Pluralistic: 27 Apr 2021

Today's links

The cover of Robot Artists & Black Swans.

Robot Artists & Black Swans (permalink)

"Fantascienza" is the Italian word for science fiction, but fantascienza has its own tropes, rhythms and conventions that set it apart in hard-to-summarize ways; these unique characteristics have fired the Italian imagination for generations.

Very little fantascienza (or any other foreign literature) gets translated to English. There's a kind of circular reasoning behind this: there's so much stuff produced in English that there's no market for foreign works, and no one reads foreign works so why translate any?

Which brings me to a very odd, very wonderful book: ROBOT ARTISTS AND BLACK SWANS, Bruce Sterling's collection of fantascienza stories originally published under his Italian pseudonym, "Bruno Argento."

I am no expert on fantascienza, so I don't know if these are representative of the field, but I am here to tell you that they are completely different from any other sf I've read, including Sterling's, and yet utterly and unmistakably Bruce Sterling stories (a neat trick).

They are mostly set in and around Sterling's adopted hometown of Turin, and though they span a range from the Middle Ages to the late 22nd Century, they paint a vivid picture of an ancient city whose fortunes have ebbed and flowed through the centuries.

Turin – the city of a fake shroud, the once-upon-a-time capital of silent horror film production, home to the once-high-tech giant Olivetti and the once-industrial-titan Fiat – is arguably the most interesting character in these tales.

A city that once-was, will-be-again, where life is both literarily genteel and haunted by militarism, crisis and political upheaval. Sterling gives us stories of crusader-era innkeepers, dimension-hopping hackers, art-obsessed robot-chasers, all blended into Turin's stories.

These are wry and sardonic stories in the Sterling mode, and filled with the kinds of technosocial insights that define his work, but they are also madcap tales, Italian farces full of earthy humor, bunga-bunga strongmen getting their comeuppances, all the grand passions.

Sterling – "Chairman Bruce" – was instrumental to the founding of both cyberpunk and steampunk; started one of our most influential and visionary "bright green" environmental movements, and serves as an electronic art impresario.

He relishes the esoteric and his fiction brings it to life in ways that no one else can match. In his Bruno Argento guise, he is both utterly strange and wonderfully familiar, a new chapter in the weird, engrossing artistic life of Bruce Sterling.

I'm helping Bruce launch this book on Thursday, in a free, livestreamed event at Austin's Book People, a truly wonderful store.

The cover of Amy Klobuchar's book Antitrust: Taking on Monopoly Power from the Gilded Age to the Digital Age.

Klobuchar on trustbusting (permalink)

When Amy Klobuchar introduced her Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act (CALERA), I called it a "big fucking deal," because it would do away with Ronald Reagan and Robert Bork's "consumer welfare" standard for antitrust action.

Prior to the Reagan years, US courts and prosecutors went after monopolies because monopolies were considered harmful on their own – they gathered too much power into too few hands, to the detriment of workers, suppliers, the environment, policy, and consumer pricing.

But Robert Bork – a Nixonite criminal whose actions were so odious the Senate refused to confirm him for the Supreme Court – promoted a bizarre Qanon-like theory that if you looked hard enough at the laws, that's not what they said at all.

Rather, the US's four antitrust statutes were only concerned with harms to "consumer welfare" (higher prices), and these harms could only be predicted or proven through the use of mathematical models that only Bork and his friends at the University of Chicago could interpret.

They established themselves as a kind of priesthood: whenever a merger was contemplated or a post-merger company raised prices, the priests would slaughter an ox (make a model) and read the truth in its guts.

Only they were qualified to perform this ritual and they never found a monopoly they didn't like.

This was obviously a scam – and equally obvious was the fact that US antitrust law unambiguously is not limited to "consumer welfare."

But replacing muscular antitrust with "consumer welfare" meant that rich people could get much, much richer by creating monopolies. Huge sums were spent to propagate this all over the world, including in places where the law was even clearer, like the UK.

This is laid out beautifully in Michelle Meagher's COMPETITION IS KILLING US, which traces the spread of this ideology in the UK and EU.

