Pluralistic: 12 Oct 2020

Today's links

Attack Surface in Wired (permalink)

My next book, Attack Surface – AKA Little Brother 3 – drops in the US/Canada tomorrow (it's came out in other English-speaking countries on Oct 1) and today, Wired's Andy Greenberg published his review of the series and the new book.

It's excellent.

Attack Surface is a standalone Little Brother book for adults, telling the story of Masha Maximow, a complicated sometimes-villain from the first two Little Brother books. While Marcus Yallow spends those books fighting surveillance, Masha is one of the people building in.

At first, Masha feels like she has good reasons for doing what she does, redirecting her trauma of living through a terrorist attack into making her city and country safer.

But as she moves from the DHS to some Beltway Bandits contracting in an Iraq Forward Operations Base, hunting insurgents, she increasingly turns to compartmentalization and rationalization as a means of living with her own reflection in the mirror.

Finally, she finds herself in the former USSR, where a new employer puts her to work spying on pro-democracy activists for brutal oligarchs, and to assuage her conscience, she moonlights teaching those same activists to resist her employer's surveillance gear.

This self-destructive behavior can't last long – as Masha flees her (former) employer's wrath, she returns to San Francisco, where her childhood best friend is now a racial justice organizer being targeted by the cyberweapons Masha herself built.

What follows is the story of Masha's moral reckoning, and moral reckonings are the theme of Greenberg's piece: after all, Little Brother and Homeland inspired a legion of pro-user, anti-surveillance technologists and activists.

But it also led plenty of people into tech careers that have been devoted to taking away the freedom and power that Little Brother excited in them to begin with.

Indeed, virtually everyone working on surveillance, ad-tech, or DRM started with the life-changing experience of discovering how code could project your will around the world, and how networks could set your mind free to wander the globe in search of likeminded communities.

And now, every day, they go to work making sure no one else will have that experience. Like all of us, they make a compromise, which begets a compromise, which begets yet another and another, and one day you find yourself working for Palantir or NSO Group.

Indeed, under conditions of monopoly capitalism, a sizeable fraction of us, in tech and out, spend our lives (and our money) furthering the interests of companies and states that are destroying those lives, and the planet too.

In the book, Masha thinks about this as a form of debt, like the "tech debt" that ever programmer has had to contend with: you take a shortcut, and then you have to prop it up in subsequent revisions, until the whole app is a teetering mess built on a crumbling foundation.

Like so many of us, Masha's moral debts have mounted and threaten catastrophic default. Attack Surface is the story of how she structures a bankruptcy that she can emerge from, transformed into a new and better person.

In his review, Greenberg talks with eminent human rights technologists about their own experience of the novel, and the tales he relates – many of which I read for the first time this morning – literally brought a tear of awesome, overwhelming joy and pride to my eye.

From Nathan Freitas, who put the book into the hands of every young technologist he met and then assigned it to his NYU ITP classes, where it found its way into the hands of Harlo Holmes, who calls it "fundamental to her origin story."

"It informed my thoughts around how privacy should work, the interplay between movement activists, technology and the law, and what you should look out for when inviting technologies into your life to do that movement building."

Today, Holmes is director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, teaching activists and journalists to resist foundation – the Foundation is also home to Securedrop, which Aaron Swartz helped create. Aaron wrote an afterword for Homeland, and took his own life shortly before its publication.

I toured that book haunted by his specter, telling his story as best as I could at every stop. Then, years later, I happened on some video shot at that time: Laura Poitras's Academy Award-winning documentary CITIZENFOUR.

Homeland gets a cameo there, as Edward Snowden is packing his go-bag while he hustles out of his Hong Kong hotel room, heading for a HK safehouse, a plane, and then, thanks to John Kerry's decision to cancel his passport midflight, to a long-term exile in Russia.

Greenberg quotes Snowden on the book: "He is to me a radical idealist, because no matter how bad things get, his mind goes to the stories of cooperation and creation-sharing.

"When the traditional structures of oppression are up to no good, as was the case in Little Brother, Cory doesn't reflexively indoctrinate young readers with platitudes on the inevitability of corruption. He helps them reimagine the limits of their own power."

