Pluralistic: 27 May 2020

Today's links

Youtube is automatically blocking criticism of the Chinese Communist Party (permalink)

Youtube's automated filter system is blocking comments critical of the Chinese Communist Party; a Google spokesperson called it "an error in our enforcement systems."

Banned phrases include "共匪” (“communist bandit”) and “五毛” (“50-cent party”).

The automated censorship has been taking place for at least six months, when the first support requests appeared on Youtube's own help pages.

The issue was brought to prominence this month by the activist Jennifer Zeng.

As The Verg's James Vincent notes, the censorship is all the weirder because Youtube and Google are banned in China.

Though the company did secretly develop a censoring/surveilling search tool ("Project Dragonfly") intended for the Chinese market, which was (allegedly) killed after googlers strongly objected to it once they discovered its existence.

Facebook shelved research that showed they were sowing division (permalink)

Leaked internal Facebook docs reveal that top company execs were told that the company's "engagement algorithm" was sowing division among its users, by feeding people ever-more-fringe versions of their own beliefs.

The slides warned that the algorithm served "more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform" and "64% of people who joined an extremist group on Facebook only did so because the company’s algorithm recommended it to them."

Writing in The Verge, Nick Statt attributes the emphasis on controversy to FB VP of Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan, an ex-GW Bush official who attended the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings to give moral support to the accused rapist.

Kaplan is Facebook's sop to the right; and he championed Facebook's political ad policy of allowing provable falsehoods to appear in paid political ads. He also sidelined proposals to weaken the influence of hyperpartisan "supersharers," who are disproportionately rightist.

Facebook's marketing material promises advertisers that it can use machine learning and surveillance data to convince potential customers to buy whatever they're selling, but, as with all marketing material, these self-serving claims should be viewed skeptically.

That said, I'm willing to believe that machine learning systems can "sort by controversial," making rough judgments about which material is likely to evince anger from readers, just by looking at simple signals like vocabulary choices (e.g. "pro-life" vs "pro-choice").

Sort by controversial is indeed cause for concern – but it's a far cry from the feats of mind-control that Facebook claims it can perform when it is trying to sell its advertising platform to marketers.

(Image: Rob Beschizza, modified)

Hertz's bankruptcy was caused by private equity looting (permalink)

I have a weird soft spot in my heart for Hertz, because they were the first company to offer satnav systems, and since I have a sense of direction so bad that it verges on a cognitive impairment, this saved my ass a million times in the 90s and 2000s.

So I was saddened more than I anticipated by the news that Hertz had filed for bankruptcy, felled by the one-two punch of Uber/Lyft weakening demand for short-term rentals and then pandemic killing demand altogether.

Except, that's not what killed Hertz. The company was killed by private equity looting. Ford sold the company to Clayton Dubilier & Rice in 2005 in a $14.8b "leveraged buyout."

That's when a plutes take out a loan on a company they don't own yet, in order to buy the company. That way, the new owners can suck huge sums out of their acquisition in "special dividends" while saddling the company with unsustainable debts.

PE colonized most sectors of the US economy, draining it of cash reserves and capital assets and drowning it with debt. It's why ER doctors and nurses are being laid off in the middle of a pandemic – their employers are PE companies, not hospitals.

It's really hard to overstate how grifty PE is. It is the final stage of late-stage capitalism, in which ever profitable business that provides a useful and beloved product or service is bankrupted, and its assets transferred to the super-rich.

Hertz's leveraged buyout was only six months old when the company paid $1B to its investors, "de-risking" them. A few months later, Hertz went public with a 95% debt-to-asset ratio (!). Swollen with IPO cash, Hertz grossly overpaid in acquisitions of Dollar and Thrifty in 2013.

Meanwhile, its private equity looters quietly "exited," leaving the company drowning in debt and saddled with overvalued acquisitions, its business model structured around grifty, performatively dull financial engineering.

Hertz created special purpose corporations that issued debt to buy cars that were then rented out and leased, while paying "coupons on the asset-backed securities, hoping to turn profits via the rentals combined with vehicle resale."

If you're reading that and feeling stupid because it's written in financial High Elvish, that's exactly how you're supposed to feel. "Baffle them with bullshit" is the only real financial business-model – like any con-artist, the billionaire grifter depends on it.

After all, they don't need to build a business that works – just one that doesn't immediately collapse, remaining upright until the grifter has blown town and deposited his winnings in an offshore account.

West Virginia's governor Jim Justice: billionaire, deadbeat (permalink)

Billionaire Jim Justice is the richest person in West Virginia, and he is the state's governor – a position he campaigned for by claiming that his riches proved that he was really good at money management.

