Pluralistic: 27 Oct 2020

Today's links

Ferris wheel fine dining (permalink)

I LOVE a ferris wheel and I am here to say that the ferris wheel's moment has arrived.

Two weeks ago, I cheered as Japan's Yomiuriland theme park started renting its ferris wheels as socially distanced work-pods:

And now I'm delighted to see that the Budapest Eye, a monumental ferris wheel with astounding views was turned into a pop-up one-night dining room by a fancy Hungarian restaurant:

Costes, a Michelin starred restaurant, set out a four-course prix fixe meal for diners and, judging from this video, served a different course with each revolution of the wheel:

This is the novelty dining movement I've been waiting for all my life. I can't wait until every ferris wheel in the world has been converted to a dining room.

Monopolies Suck (permalink)

MONOPOLIES SUCK is a title I wish I'd thought of – talk about "does what it says on the tin!"

It's by Sally Hubbard, Director of Enforcement Strategy at Open Markets and retired antitrust enforcer for the NY Attorney General.

It's great.

Hubbard's got deep experience, and she brings the same kind of verve to this book that Zephyr Teachout delivered in her (also excellent) (and also brilliantly titled) BREAK 'EM UP:

But Hubbard's got another thing going for her: institutional support. The Open Markets Institute operates a range of advocacy programs for angry members of the public (e.g. you), and each of Hubbard's chapters ends on ways you can engage in the policy questions she raises.

Each of the seven chapter tackles a different way in which market concentration is fucking you over, personally: from Big Tech to Big Pharma, monopolies in labor markets and monopolies distorting elections and policy – including policy to soften the blazing climate emergency.

Hubbard has done the important work of relating monopolism to your daily life – the ways in which you, personally, are made worse off, every day, by unchecked corporate concentration and power.

This is an outstanding and important read, and the kind of book you can give to a furious, puzzled friend to help them put the picture together – and to launch them on a lifetime of advocacy for better, more pluralistic world.

(also: that title!)

The president's extraordinary powers (permalink)

When a new president is sworn in, they gets told a lot of secret stuff – launch codes, backup plans, etc. But one of the best-kept presidential secrets is the "Enemies Briefcase," a collection of "presidential emergency action documents" (PEADs).

These aren't just revelations about the fallback plans for things like a nuclear strike – they are a meticulously maintained collection of emergency authorities that the administrative branch claims it is entitled to.

These authorities are analyzed in legal memos that give the president to unilaterally declare an emergency "imposing martial law, suspending habeas corpus, seizing control of the internet, imposing censorship, and incarcerating so-called subversives."

The PEADs were incredibly well-kept secrets, known only through fragmentary redaction failures, appropriaions and declassifications…Until Trump starting bragging on 'em:

"I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about." -Donald J Trump

PEADs are particularly ominous given how many non-secret emergency powers the president has – more than 100 powers granted by Congress and never rescinded, dating back to the Civil War, from freezing bank accounts to deploying troops domestically.

Presidents through history have loved these. FDR invoked emergency powers granted to Wilson. Johnson relied on Truman's Korean War powers. LBJ invoked a Civil War measure (on horse forage!) to bypass Congress and fund the Vietnam War.

All the great monsters of America have reveled in these powers, from Kissinger to Cheney ("It is an act of insanity and national humiliation to have a law prohibiting the president from ordering an assassination" -Dick Cheney, 1975).

Even when Congress has expressed alarm at this power, it has never gone beyond cosmetic gestures. As Andrew Cockburn writes in Harpers, the Church Committee hearings were followed by 1977's "International Emergency Economic Powers Act."

The act allows the president to declare an emergency "to deal with any unusual and extraordinary threat [with] its source in whole or substantial part outside the United States." So, basically, when the president says it's an emergency…it's an emergency.

Every president since Nixon has relied on – and expanded – these "emergency" powers: Reagan used them to launder cocaine money for arms to Iran. G Bush I used them to invade Panama (backstopped with a memo penned by Bill Barr).

Clinton used them to bomb Serbia. GW Bush used them to invade Iraq and enact domestic mass surveillance. Obama used them to drone-assassinate US citizens far from any battlefield.

Trump's access to known and secret emergency powers is a cause for real alarm. When (or if?) Trump leaves power, job one has to be dismantling these authorities and restoring the balance of power.

