Pluralistic: 08 Jul 2020

Today's links

Hank Green's "A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor" (permalink)

Hank Green's debut novel "An Absolutely Remarkable Thing" was just about the most hankgreenian novel you could imagine: a compassionate, expainly, fast-moving well-told tale about social media stardom and polarization:

It's the tale of duelling factions of social media stars who disagree about whether the mysterious, alien (?) Japanese killer-robot statues that have appeared in every city in the world at the same instance are harbingers of doom or salvation.

It ends with an amazing action sequence that left readers with a brutal cliffhanger, which is a very canny way of setting up a sequel!

Now, that sequel is out, and it's fantastic.

"A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor" hits shelves today.

Endeavor picks up where Remarkable left off, with the same characters in second acts, their lives utterly transformed by the crisis (timely, huh?). Like Remarkable, this is a book of global networked movements galvanized by competing theories about what's truly going on.

And like Remarkable, social media influencers play an outsized role in our species-wide deliberation. But Endeavor goes deeper here, explicitly connecting crises and extractive capitalism, scoring deep points about exploitation and commodification.

It's a brutal and brutally honest look at the mixed and impure motives that drive "successful" people, the gaudy frauds of heroic tech founders, and the invisible human cost of "automated" systems that make the world seem so seamless (when it's working).

The fact that these themes are so salient in this moment is both a testament to Green's insight and a reminder that the pandemic crisis didn't create our problems, merely heightened them to the point of undeniability even by the most motivated of reasoners.

This is a Hank Green novel, so it's charming and fast-moving as all get out, and has a climax that turns on both heart and fascinating, poorly understood, super important economic systems, like the endings of 48 Hours or My Cousin Vinny.

And above all, it was so lovely to visit with these charming and complicated characters again, to watch them learn and grow, and to root for them against all odds.

The pandemic wiped out Green's plan to tour this book, so he's embarked upon a virtual tour, with interlocutors including his brother John Green, Ashley C. Ford, Roman Mars and me!

You can catch my appearance with Hank this Friday, July 10, livestreaming in collaboration with beloved Minneapolis booksellers Magers and Quinn.;_id=163359157

Near-ultrasound links (permalink)

Legendary hardware hacker Andrew "bunnie" Huang was tapped to prototype a privacy-first hardware exposure notification token for the EU. He worked with Sean "xobs" Cross to design the extremely clever "Simmel" platform.

One of the comms approaches they tried and discarded for Simmel was the use of near-ultrasound chirps that would allow tokens to advertise their unique identifiers to other nearby tokens. Unfortunately, NUS doesn't work reliably through pockets, purses, etc.

Nevertheless, Huang and Xobs have released the sourcecode for the NUS library they developed as free/open source, along with schematics for building your own NUS communications interface.

As Huang points out, this could be very useful for configuring embedded systems that lack screens and keyboards – "add a ~$1 microphone to a Cortex-M4 class device, you get a short-range data link to a host device, such as a phone. "

You could then configure a headless device with wifi passwords, etc, by generating the correct chirps in a browser using javascript.

Disneyland's Tower of Terror in Minecraft (permalink)

The Tower of Terror ranks among the most detailed, brilliantly themed, atmospheric rides of the Disney canon, and the fact that all that brilliant built-environment storytelling is married to a thrill ride makes it a perfect balance of adrenaline and subliminal tingles.

Disneyland's Tower of Terror (arguably the least ambitious of all the Towers) was replaced with a Guardians of the Galaxy themed ride in 2017, but it lives on in glorious detail thanks to Mouskegamer's stupendous Minecraft re-creation.

The re-creation includes so many grace-notes, leaning heavily into that thematic storytelling, from the lobby to the pre-show (starring a Minecraft Rod Serling!) to the queue. There's even a working Minecraft mirror just before the big drop!

If all that pleases and impresses you, lose yourself in Mouskegamer's other re-creations from Great Moments with Mr Lincoln (!), to Indiana Jones, to the Matterhorn, to Pinocchio to all of Galaxy's Edge and more!

Who got PPP and how much did they get? (permalink)

The PPP stimulus program contained the kernel of a crucial and beneficial idea – that it would be easier to put people back on the payroll after the crisis than it would be to find them jobs after their employers went bankrupt.

