Pluralistic: 19 Sep 2020

Today's links

  • Attack Surface vs Audible: My Publishers Weekly op-ed.
  • Foodcrime: The tech predators destroying America's restaurants.
  • We Are Beautiful: 3D printable anatomical models of real bodies.
  • Precursor: Andrew "bunnie" Huang's new open source hardware mobile platform.
  • Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming appearances, current writing projects, current reading

Attack Surface vs Audible (permalink)

I'm grateful to Andrew Albanese and Publishers Weekly for the chance to lay out the logic behind the Kickstarter campaign to sell the audiobook for Attack Surface, the third Little Brother book, in a column called "We Need to Talk About Audible."

The fact that traditional media companies like publishers are now beholden to Amazon – their direct competitor – is somewhat attributable to a lack of foresight on their part, but it largely the result of real chicanery on the part of the Big Tech monopolists.

I mean, it's not like the publishers were stupid the way Borders (RIP) was: remember when the largest books retailer in the USA decided to make Amazon its online division in 2000? They cancelled the deal in 2007 and went bankrupt in 2011. That was slow suicide.

But trad publishing has been rightfully suspicious of Amazon from the start and has used whatever weapons it had to resist the company's hegemony…unsuccessfully.

Today, the publishers' largest competitor knows (far) more about who buys and reads their books, and how, and why, than the publishers do.

To make things worse, Amazon's Audible division, an absolute, iron-clad monopolist in the audibooks market, with total dominance over a format that makes nearly as much as hardcovers, REQUIRES that all books it sells be restricted with its DRM.

That DRM doesn't stop piracy (one Google search will find you instructions for stripping DRM; two searches will find you Audible books, without DRM, as free downloads), but it does stop competition – it protects Audible, not authors.

Every audiobook the publishers sell to Audible is locked to Amazon's platform…forever. Only Amazon (not the author, not the publisher) is legally allowed to remove the DRM so the book can play on a player Amazon hasn't approved (say, a direct competitor's player).

After all, this is the company that blocked Chromecast as part of its bid to gain dominance for Prime Video. If you think they won't do that for audiobooks, I've got an essential-oil covid cure multi-level marketing scheme to sell you.

That's why the point of this Kickstarter isn't merely to sell a bunch of my books (though it's doing that): it's to chart a course where publishers and bestselling authors can have successful audiobooks without Amazon.

To create a new kind of "Audible Exclusive" – a bestseller for sale anywhere EXCEPT Amazon. To get authors to switch because they get more money; to get readers to switch (to rivals like and because they have better books.

To get Amazon to deal fairly: to let rightsholders (not a monopoly retailer whose sole contribution to my book is to allow me to upload it to their server and process a payment for it) decide whether it has DRM.

And if we can get Amazon to budge on this, let's not forget our brothers and sisters working in and relying on libraries – libraries where Amazon refuses to sell ANY Audible audiobooks, so ~50% of bestsellers are not available in our libraries.

Here's the closer for my op-ed: "Look, you can't shop your way out of monopoly capitalism any more than you can recycle your way out of climate change. Monopoly is a structural problem created by more than 40 years of lax antitrust enforcement. If there was any doubt, last month's Congressional antitrust hearings, which included a litany of complaints from Amazon suppliers who've been comprehensively chickenized, laid that to rest.

"But reversing monopolies is an iterative process. My effort to whittle away at Amazon's audiobook hegemony I believe will help show authors, publishers, and readers that there is a path to a more pluralistic and fair marketplace. And, in the process, fuel the growing support for more stringent antitrust enforcement."

Here's that Kickstarter:

Foodcrime (permalink)

We are living in a golden age of predatory capitalism, in which businesses that generate real value and stable employment are being destroyed by deep-pocketed quasi-tech firms that lose money on every transaction but hope to make it back by securing monopolies.

Nowhere is this more visible than in the restaurant industry, where a bewildering array of deceptive (and even fraudulent) tactics are being deployed by Doordash, Grubhub, Uber Eats, and Yelp, who have nonconsensually interposed themselves between eaters and restaurateurs.

If this is ringing bells, you might be recalling the infamous May case-study in which a pizzeria owner discovered that Doordash had put up a fake delivery page for his restaurant and was selling his pizzas for less than he charged for them.

Doordash would take the orders, then pay low-waged workers to call the restaurant and pretend to be real customers ordering takeouts. Then other low-waged gig economy workers would pick them up, pretending to be diners, and deliver them.

The end-game was to become a gatekeeper to the restaurant, by offering lower-than-cost pizzas to this guy's customers and then threatening to divert them to a rival unless he paid ransom to Doordash.

The wily pizza owner figured out that he could order dozens of his pizzas to a confederate's home, and simply ship out boxes of half-cooked dough, and bill Doordash a small fortune for a few pennies' worth of cardboard and flour.

It was quite a fun story!

Alas, it was not representative. In the time since, the outlandish, predatory conduct of app companies has intensified, documented in "Rescuing Restaurants: How to Protect Restaurants, Workers, and Communities from Predatory Delivery App Corporations."

