Pluralistic: 21 Oct 2020

Today's links

Comedic obituary poetry (permalink)

The Imagineers who worked on the Haunted Mansion drew heavily on reference material, combining a surprising number of real Victorian ghostly and sepulchral traditions, flourishes and details, which is all part of what makes the Mansion such a rich, immersive experience.

Some of my favorite gags are the rhyming tombstones in the small graveyard in the queue area, each of which pays tribute to one of the Imagineers who worked on the Mansion (e.g. "At peaceful rest lies Brother Claude, planted here beneath this sod" for Claude Coats).

These turn out to be the McGuffin of a late Victorian novel, 1874' s "Out of the Hurly-Burly," by Charles Heber Clark (under the pen-name "Max Adeler"), about an obit writer who publishes doggerel about the deceased.

Typewriter historian Harry Stephen Keeler published a fantastic thread that collects many of these, and they are unmissably great. Here are three of my faves:

I. The death-angel smote Alexander McGlue,
And gave him protracted repose;
He wore a checked shirt and a Number Nine shoe,
And he had a pink wart on his nose.
No doubt he is happier dwelling in space
Over there on the evergreen shore.
His friends are informed that his funeral takes place
Precisely at quarter-past four.

II. Willie had a purple monkey climbing on a yellow stick,
And when he sucked the paint all off it made him deathly sick;
And in his latest hours he clasped that monkey in his hand,
And bade good-bye to earth and went into a better land.
Oh! no more he'll shoot his sister with his little wooden gun;
And no more he'll twist the pussy's tail and make her yowl, for fun.
The pussy's tail now stands out straight; the gun is laid aside;
The monkey doesn't jump around since little Willie died.

III. Little Alexander's dead;
Jam him in a coffin;
Don't have as good a chance
For a fun'ral often.
Rush his body right around
To the cemetery;
Drop him in the sepulchre
With his Uncle Jerry."

I don't know if the Disney Imagineering archive and library had a copy of Out of the Hurly-Burly (it's been years since I had access to it), but these are so reminiscent of the "family plot" tombstones at the Mansion that I have a hard time thinking it's a coincidence.

Tom Lehrer in the public domain (permalink)

Tom Lehrer is one of our great nerdy, comedic songwriters, a Harvard-educated mathematician who produced a string of witty, unforgettable science- and math-themed comedic airs with nary a dud.

Now in his nineties, Lehrer remains both a political and scientific hero, sung the world round by geeks of every age. When my daughter was young, we taught her "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park."

Undergrads at UC Santa Cruz would sign up for his math class just to learn freshman algebra from the "Wehrner Von Braun" guy.

Now, Lehrer has done something absolutely remarkable.

In a note on his website, Lehrer has released the lyrics (and music, for those songs where he was the composer) into the public domain, warning fans to download the songs before 12/31/2024, when he says he will delete his site.

Only the lyrics to 96 songs are in the release; Lehrer cautions the accompanying music will appear later "with further disclaimers."

But it's quite a list, including "Bright College Days," "The Elements," "Oedipus Rex," "Smut," "Wehrner Von Braun," "The Vatican Rag," and yes, "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park!"

In his note, Lehrer urges us to make up our own tunes for these: "In particular, permission is hereby granted to anyone to set any of these lyrics to their own music and publish or perform their versions without fear of legal action."

Trustbusting is stimulus (permalink)

Antitrust enforcement is virtually a dead letter in America (it was killed 40 years ago by Reagan's court sorcerer Robert Bork, better known as the Nixonite criminal who couldn't get approved for a SCOTUS seat).

But even when we were enforcing antitrust, we tended to pump the brakes during economic crises: no one wants to put additional constraints on business during a downturn.

That's wrong. Antitrust enforcement isn't an economic drag, it's an economic STIMULUS.

Monopolies extract higher profits by crushing workers and small competitors, but workers and small businesses spend their earnings back into the economy.

Monopolist's shareholders, on the other hand, tend to bank their winnings, or spend it on items with small multipliers like superyachts and fractional shares in rare artworks shuttered in climate-controlled containers in Swiss freeports.

By contrast, workers buy groceries, pay contractors to fix their roofs, or buy braces for their kids. That money recirculates in the communities in which it is earned, multiplying itself over and over again.

