Pluralistic: 29 Mar 2021

Today's links

Monopoly so fragile (permalink)

A big boat stuck in the Suez Canal, catastrophically disrupting global logistics – it wasn't just predictable, it was inevitable. For decades, the shipping industry has consolidated into just a few companies, and ships got bigger – too big to sail.

As Matthew Stoller points out, in 2000 the ten biggest shippers controlled 12% of the market, today, it's more that 82%, and even that number is misleadingly rosy because of alliances among the megashippers that effectively turn them into one company.

The Suez crisis illustrates one of the less-appreciated harms of monopoly: all of us are dunderheads at least some of the time. When a single person wields a lot of unchecked power, their follies, errors and blind-spots take on global consequence.

The "efficiencies" of the new class of megaships – the Ever Given weighs 220 kilotons and is as long as the Empire State Building – were always offset by risks, such as the risk of getting stuck in a canal or harbor.

Despite this, a handful of executives were able to green-light their deployment. Either these execs didn't believe the experts, or they didn't care (maybe they thought they'd retire before the crisis) or they thought they could externalize the costs onto the rest of us.

Running a complex system is a game of risk mitigation: not just making a system that works as well as possible, but also making one that fails as well as possible. Build the Titanic if you must, but for the love of God, make sure it has enough life-boats.

Monopolies are brittle. The ideology that underpins them is fundamentally eugenic: that there exists among us superbeings, genetic sports who were born with the extraordinary insights and genius that entitle them to rule over the rest of us.

If we let nature run its course, these benevolent dictators will usher in an era of global prosperity.

This is catastrophically, idiotically, manifestly wrong. First, even people who are very smart about some things are very stupid about other things.

Charles Koch took over his father's hydrocarbon empire and correctly concluded that the industry was being held back by a focus on short-term profits. He made a series of long-term bets on new production technologies and grew the business a thousandfold.

Being patient and farsighted made Koch one of the richest people in world history – and one of the most influential. He pioneered a kind of slow, patient policy entrepreneurship, investing in a network of think-tanks that mainstreamed his extremist ideology over decades.

And yet, this man who became a billionaire and changed the character of global politics with his foresight has managed to convince himself that there is no climate emergency. That patience, foresight, and cool weighing of probabilities have gone out the window completely.

Smart people are often fools (so are regular people). History is full of them. Take William Shockley, the Nobel-winning inventor of silicon transistors who failed in industry because he became obsessed with eugenics and devoted his life to a racist sterilization campaign.

Moreover, fools sometimes succeed. Take Mark Zuckerberg, who justified his self-serving "real names" policy (which makes it easier to target ads by banning pseudonyms) by claiming that any attempt to present yourself in different ways to different people is "two-faced."

That is a genuinely idiotic thing to believe: presenting yourself differently to your lover, your parents, your toddler, your boss and your friends isn't "two-faced," it's human. To do otherwise would be monstrous.

But even when monopolists aren't idiots, they are still dangerous. The problem with Zuck isn't merely that he's uniquely unsuited to being the unaccountable czar of 2.6 billion peoples' social lives – it's that no one should have that job.

Monopolists all have their own cherished idiocies (as do the rest of us), but they share a common pathology: the ideology, popularized by Thomas Friedman and others, that "efficiency" is the highest virtue.

The whole basis for 40 years of tolerating (even encouraging) monopolies is the efficiencies of scale that come from consolidating power into a few hands, and the shared interests that arise from a brittle interdependence.

Who would go to war with the trading partner that controls the world's supply of some essential item?

This was always, predictably, a system that would work well but fail badly. Clustering the world's semiconductor production in Taiwan made chips cheap and plentiful, sure.

But then the 1999 Taiwan quake shut down all the world's computer sales. There are plenty of examples like this that Stoller lists: a single vaccine factory in England shuts down in 2004 and the US loses half of its flu vaccines.

Despite the increasing tempo of supply-chain crises that ripple out across the world, we have allowed monopolists to "take the fat out of the system at every joint," setting up a thousand crises among us and yet to come.