Now, hot on the heels of historic Senate antitrust hearings, Klobuchar has published her own book on the antitrust fight, ANTITRUST: TAKING ON MONOPOLY POWER FROM THE GILDED AGE TO THE DIGITAL AGE, which comes out today:

Klobuchar spoke with Nilay Patel for The Verge's Decoder podcast about the book; it was a long interview and they transcribed it. It's got some great nuggets (though to be frank, it's a little rambling in text and could use some abridgement).

A couple areas that really struck me: first, Klobuchar's reminder that monopoly isn't a tech phenomenon, that it extends to "pharma and ag and everything," and that blocking mergers and reversing Borkism in every sector is key to fighting monopoly.

And Patel pushes Klobuchar on this, pointing out that while there's a bipartisan consensus in the Senate and Congress on trustbusting, that consensus does not extend to killing the "consumer welfare" standard – Republicans want to bust trusts, but keep this rule intact.

In other words, the GOP wants to fight monopolies selectively, where their constituents care about them, but not create a broad antitrust system that fights monopolies wherever they form.

So Chuck Grassley will fight ag monopolies to score points with Iowa farmers, Josh Hawley will fight social media so that lies about election fraud can spread unchecked, but that's as far as they go – they're fine with monopolies that afflict people who don't vote for them.

Patel tries to press Klobuchar on this point a couple of times, but Klobuchar evades the question, which is a pity.

I mean, I think there are lots of ways to address this.

For example, she could say, "Once we curb monopoly in a giant industry like ag or tech, it will prime the American people to keep fighting monopolies and make GOP fairweather trustbusters look like assholes."

This is what I tell people who correctly point out that some of the antitrust energy against Google is astroturf from Comcast and AT&T: "Sure, but if they think that success in curbing Google will mean less appetite to slay Big Telco, they're in for a hell of a surprise!"

As to Klobuchar's book: the interview interested me enough that I've ordered a copy, in part because I wanted to get a look at the "over 100 cartoons" from Gilded Age newspapers editorializing against monopolies from the last century.

The Earth, floating in space, with its southern hemisphere in flames; it is being irradiated by a beam-weapon fired by a Death Star-style coronavirus molecule, bearing the Pfizer logo.

Pharma's anti-generic-vaccine lobbying blitz (permalink)

2.5 billion people in the Earth's 125 poorest countries have received zero vaccine doses. The 85 poorest countries are projecting full vaccination in 2023 or 2024. This isn't just a form of racist mass-killing, it's also a civilizational and species-wide risk.

Every infected person, after all, makes billions and billions of copies of the virus, and these copies are imperfect, producing mutations. Eventually, there will probably be a mutation so contagious that it bypasses vaccine-based defenses.

Worse still, if the virus circulates widely enough for enough time, the likelihood that a mutant strain will emerge that is both more infectious and more deadly goes up and up.

A half-vaccinated world is like a swimming pool where only one end has a "no pissing" rule.

The global south does not have to go unvaccinated. Poor countries have vast vaccine production capacity: scientists, factories and knowledge. Some of the world's largest vaccine production facilities are in the global south.

What the global south lacks is a patent-free vaccine that can be domestically produced. Remember when Oxford promised that its vaccine would be open access so that it could be produced by poor and rich nations alike?

That dream died when the Gates Foundation – which cloaks monopolistic ideology in elite philanthropy – pressured the university to do an exclusive distribution deal with Astrazeneca.

Since then, Gates himself has been pushing the racist lie that countries full of brown people are too primitive to make their own vaccines.

It's a lie that's been picked up by pharma shills like Howard Dean, the one-time "liberal lion" turned corporate mouthpiece:

Gates and Dean are the public face of a vast pharma lobbying effort to head off open access vaccines: more than 100 lobbyists are working DC right now, trying to get the US to oppose a WTO petition to grant emergency patent-waivers on covid vaccines.

Lobbying disclosures reveal that Big Pharma is paying key Democrat fundraisers, ex-US Trade Rep officials, and GOP power-brokers to fight the proposal, as Lee Fang reports for The Intercept.