It provided 12 weeks' payroll coverage as a forgivable loan that would not be due if your employees were still on the payroll when it ran out.

As good as this idea was, it had some serious deficiencies.

First, it didn't last long enough. The lockdown continues. It will likely continue through the rest of 2020 and beyond, thanks in large part to Trump's mismanagement, abetted by callous, greedy business "leaders" and Republican state officials.

Next, there wasn't enough. The fund ran out early and many businesses – especially minority owned businesses – were shut out entirely.

Finally, it was badly administered. 94.5% of the initial tranche went to giant corporations.

Congress appropriated more after the initial pot ran out, but repeated the sins of the first tranche, and added a new one: Congressional Dems made lobbyists and dark money orgs eligible – handing cash to orgs whose job is to hand cash to them.

All in all, 4.89m loans were approved, and 661,218 loan recipients of this "small business" money pulled in $150k-$10m.

Now, thanks to Pro Publica, you can search the recipients of this money, by name, ZIP, industry or lender.

You can check out for yourself how much the Ayn Rand Institute got in government handouts ($350,000-1 million).

Or Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist's organization dedicated to eliminating taxation and shutting down government relief programs: another $150k-$1m.

EY helped 'Ndrangheta sell mafia bonds (permalink)

EY – formerly Ernst & Young – are one of the scandal-haunted "Big 4" accounting firms, charged with prudent oversight of the largest firms in the world, involved in strings of farcical corruption stories, each more terrible than the last.

Even by those standards, the latest EY scandal is unfuckingbelievable.

EY were the consultants that helped Banca Generali – one of the EU's largest private banks – to move millions of euros' worth of bonds, selling them on to international investors.

Those bonds, it turns out, were backed by the mafia.

They were part of a 'Ndrangheta money-laundering scheme, in which revenues from assets owned by the murderous crime gang were securitized and sold on to the global investment world.

"The bonds were created out of unpaid invoices to Italian public health authorities from companies providing them with medical services. " -Miles Johnson, Financial Times

"EY, which was not required to conduct due diligence on the assets in the securitisation when providing consulting services for the structuring for one of the vehicles purchased by Banca Generali, declined to comment."

The rotten culture of the rich (permalink)

In his 2019 book Dignity, Chris Arnade left his Wall Street job and traveled America, talking to poor, marginalized people, mostly at McDonald's restaurants.

Now, in a new essay for American Compass, Arnade delves into the "rotten culture of the rich."

Arnade starts with observations about how rich people talk about poor people: "we talk too much about policy and not enough about culture" – meaning that poor people's fecklessness, lack of self control and pleasure seeking results in poverty.

But the wealthy are loathe to examine their own culture, especially that of the "iconoclastic men who felt held back by outdated social norms from pursuing their individual pleasure" who went on to run hedge funds and private equity firms.

These are the people who gave us "junk bonds, leveraged buyouts, distressed debt, and other complex financial products whose goal is intentionally unclear," all of it "making obscene amounts of money with little regard to how or the impact to society overall."

It comes down to this: "Why isn’t it considered bad behavior to sit in front of a wall of screens filled with flashing numbers making bets on those numbers?"

And this: "Why isn’t it considered bad behavior to find a mid-sized company, load it up with debt, strip it of its valuable assets, and send jobs overseas to the country with the lowest labor cost and least environmental regulations."

These are just the visible manifestations of the sick culture, though: Finance's purpose is to "help the powerful bend rules and regulation…The more complex and devious your financial product, the more celebrated you are on Wall Street."

Or as the Trashfuture podcast folks put it recently, fintech exists solely to create unregulated banks.

The wealthy have elaborate justifications for their selfishness, grounded in turgid Ayn Rand novels and deliberately impenetrable economics jargon, all to handwave away the indefensible business of "getting rich by being clever, without regard to the larger impact."

The cultural mores of Wall Street are: "cleverness trumps hard work"; and "disregard for the rules trumps playing it straight."

Wall Street's message is "Why diligently work your way up the corporate ladder when you can smooth-talk enough people into lending you enough money to take over the corporation, fire the board, leverage it up with debt, and then dismantle it while pocketing a few billion."

