Pluralistic: 28 Sep 2020

Today's links

Belarus's online/offline uprising (permalink)

"Europe's last dictator," Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, has been a kind of test-case for the efficacy of various technologically enabled pro-democracy tactics for decades.

Back in 2006, protesters in Minsk challenged his ban on protests by announcing that eating ice-cream was a form of protest, then they showed up and ate ice-cream…and got arrested.

They followed this up by announcing that smiling at each other was a form of protest and showed up, smiling, in the same square, and were met with hundreds of riot cops who later rounded up the organizers:

But opposition groups kept organizing, using international online spaces, even after visiting websites hosted outside of Belarus was declared a misdemeanor.

And while the country had little technological capacity of its own, it was able to buy turnkey authoritarian services from the likes of the Swedish company Teliasonera and Italian arms-dealer Hacking Team.

With new surveillance gear in place, Lukashenko was able to do things like enumerate the identity at every attendee at a protest via their mobile phones.

But despite this, protests kept growing. After all, Lukashenko is a terrible leader.

It wasn't just the blatantly stolen "elections" – it was flexes like arresting a one-armed man for clapping:

And lavish dingbattery like equipping school uniforms with special "anti-cancer pockets":

But these paled in comparison to the substantive bad policies, like an extremely high tax levied exclusively against unemployed people, during a deep recession, called the "Tax on social parasites."

The current Belarusian uprising was triggered by yet another stolen election, but it represents decades of grievances and trauma, loved ones and leader arrested and put to hard labor, torture, privation, and terror.

And the regime seems closer to collapse than at any previous time, thanks to the protesters perseverance and endless ingenuity. First, riot cops downed their shields, embraced protesters, and refused to arrest them.

Then, demonstrators started doxing the balaclava-clad, badgeless shock troops, exposing their identities ahead of major protests, inviting the men behind those masks to contemplate their fates if the Lukashenko regime falls.

Most recently, protesters hacked into the state TV channels to broadcast footage of police violence against peaceful demonstrators.

The protestors' accompanying Telegram post read: "If Belteleradiocompany does not want to show people the truth, we will show it."

Newsletters' glorious history (permalink)

It sure feels like we're living through an unprecedented boom in newsletters, but while email-based newsletters are experiencing a major surge, newsletters themselves have a long and honorable history.

In Wired, Michael Waters describes the newsletter boom of the 1930s, starting with Claud Cockburn's "The Week," launched in 1933 out of disgust with his employer, The Telegraph, and its right-wing complacency (Cockburn went on to break the story of Franco's fascist coup).

The rise of cheap mimeographs – coupled with the USPS's subsidy for printed materials – created a boom in all kinds of niche and political publications, from sf fanzines to Allen Ginsburg's self-published chapbooks to The Ladder, a 1950s lesbian newsletter.

Left-populism had a major home in newsletters, providing an alternative to the pro-big-business/pro-monopoly/anti-labor/anti-New Deal bias of the newspaper industry.

I hadn't known about In Fact, the newsletter founded by the ex-Chicago Tribune muckraker George Seldes.

Seldes billed In Fact as "An Antidote for Falsehood in the Daily Press," reached 176,000 subscribers, and featured exposes on strike-breakers, tobacco industry/newspaper conspiracies to cover up smoking-related health risks, and FBI anti-union spying.

In Fact inspired IF Stone to start his legendary Weekly, a 20-year newsletter that Stone published to 70,000 subscribers from a hand-cranked mimeograph machine.

But this golden age of leftist newsletter publishing was crippled by the Red Scare, and the risks of appearing on a list of subscribers to a radical publication.

The right's newsletters – paranoid, proto-Bircher publications like Joseph P Kamp's Headlines, and What's Behind Them ("Are Communists Infiltrating the YMCA?") morphed into the powerful newsletters published by Ayn Rand and Phyllis Schlafly, buoyed by the direct mail boom.

Today, the legacy of the direct mail boom is a clutch of wealthy, ruthless grifters making enormous bank by terrorizing elderly Fox viewers into making donations they can't afford.

