Pluralistic: 22 Jul 2020

Today's links

Ukrainian steampunk masks (permalink)

For reasons that are unclear to me, Ukraine is a global center of excellence in steampunk. I discovered this when William Gibson sang the praises of one of Bob Basset's leather fetish-adjacent masks, calling it the only steampunk artifact he'd consider owning (I bought it!)

I own many of Basset's pieces now, and so when I happened on a link to a Ukrainian steampunk mask-maker on Etsy, I wondered if he'd branched out of spare leatherworking to baroque, greeble-encrusted assemblages.


Artcreativehands is an altogether different amazing Ukrainan steampunk maskmaker — actually a pair of artists, Dmitriy and Aleksandra Bragin.

The Bragins' work is mostly masks, and from what I can tell, they work with molded plastic masks as the base and then layer up astounding, complex, interwoven collages of found objects, handpainted and shaded to create a uniformity.

Inevitably, these masks show some pop-culture influences, recalling Dr Doom, Guy Fawkes, Phantom of the Opera; but they are striking and beautiful standalone pieces that transcend their lineage.

The Bragins get good reviews, and while their product descriptions are (maddeningly) light on details, it's clear there's a lot of lightweight materials, as the masks weigh in at 250-350g (not the awkward 2-3kg you'd expect if they were solid metal).

Also offered in their store, some incredible rayguns:

And absurd, towering desk-organizers:

These are all surprisingly reasonably priced: the handmade masks are $100-120, the guns are $90 (but the desk organizers are a pricey $300).

OTF spared (for now) (permalink)

OK, I have actual good news! And not little good news, big significant good news.

The US Agency for Global Media is an arms-length body funding independent broadcasters like Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and Middle East Broadcasting. These are actual, independent, rigorous news sources that do good work.

Trump hates 'em. He appointed Steve Bannon protege Michael Pack to run them and he fired the whole top level of management in a bid to turn USAGM into a state-sponsored global Breitbart.

That is super-bad, but it got worse.

The Open Technology Fund spun out of Radio Free Asia. It hands out free, no-strings money to free/open source projects and technology freedom projects (like auditing of the security of anonymity and privacy tools). I'm on OTF's advisory though I'm pretty dormant there.

OTF was a casualty of the Pack purge, and Pack was lobbying hard to shift all the money used to support projects that literally billions of people rely on to two closed source, sketchy-af VPNs beloved by Trump-connected plutes.

Killing OTF would put hundreds of projects and tools at risk, and put the billions of people who relied on them at greater risk (think imprisonment, torture and execution).

Lucky for us, this is Trump, so he totally tripped over his own dick.

That's because Trump is administratively incompetent, and he hates anyone who has administrative competence because they keep telling him that if he continues running across the river on the backs of alligators he will eventually lose a leg.

Trump is all like, "Stop telling me not to run on these alligators! You'll distract me and an alligator will get me!"

So whenever a process depends on Trump exhibiting administrative competence, he loses.

In this case, he lost in the DC Circuit Court, which has ordered an injunction that bans Pack from firing OTF's execs.

As Mike Masnick cautions us, this is a preliminary step towards saving OTF, but it's still damned good news.

We could all use more good news.

Insurers are secret, powerful police reformers (permalink)

When US police officers murder, maim, torture or rape people, the individual officers often escape consequences, but that isn't the end of it. Frequently, the victims of police misconduct sue and receive multi-million-dollar judgements or settlements from their cities.

We talk about these payouts as though they were coming from the city's coffers, but for most US cities – especially smaller ones – the payout comes from an insurer, which groups small police departments into "risk pools" and pays out judgments and settlements for misconduct.

Insurers don't like making vast payouts because Officer Snowflake was triggered by a "disrespectful" skateboarder and got frisky with his baton, and they have a powerful way to make their displeasure felt: demanding reforms on pain of losing coverage.

Quiet insurance negotiations are a secret engine of transformative police reforms in cities across America. Insurers can demand the dismissal of officers (and even, in at least one case, a police chief!), new hiring and training procedures, and more.

And when insurers withdraw from a city altogether, the city usually has no choice but to disband its entire police force, turning over policing functions to state troopers.

On the whole, this is a positive phenomenon. Cities that lose their liability insurance tend to be free-fire zones for the very dirtiest, most violent cops.

Consider the one-square-mile town of Maywood CA, whose police corruption had triggered (unsuccessful) reform bids from the city council, the state AG, and the LA Times.

"A haven for misfit cops who had been pushed out of other law enforcement agencies for crimes or serious misconduct" -LA Times

"Gross misconduct and widespread abuse including unlawful use of force against civilians." -California AG Xavier Becerra

Where the press, the city and state failed, the insurer succeeded. After $17.3m worth of claims in 5 years, its insurer demanded a "performance improvement plan" from Maywood PD, which it failed to satisfy. The city lost its insurance – and dissolved the police department.

