Pluralistic: 23 Aug 2021

Today's links

Mad Tea Party at Disneyland c.1960. Guests are seen boarding/exiting the original Mad Tea Party in Disneyland's Fantasyland in this undated photo from around 1960. Other photos in the set are dated between 1959 and 1962. Monstro the Whale, King Arthur Carrousel, and the Skyway can be seen in the background.

Podcasting "Disneyland at a stroll" (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I read parts four and five of my Medium series on "amusement parks, crowd control, and load-balancing" – "Expectations management" and "Disneyland at a stroll."

"Expectations management" runs down the techniques that Disney uses to move – and hold – crowds in the parks. This is an old conundrum (think of PT Barnum's "This way to the egress" signs") but Disney's versions are a mix of sophistication and deceit.

Disney queue spaces are reconfigurable, with out-of-sight spillover areas that can be opened or closed as needed, so that from outside the ride, the queue always seems to be long enough to signal something fun, but not so long as to seem like a penance to wait in.

And Disney uses subtle design cues, like adding or removing detail, to pull you through its built environments. The more detailed something is, the more you're drawn to it.

(Tokyo Disney Sea, with its incredible, uniform, fetishistic, gorgeous detail, is actually kind of disorienting – I inevitably find myself following an intriguing side-path until it dead-ends in a service entrance.)

That's in addition to tried-and-true midway techniques, like setting up tall, eye-catching "weenies" (like Space Mountain's spires) that can be seen a long way off and that draw crowds to them.

But in addition to all this fascinating design thinking, Disney also does something quite blunt and a little bit off-putting: They lie about how long the lines are, deliberately padding wait-times as a means to discouraging people from entering parts of the parks.

This paternalistic tactic actually opens a space for a countermeasure. Apps like Touring Plans' "Wait Times" display the actual wait times alongside the official ones, and you can get "bargains" – sliding into a line billed as 70 minutes, knowing you'll get through in 17.

In Part VI, "Disneyland at a stroll," I try to pull together all the threads from the series and talk about what Disney's demand- and crowd-management techniques have done to the "structure of feeling" engendered by a day in the park.

The neoliberal age urges us to become self-Taylorizing time-and-motion tyrants of our own lives, to become entrepreneurial brands whose unproductive cars become Ubers, unproductive hobby rooms become Airbnbs, unproductive leisure is spent as a Mechnical Turk.

The texture of a day under these conditions is uniform: rush, rush, rush. Did back-to-back Zooms cost you the interstitial email-answering moments you used to get between meetings? Just work Saturdays!

We need a respite. Time away from work has been a labor demand since the Bronze Age prophets declared the Sabbath. Our grandparents demanded "eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep and "eight hours for what we will."

Rather than offering a respite from this pace, Disney parks match and exceed it. The demand-management techniques Disney employs increasingly require you to script your day up to six months in advance, down to the minute.

"A day at Disney is more like a skydiving excursion than a day in the park. You should expect physical challenges, you’ll need to do a lot of prep work, it will be expensive, and there will be a high degree of regimentation."

In the article, I argue that Disney's high-intensity thrill rides, and our high-intensity lives, would benefit from texture, from a variety in pace and intensity – from a time to stroll as well as race from place to place.

I offer some examples of Disney attractions that managed this (the late, lamented Adventurer's Club), and propose some ways that role-play and other kinds of play can be woven into a Disney day.

I discuss the idea of treating people "as sensors, rather than as things to be sensed" and imagine an app that is about Disney revealing its offerings to you, rather than insisting on, and then gathering, your plans.

This was a fun podcast to record, not least because it's the 400th (!) episode of my podcast, which I started at Mark Pesce's urging in 2005.

It was also great to get a chance to acknowledge and thank John Taylor Williams for his decade+ of editing, mastering and production. He's the reason I'm still at it.

Here's the MP3 for the podcast (hosting by the Internet Archive, they'll host your audio for free, forever, too!):

And here's the RSS feed for the podcast:

And here are links to all six Medium articles:

I. Are we having fun yet?

II. Boredom and its discontents:

III. Now you've got two problems:

IV: Managing aggregate demand:

V. Expectations management:

VI: Disneyland at a stroll:

(Image: Evan Wohrman, CC BY-SA)

The cover for Ben Rosenbaum's 'The Unraveling.'

The Unraveling (permalink)

The Unraveling is Ben Rosenbaum's debut novel. If you've followed Rosenbaum's work to date – glittering, cerebral, hilarious short fiction – then it will not surprise you to learn that this is a book that is as weird and wild as shoes on a snake.

