Pluralistic: 09 Jan 2021

Today's links

Mashapedia (permalink)

Well this is pretty terrific: Pavel Anni was so taken with my 2020 novel ATTACK SURFACE (the third Little Brother novel) that he's created "Mashapedia," a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the real world technologies in the tale.

Pavel is both comprehensive and comprehensible, with short definitions and links for the mundane (MIT Media Lab, EL wire, PGP) to the exotic (binary transparency, reverse shells, adversarial preturbation).

When I was an adolescent, my friend group traded secret knowledge as a kind of social currency – tricks for getting free payphone calls, or doubling the capacity of a floppy disc, or calling the White House switchboard.

I doted on books that promised more of the same: Paladin Press and Amok Catalog titles, Steal This Book, the Anarchist Cookbook, the Whole Earth Review and the Whole Earth Catalog.

But when I sat down in 2006 to write the first Little Brother book, I realized that facts were now cheap – anything could be discovered with a single search. The thing in short supply now was search terms – knowing what to search for.

As John Ciardi wrote,

The old crow is getting slow;
the young crow is not.
Of what the young crow does not know,
the old crow knows a lot.

The young crow flies above, below,
and rings around the slow old crow.
What does the fast young crow not know?

So I set out to write a book of realistic scenarios, dramatizing what tech COULD do, on the assumption that readers would glean those all-important search-terms from the tale, and that this could launch them on a voyage of discovery.

That's the ethic I've stuck with through all three novels and the short stories in the series. It seems to have worked. Anni's Mashapedia is the apotheosis of that plan: a comprehensive set of search terms masquerading as a glossary.

Anni's hosted Mashapedia on Github, and you can amend, extend or contest his definitions by opening an issue in the repo. What a delight!

The City We Became (permalink)

Macarthur fellow and Hugo-award-winner NK Jemisin's 2019 book "The City We Became" is both a fantastic contemporary fantasy novel and a scorching commentary on the infantile nature of the racist dogma of HP Lovecraft and his ilk.

It's a quest novel about a group of New Yorkers who awaken one day to discover that they are mystical avatars of the city, which has awakened and been reborn as a kind of powerful colony organism.

There's an avatar for each of the five boroughs, plus a "primary" who represents the city as a whole. As with all births, this one is somewhat traumatic – but NYC's birth is uniquely fraught.

First, the five boroughs must find one another and connect with the primary.

But they must do all this while under sustained assault from a mystical, transdimensional, Lovecraftian horror, a great adversary to all of our Earth's living cities – but an adversary that had been believed to be powerless against cities after their births.

The enemy manifests as a Karen, a white woman clad all in white, dogwhistling racist tropes, summoning police, weaponizing vast fortunes to evict its enemies or distort their culture. It is attended by harbingers – human beings infected with fluttering white tentacles.

The city's avatars are a BIPOC, queer, all-ages group, spiky and disunified, forced to resolve their differences as they quest for one another and battle the adversary in a race to save the city – and ultimately, our universe – from its eldritch horrors.

As Lovecraft pastiches go, this is pretty fucking great stuff. Jemisin invokes Lovecraft's purple prose and vivid imagery to evince the real frisson of his horror, while simultaneously puncturing Lovcraft's noxious racism, which famously manifested in his disgust for cities.

As with Matt Ruff's 2016 novel LOVECRAFT COUNTRY, Jemisin does fantastic work in puncturing Lovecraft's atavistic horror of The Other by holding the mirror to it – inviting the reader to empathize with the object of that reflexive fear and disgust.

But THE CITY WE BECAME represents an advance on LOVECRAFT COUNTRY in an important regard: the way that it treats with the simplicity of the conservative worldview and the complexity of the real world.

Many have observed that onservativism's nostalgia for "simpler times" is really a yearning for childhood: the reason life was simpler when you were a child isn't because times were simpler – it's because you were a child, sheltered from life's complexities by your parents.

Hence conservativism's daddy issues, its yearning for strongmen who'll make the nation great through discipline, ordering and control.

