Pluralistic: 15 Jan 2021

Today's links

Laura Poitras fired from First Look (permalink)

Seven years ago, the Academy-Award-winning documentarian Laura Poitras co-founded First Look Media, and its subsidiaries/sister companies The Intercept and Field of Vision.

Late last year, they fired her.

Poitras has published a lengthy letter about her dismissal in which she says that she was fired for publicly criticizing The Intercept's handling of the Reality Winner leaks – an incident that ended with Winner in federal prison for five years.

The Intercept investigated its handling of the Winner leaks, and concluded that it made mistakes. But Poitras says that the internal investigation was never independent, and allowed people who were implicated in the failures to oversee the postmortem on those failures.

First Look says Poitras's dismissal was "natural," and the result of her "stepping away" from her duties at the company to do "her own projects."

I have an interest here. I have sincere, deep admiration for Poitras. I contributed to the program book for her one-woman show at the Whitney, reported out a Snowden leak with her team, and one of my proudest moments was the cameo my book HOMELAND got in her doc CITIZENFOUR.

And I have worked with First Look; I worked for months on a video project with them, and then they optioned my novella UNAUTHORIZED BREAD. Everyone I've worked with there was bright, committed, passionate and good at their jobs.

Despite all that, I have no personal knowledge of any of the underlying facts.

Here's what I do know, though: Laura Poitras is one of the bravest, most talented filmmakers and journalists I know. She is both a good person and very good at what she does.

And I also know that The Intercept publishes some of the best investigative journalism today. Their work has been hugely important to me and my understanding of the world. Not a day goes by that I don't learn something profound from its work.

When you put those two facts together, here's what you get: profound sadness. A media entity that means a lot to me has fired one of their best journalists, who also helped found the organization. This is not a good day. Poitras's work is critical to this ghastly moment.

First Look is much poorer without her.

(Image: Katy Scoggin, CC BY)

Kickstarting a pad of "Tiny Paper Dungeons" (permalink)

There came a point in my life as an RPG player where I largely stopped playing the games in favor of mostly thinking about the games, handling the materials, and reading the rulebooks.

The physicality of D&D was always the most important part for me: the dice, the tables, the minis, the maps. I love me a D&D object.

So I've backed "Tiny Paper Dungeons," Tom Brinton's Kickstarter campaign for a pocket-steno-pad-sized book of procedurally generated RPGs.

Brinton's little game-book includes 50 dungeon maps that you play with a pencil and a D6, acquiring items and leveling up your stats.

The games are generated with Drawbot, and each pad is unique:

The pads are printed in Utah, $5 each, for delivery in April. Brindle's done this stuff before and seems confident he can deliver (assuming covid doesn't shut down his printer).

As to gameplay, he says, "I'm trying to strip this genre down to its simplest form: 1 player, simple mechanics, no story-telling, just you, a die and pencil, and a series of simple decisions in the face of randomness."

I ordered two.

Facebook says it's the best henhouse fox (permalink)

A monopolist's first preference is not to be regulated.

A monopolist's second preference is to be regulated in a way that only it can comply with – and that none of its competitors can comply with.

Oh, hai, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg!

"I think [the insurrection was] largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate, and don’t have our standards, and don’t have our transparency."

Translation: make rules that ban all the smaller platforms that compete with us, otherwise Qanon-addled musketfuckers will hogtie Congress with zip-cuffs and execute them under the Capitol Dome.

Even if that was true (and to be clear, it is not true), it would be a terrible idea.

But (again): it's not true.

"Facebook played a much larger role than Sandberg suggested."

  • 128,000 people used FB discuss the rally, many planned their trip using it

  • 24+ GOP politicians used FB to organize buses to the event

Oh, and despite claiming otherwise FB STILL hasn't shut down election disinformation groups:

As Mike Masnick says: "it's just gaslighting people to pretend that Facebook has the power to moderate away all bad behavior, and even dumber to pretend that no such planning happened on your platform."

Sandberg's position boils down to this: "if you're gonna get a fox to guard your henhouse, we should be that fox."