Arnade refers us to American Compass's Coin-Flip Capitalism project, which quantifies the extent to which high-flying venture capitalists, hedge fund managers, and private equity looters underperform a coin-toss when it comes to picking winners.

This project includes a Returns Counter that "aggregates returns data from multiple sources to create a simple metric—a 'Returns Counter Average' that can be directly compared against public market benchmarks."

The awful stupidity of measuring engineers' productivity (permalink)

Though I love good rants, I struggle to differentiate good rants from their tedious, far more common cousins, bad rants. It's all about staying power. It's been 18 years since I read's Usenet swearfest and I still remember it.

This rant, by Mipsytipsy, is a good rant.

Mipsytipsy is answering a reader who wrote in asking "Can Engineering Productivity Be Measured?"

She begins by describing a time when she had a 100% remote gig as a sysadmin for a boss with weak technical judgment, who rated employees based on the number of tasks they closed in a work-day. This turns out to be very easy to game.

"I became a ticket-closing machine. I’d snap up the quick and easy tasks within seconds. I’d pattern match and close in bulk when I found a solution for a group of tasks. I dove deep into the list of stale tickets looking for ones I could close as 'did not respond' or 'waiting for response', especially once I realized there was no penalty for closing the same ticket over and over."

Punchline: "My boss worshiped me. I was bored as fuck."

She restates the useful and important Goodhart's Law, "Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes."

AKA: "Any measurement becomes a target."

Measuring the productivity of employees with targets doesn't work for jobs that involve "challenging and novel" tasks.

This is where the ranty bit starts.

"Your execs should fucking well know this: how would THEY like to be evaluated based on, like, how many emails they send in a day? Do they believe that would be good for the business? Or would they object that they are tasked with the holistic success of the org, and that their roles are too complex to reduce to a set of metrics without context?"

She goes on to make a bunch of extremely sensible recommendations for assessing and improving the work of people whose jobs involve these "challenging and novel" tasks, but the rant is the part that stuck with me.

It's a perfect gem of a rebuttal to neo-Taylorism and its high-tech sidekick, Bossware, published in a moment of both record unemployment and record discontent among tech workers. The right message for the right moment!

Unions say Disney World isn't testing employees (permalink)

Walt Disney World has re-opened. Its employees' union says that its employees are not getting covid tests before they report for duty, exposing each other and customers alike to a preventable infection risk, in a state with skyrocketing cases.

There are some rides – apparently in Animal Kingdom, at least – where there are social distancing enforcement measures are in place, which is good to see.

But maintaining good pandemic hygiene requires attentiveness and vigilance, something that is antithetical to holidaymaking.

What's more the core of public health is consideration for others, social cohesion and willingness to sacrifice short-term benefits for long-term gain. These are in short supply in Florida at the best of times, and they have only grown scarcer during the emergency.

(Image: Dan Howland)

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Pro-software-patent/anti-software-patent naval battle in Brussels;2099508375;fp;2;fpid;1

#15yrsago White Wolf cuts own throat with "licensing fees" for game organizers

#10yrsago Danny O'Brien talks UK geek history

#10yrsago Berlusconi tries law prohibiting reporting on corruption investigation; Italy's press refuses to report any news in protest

#10yrsago Patent holder's demand: stop discussing my patent

#5yrsago Computer scientists on the excruciating stupidity of banning crypto

#5yrsago Argentine police raid programmer who discovered fatal e-voting flaws

#5yrsago Mad Max: Muppet Road

#5yrsago NZ's anti-troll law: gift to trolls, bad for free speech

#1yrago High art subprime: borrowing on private art collections surges into billions

#1yrago Hong Kong protests continue to mount, and popular sentiment is with the protesters

#1yrago Zuck's personal head of security resigns after allegations of homophobia, transphobia, "pervasive discriminatory conduct," and "horrific levels of sexual harassment and battery"

#1yrago EFF publishes an indispensable, plain-language guide to "cell-site simulators": the surveillance devices that track you via your phone

#1yrago The Serial Toilet Clogger of Sheboygan, WI is going to jail for 150 days

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Super Punch (, Naked Capitalism (, Ongoing (, Four Short Links (

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