Pluralistic: 30 Sep 2020

Today's links

How I write (permalink)

The last trip I took before the plague locked down the world involved a wonderful day at Tor Books to plan the release of Attack Surface, the third Little Brother book, coming in a mere 2 weeks.

The ensuing chaos means that nearly everything that happened that day was driven from my brain, such that I am now being pleasantly surprised on a daily basis by videos that I have no recollection recording, beautifully edited and presented by Tor's publicity team.

The latest of these just went live: "Cory Doctorow on Writing," which answers the following questions:

  • What is your favorite way to procrastinate?

  • What is your ideal time and place for writing?


  • What's your advice for writing occasionally unlikeable characters? (Inspired by Masha, Attack Surface's antihero)

The Anti-Monopoly War Song (permalink)

It's easy to forget that American monopolism isn't new – America has experienced epochs of massive concentration of corporate power to the detriment of ordinary people.

Here's a forceful reminder of that: 1882's "Anti-Monopoly War Song."

Will you let the idol grim
Tear ye, brothers limb from limb?
And you breath of Freedom choke
With its clouds of poisoned smoke.

No! then onward to the fray,
Hurl the monster from your way,
Let your cry of battle be,
Death to all Monopoly!

It's easy to think of monopolies as permanent fixtures, given their enormous power and influence. But we're not descended from a fallen civilization whose arts and sciences are lost to time's mists. We smashed monopolies in living memory and we can (and must) do it again!

My other computer is… (permalink)

Meme-generating tools are as old as the internet; I even helped make one in the paleocomputing days (Jef Poskanzer's Acme Heart maker):

But Jason Kravitz's "My Other Computer Is…" is next-level: it creates an image of a nerdy person, holding a device, in a room, and the device is stickered with "My other computer is…" and some IoT device not generally considered to be a comaputer.

The resulting image can be freely reused (if it does not contain an AI-generated face), or reused noncommercially (if there is a face – this is a licensing requirement in the underlying library).

(Images: My Other Computer Is…, CC BY and CC BY-NC0

Leaked EU Big Tech rules (permalink)

The EU Commission has been consulting widely on a set of rules for Big Tech companies, and they've made it clear that there's a very wide range of restrictions on the table – far wider than any US bill or proposal.

That's probably down to the fact that the targeted companies are based in the USA, have a better-developed lobbying capacity there, and have successfully convinced US politicos of the (largely true) proposition that they are a means of projecting US soft power abroad.

A leaked document of "blacklisted" and "greylisted" activities for tech giants ("gatekeeper platforms" in eurocratese), shows the range of possibilities on the table – and also the stuff that's not within the regulatory imagination (yet).

Prohibited ("blacklisted") activities include:

  • Mining your customers' data to compete with them or advertise to their customers (think: Facebook Like buttons on publisher pages, Amazon's own-brand competitors)
  • Mixing third-party data with surveillance data you gather yourself (like Facebook buying credit bureaux data), without user permission (which is the same as never because no one in the world wants this)

  • Ranking your own offerings above your competitors (think: Google Shopping listings at the top of search results)

  • Pre-installing your own apps on devices (like Ios and Android do) or requiring third party device makers to install your apps (as Android does)

  • Using DRM or terms to service to prevent users from uninstalling preinstalled apps (no immortal shovelware)

  • Exclusivity deals – mobile OS/device companies can't force an app vendor to sell only through the app, and not on the open web

  • Using DRM or terms of service to prevent sideloading

  • Nondisparagement/confidentiality clauses that would prevent your suppliers from complaining about your monopolistic behavior

  • Tying email to other services – you have to be able to activate an Android device without a Gmail account

  • Automatically logging users into one service on the basis that they're logged into another one (eg using Gmail doesn't automatically log you into Youtube)

Companies have to provide:

  • Annual transparency reports that make public the results of an EU-designed audit that assesses compliance
  • Annual algorithmic transparency reports that disclose a third-party audit of "customer profiling" and "cross-service tracking"

  • Compliance documents showing current practices, on demand by regulators

  • Advance notice of all mergers and acquisitions

  • An internal compliance officer who oversees the business

Those are the requirements, and then there's a "greylist" of stuff that isn't banned or mandator, but that automatically triggers regulatory scrutiny:

  • Interfering with the businesses on a platform from getting their own data (eg Amazon refusing to tell publishers how their books are selling)
  • Gathering more data than is needed to provide the service

  • Making it hard for users or businesses on a platform to export their data and go elsewhere

  • Encumbering the sale of click/search data or offering it on discriminatory tools that preference some customers over others

  • Using DRM or ToS to stop vendors from replacing the default apps on devices

  • Blocking third-party mobile apps from using the APIs and API features that the vendor's own apps use

  • Blocking identity services that offer "the same level of security" as your own

  • Degrading service for third-party apps, locking users into your own payment or insurance services, locking users into your identity services

  • Price-discrimination among businesses that use platforms ("most favored nation" deals, etc)

  • Refusing to interoperate with competitors' services

  • Tricking users into switching from third-party services to platform owners' competitors

  • ToS that "require acceptance of supplementary conditions or services that, by their nature or according to commercial usage, have no connection with and are not necessary for the provision of the platform or services to its business users."