And then Greenberg quotes my EFF colleague Eva Galpering, who, like Masha, is a brilliant security researcher raised by Soviet refugees: "This is a book for the people who realize that they've grown up and made a lot of compromises, and about how you turn back from that."

Eva is joining me on the Attack Surface Lectures, a series of eight events that start tomorrow night.

Her remarks, and those of Greenberg's other sources, filled me with soaring joy this morning.

Even in the midst of my crushing, daily anxiety for the future of technology, the nations of my birth and residence, for my child and the planet she'll inherit, I was uplifted today.

These books of mine have gone far, thanks to readers like you. Today, with one day to go before Attack Surface's publication, I feel like, in some small way, I may have made a difference.

The herd immunity conspiracy (permalink)

Thing about the "herd immunity" debate is, there isn't one. Herd immunity was discarded by WHO virologists and epidemiologists and their US/UK counterparts. So why are we still talking about it?

Thank right-wing think-tanks, awash in corporate money.

The Hoover Institute and the American Institute for Economic Research have coordinated with the Trump administration to promote this idea. Hoover's Scott Atlas is on Trump's covid task force and his idea of scientific debate is threatening to sue scientists.

The majority of support for herd immunity comes from three scientists: Martin Kulldorff (Harvard Med), Sunetra Gupta (Oxford epidemiology) and theex-Hooverites Jay Bhattacharya (Stanford).

These three convened the meeting that produced the "Great Barrington Declaration" arguing for herd immunity – a declaration whose signatories include many obvious fakes ("Dr Johnny Bananas").

And these three are cited by GOP governors and local pols for their refusal to implement lockdowns, mask orders and other evidence-based, life-saving measures.

Like tobacco-cancer deniers of the fifties, they're selling doubt, and corporate-friendly politicians are buying.

Herd immunity is bad science, but it's good for business. Tossing low-waged workers into a viral meat-grinder "keeps the economy going" – which is to say, it keeps billionaires' fortunes intact.

Remember, if they need you to risk your life to make their fortunes, then you – not they – are the reason they have that fortune to begin with.

How to cheat at Clock Simulator (permalink)

Clock Simulator is a game that simulates being a clock. You have to click your mouse once per second, on the beat, to advance the second hand of a clock around a virtual clockface. The creator calls it a "minimalist rhythm game."

Now, if you want to rack up some really high Clock Simulator scores, you COULD spend hours at your mouse, tap-tap-tapping. But there's a better way to do it…with SCIENCE.

Best of all: it's a hardware hack.

Michael Dwyer's Clock Simulator hack feeds a GPS receiver's 1PPS (one pulse per second) function into a mouse for an unbeatable Clock Simulator high-score generator.

"Sure. You can probably do this with macro software. I think there's another guide for that. But this uses SATELLITES and ATOMIC CLOCKS, and is therefore many times cooler." -Dwyer

Someone Comes to Town, part 18 (permalink)

The latest episode of my podcast is part 18 of my reading of my 2006 novel "Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town," a book that Gene Wolfe called "a glorious book unlike any book you’ve ever read."

This week's episode comes with content warnings for spousal abuse, sexual violence and self-harm – and it also came with a kind of shock for me about how much my attitudes to how this kind of material should be presented in art have changed over the past ~15 years.

Here's how to catch up on previous installments:

And here's my podcast feed:

And here's a direct MP3 link (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive: they'll host your stuff for free, forever):

Facebook vs The Big Lebowski (permalink)

Hans de Zwart is a digital rights activist – he used to run the Dutch campaigning group Bits of Freedom – who also happens to be a massive Big Lebowski fan. He created, a search-engine for Lebowski quotes.

Things were fine until de Zwart started getting user complaints: they couldn't share content from his search engine on Facebook. They got this cryptic error: "Your message couldn’t be sent because it includes content that other people on Facebook have reported as abusive."

In an article for NRC, Reinier Kist recounts the bizarre, kafkaesque journey de Zwart embarked upon to find out why Facebook had classed quotes from The Big Lebowski as "abusive."

