Pluralistic: 16 Dec 2020

Today's links

Email sabbaticals (permalink)

It's been a decade since danah boyd introduced me to the idea of "email sabbaticals." That's when you go away and turn off your email.

Not just setting an out-of-office message, but rather deleting all inbound mail and asking correspondents to try again after the break. In her message, boyd explains to those correspondents who know how to reach her mother that this is the only way to reach her.

Here's the rationale: if you allow email to pile up while you're trying to unwind, it'll take months to catch up on when you get back, and you'll immediately burn out, incinerating all the value you got out of your break.

What's more, you'll still fail to clear the backlog – you'll have to declare "email bankruptcy" and fail everyone who'd contacted you anyway. It's a bad deal for you and for the people who email you during your break.

Here's how boyd's email sabbaticals work: six months prior, she informs her collaborators that she'll be taking some protracted downtime; a month before she confirms her commitments to collaborators and composes a checklist to ensure that she meets them prior to departure.

A week in advance, she warns everyone again that she's going offline and shuttering her inboxes. Close family members and her network administrator are given instructions for reaching her while on break, but no one else is.

She leaves, and shuts down her email. She knows she's going to miss new, time-sensitive stuff, but makes peace with it. In return, she gets the peace of mind that comes from knowing that she's going to come home to an empty in-box.

At the close of business today, I'm going on email (and work) sabbatical until Jan 4, 2021. Apart from one live event (the remote Chaos Communications Congress on Dec 27) I won't be accepting emails and I won't be replying to DMs or other messages.

I really, really need it.

Over the years, many people have expressed their admiration at my "productivity" – but the dirty secret of that productivity is that work is how I cope with stress.

It's not the worst problem to have: I wrote a whole novel since the crisis, while also launching four books and keeping up with my day-job at EFF.

But working to cope with stress has its limits. It's a good temporary fix, but it's no long-term solution.

For one thing, I've got a serious, untreatable, degenerating chronic pain condition, and working is how I hope with the pain, too – distraction works far better than any prescription meds for me.

But ignoring your body's pain signals is a dangerous tactic. It's why I'm now experiencing the worst continuous pain of my adult life (it's been a stressful year). Last week it was so bad I was walking with a cane.

I say all of this not to humblebrag about my commitment to my work, but rather in the interests of transparency. I'm keenly aware that we live our own blooper reels and everyone else's highlight reels.

I'm grateful for my work habits, truly – but they come at a really high cost, and balancing work-as-distraction and work-as-pathology is really, really hard. If you're wondering how to do what I do, have a little peek into the blooper reel, first.

It's been a high-stress, crazy year. We nearly went broke, then had a spectacular recovery (thank you, Kickstarter backers!), have tried our best to be good parents (with varying degrees of success). We've gone through blazing rows and many sleepless nights.

I've spent most of the year with sores at the corners of my mouth, which I only get under in the most extreme times of stress.

And we've had it good. We're solvent, safe, and healthy. Thinking about what this would be like if any of those changed is terrifying.

Hanging out with my digital community is a huge net benefit to me, but unplugging from that community is something I increasingly value as I head towards my 50th birthday next July.

My first digital community experience was sending IMs to other users of the timeshare mainframe we plugged into when I was six years old, in 1977, when my dad brought home an acoustic coupler and my mom found 1,000' of brown paper towel to feed into the teletype.

Some (most) of my life's most important relationships, friendships, and discussions have taken place over this medium, and an enormous amount of that good stuff started with a conversation with a stranger.

I never felt the outrage that attended the introduction of the telephone into Edwardian England: "Anyone — any wild fool off the street — could simply barge bellowing into one's office or home, preceded only by the ringing of a telephone bell."

For me, finding my people (and being found by them) has been the highlight of my half-century. Touring and speaking turned these digital relationships into personal ones.

But: moderation in all things. I'm writing four of these threads this morning, doing a couple interviews and meetings, and then putting my lid down until 2021 (save for a brief dial-in to CCC on the 27th).

I'm going to swim in our lovely outdoor public pool, which, thankfully, has figured out how to remain open during the pandemic. I'm going read in the backyard hammock and hike in Griffith Park.

