Pluralistic: 08 Dec 2020

Today's links

Ford patents plutocratic lane-changes (permalink)

In my 2017 novel WALKAWAY, there's a scene where the protagonists get into a self-driving car owned by a ruthless plutocrat, only to discover that it moves faster than any other vehicle they've ever ridden.

The plute explains that he's done an illegal mod that lets him override the lane-change safety margins and pay fines for it – an illustration of the principle that "a fine is a price."

It was meant as broad satire, not a suggestion.

Specifically, it was meant to satirize the idea that if you create "markets in everything" you'll get efficient allocations – some people really want to change lanes and others only sorta want to change lanes but the lane-change slots aren't allocated according to priority.

There are so many flaws in this idea, but the biggest one is that some people are very rich and most people are very broke and so a willingness on the part of a rich person to pay $X may indicate a mild preference, but a poor person might be indicating a strong preference.

If $X is 100% of a poor person's disposable income and 0.000001% of a rich person's disposable income, the rich person's whims trump the poor person's needs. This is going on around us, all the time.

The richest parts of London have the lowest covid rates but also the most rapid testing:

Remember when Homer charged a $1000 baldness cure that revolutionized his life to the company insurance and cost Mr Burns his ivory-handled back-scratcher?

Burns: I was going to buy that ivory back scratcher. How did he do it?

Smithers: He charged the company for Dimoxinil.

Back to Walkaway. Cyberpunk has a funny relationship with capitalism's most ardent trufans: inevitably, the parts that are meant as warnings are read as suggestions.

Which brings me to Ford's Patent 20200380860: "Smart Contract Formation, Handling and Fulfilment Between Vehicles."

It's written in the garbage legalese of all patent applications, but Patent Drop provides a handy translation: "imagine a car wants to merge… other vehicles would need to slow down, and in turn an inconvenience is created for them. Ford is proposing a system where the vehicles that need to slow down receive a payment for slowing down, while the vehicle that wants to do the slowing down, incurs a payment."

But there's more! Are you using a private vehicle on a route served by public transit? You stand to be compensated!

"If a light changes prematurely to accommodate a bus, this could entitle all vehicles with a certain distance of the light to a certain payment."

I would say "You can't make this shit up," except that I make this shit up for a living, but – and I can't repeat this often enough – as a warning, not a suggestion.

All the books I reviewed in 2020 (permalink)

I know it's a little late for Xmas shipping, but I'm finally getting around to publishing a roundup of all the books I reviewed in 2020!


I. AGENCY by William Gibson: A sequel to The Peripheral for the Trump years, about seductive bitterness of imagined alternate timelines, filled with cyberpunk cool and action.

II. RIOT BABY by Tochi Onyebuchi: An incandescent Afrofuturist novella that connects the Rodney King uprising with contemporary struggle, pitting supernatural powers against dire politics.

III. OR WHAT YOU WILL by Jo Walton: A metafiction about the desperate attempt of a character to pull his writer into a fictional world to save the both from human mortality.

IV. A BEAUTIFULLY FOOLISH ENDEAVOR by Hank Green: Sequel to An Absolutely Remarkable Thing – a madcap and sometimes brutal tale of social media influencers, alien invaders, disinformation, and runaway capitalism.

V. FAILED STATE by Christopher Brown: A legal eco-thriller that imagines the end of capitalism without imagining the end of the world – cyberpunk meets ecotopianism, with anarchist jurisdictions, show-trials, and rewilding.

VI. AFTERLAND by Lauren Beukes: Eerily well-timed road-trip novel set after a prostate-cancer plague wipes out nearly every man on Earth, except for the protagonist's teenaged son, who is now being hunted by the (all-female) US government.

VII. BALLISTIC KISS by Richard Kadrey: Sandman Slim confronts the worst demons of all – his own trauma and self-doubt.

VIII. SQUEEZE ME by Carl Hiaasen: Hiaasen was writing comedic whodunnits about improbable Florida Man types decades before the memes, and his Mar-a-Lago gator plague novel is a hectic and hilarious tale for our times.

VIII. THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE by Kim Stanley Robinson: KSR says it's his last novel and I say it's the book he's been training to write all his life. If you like your climate fiction wrenching but still uplifting enough to move you to tears…

IX. SET MY HEART TO FIVE by Simon Stephenson: An absurdist robot-romp in the mold of Kurt Vonnegut about a robot who catches the disease of emotions and tries to treat it by moving to Hollywood to write screenplays about robots.


I. A PUBLIC SERVICE by Tim Schwartz: An incredibly practical, detailed guide for would-be whistleblowers (and journalists who work with them) to staying safe while spilling the beans.