But Justice didn't build his coal business – he inherited it (along with his name) from his daddy, and the business's growth since is largely attributable to the fact that Justice is a cheater who does not pay his bills.

The Justice companies have been named by in 600 lawsuits for nonpayment of bills, in dozens of states. The suits were "filed by workers, vendors, business partners, government agencies." He cheats tax-collectors, manufacturers, workers – even his own accountants and lawyers!

Justice loses these cases, but then he refuses to pay again, forcing his creditors to go back to court over and over again to collect the judgments they're owed.

Some of those frauds kill people. For example, when he stopped paying insurance premiums for his workers' health insurance, doctors started refusing to treat the chronic illnesses and injuries they acquired while working for his companies.

Justice was a deadbeat long before the coal downturn – he started getting sued for nonpayment of his bills in the 1990s. And the lawsuits kept rolling in at an accelerating clip, even after he became governor.

Among those: a settlement with the DoJ to pay $5m in "delinquent mine safety penalties," which Justice had stiffed the DoJ on for years.

Justice's grift started small, with wage theft from coal-miners, but he's not above stealing from his fellow plutes, or Uncle Sam.

Justice is such a crook that even other coal barons think he's unfit to govern. His bid for the governor's mansion was opposed by Bob "Eat Shit and Die, Bob" Murray, an ambulatory colostomy bag in a skinsuit.

Alas, he did manage to sucker the leadership of the United Mine Workers of America, who endorsed his gubernatorial campaign — and whom he later stiffed. They have withdrawn their endorsement.

If you want to explore the $128,000,000 in legal claims against Justice, Propublica's Ken Ward, Jr and Alex Mierjeski have you covered:

Twitter's porn filters are dampening discussions of "cumgate" (permalink)

Dominic Cummings is the UK prime minister's appointed advisor whose duties included establishing the quarantine rules he spectacularly violated AFTER he believed he had been exposed to coronavirus.

The scandal – #cumgate – is not trending on Twitter, despite its dominance of UK politics and the real possibility that it could take down the current government.

Why not? Because Twitter's porn-filters block the word "cum" from trending topics.

People who try to type Cumgate-related hashtags get autocomplete suggestions like "#cummnings, #dominiccummigs and #sackcummimgs". These suggestions have been chosen often enough that THEY have started to trend.

It's an example of the well-known "Scunthorpe" problem, which references a time when chatroom filters would block mentions of the English town because it contains a four-letter epithet.

Understanding Bayesian reasoning (permalink)

Notwithstanding the old saw about "lies, damned lies and statistics," stats are amazing tools for making analyzing and predicting the outcomes of complex processes. The field's disrepute springs from its counterintuitive foundations, which make stats easy to abuse.

But few fields reward careful study more than stats, both as a form of self-defense from deceptive statistics and as a way to understand the world better.

Of particular import is the work of Thomas Bayes, whose foundational statistical conclusions languished for centuries before being revived as the cornerstone of machine learning techniques.

Bayes's work isn't just for ML, though. It is through Bayes that we can understand why a covid test that is "90% accurate" can ALSO be wrong 66% of the time (no, really!).

In "An Intuitive Explanation of Bayes' Theorem: Bayes' Theorem for the curious and bewildered; an excruciatingly gentle introduction," Eliezer S Yudkowsky devotes 15,000 words to the subject (!).

If you find that daunting, try Better Explained's "An Intuitive (and Short) Explanation of Bayes’ Theorem," which I found both informative and straightforward.

And if you're more of a visual/auditor learner, try the 13.5m video version:

Ammosexuals point their guns at their crotches (permalink)

There are so many sayings about the foolishness of prioritizing inflicting pain on your opponents – "cutting off your nose to spite your face," "Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die," etc.

Today, I learned a new one.

"Pointing an unsafetied pistol at your own penis with your finger on the trigger to pwn the libs."

I've read through hundreds of comments on Dylan Park's thread in which he identifies the trend, but I remain totally baffled by it.

However, it might be a useful fact to cite the next time a musketfucker explains to me that my skepticism about gun ownership in unwarranted because gun enthusiasts are, by nature, respectful of firearm safety.

How to pay artists while fighting censorship and Big Tech (permalink)

Before the pandemic, the music industry was making more money than ever, more than at any time since the CD era in which audiences bought all their favorite music in a new format.

Despite this, musicians were faring worse than ever. It's not hard to understand why: with the music industry controlled by three major labels and a half-dozen Big Tech companies, the billions that music lovers shelled out were being trousered by giant corporations.

