Pluralistic: 03 Nov 2020

Today's links

Deep Reckonings (permalink)

"Deep Reckonings" is Stephanie Lepp's art project: she's created three deepfake videos in which three of the current moment's most clueless powerful monsters have a moral reckoning and make a clean breast of their failings.

First is Brett Kavanaugh, relating the evolution of his understanding of what sexual abuse means and his own history of sexual abuse, apologizing to the survivors of his crimes.

Next is Mark Zuckerberg, realizing that he's been kidding himself all along about the nature of Facebook, and the intrinsic harm that his business-model inflicts on the people he has imprisoned in his walled garden.

Finally, there's Alex Jones, realizing that his quest to root out real conspiracies led him down a path of exploiting his audience and his victims with off-the-rails conspiracism.

Here's Lepp's statement on her pieces:

"Where I see the greatest untapped potential for prosocial synthetic media is in a capacity that emerges across all three categories: to envision and elicit the change we wish to see."

This really resonates with me, especially in light of my latest novel, ATTACK SURFACE, the tale of cybermercenary who confronts her lifelong legacy of complicity in human rights abuses and tries to find redemption:

And in light of my next novel, THE LOST CAUSE, about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias after a successful GND transformation.

It is such a balm, inhabiting these fictional places in which the crises that haunt me today are being addressed — painfully, imperfectly, but still: confronted rather than being left to fester.

Past Performance is Not Indicative of Future Results (permalink)

My latest Locus Magazine column is "Past Performance is Not Indicative of Future Results," an essay about the limits of machine learning and the reason that statistical inference will not lead to consciousness.

At its core, machine-learning is "theory free correlation-detection" – that is, it takes training data and finds things that appear together in it. Two things labeled an eye and one thing labeled a nose and one thing labeled a mouth all add up to a face.

But the classifier doesn't know what a noses, eyes, or mouths are. It doesn't know what a face is. Your doorbell camera doesn't know that the face-like thing in the melting snow on your walk can't be a face, so it repeatedly warns you about a stranger on your doorstep.

That theory-free-ness, combined with the abstruse mathematics of statistics, is what gets "AI" into so much trouble. Give machine learning classifiers of all the successful people at your company and it will tell you to hire people like them.

But if you've been missing great people due to bias, that is terrible advice – and it's got the veneer of empiricism. Remember when AOC got tons of shit from far-right assholes for calling an algorithm racist? How can math be racist?

Theory-free isn't good enough. To understand what's happening in a complex situation, you haven't to be an anthropologist, not just a statistician. You need what Clifford Geertz called "thick description" – the qualitative accounts of the quantitative phenomenon.

Quantitative researchers are infamous for screwing this up. The qualitative elements are hard to do math on, so they incinerate them and leave behind a quantitative residue and do math on that, assuming it will be sufficient. It's (usually) not.

That's why exposure notification isn't contact tracing: knowing that two Bluetooth radios were close to each other for 15 minutes doesn't tell you if they were swapping spit or stuck in adjacent, sealed automobiles in a traffic jam.

Using theory-free inference to understand the world doesn't and can't lead to comprehension. "Theory-free" is the opposite of comprehension. We may not have a universal, agreed-upon definition of "artificial intelligence" but "understanding" is definitely a part of it.

Machine-learning classifiers have done amazing things to automate away a ton of drudgery, just as smiths did amazing things to shape metal. But smiths couldn't make reliable internal combustion engines. Incremental improvements in metal-beating don't evolve into machining.

Reliably turning out the precision components that produced engines needed casting and machining. Getting there required a shift in approaches, not improvement in the existing approach.

Theory-free statistical inference does a lot of good stuff – and produces a lot of bad outcomes – but the idea that if we do enough of it we'll get artificial intelligence is fundamentally wrong.

How Audible robs indie audiobook creators (permalink)

Amazon's ACX is a self-serve audiobook production platform: writers spend thousands of dollars to produce audiobooks of their own work. Amazon strongly incentivizes ACX producers to sell exclusively through Audible (which also distributes to Itunes).

If you go exclusive, you get a better split of the proceeds – 40%. That's right: though you bore all production costs and Amazon has no costs associated with selling your audiobook, Amazon still keeps the majority of the revenue from it, even if you grant them exclusivity.