I wrote a novella with Ben, "True Names," a tribute to the Vernor Vinge classic. It took something like five years to write and got nominated for a Hugo. Writing with Rosenbaum was a genuinely surreal experience.

Like, I'd add 500 words to the story and email it back to him, and he'd mail back 500 more, along with a 2,000 word essay on the nature of consciousness and identity and reality and what he was trying to get at with his 500 words.

The fiction was amazing, but the notes were like mainlining Rosenbaum's neural matter, some kind of overwhelming frazzledrip mind-meld that I couldn't quite impedence-match. I could see that there was something amazing going on, but I just couldn't quite…understand it.

It was like attending a recital of the world's greatest poet, but he was declaiming in another language…which turned out to be the language of the dolphins.

But, you know, in a good way.

That's pharmaceutical-grade Rosenbaum, the stuff that comes up while he's figuring out how to downshift it so it makes sense to the rest of us – his Grundrisse or Silmarillion. It's not really meant to be enjoyed in its pure form – just kind of admired from a safe distance.

Rosenbaum's been working on The Unraveling for a long time – nearly two decades – and I think the time was basically spent figuring out how to skate precisely on the rim of infinitely dense Rosenbaumium-218 and something that's safe for human neural consumption.

And he just nails it, honestly. But the consequence of his careful just-this-side-of-too-strange-for-mortal-ken means that summing up this book is hard.

Fundamentally, this is a book about a sociological rupture: the end of a long, stable period of seeming utopia.

It's set on a distant world in a distant future, something like a million years from now. The world was colonized long, long ago by a long-haul spacefaring human civilization with incredibly advanced technology and the kind of wild hair that sends you to other galaxies.

Hundreds of thousands of years later, after a lot of turmoil, the spacefarers' descendants have deliberately constructed elaborate, metastable social and technical structures that allows for a trillion people to live in a hollowed-out planet surrounded by artificial moons.

Everything everyone does is visible to everyone else. Everyone has "followers" and when you do something interesting (or bad), you go viral and your follower count shoots up. Everyone is in constant contact with a bunch of AIs that serve as advisors on social comportment.

People live in households constructed of collections of "Mothers" and "Fathers" (more on this later) and as many kids as they can get away with, based on ratings with the people who follow them – if your ratings tank, you lose your kids and are forcibly evicted and divorced.

People have lots of bodies. Three is a conservative number, but some people have dozens of bodies. Mostly these bodies are human-ish, but some people go for weird canids and other fancies.

Also, they live to be about 1,000, and among them are "aliens" – later-come spacefarers who have access to lost technology that allows them to live for hundreds of thousands of years. People seriously stan these aliens. They've got huge followings.

There are, finally, two genders.

The Staids are kind of Talmudic scholars who spend much of their time cloistered with sacred spoons (yes) in religious ceremonies where they memorize, recite and debate the "Long Conversation" – their civilization's lore.

Meanwhile, the Vails are hotheaded, romantic, violent lovers who are into rough sex and honor-battles in closed-off dojos.

Vails and Staids marry each other and raise kids together, but they don't have intergender sex, which is considered seriously gross.

Gender, meanwhile, has nothing to do with whether you have a penis or a vagina. Some people have both, or several of one or the other. Some people have genitals that consist of prehensile, twining moss, or long feathers that droop to the ground and drag behind them.

That's the world, more or less. The hero is a young Staid named Fift whose childhood best friend is Shria (a Vail). It's OK for them to be friends, but there's more going on, heavy Romeo and Juliet stuff with high stakes due to AI and social media panopticon and whatnot.

Fift and Shria are manage to keep it under wraps until the Clowns – one of the many political factions – declare a new show, and Fift and Shria both end up holding Tickets. As they travel to the outer reaches of the world to find the Clowns, they happen upon a riot.

This riot is a seriously unusual thing for this society. It turns out that despite 20,000 years of political stability, there's this simmering Vail underclass that resents its political fortunes and wants to overthrow the order.

Being caught in the riot puts Fift and Shria's forbidden friendship in the social media crosshairs and threatens to cost them both their families and more.

As Fift's Fathers and Mothers strive to perform social propriety for their feeds, they miss that society itself is unraveling – that the riot was the torch that set off a slow-moving, unquenchable blaze that creeps and then races through the trillion people of the world.

Fift and Shria, meanwhile, become the focus of the revolutionary uprising, a symbol for all the discontented, gigastars whose actions are monitored by billions (think of Locke and Demosthenes from Ender's Game, but far more anxious).