The effort is transatlantic, too: a biotech pharma lobbyist repeated the racist lie about poor countries not being capable of manufacturing their own vaccines in The Economist:

The Economist editorial really tips the industry's hand, admitting that the industry's real concern is that if they are forced to subordinate their shareholders to the public good, it will raise questions about the whole pharma system.

After all, it's a system that does almost NO basic research, freeriding on publicly funded labs and generates absurd monopoly margins on its products by charging the public vast markups to buy the fruits of the work it subsidized.

These profits are rolled into lobbying projects that keep prices high AND shield pharma execs and investors from the consequences of faking their safety data and deceiving the public (as with the opioid epidemic).

The pharma industry knows, in its heart, that it is engaged in indefensible behavior, and it understands that any crack in the rationalizations that secure its fortunes could shatter the illusion altogether.

The industry is so unreasonable that its lobbyists are left with idiotic talking points like: "giving up the IP could allow China and Russia to exploit platforms such as mRNA, which could be used for other vaccines or even therapeutics for conditions such as cancer and heart problems in the future."

Seriously, that's all you've got? We can't end #VaccineApartheid and save the 2.5b unvaccinated people and forestall a species-destroying supervariant because it might lead to…a cure for cancer and heart disease?

A judge's gavel coming down on a derp-face.

Unpack the court with judicial overrides (permalink)

One of the GOP's tells is that it accuses Democrats of its own sins. Take "packing the court," a process we watched unfold with Trump's appointments of Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Coney Barrett.

A Supreme Court filled with Federalist Society sociopaths chosen by Donald Trump is scary, for two reasons: first, they are apt to take up extreme Constitutional interpretations, and second, because they will distort Congress's intent to serve the wealthy.

There's not much we can do about the former, but the latter is fully addressable through lawmaking. Take SCOTUS's recent ruling that the FTC doesn't have the authority to extract cash penalties from predatory lenders to compensate their victims.

It's a bullshit decision, but it's easily addressed: if SCOTUS says that Congress's law that created the FTC doesn't let it claw back stolen money from loan sharks, Congress can pass a new law that explicitly gives the FTC that authority.

That's what the Consumer Protection and Recovery Act does. It's an example of "judicial override": when Congress overrides the Supreme Court's interpretations of its laws by making new laws that leave no room for doubt.

As Rachel M Cohen writes for The American Prospect and The Intercept, there's lots of room for judicial override in response to extremist Supreme Court rulings.

Take the Non-Judicial Foreclosure Debt Collection Clarification Act, which overrides a SCOTUS ruling that stripped people of the right to redress when their houses were foreclosed by sleazy lenders.

Much of the harm from Trump's Supreme Court packing can be undone, but only if the Dems control the Presidency, the House and the Senate.


Of course, for that to actually work, we need Manchin and Sinema to abandon their suicide-pact in defense of the filibuster.

But if we can, there's even scope for heading off the destructive power of SCOTUS's wilful misinterpretations of the Constitution, by following the example that Lincoln set.

The white supremacist Supreme Court of the Lincoln era consistently struck down the abolitionist laws that Lincoln signed. But Lincoln kept signing them, playing a game of high-stakes chicken with the court.

After all, the court's power springs from its legitimacy – that is, from the public's perception that it deserves to have power. If the unelected Supreme Court consistently reverses popular legislation, that legitimacy evaporates, and with it, the court's power.

Lincoln understood that he had the will of the people behind him, and the Supremes did, too – eventually…after they were sidelined and made irrelevant for a decade.

A modification kit to bypass Lexmark's printer-ink DRM.

Lexmark's toxic printer-ink (permalink)

"Every pirate wants to be an admiral." That is a truism of industrial policy: the scrappy upstarts that push the rules to achieve success then turn into law-and-order types who insist that anyone who does unto them as they did unto others is a lawless cur in need of whipping.

This is true all over, but there's an especial deliciousness to see it applied to printers and printer ink, always a trailblazer in extractive, deceptive and monopolistic practices of breathtaking, shameless sleaze.

Pierre Beyssac recounts his campaigns in the Printer Wars, which start when he ordered a non-wifi-enabled Lexmark printer but got shipped the wifi version.

He didn't mind…except that the two models use different models of ink-cartridge, and he'd preordered €450 worth of cartridges, which were nonreturnable by the time he discovered the error.