As unfair as that may sound, it gets a LOT worse. As part of its effort to lure customers to Audible, Amazon now grants no-questions-asked returns on audiobooks, and claws back the lost revenue from those returns from the audiobook creators.

Amazon's return policy is very generous: you can return an audiobook for a full refund for a full year after you buy it. When you finish the book, the Audible app even shows you a "return book" button. Hit it and you get a refund.

But Amazon won't tell its authors how many returns they're getting. The only way to estimate is to sell a book for a month, take it out of circulation the next month, and see how far below zero the book's net sales are in a month when it isn't even for sale.

If you sold 10 copies in April, take the book off the market, and "sell" -5 copies in May, your returns are probably 50%.

This is the system creators have bootstrapped because Amazon, the world's most aggressive retail data-collector, somehow can't provide this number.

These authors spend thousands of dollars though an Amazon self-publishing platform, then the company conspires with unscrupulous readers to confiscate their payments, making the system more attractive off the backs of creators.

And here's the sting in the tail: if you opt for "Amazon exclusive," you are locked in for seven years. Amazon silently made the switch to "no hassle returns" and clawed back half its creators' money, with no chance to opt out.

Amazon gets to change its deal with creators when it wants to, but the creators don't get to change their deal with Amazon. For seven years after they produce their own audiobooks, they are locked to Amazon, regardless of Amazon's policy changes.



Audible controls 90% of the audiobook market.

(Image: Paris 16, CC BY-SA, modified; Dmitry Baranovskiy, CC BY, modified)

Get an extra vote (permalink)

Today on Xkcd, an "Election Impact Score Sheet" that turns on the theory that "reminders from friends and family to vote have a bigger effect on turnout than anything campaigns do."

It's a call to action: if you have friends or family PA, ME, AK, MT, NM, WI, MI, IO, NC, NH, GA, NE, MI, FL, KS, MI or CO, drop them a line today – text, call, email – and remind them to vote. Prioritize these calls in roughly that order.

If the people you reach need help with their plan to vote, refer them to a guide like this one, and help them work through it, figuring it out together.

If you remind two PA voters, the predicted impact on the election is as if you yourself had two votes. For every 2.5 voters in AZ, ME or NE you remind, that's also predicted to shift the tally by one extra vote.

As the tooltip explains: "You might think most people you know are reliable voters, or that your nudge won't convince them, and you will usually be right. But some small but significant percentage of the time, you'll be wrong, and that's why this works."

A hopeful future (permalink)

I've been talking to Polygon's Tasha Robinson about my books for nearly two decades. She was one of the reviewers to dig into Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, my debut novel, all the way back in 2003 when she was at The Onion's AV Club.

She's always had smart things to say about my books (and is never shy about criticizing them) so I was delighted to talk with her about my latest, ATTACK SURFACE, for an interview: "Cory Doctorow on his drive to inspire positive futures."

As the title suggests, the interview digs into the relationship between our narratives about the future and the future itself when it arrives – the delights and perils of dystopianism, a philosophy that I find seductive even as I reject it.

Many conversations and books disabused me of dystopianism, but the turning points came from a pair of woman historians. First: Rebecca Solnit's "A Paradise Built In Hell" – a gorgeous, brilliantly researched book about the true histories of disasters.

And second was Ada Palmer's legendary end-of-year event with her undergrad Renaissance history students at the University of Chicago:

Palmer is a brilliant sf writer, librettist, singer and all-round genius, but she's also a brilliant historian and teacher. Every year, she has her students re-enact the election of the Medicis' Pope in a multi-week LARP.

Students take on the role of real historic personages, then spend weeks forming alliances, stabbing each other in the back, and engaging in all forms of skullduggery to advance their agendas.

And when the final four papal candidates are gathered for investiture, two of them are always the same. History's great forces are bearing down on that moment, and those two are its focal point, and they are always going to end up in the final four.

But the other two? Never the same. The great forces of history define the parameters of the possible, but they don't define the inevitable. The two wildcards are the result of human agency. They are determined by what the players do, not what happened before the game started.

And of course, the "great forces of history" are what we call the results of earlier human agency, the events set in motion through the choices and action of the people who acted before the curtain raised on this play. "Great forces" are just "human choices," plus time.

