Pluralistic: 12 Jun 2020

Today's links

Unauthorized water (permalink)

It's not clear when General Electric started boobytraping appliances with DRM. I first encountered it in January when Shane Morris tweeted about his fridge refusing to accept the $19 generic filter he replaced the GE $55 filter with.

The fridges use an RFID detector to distinguish original GE filters from generic replacements, and engage in lots of anti-owner trickery, like memorizing the IDs of previously used filters and refusing to accept them.

Morris isn't the only one ourtaged that his fridge is plotting against him. One (anonymous) owner was so offended that they created a site dedicated to warning off potential buyers and explaining to other suckers how to bypass GE's lockouts.

There's a good reason for the anonymity. Under Sec 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, showing how to bypass an "access control" to a copyrighted work (eg RFID-detecting code in the fridge) is a potential felony, carrying a 5-year prison sentence and a $500k fine.

This is quite the moral hazard. Manufacturers have learned that if they design their products so that any use that hurts their shareholders (like buying third party parts) requires bypassing DRM, it becomes a felony to use your own property to your own advantage.

Which is why we've seen DRM creep into all manner of devices, from insulin pumps to tractors to car engines to Iphone screens. "Felony contempt of business model" is the statute that every monopolist has dreamt of, and with DMCA 1201, they have it in their grasp.

Back in 2011, I wrote a short story about this for MIT Tech Review's first sf anthology, called "The Brave Little Toaster" (in tribute to Tom Disch).

The issue only got worse, and so last year I published "Unauthorized Bread" as part of my collection "Radicalized" (it's being turned into a TV show by Topic):

The metastasis of DRM into every product category shows that when business apologists talk about the sanctity of property, they mean the sanctity of corporate property.

If the manufacturer gets to override your decisions about the things you buy – and felonize any attempt to wrest control back – they property ceases to exist. We become tenants of our devices, not owners.

It's digital feudalism, in which an elite owns all the property and we get to use it in ways they proscribe. The difference is that today, our aristocracy isn't even human.

It's the immortal, remorseless colony organism called the Limited Liability Corporation, to which we are mere inconvenient gut flora.

Remote portraiture (permalink)

Lockdown is hard on every profession, but I hadn't really thought about how it impacts portrait photographers until I read about how Fran Monks is shooting "socially distanced portraits" using videoconferencing tools.

Monks's work is mostly wide frame, capturing her subjects in the spaces to which they are confined; she sets up the shot over videoconferncing, then photographs her screen with a traditional camera.

"Even though the images are made by layer upon layer of digital process, I enjoy the fact that the black border of the computer screen is somewhat reminiscent of a darkroom print from a negative."

Stream the Little Brother stage play (permalink)

The Custom Made Theater Company's 2012 stage version of my novel Little Brother played to sold out houses in San Francisco, and ever since it closed, I've heard from people who wanted to see it.

Last month, we figured out how to make that happen.

Between now and Jun 28, you can stream the stage production, thanks to the excellent work of playwright Josh Costello and the company. It's name-your-price with funds going to the theater company and the Theatre Bay Area Performing Arts Worker Relief Fund.

If you enjoy it – and I really think you will, as it's totally brilliant – you might be interested in the third Little Brother book, Attack Surface, which Tor Books is publishing in Oct (Head of Zeus books in the UK).

HBO Max, a monopolist's parable (permalink)

There are so many reasons to dunk on HBO Max: its confusing name (quick, what's the difference between HBO, HBO Max, HBO Go, and HBO Now?), its terrible UI, and so on.

But worst of all is what it embodies about monopolies.

HBO, of course, is part of Time-Warner, which is part of AT&T; (a garbage company).

AT&T; caps its customers' data, but not when it comes to HBO Max. So if you're a Netflix subscriber, every video you watch brings you closer to massive excess bandwidth charges.

But if you're an AT&T; subscriber, HBO Max is "free" (in the sense that the monopoly provider you're forced to use for internet access doesn't charge you directly – merely uses your viewing habits to try to destroy all alternatives).

(Incidentally, the US has some of the slowest, most expensive broadband in the world, and the poorer, Blacker and more rural you are, the more you pay and the less you get. Fun fact!).

Now, AT&T;'s competitors – Disney+, Netflix, or a new service that's trying to enter the market – can pay AT&T; to have their data exempted from the caps. But when Disney pays AT&T;, money actually changes hands, making Disney poorer and AT&T; richer.

This is fundamentally different from what happens when HBO Max "pays" AT&T; for preferential treatment – in that case, no money changes hands. The company just uses an accounting trick to arbitrarily allocate some share of the profits to the broadband division instead of TV.

Fine, you're getting HBO Max. Maybe you're even paying for it! You wanna put it on your TV, which came with Roku built in. Or maybe you want to use that Amazon Fire stick you bought.

Tough shit.

AT&T; only lets you put the video you're watching on your screen if you use a device that it has greenlit, based on backroom deals that are totally opaque to you.

Back in 2016, we almost got an "Unlock the Box" order from the FCC, that would have forced cable cos to allow you to buy ANY cable box and use it with the service you paid for, instead of paying eternal rent for an underpowered, electricty-hungry crapgadget of their choosing.