I'm not going to answer – or accept – email while I'm gone.

And I say all of this because it's taken a decade for me to really understand what danah was getting at (she's a very smart person and I often benefit from reflecting on our conversations).

And also, to show you a bit of the blooper reel. Coping strategies are great and necessary, but they're no substitute for addressing the underlying problems. I'm proud of the work I do, but I'm also still learning how to do it right.

(Image: Alex Watson, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Chaos Communications Congress (permalink)

I'm about to go offline until 2021 and I had planned to do absolutely no work of any sort while on break, but I made an exception, for an exceptional opportunity: the 32nd Chaos Communications Congress, which is remote this year.

CCC is – notoriously – held during Christmas week, which means that the attendees are limited to people who either care about tech policy and security more than their families, or people who can talk their families into coming along.

It's one of the best events I've ever attended (I brought my family along). My talk at that event, "The Coming War on General Purpose Computing," has had a long afterlife, in large part because of the kind and thoughtful reactions of the attendees.

I've been trying to get back ever since but haven't managed it – until this year. RC3 (the first all-remote CCC) has invited me to speak on Dec 27.

I'm doing two back-to-back events: a talk called "What the cyberoptimists got wrong – and what to do about it" then a "fireside chat" (a reading from my book ATTACK SURFACE followed by a Q&A;).

They're back-to-back, starting at 10AM Pacific (7PM CET) and running to 12/9PM.

The tickets are currently sold out, but they've mooted releasing another block. If you're attending, I hope you'll consider tuning into my talk (and of course, as with all CCC talks, these will be online shortly thereafter for public viewing).

Landmark US financial transparency law (permalink)

The Panama Papers, the Paradise Papers, Swissleaks, Luxembourg Leaks, the Fincen Files – the past decade has been filled with financial secrecy scandals wherein we learned how the world's worst people hide the world's dirtiest money.

Governments have fallen as a result of these leaks. Journalists have been murdered for reporting them, whistleblowers have been imprisoned for telling the truth. These are a high-stakes window on the corruption, self-dealing and viciousness of the 1% and their criminal pals.

One critical revelation is the role that "onshort-offshore" plays in money-laundering: rich countries with a reputation for a strong rule of law and good governance are the lynchpin of global financial secrecy, thanks to lax corporate enforcement.

Money laundering, tax-evasion, bribery and other finance crimes were only possible because places like New Zealand, the City of London, Scotland, and US tax-havens like Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming knowingly abetted them.

Anti-financial-secrecy campaigners have made major progress in shutting down onshore-offshore havens, and now they've scored a massive victory in the USA, with the inclusion of an anti-money-laundering amendment to the defense bill.

It's a must-pass bill, and there's always intense jockeying to attach other legislation to it, virtually guaranteeing its passage (this is not always a good thing: Trump wants terrible, dangerous changes to internet law included in the bill):

The Corporate Transparency Act requires that all US companies report their true owners to the US Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (Fincen). This will make Fincen investigations vastly cheaper…and more effective.

It's got strong bipartisan support, and is the culmination of a decade of debate, consultation and coalition-building. It passed the House and Senate with a nominally veto-proof majority.

That doesn't mean it will pass. Trump has threatened to veto it, and many GOP lickspittles in both houses have vowed to back the president if he overturns their vote.

Even if that happens, it seems likely that the Corporate Transparency Act will pass as standalone legislation – its support comes from all quarters, from the Chamber of Commerce to Friends of the Earth, from Transparency International to Dow Chemicals.

Rogues' Galleries and facial recognition (permalink)

Cities – and even states – across the USA have passed laws banning the use of facial recognition technology by governments; the most-often cited concern is surveillance and its ability to chill lawful conduct like protests.

But as my EFF colleague Matthew Guariglia writes for Slate Future Tense, the risks run deeper than that, as historic debates have shown us. The early 20th century saw debates over "rogues galleries" (police files of photos of criminals and suspects).

As Guariglia writes, "Suspicion is a circular process." In theory you got put into a Rogues Gallery because you were suspicious. In practice, being in a Rogues Gallery made you suspicious. A single photo taken after a single police encounter turned into an eternal accusation.

