Pluralistic: 14 Oct 2020

Today's links

Pandemic shock doctrine vs internet freedom (permalink)

Each year, Freedom House publishes "Freedom on the Net," an annual snapshot of internet policy and outcomes in different countries, from #netneutrality to internet shutdowns to domestic surveillance.

This year's report is a grim read.

The new report, spanning Jun 2019 to May 2020, tracks the steady (pre- and post-pandemic) march to a locked down internet robbed of its liberatory power and perverted in service to control, censorship and surveillance.

Even before the pandemic, things were bad, but the pandemic accelerates everything: inequality, monopoly, and internet crackdowns. In the name of epidemiology, the world's governments have criminalized some online speech and then arrested journalists and activists.

These speech restrictions also created a simple pretense for national website blocking and site takedowns, used to remove "unfavorable health statistics, corruption allegations, and other Covid-19-related content."

The Chinese model of tech as an autocrat's dashboard and control panel is surging around the world, and exposure notification apps are a powerful accelerant for the model, with mandatory location tracking, call-record harvesting, even mandatory quarantine "selfie checkins."

Ominously, much of the health surveillance is being undertaken by agencies tasked with tracking "domestic terrorism" – treating public health as something that is done to people, not with them, giving spooks unlimited budgets and powers that will outlast the pandemic.

When all else fails, the world's autocrats turn to internet shutdowns, and these, too, are a comorbidity of the virus.

If you campaign for digital rights, you get used to being called a "tech exceptionalist."

I am a tech exceptionalist.

Not because I think tech freedom is more important than racial justice, inequality, climate emergency, gender discrimination, or other pressing issues.

I'm a tech exceptionalist because I believe that we can only address these issues with technological organization tools. As someone who's organized protests by wheatpasting posters to telephone poles, I'm confident there is no going back to predigital forms of resistance.

I'm a tech exceptionalist, not because I think tech is more important, but because I think it's foundational: it's the terrain on which other battles will be fought. A free, fair and open internet is the necessary but insufficient condition for human liberation.

What happened in Florida (permalink)

20 years on, Bush v Gore is back in our discourse – an election stolen by mobs at the polling places, a media blitz, and a Supreme Court at its most antidemocratic and antimajoritarian.

We remember this as an election that the plutes stole, but it's also an election that the Dems gave to them. That's why we're talk about it now. There will be an attempt to steal next month's election. Will we surrender again?

The last surrender led to a war being fought today by the children of the soldiers who were sent into battle on day one. It led to climate inaction, monopolistic concentration, erosions to our right to vote and to our right to protest.

Thanks to that surrender, voter suppression was expanded and reinforced, leading to the election of a fumbling liar who got to appoint more SCOTUS judges in 3.5 years than all Democratic presidents did in the previous quarter century.

You may be wondering how the Dems surrendered in 2020. For a detailed account of what surrender looks like, read Jane McAlevey's Jacobin memoir of her time as an AFL-CIO organizer sent to Florida during the recount.

Read how the cowardly, decorum-obsessed Dems ordered them to stand down, to hold disheartening, low-energy candlelight vigils instead of raucous street protests, how they abandoned Floridians whose votes had been stolen.

Read how the AFL-CIO leadership turned its back on Jesse Jackson and the racialized people of Florida who bore the brunt of consequences for disenfranchisement.

How they vetoed plans to have "literally millions of really angry people…chasing Katherine Harris, Florida’s secretary of state and the Bush campaign’s hatchet woman, all over the state."

How they focused their ground game on collecting affidavits for the rotten, useless, cheating Supreme Court to wipe their asses with, while racist gangs intimidated recount watchers and election officials.

How, even as those recounts were generating clear wins for Gore, the Dems kept ordering their organizers to stand down, to avoid confrontation, and then, finally, when it was clear the election would be stolen, then they called for mass marches…too late.

Read McAlevey's short memoir. Familiarize yourself with it. Learn its lessons. When the planet-destroying, looting, eminently guillotinable plutes and their brownshirts try to steal the election next month, remember those lessons.

Do not give an inch. Do not rely on proceduralism and decorum. Do not concede. Do not let the Democrats concede. Fight to the end.

Prop 22 is a scam (permalink)

If you live in California, you have been blitzed by messages to vote for Prop 22, a rule that would allow Uber, Lyft, Postmates and other money-losing, destructive bezzles to continue to abuse their employees through the fiction that they are "independent contractors."

Prop 22 is the most expensive ballot initiative in California history, with a pricetag of $186m and counting, money transfered from the never-to-be-profitable app companies that have destroyed so many Californian businesses and lives.

These companies launched with deep cash reserves from the Saudi royals, funneled through Softbank, and they were a bet that they could monopolize our state's transport, logistics and food by losing money on every transaction until all the real, money-making businesses failed.

That that failed, Plan B was to unload the companies onto naive investors who would reason that if the companies had survived through years of loss-making, there must be a pony underneath that giant pile of manure they'd been burrowing into.

There was no pony. Uber and Lyft drivers earn far below the minimum wage (once you amortize wear and tear on their vehicles) and this only gets worse as the companies seek to staunch their bleeding without raising prices – by cutting drivers' wages.

Under Prop 22, app companies would have an even freer hand to abuse this desperate, precarious workforce as they seek a path to profitability – a path that does not exist and will never exist.

