Pluralistic: 18 Aug 2020

Today's links

The Fifth Pig (permalink)

Fans of Al Jaffee are familiar with the concept of "fold-ins" – illustrations that transform with comic results after a bit of simple origami.

These aren't limited to MAD Magazine back covers, either. Sometimes they make their way into wartime propaganda.

A classic political fold-up is "where is the fifth pig" puzzles: four pigs in four quadrants, which, when folded, come together to reveal the fifth pig, Adolph Hitler. Several of these were distributed by the British Special Operations Executive.

These were translated into other languages and also adapted for other leaders: a Dutch Hitler version, a Green Mussolini version, a jackal-to-Mussolini version. Some were airdropped by the RAF!

It's only fitting that we've got a Trump version, of course!

This is some OG antifa stuff right here.

"Fuck the algorithm" (permalink)

High stakes tests serve no pedagogical purpose; however, they do serve an important social purpose, namely, they convert cash into the appearance of academic achievement.

Since scores on these tests can be improved through expensive prep, tests can be a way to preferentially advance the children of wealthy people without coming out and admitting that you don't want poor kids in the best schools.

Nowhere in the English-speaking world is this more true than in England, where the majority of secondary and even primary educational assessments are based entirely on tests – often a single test for a whole year's grade.

I remember political scandals in the late Blair/early Brown period when a few select courses were to be evaluated based on "continuous assessment" – class work, teachers' rubrics, etc. This was deemed dangerously "subjective" and widely decried.

Enter the pandemic, which made it impossible for students to sit their A-level exams – these being the highest of the high-stakes tests, the key to admission to postsecondary institutions.

It's a darkly hilarious fact that your A-level grades aren't what get you into uni; offers are made based on your predicted grade, which is based on your historical performance compared to other students at your school and your school's performance relative to rival schools.

But with huge data-voids left behind by the lockdown in the last school year, the Office of Qualifications (Ofqual, and yes, this is a real fucking thing) told teachers to just make up a grade that reflected their best guess.

It's the worst of both worlds: the "objective" measure ("how much did you pay to prepare for the exam?") is replaced with a "subjective" one ("does your teacher think you're smart?") with no formal rubric or framework.

But the Tories found a way to make this even worse. They created a black-box algorithm that then "adjusted" the teachers' estimated scores, giving upward nudges to students in exclusive private schools, and downgrading students in state schools.

This was justified by saying that it reflected the historical scores from each type of institution, which is so on-brand for Tories: on the one hand, it's an admission that the system exists to promote rich people.

And on the other, it implies that the reason to promote rich people is that they're just better – the toff's cod-eugenics that is perfectly in keeping with the idea of a hereditary aristocracy and monarchy.

But this was too ghastly for the Tories to get away with (a high bar to hurdle in 2020!), and, after students mobbed the Department of Education offices chanting "FUCK THE ALGORITHM" (yes, this also actually happened), the Tories reversed course.

This is nice, and I've got a warm schandeboris glow, but let's not lose sight of how bonkers the whole high-stakes testing apparatus is.

Yes, it's great that we've got them to stop using phrenology to overtly discriminate against the poors, but let's dare to dream of a phrenology-free future, shall we?

(Image: Wellcome Images, Cryteria) CC BY, modified)

Mr Cook, Tear Down That Wall (permalink)

You've probably heard that Fortnite publishers Epic are suing Apple over the right to sell software to Iphone owners without cutting Apple in for a 30% vig on every sale. Epic wants a court to order Apple to allow software vendors to offer direct sales.

Apple apologists insist that Apple should have the right to both lock its devices so that Apple customers can only get their software through the App Store, AND that Apple should be able to cream off 30% of every sale in the store.

There's been some smart commentary on this. In particular, I recommend Jay Freeman's long thread on whether the App Store is monopolistic (it most certainly is) and whether that's good for users or software developers (it most certainly is not).

I've made my own contribution to the debate. In a new article for Slate's Future Tense, I talk about the role that interoperability could and should play in safeguarding user rights and blocking monopolistic conduct.

