- Squeeze Me: Carl Hiaasen's Trump-as-Florida-man masterpiece.
- The Internet is for End-Users: IETF on "user agents."
- Ad-tech is a bubble: Subprime Attention Crisis.
- Schools! Libraries! Classrooms! Get free Attack Surface hardcovers: An imperfect solution to a thorny problem.
- Facebook's living will: Leaks reveal the company's idiotic plans to stave off breakup.
- Part 17 of Someone Comes to Town Someone Leaves Town: This week on the podcast: a murder most foul.
- Seeking home call-center workers: Propublica wants your story.
- This day in history: 2005, 2010, 2015, 2019
- Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming appearances, current writing projects, current reading
Squeeze Me (permalink)
One of America's great novelists is Carl Hiaasen, who manages that brilliant trick of being howlingly funny and brutally scathing in the same breath, the "ha ha only serious" mode that gets me to buy his novels the instant I see them on a shelf.
I discovered Hiaasen through his introductions to John D MacDonald's Travis McGee books, which highlighted the connection between McDonald's enduring lament for the lost, wild, Florida of the pre-tourism era and Hiaasen's own novelistic eulogies for Florida's natural wonders.
Through more than 20 novels for adults and young readers, Hiaasen has married a naturalist's ability to describe the savage beauty of the dwindling pockets of untamed Florida wilderness with a Miami crime reporter's rich stock of absurd-but-true Florida tales.
Florida Man isn't a single character – he's a pantheon: real-estate developer, timeshare hustler, unlicensed zoo owner, crooked politician, racist snowbird, idiot tourist. Hiaasen's books are like anthropological case-studies, but as Twain might have written them.
Each of them is a comeuppance story of some venal person – with a deliciously Dickensian name – getting what they deserve, often at the hands of Skink, Hiaasen's greatest hero: a former reformist governor who quit over corruption and disappeared into Everglades legend.
But though Hiaasen's revenge-plays are absurdist farces, they are realistic in one regard. At the end of each, Florida is no less imperilled. No amount of panther- or gator-devoured Florida Men can dent their population, nor cool their destructive love for Florida itself.
On Saturday, I took a special trip to Vroman's, Pasadena's beloved, century-old institution of a bookstore, now itself on the endangered species list thanks to covid, and there I found a signed hardcover of Hiaasen's latest: SQUEEZE ME.
Naturally, I read it in a single sitting. It is a work of superb, comic genius, concerning as it does the ultimate Florida Man – Donald Trump – being threatened by an invasive incursions of gigantic, plute-devouring Burmese pythons.
SQUEEZE ME is a caper novel that starts when a wealthy Palm Beach heiress – she is a member of the POTUS Pussies, proud septugenarian GOP megadonors – goes missing at a country club fundraiser.
The next day, Angie Armstrong – a disgraced former wildlife cop who lost her job and went to jail for feeding a poacher's hand to a gator – is called in to catch a massive invasive python on the club grounds.
She decapitates it and takes it to her storage-locker freezer, preparatory to turning it over to a state agency for dissection (after all, there's something weird about that massive lump it is digesting).
Meanwhile, the club's ruthless manager has put two and two together and understands that if that snake is dissected and the partially digested Trumpette inside is discovered, it'll be the end of his job.
So begins the caper: a tale of stolen snakes, idiot inheritors, racist Palm Beach aristocrats, presidential tanning-bed servicemen, petty criminals, an amorous Secret Service agent who's been seduced by Melania…
…And a hapless Honduran undocumented migrant whom the President publicly accuses of being the leader of a terrorist anti-Trump militia that murdered the old lady.
All swirling around Angie, a kickass heroine who uses her animal-control noose to collar opossums, pythons, and Florida Men.
SQUEEZE ME makes a sterling case for Trump as the ultimate Florida Man: a snowbird and a real-estate developer and a white supremacist and a conspiracist and a climate denier and a blowhard. The whole package.
