Pluralistic: 16 Jul 2020

Today's links

Straightened Trees (permalink)

Daniel Temkin is a tech artist and coder who does weird and amazing things with software. Who can forget the time he created an "anti-imperialist, Turing complete" programming language with only one command?

His latest project is Straightened Trees, and he is the rare artist who manages to describe his work in words that make it clear what it is: "In Straightened Trees (a series of silver gelatin prints), strips malls, telephone poles and restaurant signs take on the curves that once belonged to the elms, palms, and oaks they stand beside. The trees are shot with a 4×5 camera and then straightened with custom code.

"Although analog-produced images allow for smoother curves and richer light than digital, the impulse to straighten objects is a digital one, rooted in a computational idealism."

AI Dungeon with GPT-3 (permalink)

Last year's AI Dungeon was a sensation, for good reason: Nick Walton's deployment of GPT and GPT2 to automatically generate D&D-style; text adventures that were simultaneously sophisticated and just super-weird.

Well, GPT has a new version, GPT3, and it's the most powerful machine learning prose-generation tool in wide use, and when Walton applied it to AI Dungeon, the results were jaw-dropping.

The new version of AI Dungeon is called "Dragon" and Walton's walkthrough of a random dungeon is pretty impressive, including some really cool dialogues with NPCs that you'd swear understood what they were talking about.

But then comes the kicker:

When Walton's character finally locates the "Book of Essence" – an imaginary grimoire invented by the algorithm, he is "able to seamlessly read entire sections from it. The game invents a complex magic system and underlying theory behind why it works and describes it."

AI Dungeon is free for 7 days, $5/mo thereafter.

Bolton urges you to pay to support his long-term goal: "AI will enable games that are alive and dynamic, where your actions impact the world in significant ways and where you are not bound by the imaginations of the developers who created them."

EU court kills data-sharing deal with USA (permalink)

Few people have had a more profound impact on tech's data-hoovering propensities than Max Schrems, who, as a law student, sued over Facebook's data-handling and won, leading to the passage of the GDPR.

In the wake of that lawsuit, the EU ordered that Europeans' data could no longer be stored on US servers, a stance that was later softened thanks to the "Privacy Shield" regulation, which once again allowed Europeans' data to be processed in the USA.

Schrems challenged Privacy Shield, saying that its precautions were inadequate given the US's tolerance for mass surveillance by its intelligence agencies, especially the NSA, whose ability to gather data was never effectively curbed, even after the Snowden revelations.

Today, EU top court CJEU agreed with Schrems, and nuked Privacy Shield, which means that firms that operate in the EU will no longer be allowed to process Europeans' data outside of Europe.

That includes banks and law firms, but also Big Tech giants like Facebook and Google.

Here's what Schrems told The Verge: "As the EU will not change its fundamental rights to please the NSA, the only way to overcome this clash is for the US to introduce solid privacy rights for all people — including foreigners."
(Image: Mike Mozart, CC BY)

Librarians' virtual escape rooms (permalink)

Libraries have been a center of excellence for escape-room creation for years, and librarians have used their collections, buildings and their excellent knowledge-acquisition skills to craft fiendishly clever riddles and puzzles for their patrons to solve.

For obvious reasons, this has been severely curtailed by the pandemic, but for the puzzlemasters of librarianship, lockdown is just another challenge to be solved. The answer turns out to be…Google Forms?

It started with youth services librarian Sydney Krawiec from Peters Township Public Library in McMurray, Pennsylvania, who created a viral, virtual Harry Potter escape room when the physical escape room she'd designed was sidelined by a lockdown that started on its opening day.

Librarians across the world ran with it and now the web is filled with brilliant virtual escape rooms that are "like doing an online personality quiz, but with puzzles mixed in" (h/t Aliya Chaudhry), themed on popular media and incorporating math, geography, language and logic.

Naturally, the librarian-creators link these puzzles into online resources from their collections and the whole world, turning them into jumping-off points for self-directed research and learning.

