Pluralistic: 03 Sep 2020

Today's links

Big Car says Right to Repair will MURDER YOU (permalink)

In 2012, Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly passed (87%!) an automotive Right to Repair ballot initiative, but in the years since, car-makers have brutally sabotaged it, prompting another ballot initiative that'll be before voters in Nov.,Question_1(2012)

The 2012 rule requires car companies to provide independent mechanics with an interface to access the diagnostic info from the car's CAN bus, but not from wireless interfaces within the car. So now the automakers just send all the good stuff wirelessly.

Question 1 – the Mass ballot initiative – just closes that loophole, requiring the manufacturers to provide mechanics with whatever they need to access this wireless diagnostic data.

Naturally, the car makers are freaking out.

They've launched an absolutely bugfuck attack ad that says that if cars are designed to let independent mechanics fix them, stalkers will buy used cars, extract potential victims' data from them, and murder them.

The ads are paid for by "The Coalition for Safe and Secure Data," a front for "The Alliance for Automotive Innovation" a front for (who else?) the car manufacturers.

But when this is pointed out to them, they say, "Oh yeah! Well, *guess who is paying for question one?! It is the Auto Care Association! Dunh dunh duuuuuuuhn!"

You will not be amazed to learn that the Auto Care Assoc represents independent mechanics.

Dunh dunh duuuuuhn.

For his excellent Motherboard story on the ads, Matthew Gault points out that you should really reset your car's onboard systems before you sell it or give it away.

He quotes Paul F Roberts from Secure Repairs who makes the even better point that if your car has a bunch of data that's useful to stalkers, it's only because the car manufacturers have turned cars into rolling surveillance platforms that spy on their drivers constantly.

Which is a pretty good point.

If Big Car is worried that used vehicles are full of nonconsensually collected kompromat, maybe they could, you know, just stop collecting all that data?

Algorithmic grading (permalink)

Here's your heartbreaking algorithmic cruelty story of the week: UC Riverside history prof Dana Simmons has a son who's just started junior high and loves his history teacher:

But when he submitted his first assignment, he was aghast to receive a 50% grade on it.

The assignment was graded by Edgenuity, a machine learning grift that purports to generate grades for overworked, beleagured teachers.

Simmons calls it an "automatic grading algorithm that values only rote repetition," and to prove the point, she told her son how to please the machine: long sentences with a lot of proper names.

It worked: now her son submits "word salads" consisting of two sentences (long ones, presumably) and a bunch of keywords from the lesson, and is consistently earning 100% grades. As Simmons says, "He went from an F to an A+ without learning a thing."

In Cathy O'Neil's seminal "Weapons of Math Destruction," she doesn't just provide a devastating critique of the underlying statistical basis for machine learning, but also a set of VERY useful rules of thumb for spotting AI grifters.

First: if a company provides an AI but doesn't check its predictions, they don't give a shit about its accuracy.

Think about it: if Amazon uses ML to predict whether moving the buy button will generate more sales, the definitely measure whether sales improved after moving it.

The fact that this automated grading system produces estimates that are so easily gamed tells you it is a straight-up grift. I mean, the Bayesian spam filters of the mid-2000s were able to detect the "word salad" attack.

This isn't one of those subtle, amazing "adversarial example" attacks on a ML model – like that weird thing where a vision system is tricked into thinking that a rifle is a helicopter:

It's more like a password prompt that you can bypass just by hitting the spacebar a bunch of times.

That is: negligent garbage serving no pedagogical purpose, an embodiment of the enterprise software pathology where the person who buys the product doesn't have to use it.

Simmons is admirably compassionate about the whole affair: "teaching online is overwhelming and you can't do it all. Please, use the algorithm to track their learning. But don't post to them as if it's a measure of their performance. It's more destructive than you know."


School boards shouldn't be buying this tool for teachers.

Teachers shouldn't be using it to assess students.

Students should not be made to see those assessments.

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY, modified)

Snowden vindicated (permalink)

It's been 7 years since Edward Snowden revealed the full scope of the NSA's mass surveillance program, something only hinted at by Mark Klein's 2006 whistleblowing over AT&T;'s role in illegal domestic surveillance.

In the years since, the NSA and its apologists have spun their lawless conduct in two ways: first, the insisted that domestic surveillance had foiled innumerable domestic terror plots, and second, that it was all legal.

The question of whether surveillance catches terrorists has an unambiguous, empirical answer: it does not. In all the years that the NSA spied on every single American, they caught one criminal: someone making a small-dollar donation to Al Shabab.

But the legal question was thornier: the NSA's legal experts advanced theories to explain why what they did was legal under the (admittedly farcically broad) Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and why FISA was legal under the Constitution.

Most people who understood both FISA and the Constitution disagreed, but it was up to a court to decide. And now it has. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that NSA surveillance was illegal under both FISA and the Constitution.

This absolutely vindicates Snowden, who remains in exile in Russia. Snowden has promised to return to the US and stand trial, on condition that it be held in open court with a jury.

Trump, meanwhile, has mooted pardoning him in what is almost certainly an irrelevant distraction tactic (this is true of nearly everything Trump muses about aloud).

