Pluralistic: 19 Aug 2020

Today's links

Amazon's Monopoly Tollbooth (permalink)

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance has published a blockbuster report on the ways that Amazon increasingly abuses its market power against both buyers and sellers on its platform – it's a timely addition to the discourse on monopolism, monopsonism, competition and Big Tech.

Here are the topline findings:

  • Amazon gets an average of 30% from each sale; 5 years ago it was 19%

  • Amazon's seller fee take is $60b (for comparison, AWS is only $35b)

  • Seller fees have grown twice as fast as other revenues since 2014; they're 21% of Amazon's total

  • Amazon's fee growth comes primarily from forcing sellers to buy search placement or be doomed to obscurity

  • The long-run effect of these fees is to drive Amazon sellers out of business

  • Amazon capitalized a dominant logistics business with excess rents from seller fees

  • Seller fees are how Amazon can afford to sell rival own-brand products below cost: Amazon subsidizes predatory pricing with fees extorted from the businesses it preys on

ILSR makes two recommendations:

I. Subject Amazon's marketplace to public utility-like standards of non-discrimination and fair pricing

II. Break up Amazon, "to eliminate conflicts of interest and monopoly leveraging."

Some of this may sound familiar if you watched the Congressional hearings on Big Tech and antitrust; that's because Rep Mary Gay Scanlon [D-PA] extensively cited the report during her questioning.

Thomas Hawk's Talking Heads (permalink)

One of my favorite Flickr follows is Thomas Hawk, a photographer whose goal is to produce 1,000,000 finished, beautiful photos licensed under Creative Commons.

One of Hawk's more intriguing series is his "Talking Heads" photos: stark, black-and-white images of political figures snapped while they appear on his TV screen (I think?).

He's gotten some great ones from this week's DNC. There's Bernie Sanders:

Image: Thomas Hawk


James Clyburn:

Image: Thomas Hawk


And Nancy Pelosi:

Image: Thomas Hawk


And ooh, there's AOC:

Image: Thomas Hawk


Orwell prize winner trapped in orwellian nightmare (permalink)

The latest Made-in-Britain Tory political scandal is the "fuck the algorithm" A-level grades omnishambles, in which the Conservative party deployed a black-box algorithm to give rich students higher grades and poor students lower ones.

This has resulted in many students who'd been offered places in universities having those offers rescinded based on their "disappointing" final grades.

Among the students who lost their places is Jessica Johnson, a young writer whose literary achievements include winning coveted Orwell youth prize for dystopian tales, for a story called "A Band Apart"

The story is a chilling dystopian tale of students whose class disadvantages are magnified by an unaccountable algorithm that empiricism-launders the privilege of the wealthy by claiming that its judgments are "meritocratic."

Johnson had been offered a place at St Andrew’s University, but that offer was withdrawn after the Tories' algorithm lowered her grade.

She told The Guardian that she hopes that the Tories' U-turn on algorithmic grade-adjusments means she'll get to go to university after all.

You cannot make this shit up.

ETA: Johnson reports that the university rang her after the publicity storm and told her they were reversing her reversal and her place has been confirmed.

(Image: Jessica Johnson)

Spikey (permalink)

Locks are pretty rubbish. The lock on your door is more of a "keep out" sign than an actual way to keep someone who wants to get in from coming in. My daughter was 5 or 6 when I first took her to Defcon and she learned to pick locks in an hour.

So can you! Try Toool, The Open Organization of Lockpickers, and go to town. It's a super fun, soothing way to pass the day. Like knitting, but simultaneously more and less practical.

Once you've learned to pick locks, you get a profound realization about security: there are billion-dollar companies whose products are just garbage and always have been, who, despite this, have been in business for decades or even centuries.

You also realize why: security is hard. Making locks that can be easily opened with a key, not easily opened without the key, can be serviced and mass produced? That's just hard.

Moreover, the materiality of locks – the fact that they're made from stuff, and that stuff has its own characteristics, flaws and behaviors, makes those problems a million times gnarlier.

For years, we've known that amateur lockpickers can reproduce your keys by taking pictures of them. There are even grocery store machines that take a picture of your key and duplicate it. The shape of your key is itself a security vulnerability.

But it turns out it's not just the shape of your key, it's the sound. Spikey is an exploit from a NUS Comp Sci team lead by Soundarya Ramesh, laid out in this (paywalled) ACM Hotmobile paper.

Spikey is an acoustic attack on traditional six-pin locks. It analyzes a sound recording of a key entering the keyway and hitting the pins and infers what the key must look like based on the sounds.

The actual inference part works really reliably! Here's Ramesh demoing the technique:

The hard part isn't the analysis, it's obtaining the recording. You need to get a smartphone to within a few centimeters of the key as it enters the lock, which is pretty obvious. On the other hand, it may be possible to capture the audio by hacking a "smart" doorbell's mic.

Speaking as an author of technothrillers, this is a fantastic bit. (attn: John Rogers).

What's more, it dispenses with the need for lockpicking altogether: obtain an advance recording, infer the key, make the key, enter the premises.

Ramesh speculates that a generic defense against this attack can be found in subtle alterations in the geometry of the key – by making the ridges smoother, it could dampen the sounds they make when hitting the pins, frustrating attempts to infer the pin configuration.

If you want to learn lockpicking (and I think you should try!), I recommend the picks and practice locks from Sparrows Tools, which have never steered me wrong.