Which is quite a list!

Obviously, no one knows how much of this stuff will end up in any final rule. And the fact that this has leaked so widely might suggest that elements of the EU Commission deliberately leaked it to test the waters and see how people felt about it.

My immediate reaction was that all these rules sound good, but will be hard to enforce, and 90% of them could be scrapped if you just had a different rule: "structural separation."

That's the old, tried-and-true antimonopoly rule that bans platforms from competing with the businesses that use their platforms: rail companies were banned from owning freight companies, etc.

A structural separation rule for Big Tech would ban FB and Google from running their own ad networks; Apple and Google from making apps that ran on their mobile platforms; Amazon from publishing books or selling own-brand goods.

While this would cause an amazing amount of rage from Big Tech, it is much easier to police than any of the measures it replaces.

Self-driving cars crashing (permalink)

In his magesterial, longrunning series of papers explaining why Uber is not, and never will be, a viable business, transportation analyst Hubert Horan calls the business a "bezzle."

Bezzle is John Kenneth Galbraith's term for "the magic interval when a confidence trickster knows he has the money he has appropriated but the victim does not yet understand that he has lost it."

Uber has had an extraordinarily robust bezzle, one that has allowed its backers – primarily the Saudi royals – to make out like bandits.

Much of that is down to the company's insistence that it can become profitable once self-driving cars are viable.

Which is great, except self-driving cars are, to a first approximation, bullshit.

That's how Uber spent $2.5B on a self-driving car R&D; program that has produced vehicles that can't drive HALF A MILE without a major problem.

In a leaked email from the manager of the self-driving car unit to CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, the manager writes "The car doesn’t drive well… [it] struggles with simple routes and simple maneuvers."

On the R&D; unit itself, the manager laments it "has simply failed to evolve and produce meaningful progress in so long that something has to be said before a disaster befalls us."

Self-driving cars epitomize how bezzles can run the breadth of the whole economy: billions of dollars have been spent by supposedly responsible, sober-sided investors, which is meant to prove that they are possible.

This is comparable to the belief that Facebook and Google's claims about their products' ability to manipulate us and deprive us of free well MUST be true, or blue-chip companies wouldn't spend so much on those products.

Or the belief that hedge-fund managers must be able to outperform simple index funds or rich people won't entrust them with their money.

Alternative hypothesis: being rich doesn't mean you're smart, it means you're lucky, and luck runs out eventually.

But being rich does make you powerful, and rich people who make bad bets often try to bend reality to make those bets play out: for example, rich people who make stupid investments buy new tax codes that give them giant tax-credits for the losses.

In the case of self-driving cars, stupid rich people insist that autonomous vehicles can be made safe by forcing humans to modify their behavior.

Think of Drive AI's Andrew Ng – late of Baidu – who says the cars will be safe as soon as we solve the "pogo stick problem."

What's the pogo stick problem? Here's Ng in T he Verge:

"I think many AV teams could handle a pogo stick user in pedestrian crosswalk [but] bouncing on a pogo stick in the middle of a highway would be really dangerous. Rather than building AI to solve the pogo stick problem, we should partner with the government to ask people to be lawful and considerate. Safety isn’t just about the quality of the AI technology."

Translation: the problem with self-driving cars is humans, not cars.

The solution: Ban human-like behavior in the presence of cars.

Now that self-driving car R&D; is entering the trough of despair, listen for a lot of plutes demanding that we make up their losses by changing our behavior to benefit their shareholders.

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY, modified; Gartner, modified)

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago It Gets Better: video postcards to isolated queer kids from happy queer adults

#10yrsago Welcome to Bordertown: the first Borderlands book in decades!

#5yrsago Wisconsin is a paradise for white kids, but a hell for black kids

#5yrsago Lemony Snicket gives Planned Parenthood $1M

#5yrsago After OPM hack, CIA pulls agents from Beijing for their safety

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Slashdot (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 551 words (67043 total).

Currently reading: Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

Latest podcast: IP

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