It meant your innocence would be called into question every time a crime was committed, with cops walking through a Rogues Gallery to find their likeliest suspects. An officer's decision to haul you in – often due to overt or unconscious bias – meant a lifetime of suspicion.

In 1899 Jacob "Doc" Owens – a cheating gambler – went to the NY Supreme Court to have his picture taken out of the NYC Rogues Gallery. He failed, but the national debate he spurred never died down.

In 1909, 19 year old George B Duffy was arrested for robbery in NYC. It was a bullshit charge, later reduced by the embarrassed NYPD to "obstructing the sidewalk."

Duffy's father began campaigning to have his face removed from the Rogues Gallery.

The campaign sparked national press coverage deploring the eternal suspicion cast over those who had a bad interaction with a cop. NYC's mayor overrode the police commissioner, had the photo destroyed, and demanded the commissioner's resignation.

These debates echo through the decade, as we fight over facial recognition: "while people no longer laugh and sneer at people whose faces hang in the police station, they can be denied jobs or passports because of misreadings or misunderstandings buried in hoarded data."

Guariglia: "the fundamental and historical truth is that face recognition means we are all constantly under suspicion. We’re all in the rogues’ gallery now."

Jan 1 is Public Domain Day for 1925 (permalink)

1998's Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act extended US copyrights by 20 years to life-plus-70 for human authors and 95 years total for corporate authors. The extension was retrospective, so works in the public domain went back into copyright.

This was a wanton act of violence that doomed much of our culture to disappear entirely before its copyright expired, allowing it to be used and revitalized, rewoven into our cultural fabric.

It was undertaken to extract extra revenues for the minuscule fraction of works by long-dead authors that were still generating revenues. It also froze the US public domain for two decades, with no work re-entering our public domain until Jan 1 2018.

That day – the Grand Reopening of the Public Domain – marked the entry of the collected works of 1923 into the public domain. Last Jan saw the liberation of 1924's catalog:

And now, it's about to happen again. Every year, Duke University's James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins document the treasures we are about to receive. 1925 is a bumper crop:

We're getting The Great Gatsby and Fats Waller; Woolf's Mrs Galloway and Hemingway's In Our Time; we're getting the Harlem Renaissance's peak, and the first year of The New Yorker. It's a good year!

(yeah, Mein Kampf is in there too)

Here's some highlights from the list:

  • John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer

  • Alain Locke, The New Negro (collecting works from writers including W.E.B. du Bois, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Eric Walrond)

  • Sinclair Lewis, Arrowsmith

  • Agatha Christie, The Secret of Chimneys

  • Aldous Huxley, Those Barren Leaves

  • The Merry Widow

  • Buster Keaton’s Go West

  • Always, by Irving Berlin

  • Sweet Georgia Brown, by Ben Bernie, Maceo Pinkard & Kenneth Casey

  • Works by ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton, including Shreveport Stomps and Milenberg Joys (with Paul Mares, Walter Melrose, & Leon Roppolo)

  • Works by Duke Ellington, including Jig Walk and With You (both with Joseph “Jo” Trent)

  • Works by ‘Fats’ Waller, including Anybody Here Want To Try My Cabbage (with Andrea “Andy” Razaf), Ball and Chain Blues (with Andrea “Andy” Razaf), and Campmeetin’ Stomp

  • Works by Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” including Dixie Flyer Blues, Tired of Voting Blues, and Telephone Blues

  • Works by Sidney Bechet, including Waltz of Love (with Spencer Williams), Naggin’ at Me (with Rousseau Simmons), and Dreams of To-morrow

All these works and more will be available at Internet Archive on Jan 1. Get ready!

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Data mining the intellectual history of the human race with Google Book Search

#5yrsago America’s permanent, ubiquitous tent-cities

#5yrsago McKinsey is lying about its role in building ICE’s gulags, and paying to own the top search result for “McKinsey ICE”

#1yrago Bunnie Huang’s classic “Essential Guide to Electronics in Shenzhen” is now free online

#1yrago Private equity firms should be abolished

#1yrago ICANN hits pause on the sale of .ORG to Republican billionaires’ private equity fund

Colophon (permalink)

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

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 526 words (94165 total).

Currently reading: The City We Became, NK Jemisin

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 26)

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