Pluralistic: 10 Nov 2020

Today's links

Microchip "dark matter" (permalink)

If you're a technology user or even a systems designer, you deal with microprocessors as they are described by their manufacturers, having an enumerated list of capabilities and interfaces, there for you to use or ignore.

But (smart) hardware engineers know better.

The smartest hardware engineer I know is Andrew "bunnie" Huang, and he's not just brilliant, he's a brilliant explainer. In his latest post, "What is a System-on-Chip (SoC), and Why Do We Care if They are Open Source?" Huang reveals deep secrets of chips.

A System-on-a-Chip is a low-cost workhorse of computing, a single chip that contains all the components that were distributed across the motherboard of a PC a decade or two ago.

The SoC is ubiquitous – and mysterious.

First, SoCs are mysterious because of trade secrecy. The docs and errata (bug list) for an SoC run to thousands of pages, and can only be accessed after signing an intense and foreboding nondisclosure agreement.

But that's just the top layer. The real mystery lies within.

As Huang explains, the cost of adding new circuits to a chip is vast – $1m worth of new masks and a 70-day delay for each new circuit added in the design phase – while removing a circuit is far cheaper, $10k and a few days delay.

That's because the circuit isn't "removed," it's "deactivated": left in the chip but removed from service.

Chip designers start with tons of extra just-in-case circuits, debugging facilities, and features, and chip them away through the design and QA phase.

Huang likens this to a sculptor chipping away the marble to leave behind the form within. But it's an imprecise analogy, because the chip's sculptors don't really remove the excess components, they just turn them off.

Michaelangelo: "Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it"

Huang: "Every SoC mask set has a datasheet inside it, and it is the task of the validation team to discover it."

All of this Dark Matter in our embedded systems constitute "a hazard for an unpatchable, ecosystem-shattering security break." Why compromise a computer's ROMs or bootloader when you can do code-injection from the SoC's built-in-self-test infrastructure?

What's more, SoCs incorporate components from a small number of vendors supplying designs for USB, DDR, and PCI controllers: "this means the same disused logic motifs are baked into hundreds of millions of devices, even across competing brands and dissimilar product lines."

This is chilling stuff, the kind of thing that can give you nightmares if you think about it for too long. Huang's essay originated as an update to backers of his crowdfunding campaign for the Precursor, an open-from-the-silicon-up mobile platform.

Precursor uses an FPGA, a far more flexibile (but slower and more expensive) alternative that users can reconfigure: "there is no dark matter in Precursor, as every line of code is visible for inspection. If bugs are found in the Precursor SoC, they can be patched."

Huang's post is mostly a fascinating look at how this FPGA-based SoC will work, but as cool as that stuff is, it's not my main takeaway here: that would be, "Holy shit, dark matter in our embedded systems is going to kill us all!"

Here's a link to the Precursor crowdfunder:

I'm a backer – and I've backed other Huang crowdfunders and I've never been disappointed.

Reset (permalink)

Canada's Massey Lectures is among the anglosphere's great lecture series, on par with BBC's Reith Lectures. This year's lecturer is Ron Deibert, whose Citizen Lab provides forensics and protection for civil society from despots and corporate bullies.

The theme of Deibert's lectures is RESET, the idea that the internet has become a toxic runaway process, harmful to human thriving, in need of being rolled back to a known-good state and re-run. It's accompanied by an excellent book of the same title.

I read Reset when it was in production: it's comprehensively details exactly how the internet got to this state: the combination of sociopathic greed, regulatory indifference and spies' desire to preserve defects in our technology so they can attack their enemies.

The first episode of Deibert's Massey Lectures dropped tonight: "Look At That Device In Your Hand," about mobile computing, and beyond lazy narratives about "addiction."

Deibert's lecture is interspersed with commentary by the likes of Meredith Whittaker, John Naughton, and Astra Taylor (among others); making for a rich, reflective experience.

It's the first of six lectures, one every night this week and another on Monday. You can follow them all via the CBC Ideas podcast:

Here's the MP3 for tonight's debut:

Rights of Nature and legal standing (permalink)

To understand the levers of power under the rule of law, you have to understand "standing" – the right to seek justice for some bad act. Courts and legislatures guard standing jealously; the worst-case scenario is that anyone can sue over an injustice done to someone else.

You and your neighbor agree that it's fine for them to park their car in a way that impedes a driveway you never use anyway, and then some stranger sues your neighbor to make them stop – it's not just court-clogging, it's also a barrier to justice.

But many of our gravest, most urgent harms affect whole populations, so it can be hard to identify which person is harmed. This is where we get class action suits from – a million people sue over a $2.83 ripoff, not to get their $2.83 back, but to hold the grifter to account.

Where class action can't fill the gaps, we rely on public officials – district attorneys, attorneys general, etc – to take up our cause – say, by bringing an antitrust suit against a tech giant.

When it works, this is great, but when it fails, it's terrible.

Because there are so many harms that don't rise to the level of class action (or are impeded by things like "binding arbitration waivers" in terms of service that prohibit joining a class action), and that public officials decline to take up.

This is where the "private right of action" comes in – the right to seek redress under the law, often without showing particularized, personal harm, comes in.