The cartridges are identical; all that stops them from working is that they're DRM-locked, with software that refuses to run if you put it in a different model printer (this lets Lexmark charge more for an identical product if they think some customers are price-insensitive).

But there's an answer – a Chinese vendor sells a €15 conversion kit that bypasses the DRM (this is probably illegal in the EU under Article 6 of 2001's EUCD). Beyssac was able to salvage his €450 ink investment.

But the adventure prompted him to investigate further. He discovered that Lexmark uses DRM to "regionalize" cartridges (similar to DVD regions): a cart bought in region 1 won't work in a printer bought in region 2.

Hilariously, Lexmark claims that this is because each cartridge is specially tuned for each region's "humidity." By way of rebuttal, Beyssac points out that all of Russia shares a region with all of Africa (!).

Lexmark's region map for ink cartridges, dividing the Earth into six regions.

(Likewise, the Canadian Arctic shares a region with the Pacific Northwest and the Arizona desert)

Now all of this would be idiotic enough if it were any old printer monopolist, but because this is Lexmark, it is especially delicious,.

Lexmark, after all, fought one of the most important battles of the Printer Wars – and lost. Lexmark vs Static Controls was brought by Lexmark when it was a division of the early tech monopolist IBM.

Lexmark sold toner cartridges filled with the cheap and abundant element carbon, and it wanted to charge vintage Champagne prices for it. To that end, Lexmark ran a 55-byte program in a "security chip" that flipped an "I am full" bit to "I am empty" when the toner ran out.

Lexmark's competitor Static Controls reverse-engineered this trivial program so you could refill a cartridge and flip it back to "I am full" so the printer would recognize it. In 2002 Lexmark sued, under Sec 1201 of the recently passed Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

DMCA 1201 made it a felony to traffick in a device that "bypassed an access control for a copyrighted work." The judge asked Lexmark which copyrighted work was in its printer cartridges (it wasn't the carbon powder!). Lexmark said it was the 55-bytle program.

The judge handed Lexmark its own ass, ruling that while software could be copyrighted, a 55-byte I-am-full/empty program didn't rise to the level of copyrightability – it wasn't even a haiku.

Lexmark lost, and today, Lexmark is…a division of Static Controls.

That's right, the company that's using all this bullshit DRM to prevent people from using their printers the way they want to is the company that did the exact same thing to IBM, won its court case, and then merged with the company whose racket it had destroyed.

Every pirate seriously wants to be an admiral.

But here's the thing. Lexmark/Static turned on the fact that 55-byte programs (all that fit affordably in a primitive 2002 chip) wasn't a copyrighted work. The cartridges Lexmark sells now have thousands of lines of code.

There's whole OSes in there. These are copyrightable. As is the OS in every embedded system we buy, from car engine parts to smart speakers to pacemakers. That means that companies can use DMCA 1201 to prevent rivals from unlocking lawful features in their products.

They can use it to block independent repair and independent security audits. They can make it illegal to use any product you own in ways that disadvantages their shareholders, even if that's what's good for you.

Despite the "C" in DMCA standing for "copyright," this isn't copyright protection, it's felony contempt of business model – a legally enforceable obligation to arrange your life to benefit multinational corporations' shareholders.

And worse, this law has been spread around the world thanks to the US Trade Rep: it's in 2001's EUCD and Canada's 2012 Copyright Modernization Act. Last summer, Mexico passed an even more extreme version as part of the USMCA.

If you think this shit is odious when it's in your printer, you're going to hate it when it's in your toothbrush, wristwatch, car engine and toaster.

In 2016, EFF brought a lawsuit to overturn DMCA 1201 on behalf of Bunnie Huang and Matt Green. It has been working its way through the courts ever since.

This day in history (permalink)

#1yrago Hospital cuts healthcare workers' pay, pays six-figure exec bonuses

#1yrago Pandemic proves ISP data-caps were always a pretense

#10yrsago Pinhole cameras made out of hollow eggs

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Pretzel6666 (

Currently writing:

  • A Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. RESEARCH PHASE

  • A short story about consumer data co-ops. PLANNING

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown." FINAL EDITS

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

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