Rosenbaum skilfully weaves all of this stuff together with madcap multi-PoV action-scenes inside all three of Fift's heads at once, and a juxtaposed claustrophobic story of forbidden teen love and the vast, slow collapse of an unimaginably huge and ancient civilization.

It's bananas. It's hilarious, it's mind-bending, it defies description and beggars belief. It's really quite a thing.


Ben and I are launching this strange artifact Monday Aug 23, with LA's Book Soup. I'm going to make him explain it.

Red sunset over Oakland, CA during wildfire season.

What kind of emergency is our emergency? (permalink)

This past weekend in the Financial Times, Kim Stanley Robinson ponders the nature of the current climate emergency, trying to capture the "structure of the feeling" of our current moment.

In 2020, Robinson published an astonishingly good, optimistic and furious novel about the climate emergency, "The Ministry For the Future," whose goal was imagining what that "structure" would feel like if we actually averted the end of civilization.

What's that mean? It's going beyond, "It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism." It's easy to imagine the end of capitalism – I've written many postcapitalist worlds. The hard part is writing the ending of capitalism – the actual transition.

Robinson's MINISTRY is conflicted on this score. On the one hand, he describes spectacular acts of violence – say, terrorists knocking every private jet out of the sky – but never shows us what it's like to be in one of those jets, or what it's like to pull the trigger.

Now in the FT, Robinson tries to imagine a less bloody transition. We can tell that something is going to give: the pandemic, the fires, the floods and extreme weather events. Something is going to rupture.

Robinson makes a virtue of this sense of impending crisis. WWI, he says, sandbagged the world – the seemingly stable world order shattered in a matter of moments. As bad as it was, it was worse for being a surprise, for catching us all flatfooted.

By contrast, WWII was visible on the horizon for years, this impending doom that everyone saw coming – that people might have done something about. They tried – the League of Nations – but in the end, the crisis couldn't be averted.

For Robinson, the climate emergency is a WWII kind of emergency, and the Paris Accord is our League of Nations – thought whether it will enough to blunt the emergency is a great unknown.

Robinson lays out the problem. The world's petrostates – America, Canada, Russia, Australia, Saudi, Norway, etc – need to be bribed or coerced or shamed or convinced not to murder us all in order to make a couple trillion before the music stops.

It's a wicked problem, and in a fundamental sense, it's a monetary problem. A market system can't solve this. Re-engineering the world's infrastructure to decarbonize it is all costs, no profit. Stranding fossil fuel assets is market poison.

The market inescapably misprices existential risk: "The market systemically misprices things by way of improper discounting of the future, false externalities and many other predatory miscalculations, which have led to gross inequality and biosphere destruction."

Saving the planet is not high-yield. Building a "planetary sewage system" to "retrieve and disposing of the waste we’ve been dumping into the atmosphere" is a money-loser: "no one actually wants thousands of billions of tons of dry ice."

Despite the looming disaster, Robinson is bullish on the 89 large central banks' Network for Greening the Financial System and its "climate scenarios," which seriously contemplates reorienting the planet's productive capacity to climate mitigation.

He says that the pandemic taught us that, despite national borders, we're a single species on a single planet with a single, shared destiny. And he says that the vaccines showed that "science is powerful."

Given the power of science and the possibility of "carbon quantitative easing" (a possibility that owes itself to the collapse of deficit hawkism after the 2008 and 2020 stimuluses, which had many defects, but didn't trigger runaway inflation), Robinson sees cause for hope.

"The time has come to admit we control our economy for the common good. Crucial at all times, this realisation is especially important in our current need to dodge a mass-extinction event. The invisible hand never picks up the cheque; therefore we must govern ourselves."

(Image Thomas Hawk, CC BY-NC)

The secrets of hospital bills (permalink)

Today, the New York Times published an analysis of hospital pricing in the US, comparing prices charged to uninsured people, to Medicare, and to different insurers, revealing that these prices can vary up to 900%, often to the detriment of large insurers.

This represents a marked contrast to the story we are often told about health-care pricing in America – that large insurers use their might to negotiate lower rates from price-gouging hospitals. That might be true sometimes, but often, it's not.

And as the Times points out, it's not necessarily the insurers who pay those inflated prices – many insurance plans are actually run by large employers, and only administered by the insurance company. So when Cigna turns down a treatment, it's actually your boss doing it.

That may be a nice fiction for your boss to maintain in order to deflect your ire the coverage you're denied – but it also means that when Cigna allows a hospital to gouge it for your care, it's your boss that pays for it – not Cigna's shareholders.

Meanwhile, the variations in prices are simply wild. If you get a colonoscopy at University of Mississippi Medical Center, it costs $1463 if you're with Cigna, $2144 if you're with Aetna, and $782 if you're uninsured.