(Image: Phil Catterall, CC BY-SA, modified)

I was investigated by the FBI (permalink)

Yesterday was my 20th blogging anniversary. I admit that it carried more emotional freight than I expected. 20 years is a long time to do anything, let alone something that's so personal and yet so public.

As it happens, an anonymous reader gave me a hell of a blogiversary gift: my first-ever FBI investigation! I've spoken to FBI agents before (Agent: Does your Tor exit node keep logs by any chance? Me: Nope. Agent: Dang), but I've never actually been investigated.

My phone rang with an unfamiliar local number. A calm voice on the other end introduced itself as an FBI special agent with the LA office. I pointed out that this was an unlikely claim and asked for a switchboard number I could call back on.

The agent said this was an entirely reasonable thing to do. A few minutes later, I was back on the phone with him.

Me: What can I do for you?

Him: I'm calling about a blog post you published. I'm sure you know which.

Me: Uh, no.

Him: The one about toppling statues.

He meant this post:

tldr: it's a link to a Popular Mechanics article on the science of toppling monuments, with a brief intro and summary.

There's nothing illegal in that post, but also you should never talk to cops without a lawyer, so I asked him if he minded my setting up a time to make that happen. He said that was fine with him.

My EFF colleague Mark Rumold was kind enough to volunteer to call the special agent. He reported back shortly thereafter to say that the agent was responding to a complaint, and that he agreed my post was not unlawful in any way.

Mark confirmed for the agent that I was not planning any unlawful activity, and the agent asked him to remind me that people can misinterpret the things we publish on the internet.

That was it.

It was an anticlimax, sure. I confess that I was a little freaked out. It was just the anniversary of Aaron Swartz's death, and my mind kept going back to his account of the time the FBI showed up to ask him about PACER, and the horrors that followed.

But it's over. The agent, to his credit, was pleasant and reasonable. But I'm mystified by the complaint – my guess is some troll has figured out that you can sic the FBI on people you disagree with on the internet – and even more by the fact that the FBI acted on it.

They must have the discretion to decide when a complaint rises to the level of using a special agent's time and when it should go in the kook folder. Seems to me that filing complaints about my post in the kook folder should have been a no-brainer.

I'm looking into using FOIA and the 1974 Privacy Act to find out what kind of file this generated, and to have that record expunged.

In the meantime, I'm declaring a federal criminal investigation to be the Official 20th Blogiversary gift.

Yugoslavia's Cold War obsession with Mexican music (permalink)

The Cold War is memorialized as a moment in which the world split into two: the east and west, the Warsaw Pact and NATO. But a sizeable number of countries sat out the Cold War, and many of them formed a third bloc called the "nonaligned countries."

The nonaligned movement's founding member was Yugoslavia, and it became a socialist republic on the USSR's doorstep that had a simmering (and at times openly) hostile relationship with its vast neighbor.

This betwixt/between posture left Yugoslavia cut off from both Hollywood movies and Soviet cinema: naturally, they turned to the Mexican film industry.

The 1950s and 60s were the Yu-Mex moment, when the nation thrilled to imported Mexican movies that glorified the Mexican revolution. On Global Voices, Filip Stojanovski tells the story of a quarter century of Yugoslavian Mexican music.

Dozens of bands recorded covers of Mexican classics, but the niche that Yugoslavian musicians dominated was Mexican parody music: novelty songs that used Mexican musical motifs to mock everything from rock and roll to spaghetti westerns (as these trickled into the country).

"In 1983, singer-songwriter Đorđe Balašević, from Novi Sad in Serbia, released the album 'Celovečernji the Kid' (which could be translated as 'Wholevening the Kid') featuring the smash hit 'Don Francisco Long Play.'"

Another hit: Bajaga & Instruktori's "Tekila, gerila," a song set in Macondo, the fictional town of Gabriel García Márquez's novel 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'.

As Yugoslavia began to unravel, songs like "Mi imamos lots of problemos" by the Croatian band Duo Pegla used Yu-Mex music to comment on the state of the nation, referencing classic Mexican films and also, uh, Speedy Gonzales (aired daily on state TV).

Speedy Gonzales isn't the only problematic element of Yu-Mex: there's a lot of "broad Mexican accents" in the classics of the genre, a lot of sombreros and mustaches in the videos.

This is weird and often terrible stuff that developed in a tidepool of history; but beneath the racial stereotyping is a region whose film and music were shot through with Mexican cultural products.

It's the tale of a land where a musician could reference a 30 year old Mexican movie and know that his listeners would all follow along and make the song a hit.

Machine learning is a honeypot for phrenologists (permalink)

When we say that "an algorithm is biased" we usually mean, "biased people made an algorithm." This explains why so much machine learning prediction turns into phrenology.

Researchers with phrenological delusions ask machines to find statistical correlates of personalities or emotions, and machines dutifully provides them. It's high-stakes, machine-human collaborative apophenia, detecting patterns where none exist.

Regrettably, this junk science gets published in respected journals. In 2017, Nature published a study by Stanford's Michal Kosinski claiming that machine learning could detect the facial correlates of homosexuality, creating an alleged AI gaydar.

Unsurprisingly, Kosinski's study spectacularly failed to replicate. But as is so often the case, the blockbuster finding gets all the press, the careful replication work that calls it into doubt is roundly ignored.

Kosinski hasn't given up on AI phrenology. His lab's latest paper (published by Nature…again!) claims that he can detect political affiliation from social media photos.

Spoiler: he can't.

What his system is most likely detecting is certain conventions in poses and expressions that are used in different political subcultures. Resting Karen face, basically.

Unfortunately, this claim is being credulously reported in the tech press as true, even as the writer notes that this ML system barely outperforms random chance.

Scientific racism has been with us for centuries. It's enjoying a renaissance today, driven in part by the neophrenologists of the ML world. They are the modern descendants of the caliper-wielding eugenicists of yore.

To understand the genomic science that refutes all of this nonsense, you can read Adam Rutherford's brilliant, short, witty, vastly informative book HOW TO ARGUE WITH A RACIST. You'll be glad you did.

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY, modified)

Disneyland kills annual passes (permalink)

The early Disney company had several near-death experiences, some due to exogenous shocks and some self-inflicted (bad labor practices, weird technology choices), and all through it, a power struggle between "Roy people" (finance) and "Walt people" (tech/art).

After WWII, the company was transformed, with Roy ascendant and financial discipline the order of the day. Walt – who struggled with depression – sought desperately for an escape from the company.

He came up with plans to outfit a train with traveling exhibits that he would drive around the country, putting thousands of miles between him and his brother.

Another plan called for Walt to build an ambitious model train system and transform his role in the company to showing people around his trains.

In 1953, Walt came up with the plan that stuck: a park called "Disneyland" that would be his own fiefdom, a commercial project that would justify the kinds of R&D and experimentation that Walt doted on and Roy looked on as high-risk, potentially ruinous follies.

There was only one problem: Roy wouldn't authorize the company to bankroll it, so Walt had to fly to New York (far from his brother) to court the Wall Street banks and ask them to foot the bill.

Walt worked with legendary artist Herb Ryman to create an eight-page prospectus with a gorgeous painting to accompany it, and had three copies typed up in the Disney company steno pool and he flew to New York with them.

Only one copy of that prospectus exists today. In 2013, it changed hands at auction, with the winning bid going to noted asshole Glenn Beck, who offered no plans to allow study or exhibition of it.

During that process, I came into possession of a high-resolution scan of that document. I made sure that the Imagineering archivist got a copy – they'd never seen it before – and deposited a long-term public archival copy with the Internet Archive.

It's a strange and curious document, but one striking feature is that it conceptualizes Disneyland as a place you might go to not to ride any rides, but just to walk around and enjoy yourself, soaking in the atmosphere (and buy a tropical bird or fish) (no, really).

Reading that, I thought of Walt, with his anxieties and his fraught relationship with his workers and brother, the factionalism that divided his company and his longing for escape, and that iconic photo of Walt strolling through an empty castle, looking perfectly at peace.

From 1955-1982, Disneyland operated on a ticket system. You paid a low price for admission, and then paid for each ride using ticketbooks that rated the rides from A (boring) to E (main attraction) (the system ended due to competition from nearby Knott's Berry Farm).

That low-priced admission ticket meant that locals could easily afford to slip away to Disneyland, stroll the park, maybe buy some junk food or watch a parade, and go home again.

The advent of unlimited-ride admission created demand for annual passes, and discounts for kids and locals made DL into an after-school hangout. Early Disney message-boards raged with arguments over the Orange County goths who hung around Tomorrowland, smoking and glowering.

Annual passes grew and grew. When I first moved to LA in 2006 for a Fulbright chair at USC, I used to teach my classes then drive to Disneyland with my cheap LA resident's pass. I'd park, get a Fastpass for Space Mountain, ride the Haunted Mansion.

Then I'd write part of the novel I was working on in a quiet bench in New Orleans Square, ride Space Mountain once my Fastpass ripened, then I'd go home for dinner.

Annual Passes grew too successful, selling so well they crowded out vacationers on a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

A series of price-hikes did not dampen Annual Pass sales. While repeated doublings of the price raised a lot of revenue, it also created a large cohort of troublesome customers who felt all that money entitled them to white-glove treatment.

Then came a suite of baroque tiers and restrictions on passes, with blackout dates – which made people entitled, confused and cranky.

Then came the pandemic…and the end of the Annual Pass program altogether.

There's lots of reasons that killing the Annual Pass makes sense, but one that's not immediately obvious is that DL is a "happy place" for a lot of people who struggle with the world, like Walt did. Most of us just find a moment of peace in a quiet corner of the park.

But some people exhibit pathological behavior. One family sewed their own Disneyland employee costumes and tried to entrap a ride attendant into an arranged marriage with their daughter!

Most of the problems generated by Annual Passholders aren't that extreme, of course.

But even the smaller problems grow in significance by dint of repetition: the mildly troublesome customer who comes every day and makes trouble can quickly grow more than mildly troublesome.

I understand the logic of killing the passes. But I can't help think of Walt, wanting an escape from a bad situation that he'd made worse through his own screw-ups, and then, incredibly, actually pulling it off.

A lot of us have been missing our various happy places since the lockdown, and Disney doubtless anticipates a massive rush when the vaccines have been distributed (they are tapped to be Southern California's largest distribution site).

It feels like someone at Disney thought about just how intense and freaked out some of those returning Annual Passholders were likely to be and decided that the costs (for employees and other visitors) of coping with that outweighed the benefits.

Tesla's valuation is 1600x its profitability (permalink)

Tesla's doing well.

Financially, that is.

Elon Musk is now the richest person in world history, thanks to an incredible bull run on Tesla shares.

But Tesla's not doing well in terms of its products. It's having to recall Model S and X cars for serious defects that it long downplayed.

We are living in an age in which value and profit are utterly untethered – the "financialized" age where making good things that people need and making a lot of money are not necessarily related to one another. It's Wall Street vs Main Street.

To get a sense of how absurd Tesla's valuation is, consider: for Tesla to earn enough to justify its $750b market cap, it would have to increase its annual earnings by a factor of 1600.

Here's how Jalopnik's excellent headline puts it: "Tesla Would Take Nearly 1,600 Years To Make The Amount Of Money The Stock Market Values It At"

Where did all that money come from? Jalopnik attributes it to unsophisticated investors using the Robinhood app and other self-serve trading platforms, pumping billions into the stock market where sophisticated actors are more than happy to take it.

As the saying goes, "If you can't spot the sucker at the poker table, chances are, you are the sucker."

We've always had suckers in the market – but for the world's richest man to sit atop a mountain of their money feels like something new under the sun.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Dr Bronner’s Soap label-quote generator

#15yrsago Study: how Canadian copyright law is bought by entertainment co’s

#5yrsago Yosemite agrees to change the names of its significant locations to appease trademark troll

#5yrsago Aaron Swartz’s “Against School” – business leaders have been decrying education since 1845

#1yrago Security expert offers hacking advice to students whose campuses have implemented pervasive wireless surveillance

Colophon (permalink)

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

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 519 words (99456 total).

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 27)

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