Pluralistic: 29 May 2020

Today's links

Big Tech distorts our discourse (permalink)

Big Tech companies have a lot to answer for, so it's only natural that they get a lot of the blame for problems in our world, including the way that our discourse has become toxic and conspiracy-filled.

One popular explanation for Big Tech's role in this is the idea that Big Tech invented a powerful brainwashing system that used machine learning to predict how people would react to advertisers' messages, and this was hijacked by political operatives as a brainwashing tool.

Exhibit A for this theory is Big Tech's own marketing claims – the things they tell advertisers when they're explaining why advertisers should pay them a lot of money to buy ads on their service.

Self-serving marketing claims should be viewed with extreme skepticism.

People have been claiming to have invented brainwashing systems for thousands of years. Every one of them was either deluded or a charlatan. It's possible to change peoples' minds by appealing to their reason or by controlling narratives over long timespans.

But the CIA/pickup artist/Cambridge Analytica claim that if you merely phrase your message in the right way, you can convince people that up is down and left is right? That always turned out to be a lie, a trick, or a coincidence.

You don't have to believe that Big Tech has used machine learning to perfect the mind-control ray to believe that Big Tech is really bad for our discourse.

The industry's concentration means that it can control who speaks, and who hears what they say.

It controls which facts are visible when we do research. it controls which media is at the top of the chart, and which is buried thousands of screens down. You can ABSOLUTELY condemn Big Tech for destroying our discourse without having to believe in mind-control.

This matters.

If Big Tech has/ perfected mind-control, then "Big" doesn't matter. Indeed, breaking Big Tech in to smaller pieces just scatters mind-control rays into more hands.

If Big Tech's discourse distortion is about Bigness, and not mind-control, then we have an obvious remedy: antitrust, and its suite of tools, from breakups to merger scrutiny to structural separation.

I am no tech exceptionalist. Big Tech is run by the same ordinary mediocrities that run any industry. They're not supergeniuses (though some, high on their own supply, believe that they are!).

The same tools that tamed the oil barons and the rail barons and the phone barons will tame the tech barons. Tech is unexceptional, and so no exception need be made.

How the IoT reinforces gentrification (permalink)

Documentarian Brett Gaylor continues his run of outstanding short documentaries on the perils of the Internet of Things for the CBC. Last week, it was his short film on climate change and machine learning.

Now he's back with a smart, riveting 8 minutes on how smart doorbells and predictive policing reinforces gentrification, basically creating a mesh of fully automated karens that call the cops on anyone who "looks wrong."

Gaylor tells his story on LA's Skid Row, a no-man's-land where, for decades, homeless people were herded into and left alone with little support — but also with little official attempts to remove them.

Today, as downtown LA surges, the interface where Skid Row rubs up against expensive condos has become a highly automated, fully surveilled battlefield. It's a place where algorithms tell cops to go to "find crime" (by definition, cops find crime where they look for it).

And it's a place where machine learning, facial recognition and networked sensors form a virtual chase-team that harries some of the worst-off people on the continent.

Private equity goes mainstream (permalink)

Private equity was always a catastrophically destructive grift. Just ask employees of the Olive Garden, Toys R Us or Sears. And PE's expansion into health care was terrible even before the pandemic. But man, has PE's toxic nature been revealed by the crisis.

It's like we spent a couple decades worrying about the coming storm, but assuring ourselves that at least the house had strong walls and a good roof and foundation – only to discover that termites had turned it all into lacework and then fucked off to a financial secrecy jurisdiction.

PE, not the pandemic, killed Hertz.

Ditto movie theaters:

PE is why hospitals are laying off ER doctors and nurses even as the ERs themselves are heaving with patients:

And PE is swimming in cash, and firehosing it around, scooping up bargains during the pandemic, so they can destroy more businesses and make more plutes even richer when the health emergency is over.