In Florida, voters just created a landmark private right of action: the right to sue polluters without having to prove you were personally harmed by pollution. 89% of voters in Orange County, FL voted for a "Rights of Nature" ballot initiative.

Under the new "Wekiva River and Econlockhatchee River Bill of Rights," corporate polluters who foul the waterways of Orange County can be sued by anyone in Orange County, without having to wait for a DA to bestir themself to enforce the law.

OC, FLA is not a Democratic stronghold – it's roughly split between Dems, Republicans and Independents, and the outcome of the vote – which follows on a County Commission race that saw the election of Rights of Nature advocate Nicole Wilson – may indicate statewide sentiment.

If so, then Florida's state legislature is wildly out of step with voters: this is the legislature that illegally raided the state Land Acquisition Trust Fund and passed the unconstitutional Clean Waterways Act, banning local governments from giving rights to nature.

The OC measure was crafted to sidestep the legislature's ban on RIghts of Nature rules (a ban currently being challenged in court), and there are parallel statewide efforts to pass similar measures.

The creation of a private right of action goes beyond the environmental issue: it's part of a wider fight over the rights of natural persons (human beings) when they are wronged by artificial persons (companies).

For decades, private rights of action have been in disrepute, thanks to the well-funded efforts of corporations to take away our right to sue them for mutilating us or ripping us off. You may have heard of "tort reform" and the idea that America is "overlawyered."

"Tort reform" is an influence campaign backed by the wealthiest people and largest corporations in America, designed to strip you of the power to defend yourself. it leans on lies like the "McDonald's hot coffee lawsuit."

One of the frequent targets of tort reformers is the Americans With Disabilities Act, which allows people with disabilities to seek redress from businesses that do not offer reasonable accommodations.

The ADA is routinely smeared as an ambulance-chaser's charter, a way for sleazy no-win/no-fee 1-800-LAWYER types to blackmail mom-and-pop businesses. The reality is that the ADA has been wildly successful in ensuring that a democratically enacted law gets enforced.

The situation for people with disabilities is far from perfect, of course, but imagine if your only recourse for a failure to abide by ADA was to convince the District Attorney to sue a hotel for its failure to provide a wheelchair ramp.

Moreover, the financial contours of ADA – that lawyers can recover fees from companies that go to court rather than complying with the law – has meant that the majority of enforcement suits are brought against large firms with many facilities.

These are the companies that can afford to pay plaintiffs' fees after they lose – so the time-honored tactic of dragging out cases to outspend your opponent doesn't work here. The longer the case goes on, the more the plaintiff's lawyer gets when it ends.

This is why America needs a national privacy law with a private right of action: specifically so that it exposes the largest (and therefore most harmful) tech companies to massive, unquantifiable, multifarious liability unless they get squeaky clean ASAP.

(Image: Florida Sea Grant, CC BY-NC-ND)

Broadband wins the 2020 election (permalink)

(Almost) all Americans hate their ISP. The exception? People who get their internet from their municipal governments.

Over 750 municipalities (mostly conservative towns) have rolled out blazing-fast municipal fiber:

However, very few large cities have done the same. Telcoms apologists who argue that America simply can't do broadband argue that big cities can't have municipal fiber because they're too dense, and small towns can't have it because they're too spread out.

Reality has a well-known bias in favor of muni fiber. When we look inside large telcoms monopolists (as we did when Frontier went bankrupt), we learn they don't connect us because execs make more (and companies lose money) when they withhold fiber.

Meanwhile, publicly funded fiber installation is an engine of absolute economic miracles, raising the median wage in one of the poorest counties in the USA to $25:

We can have fiber. We should have fiber. Jesus fucking christ, we're all locked indoors struggling to learn, get medical treatment, date, and work through 20th century copper infrastructure. of course we should have fiber.

Doing what's best for the country would be bad news for telco monopolists, but that's a feature, not a bug. DIE COMCAST DIE.

Americans have figured this out – even if their political leaders haven't.

83.5% of Denver voters in favor of providing municipal favor, despite a cable-industry-procured (and outrageous) state law banning municipal broadband – handily passing the antidemocratic supermajority required by that law.

If you think Denver was amazing, wait'll you hear about Chicago: 90% of voters backed a referendum: "should the city of Chicago act to ensure that all the city's community areas have access to broadband Internet?"

Public broadband is such a no-brainer. Not only is it great for the people who get it, but it's great for the politicians who deliver it. It's hard to imagine a better re-election slogan than "Vote for me! I kicked out Comcast and gave you 100mbs fiber!"

Small wonder, then, that corruption-scandal-haunted Justin Trudeau just promised broadband to 98% of Canadians:

Guroadrunner (modified)


(Image: Guroadrunner, CC BY, modified)

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Agent to the Stars: comic sf about an alien race’s Hollywood agent

#10yrsago White paper on 3D printing and the law: the coming copyfight

#5yrsago All smart TVs are watching you back, but Vizio’s spyware never blinks

#5yrsago Gallery of the Soviet Union’s most desirable personal computers

#1yrago Amazon spent a fortune to block a socialist candidate’s re-election to Seattle city council; she won anyway

Colophon (permalink)

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

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 542 words (81997 total).

Currently reading: The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 22)

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