Pluralistic: 04 Sep 2020

Today's links

Fight the Power (permalink)

Public Enemy has just released a new version of their 1989 anthem "Fight the Power" (featured in the Spike Lee breakout "Do the Right Thing") along with a video featuring Nas, Rapsody, Black Thought, Jahi, YG and QuestLove.

The new version is outstanding and the accompanying video even better, integrating recent footage from the Black Lives Matter uprising, with the guest MCs explicitly tracing the current struggle to Public Enemy's decades of activism.

It's also a relief to see Flavor Flav back with Chuck D and Public Enemy, after a high-profile spat and breakup that came to a head when Flav didn't perform with Chuck D at an LA Bernie Sanders rally (I was there, and Chuck D was incredible).

PE's next album, What You Gonna Do, comes out on Sept 25, with all-star guests including Beastie Boys, George Clinton, Cypress Hill and Run-DMC.

Physicists overestimate their epidemiology game (permalink)

A common pathology among experts in quantitative field is to assume that when they are dealing with problems with qualitative dimensions that they can simply model the quantitative part and ignore the squishy human factors. This does not end well.

This has cropped up a lot in epidemiology during the plague months, for example in the belief that untested "exposure notification" with mobile apps can substitute (or even augment) shoe-leather "contact tracing":

But the Dunning-Krugerish insistence that quantitative methods can be applied to domains with strong qualitative components isn't limited to contact tracing – it also applies to re-opening plans.

The University of Illinois decided to re-open and bring 40,000 students back to campus on the basis of models created by physicists who were dismissive of the entire enterprise of epidemiology.

"We learned to like epidemiology but I cannot imagine spending another 5 years doing it" – because it didn't provide the same intellectual thrill as physics, but everyone makes sacrifices, and for these physicists, they had to give up "intellectual curiosity."

Their model predicted that the case-load would stay below 100, in a worst-case scenario. Instead the cases rapidly spread to 780 before the entire system went into lockdown. The cause? "Partying among students."

That is to say, the model did not account for the qualitative, anthropological elements of the system it was modelling. The reason these qualitative elements were dismissed is that they're hard to model.

It's basically a lethal version of the old joke about looking for your keys underneath the lamppost instead of where you dropped them, because the light is better there.

Yes, yes, "All models are wrong but some are useful," but the predicted utility of your model is in inverse proportion to how many qualitative factors you have to elide, not because of their insignificance but because of their intractability.

When you vaporize the qualitative elements, the quantitative residue that remains is of unknown usefulness.

(Image: Xinh Studio, CC BY, modified)

Trump is a salesman (permalink)

Trump lacks the attention-span to be a fascist. As Matt Taibbi writes, "He might not have a moral problem with it, but two minutes into the plan he’d leave the room, phone in hand, to throw on a robe and watch himself on Fox and Friends."

So what is Trump? A salesman. To understand him, don't read IT CAN HAPPEN HERE, read Cialdini's PRE-SUASION and learn how salesmen manipulate their marks.

Taibbi: "Moreover he’s not just any salesman; he might be the greatest salesman ever, considering the quality of the product, i.e. himself."

Here's a classic sales-tactic Trump deploys, as laid out in Brian Tracy's "The Psychology of Selling": promise incredible change to hook the customer, then, once they're on the hook, dial back the deliverables to something that you can actually deliver.

Think of how Trump reels in "nativist loons and rage cases with his opening rants about walls and mass deportations, then slowly clawed his numbers up with the rest of the party with his 'softening' routine. "

"Each demographic probably came away convinced he was lying to the other, while the truth was probably more that he was lying to all of them."

The lies aren't inconsequential, but they're also not reflective of any kind of ideology – rather, they're immoral sales-gabble.

Trump-the-seller has much more explanatory power than Trump-the-fascist – and it also explains how salesmanship without any ethics or morals turns into fascism.

The problem is, we're buying what he's selling (himself), by turning every distracting, incoherent action into an existential threat and a major news cycle (some of what he does qualifies, but not all of it).

"His schtick is to provoke rivals to the point where they drop what they’re doing and spend their time screaming at him, which from the jump validates the primary tenet of his worldview, i.e. that everything is about him."

"Life under Trump has been like an endless Twitter war: infuriating, depressing, filling us all with self-loathing, but also addictive. He is selling an experience that everyone is buying, even the people who think they oppose him the most."

Taibbi isn't asking us to stop addressing Trump, but he wants us to focus on substance (which is something I'd also welcome from Biden – I know what he's against, but there's a bunch of things I'd like him to be for).

"Trump has made us all crazy, and it’s time for the show to be over. We deserve slow news days again." -Taibbi

(Image: Kpahor, CC BY-SA, modified)

CO asphyxiation accounts for half of Hurricane Laura deaths (permalink)

According to a Houston Chronicle report, half of the confirmed fatalities from Hurricane Laura were the result of carbon monoxide poisoning from poorly ventilated generators.

Fatal CO poisoning can take place in as little as five minutes. The CO deaths include entire households, like the family that ran a generator in their garage but opened the connecting door to their house.

CO monitors are cheap and effective, and you should have them throughout your home even if you're not running a generator.

I once rented an apartment in San Francisco where my gas heater's pilot light kept going out. My landlord – a retired SFPD detective – would come by and fix it.