But before you get too excited, note that there are limits to the power of insurers to serve as surrogates for a failed political process: first, insurers are weirdly laissez-faire when it comes to police misconduct.

Sure, they'll step in when things are farcically bad, but there are plenty of cities whose cops engage in ghastly, brutal (and expensive) misconduct whose insurers continue to write policies for.

In part, that's because of wide variation in local laws, which creates variance in liability itself.

But mostly it's because it's so hard to sue cops, even for the most awful and obvious misconduct.

Insurers don't withdraw coverage because they're aghast at bad behavior – they do it to save money. If dirty cops can get away with illegal conduct, insurers are happy to continue to write insurance policies for their departments.

On the other hand, this points to a vast force-multiplier effect from changes to law that make it easier to sue cops – such changes would trigger massive crackdowns from insurers, who would insist on better behvaior on pain of loss of coverage.

But even if that happens, insurers are still a wildly imperfect proxy for effective police governance and oversight.

To understand how, consider the tale of Inkster, MI, a suburb of Detroit.

Inkster is a desperately poor place, a "slum lord heaven" and its history of criminal conduct by its police force meant that the only liability policy it could afford came with a $2m deductible.

When one of Inkster's cops savagely beat and tasered a Black man named Floyd Dent, in full view of a cruiser's dashcam, Dent won a $1.4m settlement. It was more than the city could afford, and it had to raise property taxes on every resident to make the payment.

Now, Inkster is mostly policed by the Michigan State Police. As the formerly incarcerated Inkster resident James Gibson told NBC: "You changed the local department, but you've now got a city full of state police who don't know me and don't know Inkster.

"So now there's no schools, but more cops. It's the opposite of what you do when you want to improve the community."

Ohio GOP leadership indicted for racketeering (permalink)

It's a busy news week^H^H^H^H century, but we really should pause for a moment to take notice of literally the largest political corruption scandal in Ohio history: the indictment of GOP House Speaker Larry Householder and four co-conspirators by the FBI on racketeering charges.

The indictment is just a string of eye-opening, jaw-dropping accusations. Householder and his co-accused are said to have engaged in a $60m bribery scheme to enact HB6, which provided a $1.3b bailout to the First Energy Corp for its nuclear operations.

The clearest analysis I read on this came from Naked Capitalism's Yves Smith, who broke down the whole sordid tale with screenshots from the indictment.

The tldr is:

  • Householder secretly set up a money-laundering front org called "Generation Now" that evaded PAC reporting issues, allowing for $60m in secret payments;

  • "Political strategist" Jeff Longstreth got $1m into his brokerage account;

  • Householder got campaign money, renos to his Florida home, and his credit cards paid off;

  • Lobbyists collected lavish fees of their own;

  • Money went to fund primary challenges by Repubicans pledged to vote for the Firstenergy bailout and then funded their campaigns;

  • Householder's army of freshmen Reps voted him Speaker of the House;

  • One of Householder's puppets introduced HB6 and its $1.2b for Firstenergy;

  • Householder coordinated with Firstenergy to arm-twist, bully, threaten and bribe other lawmakers to vote for HB6;

  • When voters launched a ballot initiative to fight the corporate welfare, Householder and Firstenergy masterminded a disinformation campaign warning people that signing the petition would give their personal information to the Chinese government (!!);

  • The Householder "enterprise" offered bribes to public officials to help them defeat the ballot initiative;

  • They used front-groups to offer bribes to signature gatherers for the ballot initiative: $2500 and a plane ticket if they'd quit their jobs;

  • As they drew closer to victory on the $1.2b for their paymasters at Firstenergy, Householder and his "enterprise" set their sites on soliciting bribes from payday lenders to pass legislation favorable to them;

From the indictment, it's clear the FBI had internal informants and wiretaps from very early on. Householder and his co-conspirators put a LOT of this in writing, paving the way for the legendarily difficult-to-attain RICO charges.

Most of the $1.2b has not been paid to Firstenergy yet and could theoretically be clawed back if the state leg votes to overturn HB6; however, Firstenergy hasn't (yet?) been charged in connection with the scheme (Smith speculates that they may be cooperating with the FBI).

The RICO charge means that the conspirators could be subjected to far-reaching civil asset forfeiture, bankrupting them.

Of course, all this is against a backdrop of the Nov elections, in which the GOP is desperate to hold onto Ohio, a feat it has only managed through incredible voter suppression and gerrymandering.

If even a small number of state Republicans sit this election out because of the scandal, that could be game-changing.

Little Brother as a role-playing game (permalink)

On the Fictoplasm podcast, Ralph Lovegrove breaks down novels thematic and plot elements and then sketches out how you might create a new RPG based on them.

