Pluralistic: 19 Feb 2021

Today's links

My talks with Edward Snowden and William Gibson (permalink)

Earlier this month, I hosted two extraordinary book-launch events: one for the paperback edition of William Gibson's novel AGENCY, the other for the young readers' edition of Ed Snowden's memoir, PERMANENT RECORD.

Both events were incredibly exciting. Gibson spoke at length about the relationship of politics to the way he creates futuristic parables (Agency was delayed for a rewrite after the 2016 election) and Snowden, about the way that young people relate to surveillance tech.

Now, both are online, courtesy of the booksellers that hosted them. Copperfields Books posted the Snowden video yesterday:

And here's my review of the Young Readers' Edition of Permanent Record:

Not to be outdone, yesterday also marked The Strand's release of the Gibson video:

and here's my review of AGENCY:

Complicity, incompetence, leadership and Capitol Police (permalink)

In the aftermath of the Jan 6 Trumpist putsch at the Capitol, the world reeled – not just at the spectacle of the Capitol building overrun by deranged armed insurrectionists, but also at the manifest incompetence of the Capitol Police.

The Capitol Police command $460m/year, 10% of Congress's total budget. They had ample warning that murderous, anti-democratic revolutionaries were converging on the Capitol. They had a long track-record of over-responding to protests with overwhelming shows of force.

Given the track-record, the budget and the warnings, could we truly attribute the failure to contain the insurrectionists to incompetence? Did the shots of police officers taking selfies with members of a lynch mob mean that the force was complicit with the traitors?

Now, six officers have been suspended and 29 more are under investigation for collaborating with the rioters. They join the nationwide active-duty military and police officers who have faced consequences for their role in the mob violence.

Last week, Propublica published a chilling, brilliant investigation by Joaquin Sapien and Joshua Kaplan sourced from 19 current and former Capitol Police officers who are furious and bewildered at the failure of their command.

They describe scenes of absolute carnage and chaos, of rioters who were so aggressive and violent that officers suspected that they were high on meth, of protesters fumbling their own firearms and trying to grab pistols off officers' hips.

They describe leaders who were given actionable intelligence about the coup attempt, but directed their focus to paranoid fantasies about antifa counter-demonstrators, and who broke with the procedures used against BLM protests, standing down officers who could have helped.

They describe officers who were told to leave behind weapons and armor, who then feared for their lives as they were overrun, who were denied access to riot helmets and sustained serious head-injuries.

The anemic response by Capitol Police to surges and incursions almost didn't happen at all, it seems: officers who joined the lines and fought the rioters did so in defiance of their orders to sit pat – orders that were not rescinded because their commanders were MIA.

The officers' account reveals an organization always up for beating paralyzed wheelchair users seeking better health care, or to gas and brutalize Black Lives Matter protesters, but were unprepared (and whose leaders were unwilling) to respond to right-wing terror groups.

The last word in the Propublica report goes to officers who describe the collapse of their confidence in their leadership: "I don’t trust the people above me to make decisions to bring me home safe."

"Many are looking for new jobs."

How Republicans froze Texas solid (permalink)

The collapse of Texas's power grid during a lethal cold snap has put Texas politics under a spotlight. There's no better place to start than the Deconstructed podcast, where Ryan Grim delivers a historically informed, timely series of interviews.

Grim reminds us that the roots of Texas's woes are in the 2002 midterms, when the GOP took the Texas House for the first time in a generation, then engaged in brutal gerrymandering to keep it, and embarked on a string of ideology-driven deregulation adventures.

The GOP ideology holds that businesses are "efficient" because every penny they squeeze out of their costs is converted to profit. There's a kernel of truth to this – indeed, the most prominent early theorist of this was Karl Marx!

In an unregulated market, capitalists increase profits by reducing labor and input costs, and/or by raising prices. Competition is supposed to prevent prices from going up, so when market proponents talk about "efficiency" they really mean reducing labor and input costs.

Markets do squeeze input costs. The "dematerialization" of goods and buildings has been a steady march for more than a century – from the steel in your car to the concrete in your home to the energy consumed by your TV, the world uses less stuff and energy to make more.

But material and energy efficiencies require innovation. Reducing labor costs, on the other hand, merely requires power. Capitalists whose workers are denied collective bargaining and a social safety net can squeeze wages far more easily than energy or materials.

