Pluralistic: 28 Jul 2020

Today's links

Afterland (permalink)

Afterland, the latest novel from Lauren Beukes, goes on sale today. It's a spectacular and obviously incredibly timely plague novel, set in the aftermath of a plague that kills nearly every man and boy on Earth, leaving only the women and girls.

It's an American road-trip novel, about Cole, a South African mom, and her pubescent son Milo, who has, miraculously, survived the plague – only to be scooped by up the militarized national research establishment to be used as a research subject.

They're on the run after breaking out the military research facility with the help of Cole's sister Billie, a semi-criminal drifter who has arranged to sell some of Milo's sperm to a plute who has buyers who'd like to violate the global ban on conception.

But Billie betrayed Cole and tried to snatch Milo, so Cole brained Billie with a tire-iron and fled with Milo, who is now living as a girl, Mia, as they take us on a tour of a traumatized, radically depopulated America.

Billie, meanwhile, has been dispatched on her sister's trail in the company of a couple of mercs in the employ of her boss, to snatch Milo and sell him to a foreign potentate who wants to buy a son.

All of this is a great setup for a tight thriller of a plot, as Billie, the mercs, the cops, and a cult of penitent nuns race across the nation. Cole and Mia are hoping to smuggle themselves onto a freighter and return to Africa.

Billie convinces herself that selling Milo is both just and merciful. The relationships are beautifully drawn, and the tension is real.

But most important is the way that all this noir plotting moves us across the American landscape, touring us through the varied changes.

There's kindness and cruelty, suspicion and openness, madness and calm. The way we respond to disaster and trauma is very much on all our minds today, of course, and Beuke's superbly timed novel provides an excellent series of meditations on who our crisis-selves could be.

It helps that both Beukes and her protagonists aren't Americans. In the same way that Canadians inevitably make the best American comedians, other non-Americans are able to describe the water that America swims in with a facility that the native-born struggle to match.

Books about America by foreigners have been important contributions to American literature since (at least) de Tocqueville. Beuke's pandemic novel is an important contribution to that tradition.

Mexican copyright crushes free speech (permalink)

Mexico's wholesale, overnight importation of the USA's disastrous copyright system is a catastrophe for human rights – another Trump casualty, precipitated by the #USMCA.

In particular, the new rules are terrible for free expression, totally incompatible with Mexico's strong (stronger than US!) constitutional protections for speech.

The new rules mandate copyright filters, which will instantaneously censor anything a black-box algorithm deems a copyright infringement; if your work is censored, you get to the back of a very long line of people hoping a human moderator will spring you from content jail.

They also import America's rules that give DRM precedent over the property rights of device owners or the fundamental human rights of people who need to bypass the manufacturer-imposed restrictions.

But Mexico left out the USA's weak and inadequate safeguards, creating a corporate all-you-can-eat buffet where Mexicans' rights are served up to tech and entertainment companies.

When DRM interferes with the rights of software authors, the speech of security researchers, or the freedom to read of everyday Mexicans, the new law favors corporate profits over human rights.

Finally, the Mexican law allows for deliberate, human acts of censorship, creating an even-more-extreme version of American "notice and takedown," allowing anyone to remove speech they object to by claiming copyright infringement.

Worse still, these rules allow criminals or corrupt officials to demand that service providers turn over the sensitive personal information of their critics simply by pretending that they are the victim of a copyright infringement.

Who will speak out against abuses by the powerful if they know that doing so will expose them to retaliation?

Audible Exclusives (permalink) is an amazing alternative to Amazon's Audible: an independent audiobook platform that sells books from every major publisher at the same price as Audible – but without DRM, and with a share of every sale going to an indie bookseller of your choosing.

Virtually every audiobook title is available through – except for those titles that Audible demands be sold as "Audible exclusives."

Not only are these not available through Libro, they're also not offered to libraries.

Libraries are the delivery system of choice for people with dyslexia and other learning disabilities, as well as people with physical disabilities that make handling books difficult, or people with visual disabilities that rely on audiobooks.

Many of these Audible exclusives come through Audible's Creation Exchange – an unpoliced, self-serve platform that has been abused by unscrupulous people who've illegally created audio editions of my own books (Audible won't carry my official audiobooks as they're DRM-free).

If you create an audiobook on ACX, Amazon demands that it be Audible-exclusive (and banned from library distribution) — or it cuts your royalty rate IN HALF.