PE is both incredibly, performatively dull, and also a really simple form of fraud. It's a con and it only works because it is performed in Financial High Elvish, so the people doing it sound really smart and make you feel stupid.

But once the boringness is punctured, it deflates, and leaves behind the contempt that PE deserves.

Oh, look, it's The Onion.

"Protestors Criticized For Looting Businesses Without Forming Private Equity Firm First"

“Look, we all have the right to protest, but that doesn’t mean you can just rush in and destroy any business without gathering a group of clandestine investors to purchase it at a severely reduced price and slowly bleed it to death."

"It’s disgusting to put workers at risk by looting. You do it by chipping away at their health benefits and eventually laying them off. There’s a right way and wrong way to do this."

What to do about the police (permalink)

US police brutality stories raise a lot of important structural questions about how policing works here. How can a law-enforcement system repeatedly produce so many spectacularly lethal outcomes? What kind of idiotic operation are cops running, anyway?

I mean, how do cops with long histories of violent misconduct stay on the force? How do cities end up shelling out millions to bail out violent and crooked cops, and then those cops get to keep their jobs and reoffend until their body-count crosses some threshold?

What kind of police force produces officers who literally drive down the street indiscriminately gassing unarmed people with their hands in the air?

Criminal defense attorney T Gregg Doucette lays out fifteen concrete structural deficits in US policing that explain much (but not all) of the violence, corruption and impunity that characterize American policy violence and discrimination.

Doucette starts with "qualified immunity" – a judge-created doctrine that effectively excuses almost any police misconduct, no matter how blatant it is. Under QI, cops who commit crimes can't be sued if the crime wasn't "clearly established" at the time.

This superficially reasonable idea is, in fact, a license to commit any crime. Like, California cops who stole $100K in gold coins were not punished because no statute said "Don't steal gold coins" (the statutes merely said "Do not steal").

As Doucette says, "If a police officer chokes someone to death for sport, you'd say 'killing for sport is illegal!' Then a judge'd say 'just killing them with his shin, not with his knee.'"

And the double-whammy of QI is that it keeps suits from being brought, which keeps evidence from being entered into the record, which keeps "clear definitions" from being generated, which means that cops can repeatedly engage in the same midconduct without sanction.

Doucette moves on to other structural issues in US policing, like the fact that cops don't need to carry malpractice insurance, so, on the one hand, there's no difference between the cost of employing a repeat offender vs a cop with a squeaky-clean record.

And on the other hand, taxpayers have to shell out millions to make amends for crimes committed by cops.

Other issues: cops are undereducated, hired young, don't need to live in the neighborhoods they police.

And police departments aren't required to publish "Brady lists" of cops whom prosecutors have documented as serial liars who cannot be called upon to testify.

Police unions cut "sweetheart deals" with cities that worsen these deficiencies by tying the city's hands when cops commit crimes.

More: De-escalation is not a mandatory part of police training (quite the contrary, cops are trained and equipped for "domestic warfare").

Cops are allowed to use traffic stops as a pretense for fishing expeditions and this power is primarily targeted against people of color.

The arresting cop is also the investigating the crime – so the arresting officer is incentivized to plant evidence, lie, etc, to "win."

Federal prosecutors are extremely reluctant to prosecute cops, even repeat offenders who commit murder. Amy Klobuchar did not prosecute George Floyd's murderer when he committed other assaults on the people he was sworn to protect.

There is no reliable, comprehensive database of police violence and killing. You can't respond to problems if you're not measuring them.

Centuries of court decisions have riddled the 4th, 5th and 8th Amendments with loopholes, leaving the Bill of Rights in tatters.

Doucette: "For example, at the federal level the Supreme Court has ruled it's totally 100% fine for the police to violate your Fourth Amendment rights as long as they do so 'in good faith.'"

Penalties for crimes committed while wearing a badge are weaker than the penalties for the same crimes when committed by "civilians" (a term I despise, cops should not be a military force). They should be more harsh.