True believers in Apple's business model argue that Apple customers don't even WANT to buy software elsewhere (similar to how they argue against the Right to Repair by insisting that Apple customers are happy to be limited to getting repairs from Apple).

This is a frankly bizarre argument. Apple isn't spending millions are hiring entire buildings full of lawyers to block right to repair or independent app stores on general principle – the only reason to block these things is because you think your customers would use them.

As my EFF colleague Mitch Stoltz says, the argument that Apple users don't want flexibility is like the argument that the Berlin Wall isn't there to keep East Germans IN, it's there to keep the bourgeoisie out of the Worker's Paradise.

If the DDR really believed that people were happy to be behind the wall, they could easily test the proposition: just install a gate that anyone could pass through and see whether anyone stayed.

Likewise, if Apple's convinced that no one wants independent repair or third-party app stores with more dev-friendly policies, it can just put a gate in ITS walled garden and see what its customers do.

The Apple version of the "No True Scotsman" fallacy ("You're not a true Iphone owner if you object to the company you gave $1000 to for a phone charging software vendors a 30% commission") was always absurd.

But it would be fascinating to find out how many "true" Iphone users there are by those lights. If we were to allow owners of Iphones to treat them as their property, to use without regard to the shareholders of a $1T corporation, what would they do?

Apple probably won't unilaterally disarm its DRM arsenal. That's why EFF is suing the US government to overturn the law that makes it a crime to bypass DRM.

Deindustrialization is a market failure (permalink)

In Rowan Moore Gerety's MIT Tech Review feature "Unmade in America," we get a vivid picture of how little industrial capacity remains in America and how much that has harmed the country's resilience to disasters and crises.

Gerety describes the mad scramble early in the crisis to manufacture PPP onshore, and the deep structural problems with doing so: America doesn't merely lack the machines to do this, it lacks the labs to test the materials, the people who know how to do the tests, and so on.

The entire pipeline is empty. The only people qualified to do the work are in their 70s, on the verge of retirement (some have retired since the crisis started). There are no people coming up behind them because deindustrialization means there's nowhere to train or practice.

From there, Gerety goes on the road with Jon Clark, a scrapper who's spent 30 years buying the equipment from closed factories and selling them overseas. Clark, more than anyone, has a bird's eye view of the literal demolishing of American industrial capacity.

These tangible phenomena reveal the invisible, intangible workings of the market system running beneath the surface: the 40 year neoliberal project that asserted that if it was profitable, it was sustainable.

The reason we can't make textiles onshore anymore is investors like Wilbur Ross, the (self described) billionaire who made his fortune buying up textile firms, shuttering them, and moving their production overseas.

These overseas operations are more profitable in part because the workers earn 10% of what their US counterparts take home – but also because the territories the factories relocated to had weak health, safety and environmental regs.

But economic orthodoxy holds that this is actually a net positive, that whatever problems arise from these transactions are offset by the gains.

Hayek's conception of the market as an aggregator of "information" from buyers and sellers insists that all of these downsides are "priced in" to the final outcome.

Garety goes over some of the funny math that "pricing in" uses: for example, if a TV factory shutters in the US and moves overseas, and TV prices fall from $1000 to $500, the net loss to America is $500 – but the town has lost $1,000 worth of work.

But the real funny math comes from the loss of reslience. Stripping America of its domestic capacity to create and maintain its infrastructure and vital supplies is a "negative externality" – a cost everyone bears, even as the investors behind the operation profit.

These costs are never priced into the market transaction, because the political system – which makes the rules of the market – allows those who incur them on all our behalf to act as though they don't exist.

Negative externailities are endemic to market systems: the CO2 that firms subject the rest of us to, the evictions that property speculation fuels, the national brittleness and weakness that offshoring creates.

These are features, not bugs, in "free market" capitalism.

Fed cops substitute dollars for warrants (permalink)

The 1970s saw profound changes in US domestic surveillance. First, the Church Commission – fueled by the rampant abuses of the FBI in spying on political activists – radically curtailed the ability of domestic agencies to conduct surveillance without particularized suspicion.

