Pluralistic: 06 Aug 2020

Today's links

NY State's promising new antitrust law (permalink)

New York State Senator Mike Gianaris has introduced an important bill reforming the state's antitrust law, S8700A. The bill allows the state to take unilateral antitrust action against companies engaged in monopolistic conduct, without waiting for the feds.

Now, it's not as if the feds don't have the power to take action on market concentration, and it's not as if market concentration hasn't ruined competition is virtually every sector of the global economy.


Ronald Reagan's pet fabulist, Robert Bork, proposed an antitrust theory that held that the only time the DoJ should take antitrust action is when companies do anticompetitive actions that raise prices in the short term. Everything else was fair game.

And every administration since – particularly Clinton – has doubled down on that plute-licking version of antitrust, with the effect that we are down to between 1-5 companies in virtually every industry.

And where the feds won't step in, states can. In California, the AG is taking on Google.

While in NY, you have a critical mass of hyperconsolidated finance, entertainment and telcoms companies.

The bill has real support, too.

This is gonna be fu-uuun.

(Image: paul_houle, CC BY-SA, modified)

Ventilation vs covid (permalink)

There's increasing medical consensus that indoor spread of covid takes place through floating aerosol particles. If your environs are warm and dry year round (like my place in San Fernando Valley) this militates a cautious shift to outdoor activities.

But not everyone can be outdoors all the time. Some activities are necessarily indoors, while others will be shifted indoors by rain and cold (and wind, etc). There's preliminary evidence that good air filtration makes a big difference when you're inside.

Good HEPA systems for every room can cost $500+. That's a lot! Some experts, inspired by a study of improvised filters in Singapore as a means of filtering Indonesian wildfire smoke, are looking into $10 paper HEPA filters strapped to $27 box-fans.

These filters were found to capture 75% of 1-10μm particles! Wired's Adam Rogers talked to air-quality expert Richard Corsi from Maseeh College Engineering/Comp Sci, who started riffing on ways this design could be improved upon.

Of course, that's no magic bullet. You could improve the ventilation in your indoor spaces by opening a window, which is hard to do when it's really cold out.

As it turns out, there's one place that's really well-prepared for that exigency: New York City.

New York's infamously "over-indexed," sweltering steam heaters date back to the 1918 flu pandemic, when buildings were fitted with high-powered heating specifically so they could stay warm in winter, even with all their windows open to the elements (!).

That's the origin of the perennial New Yorker's lament that their apartments are turned into saunas every winter because their steam radiators have two settings: "off" and "broil."

What's more, steam radiators are basically indestructible and a LOT of New York's housing stock still uses these systems (though the boilers don't run on coal anymore).

This isn't much help to people who don't have this kind of heating, but we've already seen what happens in NYC when airborne diseases aren't confronted with sufficient vigor.

None of this is a replacement for a vaccine or therapeutic, but as harm-reduction strategies go, it's good to see this stuff enter the discourse. What's more, this is all early days, and there are probably some serious, easy gains yet to be won.

(Image: Jim Rosenthal)

Writers Guild vanquishes a major agency (permalink)

When we talk about market concentration in entertainment, we often default to the most visibly concentrated elements: one movie theater chain, four movie studios, one cable operator and one telco per region, five tech giants.

But there's another – incredibly salient – form of concentration that's invisible unless you're actually in the industry: consolidation in the talent agencies.

Private equity-backed rollups have turned a wild jungle of hundreds of agents and agencies into a manicured, ornamental hedge of four mega-agencies: WME, CAA, UTA and ICM.

Private equity is the most predatory form of capitalism extant, the end-product of generations of looters who distanced the financial economy from the real economy, until the best way to make money is to destroy real value.

And when these eminently guillotinable wreckers took over the talent agencies, the got control over a critical bottleneck in entertainment production, the funnel that all creative laborers move through en route to production. Having control over a bottleneck, they squeezed.

The agencies started creating "packaging deals": when you hire a writer, they also find you a director, lead actors, and so on. And they skim a "packaging fee" off the top of the production, in addition to the commissions they earn from their clients.

This is a massive conflict of interest. Agencies could (tacitly) offer studios lower compensation for their clients in exchange for higher fees. The talent got less, the studios paid less, and the agencies made more.