And of course, not all material and energy savings are created equal. It's one thing for Ikea to figure out how to shave material inputs from composite shelves by inventing better glue – it's another for a company to reduce material costs by dumping toxic waste.

Again, the difference is between innovation and power. Making stronger, cheaper, more efficient materials requires investment in R&D. Saving by externalizing your costs – by imposing harms on others – merely requires the power to get away with it.

The GOP experiment involves granting unlimited power to corporations, through "deregulation" – stripping worker protections, environmental protections, and operating standards. And, as our right wing friends like to remind us, "incentives matter."

Relieved of the need to negotiate with workers, compensate the public for harms, or provide high-quality services, "the market" responds by slashing wages, harming the public, and tightening the slack in the system that allows it to cope gracefully with abnormal conditions.

Hence "we are experiencing unexpected call volumes, please hold." That's "efficiency" – squeezing down staff levels to levels that barely cope with median load, so any bobble results in long lines. Hence aviation breakdowns when a single hub airport (like DFW) is snowed in.

Hence a power-grid that is fully isolated from neighboring states. Hence generation facilities that were not weatherized despite multiple historical events that proved they'd be needed, someday, one as recent as 2011.

There are windmills in northern Canada. In Norway. At the Antarctic research stations. If Texas's windmills shut down during the storm, it's not because we don't know how to make cold-weather windmills – it's because allowing windmills to fail in cold weather was profitable.

Lysenkoism was the Soviet Union's disastrous foray into politicized science. For ideological reasons, Stalin bought into the beliefs of Lysenko, who said that the traits a parent acquired in their life could be genetically passed onto their children.

Stalin insisted on applying Lysenkoism to wheat cultivation, to prove that his ideology would work. The result was the famine of 1932-3, which killed tens of millions of people. So many people that there weren't enough survivors to count the dead.

The Republican insistence that selfishness is optimal, that companies should only care about maximizing shareholder returns, that deregulation produces efficiencies, that states cannot perform – this is American Lysenkoism.

American Lysenkoism is why Red States like Texas refused to lock down and have told each county to design its own vaccination and public health program. It's also why those states refuse climate science.

American Lysenkoism kills. It's why the pandemic has killed 500k Americans. It's why so many Texans are in danger of freezing to death now. It's also why Republicans – the "party of life" – are performatively refusing to care about these deaths.

You can't be an American Lysenkoist unless you deny that we have a shared destiny. That's why climate, pandemic, energy, education and health are so confounding to conservatives. These are systems that require collective responses.

Energy is a collective enterprise (Lenin: "Communism is soviet power plus electrification of the whole country"). It requires failover to nearby grids. It requires "overinvestment" in peak capacity. It requires cooperation and coordination to smooth out discontinuities.

Maybe a market could accomplish this, but so far it hasn't. Instead, deregulated power systems strip out safety margins, undermaintain facilities, underinvest in improvements, and price-gouge.

As James K Galbraith writes for the Institute for New Economic Thinking: "Demand for electricity is what economists call inelastic: it doesn’t respond much to price, but it does respond to changes in the weather, and at such times, of heat or cold, the demand becomes even more inelastic."

And "Supply has to exactly equal demand every single minute of every single day. If it doesn’t, the entire system can fail."

Only a Lysenkoist could see these truths and still opt for deregulating energy.

Now Texas is in the grips of a double-whammy. The covid-overloaded hospitals are treating exposure and CO-poisoning cases. Potentially infectious families are doubling up in the few heated homes.

As Kelsey McKinney writes for Defector, Texas epitomizes America's failed love-affair with Lysenkoism, battered by climate (hurricanes, floods, freezes), pandemic without public health, and a dematerialized energy grid, destined to fail.

Lysenkoism demands a hard heart. To survive watching your neighbors die for your ideology, you must somehow shift the blame to them. Small wonder that Ted Cruz feels empowered to take his germ-ridden family to a Cancun resort, abandoning his constituents.

Tim Boyd, the Texas mayor who had to resign after telling his residents that their city owed them nothing, that the strong would survive and the weak would perish? He was just being a good Lysenkoist.