II. THE MONSTERS KNOW WHAT THEY'RE DOING by Keith Ammann: A sourcebook for RPG game-masters explaining how different kinds of monsters can use a variety of combat tactics that add depth, texture (and challenge) to your games.

III. SNOWDEN'S BOX by Jessica Bruder and Dale Maharidge: The incredible, true tale of how trust among friends allowed Snowden's leaks to safely transit from his home in Hawai'i to the hands of Laura Poitras and the journalists who reported the story.

III. ABOLISH SILICON VALLEY by Wendy Liu: A personal journey from a fully bought-in believer in Silicon Valley's meritocracy to a ferocious critic who demands tech to serve humanity, not a human race in service to the tech industry.

IV. THE CASE FOR A JOB GUARANTEE by Pavlina Tcherneva: A fierce little book setting out an economic program to rescue the nation and the planet from a system that insists we can't even hope for a better world.

VII. SUBPRIME ATTENTION CRISIS by Tim Hwang: What's worse than having our lies destroyed by surveillance to manipulate us with ads? Having our lives destroyed by surveillance in order to fuel a fraudulent market in ad-based manipulation.

VIII. MONOPOLIES SUCK by Sally Hubbard: There are plenty of great books about monopolies and the resurgence in antitrust, but Hubbard's is the most practical, providing the reader with excellent advice for actually doing something about monopolism.

IX. BREAK 'EM UP by Zephyr Teachout: The most lucid, readable, infuriating, energizing book on the rise of monopolies. Teachout never loses sight of the systemic nature of the problem, even as she uses individual stories to tell the tale.

X. BOUNDLESS REALM by Fox Nolte: There has never been a better book about the Haunted Mansion (indeed, this is one of the best books ever written about environmental design in general). Nolte goes way beyond trite wisdom about "storytelling."


I. YEAR OF THE RABBIT by Tean Viasna: A graphic memoir of Viasna's harrowing boyhood during the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. It's a tale we've rarely seen through the eyes of a child, and brilliantly realized.

II. FEMALE FURIES by Cecil Castellucci: Castellucci uses an obscure and anachronistic all-woman cast of DC Universe b-characters to tell an incredible, smart, pitiless story about #MeToo, comics, solidarity and betrayal.

III. LONELINESS OF THE LONG-DISTANCE CARTOONIST by Adrian Tomine: A memoir of intensely felt impostor syndrome, a forceful reminder that comparison is the thief of joy – and that the traits that keep an artist going at first go toxic over time.

IV. CONSTITUTION ILLUSTRATED by R Sikoryak: The Trump years were an unhappy crash-course in Constitutional law, but Sikoryak's genius adaptation of the Constitution in the style of dozens of cartoonists is a pure delight.


I. SEND PICS by Lauren McLaughlin: A YA novel that's a thrilling revenge-play about "revenge porn," a cyber-heist novel that's also a sneaky and forceful book about teen girls' sexuality.

II. IMPOSSIBLE MUSIC by Sean Williams: A YA novel about a music-obsessed kid who loses his hearing is the frame for a book about ability, adaptation, music theory, family, Deafness and what dreams are really for.

III. HARD WIRED by Len Vlahos: A 15 year old discovers the truth behind bizarre dysfunction of the world around him: he's an AI in a sim, and the guy he thinks of as his long-dead father is actually the research scientists who created him.

IV. ADVENTURES OF A DWERGISH GIRL, by Daniel Pinkwater: Like every Pinkwater novel, it defies description, it is brilliant, and it is his best to date. Ghosts, Revolutionary War fleshbots, papaya juice, and supernatural beings from the Catskills!

V. WITCH by Finbar Hawkins: A beautiful debut novel about a pair of 17th century sisters who avenge themselves against the witchfinders that murdered their mother. A superbly told historical.

FINALLY: I published four books in 2020!

I. POESY THE MONSTER SLAYER: My debut picture book, about a little girl who turns her toys into weapons and torments her parents by hunting monsters all night, with wonderful art by Matt Rockefeller:

II. LITTLE BROTHER/HOMELAND: My multibestselling YA novels were reissued last summer in a gorgeous package with a (fantastic) new introduction by Snowden.

III. ATTACK SURFACE: A standalone, adult sequel to Little Brother and Homeland. The New York Times called it "vocal and unflinching" and "ultimately optimistic"; the Washington Post called it a "riveting techno-thriller."

IV. HOW TO DESTROY SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM: A long pamphlet/short book that makes the case that Big Tech manipulates us and spies on us because they have monopolies – not because they've developed devastating, data-driven mind-control.

Armed cops terrorize Florida covid whistleblower (permalink)

When covid struck Florida, Rebekah Jones – a data scientist working for the state – created a dashboard to help people in the state follow the disease's spread as Republican Governor Ron DeSantis lifted restrictions and declared the state open for business.

