Pluralistic: 02 Sep 2020

Today's links

Amazon drivers hide phones in trees (permalink)

I've been a freelancer – a contractor – for most of my life, but I've also been a salaried employee and an hourly employee and there is a significant difference between all three.

Hourly and salaried work has some disadvantages in terms of independence and freedom, but they have one huge advantage: stability. As a freelancer, my pay yo-yos around – in some years, I'll have a month that's worth 30 times more than all the rest combined.

Which sounds great, until you turn it around: some years, I'll earn 1/30th of my top rate for 11 out of 12 months. Also: I don't get vacation pay, I pay for my own health care, etc. But for me, it makes sense: I work for lots of clients, do my paperwork, and get by.

Which brings me to the "gig economy" and its pretense people who do EXACTLY the kind of work as a waged or hourly employee are really independent contractors, despite being completely dependent on, and under the thumbs of, employers.

Gig economy work is a way to shift all the risks associated with being an employer onto your workforce, while hoarding all of the benefits that independent contractors customarily enjoy. For employers, it's a disposable workforce whom you owe nothing to.

For workers, it's a contractor's precarity without a contractor's independence.

Which brings me to Amazon drivers hanging cellphones from tree-branches.

You see: Amazon Flex drivers are not employees, they're contractors. Their boss is an app that decides, from moment to moment, whether they will get work and how much they'll get paid for it. The app uses a secret mix of factors to make these determinations.

These drivers are like mice on an intermittent reinforcement schedule, getting work according to factors that they are not privy to and cannot predict.

In the immortal words of William Gibson: "Night City was like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb
permanently on the fast-forward button."

(this is your periodic reminder that cyberpunk was a warning, not a suggestion)

Amazon Flex drivers develop various folk theories of how the app works, and one of these – which sounds plausible to me – is that you are more likely to get a job if the app thinks you're physically close to a pickup spot.

So: in the Chicago suburbs, desperate Amazon Flex drivers, competing with one another for the unknown sums on offer for making deliveries, stash phones in the branches of trees close to Whole Foods and other Amazon distribution points.

This tricks the Amazon Flex app into thinking that they are on the very doorstep of the distribution point, upping their chances of getting a delivery (the drivers sync a second phone to their tree-phones, so they get alerted when they get a job).

Labor economists talk about "chickenization," named for the hyperconcentrated poultry industry: chicken farmers are notionally independent contractors, but they have no independence.

Big Chicken tells the farmers how to build their coops, sells them their chicks, specs out medicine, feed and light systems. But the meat-packers don't tell farmers how much they'll get paid until the chickens are delivered.

The poultry industry – which has divided up the country so that each region only has one processor – does analytics to decide how much to pay, titrating the money-drip so that it's enough to survive, but not enough to get ahead.

That way they can hold out the threat of a canceled contract to any worker caught "cheating" – say, by speaking out to regulators about these abusive practices.

You'll never guess what Amazon has proposed to do about the fact that its drivers are so desperate they're hanging phones from tree-branches.

They've promised to investigate and discipline the drivers.

Because when your workforce is totally chickenized, you don't need to correct these dysfunctions by eliminating the need for worker "misconduct" (say, by paying workers a steady, predictable rate).

Instead, you can treat any attempt by your "independent contractors" to increase their leverage as a form of fraud and punish them.

Russia didn't hack Michigan (permalink)

You know that "massive Russian hack of all Michigan voter data" that hit the news Tuesday morning? That "hacked data" was just public records.

Indeed, this kind of voter-roll hack is pretty common, but all the hackers are doing is getting data that is lawfully, commercially available for relatively low prices without having to pay for it:

The hacked data from Michigan is the same qualified voter info that anyone can get through a Freedom of Information Act request:

But as Karl Bode describes, there is one genuinely nefarious thing about this: the hackers are said to have reported their data-dump to the US government's Rewards for Justice tipline, which pays for information about security vulnerabilities US government infrastructure.

Don't get me wrong: Touchscreen voting machines remain a goddamned dumpster fire of security vulnerabilities. The US should conduct pencil-and-paper balloting. But this Russia-hacked-Michigan story? It's just дезинформация.

Chevron's dirty tricks against environmental lawyer (permalink)

Some stories are so vast and ghastly that they overwhelm our consciousness, beggaring our ability to hold them in our heads all at once. This is one of them, and it involves Chevron and what amounts to genocide, where the only person headed to jail is the victims' lawyer.

Back when Chevron was Texaco, the company engaged in a campaign of environmental genocide on indigenous land in Ecuador, abetted by the brutal military dictatorship. Its recklessness – thousands of open-air, unlined pits of heavy metal waste – poisoned five communities.

The indigenous people Chevron poisoned lived in abject, toxic poverty, with carcinogens saturating their food, water and air. They and their children contracted cancer at terrible rates, and died and died and died.

The environmental lawyer Steven Donziger sued Chevron, winning an unprecedented $9.5B judgment. Chevron responded by threatening a "lifetime of litigation" if their victims tried to collect and circulated an internal memo laying out a plan to "demonize Donziger."

Enter SDNY Judge Lewis A Kaplan, a former tobacco company lawyer with undisclosed Chevron holdings. Chevron sued Donziger in Kaplan's court, proposing an obviously fraudulent theory that he had bribed the Ecuadoran judge who made the award.

The case was so flimsy (the Ecuadoran judge had received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Chevron prior to his accusation, and then later recanted it under oath at a World Bank tribunal) that NY prosecutors wouldn't take itup.

So Kaplan used an obscure legal maneuver to appoint a corporate law-firm (with extensive ties to Chevron) to privately prosecute Donziger.