One time I couldn't reach him, so I called PG&E;, whose technician came by and realized that the pilot was going out because of an automated CO emergency shutdown switch. My landlord had "fixed" the heater by attempting to disable this and nearly killed me.

It certainly explained my frequent headaches and a cluster of other symptoms I'd been contending with.

I always think of that near-death experience when I encounter Carrie Poppy's outstanding tale of living in a haunted house:

Political ads have very small effect-sizes (permalink)

In my recent book HOW TO DESTROY SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM, I suggest that we should be skeptial of the claims that proprietors of persuasion-as-a-service products make about how they can change our minds.

After all every person in history who ever claimed to have invented a mind-control ray was either lying to the world, or to themselves.

One common way persuaders lie to themselves – and convince their customers they've got the goods – is to assume that the efficacy of persuasive techniques does not regress to the mean – that we won't learn to detect and discount the new flavor of bullshit they're selling.

We've seen that again and again: remember when Upworthy headlines worked? Or when everyone was playing Farmville? Or when the first banner ads got double-digit clickthrough rates:

In a new study published in Science, a trio of Yale and UC political scientists report on 59 realtime, randomized experiments in showing persuasive political ads.

The title gives away the conclusion: "The small effects of political advertising are small regardless of context, message, sender, or receiver: Evidence from 59 real-time randomized experiments."

They showed 34,000 subjects real political ads from the 2016 US election cycle, measuring the effect of ads that criticise the candidate the subject favors, ads that promote that candidate, ads that promote the rival candidate and ads that attack the rival candidate.

In all instances, they find real, but VERY small, effects on voter views of candidates. Importantly, the researchers aren't just investigating the effects of ads in one circumstance (say, a favorable ad about a candidate you already support), but across all variations.

People who sell political ads and people who worry about them claim that the small effect sizes for political ads masked large "heterogeneous effects" – like maybe most ads don't work, but showing attack ads that attack the subject's favored candidate does.

That's not what these experiments found. It's still not a complete account (the authors don't study "need for cognition, need for evaluation, need for cognitive closure, moral foundations, personality type, or interest in politics"), but it's still significant.

Some people think that surveillance capitalism firms collect so much data on us, so relentlessly, because it is so valuable. I think they collect it because it is of such limited utility: as soon as they gain an insight that helps them sell to us, we get inured.

They're in a limbic arms-race with our natural regression to the mean, the way that we grow accustomed to – and bored with – new ways of convincing, frightening, or tricking us into doing their bidding.

That's not to say that persuasion never works, or that even small effects don't make a difference in close races, but it does suggest that the thing that ad-tech companies sell best is…ad-tech.

Incredible Proof Machine (permalink)

Around the time you get to secondary math, you'll start to formally prove theorems, a process that is either tedious or exciting, based on your proclivities and the quality of your instruction.

Formal proofs are a little like a puzzle and a little like a game, and they can be addictive – what's more, then can shed light on otherwise abstruse mathematical concepts that you may have mastered as rote formulas but don't really understand.

That's where The Incredible Proof Machine comes in: it's a puzzle-game whose goal is to solve increasingly complex theorems using building blocks reminiscent of the code blocks you drag and drop in Scratch.

It was developed by computer scientist/standup comedian Joachim Breitner, and it's free/open source software for you to hack on.

Breitner writes in an accompanying paper, "[interactive theorem provers] give feedback whether proof is faulty or correct, allow free exploration and can be somewhat addictive – they've been called 'the world’s geekiest computer game' for a reason."

If this is ringing a bell, it may be because you learned your own math with Sierra's 1992 edu-game "The Incredible Machine," which is still playable thanks to the Internet Archive.

Kickstarting a Girl Genius game (permalink)

Girl Genius is the beloved, Hugo-Award-winning graphic novel (and prose novel) series from Kaja Foglio and Phil Foglio (whom old school gamers will recall from Dragon Magazine's longrunning "What's New With Phil and Dixie" comic).

Girl Genius is a madcap steampunk parody, whose strapline is "Adventure, Romance, MAD SCIENCE!" It's an incredibly satisfying, funny and romp-y transmedia tale that you owe it to yourself to read.

Now, Girl Genius is being ported to video-game form: the Foglios have teamed up with Norway's Rain Games – makers of steampunk pleasers like Teslagrad and Mesmer) to crowdfund a new game called "Adventures In Castle Heterodyne."

It's a 3D explorer with fiendish puzzles and all the whimsy you'd expect from the team behind it. $15 gets you a copy of the game, $30 gets behind-the-scenes stuff and access to an online community; $60 gets a physical collector's edition.

There are some impressive rewards at higher levels – a custom art book ($100), your face on an in-game statue ($1000), etc. They're building in Unity and expect to deliver in Dec 2022.

This day in history (permalink)

#1yrago Beijing promises "no mercy" for the "backstage masterminds" of the Hong Kong uprising

#1yrago Critical essays (including mine) discuss Toronto's plan to let Google build a surveillance-based "smart city" along its waterfront

#1yrago Interview with Kim Kelly, Teen Vogue's labor reporter

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Waxy (, Naked Capitalism (, Boing Boing (, John Wilbanks (, Four Short Links (, Carol Monahan.

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 505 words (57298 total).

Currently reading: Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 14)

Upcoming appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

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