In this telling, xenophobia is just the adult version of a toddler's unwillingness to eat their peas if they touch the mashed potatoes.

An infantile, irrational fussiness that, in turn, is antithetical to cities – the sprawling, organic, self-organizing, diverse, chaotic places where ideas and languages and peoples and smells and tastes all rub up against each other.

Jemisin's mythical battle of the messy city and the Lovecraftian adversary's desire for sterile order is a kind of eldritch dramatization of the fight between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs – a fight that goes all the way back to Plato.

Plato's Republic, after all, is the ultimate conservative work – the belief that people are born to virtue, and that virtue determines who is fit to rule and who must be ruled over because they cannot govern themselves.

Plato even presaged Lovecraft's disgust with complex polyrhythms ("maddening drums"), decrying "broken rhythms" for their potential to disorder the listener's self-control – a theme that repeats in Jemisin's book as the avatar of Brooklyn spits weaponized rhymes.

An obsession with neatness, categories, purity and hierarchy are the hallmark of both toddlers and conservatives, and Jemisin reveals that Lovecraft's squamous, rugose revulsions are just three grossed-out toddlers in a trenchcoat throwing their carrots on the floor.

There's many ways to carve our ideological divisions right now. One of the most powerful fracture lines is simplicity-vs-complexity – the need to bleach everything to sterility versus the understanding that complex, thriving, diverse systems are necessary to our survival.

Like all the best "urban fantasy," THE CITY WE BECAME is a love-hymn to cities themselves as living climax systems. More than that, Jemisin wields her city against the forces of infantile reaction.

Crowdsourcing a list of bad cops (permalink)

In 1963, SCOTUS ruled in Brady v Maryland. They held that when prosecutors called on police officers to testify against a defendant, the prosecutors had a legal duty to inform defendants about the officers' records of misconduct and false testimony.

Since then, prosecutors have created "Brady lists" of cops who can't be trusted to take the stand. They avoid cases that rely on these officers' testimony, or seek out alternate witnesses to call. Brady lists have done much to advance the right to a fair trial in America.

Brady lists are secret, and they shouldn't be. An officer on their local prosecutors' Brady list is an officer whom those prosecutors believe to be a corrupt liar. Yes, that officer is unlikely to be called upon to testify against you, but they still wield enormous power.

If a Brady-listed officer maims or kills you, you (or your relatives) may never find out that local prosecutors have officially (but secretly) determined that officer to be so corrupt that they can't be trusted not to perjure themselves.

Enter PINAC, the Photography Is Not a Crime project, which has been fighting for transparency in law enforcement and government for many years. PINAC's latest project is "a national database of bad cops" who appear on Brady lists.

PINAC is producing instructional videos to train people to file freedom of information requests with their local governments to extract the contents of Brady lists. These crowdsourced records will be pooled in a searchable database.

PINAC just completed the "fiscal sponsorship" process that allows them to collect tax-deductible donations through a third party. They're fundraising to pay for the Brady project.

(Image: Noah Wulf, CC BY-SA)

Censorship, Parler and antitrust (permalink)

As Parler disappears from the Android and Ios app stores and faces being kicked off of Amazon's (and other) clouds, people who worry about monopolized corporate control over speech are divided over What It Means.

There's an obvious, trivial point to be made here: Twitter, Apple and Google are private companies. When they remove speech on the basis of its content, it's censorship, but it's not government censorship. It doesn't violate the First Amendment.

And yes, of course it's censorship. They have made a decision about the type and quality of speech they'll permit, and they enforce that decision using the economic, legal and technical tools at their disposal.

If I invited you to my house for dinner and said, "Just so you know, no one is allowed to talk about racism at the table," it would be censorship. If I said "no one is allowed to say racist things at the table," it would also be censorship.

I censor my daughter when I tell her not to swear. I censor other Twitter users when I hide their replies to my posts. I censor commenters on my blog when I delete their replies.