But lefty, anti-monopoly newsletter publishing is also alive and well, as tech startups like Substack promise both revenue streams and access to the last truly federated distribution system: email.

I really enjoy many of these new newsletters, though I worry that, on the one hand, they include a lot of invasive tracking, and on the other, that consolidation in email providers makes them incredibly dependent on Big Tech's forbearance.

I have my own (totally independent, tracker-free, zero analytics, ad-free) newsletter, the Plura-List.

I've discovered that if a bunch of my subscribers on, say, Apple Mail, don't open their daily newsletters, Apple's analytics classes the publication as spam for all subscribers on its platform.

The consolidated nature of email is also very apparent in the software I use for the Plura-list, the venerable Mailman tool, a creaking dinosaur that looks terrible and is difficult for both publishers and subscribers to use.

And yet, it's the best option if you want to host your own mailing lists (rather than exposing your subscribers to potential data-mining, etc).

Meanwhile, if this history of mailing lists has you intrigued, I strongly urge you to check out the anthologies of IF Stone's Weekly.

I discovered these in the early 90s when I was working at Toronto's College Books, where the owner, Michael Jackel, had ordered them for our politics section. These anthologies absolutely blew my mind and transformed the way I thought about personal political writing.

Decades later, they still resonate.

Zombie banks (permalink)

It's an open secret that many of America's largest banks are "zombies" – institutions that are able to carry on despite having a negative net worth, thanks to "a combination of implicit and explicit government credit support."

"Masters of Illusion: Bank and Regulatory Accounting for Losses in Distressed Banks," is a new Institute for New Economic Thinking paper by Boston College finance prof Edward J Kane that reveals the collusion between bank accountants and financial regulators to conceal losses.

Bank accountants want to help their employers stay solvent, while regulators don't want the public to spook and stampede, which would cause a run on the bank. All this is laid out in a layperson-friendly article accompanying the paper

Taken together, accountants and regulators have a "disposition toward supervisory informational deception and regulatory forbearance" and during crises, this comes to the fore, allowing zombie banks to borrow even more money under the expectation that they will be bailed out.

The degree to which banks are guaranteed to be solvent regardless of recklessness and deception means that any time you see an insider running away from a bank, you should assume that things are really bad.

Kane: "The processes through which bankers extract benefits from the safety net closely resemble those of embezzlement and the rewards bankers garner usually rise to the level of grand larceny. The difference between street crime and safety-net abuse lies mainly in the class and clout of the criminal and the subtlety of the crime."

And as ever, a chart tells quite a story: the Big Four accounting firms failed 808 audits between 2009-17, and faced only 53 enforcement actions.

(Image: Cat, CC BY-NC-ND)

The Trump financial method (permalink)

If you read the NY Times' blockbuster report on Trump's taxes, you've likely come away with the (correct) impression that Trump is:

a) broke, and

b) dirty.

But you're also likely fuzzy on the details, not because they were missing from the report, but because there were SO MANY of them.

Finance grifts deploy what Dana Simpson calls "The shield of boringness," a layer of performatively dull accounting provisions that obscure an otherwise simple and banal con.

So while the details are important in a "we brought receipts" sense, the actual shape of the scam can be expressed in a very few words, as David Fickling's thread demonstrates:

Here it is in a nutshell: Donald Trump is VERY bad at business. Every business he starts spends a lot more than it makes, and he loses a lot of money from them. But Donald Trump has lucked into stakes in various profitable businesses that smarter people ran.

Whether it's his father's fortune, or The Apprentice, or Manhattan's Far West Side (businesses with competent managers other than Trump), Trump brings two things to the table:

I. Losses; and

II. Fraud.

Profits are taxable, so profitable businesses generate tax liabilities. But if you're Trump and you've got a profitable business (The Apprentice) in one hand, and a bunch of money-pits (his clubs) in the other, you can use the losses to offset the profits and pay no tax.

And then, if you're willing to commit fraud, you can increase these tax offsets and actually turn them into tax REBATES, so the government ends up paying YOU millions and millions of dollars.