Writing in Promarket, Hal Singer and Marshall Steinbaum present us with some contrafactuals:

"Rather than having one tech giant controlling social media and the associated advertising, imagine we had 10: Assuming the same revenues, it is not a stretch to conclude industry-wide spending on R&D; and labor under the decentralized configuration would be larger."

And they propose ways that the state can intervene before monopolies emerge, to prevent them from leveraging early wins into stagnating, strangulating dominance.

Example: Tesla is set to corner the market on EVs in part via its national network of superchargers. So invest in public chargers, which can be privately operated by entities not affiliated with any manufacturer, "so Tesla’s nascent rivals can compete in the short run."

But instead of securing the stimulus effect of competition, Congress and the Trump admin are sitting by idly as giant firms spend their stimulus money colluding to reduce competition (like Jetblue and AA announcing a "marketing partnership" with their bailout money).

Without antimonopoly vigilance, downturns become bonanzas of anticompetitive takeovers: all the small companies that are tipped into precarity by the crisis can be bought for pennies on the dollar by dominant firms, further cementing their dominance.

It's time to guillotine Borkism and its idiotic, plute-friendly doctrine of permitting monopolistic conduct unless it results in immediate, impossible-to-prove "consumer harm."

Not only has Borkism been shown to be a catastrophic failure, it is a failure that is especially dangerous during this crisis. This is the moment at which America needs firms to thrive by doing things that make us all better off – not by choking their competitors.

The last time the DoJ did any real antitrust was in 1982, when they broke up AT&T.; At the time, Borkists warned that DoJ was handing a gift to the Japanese tech industry, which they characterized as sinister copycats descended from the fascist enterprises of Imperial Japan.

They said that America needed AT&T as a "national champion" to defend itself against this pretender half a world away. Today, we hear the same arguments about Big Tech antitrust and the Chinese tech companies.

But breaking up AT&T in 1982 was the best thing that could have happened to America. AT&T's core project in 1982 wasn't fighting Japanese electronics companies: it was suppressing the growth of the internet in the USA, to preserve its monopoly on telecoms.

AT&T's business model was controlling all the services available on the network and charging money for every "feature" your phone came with. Not just charging farcical markups for long-distance…remember when you had to pay for "caller ID"?

That's the equivalent of your email provider charging extra to see who a message comes from before you open and read it! AT&T's stranglehold over telecoms let it nickel-and-dime Americans for every "feature" of the system.

The internet moved control over services to the edge of the network – the programs running on the computers in users' homes (and later, pockets). It annihilated the a-la-carte grift of Ma Bell and jumpstarted a new, US-dominanted form of global soft power.

In other words, breaking up America's "national champion" in '82 allowed all the current Big Tech companies – the new national champions that Borkists say we mustn't break up – to come into existence and grow.

Imagine how many brilliant ideas, products and services the current Big Tech companies are strangling!

After the Bell breakup, the DoJ entered its 40 year hibernation, sleeping through AT&T's re-acquisition of the "Baby Bells," which resurrected the telecoms octopus.

The DoJ has announced new antitrust action against Google, a long overdue move that will doubtless lead to antitrust enforcement against other dominant firms in tech and other industries (do AT&T next!). But the DoJ complaint focuses on Borkean "consumer harm."

It's time to jettison "consumer harm." The reason to fight monopolies is that they monopolize. They crush workers and small rivals, and pervert regulation and law. They enrich wealthy shareholders at the expense of the rest of us.

Monopolies should be killed because they are monopolies.

Falsehoods programmers believe about time (permalink)

The categories we think of as discrete, bounded entities are most often continua, with broadly coherent centers and hairy, noisy edges that defy categorization.

Computers operate on binary states, but the actual electronics that represent these ones and zeroes are quite noisy, and only average out to "off" and "on." It's quite ironic, because computerization so often forces us to incinerate the edge-cases.

Prior to computerization, the fuzziness of analog record-keeping and the potential for official forebearance allowed us to maintain the pretence of neat categories while (sometimes) accommodating the infinite complexity of the edges.

My grandparents had given names, Russian names, Hebrew names, Yiddish names, anglicized names AND English nicknames, jumbled across their official forms and paperwork.