I said at the start of this thread that Doucette's list of structural deficiencies in US policing is incomplete, and I'm sure he'd agree with me. One important point to raise in the context of the racist elements of US police malpractice is the origin of US policing.

American policing is rooted in "Slave Patrols" – literally vigilante forces whose job was to return Africans who'd escaped enslavement to the monsters who'd enslaved them.

It's conceivable that an institution could overcome roots as blighted as this, but that is a huge, deliberate undertaking. It's not something that happens automatically if you ignore it long enough.

So to Doucette's excellent list of reforms, I'd add one more: a frank, well-funded, wide-ranging truth and reconciliation process to explicitly grapple with America's white supremacist history and its connection to law enforcement.

I'm pretty confident that Doucette would agree with this one. After all, he spearheaded the campaign that forced the UNC to abandon its plans to hand millions of dollars to a white nationalist group to build a Klan museum.

Masks work (permalink)

Writing in the Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, Oxford Primary Care Prof Trish Greenhalgh presents a peer-reviewed "Comprehensive Review" of the efficacy of masks in the context of the covid-19 pandemic.

tldr: Masks work.

Greenhalgh invited colleagues who disputed this to make their best arguments, then she rebutted each of those arguments, citing both public health practice and studies.

She starts by noting that "face covering" (she dislikes the term mask, but I'm gonna use it here for brevity) skeptics "completely ignore various types of evidence… basic science, mathematical modelling and real‐world case examples of asymptomatic transmission…"

The most important point for me in her work is that the majority of debate centers on research about whether masks protect wearers, but the point of asking the public to mask up is to prevent spreading – that is, to protect people other than the wearer.

The evidence that even non-medical masks do this is pretty strong, especially masks that use two layers of "different fabrics with different physical and electrostatic properties." These appear to filter 90% of droplets.

The way to control the pandemic is to reduce the number of people each newly infected person spreads the disease to until it is below one. With "R0 < 1," the number of infections will steadily decline.

And it really looks like masks – even bad masks worn badly by many people – can knock covid-19's R0 below 1. That is, cloth masks can reverse the curve and end the pandemic.

What's more, the evidence against masks is really weak, including studies purporting to show that mask-wearing may encourage riskier behavior, or that masks will cause anxiety, or facial rashes, or other negative outcomes.

Bottom line: "Mathematical modelling suggests that a face covering that is 60% effective at blocking viral transmission and is worn by 60% of the population will reduce R0 to below 1.0. This leaves plenty of room for error as people make their own imperfect coverings from old clothing and as some people either cannot or will not wear a face covering."

Walmart's crummy anti-theft AI (permalink)

Employees at Walmart HQ are so concerned about the terrible performance of "Everseen" – the theft detector that monitors the self-checkout system – that they made a slick video detailing its inadequacies and sent it to Wired journalist Louise Matsakis.

The employees – who style themselves the Concerned Home Office Associates – say they're "past their breaking point" with Everseen (which they call "Neverseen") and detail many ways in which it generates both false positives and false negatives.

For example, if you stack two of the same product atop each other and swipe only the bottom one, the system will not sound a theft alert. But if you set down your cellphone in the scanning area, it will dispatch a staffer to investigate.

This was a nuisance and worse before the pandemic, but as infections race through Walmart staff, sometimes killing them, false positives that force staff to interact closely with customers who'd otherwise be able to self-checkout presents potentially lethal risk.

Meanwhile, "Everseen declined to answer questions about its technology. In a statement, a spokesperson said the company 'accurately and effectively identifies potential theft [sic] is why retailers have successfully deployed it at thousands of locations to date…"

It's like an AI grifter checklist: magical claims about controlling undesirable people, works little better than a random number generator, refuses to discuss details…

There's only one thing missing: a deeply disturbing promotional video offering a vision of robotic authoritarianism.

Oh, wait!