The arts are a bizarre labor market, because people make art even in the absence of a rational expectation of return – arts production is motivated by both intrinsic and extrinsic factors.

When Samuel Johnson said "None but a blockhead ever wrote but for money," it was pure aspiration. Not even Johnson himself ever lived up to that standard!

This gives rise to highly exploitative relationships, where unscrupulous middle-men can charge money to artists for access to audiences (or even the promise of access, never delivered upon).

Predatory "vanity publishers," fake agents, and other grifters have bankrupted many a would-be artist.

To counter this tendency, writers are advised to stick to a rule of thumb that "money flows towards the artist."

That is, your publisher makes money from your creation, not fees you pay for publication. Your agent makes money from commissions on the publisher's royalties, not from a service charge to you.

Publishers and agents should never have side-deals that incentivize agents to accept less for you. This is incredibly obvious: agents argue your side in a negotiation with an entertainment company. They can't also be working for the entertainment company.


I mean… duh.

So when the big agencies started doing this packaging thing, writers got pissed. What's more, screenwriters are unionized, represented by (among others), the WGA. And they told the agents, fuck no, no way, cut this shit out.

And the private equity bosses running the agencies said fuck off, what are you all gonna do, fire your agents?

So every WGA member fired their agents.

That was in April 2018!

Most of the mid-sized agencies caved. But the action dragged on for YEARS, seemingly with no end in sight.

Then, last month, UTA caved.

And now, ICM has surrendered.

That just leaves CAA (who used to rep me) and WME (who currently do) as holdouts, still involved in both the labor action and an endless, slow-motion lawsuit.

This is a huge victory for the writers, but it's not really clear what'll happen next.

For one thing, there are all the writers who fired their agents and hired managers, went to mid-sized agencies, or used lawyers to rep them — will they go back?

Then there are writers like me: not in the Guild, but with enough option deals to need a screen agent.

As I understand it, if I ever get signed on to adapt any of my work on a union production, I'll have to join the Guild to work on it, and that means firing the agent who got the deal. It's a pretty weird situation!

And for the record, my agent is a hardworking, lovely person who gets my work and is great to work with. She's not a private equity baron.

For me, the ICM deal is a hopeful sign that CAA and WME will cave soon. Their biggest (former) clients can now sign with UTA or ICM, which should scare the shit out of the holdout agencies.

NY AG wants to dissolve NRA (permalink)

If you think about the NRA, you probably concentrate on the org's program activities: raising stupendous sums from terrified musketfuckers and spending them to lobby for the most lethally irresponsible firearms policies imaginable.

Which is understandable! Terrorizing ammosexuals is a pretty odious business, reliant on racist dog-whistles, conspiracy theories that victimize the parents of children slaughtered in school shootings, and so. much. red-baiting.

But the NRA isn't merely a terrorist organization. It's a terrorist organization with a business-model. That is, it's a grift. A way to funnel bedwetting gun-humpers' money into the pockets of mediocre sociopaths who run the org.

For years, the NRA has been mired in scandal, making lavish dispersals to its board of directors and execs:

And spending a fortune helping its president-for-life Wayne LaPierre buy a multimillion-dollar mansion is definitely not part of its "charitable purpose."

And because there is no honor among thieves, the NRA has also been roiled by internal brawls, as "internal coups" briefly displaced LaPierre and replaced him with (I shit you not) Oliver North, who was then swiftly deposed.

The NRA isn't just a terrorist organization. Nor is it just a grift. It is also – and this is very important – a tax-exempt charitable nonprofit. Which means that it is very tightly regulated.

In theory.

In practice, it has been largely left alone as it lost more than $64m over three years, paid for execs' fancy meals, vacations, and private jets, guaranteed LaPierre $17m in post-employment benefits without Board approval, and did some way shady accounting with its PR firm.

Finally, the grift has become impossible to ignore, and so the AG of the NRA's home state has filed suit to dissolve the organization and force LaPierre to pay back his corrupt gains.

Here's a fun fact: the NRA is headquartered in New York!

NY AG Letitia James is not fucking around. And she's got a hell of a case, thanks in large part to the NRA itself: when its internecine struggles spilled over into the courts, warring NRA factions exposed a lot of the org's darkest secrets.