My grandfather Avram (Abe, Abraham, William, Bill) Doctorow (Doctorowicz, Doktorowicz, Doctorovitch, Doctorov, Doktorov) would sometimes have to explain this to officials, and they could accept it or even note it in the margins in ink.

Computerization doesn't necessarily allow this. A "name" field of 64 characters allows names up to 64 chars, period. If your name is longer than that, tough shit.

Computerization is often undertaken by isolated, wealthy execs from the global north, directing technologists.

In that sense, it is hegemonic, a way for an elite coterie to project its will over millions, even billions of people who lack even a means of registering their discontent.

Remember when Facebook and Google waged cruel warfare against their users with their "Real Names" policy that unilaterally declared what a name was (and was not)?

They were carrying on the work of the Global War on Terror. After 9/11, the world saw waves of official name-change requests.

The requesters weren't changing their names: they were preserving them.

The names they'd used all their lives were suddenly cause for suspicion, due to discrepancies between their real names and their official names. In the world of unchecked GWOT power and paranoia, that discrepancy could cost you a job or a border-crossing or your liberty.

Ambiguous categories are the rule, not the exception. It's a commonplace that the idea of "race" within humanity is incoherent, but so is the idea of "species" in biology, where often animals of different species can still produce fertile offspring.

Computerization resolves ambiguity by steamrollering it, not by accepting it. I spent years as EFF's rep to a DRM standards committee, DVB-CPCM, whose project was to computationally define a valid "family" (so you could share video with your family).

The committee – overwhelmingly white, male, wealthy and Anglo – ensured that bizarre, rarely seen "families" fit the definition. If you had a summer home in France, a houseboat, and a lux SUV with seatback videos, they had you covered.

But if you were migrant-worker parents in Manila whose son was a construction worker in Qatar and whose daughter was an RN in Dallas, you were fucked. This was an "edge-case" they couldn't accommodate without opening up the possibility of "piracy."

All of that to introduce a highly amusing list called "Falsehoods programmers believe about time," which demonstrates that even the most objective, quantitative constructions are riddled with irreducible complexity resulting from qualitative factors.

The list includes obvious ones like "February is always 28 days long" but also "The system clock will never be set to a time that is in the distant past or the far future" and "There is only one calendar system in use at one time" and "Time always goes forwards."

Each of these is the epitaph from some programmer's postmortem of a ghastly error. Each is a reminder that time can be weaponized.

Think of Chinese time, a nation that is notionally many timezones wide, all yoked to a single zone based on Beijing's sunrise and sunset.

People in outlying territories start their workdays in the dark, or with the sun high in the sky, all so a bureaucrat in the capital need not trifle with subtracting or adding a few hours before phoning a local administrator to bark orders at them.

"Falsehoods programmers believe about…" is a whole genre unto itself:

  • Music
  • Online shopping
  • Email addresses
  • Gender
  • Language
  • Addresses

These falsehoods cover a wide range of cases, but so many can be reduced to a longstanding and important exception that was quietly made in the analog recordkeeping world that can't be easily adapted to a database schema.

There are many ways to handle another person's exception to your experience, "Computer says no" is surely the worst.

This day in history (permalink)

#5yrsago Ham operator corrects Morse code on the Disneyland Railroad

#10yrsago Tentacle pot pie!

#10yrsago Terrified feds try to bar Bunnie Huang from testifying at Xbox jailbreaking trial

#10yrsago Derren Brown’s Confessions of a Conjuror: funny memoir is also a meditation on attention, theatrics and psychology

#5yrsago Hungarian camerawoman who tripped refugee announces she will sue that refugee

#5yrsago UK “anti-radicalisation” law can take kids from thoughtcriming parents in secret trials

#5yrsago How a mathematician teaches “Little Brother” to a first-year seminar

#1yrago Griefer terrorizes baby by taking over their Nest babycam…again

#1yrago Haunted Mansion/Ikea mashup tee

#1yrago Rep Katie Porter: an Elizabeth Warren protege and single mom who destroys bumbling, mediocre rich guys in Congressional hearings

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Dan Howland (, Naked Capitalism (, Four Short Links (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 508 words (75012 total).

Currently reading: Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

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