Hedge fund won't return Citi's accidental $175m deposit (permalink)

Hard to know what's more bonkers about this story: that Citibank "accidentally" sent $175m to a hedge fund called Brigade Capital, or that Brigade is refusing to return it.

Brigade was part of a syndicate that financed Revlon's buyout of Elizabeth Arden (an anticompetitive merger that never should have been approved, but whatever). Citibank administers Revlon's loan payments to its creditors.

Last week, Citibank wired $900m extra to Revlon's various creditors, then immediately informed them that it had made a mistake and asked them to send it back. Brigade said no, arguing that this was just Citi paying back the whole loan at once.

Complicating matters is a claim by Revlon's creditors that it engaged in "collateral stripping," in which it promised the trademarks it put up as collateral for the original loan to get new loans to see it through the economic apocalypse.

This gambit is an emerging play in the debt-driven private equity ponzi scheme, whereby already debt-crushed companies can raise even more money by putting up the same collateral twice.

The company most closely associated with the scheme is J Crew, a company that was plunged into debt by private equity looters who borrowed heavily, pocketed the money, and destroyed the company's reputation by reducing quality and raising prices.

To stave off a reckoning for this autophagia, the creditors exploited an ambiguity in its contracts with its creditors to borrow again on the same trademarks it put up as collateral on the first loan.

This is what Revlon is doing, as well, and creditors are scrambling, demanding repayment in full on their loans even as the collateral is being promised to new lenders.

Brigade and two other funds – Symphony and HPS – are among the creditors whom Citi seemingly (accidentally?) repaid in full on Revlon's behalf. Now, they're taking the position that Citi was fulfilling their prior demand for immediate redemption and will not return the funds.

Citi's gotten a court to issue an injunction barring the creditors from withdrawing the funds while they fight it out, and Revlon insists it has no intention of paying back the loans as that would compromise its "turnaround strategy."

Though two things remain unclear:

I. Why and how the actual fuck did Citibank "accidentally" wire $900,000,000 to these funds?


II. Is Revlon's "turnaround strategy" to invest in a time machine so it can go back in time and not engage in idiotic and heavily leveraged mergers to monopoly?

Yale admin: "Prepare for death" (permalink)

Yale is back in session, with students physically present on campus, engaging in all the traditional start-of-year collegiate activities, like competitive coughing matches and eyeball-licking parties, having a good ole Ivy League version of the Masque of the Red Death.

Not everyone at Yale is sanguine about the edu-epidemiological situation: Laurie Santos, a psych prof (also Head of Silliman College) sent an email on Jul 1 warning returning students to "emotionally prepare for for widespread infections – and possibly deaths…"

She added, "you should emotionally prepare for the fact that your residential college life will look more like a hospital unit than a residential college."

She also reminded the students that some of the staff at Yale come from poor/marginalized backgrounds and don't have a choice about whether they come to campus (the Ivies have been wracked by strike action in support of low-waged food, custodial and other service workers).

The warnings are well-founded. As Ron Beschizza pointed out, it only took a week for 146 returning Notre Dame students to test positive for covid, outstripping the entire province of Ontario, whose new case-surge topped out at 125.

Austerity breeds Nazis (permalink)

Since the 2008 crisis, western governments' answer to every economic crash has been to smash the austerity button, dialing down public spending just as the private sector was also slamming the doors shut.

Austerity-hit countries have also experienced the highest growth in fascist ideology, fascist violence and support for fascist parties – think of the surge of support in Greece for Golden Dawn.

Anti-austerity activists predicted this, of course, citing Weimar-era austerity's role in the rise of Hitler and his Nazi Party. Now, a group of interdisciplinary scholars have quantified the relationship between austerity and Naziism.

They used electoral data from 1,000+ towns and 100+ cities in the runup to the 1933 German elections, which, along with the Reichstag fire, allowed the Nazis to seize control over the German state.

They found that "areas more severely affected by austerity had relatively higher vote shares for the Nazi Party" (and they controlled for confounding variables such as "city and election fixed effects").

For each "standard deviation increase in the depth of austerity" there was "a two to five percentage point increase in vote share for the Nazis."

This wasn't mere "pocket book voting" either: the Nazis picked up votes from the ruling party, but other parties, including rival far-right parties, did not.

Moreover, the people who were absolutely worst off did not switch to the Nazis – rather, they threw their support behind the Communist Party.

"This is consistent with the notion that those just above them in the economic hierarchy, who had more to lose from the tax hikes and spending cuts, favoured the Nazis when their party failed to provide them economic relief."

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Penguin-suited activists crash Microsoft's Berlin parliament presentation

#5yrsago MPAA loves fair use so much they don't want to share it with the rest of the world

#5yrsago Chastity belts were a joke, then a metaphor, then a hoax

#5yrsago Jeb Bush: the NSA isn't spying on us enough

#1yrago More than 20 Texas cities and towns have been taken hostage by ransomware

#1yrago The TSA strip searched a grandmother on Mother's Day and now says that she's overreacting because it's no different from a locker room

#1yrago A cycle of renewal, broken: How Big Tech and Big Media abuse copyright law to slay competition (Podcast (

#1yrago New Hampshire court to patent troll: it's not libel when someone calls you a "patent troll"

#1yrago Owner of Phoenix apartment building serves eviction notices to every tenant so he can turn their homes into unlicensed hotel rooms

#1yrago Ecofascism isn't new: white supremacy and exterminism have always lurked in the environmental movement

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Ernesto Falcon (, Kottke (, Boing Boing (, Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 508 words (51088 total).

Currently reading: Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum

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