This, to me, is the most hopeful theory of history. Rather than turning on "optimism" (things will get better no matter what we do) or "pessimism" (don't bother, things will just get worse), Ada's experiments demonstrate the value of human struggle, of human agency.

In this moment of fantastic peril, turmoil and uncertainty, it feels like the great forces of history are bearing down on us, because they are. Climate inaction and policies encouraging oligarchic inequality are the facts on the ground, the parameters for our action.

But we have agency. We can see actions that will materially improve our circumstances, that will allow us to climb a gradient towards a better world. The new perch we thus attain may reveal still more moves available to us, further up that slope towards a better future.

That's hope – the belief that we, acting together, can find actions that our future selves and those who come after us will leverage to take further steps toward a better future.

I'm currently working on a utopian post-GND novel called "The Lost Cause." The thing that distinguishes it from a dystopian climate novel isn't the setting, it's how the characters respond.

They are beset by climate emergencies: wildfires, droughts, floods, plagues, refugee crises – and they confront them. They reorient their economy, labor and civilizational program to long projects, like a centuries-long effort to relocate every coastal city inland.

Facing the same perils as the characters of any eco-dystopia, they ascend the gradient towards a better tomorrow, rather than lying down and letter the seas take them.

That's the difference between hope and optimism: the belief that you can make a positive change versus the belief that you are irrelevant to whether that change arrives.

I first met Ada at an sf con room party; she and her partner Lauren performed their song "Somebody Will." There wasn't a dry eye in the room. I defy you to listen to it now without feeling a great upswelling of hope.

Somebody Will Lyrics

Our new world is so close.
Mars has treasures we’re only just starting to find.
Frozen mountains and crimson dust waiting for footprints that will not be mine.
A hundred years to run the first tests
another to raise the first dome.
The moon, then Mars, then Titan next,
a life time to touch each new home.

And I want it so much.
Close my eyes, I can taste the Mars dust in the air.
In the darkness the space stations shimmer in orbits that I will not share.

But I’ll teach the student
Who’ll manage the fact’ry
That tempers the steel that makes colonies strong.
And I’ll write the program that runs the computer
That charts out the stars where our rockets belong.
It will never get easy to wake from my dream
When the future I dream of is so far away.
But I am willing to sacrifice
something I don’t have For something I won’t have
but somebody will someday.

And it feels like a waste.
All this working and waiting and battling time,
And all for a kingdom that all of my efforts will never make mine,
But brick by brick the Pyramids rose,
With most hidden under the sand,
So life by life the project grows
In ways I might not understand.

I am voyaging too,
We will need the foundation as much as the dome for those worlds to come true,

And I’ll clerk the office that handles the funding
That raises the tower that watches the sky.
And I’ll staff the bookstore that carries the journal
That sparks the idea that makes solar sails fly.
It takes so many sailors to conquer an ocean
And so many more when it’s light-years away,
But I am willing to sacrifice
Something I don’t have for something I won’t have
But somebody will someday.

It’s so easy to run.
Hide away in my books, games and fantasy plans,
Let them call me a coward who can’t face reality’s grownup demands,
But if I love my fantasy worlds
It’s not fantasy love that I feel.
And so much more I feel for this
The world that created them,
World we create with them,
One chance to make them all real.

And I know we won’t stop.
We’ve planned too many wonders for one little star.
Though often the present may seem too complacent to take us that far.

But I’ll tell the story and I’ll draw the picture
And I’ll sing the anthem that banishes doubt,
And host the convention that summons the family
That carries the fire that never burns out
There are so many chances to give up the journey,
Especially when it’s so easy to stay,
But I am willing to sacrifice
Something I don’t have for something I won’t have
And not only me,
But we are willing to sacrifice
Something we don’t have for something we won’t have
So somebody will,
So somebody will someday.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Felten on Sony’s rootkit-“remover”

#10yrsago Science fiction tells us all laws are local — just like the Web">

#5yrsago Big Data refusal: the nuclear disarmament movement of the 21st century

#5yrsago Made to Kill: 1960s killer-robot noir detective novel

#5yrsago Googly-eye-face Hallowe’en costume

#1yrago Taxpayers spent $10b for Trump’s wall (so far); smugglers are cutting it with $100 saws and $10 blades

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 516 words (79896 total).

Currently reading: Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 20)

Upcoming appearances:

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Latest book:

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