"Audible Exclusives also work in direct opposition to the basic principles of libraries—free access to books, both digital and print."

And, of course, Audible-only titles are also barred from bookstore distribution…which only enhances Amazon's monopoly over book-sales and erodes the dwindling, fragile market for your community bookseller.

Many new releases are embargoed from non-Audible distribution for the first 90 days – Amazon bribes publishers to make their books "Audible exclusive" at launch time to freeze out competitors.

I mean, fuck that. is great. I have given up enough money to buy a house by refusing to give in to Audible's demand that my books have DRM and be locked to Amazon's platform forever.

I'm currently setting up presales for my independent audio edition of ATTACK SURFACE, the third Little Brother novel, which is read by the incredible Amber Benson.

Our family finances could be better. We're not broke, but we're down by a bunch and getting a little worried. My agent and publisher would love me to go with Audible, and I'm not gonna lie, I've thought about it.

Not because I want to. Not because it's the right thing to do. But because if I can't pay my mortgage, it's gonna be hard to write books. Audible might turn out to be the lesser of two evils.

I hate that. I've lived my principles for decades, but these are desperate times. This is the nature of monopolies, after all – they choke off access to the marketplace, so you either give them a share or you get out of the business.

I'm glad Libro's calling attention to this important issue, but I don't think we can shame Audible into dropping exclusives. They broke their promise to drop DRM back when Amazon bought them in 2008. Why would they start behaving honorably now?

Snowden's Little Brother intro (permalink)

Earlier this month, Tor Books reissued my novels Little Brother and Homeland in a gorgeous new omnibus edition with a cover by Will Staehle and a new introduction by Edward Snowden.

The Snowden intro was so important to me, first because of his connection to the books. If you watched Laura Poitras's Academy Award winning doc Citizenfour, you might have noticed Snowden packing a copy of Homeland in his go-bag as he fled his Hong Kong hotel.

But far more important was the text of intro itself: a call to imagine what a world after the age of mass surveillance, and how we might bring that world into being. Today, Wired published that intro. It's amazing:

"Nearly everything you do, and nearly everyone you love, is being monitored and recorded by a system whose reach is unlimited, but whose safeguards are not."

"But while the system itself was not substantially changed—as a rule, governments are less interested in reforming their own behavior than in restricting the behavior and rights of their citizens—what did change was the public consciousness."

"We are coming to see all too clearly that the construction of these systems was less about connection than it was about control: the proliferation of mass surveillance has tracked precisely with the destruction of public power."

"There were times when empires were won by bronze and boats and powder. None survive. What outlasts each forgotten flag is our greatest technology, language: the empire of the mind."

"We've seen ingenuity give rise to systems that keep our secrets, and perhaps our souls; systems created in a world where possessing the means to a private life feels like a crime. We have seen lone individuals create new tools—better tools—than even the greatest states."

"But no technology, and no individual, will ever be enough to curtail for long the abuses of our weary giants, with their politics of exclusion and protocols of violence. This is the part of the story that matters: what begins with the individual persists in the communal."

Police "unions" are not unions (permalink)

Periodically, some dimbulb will pop up and say, "Hey, you love unions but you hate police brutality – so how about police unions, huh? Ever think of that? Huh? Huh?"

Yeah, I know. Thing is, police unions aren't "unions" in the traditional sense.

To understand the different, try William Finnegan's incredible, long New Yorker piece, "How Police Unions Fight Reform," a masterful history and analysis.

Police unions got off to a rocky start. Policing was an ugly and dangerous job in the 19th century (it's not dangerous now, it's not even in the top ten most dangerous careers), but the labor movement wasn't interested in helping cops.

And with good reason! As cops transitioned from being "slave patrols," hunting Black people who'd escaped bondage, they found a new role in brutalizing and murdering striking workers.

The first US deaths of unionists was in 1850, when NYC cops clubbed striking tailors to death. Despite the role of cops in striker deaths (in 1937, Chicago PD opened fire on striking steelworkers and families, murdering 10), the AFL started chartering police unions after WWI.

But the solidarity went one way: by the 1960s, the NY Police Benevolent Society promised politicians they would never "strike or affiliate with any other union."

Front-line workers' unions like teachers and nurses strike to improve conditions for the people they care for; police unions' main cause is reducing oversight and accountability, waging a decades-long war on civilian oversight boards.

