Pluralistic: 15 Jul 2020

Today's links

Homeschool to prison pipeline (permalink)

Hey guess what?

We have a homeschool-to-prison pipeline now.

Grace is a 15-year-old with ADHD and a long history of behavioral difficulties who ended up on probation after a fight with her mom led to the confiscation of her phone and her briefly stealing a classmate's phone.

Grace is now in a juvenile facility where her life is at risk from covid because one of her probation conditions was to do her homework, and when her school in Oakland County Michigan went online only, she struggled to complete her distance education homework.

As a result, Judge Mary Ellen Brennan ignored the Michigan governor's orders to minimize the incarceration of children and ordered Grace imprisoned…for not doing her homework.

The Propublica story on Grace and her single mother Charisse – written by Jodi S Cohen – is a heartbreaker and a half. It paints a picture of a kid whose need for extra educational attention was met by a stern and uncaring system, from caseworker to judge.

Judge Brennan does not come off well in this story. She ordered Grace to appear in person in court – the only case of the day with that requirement – and then refused a continuance when Grace's lawyer said he would NOT come to court and risk his life to argue her case.

Brennan's sentence was handed down after Grace's caseworker Michelle Giroux admitted that she did not know the details of Grace's learning disabilities and had not familiarized herself with the legally mandated supports for them that Grace had not recieved.

Brennan called Grace a "threat to the community" for missing her homework, denied Grace's pleas for more time to adjust to homeschooling, and had her taken out of the courtroom in handcuffs.

It goes without saying that, like the majority of Michigan teens sentenced to youth detention in defiance of the governor's orders, Grace is Black. Black children in Michigan are four times likelier to be imprisoned than their white peers.

Grace has not been permitted to see her mother, except by videoconference. Her mother's attempts to bring her clothes and toys have been rebuffed by the facility, because of petty rules like those stipulating that underwear must be briefs, or that jeans can't be "too tight."

When Grace is brought out for videoconference status meetings with the court, the child is handcuffed and put in ankle shackles. She makes heartbreaking pleas to be returned to her mother. The judge has ordered her held until at least Sept 8.

For missing her homework.

Spain has been an NSO customer since 2015 (permalink)

Earlier this week, El Pais and The Guardian broke the stunning news that the Speaker of the Parliament of Catalonia had been infected with NSO Group malware, a notorious cyberweapon nominally used for catching terrorists.

The story attributed the hack to the government of Spain, who have brutalized and harassed Catalonian independence activists in the past. It cited work from Citizen Lab, who have done the most important forensic work on targets of NSO weapons, including Jamal Khashoggi.

Now, an ex-NSO Group whistleblower has confirmed to Motherboard's Joseph Cox that the Spanish government has been a customer of theirs for at least five years.

"We were actually very proud of them as a customer. Finally a European state."

The source confirmed that "Spain had access to a 0-click version of NSO's Pegasus product. Pegasus is the suite of tools that lets customers remotely break into and surveill phones."

McKinsey waxes fat off coronavirus failures (permalink)

Consulting giant McKinsey may have gotten a lot of bad PR over the past year – from its collaboration with the murderous Saudi regime to its work to expand Riker's Island to its critical role in ICE gulags – but it's fitting in great in the Trump covid response.

All told, McKinsey's made $100m for its role in the blundering, chundering comedy-of-errors that is the Trump admin's coronavirus response, much of it in no-bid contracts awarded by former McKinsey employees who landed senior roles in the Trump admin.

That total is still climbing, too. Ian MacDougall's Propublica investigation into McKinsey's coronavirus engagements finds their tentacles sunk into the VA, the Defense Health Agency, the USAF, the Cuomo regime, and the state governments of CA, IL, MA, NK, TN and VA.

McKinsey's also raking it in from cities like Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans and St Louis. Where these contracts are for important work, McKinsey routinely fails to deliver. Much of the work McKinsey won for itself is largely cosmetic, though.

In both cases, they bill top dollar (naturally).

It's a lucky break for the company, which has been hamstrung by its own failures – for example, its bankruptcy division can't win much work after a series of conflict of interest scandals.

It's also been targeted by the General Services Agency for years of brutal price-gouging, and the company was caught using its influence to sideline the GSA investigators in a bid to prevent bad news about its corrupt practices from coming to light.

This cost the company much of its pre-coronavirus public sector work, making the new round of fat contracts a godsend. And much of that work was steered McKinsey's way by former McKinsey staffers – or current staffers who have been contracted to oversee government contracts.

MacDougall tracks the many ways that McKinsey underperformed in these contracts, at the expense of American lives and safety.

He also tracks the company's 70-year campaign to replace government functions with private contractors, an ideology it spread around the world.

"Over decades, McKinsey’s approach became self-reinforcing. As administrations chipped away at the civil service politicians who advocate small government got the dysfunctional bureaucracy they had complained about all along, which helped them justify dismantling it further."

One of McKinsey's most lucrative lines of work is selling "data it obtains from one government project to other agencies," becoming the clearinghouse – and rentier – of public data, generated at public expense, for use by public agencies.

Those data repositories were cited as the reason that McKinsey needed to be hired to run so much of the government coronavirus response.

The company cites the "pro bono" work its employees have done during the crisis, but the government officials whom this work was supposed to benefit say that it was useless – prettying up spreadsheets and making slide decks.

McKinsey's own description of what it can offer to government clients is a meaningless word-salad of consulting jargon: "analysis, best practices, perspectives, decision support." Seriously GPT-3 would produce more convincing pitches.

As Miami-Dade deputy mayor Jennifer Moon dryly observed after getting one of these McKinsey pitches: "Apparently, it takes 5 people with staff support to do what I’ve been doing myself." The bill for those people? $142k/week.