As part of this kangaroo court proceeding, they demanded that Donziger turn over his laptop and phone, including lawyer-client privileged confidential files, to Chevron's lawyers. Naturally, Donziger refused.

Kaplan charged him contempt and ordered him held in pre-trial detention (house arrest). He's been locked up for more than a year.

Now things are coming to a head.

Kaplan has announced his intent to proceed with Donziger's trial, reopening the SDNY's criminal court for the first time since March, jumping Donziger ahead of accused rapists and murderers.

Donziger is the only person in the entire USA in pretrial detention for a misdemeanor. His detention – 13 months – is four times longer than the longest sentence ever served by a lawyer facing the same charge.

If Donziger goes to trial on Sept 9, it will be without adequate representation. Kaplan has removed both of his in-state lawyers on a flimsy pretense, and the dozens of other pro-bono lawyers representing him are out of state and cannot travel safely.

Donziger has been denied his petition to delay the trial until December. He's also been denied the right to trial by jury. If he loses, the judge can send him to prison immediately for a sentence of six months, in the midst of the pandemic – a potential death-sentence.

Look, I know this sounds unbelievable. Don't take my word for it. Have a look at this in-depth article by the Pulitzer-winning investigative journalist Chris Hedges.

And then check out this judicial complaint against Kaplan, co-signed by organizations representing 500,000 lawyers worldwide and 200 individual US lawyers:

They are joined by 29 Nobel laureates, a coalition of global human rights groups, and many others who have decried Kaplan's conduct and Donziger's legal jeopardy.

Here's a petition where you can add your name to the list of Donziger's supporters (I signed):

And here's where you can donate to Donziger's legal defense fund (I donated):

Amazon's weird, terrible Flex (permalink)

Amazon Flex is a "gig economy" delivery system that maintains the pretence that drivers are independent contractors, even as their motions are scripted to a fine degree by an app whose control over them exceeds that of any boss in history.

As with all gig economy work, the "independent contractor" wheeze is just a ruse to shift the risks and costs of being an employer onto the workforce, without any of the independence that real freelancers enjoy.

Amazon Flex drivers are a "chickenized" workforce, whose pay is determined by a black-box algorithm tuned to keep them on the brink of financial ruin (which is why Flex drivers have started hiding their phones in trees):

Which is why Amazon maintains an extensive spy network of "analysts" who infiltrate its drivers' private Facebook groups, a fact we discovered when Amazon's internal counterintelligence system leaked to Motherboard's Lauren Gurley and Joseph Cox.

Specifically, Amazon's spooks gather data on efforts to form unions or attract attention from the press, lawmakers and regulators.

That may seem like garden-variety (illegal) union-busting (and it is), but think about this in light of the "independent contractor" fiction.

According to Amazon, each of these drivers is a "small business" in its supply chain, like the sellers who put products in the Amazon Marketplace or the publishers who supply books for the Kindle.

Amazon's intelligence op is a mass surveillance effort targeting small businesses who sell it services. If we are to believe that drivers are independent contractors, then this is like Amazon sending out spies to infiltrate every publisher in America.

Or putting covert informants in the factories of all its suppliers to keep it apprised of any negative publicity that might attend its efforts to squeeze them for higher discounts.

This is clearly not an isolated incident: surveillance of workers is baked into its DNA. This is, after all, the company that maintains a predictive, algorithmic "heat-map" of labor unrest in Whole Foods stores:

And it's also the company that – just this week – advertised for "intelligence analysts" with military backgrounds to monitor the internet for signs of labor organizing, activist opposition, and "hostile" lawmakers and regulators.

How to report on vote-by-mail (permalink)

Vote-by-mail wasn't my first pick for "top election year controversy," but here we are. Vote-by-mail is sufficiently obscure that few members of the public or journalists (or, for that member, Presidents of the United States) understand it very well.

So I was very glad to see Rachel Glickhouse and Jessica Huseman's "reporting recipe" for vote-by-mail stories in Propublica:

Glickhouse and Huseman provide a checklist for would-be vote-by-mail reporters to figure out how things should work, and how they are actually working, and how to explain any discrepancy.

The recipe is in three stages.

I. Learn the process: Who's eligible? Has the process changed? Are there current legal challenges? What are the voter ID laws? How do people obtain ID if the DMV is closed? Do you need a printer and stamp to request a ballot?

What do absentee ballots look like? What are the application and ballot deadlines? Might they change due to court challenges? Is there enough time between deadlines given current USPS delays? Who's paying for ballot postage?

How many drop boxes will there be? Are there restrictions? Why? What's the "cure" process for ballots with problems? What do voters do if they don't receive ballots?

The writers suggest the Vote at Home Institute, the National Conference of State Legislatures , the Brennan Center and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights for research starts.

II. Evaluate Preparedness: How many people used mail-in ballots in your state/county in 2016 and 2018? Have election officials coordinated with postal officials? What postal-ballot-processing equipment is on hand? How much funding is there for voter education?

What's the local post office doing to prepare? How many mail ballots were rejected previously? What are election officials doing about the most common causes of rejections? What's your state's plan for distributing CARES Act funding for elections?

III. Show and Tell: Explain (with video, if possible) how to fill in a postal ballot. Give voters the deadlines, signature and ID requirements. Get a tour of postal ballot storage and counting facilities, including security measures.

Find out how drop boxes are checked and secured. Give the status of any pending litigation over vote-by-mail.

(Image: Chris Phan, CC BY-SA)

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago DVD Jon cracks Windows streaming video DRM

#10yrsago Wendy's restaurants beverage-handling training songs

#10yrsago Applying "ownership" to links, public domain material does more harm than good

#10yrsago German "secure" ID cards compromised on national TV, gov't buries head in sand

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: JWZ (, Frank Syratt, Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 508 words (56282 total).

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