GOP lawmaker hid his diagnosis from Democrats (permalink)

Pennsylvania State Rep Andrew Lewis showed up for work at the state house with coronavirus. Speaker Mike Turzai warned his Republican caucus that they might have been exposed. He did not tell Democrats in the legislature.

The whole PA GOP caucus appear to be fully paid-up members of the Flu Klux Klan. After Rep Russ Diamond was exposed, he self-isolated…but didn't bother to get a test.

Fun fact. The motto on Diamond's Twitter bio is "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

Ironic that when he found out he might be infectious, he didn't get tested?

The incident provoked an epic rant from Democratic Rep Brian Sims, who blasted the state GOP for failing to wear masks in the legislative chamber and blithely assuring voters that it was safe to go back to work.

Canadians newsrooms restructure as co-ops (permalink)

Groupe Capitales, a chain of Quebec newspapers, has been saved from bankruptcy after its workers formed a co-operative, a move that doubled its paid subscriber base.

The workers formed a co-op after the bankrupt chain failed to find a buyer. It's the largest newsroom co-op in the country, and the newsroom staff have each pledged 5% of their pay to cover the co-op's expenses.

What's more, the co-op plans to open membership to readers, though they will not get a say in editorial policy: "You contribute and you can vote on some topics, but editorial independence of the paper has to be maintained."

"As COVID-19 continues to afflict newsrooms, Le Soleil plans to stick to what’s working: listening to their readers. As Carignan said: 'In the co-op model, yeah, we are the owners, but our boss is our community.'"

Get a peronalized, signed Poesy the Monster Slayer (permalink)

My first-ever picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer, which First Second books is publishing on Jul 14. The book is about a little girl who refuses to go to bed because she's having more fun turning her toys into monster-hunting weapons.

It's an epic tale of bedtime resistance, toy-hacking, monsters, and parental perseverance (Poesy's parents are slowly turned into zombies because they can't get any sleep – setting up the final monster battle!).

The whole thing is beautifully illustrated by Matt Rockefeller.

And of course, it was inspired by my own daughter, Poesy, who, at 12, says she's now too old for picture books (although sometimes I sneak one in at bedtime!).

On July 11, Poesy and I will pick up a box of pre-orders of Poesy the Monster Slayer from our local indie bookstore, Dark Delicacies, which has survived both an eviction and coronavirus.

We'll sign and personalize your pre-orders and Dark Delicacies will get them in the mail on so that they arrive by July 14 (assuming the USPS is still functional!).

I've said many times that this is the monster book I wish I'd had as a kid and I wish I'd been able to read to my kid when she was a littlie. For a while there, it was looking like we wouldn't be able to sign pre-orders for other kids, but Dark Delicacies came through for us.

That's the kind of folks Del and Sue at Dark Delicacies are! That's why, when they lost their lease, everyone from Guillermo Del Toro to Neil Gaiman rallied around them and raised more than $30k to help them relocated.

I count myself so lucky to have such a great bookseller within walking distance of my front door – and I'm so pleased to be doing these pre-orders with both my daughter (this is a daddy-daughter first for us!) and them.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Copyright prevented transmission of Beatles music to aliens

#1yrago The UK grew rich by looting the world; now it launders billions for other looters

#1yrago Boris Johnson may be the UK's next Prime Minister, but he's up on criminal charges for Brexit "Battle Bus" lies

#1yrago Open Insulin: biohackers trying to create a "microbrewery" for insulin as an answer to price-gouging

#1yrago How DRM has permitted Google to have an "open source" browser that is still under its exclusive control

#1yrago Chinese environment ministry finds widespread pollution coverups and corruption at the local government level

#1yrago Trump's new climate czar has repeatedly and unrepentantly compared efforts to reduce CO2 to Hitler's slaughter of 6,000,000 Jews

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Late Stage Capitalism, (, Naked Capitalism (, Super Punch (, Metafilter (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 529 words (21044 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: Get a personalized, signed copy 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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