What's in Blueleaks (permalink)

Last month, the Distributed Denial of Secrets transparency org published a massive dump of internal police documents dubbed Blueleaks.

The release triggered a massive backlash from Twitter, including a removal of the DDoSecrets account.

Twitter also blocks all links to DDoSecrets' website, claiming that it violates the company's policy against publishing leaks (a policy that Twitter enforces very selectively) and falsely claiming that the site hosts malicious software, which is categorically untrue.

Writing for The Intercept, Micah Lee delves into the leaks' origins and contents.

The leaks all likely originate with the Houston web-hosting company Netsential, who rolled their own insecure CMS using and Vbscript.

The defects in their custom code exposed 250+ law-enforcement related sites and their data. This resulted in personal details on 700k+ police officers being leaked; in some cases, this included home addresses, hashed passwords, etc.

But the most revealing docs come from "Fusion Centers" – these being the post-9/11 cross-agency meta-departments that aggregate data from multiple sources in a bid to prevent terror attacks.

Despite lavish budgets, a free rein, and anemic oversight, no fusion center has ever foiled a terror attack. So what are they doing?

This is where Blueleaks sheds some light.

For example, when a BLM student activist wrote to a Bay Area law firm asking if any of its lawyers would be willing to be included on a list of pro-bono counsel, the attorney who received the letter forwarded it to police authorities, with a profanity-laced, all-caps covering letter.


The lawyer who sent this letter to the police used the SF District Attorney's office for the return address on the envelope.

Despite the unhinged nature of the covering letter and the innocuous nature of the request from the student activist for pro bono counsel, "An investigator in the Marin County DA’s office considered this useful intelligence."

"She logged into the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center’s CMS and created a new Suspicious Activity Report, or SAR, under the category 'Radicalization/Extremism' and typed the student’s name as the subject."

Get that? This kid who asked a lawyer for pro-bono counsel is now eternally branded as a "radical/extremist" in a (formerly) secret government database on the strength of the all-caps rant of the lawyer she unwisely sought assistance from.

Fusion Centers suck millions from our public budgets and don't catch the criminals they're supposed to be catching. Instead, these boondoggles are hives of unchecked poor judgment, places where secret dossiers are filled with paranoid rants dressed up as "intel."

A new contract for land (permalink)

Economists of every stripe, from Marx to Milton Friedman, have a consensus on the nature of land: "Land is a natural commons — it belongs to everyone, and that land value (rents) should be recaptured by the community, who create the value in the first place."

When your property becomes more valuable, it has virtually nothing to do with any action you've taken. Even the most ambitious home-improvement shifts house prices by small margins.

What DOES increase land value is what everyone else does: the businesses, schools, amenities, transit links, street furniture, planning, and other improvements made to your land's location.

This was driven home for me a couple years ago when we bought and thorougly renovated a home in LA after an overseas move. We'd insured our personal effects, and we'd done major renos, and we'd just closed on the house, so (thought) I knew what the renos and goods were worth.

Then I took out earthquake insurance, which covers the house and contents – but not the land – and I was amazed to learn that everything apart from the lot was worth a tiny slice of the total. Land is where the value is, and that value comes from the community, not the owner.

In "A New Land Contract," Alastair Parvin's talk at Civic Square's 'Department of Dreams,' in Jun, Parvin develops this observation along with the history of land development to lay bare some truths that have been made far more obvious by the crisis.

Housing is remarkable expensive, and getting more expensive all the time. When the crisis came, the UK (and US) governments bailed out mortgage borrowers (including virtually every landlord) but not their renters.

"As taxpayers we’re pouring billions of pounds of life support into the economy, but a huge chunk of it is just being paid straight on to private landlords. If you think of the economy as a bucket, it’s like having a huge hole in the bottom of it. Or rather, the top."

