshit software patents. Now it's owned by Swirlate (Panasonic has a history of selling patents to trolls).

Swirlate asserts that anyone who uses LTE data-transfer needs to license its patents.

Swirlate itself has no office except for a Pack and Mail Shoppe mailbox in a stripmall in Plano, Texas, home to America's most patent-troll friendly courthouse.

United Patents says Swirlate is a front for IP Edge, a notorious firm of patent trolls owned by three IP lawyers that controls a vast swathe of shell companies that engage in this kind of shakedown.

Private equity's healthcare playbook is terrifying (permalink)

I was really struck by a biting insight on the state of US healthcare in a recent episode of the excellent Arm and a Leg podcast: America funds healthcare like a restaurant (dependent on optional "Sunday brunches" AKA elective procedure)…

But we really need healthcare that's funded like a fire-department (lots of reserve capacity to cope with rare, but catastrophic problems).

Where did the reserve capacity in US healthcare go? Into the pockets of private equity, an "investment" system that loads up useful, functioning real-economy businesses with debt, extracts all their value, and then leaves them to fail.

The private equity playbook is slippery and hard to get your head around because it combines out-and-out fraud with incredibly dull financial minutiae. It's like the Softbank/Uber/Doordash grift.

First, you have to overcome the scheme's stultifying complexity, and then you find yourself questioning your own comprehension because once you cut through the performative dullness of the scheme, it seems like a naked fraud. Could all these billions REALLY just be fraud?


Today's must-read long-read is Heather Perlberg's pitiless biopsy of the role of private equity in destroying the US health-care system, a metastatic cancer that has left it weak and unable to cope.

Here's how the con works. The American Medical Association prohibits non-doctors from profiting from medicine, so PE maintains the pretense that what it owns is a practice's "nonclinical" assets – administration, supplies, support staff, etc.

Externally, PE companies swear they're not involved in medical decisions. But when PE barons like Matt Jameson (BlueMountain Capital) pitch doctors behind closed doors, they say things like "It’s not going to be something where clinical is completely not touched."

Here's what that looks like: Doctors are pressured to advise patients to get more lucrative procedures. They see more patients/day. Patients are sent home with open wounds and come back the next day for stitches so they generate two bills.

Doctors are replaced with "physicians' assistants" – the pretence is that they're under a docs' supervision, even when the doc is in another city. These non-docs miss deadly skin cancers (when my daughter went to a PE-owned ER for a broken collarbone, she never saw a doc).

Docs are nickel-and-dimed on both procedures and administration: "A doctor at Advanced Dermatology says that waiting for corporate approvals means his office is routinely left without enough gauze, antiseptic solution, and toilet paper."

PE management is supposed to create economies of scale by merging mulitple practices and hospitals. In practice, these are actually diseconomies of scale: every lab, hospital and doctor's office in my neighborhood is owned by one PE group.

They've merged all the privacy and conset docs. Here's how that works: when you go to any medical facility, you get a "consent" form that covers everything any of the practices nationwide do. Getting blood drawn? You have to give blanket consent to all of it.

Literally. They asked me to consent to being involuntarily sedated, put in restraint, having surgery performed without my further consent, having the procedures videoed, and having those videos used "for any purpose."

And the privacy policy? You get a mag-strip to sign on.

"What's this?"

"It says you've read the privacy policy."

"Where's the privacy policy?"

Sighs, prints a doc, hands me a sheet. It has one sentence: I HAVE READ THE PRIVACY POLICY.

"This is the privacy policy"

The one administrative task PE excels at is negotiating higher rates with insurers.

But even with those higher rates, the practices lose money. But that's a feature, not a bug.

The practices lose money because they're heavily indebted, because PE companies take out huge loans against the practice's future incomes, and pay their investors giant special dividends out of the debt. When the practices default, they're sold to other PE companies.

Those companies take out even more debt, leaving the practices even more desperate, cutting more corners. Advanced Dermatology, a giant, PE-backed dermatology chain, had a pathological pathologist, Matt Leavitt, who gobbled meth while misdiagnosing medical conditions.

Dermatologists are hard hit by the crisis. They're prime targets for PE looting (apart from skin cancer, dermatology is almost all "Sunday brunch" medicine – elective, inessential, and thus not allowed to operate during lockdown).

So they're debt-loaded and shuttered, with payments to make. That's why Dr.Greg Morganroth, CEO of California Skin Institute, gave a webinar telling docs that they should consider themselves "essential" during the crisis and keep administering botox to boomers.