The report comes from Moe Tkacik for the American Economic Liberties Project, and it documents the fraudulent, anticompetitive tactics used by tech companies to steal from restaurants:

  • Merging dozens of companies (online menus, delivery services, etc) into a single giant, then doubling its fees

  • Creating fake websites for restaurants, then using SEO to make them the top results on Google, and tricking customers into ordering through an app company instead of a restaurant

  • Imposing anticompetitive contracting terms on restaurants prohibiting them from offering discounts for in-person dining or own-driver delivery

  • Punishing restaurants that refuse to pay for upsell "marketing services" by banishing them from app search-results

  • Tricking drivers into becoming dependent on apps for income, merging with competitors so they have no alternative, slashing wages, all while maintaining the fiction that drivers are "independent contractors"

  • Collecting sales tax on take-out orders that are not taxable and pocketing it

  • Using tax-evasion techniques to avoid sales- and income-tax at the local, state and federal level

  • Bribing Google (paying "referral fees") to add "order now" buttons to restaurants' listings that go to apps, not the restaurants' own ordering systems

  • When restaurants cancel their Grubhub service and build their own ordering systems, Grubhub fraudulently lists those restaurants as "not offering delivery"

  • Building "ghost kitchens" in shipping containers (etc) that clone the menus and recipes of the popular restaurants they've driven to their knees (while tricking chefs into working under dangerous, low-waged conditions in them)

It's the latest wrinkle on all the predatory businesses whose principle competence is SEO and fraud – think of the fake "locksmiths" that completely dominate all Google searches.

These are bullshit referral services that dispatch an untrained guy with a drill to destroy your lock and charge you a fortune, while the actual, skilled locksmiths in your neighborhood can't be located with a search.

But this is worse, because these predators have fantastically deep pockets, with money from the likes of Softbank (the notorious front for the Saudi royals behind Uber and Wework), and can afford to lose huge sums for years.

Older tech companies, like Yelp, are getting in on the action. As Edward Ongweso Jr reports for Motherboard, Yelp now fraudulently lists Grubhub's call center as the order number for restaurants in its database.

People who calls these numbers are deceived into thinking they are ordering from the restaurants they know and love – instead, they are being victimized by a rent-seeking man-in-the-middle attack that will destroy that restaurant over time.

Tkacik's report concludes with nine recommendations:

I. Investigate and prosecute the apps’ systematic unfair and deceptive practices

II. Prohibit delivery apps from imposing no price competition clauses

III. Ban further anti-competitive mergers in the sector

IV. Enforce and expand local laws curbing predatory commissions and other delivery app abuses

V. Prohibit delivery apps from using loss-leader pricing to harm competition and incentivize consumers to abandon on-premise dining

VI. Eliminate “independent contractor” loopholes and force the third party delivery giants to give their workers the wages, protections and benefits required of employers

VII. Require delivery apps to restrict the use of data collected from restaurants to limited and specific purposes, and explicitly prohibit them from leveraging data

VIII. Mandate search neutrality within apps and bar payola style arrangements between apps and restaurants

IX. Separate platform and commerce in two ways: (1) Prohibit the combination of online ordering apps and delivery/logistics services (2) Online ordering apps and dark kitchens

We Are Beautiful (permalink)

Just launched today: We Are Beautiful, a collection of 3D scanned body parts from people of all ages, genders, sexes, and body shapes and sizes.

The files are freely downloadable and suitable either for rendering or 3D printing.

The idea is to produce a realistic corpus of body-parts that reflect the diversity of the human body, as a corrective to the narrow range of body-types in pornography.

"We have 129 models of vulvas, penises, breasts, full body and partial body scans. All of our models are between 19 and 59 years old and span a wide range of ages, body types and countries of origin. We've carefully curated all the metadata of our models and are releasing the public information while carefully protecting the private information. We never reveal the identity of our models and this information does not exist online at all."

All files are licensed CC0, the least restrictive of all the Creative Commons licenses, and can be re-used commercially as well as personally.

The files are tagged by body part, characteristics (un/circumcised, asymmetric inner labia, skin mole, chemotherapy, etc), personal history (breastfed, episiotomy, etc), model and date.

The creators sent me 3D prints of some of their models and they're beautiful as objects in and of themselves. Someone should (and could!) go into business making and selling these in beautiful materials.

If you like this kind of thing, you should also check out Laura Dodsworth's "Bare Reality" books – three books of beautiful photos of diverse penises, vulvas, and breasts:

Precursor (permalink)

The Precursor is the latest open source hardware project from OSHW wizard Andrew "bunnie" Huang – AKA "the guy who broke the Xbox DRM and is now suing to overturn the DMCA."

It's a mobile hardware platform, "a framework upon which you can assemble a wide variety of DIY mobile applications…designed from the ground-up to be carried around in your pocket."

"It’s not just a naked circuit board with connectors hanging off at random locations: it comes fully integrated—with a rechargeable battery, a display, and a keyboard—in a sleek, 7.2 mm (quarter-inch) aluminum case."

The design is derived from the Betrusted project, an ambitious open source hardware privacyphone initiative that is super cool, but still has a long way to go before it's ready for field use.

Precursor delivers the hardware without the full software stack, with "all of the features you might need to validate and test a software stack like the one that will drive Betrusted."

It's based on a reprogrammable FPGA, which will allow the community to test and revise different low-level software before committing to a custom ASIC.

The hardware is open and the software is free.

The board and case are designed with room for one or two breakout boards for application-specific sensors or hardware modules: "from barometers to cameras and radios ranging from BLE to LTE."

The case is also designed to be modifiable for applications that need more room: "the designs are open source, and the native Solidworks CAD files we provide are constructed such that the enclosure’s length and thickness are are parameterized."

The bezel is a "plain old FR-4 PCB" which can be easily swapped for a full-sized circuit board, while the LCD can be swapped with an OLED display for a much larger battery and more special-purpose hardware.

If you want a prefabriacated Precursor, you can sign up to back it on Crowdsupply (Huang has a long history of delivering his Crowdsupply projects on time and on budget):

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 670 words (63295 total).

Currently reading: Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

Latest podcast: IP

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