Bedding makers can't make mattress for want of foam. RV manufacturers can't get enough "air conditioners, fridges, furniture" to meet orders. Often, the pivotal items are obscure and utterly critical, like the $1 "flat steel form ties," without which home construction halts.

"For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost." We've understood that tightly coupled systems have cascading failures since the 13th century. "Resiliency" is inefficient – but only if you ignore what happens when brittle systems fail.

Every monopolist necessarily shares an ideology that elevates brittleness to a virtue. They must, because monopolies are brittle. One foolish mistake, one ship wedged in a canal, one delusive denial of climate change, and we all suffer.

Every monopolist believes in their own infallibility. They must, because to have someone as fallible as me or you in charge of the world's social media or shipping or flat steel ties is otherwise a recipe for disaster.

Of all the dangerous things monopolists are wrong about, this belief in their own inability to be wrong is the most dangerous.

(Image: Copernicus Sentinel, CC BY)

Noble Lies (permalink)

Last June, Anthony Fauci admitted that he lied when he told Americans that cloth masks wouldn't stop covid spread; it was what Noah Smith calls a "noble lie," told to prevent a run on N95 masks needed by front-line workers.

The lie was repeated by the CDC and WHO, who reasoned that any admission that cloth masks worked would lead people to conclude that N95s worked better and then all the N95s would be hoarded and the relief efforts would grind to a halt.

On balance, this wasn't a good call. Much of the ongoing controversy about masks can be traced back to this. We didn't go from "don't mask" to "must mask" merely because of evolving scientific understanding.

That shift is also attributable to a tactical choice to start telling the truth. But once the public understands that experts sometimes deliberately lie to them, it creates an epistemological void.

Most of us aren't qualified to understand the ins and outs of masking, so we trust the process – the neutral, truthful adjudication of different expert theories by public bodies and scientific institutions that do their best to get it right and admit when they're wrong.

If you can't trust that, you're left to "do the research" on every technical life-or-death question, from food safety to construction materials to the software in the 737 Max. Even if you're qualified to resolve some of this, no one is qualified to resolve all of it.

The noble lie is the most destructive of all, because it erodes trust in the system, shattering the only mechanism we have for arriving at a common understanding of reality.

To understand how this plays out over the long term, Smith points to the 40 years' worth of economists' noble lying about free trade. While nearly all economists agree that there are net benefits to trade, there has been a concerted effort to oversimplify those benefits.

Within economics, experts agree that trade produces winners and losers, and the idea that trade makes us all better off depends on the winners compensating the losers. But from NAFTA to the WTO and beyond, this has been missing from the public discourse on trade.

This has real-world consequences: "Workers displaced by competition with China after its entry into the WTO in 2001 tended to be permanently hurt by the shock. Some went on welfare, some found jobs for half what they used to make."

As Smith points out, no one who extols the benefits of trade for a popular audience says, "Well, we're also going to make millions of people permanently worse off unless we create a social safety net that transfers the benefits of trade from winners to losers."

Economists worry that the public's biases – against foreigners, markets and the elimination of "make-work" jobs – made them incapable of handling the truth about trade, so they just skipped over the harms – indeed, they insisted there were no harms.

This…didn't work out well. The first nationally successful campaign that focused on the truth about trade was run by a belligerent, racist fool, who was able to leverage the public's distrust of the expert consensus to become president and kill half a million people.

As Smith says, being an expert on economics or epidemiology does not make you an expert on when you should lie.

(Image: Joe Flood, CC BY-NC-ND)

Big Salmon's aquaturf (permalink)

Salmon farming is a catastrophe: the deep, rectangular nets full of close-packed salmon have all the problems of any feedlot: rampant pathogen spread worsened by flushing of tons of shit into the ecosystem.

Mature aquaculture operations acknowledge this: new operations build solid enclosures, siphon off the waste and sell it as a valuable byproduct. But for existing aquaculture giants, it's cheaper to go on destroying the environment and driving wild salmon to extinction.

That cost-benefit analysis holds even when you factor in the expense of smearing and terrorizing the scientists who explain how they are poisoning the oceans and endangering a food-web that stretches all the way from salmon to orcas.