Eventually, it's crumble, just like all the other PE success stories, from Sears to Toys R Us. As U Connecticut prof Dr Jane Grant-Kels said, "There’s a limit to how much money you can make when you’re sticking knives into human skin for profit.”

And when it does, the US health system will be where the US restaurant system is: totally dependent on Sunday brunches that cannot resume for years to come, and circling the drain waiting for them to come back.

On Madame Leota's side-table (permalink)

One of the things that makes Disney's Haunted Mansion such a classic of the form is the wealth of fine details that seem coherent, even though it's hard to pin down exactly how they all join up.

Like the wee side-table in Madame Leota's seance room.

Long Forgotten has a (characteristically) excellent history of this tiny detail and how it changed through the years. It was likely a projector housing for a version of the show where Leota's face was on the other side of the crystal ball (this was scrapped prior to opening).

But it's also a great atmospheric piece, a version of the "Moroccan side table" (AKA a "Moorish," "Turkish," "Ottoman," "Syrian," "Anglo Indian" and "Arabesque" table) – a Victorian ubiquity that beautifully conjures up the era.

The tables are worked with the Star of Solomon, a bit of mysticism that also fits beautifully.

Disneyland's side table eventually proliferated to other Haunted Mansions around the world, subtle transformed for each environment.

Florida's version of the table was added in 2007: "According to production designer Neil Engel, who installed it, they found the table at a swap meet."

Alas, Florida's Mansion has since lost the beloved table/lamp/chair tableau from its load area.

Black Americans' covid mortality is 2.5X white mortality (permalink)

Black Americans are dying of coronavirus at 2.5 times the rate of white Americans, according to APM's Color of Coronavirus report. In Kansas, Black people are dying at 7 times the rate of white people.

"Senior Trump administration officials have blamed the disparities on the high incidence among black people of underlying health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity."

The CDC has dragged its feet on releasing race-based coronavirus stats, which is why APM has released its own report.

Coronavirus is an accelerant, making the slow process of systemic bias so fast that it can't be denied.

As Alissa Walker wrote, the disparity in NYC's and SF's death tolls can be explained by San Francisco's ethnic cleansing: "people who were most at risk from dying from covid [were pushed] to its surrounding counties long before the pandemic arrived."

Any discussion of how to redesign our living spaces after the pandemic that doesn't explicitly address racial disparities is totally non-credible.

Spotify's trying to kill podcasting (permalink)

Joe Rogan is getting $100m in exchange for putting his podcast behind Spotify's paywall.

Spotify has been on an extraordinary, acquisition- and exclusivity-driven spending spree, buying 15 companies, and doing deals like this one with Rogan. Wall Street loves this, and the Rogan deal sent Spotify's share price soaring.

Why does Wall Street like this? Because acquisition-driven growth is a great way to establish a monopoly in which rents are extracted from suppliers and customers to the benefit of shareholders.

That's why traditional, pre-Reagan antitrust banned "mergers to monopoly" and acquisitions of nascent competitors. Growth through acquisition means that companies succeed by having more money, not by having better products or prices. It's a winner-take-all death spiral

As Matt Stoller points out, even Rogan admits there are no consumer benefits from this deal: "It will be the exact same show. I am not going to be an employee of Spotify. We’re going to be working with the same crew doing the exact same show.”

In other words, the only difference is enclosure: taking something from the federated, open, competitive web and sticking it inside a walled garden. It's the App Store strategy, the Facebook strategy, the AOL strategy, the MSN strategy.

The internet is running out of open, federated platforms. There's the web (those parts of it that Facebook hasn't swallowed), email (same, but Gmail), RSS, and some Fediverse tools like Mastodon.

They're like national parks, tiny preserves for the open spaces that once dominated the landscape. And like national parks, every time they are discovered to have something good, a plute comes along to enclose them and charge admission.

Monopolies killed corporate R&D; (permalink)

Corporate R&D; was once an engine of American progress and competition. Because antitrust rules banned growth through buying competitors, companies had to invest in bold R&D; in order to grow.

As antitrust enforcement waned, so did R&D.; Research moved into universities, while companies specialized in "Development" – but tech transfer offices and other efforts to turn academic research into businesses were far less effective than in-house R&D.;

In-house labs had a dual role: they researched general purpose technologies, while solving practical problems. They had deep pockets and interdisciplinary teams – and often the research they did rippled out through the rest of industry (Xerox PARC and the GUI, AT&T; and Unix).

