Pluralistic: 16 Aug 2020

Today's links

Self-driving cars are bullshit (permalink)

I'm a science fiction writer, so I quite enjoy thinking about self-driving cars. They make for really interesting analogies about data, liability, self-determination, information security and openness.

Sometimes I write fiction about this! Deakin University commissioned "Car Wars," a short story about the sociotechnological issues raised by autonomous vehicle thought-experiments.

(they also got a faculty member to write a quiz for it whose correct answers take a 180' different view to my own!)

And without any spoilers here, I'll say that subverted, lethal autonomous vehicles are a key plot point in Attack Surface, the third Little Brother book, coming out in Oct.

But I'm a science fiction writer and that means I can tell the difference between "thought experiments" and "real things." Alas, the same cannot be said of corporate America.

For example, according to its own IPO filings, Uber can only be profitable if it invents fully autonomous vehicles and replaces every public transit ride in the world with them.

Elon Musk – a man whose "green electric car company" is only profitable thanks to the carbon credits it sells to manufacturers of the dirtiest SUVs in America, without which those planet-killing SUVs would not exist – makes the same mistake.

Musk wants to abolish public transit and replace it with EVs (he says that public transit makes you sit next to strangers who might be serial killers, which tells you a lot about his view of humanity).

Now, both Uber and Musk are both wrong as a matter of simple geometry. Multiply the space occupied by all those AVs by the journeys people in cities need to make by the additional distances of those journeys if we need road for all those cars, and you run out of space.

It's a trivially modelable Red Queen's Race, in which the more cars you add, the more road you need, the more spaced out everything gets, the more cars you need, the more road you need, the more spaced out everything gets, the more cars you need…

Indeed, these fairy tales require so much credulity to be taken seriously that they strain even the car-addled imaginations of American automotive culture, and also rely on the irrational exuberance inspired by imaginary self-driving cars to propagate and persist.

But that exuberance is sorely misplaced. Machine learning systems have brittle and unpredictable failure modes that can be triggered by accident or deliberately. The unconstrained problem of navigating busy cities with unquantifiable human activities is insoluble with ML.

Or, at least, it's insoluble if you care about whether cars kill even more people in even less predictable ways than they do now.

This is a lesson that Ford CEO Jim Hackett just learned the hard way.

After investing heavily in the technology and boasting about how Ford's future was a bet on the imminent arrival of AVs, Hackett has had to admit that "We overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles."

The company has sunk $4b into the technology. But there's gotta be a pony under there somewhere:

"When we bring this thing to market, it's going to be really powerful." -Hackett

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY, modified; Gartner, modified)

How to Argue With a Racist (permalink)

Genomist Adam Rutherford is a gifted science communicator; the podcast he co-hosts, "The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry" is one of the best popular science programs I've ever heard: charming and informative at the same time.

His 2017 book "A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived" used a survey of the state of the art in genomics to present an account of what we knew about human relatedness.

The most compelling part of "Brief History" was Rutherford's skewering of junk DNA science, especially the home ancestry/genetic testing industry, with its claims of being able to tell you if you're 32% viking and if so, which red wine you're genetically programmed to enjoy.

These sections are written with Rutherford's characteristic empathy – as someone who'd dedicated his life to genomics, he understands the impulse to connect your DNA with your life story – but they also warn about the harms arising from these false beliefs.

These harms are the subject of his new book, HOW TO ARGUE WITH A RACIST, a bestseller in the UK, just published in the US with new forematter updated in light of both the pandemic and the BLM uprising.

Superficially, the "race science" promulgated by white supremacists – often repeated by people who should know better, sometimes internalized by racialized people who are harmed by this pseudoscience – has the ring of plausibility.

Whether that's the fairy tales about "race" and ability ("Jews are smart because of medieval money-lending laws" or "Black people perform well in sports because of the slave trade's selective breeding") or the studies grouping humanity into races based on genetic divergence.