All the injustices that we see in the world – racial wealth gaps, gender gaps, etc – are magnified by this dynamic. If you're a landlord, you're overwhelmingly likely to be white. If you're brown or Black, you're overwhelmingly likely to be a tenant.

Rising land prices extract a fee from every business and ever renter, a fee just for being alive and conducting your affairs. It's a tax on life, levied by private landowners, and that is literally by design.

The modern system of land-ownership has its origins in feudalism: specifically, it was how William the Conqueror could afford his army. Rather than keeping a standing army, he gave nobles a contract giving them dominion over some land and its residents.

The noble was obliged to contribute soldiers to the king on demand, and in return, he was empowered to extract any rent he chose from the people on the deeded land. The origin of "feudal" is feudalis: Latin for "fee." Feudal means "rent-based."

Modern states updated this system, doing everything – anything – to keep property values high, especially loosening finance rules to allow lenders to pump titanic sums into the property market. Home ownership is an intensely political goal, the cornerstone of Thatcherism.

Not just ownership of your home, but ownership of someone else's: the "income property" that provides "passive income" that you can leave to your kids: the heritable right to tax other people for being alive.

Today, the UK is a nation dependent on the "business" of taxing people and firms for simply existing – that is, rentierism. 83% of the total wealth of the UK is land. The UK spends £71bn on rent and £67bn on mortgages per year, enough to pay for a whole other NHS.

Meanwhile, the grossly inadequate housing benefit costs £23b/year – more than is spent annually on the UK highways, police and military combined – all to try to address the social crisis created by rentierism.

Talking about property this way may sound weird, but it's actually pretty mainstream, historically speaking. Here's Winston Churchill on the subject:

"To not one of those improvements does the land monopolist… contribute, and yet by every one of them the value of his land is enhanced. He renders no service to the community, he contributes nothing to the general welfare, he contributes nothing to the process from which his own enrichment is derived."

Nor does this problem lack for solutions. As Parvin points out, there is a longstanding, well-theorized movement to replace landlords with land stewards, "effectively renting a piece of land from Everyone for as long as you want it, paying the community for its use."

Pavin enumerates many of the proposals to make this shift:

  • Public land buy-backs, at a savings of £6b/year in public subsidies and £35b/year in rents

  • Land value capture, local govts buying ex-industrial land and developing it for community use, saving £9.3b/year

  • Soft landings: a national land trust that slowly buys land from under peoples' homes and leases it back

  • Fairhold (Pavin's new proposal): local governments buy land and license it to stewards who pay fair rents

As Pavin points out, land ownership is at the root of inaction on climate: "we will need to fix this obsolete right of extraction that is coded into the foundations of our society, this dysfunction that is coded into the foundations of our economy this injustice that is coded into the foundations of our democracy."

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Winds howl over the deserted moonscape behind Rupert Murdoch's UK newspaper paywalls

#10yrsago Vatican: ordaining women is as bad as raping children from the pulpit

#5yrsago State Department willing to overlook Malaysia's mass graves for the sake of TPP

#5yrsago UK Tories launch quiet inquiry into privatising the NHS

#5yrsago UK schools' "anti-radicalisation" software lets hackers spy on kids<a article="" href="></a>

#1yrago When Trump's #TaxScam meant that affluent people no longer had to use the paid version of Turbotax, Turbotax started charging poor people, disabled people, students and elderly people <a href=" https:="" trump-tax-law-threatened-turbotax-profits-started-charging-disabled-unemployed-and-students"="""">

#1yrago How Wechat censors images in private chats

#1yrago Tennessee police to drug users: don't flush your dope or you'll create "meth gators"
#1yrago In 1943, the chairman of the NY Fed backed Modern Monetary Theory: "Taxes for Revenue Are Obsolete"

#1yrago Read: Trump's grandfather's letter, in which he begs not to be deported

#1yrago Many of the key Googler Uprising organizers have quit, citing retaliation from senior management

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Waxy (, Monty Zukowski, Anonymous Coward (, Four Short Links (

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