Pluralistic: 17 Jun 2020

Today's links

  • SF anthology to benefit covid charities: With Neil Gaiman, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Robert Silverberg, Jonathan Maberry, Seanan McGuire, Andrew Mayne, Scott Sigler, Orson Scott Card, Alan Dean Foster, A.C. Crispin and me.
  • Politics and sf: Highlights from my Torcon panel with Nnedi Okarafor.
  • Robots aren't stealing your job: Your boss is destroying it and blaming it on automation.
  • Earbuddy: "Enabling On-Face Interaction via Wireless Earbuds."
  • The Worm: 1975 National Aeronautics and Space Administration Graphics Standards Manual, NHB 1430.2 January 1976, Section 2.1 "Reproduction Art, Logotype."
  • CDA230: Americans don't trust Big Tech to moderate their communities.
  • Hue and cry, posses, sheriffs: What did we do before cops?
  • This day in history: 2005, 2010, 2015, 2019
  • Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming appearances, current writing projects, current reading

SF anthology to benefit covid charities (permalink)

Surviving Tomorrow is a new anthology whose entire profits go to pay for covid-19 tests for front-line workers. Contributors include Neil Gaiman, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Robert Silverberg, Jonathan Maberry, Seanan McGuire, Andrew Mayne, Scott Sigler, Orson Scott Card, Alan Dean Foster, A.C. Crispin…

And me.

You can get it in several editions, from a $5 ebook to a $109 collectable, numbered, super-limited, gold-embossed hardcover.

All told the anthology features 29 stories. You can see a list of the charities that your purchase benefits here:

Politics and sf (permalink)

Last weekend, Nnedi Okarafor and I did a really fun, wide-ranging panel on politics and sf for Tor Books' TorCon, moderated by Kayti Burt; it was the closing panel, and Tor has transcribed some of the highlights.

We started with our origin stories: I grew up in Toronto under the umbrella of Judith Merril, who was omnipresent and fantastically generous with her time; Nnedi found her sf/f interest came naturally out of the "mystical aspects" of the stories she wanted to tell.

Nnedi talked about how her writing process always starts with characters: "I’ve been writing about this particular character for a pretty long time, and she’s kind of existed in different ways and stories, but writing about her—it started with her."

And we discussed how sf can present "challenging issues and diverse world views for conversation and change."

Nnedi talked about how genre is a "skewed lens" to see painful issues with new eyes, "and when you see it with new eyes, you can see more."

I talked about how sf can give you a (possibly false and sometimes harmful) story to reach for when you need to understand what's going to happen in moments of crisis or extremis:

"As pulp writers, science fiction writers don’t want to confine themselves to man-against-man or man-against nature, we like the plot-forward twofer, where it’s man-against-nature-against-man, where the tsunami blows your house over and your neighbors come over to eat you. That kind of story of the foundational beastiality of humans does make for great storytelling, but it’s not true. That’s not actually what happens in crises.

"In crises, the refrigerator hum of petty grievance stops and leaves behind the silence to make you realize that you have more in common with your neighbors. It’s when people are are their best."

Robots aren't stealing your job (permalink)

You've probably heard a lot about how robutts are coming to steal your jerb, but even a cursory look at both employment stats and the state of automation tell a very different tale.

A pair of essays from Sareeta Amrute, Alex Rosenblat, and Brian Callaci from Data & Society take a deep dive into the reality of precarious employment and its relationship to automation.

In "Why Are Good Jobs Disappearing if Robots Aren’t Taking Them?" the authors blame the disappearance of good jobs not on automation, but on the ability of apps to circumvent employment law (the gig economy).

Tech also simplifies the process of outsourcing to low-waged, poor workers overseas, and surveillance and real-time predictive tools allow employers to shift the costs of slow business times onto their workers.

We hear a lot about how economic downturns prompt investment in automation, but the authors don't find that. Rather, "firms restructure in response to downturns in ways that create fewer permanent job opportunities than in the past."

Crises allow for permanent changes in employment norms: " What is at risk now, is that the management techniques of gig companies will become protected by U.S. law and embedded in the national economy."

There are few robots on the horizon in the US workplace: "The rate of productivity growth has been slowing, not accelerating, in recent years…At the same time, investments in capital equipment, information processing equipment, and software have been slowing since 2000."

On to part two: "The Robots are Just Automated Management Tools": the hallmarks of the modern workplace are "Surveil, Schedule, Speed Up" and all three are supercharged by tech.

Consider how workplaces use scheduling software to dynamically and unpredictably assign shifts in 15-minute increments, while equipping workers with trackers that monitor their every move and software accelerates the pace of work.

It's cost-shifting, from employers to workers: workers have to be on-call 24/7 but are guaranteed no work; the breathing time a stock-picker in a warehouse gets before picking up an item is squeezed out by a light beam that skewers the item as soon as they are in position.

But the authors hold out hope for worker power, as the realization that "essential workers" are the lowest-paid, worst-treated among us gives workers a newfound sense of their power and the public a newfound respect for their work.

"In short, the robots are coming, but slowly, and not in the ways they are often portrayed. What’s actually happening is that precarious work is becoming more visible, while management software hides the changing the nature of working conditions."

Earbuddy (permalink)

It turns out that earbud mics are sensitive enough to distinguish an entire range of "facial gestures" by listening to the sounds of your filthy fingertips scraping over the delicate pores of your face.

Earbuddy is a research project that explores how to "enable on-face interaction" with your computing devices by listening to you as you touch your face; the research team found 27 distinct gestures that they could reliably distinguish in this method.

Leaving aside the epidemiological and dermatological problems of constantly touching your face, this is way cool – it opens an entire interaction vocabulary without any additional hardware sensors, exploiting the material differences between different facial structures.