AT&T; and its co-monopolists killed Unlock the Box by saying that cable boxes didn't matter anymore because everything would move to streaming anyway.

As Katharine Trendacosta writes, "In the cord-cutting era, Roku and Amazon Fire TV have 70% of the market share for these kinds of devices. Users are stuck in the middle of a fight between giants just to watch content they supposedly get for 'free' or have already paid for."

"We need more choices for our ISPs, so they can’t keep charging us more for bad service. We need more choices so they can’t leverage their captive audiences for their new video services. We need net neutrality so these giant companies can’t create fiefdoms where they manipulate how we spend our time online. And we need our technology to be freed from corporate deals so we get what we paid for."

NY repeals 50-a (permalink)

Since the pre-internet days, the NYPD had posted its "Personnel Orders" (reports from closed-door disciplinary proceedings) to a clipboard in its public information office, explicitly so that journalists could look at these reports.

In 2016, the NYPD abruptly stopped. Their excuse? They needed to "save paper."

No, really.

But the real reason came out later, as Tim Cushing recounts: "An NYPD spokesman said someone in the PD's legal bureau had re-read the 1976 law and realized the NYPD had no obligation to turn over this info to the public. So it stopped."

The law in question is "50-a" – the notorious pretence that NY cops, firefighters, and corrections officers use to suppress reports of their official wrongdoing:

NY lawmakers have been trying to get 50-a fixed for half a decade, and they're finally succeeded, with a bill passing the state senate 40-22 (every GOP senator voted nay), and the assembly 101-43.

Orgs that provide cover for police misconduct are wetting their pants over this, with a coalition of "law enforcement groups" publishing a statement warning of “unavoidable and irreparable harm to reputation and livelihood" of cops if misconduct is reported to the public.

Cushing: "These are your nation's law enforcement reps, ladies and gentleman. And in the face of incremental accountability improvements, they're issuing statements so self-serving that those issuing them are blind to the inherent stupidity of their claims."

(Image: Nick.Allen, CC BY, modified)

Openshc (permalink)

Have you built a quasi-static multilegged robot, only to find yourself struggling to provide it with body poses and gaits?

Openshc is here for you!

It's got full C++ source for ROS (Robot OS), under a BSD/MIT-license variant (CSIRO) and it "can be easily deployed on legged robots with different sensor, leg and joint configurations" (works on simulated robots too!)

Here's an computer science/robotics paper describing the research behind it:

MIT dumps Elsevier (permalink)

After a protracted negotiation, MIT Libraries has announced that it will no longer be subscribing to scholarly journals from the tech publishing giant @ElsevierConnect.

MIT Libraries has developed a "framework for publisher contracts" that sets out the terms under which it will buy scholarly and scientific publishers' products, intended to safeguard "equitable and open access to scholarship."

None of the deals offered by Elsevier lived up to these principles.

Elsevier is the one of the biggest scholarly publishers in the world.

Like its competitors, it does not pay for the research it publishes, nor does it pay for the scholarly peer reviewers or much of the editorial work.

In 2016, a peer-reviewed paper that compared preprints to journal articles found that companies like Elsevier contribute virtually nothing to the papers they publish (the preprints are nearly identical to the final product).

Despite procuring their content and labor for free from scholars employed by universities and other institutions, companies like Elsevier extract huge payments from those very same institutions, while severely limiting scholars' ability to disseminate their own research.

Protecting this nakedly inequitable situation requires all kinds of extraordinary measures, such as securing "blocking orders" requiring national censorship of competing scholarly repositories.

And as publishers get bigger and tap out existing revenue streams, they turn to weirder and worse ways of making money. A decade ago, Elsevier spun out a division that published fake scientific journals as marketing tools for pharma companies.

MIT is a major institutional customer for Elsevier, so this is an important milestone. but even more importantly, more than 100 other universities have signed onto the MIT Libraries principles, which bodes ill for Elsevier's future negotiations.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Two million CueCats at $0.30/each

#15yrsago Petition for Canadian abortion doctor's honorary doctorate

#5yrsago Fury Road Ponies: Guzziline is Magic!

#1yrago Twitter's anti-Nazi policies result bans on pictures of anti-Nazi books

#1yrago In homeless LA, the families, retirees and working people who live in their cars are desperate for overnight parking

#1yrago It Feels Good to Be Yourself: a sweet, simple picture book about gender identity

#1yrago Machine learning classifiers are up to 20% less accurate when labeling photos from homes in poor countries

#1yrago The latest popular uprising in Hong Kong is fighting to keep Beijing from dragging dissidents to mainland China

#1yrago When you take a commercial genetic test, you opt your whole family into warrantless state genetic surveillance

#1yrago A deep dive into stalkerware's creepy marketing, illegal privacy invasions, and terrible security

#1yrago Amazon unveils a new Echo Dot surveillance device for children

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Forteller (, Tim Harford (, Don Hayler, Slashdot (, Four Short Links (

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 576 words (26466 total).

  • A short story, "Making Hay," for MIT Tech Review. Yesterday's progress: 302 words (302 total)

Currently reading: Adventures of a Dwergish Girl, Daniel Pinkwater

Latest podcast: How Big Tech Monopolies Distort Our Public Discourse

Upcoming appearances:

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:; personalized/signed copies here:

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