And while SQUEEZE ME is a Hiaasen revenge play of enormous verve and absurdity, it is also true to Hiaasen's core dictum that the unstoppable invasion of Florida Man will be Florida's doom – that the state's spectacular wild places will not be saved.
Hiaasen's traditional version of this doom is two parts real-estate development, one part climate crisis, but, as befits this moment, SQUEEZE ME is more like five parts climate emergency, one part condo development.
By pitting two invasive species – Burmese pythons and Florida Man – against each other, with a background soundtrack of white nationalist Trumpian bleating about "invaders," Hiaasen makes a good case for us all being Florida Man.
I discovered Hiaasen through Travis McGee, and this book feels like the later McGee novels: funny and hard-charging, with an undercurrent of sad exhaustion – taking stock of a life spent trying to change our direction, watching as we continue our cliffwards hurdle.
I laughed aloud in so many places in this book, and cheered for the revenge and just devoured the tale, but it left me with a strange mix of feelings – sadness, rage, delight, like chocolate with a pinch of salt and some habanero.
Hiaasen is one of this country's best, a writer who smuggles in so much under cover of comedy, and this is one of Hiaasen's best.
The Internet is for End-Users (permalink)
One of the most profound latent political statements in internet history was the decision to make "user-agent" the technical term for a web-browser – implying that the browser should work on behalf of its user – and not on behalf of the owner of the server it connects to.
This implication underpins so many of the key struggles over the web's destiny: ad-blocking, stream-ripping, DRM bypassing, tracker-blocking, anonymization, etc. All of these technologies stem from the idea that a browser's first duty is to serve its user.
This duty surpasses any duty to rightsholders, publishers, cops, advertisers, university exam proctors or other third parties, irrespective of the legitimacy of their claims to primacy.
"User-agent" is a way of saying that while users can be foolish (clicking on phishing links), or wicked (posting phishing links) that trying to avert these outcomes by using the browser to control users is a cure that's worse than the disease.
That when you have a system that you use to communicate with your loved ones, get your education, meet with doctors, transmit trade secrets, and do your banking, it should respond to your needs above all others.
Naturally, this is a hotly contested proposition: there are so many entities who could solve their problems by making your browser take orders from THEM, not you.
This desire to control users through the browser was the source of one of the most bitter tech-policy fights I've ever been in: EME, the fight over whether DRM should be part of the W3C's standards for web browsers.
This was a frankly brutal fight over the very soul of the web and the web-browser: a fight over whether the canonical browser spec would say, "The user is in charge of the browser" or "The browser is in charge of the user."
And we lost it. The W3C's reasoning was that the major browser vendors had already made that call, and the users had already lost. Better to have a standardized version of user-control than a wild west of one-off "solutions."
Three years later, our lives are being lived through the browser in a way that surpasses even our most dire warnings in the EME fight, and every petty tyrant is hijacking the browser to extend tendrils of control right into our homes.
Sometimes that's your school, spying on you and your family in the name of "invigilation":
And sometimes it's your boss, who turned your home into a rent-free branch office and uses your browser to make it stick:
All of this has reinvigorated the question of who the web is for: the people who run the servers, or the people who run the browsers.
The IETF, another standards body, has waded into the fray, with Mark Nottingham – an internet pioneer who chairs the IETF HTTP group – weighing in with RFC 8890, AKA "The Internet is for End-Users."
Nottingham cites the browser's status as a "user-agent" as central to the Internet Architecture Board's philosophy, that end-users' interests should be favored over those of other parties.
Nottingham has an admirably expansive view of end-users, including parents of children using the internet, people pictured in photos that traverse the internet, people being sensed by internet-connected sensors in a room they've just entered.
He says that the IETF's success lies not in the mere expansion or perfection of the internet – more users, faster speeds, lower latency – but rather in whether the net empowers users, rather than controlling them.