But as antitrust scrutiny was relaxed, companies could capture the same growth without the (society-benefiting) inefficiencies of in-house research. Rather than growing by doing stuff, they grew by buying stuff.

How spy agencies targeted Snowden journalists (permalink)

As explosive as the Snowden leaks were in their original reportage, some of their most fascinating and enduring legacies were the longer-form, analytical stories and memoirs of the events.

They started with Glenn Greenwald's excellent 2014 book "No Place to Hide," which focused on the case for privacy and the technical ins-and-outs of the revelations, describing both how the spying worked and how it eroded our democracy.

Then came Laura Poitras's stunning, Academy-Award-winning doc Citizenfour, which manages to be a technothriller, a portrait of Snowden, and a political call to arms, all at once.

Last year, Snowden published Permanent Record, his own memoir, which uses the incredible tradecraft details as an engine to drive a political manifesto that emerges from his autobiography.

There are oddities like Snowden's Box, which uses the tale of how Snowden got a hard drive from his home in Hawaii to Laura Poitras. It's a gorgeous little book, like a Ninety Nine Percent Invisible episode about privacy and surveillance, told by examining a single object.

The latest addition to the canon is Barton Gellman's Dark Mirror, which is excerpted at length in The Atlantic:

Gellman was already a multiple Pulitzer winner when Snowden contacted him, but (IMO) he did his best work after that moment.

So it's fascinating to read just this short excerpt – which has that awesome technothriller business going on, as Gellman discovers his devices are getting systematically hacked by (multiple?) spy agencies.

Gellman tries to protect himself, going to ever-greater lengths, though, as Schneier says, the Snowden journalists for all their trying were vastly outmatched:

For me, this excerpt demonstrates the adage that security favors attackers over defenders. There's a scene in the third Little Brother book, Attack Surface (which comes out on Oct 12), where a former surveillance contractor explains this to a protest group:

"I can show you how their spy shit works, and I can show you how to do spy shit of your own, but you’re going to lose. They get paid a lot of money to spy on you and they use that money to pay people like me to pay very, very close attention to you. If you keep them from spying on you, they don’t get paid. But neither do you. Not getting spied on is a serious job, a second job or maybe a third job, and it’s unpaid work, and you’re not very good at it.

"They need to use the money they get to find one tiny mistake you’ve made and then they get to crack your life wide open. You need to make zero mistakes in your unpaid second job. Third job. You are going to lose. And it’s a team sport. When you get compromised, the bad guys don’t just get to spy on you, they get to spy on everyone who communicates with you, everyone who trusts you."

For me, this is the central question of the Snowden revelations: is the reality of computers that they will always be easier to use as tools of oppression, or can they be used as tools of liberation, too?

Snowden was kind enough to write an intro for the omnibus reissue of Little Brother and Homeland that comes out this July where he digs into this issue.

Attack Surface – Little Brother III – is also available for pre-order, and pre-orderers get a free Marcus Yallow story as an ebook and audiobook when it comes out:

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Google offers encrypted search

#10yrsago Google and Viacom blend high-profile copyright suits with extreme profanity, as nature intended

#10yrsago Scientology raid uncovers dossiers on local "enemies": sexual habits, health info, political opinions

#10yrsago Secrets of a suitcase-packing ninja

#10yrsago The Boneshaker: magic, latter-day Bradburian novel for young adults

#5yrsago NSA wanted to hack the Android store

#5yrsago GM says you don't own your car, you just license it

#5yrsago Paper on changing peoples' minds about marriage equality retracted

#1yrago Facebook's Dutch Head of Policy lied to the Dutch parliament about election interference

#1yrago The empirical impact of Lyft and Uber on cities: congestion (especially downtown, especially during "surges"), overworked drivers

#1yrago The government of Baltimore has been taken hostage by ransomware and may remain shut down for weeks

#1yrago Massive, careful study finds that social media use is generally neutral for kids' happiness, and sometimes positive

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Tiest Vilee, Naked Capitalism (, Bruce Schneier (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 532 words (17919 total).

Currently reading: The Case for a Job Guarantee, Pavlina Tcherneva

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

Upcoming appearances: Controlled Digital Lending: Getting Books to Students During the Pandemic & Beyond, Friday May 22

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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