You can't embrace an ideology that kills your neighbors and still look yourself in the mirror unless you can find a way to make it all your neighbors' fault. Lysenko is a monstrous ideology, and it makes monsters of its adherents.

Uber loses court battle, steals wages, censors whistleblower (permalink)

Uber is a money-hemmorhaging bezzle ("the magic interval when a confidence trickster knows he has the money he has appropriated but the victim does not yet understand that he has lost it"). Its $6.8b losses in 2020 are not an aberration.

Uber will never be profitable.

Like all scams, Uber depends on fresh suckers coming in and buying out the last round of suckers. To do this, the company has to keep running, even as it loses money.

In fact, the longer Uber stays in business while losing money, the more suckers flock to it. The thinking goes, "All these investors who piled into a money-losing company must know something I don't about how it will become profitable someday."

This is also known as the "a pile of shit this big must have a pony under it somewhere."

Key to the pile-of-shit illusion is the ongoing ability to misclassify its workers as independent contractors and so deny them a living wage and minimum benefits.

That's why Uber heavily underwrote the $200b cash-flood that resulted in the passage of California's Prop 22, which legalizes worker misclassification, and why it's agitating for comparable rules in the EU:

But the thing is, Uber drivers are obviously employees. Uber decides how much they'll be paid. It doesn't let them choose which passengers they'll pick up. It closely monitors, disciplines and fires drivers at will. Uber is a driver's boss, not their client.

The UK Supreme Court just agreed, ruling in favor of two drivers. The ruling entitles Uber drivers to normal workplace protections and wages. Of course, Uber says it only applies to a handful of workers and says it won't comply with the ruling.

But even if Uber is forced to end the charade of worker misclassification, it has other ways to slow down the rate at which it bleeds money until the current suckers can unload their stock on bigger suckers. Chief among these is wage-theft.

Long before Amazon started stealing its drivers' tips, Uber was raking 40% of the "tips" that passengers registered through their apps.

Uber formally ended its tip-theft, and then invented other ways to steal from drivers. Primary among these is miscalculating mileage for fares: though the process is opaque and shrouded in mystery, it appears that they are using straight-line, crow-flies measurements.

That resulting in drivers getting paid for a 6-minute drive that takes 50 minutes. That's why Armin Samii, an Ubereats deliverator, created Ubercheats, an app that helped drivers detect and document wage-theft.

Uber used a false trademark claim to get Ubercheats blocked from the Chrome store (trademark claims are valid when they involve "confusion" about the "origin of goods and services" – not "nominative uses" that use a product's marks descriptively).

Samii told Motherboard that he wouldn't rename his app. He's in the right, and he won't back down. Good for him.

The free culture/free software movement has waged a decades-long, unsuccessful war on the term "IP" on the grounds that it is deceptive and incoherent – trademark, copyright, patent and other regulations have unrelated goals and mechanisms, and they're not "property".

But I think that was misguided. "IP" has a crisp meaning when used by industry: it means, "Any rule or regulation that allows me to control the conduct of my critics, customers or competitors."

Uber's trademark claim was pure IP. There's no chance someone will mistake Samii's app for a ride-hailing tool. But by (ab)using trademark law, Uber got to shut down a critic who documented its illegal conduct. Is it any wonder the corporate world fights so hard for "IP"?

This day in history (permalink)

#5yrsago Tipping screws poor people, women, brown people, restaurateurs, local economies and…you

#5yrsago Health insurance must pay for exoskeletons

#5yrsago “Citizens” who speak at town meetings are hired, scripted actors

#5yrsago Leaked memos suggest Volkswagen’s CEO knew about diesel cheating in 2014

#1yrago Rental car immobilizes itself when driven out of cellular range

#1yrago Rethinking "de-growth" and material culture

#1yrago The Woman Who Loved Giraffes

Colophon (permalink)

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

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 535 words (112462 total).

  • A short story, "Jeffty is Five," for The Last Dangerous Visions. Yesterday's progress: 256 words (6209 total).

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Privacy Without Monopoly: Data Protection and Interoperability (Part 1)

Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

  • Talking "Permanent Record Young Readers' Edition" with Edward Snowden
  • Talking "Agency" with William Gibson

  • Software Freedom is Essential to Human Freedom ( keynote)

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