To make users central to IETF work, Nottingham advises engaging with the "internet community" and points of the shortcomings and difficulties of this principle:
- Many affected users lack the technical knowledge to engage in discussions about IETF work
Government representatives are imperfect proxies for the users in their jurisdictions and even worse for users in other countries
Civil society groups – while often technically clued in and a good match for user interests – are resource constrained
Nottingham proposes specific outreach to affected user groups whose lives might be affected by IETF work, with the IETF meeting those users where they gather, rather than requiring users to come to the IETF (in the broadest sense).
Nottingham acknowledges that some decisions involve tradeoffs in the wellbeing of different users groups, but cautions against using this as an excuse for failing to try to come up with positive-sum solutions.
The role of computer as obedient helpmeet or unblinking overseer has never been more salient, and Nottingham's intervention here is a really important, thoughtful bridging of the technical and policy implications of that fight.
Ad-tech is a bubble (permalink)
"Subprime Attention Crisis" is a new book by Tim Hwang that argues that the ad-tech market is a bubble created by an ad industry doing what it does best: convincing advertisers that it is really, really good at selling its products.
Think of department story magnate John Wanamaker's infamous "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half' and consider what a sell-job he got from his ad-agency if he thought that only half of his ad spending was wasted!
Writing for Wired, Gilad Edelman praises Hwang's book, which identifies the huge share of ad spending that's siphoned off by the ad-tech industry, which has interposed itself between advertisers and publishers without delivering real value to either.
This is becoming increasingly apparent: consider the Dutch public broadcaster NPO, which swapped out "behavioral ads" (chosen by profiling you) with "contextual ads" (chosen by profiling the web-page it appears on):
Not only did NPO see similar or better click-through rates on ads that were served without knowing anything about the user, but more users saw those ads because the ads didn't have to get through a tracker blocker.
And, to Hwang's point, these high-performing, highly visible ads each delivered double the money to NPO, because there was no scammy ad-tech industry in the middle raking off a 50% vig for behavioral analysis, real-time auctions and other socially useless smoke-and-mirrors.
Hwang argues that this all adds up to a bubble, where the spending is coming from purchasers who don't know what they're buying – literally, as programmatic ads are placed in realtime, so advertisers don't know which publications run their ads or how they're displayed.
As with every bubble, there's an army of associated huxters pumping away to keep the bubble inflated: ad agencies arbitraging between advertisers and publishers, ad-tech platforms touting their devastating accuracy, and a captured rating agency controlled by FB and Google.
And Hwang points out that ad-tech isn't standalone: it's integral to the entire tech industry, woven into Amazon, Google, FB and even Apple's platforms, subsidizing them and publishers.
When that bubble pops, it will be systemic – like the crash of 2008, which revealed how mortgages had been turned into structural elements of the entire economy.
Hwang wants to avert this calamity with a controlled deflation, with researchers aggressively calling BS on ad-tech claims, and the creation of a better, less scammy advertising ecosystem.
Based on this review, I just bumped Hwang's book to the top of my pile. It certainly seems complementary to my own recent short book, HOW TO DESTROY SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM.
That book's core thesis is that Big Tech lies about the efficacy of its surveillance/persuasion products and achieves its dominance through common-or-garden monopolization of the sort that mediocre sociopaths have mastered since the days of the Rail Barons.
That surveillance capitalism isn't a "rogue" capitalism, it's just "capitalism" – with surveillance, which it gets away with by creating monopolies that can capture their regulators and enmesh themselves in the national security complex.
This isn't identical to Hwang's formulation, but it's not so divergent, either. From the review, I think the big difference is that Hwang doesn't call for a reinvigoration of traditional antitrust, nor for a renewed and muscular interoperability:
Schools! Libraries! Classrooms! Get free Attack Surface hardcovers (permalink)
Figuring out how to tour a book in the lockdown age is hard. Many authors have opted to do a handful of essentially identical events with a couple of stores as a way of spreading out the times so that readers with different work-schedules, etc can make it.