Dress is up as "content removal" or "moderation" if you'd like, but it's obviously censorship.

That's fine. Different social spaces have different rules and norms. I disagree with some censorship and support other censorship. Some speech is illegal (nonconsensual pornography, specific incitements to violence, child sex abuse material) and the government censors it.

Other speech is distasteful or hateful (slurs, insults) and the proprietors of different speech forums censor it. This legal-but-distasteful speech is a mushy, amorphous category.

I'm totally OK with hilarious dunks on the insurrectionists who stormed the capitol. Tell jokes about Holocaust victims and I'll throw you out of my house or block you.

And when I do, you can go to your house and tell Holocaust jokes.

I'm not gonna lie. I don't like the idea of anyone telling Holocaust jokes anywhere. Or rape jokes. Or racist jokes. But I have made my peace with the fact that there are private spaces where that will happen.

I condemn those spaces and their proprietors, but I don't want them to be outlawed.

Which brings me back to Parler. It's true that no one violates the First Amendment (let alone CDA 230) (get serious) when Parler is removed from app stores or kicked off a cloud.

But we have a duopoly of mobile platforms, an oligopoly of cloud providers, a small conspiracy of payment processors. Their choices about who make speak are hugely consequential, and concerted effort by all of them could make some points of view effectively vanish.

This market concentration didn't occur in a vacuum. These vital sectors of the digital economy became as concentrated as they are due to four decades of shameful, bipartisan neglect of antitrust law.

And while failing to enforce antitrust law doesn't violate the First Amendment, it can still lead to government sanctioned incursions on speech.

The remedy for this isn't forcing the platforms to carry objectionable speech.

The remedy is enforcing antitrust so that the censorship policies of two app stores don't carry the force of law; and it's ending the laws (copyright, cybersecurity, etc) that allow these companies to control who can install what on their devices.

I got into a good discussion of this on a private mailing list this morning and then I adapted them and published them in the public "State of the World 2021" discussion on The WELL.

There are three posts: the first deals with Apple and Google's insistence that they removed Parler because it lacked an effective hate-speech filter. Given that there is no such thing as an effective hate-speech filter, this is obvious bullshit.

The second addresses the fundamental problems of moderation at scale, where you are entrusting a large number of employees to enforce policies against "hate speech."

The biggest problem here is that "almost-hate-speech" is emotionally equivalent to "hate speech" for the people it's directed at. If tech companies specify hate speech, trolls will deploy almost-hate-speech (and goad their targets into crossing the line, then narc them out).

And if tech companies tell moderators to nuke bad speech without defining it, the mods will make stupid, terrible mistakes and users will be thrown into the meat-grinder of the stupid, terrible banhammer appeals process.

The final post asks what Apple and Google should do about Parler?

They should remove it, and tell users, "We removed Parler because we think it is a politically odious attempt to foment violence. Our judgment is subjective and may be wielded against others in future. If you don't like our judgment, you shouldn't use our app store."

I'm 100% OK with that: first, because it is honest; and second, because it invites the question, "How do we switch app stores?"

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Hollywood’s Canadian politician: history of a sellout

#5yrsago Now that they know the NSA is spying on them, Congress is really worried about domestic surveillance

#5yrsago Bernie Sanders’ Ben and Jerry’s flavor: top 10% is chocolate you smash and mix with the 90% below—jerry-s–show-support-for-sanders-597958723539

#5yrsago De-bullshitifying the libertopian Legend of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

#1yrago Black Flag/Iain Banks mashup tee

#1yrago RIP, Mike Resnick

#1yrago A beautiful timeline of a future in which the climate crisis is met and overcome

#1yrago How to read long, difficult books

#1yrago Multiple Amazon employees have been fired for spying on Ring owners’ cameras

#1yrago The Communications Workers of America is seeking to unionize tech and video game workers

#1yrago More than 800 Russian academic articles retracted after “bombshell” report reveals plagiarism and other misconduct

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Boing Boing (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 573 words (96805 total).

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

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