Chances are you've encountered this stuff and not known what to make of it but thought it benign or at least neutral. But sociologists have scraped white nationalist message-boards to document the centrality of this stuff to the rise of a new movement of would-be genociders.

"How to Argue" is a point-by-point rebuttal to these race realists. Despite the title, Rutherford doesn't really expect that you'll convince someone who's obsessed with whether they have "Jewish genes" or who worships their ability to break down lactose with his arguments.

Those people, after all, are motivated reasoners. They've started from the end-point – "appearances and life circumstances notwithstanding, I am superior and deserve better" – and worked their way backwards to justify that story to themselves.

As Jonathan Swift wrote (and as Rutherford quotes): "It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into."

But it's not just motivated reasoners who absorb this garbage. There's a whole business model built on selling people junk DNA science that makes "race science" regrettably spreadable.

That's where Rutherford is aiming: people who've assumed that 23andme and its rivals wouldn't be able to make millions selling you diagnoses of the precise quantity of viking DNA in your blood if there wasn't something to it.

And here Rutherford shines. He is, after all, a gifted science communicator. This is one seriously charming book, funny and witty and just flat-out fascinating.

Rutherford doesn't merely want to disabuse you of the fantastical claims of Junk DNA Science – he wants to excite you about the incredible NEW things we're learning thanks to the rapid advances in genomics.

Like the fact that Africa is the most genetically diverse place on Earth, with two members of the Sen tribe from different regions being more genetically divergent than a Swede and an Australian Aboriginal person.

And the fact that you only need to go back 11 generations before you reach an ancestor whose DNA is likely completely missing from your own genome. Or the small number of centuries you have to look back before you find the first common ancestor of every European.

And the amount of genetic outflow and backflow between seemingly isolated places – Bronze Age Africa and Europe, say – and the waves of migration we can trace through genomes that eliminate any claim to national genetic commonality in any land.

If you've ever wondered what role genomics plays in the dominance of people from east Africa in footraces, or the number of Jewish Nobelists, Rutherford's here for you, unpicking what we know about the role of genes in these attainments (spoiler: they're not that important).

All leavened with gentle and devastating dunks on "race science" believers and the wit of Douglas Adams in his prime.

It may not help you win arguments with racists – they cannot be reasoned out of what they weren't reasoned into.

But it a powerful innoculant against the ideas drifting out of their foetid pits and into the rest of the world.

Combat Wheelchairs (permalink)

The Heroes Without Limits project was created by disability advocate Sara Thompson, "producing and streaming real play tabletop games with an all-disabled/chronically ill/neurodivergent cast and crew."

Thompson's work also includes creating homebrew RPG add-ons "roleplay and address disability" in your own games.

A recent addition is the Combat Wheelchair, rules for integrating wheelchair using adventurers into your Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition games:

The chair comes with its own attacks and added capabilities – like being able to fix a weapon in place on it and ramming/tyre striking your adversaries, or high-speed descents on sloped terrain.

The docs also come with a new character class, "The Paralympian."

Combat Wheelchairs' obvious, manifest coolness has not prevented gatekeeping yum-yukkers from raising spurious objections to them, and these are addressed in the homebrew rules.

But far more interesting than Combat Wheelchairs' detractors are its boosters, who have unleashed a torrent of delightful and creative new media building on Thompson's work.

I am most impressed with sculptor Russ Charles and character designer Thomas Lishman's Combat Wheelchair miniatures for Strata Minis, which the company has christened "Dungeons and Diversity."

There are 4 minis in all, available for preorder now as either STL files (£5/ea) or resin/metal 3D prints (£15/ea) with a ship-date of Sept 21 and 25% of proceeds donated to

Amazon bans podcasts that criticize Amazon (permalink)

The digital rights movement has a longstanding hostility to the term "intellectual property," raising two objections to the term:

I. It's incoherent: patents, copyright, trademarks and other "IP" have little in common with one another in their rubrics or contours.