But the credit bureaux – like Equifax and Experian – had massive growth spurts. Their origins lie in facilitating the systemic punishment of activists as well as sexual and racial minorities, so it's no surprise that they picked up the slack.

Today, data brokerages and official domestic surveillance have fused into a public-private partnership from hell. Consider "Babel Street," a shadowy location-data broker that buys your travel history from the apps you run on your phone.

Their big customers aren't just marketing firms: they're surveillance agencies like CBP and the Secret Service, who find writing a check to Babel Street to be an expedient, simple alternative to going before a judge with probable cause for a warrant.

Babel Street makes millions from these deals, and they will not answer any questions about them, not even to Ron Wyden, a member of the US Senate Intelligence Committee.

Wyden has proposed legislation to block government agencies from evading warrant requirements by paying companies like Babel Street to do their dirty work for them.

Upbeat surveillance marketing (permalink)

Hiktech is a Chinese surveillance-tech company that produces extraordinary, upbeat, cheerful comic ads about how great spying is.

For example in "After an Easy Prey," a medieval Chinese warlord calls upon a sorcerer with mysterious surveillance gadgets to track down a spy in his midst – it's like a cheerful, surveillance-oriented version of Jackie Chan's Drunken Master.

Their other videos aren't nearly so slick but they are quite a rabbit-hole of alternate-universe surveillance-boosterism. Like this CG animaiton selling anti-shoplifting tech to grocers:

Or this one, in which footballers take turns kicking a ball into a ruggedized CCTV to demonstrate the beating it can take:

South Africa's copyright and human rights (permalink)

South Africa is in the midst of a major overhaul to its copyright system, in particular the "limitations and exceptions" that are the escape valves within copyright for such core human rights as free expression and self-determination.

Broadly speaking, there are two approaches to copyright exceptions: "enumerated uses" (lists of things you're allowed to do) and "frameworks" (criteria that judges can use to assess whether a use should be allowed).

Examples of the "enumerated uses" system are the UK fair dealing system, or the EU Copyright Directive's guarantee of a "criticism" and "parody" exemption.

While the "frameworks" approach is in use in the US through "fair use," as well as in the copyright systems of Israel, South Korea and other countries.

Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses. Enumerated exemptions provide certainty by listing things you are absolutely allowed to do. Frameworks are future-proof, allowing courts to reason about uses that were not technologically possible when the law was created.

To its credit, South Africa adopted both: a set of enumerated exemptions to reflect the state of the art, and a straightforward importation of the US fair use "four factor" framework for new uses.

And to its shame, the US Trade Rep took the bizarre position that South Africa was not allowed to have fair use, claiming that this would violate SA's international trade obligations under the Berne Convention, TRIPS, the WCT, etc.

This is obviously wrong. For one thing, the US itself is party to all these same treaties, and it has never faced enforcement action for its fair use rules. If fair use was incompatible with these treaties, it would have faced a challenge.

But despite both domestic and overseas NGOs pointing this out, SA President Cyril Ramaphosa has sent the copyright bill back to parliament, having stripped it of both the exemptions and fair use, claiming it would violate the Berne Convention.

Yesterday, EFF sent an open letter to the Parliament and the President with extensive legal citations to show that South Africa will not be in breach of its international obligations if it creates a fair use system.

As I explain in the accompanying blog post, exemptions for education, research, archiving, libraries and museums are critical to the human rights of the South African people and the national and economic sovereignty of the South African nation.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Hunter S Thompson's ashes to be sent high on fireworks

#15yrsago Southern Baptist guide to non-gay Disney movies

#15yrsago Disneyland brought low by Windows worms

#5yrsago Women of the Haunted Mansion cosplayers at SDCC

#5yrsago The End of the Internet Dream: the speech that won Black Hat (and Defcon)

#5yrsago Chuck Wendig's Zeroes: a hacker technothriller in the War Games lineage

#1yrago A new biography reveals the Koch brothers' very early role in creating organized climate denial

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (, Slashdot (, John Nagle.

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