Most recently, Lovegrove gave this treatment to my 2008 novel Little Brother – it's a fascinating listen.

Lovegrove suggests a dystopian RPG setting where you role-play an artist-driven resistance movement in an authoritarian state.

You have to undertake key-exchanges and deploy anti-surveillance measures to organize, and overcome propaganda and character assassination by creating DIY media-channels over encrypted protocols.

Lovegrove's suggestions for how to design, run and play this campaign were fascinating to listen to, especially after I reviewed his previous episode, in which he sketches an RPG based on Orwell's 1984.

While I'm on the subject: there's a new omnibus edition of Little Brother and Homeland just out from Tor Books with an intro by Edward Snowden and a cover by Will Staehle!

That release was a prelude to the release of ATTACK SURFACE, the third Little Brother book, which is out in October:

Anti-facial recognition tool (permalink)

Fawkes is a new anti-facial recognition tool from University of Chicago Sand Lab. It subtly alters faces in images so that that they cannot be correctly classified by common machine learning classifiers, while leaving them legible to human viewers.

These small changes – adversarial preturbations – merge features from other peoples' pictures with your own to cause classifiers to misfire, mistaking pictures of you for pictures of your "masking" target.

The creators of the tool are presenting their work at Usenix Security and have published a paper explaining their methodology, which they call "cloaking."

To my semi-tutored eye, the paper is impressive. The authors validate their tool by cloaking images of one another and testing them on leading facial recog tools, and find that they can trick these systems 100% of the time.

Importantly, they also devote extensive discussion to countermeasures and set out reasons that they believe that facial recognition system developers will struggle to defeat cloaking – or even detect when cloaking has been used.

But there's at least one red flag here: the authors warn that they are seeking patents on their work and advise that their tool is only for researchers seeking to evaluate it.

Kentucky AG sues top GOP donors (permalink)

Grifters eventually run out of marks and start to steal from their own protectors — which is why Kentucky's newly elected AG Daniel Cameron is suing the biggest private equity funds in the world for stealing from the state's pension plans.

Retirees have been chasing Blackstone and KKR (the world's two largest private equity funds) through the courts to get back the pension funds that they stole, but last month the Supreme Court sent the retirees packing, finding that they had no standing to sue.

Immediately, Kentucky's state court bounced the state-level attempts to hold Blackstone and KKR to justice, which is where Cameron comes in.

He just filed suit against the companies and their CEOs for stealing from the state pension system.

The suit claims that the PE firms put state pensions into assets that were "secretive, opaque, illiquid, impossible to properly monitor or accurately value, high-fee, high-risk gambles with no historical record of performance."

Later, Cameron calls the investments "absolutely unsuitable investments for a pension fund in the particular situation (Kentucky) was in, and violated the applicable laws, codes and standards."

But Cameron goes further: he says that the CEOs of the funds PERSONALLY bilked Kentucky out of vast sums (sometimes more than $5m/year!) in fraudulent billings for private jet trips

But wait, it gets better.

Blackstone's CEO, the billionaire Steve Schwarzman, is one of Trump's biggest financial backers, personally directing millions to Trump, his PACs, and (this is critical) Mitch McConnell and the Senate Leadership Fund.

Just to put a pin in this: Cameron is AG of Kentucky. Mitch McConnell is Senate Majority Leader and Trump's top bagman and enforcer. He is the senior senator from…Kentucky.

And Cameron – a Republican! – just sued a critical, major source of McConnell's campaign funds.

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Australian government blocks out 90% of document on web-spying plans–premature-unnecessary-debate-20100722-10mxo.html

#10yrsago Can you audit the software that goes in your body?

#10yrsago New Disney Haunted Mansion movie to be produced by Guillermo del Toro

#10yrsago UK regulator turns over Internet policing standards to movie and record industries

#5yrsago Comcast's top lobbyist insists he isn't a lobbyist

#1yrago Podcast: Adversarial Interoperability is Judo for Network Effects

#1yrago Louvre purges every mention of the Sackler opioid family after artist's protest

#1yrago Violent mobs of alleged Triad gangsters dole out savage beatings to Hong Kong democracy protesters, cops nowhere to be found

#1yrago FBI agent describes finding "Frankensteins" and a "cooler full of penises" at an unregulated Arizona body-donation center

#1yrago Nebraska Weather Service commemorates climate emergency by baking biscuits inside a hot car

#1yrago App-based English-language tutors say they frequently witness their Chinese students suffering brutal physical abuse by their parents

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Tim Harford (, Naked Capitalism (, Schneier (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Today's progress: 501 words (40238 total).

Currently reading: Anger Is a Gift by Mark Oshiro

Latest podcast: Full Employment:

Upcoming appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

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