II. "IP" was deliberately promulgated in the 1960s/70s as an alternative to the age old term, "author's monopoly," a term that warned us that lurking beneath any government grant of exclusivity to ideas or expressions was a monopoly with all its problems.

Now, creators have long bristled at this second objection, pointing out that getting a copyright didn't make you a monopolist in the sense of having "market power" – the ability to set prices and terms for your products.

Creators are largely at the mercy of the investors in their work – the publishers, studios, labels, distributors, etc who sit between them and their audiences and provide both capital and access to those audiences.

Those companies may be monopolists (5 major publishers, 4 major studios, 3 major labels, 2 major cable operators, 1 major cinema chain about to be purchased by the solitary major online bookseller, etc), but the creators in the supply chains have no market power to speak of.

I recently came to a realization about that first objection, about the imprecision of "IP": namely, that when those corporate monopolists use the term IP, it has a very precise meaning, namely:

"IP is any legal rule that I can use to exert control over the conduct of my critics, competitors, and customers."

That's why we see "trade secrecy" and "noncompetes" and "terms of service" and "binding arbitration" lumped in with "IP."

DRM (more specifically, the laws against breaking DRM) lets you dictate how people use the products you make after you sell them.

These laws also let you decide who can reveal technical defects in your products.

Combined with patents and terms of service, "IP" lets you decide who can enter your market, and on what terms. It lets "platform operators" lock out competitors or mine their own customers' sales for competitive intel.

You see "IP" everywhere: not just in Epic's lawsuit against Apple over the Ios App Store (controlling competitors), but in Goldman Sans, a "free" font from Goldman Sachs whose license includes a ban on criticizing Goldman Sachs (controlling critics).

And more recently, Amazon announced that its new podcasting platform, streaming on Audible and Amazon Music, would come with license terms banning criticism of Amazon:

Now, Amazon backed off from its nondisparagement clause pretty quick, but the existence of that clause tells us an awful lot. It's not like one of Amazon's lawyers slipped and accidentally wrote a nondisparagement clause.

The only thing that slipped here is the mask – the pretense that the goal of business is fair competition that operates in a marketplace characterized by reliable access to good information.

That's something companies want (for other companies, at least) while they're fighting for dominance: but once they attain it, they want "IP": the power to control critics, competitors and customers.

And once your monopoly has "IP" in it, it acquires a special durability. In the absence of IP, competitors who fight your dominance face an uphill battle, but they get to threaten you with enforcement under the (weak and attenuated) antitrust laws.

But once you get "IP," you get to sue them for having the temerity to threaten your dominance. Apple can use copyright law – Sec 1201 of the DMCA – to sue any company that offers Iphone users a rival app store.

Universal Music can sue any musician that creates sample-based music without first subjecting themselves to Universal's confiscatory contracts, whereby it adds their "Author's Monopoly" to its actual, market-power monopoly.

If you're interested in a more thorough unpacking of these ideas, watch for the next issue of Locus Magazine, where I have a long column about them.

Or if you're feeling impatient, check out my keynote for 2600's HOPE2020, where I read a draft of that column:

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Pratchett on Harry Potter reading ban

#10yrsago Heinlein memoir: LEARNING CURVE – the secret history of science fiction

#5yrsago Endless spiralling model-train

#1yrago Major corporations blacklist ads on news stories that include the words "Trump," "racism," "gun," "Brexit," "suicide" and more

#1yrago Penetration tester releases proof-of-concept code for hijacking smart buttplugs

#1yrago The guy who figured out Bernie Madoff's scam now says GE is about to go bankrupt

#1yrago Announcement of Tumblr's sale to WordPress classified as pornography by Tumblr's notorious "adult content" filter

#1yrago Judge orders the State of Georgia to be prepared for pen-and-paper balloting by March 2020

#1yrago Art Spiegelman pulled his Marvel Folio Society intro after Disney demanded that he not criticize Trump

#1yrago In California, the 2020 elections will feature an epic battle to allow cities to reinstate property taxes

Colophon (permalink)

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