DeSantis insisted that lifting restrictions was working fine, but the data told a different story. In June, the state fired Jones after she refused to manipulate the data to maintain the pretense that DeSantis's plan wasn't slaughtering Floridians.

Jones was undaunted: she set up Florida Covid Action, an independent dashboard that revealed the real case-counts and mortality in counterpoint to the state's official story.

But yesterday morning, DeSantis turned the heat up: he sent armed police to Jones's home to seize her computers and devices, cops who entered with guns drawn, who aimed them at her small children:

They accused Jones of having used her old login credentials to send a bulk-message to state workers urging them to come forward to blow the whistle on data-manipulation by the state.

If you know anything about IT, you may be asking how it is that they could have fired Jones but left her with the capability to send such messages? According to the state's affidavit, "All authorized users use the same user name and password."

(Jones categorically denies sending the message.)

Jones posted videos of the police aiming firearms at her and her small children as they seized her systems.

She speculates that the real target of the warrant was her correspondence with former colleagues in the state who wrote to her for advice on blowing the whistle.

One of the books I reviewed in 2020 was Tim Schwartz's "A Public Service" – a comprehensive guide to whistleblower safety. If you are part of a whistleblowing project – as a leaker, advisor or reporter – it's an essential read.

Uber pays to get rid of its self-driving cars (permalink)

When they write the history of this era, one of the strangest chapters will be devoted to Uber, a company that was never, ever going to be profitable, which existed solely to launder billions for the Saudi royals.

From the start, Uber's "blitzscaling" strategy involved breaking local taxi laws (incurring potentially unlimited civil liability) while losing (lots of) money on every ride. They flushed billions and billions and billions of dollars down the drain.

But they had billions to burn. Mohammed bin Salman, the murdering Crown Prince of the Saudi royal family, funded Softbank – a Japanese pump-and-dump investment scheme behind Wework and other grifts – with $80B as part of his "Vision 2030" plan.

Vision 2030 is a scheme to diversify Saudi wealth away from hydrocarbons by attempting to establish monopolies that will allow the family to control entire sectors of the global economy.

These schemes are longshots, and the fallback position is to unload failed monopolies – with staggering debt-overhangs – on investors who've been suckered with the promise that really big piles of shit surely have a pony buried underneath them somewhere.

That's what happened with Uber's IPO, of course – Softbank and Mister Bone Saw made out like bandits and Uber now lumbers on under the ownership of problem gamblers who read the company's S1 and bought in anyway.

The S1 – the document that explains how the company plans to be profitable – set two conditions for Uber's profitability.

First, all the public transit in the world had to shut down and be replaced by Uber.

Next, all the drivers had to be replaced by AIs.

Needless to say, neither of these things were ever going to happen. Public transit is definitely in trouble after the pandemic, but we're not gonna replace it all with Ubers.

And self-driving cars? Please.

Back in September, it became clear that Uber's self-driving car labs were just window-dressing for the con. After spending $2.5B on the cars, they'd come up with vehicles that could crawl half a mile before losing their minds.

(Of course, self-driving car huxters have an answer to this: they argue that since cars can't cope with unpredictable human conduct, we should just ban humans from acting unpredictably around their murderbots)

Every long con needs a "store" – a place where the con plays out, like a fake betting shop where the scammers rope in the mark and fleece them of every dime. But once the con is done, the store has to shut down amid a "blow-off" that lets the grifters escape.

Uber's shutting down the AV part of its store: they "sold" the division to a startup called Aurora, but the "sale" involves Uber "investing" $400,000,000 in Aurora. That is, they've paid someone else to take this bit of set-dressing off their hands.

If you want to learn more about how Uber will never, never, ever, ever be a real business, be sure to tap into transport economist Hubert Horan's series on the company, which he calls a "bezzle."

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY, modified; Gartner, modified)

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago 1.1 billion US$100 notes out of circulation due to printing error

#10yrsago danah boyd explains email sabbaticals

#10yrsago California’s safety codes are now open source!

#5yrsago Denmark’s top anti-piracy law firm pocketed $25m from rightsholders, then went bankrupt

#5yrsago Concrete Park: apocalyptic, afrofuturistic graphic novel of greatness

#1yrago One of the poorest, most desperate regions in Appalachia is experiencing an economic miracle thanks to fiber run by a New Deal-era co-op

#1yrago After sweeping election victories, Hong Kong protesters stage massive demonstrations marking their 6-month anniversary

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Shaq Kalaka (, Wolf in the Living Room (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 551 words (91042 total).

Currently reading: The City We Became, NK Jemisin

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