What Snowden did was heroic, and his personal account of why he did it should be required reading for everyone involved in tech, security and surveillance:

Coronavirus is over (if we want it) (permalink)

Few people have been on the right side of more health-care issues than Atul Gawande, who is the master of simple, commonplace interventions that make gigantic differences in outcomes – like consistently using surgical checklists:

His 2014 BBC Reith Lectures on systems thinking in health care are among the most important programs I've ever listened to:

While "Being Mortal," his 2014 book on death and dignity, permanently changed the way I relate to my own feelings of death.

And because reality has a well-known bias in favor of universal health-care, it's not surprising that he's led the research on the cost- and health-effectiveness of offering care to all, free at the point of consumption:

Which is why you should really read his (admittedly long) important New Yorker article "We Can Solve the Coronavirus-Test Mess Now—if We Want To," about how we could bring the pandemic to heel in very short order by improving our testing systems:

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that tests are getting a lot better, and while they have different characteristics – some generate fewer false positive and others are better on false negatives – there are effective, evidence-based ways to apply them.

There are even innovative mass-testing techniques – like monitoring the sewage coming out of a university dorm for early warnings of new infections.

And there's lots of excess lab capacity in the USA, including academic labs that could quickly ramp up to 100k tests/day.

What's more, these tests can be combined in ways that effectively tame the disease and would allow a quick return to something like normalcy – as they did in the Italian city of Vò, which reduced infections from 3% to 0.3% in two weeks with a test-and-isolate system.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the US's longstanding, lethal health-care dysfunction is the major impediment to getting America back on its feet.

  • insurance companies refusing to cover "medically unnecessary" tests

  • millions of uninsured people

  • incoherent logistics resulting in delays for sampling, transport, and analysis of samples

  • incoherence in health-care delivery, including the patchwork of uncoordinated hospitals and primary care facilities

  • a lack of load-balancing that leaves some labs idle while others groan under massive backlogs

  • lack of coordination between public health officials and health care officials

  • massive underspending in public health, generally

It will get worse. This will likely be one of our worst-ever flu seasons. Official sabotage of vote-by-mail threatens to turn the election into a nationwide superspreader event.

People are working around the feds to stave off these looming disasters. There's the Assurance Testing Alliance: "a logistics grid that links schools, nursing homes, and others that need regular testing to those with capacity to deliver it."

There's a 10-state bipartisan compact "to purchase and distribute enough rapid-testing devices and supplies for the delivery of five million tests."

"Such efforts aren’t a replacement for national leadership, but they start the work that must be done to make ordinary physical interaction safe again, and to begin creating the public-health system we deserve." -Gawande

"The pandemic has brought us a further lesson: our best chance for long, flourishing lives in the future requires that we build the foundations of our public health now." -Gawande

(Image: Raimond Spekking, CC BY-SA, modified)

Rest in Power, David Graeber (permalink)

The incredible writer, activist, academic and speaker David Graeber has died in a hospital in Venice of undisclosed causes. He was only 59.

I'm devastated.

I first encountered Graeber's work through his magesterial book "Debt: The First 5,000 Years," which ripped through my circle, especially the science fiction writers, inspiring entirely a subgenre of "debtpunk," like Charlie Stross's "Neptune's Brood."

Debt – along with Solnit's "A Paradise Built in Hell" – was the major inspiration for my own 2017 novel Walkaway:

Graeber's political radicalism was the result, in part, of his anthropological view of economics, which gave him insight both into how we interact with one another, but also why economists' views of those interactions are so often wrong.

Graeber wasn't just a master of crossing academic disciplines: he was also brilliant at crossing between the academic and nonacademic worlds, and as a result, he had an outsized, activist's impact on the world.

His 2015 essay collection "The Utopia of Rules" remains a profoundly observed, brilliantly written and terribly relevant anthropological critique of capitalism that is aimed at making a better, smarter, more effective anti-authoritarian left.

But it was his 2018 breakout book, Bullshit Jobs, that arguably reached the largest audience and smuggled his critique of capitalism into an ascerbic and darkly hilarious view of employment:

Graeber and I had corresponded for years before Bullshit Jobs was published, but it wasn't until his tour for the book that we finally met face to face, when I interviewed him onstage in LA:

I was delighted to learn that he was charming and gentle in person – still recognizably that acerbic, lightning-witted blade that he was online, but tempered with a deep, human compassion that shone through during the signing afterwards.

The last time I saw Graeber was shortly after the crisis started, when we were on a panel on radical economics together (alas, no video seems to be online from that event). I remember that I made him laugh several times and felt obscenely proud to have done so.

Graeber lived his principles and bore the cost: his activism with Occupy Wall Street triggered vicious retaliation from NYPD intelligence, leading to him being evicted from his childhood home:

He inspired millions and died too young. As Owen Jones wrote, "Rest In Power, David Graeber."

Hedge fund managers trouser 64% (permalink)

The fact that rich people buy something is often held up as proof that it's good, which is how you get Bernie Madoff frauds and subprime crises.

Nowhere is this more true than in money-management, especially hedge-funds.