Comcast v Comcast (permalink)

One of the arguments for permitting monopolies is that they are "efficient." That's the logic under which Universal was allowed to acquire Comcast and NBC – the "vertical integration" would make all three companies better and we'd all reap the benefit.

It turns out that there are diseconomies of scale, what Brandeis called "the curse of bigness" and really, the Universal-NBC-Comcast octopus is a poster child for that curse.

Comcast has just informed its subscribers that they are at risk of losing access to "Bravo, CNBC, E!, Golf Channel, MSNBC, Olympic Channel, Oxygen, Syfy, Telemundo, Universal Kids, NBC Universo, USA Network and NBC Sports Network."

That is, Comcast has warned its customers that Comcast might not license its channels to Comcast anymore.

This is a "carriage dispute" – a dispute over how much the cable operator will pay the broadcaster. It's a common dispute to have.

But in this case, Comcast's dispute is over the accounting fiction of how much one division of a vertical monopolist will nominally charge another to access its products.

Comcast's notice was triggered by a statutory duty to inform subscribers when a deal is set to expire with no new deal in place, and obviously Comcast can strike that deal with itself at the stroke of a pen.

But it's not clear why it hasn't done so already, sparing the company the baffling humiliation of sending out these notices. Perhaps it's because the contours of the deal may affect its licensing rates to rivals like ATT-Time Warner.

In other words, permitting Universal to buy both a cable operator and a zillion cable channels has put it in the position where to benefit one division, it may have to do serious harm to another.

Tell me again how monopolies are efficient?

Surveillance startup protected sexual harassers (permalink)

Surveillance companies assure us that they employ safeguards to ensure that their customers aren't abusing their products to engage in unlawful or unethical surveillance. And yet, inevitably, these companies abuse their tools themselves.

It's almost as though being the kind of person who dreams of achieving incredible wealthy by spying on people makes you kind of an asshole.

Like the people at Verkada, "a fast-growing Silicon Valley surveillance startup" whose male employees used its own products to sexually harass their female colleagues and received the barest wrist-slaps for it.

Male Verkada employees maintained a private Slack channel where executives posted photos of female employees – captured with the company's own surveillance tools – and made sexually explicit remarks about them.

When this came to light, the company's founder and CEO Filip Kaliszan called an all-hands meeting, expressed disappointment in the harassers, and told them that they could either quit…or lose some stock options. They chose the latter and remain employed there to this day.

The company is valued at $1.6b and employees 400 people, selling "machine vision security cameras with cloud-software, including dome cameras, fisheye lenses, and footage viewing stations."

The only guarantee we have that this ballooning surveillance arm-dealer isn't supplying dictators and gangsters is its forbearance – the ethical sensibilities of its senior execs.

(Oh well).

Verkada isn't alone in being a creepy company run by creeps. Recall Facemash, Mark Zuckerberg's prototype for Facebook, was created to nonconsensually rate the suitability of his female Harvard classmates for sexual congress.

And remember LOVEINT, the NSA's cutesy codeword for the illegal use of its mass-surveillance tools by male spies to stalk women using the awesome power of the US intelligence apparatus.

I met my wife at a Nokia conference in Helsinki over midsummer in 2003. The organizers quartered us all at the Hotel Torni, a building notorious for having served as KGB headquarters during the "Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance" with the USSR.

The Torni had a plaque on the ground floor commemorating the building's history, noting that when the 12-story building was renovated after the KGB left, they found 20km of wiretapping wires in the walls.

Because while each KGB agent was nominally charged with surveilling the Finns and other potential threats to Soviet hegemony, their primary targets were each other.

There is no honor among creeps.

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY, modified)

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Counting Heads: exciting, major new sf novel

#15yrsago Build a gingerbread Phantom Manor from Disneyland Paris

#10yrsago HOWTO explain the Internet to a Dickensian street urchin

#5yrsago Librarian of Congress grants limited DRM-breaking rights for cars, games, phones, tablets, and remixers

#5yrsago Ministry of Irony: Orwell estate tries to censor mentions of the number 1984

#5yrsago Elite “wealth managers”: Renfields to the one percent bloodsuckers

#1yrago Navy Yard worker outed by Unicorn Riot is indicted for lying to the FBI about his white nationalist group memberships

#1yrago Indigenous elder on Sidewalk Labs’s Toronto consultation: “like being given blankets and gun powder and whisky to trade for our participation”

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Dan Howland (, Super Punch (, Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 660 words (77275 total).

Currently reading: Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

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