Every single thing about the story demonstrates Facebook's manifest unsuitability to be in charge of the social lives of 2.6B people.

  • de Zwart couldn't even ask Facebook to look into it unless he created a FB account first

  • FB wouldn't allow a lower-case "d" in "de Zwart" ("It is the arrogance of a giant American corporation which considers the correct spelling of the names of millions of Dutch people an edge case")

  • When de Zwart complained to FB, he got another cryptic message telling him not to expect a reply, but thanking him for "his experience"

  • Then de Zwart registered as a FB advertiser and bought a EUR5 ad for his site, thinking that FB might listen to him if he paid them

  • The ad was rejected with this error: "this ad contains or refers to content that has been blocked by our security systems (#1885260)" (FB provides no way to look up error 1885260)

  • To question this, de Zwart had to agree to four unreadable, one-sided legal contracts

  • When he did this, he got another terse message, thanking him for "helping us improve!"

De Zwart knew that FB – like all Big Tech companies – only ever corrects its mistakes when doing otherwise risks bad publicity.

So he pitched his story to Kist, who called up FB's PR office, and within days, the site was unblocked, with an apology for "the inconvenience." The only explanation? The site was misclassified by automated tools.

De Zwart has published an English translation of Kist's article. The subject matter is trivial, but the underlying message is frankly terrifying: our ability to talk with one another, organize and debate is in the hands of an uncaring giant.

FB is a company whose monopolistic scale means that it can't moderate well, and also that it doesn't need to. What are you gonna do, use Instagram?

And despite this, regulators keep asking FB to do more automated filtering and more moderating.

They're bad at this. Really bad. When they do this, they end up censoring their users' legitimate speech, and the only people who get a hearing from them are people who know journalists who can threaten them with public humiliation.

If you want to create a fairer and less toxic online communications world, reduce Facebook's monopoly power – don't make them a permanent, incompetent, unaccountable privatized arm of the state.

Asking Mark Zuckerberg to do more of something he sucks at won't make him better at it – it'll just put his legion of traumatized, outsourced moderators on a hair trigger that results in far more dolphins caught in their tuna-nets.

And while famous, privileged and powerful people will be able to get their material sprung from content jail, the marginalized, poor and desperate will have no such access.

(de Zwart never got his 5 euros back)

Papercraft Haunted Mansion Hallowe'en (permalink)

If you, like me, are missing the Haunted Mansion especially keenly as we pass through this all-too-short, stolen Decorative Gourd season with its rare confluence of an Oct 31 full moon on a Saturday night, Disney Imagineering has some comfort for you.

The Disney Parks blog has published a pair of printable Haunted Mansion activity books (the first half of four weekly installments) that offer a wealth of decor elements to print, cut, color, fold.

Part 1 features a papercraft set of Disneyland entry gates in their Hallowe'en finery, a papercraft bat-stanchion with WELCOME FOOLISH MORTALS signage, and Hitchhiking Ghosts, Hatbox Ghost an ghostly hand shadow puppets.

Part 2 has gate-sign placemats, cupcake and straw toppers, cup-sleeves, napkin rings, gargoyle place-card holders and Doom Buggy snack boxes!

They were created by Imagineers Stephanie Jazmines and Amy Young.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Vet’s obit: “send acerbic letters to Republicans”;=15361018

#10yrago Canon’s printer/photocopier blocks jobs based on keywords

#10yrago Pratchett’s I Shall Wear Midnight, sentimental and fun book about a witch among enemies

#10yrago Tom Waits and Preservation Hall Jazz Band release limited-edition 78RPM record and matching limited edition record-player


#5yrsago Facebook UK made ÂŁ105M in 2014, paid ÂŁ35M in bonuses, and will pay ÂŁ4,327 in tax

#5yrsago Economics research considered unreplicable

#5yrsago Read: Austin Grossman’s moving text-adventure story “The Fresh Prince of Gamma World”

#1yrago AT&T; hikes business customers’ bills by up to 7%, charging them to recoup its own property taxes

#1yrago Google continues to funnel vast sums to notorious climate deniers

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Hackaday (, Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 618 words (71266 total).

Currently reading: Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 17)

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