But Prop 22 has a legacy that will outlast Uber: if it passes, it will become a permanent fixture of our state law: under its language, it can only be repealed or amended by a seven-eighths majority. This is not democracy, it is oligarchic tyranny.

Prop 22 has gotten a tailwind thanks to defects in AB5, a California law that tried to address the exploitation of gig workers but managed to capture large numbers of bona-fide freelancers, including writers like me. AB5 is imperfect and needs fixing.

Prop 22 is not that fix. Prop 22 is a license to indenture the most precarious and vulnerable Californians to a Ponzi scheme rigged by oil tyrants half a world away. Vote no on Prop 22.

How to spreadsheet (permalink)

My statistician/data-science friends all tell me that if you're using a spreadsheet, you're not doing science, you're courting disaster. Real analysis requires Python, or, possibly, Julia.

Despite these warnings, plenty of mission-critical work gets done in spreadsheets, and (in support of these warnings), it can go horribly, horribly wrong.

It's not just the UK losing 16,000 covid cases:

It's years of destructive, crushing austerity – costing real human lives; trashing cities, regions, whole countries – due to spreadsheet formula errors:

But still, we keep using spreadsheets to do real work. I did it YESTERDAY. And made a stupid mistake.

The abstinence-only approach to spreadsheets has been a failure. Clearly, we need harm-reduction.

That's where "Data Organization in Spreadsheets" – Karl W. Broman & Kara H. Wood's 2017 paper in The American Statistician comes in. It lays out a crisp set of best practices for avoiding common errors, upping your CVS catastrophe game to really powerful mistakes!

Here's how to spreadsheet:

  • Be consistent: Don't use "Male," "male" and "m" as labels. Pick one

  • Don't let trailing spaces creep in

  • Use a consistent code for missing values (not a blank space and ESPECIALLY not a number like -99999)

  • Have a column for explanations about missing data (don't fill empty cells with explanations for their emptiness)

  • Use consistent variable names and subject identifiers; treat as case-sensitive. No spaces!

    • Lay out all your data consistently, in every file
  • Have a consistent (case-sensitive, no-spaces) filename convention. Do not tempt fate by calling a file "final" lest you have to pay penance with files named "final_ver2"

  • Use YYYY-MM-DD for dates. No exceptions!

  • Guard against trailing spaces in data!

    • Don't use special characters apart from _ and – in variables (avoid $, @, %, #, &, *, (, ), !, /, and other chars that have special meanings in some programming languages
  • Format cells as "Text" to keep Excel from turning things like gene-names ("Oct-4") into dates

  • Consider giving year, month and date their own columns to prevent Excel from munging them (or write as an integer: 20201014)

  • Only put one piece of data in each cell; use column labels to indicate units (eg "45" not "45g")

  • Only one row of variable names per sheet

  • Maintain a separate "Data dictionary" file that defines every variable

  • Datasets should not contain calculations; minimize how much typing you do in your dataset files lest you contaminate them inadvertently (calculations go in separate files)

  • Font colors and highlights are not data – put data in cells, not formatting (this gets lost in transitions)

  • Backup multiple versions of your files, onsite and offsite

  • Develop data validation tactics and regularly validate your data

  • Use CSV, not xlsx, as your canonical file-format – good old hard-to-corrupt text, flensed of all the fooforaw that Microsoft likes to insert at random intervals

Lurking behind every one of these tips is a postmortem on a data-tragedy. Ignore them at your peril.

The Ministry of the Future (permalink)

This month marked the publication of Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel, "The Ministry for the Future." I have a copy, but I haven't been able to bring myself to read it.

The last time I saw Stan, he told me he thought it might be his last novel. He's writing nonfiction about the Sierras now. The thought of a world with no unread KSR novels is thoroughly depressing, precisely because his books are so inspiring.

But after reading his interview with Eliot Peper, I've reconsidered. No one writes optimistic novels about crises the way Robinson does, and reading about his approach to narrative is just as inspiring as the narratives themselves.

The story is structured as a kind of docudrama about the titular "Ministry for the Future," an entity that starts as a standing subcommittee of the Paris Agreement and grows into a bulwark against capitalism's Ponzi scheme, its systematic robbery from future generations.

Robinson describes the book as an adventure in the "structure of feelings" – the words we use to describe and manage the emotions we have in response to events.

Today, one set of structures – the comfort of a persistent order, the terror of impending crisis – is giving way to another, whatever comes after the pandemic and the election, whatever we do to confront (or deny) the permanent crisis that is upon us.

Storytelling is key to this structuring, and scientists have been struggling with storytelling for 20 years, as they try to awaken the political will to address the climate emergency.

"In politics, the front of good work is broad, so pick your special point of interest, but accept others have other points of special interest, and work in solidarity with them rather than arguing which point has priority." -KSR

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Webcam spying school settles with students, pays $1.2M in fees and damages

#1yrago Orban humiliated: Hungary’s crypto-fascist Fidesz party suffers string of municipal election defeats

#1yrago China’s new cybersecurity rules ban foreign companies from using VPNs to phone home

#1yrago Apple told TV Plus showrunners to avoid plots that might upset Chinese officials

#1yrago Podcast: False Flag

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (, Four Short Links (, Eliot Peper (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 516 words (72310 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