The frauds are really simple. He just declares everything a business-expense and deducts it from his taxes. Tens of thousands of dollars for his hairdresser. Lavish vacations. Etc, etc.

And he pays his family members to "consult" for his businesses, spreading income around among them, gaining access to new fraud vehicles.

It's welfare fraud: claiming fake expenses for dependents in order to get more money out of the system.

However, if you are a low-impulse-control dum-dum who can't stop building losing businesses, eventually your losses will outstrip the profits from the businesses run by smart people and you'll go broke.

Which is why Trump has gone bankrupt so many times, and why he owes $300m for loans that he personally guaranteed, which come due in four years.

Also: Trump is bad at fraud. Like, if you're going to claim that your daughter is a "consultant" to your company in order to funnel millions to her to generate bogus tax rebates, it helps if you don't make videos where she declares herself to be an executive in that company.

Which is why the IRS is about to clobber him for $72m in tax fraud, which will come out to about $100m with penalties and interest.

So, tldr: he's bad at business, he's bad at fraud, he makes money only when he's not able to wrest control of a subsidiary from smart people, and now he owes about $400m.

And he's broke.

The end.

Attack Surface excerpt (permalink)

In just two weeks, Tor Books publishes ATTACK SURFACE, the third Little Brother book! To celebrate, they're serializing Chapter 1 on the web at

Attack Surface is a standalone novel intended for adults and set in the world of Little Brother. It's the tale of Masha Maximow, a surveillance contractor who's far better at computers than Marcus Yallow, hero of Little Brother and Homeland, and who works for the other side.

Here's how Tor put it:

Most days, Masha Maximow was sure she’d chosen the winning side.

In her day job as a counterterrorism wizard for an transnational cybersecurity firm, she made the hacks that allowed repressive regimes to spy on dissidents and track their every move. The perks were fantastic, the pay was obscene.

Just for fun, and to piss off her masters, Masha sometimes used her mad skills to help those same troublemakers evade detection. It was a dangerous game and a hell of a rush. But seriously self-destructive. And unsustainable.

When her targets were strangers in faraway police states, it was easy to compartmentalize, to ignore the collateral damage of murder, rape, and torture. But when it hits close to home, and the hacks and exploits she’s devised are directed at her friends and family—including boy wonder Marcus Yallow, her old crush and archrival, and his entourage of naïve idealists—Masha realizes she has to choose.

And whatever choice she makes, someone is going to get hurt.

If you like the sound of that and pre-order the book before the release date, you also get Force Multiplier, a free Little Brother ebook and audiobook:

Tor's publishing in Canada and the US; if you're in the UK or another English-speaking country, you can get the Head of Zeus edition, which comes out on Oct 1, giving you just days to request a copy of Force Multiplier:

If you'd prefer to listen to Chapter 1, you can check out the special 3-hour edition of my podcast, in which I include an excerpt of Amber Benson's reading from the audiobook:

And speaking of the audiobook, you have a mere NINE DAYS to pre-order it for $15 via Kickstarter, after which it will set you back $25:

I'm doing a whole lecture series with many special guests do discuss the themes of the book, the "Attack Surface Lectures," each of which comes with a signed copy of the book (or a bookplate and a copy of the book) included in the ticket price:

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago My DRM talk to HP research

#10yrsago HOWTO make a meat-head

#10yrsago Legal blackmail: comprehensive look at tactics of copyright bounty-hunters

#10yrsago What Internet activism looks like

#5yrsago Distinguished scientists call for RICO prosecution of climate deniers

#5yrsago AP will use “climate doubters” instead of “climate skeptics”

#5yrsago Righstcorp’s terrifying extortion script is breathtaking in its sleaze

#5yrsago Carly Fiorina boasts: I sold the NSA its mass-surveillance servers

#1yrago Every word Ajit Pai says about Net Neutrality is a lie, including “and” and “the”

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Niina Into (, Noémi Fábry (, Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 504 words (65940 total).

Currently reading: Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

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