What's worse, all the efforts to fix this just entrenched the monopolies in music production and distribution – for example, the EU's Copyright Directive, which annihilates any online distribution platform that can't afford hundreds of millions for copyright filters.

Some musicians' groups hoped it would force tech companies to share fairly. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth – copyright filters trap EVERYTHING, irrespective of whether it infringes, but only Big Content has the direct line to Big Tech to get it unblocked.

Meaning musicians who didn't sign with a label had no hope of independent distribution. And only the Big Tech companies could afford to operate under the new rules. It wasn't a tax on Big Tech, it was a license to dominate the internet…forever.

But there's a better way – a solution that's been tried and proven for more than a century: blanket licenses, like the ones we use for radio, concert halls and other venues, and recorded covers.

Here's how an internet blanket license would work:

  • An online service signs up, paying a fee based on the number of users. If your service has one user, it will pay 1/2.5b of the sum that Facebook (with 2.5b users) pays
  • An independent collecting society uses statistical sampling to figure out which music is being played online
  • They distribute the money they collect to artists and labels, with a minimum of 50% of revenues going straight to artists, no matter what their contracts say

Under this system, artists would always get paid, even if they'd been shafted in their contract with a Big Three label. And anyone could start an online music service that would rise or fall based on technical excellence, not the ability to cut deals with labels.

There are a LOT of details that need to be worked out (with all stakeholders) here, like how you keep the collecting society honest, how you measure the accuracy of the statistical sampling system, how you divide music among multiple creators, etc.

I don't pretend that these are simple questions! But they are MUCH simpler than the question of "How do you get musicians paid by shifting a few points from Big Tech's balance-sheet to Big Content's balance-sheet?"

Before the internet came along, blanket licenses ensured that anyone could open a club, start a radio station, or play music in their bookstore. But with the internet, the music industry unwisely decided to replace the principle of blanket licenses with one-off licenses.

The result was auctions that only sold to the highest bidder – with the result that all the other bidders went out of business, and the high bidders stopped having to worry about competition, and used that market power to extract an ever-larger share of entertainment income.

Money talks and bullshit walks. Campaigning for Big Tech to pay the Big Three more is not the same as getting musicians paid. If we want to pay musicians, we should establish a rule that says, "When music makes money, musicians get paid."

NOT: "When music makes money, musicians get paid, provided they were able to negotiate a favorable contract with a monopolist."

This rule doesn't just get musicians paid, it also puts them on the right side of free expression, by ending the need for mass surveillance and trigger-happy automated censorship as backstops for today's dysfunctional mess.

The Toronto Star's new owners donated to far-right Tories (permalink)

The Toronto Star is Canada's largest-circulating newspaper, a venerable institution that was the inspiration for Superman's Daily Planet. They're a partisan paper in the British tradition, well understood to be in the tank for Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party.

Until now.

The paper (and its other holdings, including the Hamilton Spectator and dozens of other papers) just sold for $52m to a new Manitoba company called Nordstar Capital LP, which promised a "commitment to progressive positions and fearless journalism."

But as Canadaland revealed, the principles of Nordstar, Jordan Bitove and Paul Rivett, are long-time, major donors to Canada's Conservative party, which has drifted into Trumpian far-right, white nationalist territory.

And among the Tories that Nordstar's principals donated to are those same far-right/white-nationalists. For example, Rivett backed both Maxime Bernier and Doug Ford.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Bulk of American calories comes from sweet drinks

#15yrsago Schwarzenegger creates, then fills Potemkin pothole

#15yrsago Schwarzenegger creates, then fills Potemkin pothole

#10yrsago Canada's copyright minister: superinfringer

#10yrsago Pinkwater's ADVENTURES OF A CAT-WHISKERED GIRL, sequel to Neddiad and Yggyssey

#10yrsago Soviet Hobbit illustrations

#5yrsago Real estate bubble drives urban blight

#1yrago Profiles of young Americans who entered voluntary exile rather than paying their student loans

#1yrago Gabriel Zucman: the Piketty-trained "wealth detective" who catalogued the secret fortunes of the super-rich and figured out how to tax them

#1yrago AT&T;'s dystopian advertising vision perfectly illustrates the relationship between surveillance and monopoly

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Ars Technica (, Super Punch (, Naked Capitalism (, Milena Popova (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 509 words (19999 total).

Currently reading: Adventures of a Dwergish Girl, Daniel Pinkwater

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

Upcoming appearances: Discussion with Nnedi Okorafor, Torcon, June 14

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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