The timing couldn't be better. The NRA spent tens of millions backing Trump in 2016. Now, they're not just broke – they're also battling for their lives.

(Image: Paul Sableman, CC BY, modified)

Qanon is an ARG (pt II) (permalink)

Yesterday, I wrote about the idea that Qanon is an alternate reality game, recapping the arguments that leading ARG designer Adrian Hon had published:

The ARG company that Adrian Hon helped found, Six to Start, once also included his brother, Dan Hon, who also knows an awful lot about ARGs and has also been thinking about the relationship between Qanon and ARGs.

Dan Hon's analysis recaps Richard Bartle's taxonomy of gamers: "killers, achievers, socializers and explorers" and shows how Q cultists fit into (and render toxic) these archetypes.

In Q, socializers are meme-makers: "their success creates achievement and community standing."

Achievers are connection finders: "They play for local fame: to be the first to find the connection"

Explorers are connection finders who "get to create new evidence"

Killers are griefers, punishing cult members for doing Q wrong and trolling nonbelievers. Horrifyingly, they're also non-metaphorical killers – cultists have already murdered for the cult and will again.

Conspiracies share ARG-like characteristics: as with ARGs, conspiracists get to make their own canon. If you come up with a cool idea in an ARG, the GM ("puppetmaster") will add it to the story. In conspiracies the coolest theories get promulgated by other "players."

If you squint hard at Q, it looks like an obsessive fandom, and there are elements of Q that are scratching the same itch that fanac does: community, recognition, the satisfaction of creativity and shared storytelling and the joy of feeling significant.

On The Beast, the seminal game that was the Hon brothers' entree into ARGs, players were so excited by their puzzle-solving achievements that reacted to the 9/11 attacks by announcing that they'd solve those, too.

Hon cites the work of Molly Sauter, one of my absolute favorite internet theorists, in a piece called "The Apophenic Machine," which explores the relationship of the internet to conspiracism more generally.

The internet is incredibly rewarding to the conspiratorial impulse: (quoting Kathleen Stewart) "the internet was made for conspiracy theory: it is a conspiracy theory: one thing leads to another, always another link leading you deeper into no thing and no place."

The dispersed, complex, networked world invites complex, dispersed explanations: "the illusion of the world as graspable, strung together with links even as the socially contingent markers of importance, trust, and validity are increasingly on the fritz."

The "paranoid-realist" mode of thought is coming to dominance in our age, epitomized by conspiracies like Pizzagate. As Michael Fortun says, "paranoiacs do not look, they find…[They] do not simply weigh and measure [evidence], but they create it with their instruments."

ARGs are about the pleasure of "making meaning," while conspiracism is "an overabundance of meaning-making."

But conspiracies are also "attempts to wrestle the complexities of the modern world down to a level of simplicity that can be grasped by an individual… manifestations of the reactive attempt to reassert individual control over systemic forms of power that defy narrative. "

Above all, conspiracism is correlated with conspiracies: "One only has to look at the fracking industry, the pharmaceutical industry’s R&D; policies, or the Catholic Church scandals to see that our world weeps conspiracies. They come out of the walls."

Sauter imagines "two separate reality streams: the human politics stream, full of reactive paranoia intent on creating graspable narratives for human consumption, and the overarching networks of networks, the financialized global capital streams and automated algorithmic diktats that operate and adhere without being wholly grasped, without anyone understanding them in their entirety."

(Aside: if you like this kind of thing, make sure to check out Sauter on machine learning)

This day in history (permalink)

#5yrsago Robert Charles Wilson's The Affinities: when science changes everything

#5yrsago Universal Music's anti-piracy ads reached new heights of crazypants gore

#1yrago The only thing health insurance companies are good at is scaring us about socialized medicine

#1yrago How Quebec's health-care system uses "vaccine whisperers" to keep "vaccine hesitancy" from turning to anti-vax

#1yrago Amazon's surveillance doorbell marketers help cops get warrantless access to video footage from peoples' homes

#1yrago A loophole in nonprofit law means that corporate lobbying is at least double the official figure

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Slashdot (, Naked Capitalism (, Boing Boing (, Ilan Muskat (

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