"For example, the ear rim is primarily composed of cartilage, while the cheek is typically more fleshy. We identified seven areas that can be used for interaction: the temple, the cheek, the mandible angle, the mastoid, and the top/middle/bottom of the ear rim."

The participants learned the gestures quickly; they rated "tapping" as more socially acceptable than "sliding."

It's all very preliminary – just a pilot study, N=24, but they got good results in both noisy and quiet environments, and they only used one side of the face – in theory this means you could double the vocabulary by sensing on the other side, too.

The work was partly funded from a grant-pool dedicated to "Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research," which suggests a whole other realm of use-cases.

The Worm (permalink)

"The Worm" is the affectionate nickname for NASA's 1975 logo, designed by Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn. A new book from Standards Manual, available for pre-order, collects 300+ archival NASA images featuring The Worm in action.

The Worm was deprecated in 1992, but it's back as part of Spacex's livery.

The book comes out in October, and is available for pre-order at $59.

CDA230 (permalink)

"Free Expression, Harmful Speech and Censorship in a Digital World," a new study from The Knight Foundation and Gallup finds that Americans are notably skeptical of the idea that social media platforms should take a more active role in moderating their content.

"The poll found that 80% of Americans don't trust big tech companies to make the right decisions about what content appears on their sites and what should be removed."

The backdrop for the poll is the Trump administration's war on CDA230, a law that places liability for bad speech acts (libel, hate speech, etc) on people who use platforms, not the platforms themselves.

Trump has proposed that only platforms that are "neutral" in their moderation policies would receive this protection.

Unfortunately, Trump's view has widespread support from well-meaning progressives, who want more action against harassment and racist invective.

They often say things like, "Facebook can eliminate nudity, why can't they eliminate racism?" The reality is that FB's elimination of nudity (and copyright infringement, etc) is only possible because of unlimited collateral damage to legit speech.

And yes, fair enough, that tells us that FB views boobies as a worse problem than genocide.

But the reality of FB's moderation failures underlying its success in purging the platform of nudity should be equally present in these debates.

Big Tech's anti-harassment filters routinely censor survivors of harassment who quote their tormenters.

The anti-extremism filters censor survivors of terrorist violence who describe their ordeals, and scholars who study them.

Anti-sex-trafficking filters block sex workers who want to discuss which clients are potentially violent and other protective dialogs.

Giving Big Tech more censorship duties will not make them better at censorship.

There's another telling stat from the study: while 80% of Americans don't trust tech to moderate their conversations, they trust the government even less.

And of course, eliminating 230 gives you both: companies would be charged with more moderation, and governments would check their work.

As I wrote when Facebook nudity-blocked images of enslaved Australian Aboriginal people (posted after the prime minister publicly lied about the country's history of slavery):

"The answer isn't to lard FB with more censorship duties for it to fuck up even worse – it's to cut FB down to size, to a scale where communities can set and enforce norms.

"Because the problem with FB isn't merely that Mark Zuckerberg is uniquely unsuited to making decisions about the social lives and political discourse of 2.6 billion people.

"It's that no one is capable of doing that job. That job should not exist."

Hue and cry, posses, sheriffs (permalink)

Maybe you think cops have been with us forever. Didn't Robin Hood tangle with the Sheriff of Nottingham?

Nope! Sweary medievalist Eleanor Janega: "historically in the global north an established police force… is an extremely new development."

In medieval Europe, communities were expected to raise a "hue and cry" when they witnessed a crime, bringing out people to apprehend the perpetrator and bring them to justice.

"Elsewhere, adult men were organized into groups of ten called 'tithings' where each man in the group was tasked with bringing the others to justice if they committed a crime. "

Watchmen (and women) were employed to raise an alarm when they saw crimes. Sheriffs would be called in when the community couldn't catch a criminal, and would draft men over 15 to serve in posses comitatus.

"After 1250 villages would often appoint a Constable who was responsible for raising the hue and cry, a position that rotated yearly and was unpaid to ensure against both corruption and over work."

Medieval justice was more restorative than punitive: "many acts which we would consider as crimes were addressed not through carceral measures, but as disputes which required resolution between the offender and the victims."

Janega's at pains to point out that medieval justice had its own problems, especially "when the powerless and unconnected were found guilty of crimes committed against the powerful."

Rather, her point is that modern policing is modern, not an eternal and unchangeable factor.

"Not only is this possible, it has happened in the past. It can happen again, but better. Let’s get to it."

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Neal Stephenson: Why Star Wars doesn't suck

#15yrsago Disneyland rides must be as safe as buses

#15yrsago Red Cross wants all its volunteers' copyrights and patents

#10yrsago Copyright astroturfers target Torontoist

#5yrsago Memento Mori: the beautiful ways we have kept the dead among the living

#5yrsago Owner of "Relentlessly Gay" yard raising money to make yard MOAR GHEY

#1yrago Traverse City, MI braves the wrath of telcoms lobbyists, pushes ahead with municipal fiber network

#1yrago Fox News poll has Trump losing to Sanders, Biden, Warren, Harris, or Buttigieg

#1yrago Structural Separation: antitrust's tried-and-true weapon for monopolists who bottleneck markets

#5yrsago Seattle's tent cities

#5yrsago John Oliver commissions Helen Mirren to narrate an audiobook of the CIA Torture Report

#5yrsago American Gods will be a TV series

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Four Short Links (, Kottke ().

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 585 words (28135 total).

  • A short story, "Making Hay," for MIT Tech Review. Yesterday's progress: 332 words (1296 total)

Currently reading: Adventures of a Dwergish Girl, Daniel Pinkwater

Latest podcast: Part 6 of "Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town"

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:

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

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.