But not me. My next novel, Attack Surface (the third Little Brother book) comes out in the US/Canada on Oct 13 and it touches on so many burning contemporary issues that I rounded up 16 guests for 8 different themed "Attack Surface Lectures."
This has many advantages: it allows me to really explore a wide variety of subjects without trying to cram them all into a single event and it allows me to spread out the love to eight fantastic booksellers.
Half of those bookstores (the ones WITHOUT asterices in the listing) have opted to have ME fulfil their orders, meaning that Tor is shipping me all their copies, and I'm going to sign, personalize and mail them from home the day after each event!
(The other half will be sending out books with adhesive-backed bookplates I've signed for them)
All of that is obviously really cool, but there is a huge fly in the ointment: given that all these events are different, what if you want to attend more than one?
This is where things get broken. Each of these booksellers is under severe strain from the pandemic (and the whole sector was under severe strain even before the pandemic), and they're allocating resources – payrolled staff – to after-hours events that cost them real money.
So each of them has a "you have to buy a book to attend" policy. These were pretty common in pre-pandemic times, too, because so many attendees showed up at indie stores that were being destroyed by Amazon, having bought the books on Amazon.
What's more, booksellers with in-person events at least got the possibility that attendees would buy another book while in the store, and/or that people would discover their store through the event and come back – stuff that's not gonna happen with virtual events.
There is, frankly, no good answer to this: no one in the chain has the resources to create and deploy a season's pass system (let alone agree on how the money from it should be divided among booksellers) – and no reader has any use for 8 (or even 2!) copies of the book.
It was my stupid mistake, as I explain here:
After I posted, several readers suggested one small way I could make this better: let readers who want to attend more than one event donate their extra copies to schools, libraries and other institutions.
Which I am now doing. If you WANT to attend more than one event and you are seeking to gift a copy to an institution, I have a list for you! It's here:
And if you are affiliated with an institution and you want to put yourself on this list, please complete this form:
If you want to attend more than one event and you want to donate your copy of the book to one of these organizations, choose one from the list and fill its name in on the ticket-purchase page, then email me so I can cross it off the list: firstname.lastname@example.org
I know this isn't great, and I apologize. We're all figuring out this book-launch-in-a-pandemic business here, and it was really my mistake. I can't promise I won't make different mistakes if I have to do another virtual tour, but I can promise I won't make this one again.
Facebook's living will (permalink)
After years of slumber, US and EU antitrust enforcers are beginning to stir, calling tech CEOs in for hearings, opening investigations, and hinting darkly at the possibility of future breakups.
The tech companies have seen this day coming. Many believe the reason Google restructured as Alphabet was to create clean cleavage lines for a future breakup, a means to steer future enforcers (for example, away from forcing Google to split search from advertising).
Now, a leaked internal memo obtained by the WSJ lays out Facebook's plan to avoid breakup. It's a really stupid plan.
As reported on Engadget, the memo basically says, "If you didn't want us to monopolize the sector, you shouldn't have allowed us to buy Whatsapp and Instagram and now that you have, it's too late, nyah."
No, really: FB's defense is that because the initial mergers were permitted, that permission can't be subsequently withdrawn.
What this defense fails to account for is:
- the subsequent revelation that Zuckerberg undertook the Insta acquisition for illegal anticompetitive purposes (to snuff out a potential future competitor);
the fact that FB defrauded the EU when it promised not to merge the backends of Whatsapp, Insta and Messenger
Instead, FB emphasizes that it spent a lot of money integrating these companies it acquired under false, illegal pretenses, and it would cost a lot to unwind them.
tldr: If we'd known your approval of these mergers was contingent on us not breaking the law, we'd never have committed the resources to buy these services and do illegal frauds with them. It's totally unfair to ask us to stop now.
Part 17 of Someone Comes to Town Someone Leaves Town (permalink)
This week on my podcast, part 17 of my reading of my 2006 novel "Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town," a book Gene Wolfe called "a glorious book unlike any book you’ve ever read."