Hedge funds make investments on behalf of "high-net-worth individuals," institutional investors and since "being rich" is equated with "being good at money," you'd think that hedge fund managers were good at investing.

They are not.

The vast majority of hedge-funds underperform a simple tracker fund every year, and virtually all funds underperform the market over the long-term.

But wait: "vast majority" isn't the same as "all" so maybe all you have to do is pick a good hedge fund?

Sorry, nope, even when hedge-funds make good bets, they still underperform, because HEDGE FUND MANAGERS COLLECT 64% OF INVESTORS' GROSS RETURNS.

Notionally, hedge fund managers live on a 2-and-20 structure: an annual fee of 2% of the money they manage, and 20% of the profits they generate. But a 22-year study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research reveals some next-level chicanery.

The managers of hedge funds (and private equity funds) calculate their commissions in ways that are extremely beneficial to them, and that can only be parsed with extremely careful readings of performatively complex and dull agreements.

As Yves Smith explains, PE managers "take fees on every deal that show a profit once a hurdle rate is met… firms sell good deals early and dogs later, meaning it’s pretty common for investors to have been charged carry fees on early deal profits wiped out by later losses."

The mechanisms meant to guard against this have to be fought for and more often result in a "vague promise of getting a 'deal' on the next fund…which pre-commits them to invest with someone who underperformed and would not live up to his contact."

That's PE funds – but hedge funds have their own versions. For example, losses on one hedge fund could not offset gains on a different fund – giving managers broad leeway to run "multiple funds with no offsets across funds run by the same hedge fund manager."

And because hedge funds are relatively liquid, investors are allowed to pull out during downturns, "if they showed profits earlier so they give up the opportunity to have the losses offset against later gains."

And withdrawals during downturns cause funds to shut down suddenly, with contracts that favor managers in these events; as the study's authors note, changing 2-and-20 to 1-and-30 would likely only increase managers' rake.

Corporate spooks track you "to your door" (permalink)

Ever wondered why an app that doesn't need your location still wants permission to get your location? It's likely because the app was built with a "free" developer toolkit that was made by a company that harvests and sells your location data.

One such company is X-Mode, whose first product was an app that was supposed to stop you from making phone calls while drunk. They pivoted to mass location surveillance, providing developer tools to many app creators, from MP3 converters to the beauty app Perfect365.

Who buys X-Mode's data? Creepy corporate spies. HYAS is a "threat intelligence" company that boasts that if you think your company is being hacked or defrauded by someone on the internet, they can give you that person's home address.

As Joseph Cox writes for Motherboard, the locational data that's nonconsensually harvested from your phone is usually billed as being sold to marketing firms for aggregate analysis ("30% of the foot-traffic here comes from single mothers").

But a now-deleted material from HYAS's website reveals that this data is also available for anyone willing to pay to to stalk individual persons.

HYAS's customers aren't just corporations: they also boast of working with law-enforcement. There have been a rash of stories about cops engaging in mass surveillance, bypassing the warrant process by spending tax dollars for commercial data.

X-Mode says its location tracking code has been embedded in 400 apps and that it harvests location data from 60m people/month.

You can discover this only if you read the sprawling garbage novellas of legalese that come with those apps, which no one, anywhere, does.

"The first threat intelligence source added, describing HYAS' use of mobile location data, 'It's shady as fuck.'" -Joseph Cox, Motherboard

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago MSFT CEO: I will "fucking kill" Google — then he threw a chair

#15yrsago Bruce Sterling's Singapore wrapup

#15yrsago Help the Internet Archive archive blog coverage of Katrina

#15yrsago Box-Wrapping: "single use only" is now enforceable

#15yrsago Apple //e mainboards networked and boxed: the Applecrate

#15yrsago HOWTO convert an NES controller to an optical mouse

#15yrsago Being Poor — meditation by John Scalzi

#15yrsago Massachusetts to MSFT: switch to open formats or you're fired

#10yrsago Old tabriz rug becomes bear rug;=100

#10yrsago Homeroom Security: book about the cruelty of zero-tolerance classroom policies

#10yrsago Jewelry made from laminated, polished cross-sections of books

#1yrago Guy returns his "smart" light bulbs, discovers he can still control them after someone else buys them

#1yrago Hong Kong protests level up in countermeasures, tactics, art and deadly seriousness

#1yrago HOW TO: XKCD's Randall Munroe finds the humor in taking silly questions very, very seriously

#1yrago Library of Congress releases 11,700 freely usable photos of "roadside America," taken by John Margolies;=1&st;=gallery

#1yrago Rideshare companies' effort to kill California employment bill is failing miserably

#1yrago Ring: "We don't use facial recognition"; also Ring: "We have a head of facial recognition research"

#1yrago Apple led the campaign to kill Right to Repair, now it's supplying parts to (some) independent repair shops

#1yrago Survey: Self-identified "pro lifers" are generally contemptuous of women

#1yrago Dell Magazines have changed the Campbell Award to the Astounding Award, removing the name of fascist John W Campbell

#1yrago They told us DRM would give us more for less, but they lied

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (, Slashdot (),

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 512 words (56793 total).

Currently reading: Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

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