The woman on the receiving end of that aquaturf smear campaign is Alexandra Morton, a scientist whose Google results are a long run of astroturfed articles accusing her of being some kind of shill for Big Nature, a thing that does not exist.

Today on Canadaland, Jessebrown interviews Morton, talking about the weird, shadow-media empire that exists to make scientifically dubious claims about the safety of farmed salmon and to question Morton's sound science.

Central to that campaign is Sea West News, whose founding editor, Fabian Dawson, runs a PR consultancy that develops "issue-related and fundraising campaigns and delivers measurable results for organizations like the BC Salmon Farmers Association."

As Canadaland reports, the forerunners to Sea West News were a series of Facebook posts by Dawson, including claims that Canadian environmentalists and First Nations activists were a front for a conspiracy of US monied interests.

"Money from America flows unabated to Canadian eco-activists and disparate First Nations groups to disrupt everything from sustainable salmon farms to pipelines"

Dawson reposted articles claiming protests against salmon farms were "US funded…fake-news tactics of hired protesters."

Brown adds that Dawson benefits from federal subsidies in his role an immigration reporter for the Local Journalism Initiative-backed New Canadian Media.

The harassment that Morton faces is by no means limited to online trolling. Her field research at Marine Harvest's massive farms has been dogged by crew boats with blacked-out windows registered to a consultancy called Black Cube.

The Tel Aviv-based Black Cube are some of the blackest black-ops corporate spooks in the world – if they sound familiar, perhaps it's because they were the ones that Harvey Weinstein hired to stalk his victims and neutralize them.

Or maybe you're thinking of the time that the cyber-mercenaries at the NSO Group (whose tools were used to entrap Jamal Khashoggi), hired them to infiltrate the academic human rights research group Citizen Lab.

Marine Harvest – who are involved in high-stakes ligitation with Morton and BC First Nations – admits they hired Black Cube, but insist that this is a different Black Cube.

Weird flex but ok.

Some of BC's salmon runs are down by 99.9%, and Morton makes a compelling – peer reviewed, scientifically sound – case that this is the result of aquaculture giants whose profits would be lessened if they contained parasites and waste from their floating feedlots.

Despite this, Brown's interview with Morton ends on a hopeful note: thanks to action from BC First Nations and the BC provincial government and courts, the noose is tightening around companies like Marine Harvest.

Morton has just published NOT ON MY WATCH, a book documenting her decades-long struggle to save the salmon and the ocean, which earned her the appelation, "the Jane Goodall of Canada."

Past Performance is Not Indicative of Future Results (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I read my November 2020 Locus column, "Past Performance is Not Indicative of Future Results," about ML and AL, and the fallacy that improvements to statistical inference will someday produce a conscious, cognitive software construct.

Theory-free statistical inference can do some amazing things, but one thing it absolutely cannot do is understand. While there's no widely accepted definition of "intelligence," understanding features heavily in all the different debates.

Adding more data or more compute-power to machine learning doesn't make it capable of comprehension – no more than improvements in horse-breeding will someday produce an internal combustion engine.

Here's the podcast episode:

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

and here's the RSS feed for my podcast:

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Yahoo could stay in China and stop sending its users to jail

#15yrsago GOP hopeful’s photo of “peaceful Baghdad” was really Istanbul

#10yrsago Senior London cops lie to peaceful protestors, stage mass arrest

#5yrsago Surveillance has reversed the net’s capacity for social change

#5yrsago As criminal justice reform looms, private prison companies get into immigration detention, halfway houses, electronic monitoring, mental health

#5yrsago Cuba’s free med schools are the meritocratic institutions that America’s private system can’t match

#5yrsago Top Trump strategist quits, writes an open letter warning America about him

#5yrsago Turkish government tells German ambassador to ban video satirizing president Erdoğan

#1yrago California's missing medical stockpile

#1yrago Andrew Cuomo is not your woke bae

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Memex 1.1 (

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 536 words (121016 total).

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." Yesterday's progress: 1031 words (43611 total).

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Past Performance is Not Indicative of Future Results
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  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

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