Normally, McKinsey swears its clients to secrecy about their contracting with the firm and refuses to disclose its client list, but during the pandemic, McKinsey changed its terms to let it cite its clients to drum up new work – while still gagging those clients.

This one-sided confidentiality lets the company boast of its work in places like Miami-Dade, while gagging the officials who found the work substandard and actively harmful, at a cost of more than $500k.

Biden's $2T climate plan (permalink)

Biden's unbroken track record of promoting corporate interests and austerity is especially worrisome given the enormous challenge presented by the climate emergency, which can only be met if these ideologies are rejected. Our species' survival requires it.

So it's cheering to see some real dollars in his new proposal to address climate change: $2T between now and 2035 for clean energy, housing-stock retrofits, a Civilian Conservation Corps, EV charge stations, cash-for-clunkers and high-speed rail.

Especially buoying is that Biden's plan doesn't include Pelosi's beloved "payfors" – the idea that every dollar spent by the government needs to be offset with a tax raise or a cut to services – as though the government stockpiled our tax dollars and used them for programs.

This just isn't how money works. The government spends money into existence and then taxes it out of existence. It is a currency issuer, not a currency user. Government deficits aren't "debts" in the sense that your credit-card spending is a debt.

You can run out of dollars. The US government can't. If the US government tries to buy the same things the private sector is trying to purchase, it can create inflationary bidding wars, but that's a resource constraint, not a monetary constraint.

So as I say, it's heartening to see Biden apparently repudiating the toxic austerity worship of the Dem establishment in favor of something approaching Modern Monetary Theory, but there's a big but in this good news.

That is that Biden is off by an order of magnitude. Compare it with Bernie Sanders's plan, which had $16T earmarked to address the climate emergency.

PE's three kids in a trenchcoat fraud (permalink)

Remember when the Small Business Administration rolled out the Payroll Protection Plan and it was drained of trillions almost instantly by giant companies pretending to be small businesses and we shamed Shake Shack into giving the money back?

Just the tip of the iceberg.

Writing for Propublica, Paul Kiel and Jack Gillum use the PPP data to reveal private-equity backed companies that applied for PPP dozens of times each, claiming to be multiple companies all headquartered at the same address and using the same bank.

Vibra Healthcare, a PE-backed chain of hospitals, was eligible for $10m in free PPP money. The $1b/year company got around $97 million, by claiming to be 26 separate entities.

Petersen Health Care made 52 different PPP claims – up to $52m – by claiming to be 52 different companies.

Mariner Health Care – owned by National Senior Care – pretended to be 19 different companies, netting up to $31m.

Hedge-fund-owned Maverick Gaming, a casino owner valued at $1b, got more than $46m through the same pretense.

Some of these companies got to triple-dip: Vibra didn't just get 26 different payouts from PPP; it also got $13m in health care grants and $41m in loans as advance on Medicare payments.

Vibra does not deserve ANY public money. It is a repeat-offender fraudster that paid $33m to settle its Medicare fraud in 2016 and $6m in 2019 for another round of Medicare fraud.

Leakypick (permalink)

Leakypick is a <$40 Raspberry Pi-based tool to check if your smart-speaker is transmitting your speech to third parties without your knowledge.

A German-French-US team of computer scientists presented it this month at Cryptography and Security.

The devices play audio samples in rooms containing IoT devices, then monitor network flows and perform statistical analysis to determine whether the device intercepted and transmitted the audio signal.

Its test data is derived from a phoneme dictionary that created a large number of soundalike terms for devices' wake-words. They discovered – for example – 89 different words that would reliably activate an Alexa device.

They also validated their ability to determine whether a device was sending audio without having to decrypt network traffic; together, these methods point serve as a starting point for future work to test mic-equipped devices.

Poesy slays (permalink)

Yesterday saw the publication of my first-ever picture book, Poesy the Monster Slayer, along with glowing reviews from the trade press like Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly.

Even more delightful than those reviews, though, has been the praise from book-bloggers, independent reviewers, and parents who've already read PTMS to their own little monsters!

I really liked Biblionaut Expeditions' review, how they stressed that the monsters are recognizably the monsters I grew up loving, praising Matt Rockefeller for his "great job balancing the traditional designs while acknowledging this is a children’s book."

And who could argue with this? "If you’ve got a kiddo who loves monsters, Poesy the Monster Slayer might be a great bedtime choice. It’s also a good book for kids interested in comics as there are a handful of word bubbles and the occasional panel structure."

Here's how to get the book:

And I'm headed back to my local indie, Dark Delicacies, to sign more copies this week, if you want to get one signed and/or personalized:

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Gateways: Tribute to Fred Pohl with stories by Bear, Benford, Brin, Bova, Gaiman, Harrison, Haldeman and me!

#10yrsago Why aren't ethicists better people?

#1yrago Putting a price on our data won't make the platforms stop abusing our privacy

#1yrago 5G won't fix America's terrible broadband

#1yrago Ex-Fox & Friends host, accused of a Ponzi scheme that turned Indianapolis real-estate investors into slumlords, moves to Portugal

#1yrago Podcast: Occupy Gotham

#1yrago How To: play Vlad Taltos in an RPG

#1yrago The new £50 notes will feature Alan Turing (whilst HMG proposes bans on Turing complete computers AND working crypto)

#1yrago Heirs' property: how southern states allow white land developers to steal reconstruction-era land from Black families

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: David Preston (, Angry UK Staffer (, Naked Capitalism (, Four Short Links (

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Today's progress: 546 words (38182 total).

Currently reading: Anger Is a Gift by Mark Oshiro

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