There is an explicit racist agenda in resisting oversight: cops do not want Black people, or politicians who answer to Black people, having a say in police procedure. When NYC Mayor Dinkins – the city's first Black mayor – proposed civilian oversight, the response was ugly.

They ran ads showing a white woman emerging from the subway, looking terrified, warning against civilian review: "Her life…your life…may depend on it."

In 92, cops protested Dinkins' plan with a 10,000 person rally in which cops brandished firearms, consumed alcohol, and waved racist signs with slogans like "Dump the washroom attendant." Others depicted Dinkins as a minstrel, engaged in lewd sex acts.

A drunk, off-duty cop stopped Black councilwoman Una Clarke from crossing Broadway during the rally: "This n_____ says she’s a member of the City Council," he told his partner.

On of the rally's highlights? Rudy Giuliani, screaming obscene chants through a bullhorn. He ran for mayor the next year.

In most regards (public interest, solidarity), police unions are not real unions, but there's one area in which they excel: getting sweet deals for their members. NYPD cops retire after 20 years on $74.5k/year pensions.

As terrible and corrupt as the NYPD are, they're far from the most racist and brutal police forces. That's saying something, because BOY is the NYPD racist and brutal:

Compare 'em with St Louis, where cops murder at 14 times the rate of NYPD; or Chicago, where the racial disparity in police murders is 27.4:1 black:white (in NYC it's 7.8:1).

Police unions hate the public. Their overall message is that the public are hostile and must be controlled.

As Kirk Burkhalter – multigenerational cop turned NYU law prof – says: "imagine a nurses’ union that hated patients, that went on TV and talked about how much trouble the patients give them."

American cops are among the worst-trained, most undisciplined in the world. Cops in the US can start work after 11 weeks training (mostly in "firearms and survival").

In some Western European countries, cops compete for entry into highly selective police academies where they study for 3+ years under top professors.

US cops' training is both inadequate and inappropriate. Again, policing just isn't that dangerous. Roofing is more dangerous! Only 5% of patrol callouts involve any form of violent crime.

Real unions focus on solidarity, and while cop unions will protest anti-union bills that threaten them, when they are carved out of anti-union bills (like Wisconsin's bill that targeted sanitation, education and nursing), it's crickets.

The main focus of police unions is omerta: as the 1931 Wickersham Commission reported: "It is an unwritten law in police departments that police officers must never testify against their brother officers."

As Rhode Island College sociologist Ben Brucato wrote: "These organizations function as lobbies to both resist accountability legislation and shield implicated officers."

Fixing policing is a long road, but it must start. We can begin by getting the AFL-CIO to sever all ties with police "unions."

Quick, inaccurate, cheap covid tests (permalink)

"Fast, cheap, good: pick two" as the old saying goes. Applies to covid testing, too.

The FDA is currently evaluating E25Bio's home tests, which are strips "like home pregnancy tests" that cost $3-4 and give results in 15 minutes.

The catch is they detect high virus loads, but miss people who are at the start of their infection and don't know it. The manufacturers proposes that you'd overcome the shortcomings of the test by administering it frequently – every couple days or so.

Data from test results could form a probabilistic data-set that used multiple sampling points to overcome inaccuracies in each test's data – and the tests could serve as preliminary screens, telling you when you need a more rigorous test at a clinic.

The issue will be false alarms, which train people to ignore alert (think of the certificate errors your browser throws, nearly 100% of which are false alarms). It's a subtle balance to strike. (permalink)

For internet users of a certain generation, the "where were you when JFK was shot" moment is "when did you first see

It wasn't the first grossout image on the web and it's certainly not the worst one, but it's got first-mover advantage that made it absolutely iconic.

But apparently, Swarovski didn't get the memo before designing, manufacturing and offering for sale this $90 "Tarot Magic Bracelet."

(Honestly, it's about par for the course for the company, whose products are universally revolting)

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Economics of used books

#10yrsago Bisson's Fire on the Mountain: alternate history in which John Brown wins at Harper's Ferry

#1yrago "Intellectual Debt": It's bad enough when AI gets its predictions wrong, but it's potentially WORSE when AI gets it right

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Kottke (, JWZ (

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 527 words (42347 total).

Currently reading: The Deficit Myth, Stephanie Kelton

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