Part 17 comes with a content warning (there's a super grisly murder I hardly remember writing and which shocked me to re-read now) and a bonus (~60 seconds of Ken Campbell's incredible Wol Wontok, a translation of Macbeth into Malakulan pidgin).
Here's how to get the previous instalments:
And here's a direct link to the MP3 (hosting by the Internet Archive, who'll host your stuff too, for free, forever):
And here's my podcast feed:
Seeking home call-center workers (permalink)
On Friday, I wrote up Propublica's astounding long-read about Arise, a "work-from-home call-center" where workers end up paying to work – under incredibly abusive conditions – for blue-chips like Disney and Airbnb.
Workers at Arise – almost all women, mostly Black women – are tricked into the deal, then encouraged to make ends meet by recruiting their friends. When they've finally had enough, they have to PAY TO QUIT ("contract termination fees").
Both Propublica's original article and my summary got a lot of attention and now I've heard from Ariana Tobin, one of the writers on the original story, who writes:
"We’re still collecting stories from call center workers, especially people who work from home regardless of pandemics. If you’ve heard responses from anyone who says they work in the industry, we’ve got a survey they can fill out."
If you or someone you know has been roped into one of these arrangements, please help Propublica and Tobin's team continue to do their excellent work in blowing the lid off this modern-day form of sweatshop labor.
This day in history (permalink)
#15yrsago It’s legal to break DRM in Australia, sez High Court https://www.smh.com.au/technology/court-allows-gamers-to-modify-consoles-20051006-gdm7bs.html
#10yrsago HOWTO make a Storm Trooper helmet out of a milk jug http://www.filthwizardry.com/2010/10/milk-jug-storm-trooper-helmet.html
#5yrsago NZ government leaks on TPP: copyright terms will go to life plus 70 years https://web.archive.org/web/20151007185923/https://www.beehive.govt.nz/sites/all/files/TPP-Q&A-Oct-2015.pdf;
#1yrago How this fine gentleman convinced me to donate $300 to Elizabeth Warren https://memex.craphound.com/2019/10/06/how-this-fine-gentleman-convinced-me-to-donate-300-to-elizabeth-warren/
Today's top sources: Slashdot (https://slashdot.org/), Tim Bray (https://www.tbray.org/),
Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 516 words (68593 total).
Currently reading: Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir
Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 16) https://craphound.com/podcast/2020/09/28/someone-comes-to-town-someone-leaves-town-part-16/
- Library Leaders Forum, Oct 6 https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_9GoMvPZmT7KKCQ2fZIgmrQ
3 Big Ideas To Fix the Internet, Oct 7, https://www.nycmedialab.org/upcoming-events/summit2020
Wired Nextfest Italia, Oct 10, https://nextfest2020-milano.wired.it/speaker/cory-doctorow/
The Attack Surface Lectures: 8 nights of bookstore-hosted events in which I and a massive group of entertaining and knowledgeable experts discourse on my latest novel's themes, Oct 13-22 https://read.macmillan.com/torforge/cory-doctorow-virtual-lecture-series/
- Disney's Haunted Mansion (Nelda Live)
Digital Rights, Surveillance Capitalism & Interoperable Socks (MMT Podcast)
If Big Tech Is Toxic, How Do We Build Something Better? (panel)
- "How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism": an anti-monopoly pamphlet analyzing the true harms of surveillance capitalism and proposing a solution. https://onezero.medium.com/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism-8135e6744d59
"Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new introduction by Edward Snowden: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583; personalized/signed copies here: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1750/July%3A__Little_Brother_%26_Homeland.html
"Poesy the Monster Slayer" a picture book about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Order here: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627. Get a personalized, signed copy here: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1562/_Poesy_the_Monster_Slayer.html.
- "Attack Surface": The third Little Brother book, Oct 20, 2020. https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250757531
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When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla