Pluralistic: 18 Jan 2021

Today's links

How to leak a Zoom meeting (permalink)

With the world in lockdown, most "white-collar" crime (AKA "world-destroying corruption and looting") now takes place over Zoom. If you witness such a crime, you might be tempted to record the meeting and leak it to a journalist.

But leaking Zoom recordings is seriously fraught because they are full of personally identifying details. Some of these are "traitor-tracing" mechanisms, others are intrinsic to Zoom, and still others come from your end of the recording.

Nikita Mazurov's guide to anonymizing Zoom videos for The Intercept tackles each of these classes of identifiers.

Traitor-tracing: Zoom meeting hosts have the option to add visual and audio watermarks to their videos.

The visual ones are perceptible – displaying your name/email on the screen so that it will be present in any video-grab – but the audio watermarks are a series of ultrasound chirps with unique identifiers in them.

It's not clear where the audio watermark is inserted; Marzurov hypothesizes that the ultrasonic watermarks are inserted by your copy of the Zoom client, so using an external recording tool might bypass them.

Another important identifier in Zoom recordings is the arrangement of the other participants; this is different for every viewer.

Any recording will reveal information that could identify the leaker: not just the user's OS, but also pop-up alerts about emails and messages.

Source protection with Zoom captures is really hard – but that's all the more reason for this discussion to take place in earnest.

Pandemics and peak indifference (permalink)

When I think about our historical, profound shifts in attitude and discourse, the model I apply is "peak indifference."

Say you have real, existential problem. More often than not, these are systemic problems, and those are the hardest problems.

Not just because systemic problems involve collective action (you can't recycle your way out of climate change), but because the cause-and-effect relationships of systemic problems can't be easily known, so it's hard to know what you need to do to avert the problem.

Systemic problems pose a third difficulty: they enrich small minorities, and those minorities can exploit causal ambiguity to deliberately sow doubt.

To make that more concrete: think about cancer-tobacco denial.

Not everyone who smokes gets cancer. When it does give you cancer, the tumor comes years after the puff that damages your genes. There's lots of social pressure to smoke, and getting your friends to quit is even harder than quitting yourself.

And on top of all of it, the tobacco industry made tons of money from giving us cancer, and they could use some of that to fund doubt-merchants who deliberately worsened the difficulty in linking smoking and cancer.

But denial doesn't make problems disappear – it just incurs policy debt, and the interest on that debt is human suffering. Climate inaction, tobacco inaction, and inequality inaction only delay the day of reckoning, and make it worse when it arrives.

That's where peak denial comes in. Over time, the mounting harms from policy debt make it harder and harder to deny the problem, At a certain point – long before we take action – the number of people who deny the problem starts to decline.

This happens naturally, without any need for activist urging. The problem is that the natural peak denial point is often several steps beyond the point of no return. And that's when denial slides into nihilism:

Here's what nihilism looks like:

"Well, I guess these things did give me stage 4 lung cancer after all. No point in quitting now."


"You were right, rhino populations are in danger! But since there's only one left, let's find out what he tastes like?"

That's why we can't wait for peak denial to arise on its own, why we must hasten its arrival – because we want people to engage with systemic problems before the point of no return.

That's where storytelling comes in.

Stories are a fuggly hack, an illusion played on our empathy, wherein we're fooled into caring about the literally inconsequential fate of made-up people (your breakfast yogurt's death was more tragic than Romeo and Juliet's, for it was once alive).

But still, made up stories that make vivid and visceral the consequences of inaction can spur us into action, can create a vocabulary for discussing the lived experience of people in a future that has not yet arrived.

Even better than stories, though, are histories, the real stories of real people who really suffered through real experiences comparable to those that we face on our horizon. Hence "those who forget history are doomed to repeat it."

We're very good at forgetting history. The arrival of the covid pandemic was filled with stories of the dimly remembered 1918 influenza pandemic. Our failure to heed those warnings triggered tales of its brutal second wave the following winter.

Herp derp.

Starting in 1968, successive US presidents began to dismantle Glass-Steigel, a corrective put in place after a horrendous finance sector collapse that triggered the Great Depression and WWII. Not one president heeded historians' warnings about the consequences.


Dismantling the checks on finance led to successive, worsening crises followed by crushing austerity a deepening inequality. Historical warnings about how this cycle ends with guillotines and Reichstag fires were ignored.

Derp derp derp.

The ideology of finance is a subset of right-wing thought, defined by Corey Robin (in "The Reactionary Mind") as the belief that some people are born to rule, while the rest are born to be ruled over.

This belief has many guises (Dominionism, imperialism, racism, monarchism, fascism, libertarianism) but they all boil down to one thing: eugenics.

It's one thing to believe that markets are meritocratic during a moment of dynamism, when the low-born can rise to riches.

But when their offspring pull up the ladder and social mobility halts, "meritocracy" becomes hereditary: markets elevate the best people, and the best people are all descended from the wealthy, so the wealthy must be of better stock (cue Trump and his talk of "good blood").

Eugenics was once a mainstream American doctrine, and American eugenicists inspired Nazi "race science." But after the Holocaust, eugenics fell into disrepute and we dropped it down the same memory hole that the 1918 flu disappeared into.

But eugenics made a comeback under another guise: the "human capital theory," which holds that markets reward us in proportion to our value to society, and thus the CEO is paid 10,000x more than the janitor because the CEO provides 10,000x more value to the human project.

Eugenics isn't just repugnant, it's also wrong. To understand why, you have to understand how desirable traits are social, not isolated in individuals.

Blair Fix's essay on the link between eugenics and human capitol theory is a must-read:

By way of illustration, Fix describes geneticist William Muir's experiments with improving chicken egg-production through artificial selection, in which he only bred the best layers. The result? A disaster. Egg-laying plummeted.

It plummeted because laying isn't an isolated trait. Chickens that produced the most eggs did so by bullying other chickens out of their feed and resources. Selecting for laying selected for bullying and aggression and led to endless chicken-fights and no eggs.

When Muir bred another flock of chickens based on a group's ability to lay, then he got his eggs. Egg-laying is a social process.

This story will be familiar to anyone who's worked in a stack-ranked software development shop.

Software managers have long noted that some coders can turn in 10X or even 100X more code than their median colleagues. But attempts to build "superstar" teams that fired all the median programmers end in chaos and destruction.

If your 100X programmer is such a dick that no one can work with them, then their aptitude is irrelevant – you'll never ship.

I assume there are analogies to this in the sporting world, but I am vastly unqualified to discuss sports of any kind.

Despite the bankruptcy of human capital theory, the systemic dangers it posed, and the obvious fact that it was just eugenics dressed up as economics, the theory festered for decades, poisoning our world.

The C-suites of every major company are filled with hens whose egg-laying prowess is the result of their suppression of their peers' efficacy – while others whose social integration make them far more productive are relegated to worse jobs or forced out altogether.

The lockdown provoked squeals of outrage from the world's wealthiest people, who insisted that the factories be re-opened. As the slogan of the day went, "If a billionaire needs you to go to work to maintain his fortune, then you are the source of that fortune – not him."

We can't afford to be indifferent to any of our systemic problems any more: not climate science, nor inequality, nor monopoly, nor the lurking eugenics that justifies it all.

Planet Money's free Great Gatsby audiobook (permalink)

After the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Act extended copyright by 20 years, putting existing public domain works back into copyright, we endured a two-decade-long public domain drought. That ended in 2018, and since then, each Jan 1 is a new public domain day.

This year's public domain day was a doozy, with a flood of works from the 1925 entering the public domain, including vast swathes of the Harlem Rernaissance and F Scott Fitzgerald's classic Gilded Age/coming-of-age novel The Great Gatsby.

It's only been weeks and yet there have already been a slew of Gatsby remixes: whimsical, serious, trenchant. You'd be hard pressed to find a better fit for our day – a tale of grifting and impending collapse amidst grotesque inequality.

These remixes are best savored with the taste of the original Gastby still in your mouth. For that, I recommend turning to NPR's Planet Money free reading of the entire novel, with each host reading a chapter.

Total running-time is 4h, 28m. Here's a direct link to the MP3:

Honor MLK day with the Internet Archive (permalink)

MLK Day isn't just an opportunity to remember Dr King; it's also a moment to contest his legacy – to remember him for who he was, a radical anti-capitalist who believed that racism was a tool first and foremost for class oppression.

Thankfully, we have a wealth of primary and secondary King material online and open access, especially in the Internet Archive.

Start with 20 minutes' worth of the March on Washington, courtesy of the National Archive.

Then King's Hofstra University commencement speech:

The Archive has thousands of books about King:

A collection of his speeches:

Books for kids:–%20Juvenile%20literature%22

Detroit's Marygrove College shut its doors in 2019, and the contents of its Geschke Library were entrusted to the Internet Archive: 70,000 books and 3,000 journals, many related to King, scanned and online:

The #1000blackgirls campaign produced an extensive reading list for kids, books featuring Black girls as protagonists. The ebooks are available for checkout to anyone who gets a free Internet Archive library card:

The Zora Canon is "a collection of the 100 most prominent books written by African American women," also available for check-out as ebooks from your local library and the Internet Archive's collection.

You and your kids can enjoy this bibliography of books about racial justice for children, with age ratings:

Here's a list of 47 Black-owned bookstores where you can buy physical copies of all these books for your home:

This wealth of open-access MLK-related material came about as the result of an intense, two-decade struggle over King's words. 15 years ago, you couldn't get "I have a dream" online, but you could hear it in a car commercial.

And even with all this material available for everyone to read, think about, debate and be inspired by, the history of the Civil Rights movement is still only preserved in fragments.

If you have some of those fragments in your possession, the Internet Archive will digitize, preserve and provide access to them for free, forever, for everyone.

Modern copyright began in the late 19th century, when Victor Hugo's advocacy led to the creation of the Berne Convention, a global treaty that is now part of all major trade deals, such as the WTO agreement.

Hugo's legacy has been distorted for ideological purposes – just as King's has been. Today, we are told only that King believed in nonviolence, while his calls for dismantling capitalism are conveniently erased.

And we are likewise told that Hugo concerned himself with how authors' descendants would steer their legacy – but no one mentions that Hugo was intensely suspcious of the actual, biological descendants of authors.

Hugo thought children and grandchildren were not especially well-placed to understand their forebears' significance in history and thought and liable to flog off their inherited exclusive rights to grasping rentiers.

The "descendants" Hugo sought to protect were the ideological descendants of great writers: the people who had been inspired by their ideas and wanted to carry them forward.

King had far more to say than simply deploring violence. He was a towering, radical, revolutionary figure. If we are to defend his legacy, we must start by rejecting the erasure of his political and economic program.

The treasure trove of King's work that we can access today – and every day – are the raw materials for carrying out his legacy and his program: for changing our society into a fundamentally more just, kind and sustainable one.

Someone Comes to Town, Part 28 (permalink)

This week on my podcast: part 28 of my serialized reading of "Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town," my 2006 novel that Gene Wolfe called "a glorious book unlike any book you’ve ever read."

You can catch up on the other installments here:

and subscribe to my podcast feed here:

Here's a direct link to the MP3 (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive; they'll host your stuff for free, forever, too!):

A note about today's instalment: it features an argument about the relative free speech afforded by internet-based communications versus earlier technologies like phones. The argument isn't just very relevant to today's deplatforming debate, it also has long roots.

That argument is basically a rehash of some intense discussions I had with Manuel Castells when we were both fellows at USC's Annenberg Center, leavened with citations from Howard Rheingold's classic SMART MOBS.

Facebook's community standards (permalink)

Amid the calls from all corners for Facebook and other social media giants to do more moderation, let's take a moment to review these companies' manifest unfitness to moderate at all.

Exhibit A: Jamie Zawinkski has a Facebook account with "zero friends, zero posts, zero photos, and has made zero comments in the last 4+ years" (he uses it to manage accounts related to his business, the DNA Lounge).

Facebook just suspended the account for "violating community standards."

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Simson Garfinkel changes his tune about Java

#15yrsago Iraq invasion as a text-adventure

#15yrsago Escape Pod podcast of "Craphound"

#15yrsago Musician playing at Hollywood’s MP fundraiser owes success to copying

#15yrsago Hollywood’s MP caught lying on tape

#10yrsago Among Others: extraordinary, magic story of science fiction as a toolkit for taking apart the world

#5yrsago Debullshitifying the “sleep science” industry: first up, sleeplessness and obesity

#5yrsago Martin Luther King, socialist: “capitalism has outlived its usefulness”

#5yrsago Reminder: Don’t put balls of tea leaves in your vagina

#1yrago Manhattan: a city of empty luxury condos and overflowing homeless shelters

#1yrago Brazilian authoritarian Bolsonaro fires his culture minister for giving a speech plagiarized from Joseph Goebbels

Colophon (permalink)

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

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 516 words (99972 total).

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

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

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