The percentage differences are even more pronounced with small-dollar items, like a pregnancy test at Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania:

$18 if you're with Blue Cross PA.

$58 if you're a Blue Cross NJ HMO customer.

$93 if you're a Blue Cross NJ PPO customer.

$10 if you're uninsured.

There's so much more of this. Hospital and insurance spokespeople told Sarah Kliff, Josh Katz and Rumsey Taylor that all of this was not nearly so bad as it looks, that it was taken out of context, that there's an innocent explanation – but were unable to provide that explanation.

The reality is that it's much worse than it looks. The data-set they were reporting on is fragmentary, drawn from the minority of hospitals that deign to comply with a bipartisan order (started under Trump, affirmed by Biden) requiring hospitals to provide this pricing data.

These are the hospitals with the least to hide, the best of the bunch, and they're so bad. There's repeated stories of parents being horribly gouged on rabies shots for their children, for example.

All of this puts the lie to the story of health-care as a market. A parent whose child is in need of urgent care following a wild animal attack doesn't shop around for a deal. There's no "demand elasticity" in rabies shots for children.

But even if a heart-attack patient in an ambulance was interested in shopping for a bargain on their care, they would be stopped cold. Hospitals and insurers treat their pricing information as trade secrets, and refuse to disclose it, even when legally obliged to do so.

That secrecy extends to your employer, who is unable to see prices even when shopping for an insurer for thousands of your co-workers. In 2018, Larimer County, CO tried to get the insurer who covered its 3,500 employees to disclose its negotiated hospital prices.

They raised the issue up to the insurance company's CEO, who personally told them to fuck off, pay him, and forget about ever finding out how that money was being spent. They put the contract out for rebid. Of the six insurers who bid, five refused to disclose prices.

A former Blue Cross exec told the Times that they put "gag orders in all our contracts," ensuring that no one would ever know whether they were getting ripped off.

Six months after the order that legally required hospitals to post prices, the Times contracted the ten highest-grossing noncompliant hospitals. NYU Langone told them to fuck off ("We will not be providing a statement or comment").

They got bafflegab from Cedars Sinai: "We do not post standard cash rates, which typically will not reflect the price of care for uninsured patients."

Penn Medicine made a funny: "Penn Medicine is committed to transparency about potential costs."

This is not a market. Markets have prices and shoppers (not hostages). This is a racket. If you doubt it for an instant, tune into Arm and a Leg, a podcast that reveals health care's crooked billing practices and explains how to resist them.

When I moved to America, a number of friends counselled me to take out catastrophic injury insurance and skip regular health insurance, and show up at doctors' offices and hospitals with cash in hand, ready to bargain.

They swore up and down that they were paying less in cash money for treatment than I would pay in deductibles and co-pays for my insured coverage. It looks like they were right in many cases. But this is no way to run a healthcare system.

For one thing, it leaves people with chronic conditions out in the cold. For another, it allows the system to continue to rot, transforming into a financial institution first and a way to treat patients as a distant second.

America doesn't have market healthcare. It has racket healthcare. The fact that Americans defend this system is frankly bizarre. Unless you're a shareholder in this rotten system, it has absolutely nothing to redeem it.

It is a crooked enterprise that wastes trillions and delivers precious little care.

(Image:, CC BY-SA, modified)

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Brazil to break patent, make AIDS drug

#20yrsago Copyright Your DNA

#20yrsago Public wifi is doomed because no one owns it

#15yrsago How to run a successful sf convention room party

#15yrsago Google: We are not a verb. Yahoo: Go ahead and remix our brand

#10yrsago How paid FBI anti-terror informants lead “terrorist attacks” that the FBI foils

#10yrsago Jack Layton’s final public words: “Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear.”

#10yrsago Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names

#10yrsago William Gibson on cities and the future

#10yrsago RIP, Jack Layton

#5yrsago The Equation Group’s sourcecode is totally fugly

#5yrsago Robert Moses wove enduring racism into New York’s urban fabric

#5yrsago How the New York Public Library made ebooks open, and thus one trillion times better

#5yrsago Inside the “sweatshop” terminally ill Britons must call to get benefits

#5yrsago Bill Gates’ net worth hits $90B, proving Thomas Piketty’s point

#5yrsago 5 years after Texas GOP’s attack on women’s reproductive health, TX leads developed world in maternal mortality

#1yrago Quantifying the meritocratic delusion

#1yrago Facebook overrules its own fact-checkers

#1yrago Zombie postcapitalism

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: John Naughton (, Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Friday's progress: 264 words (16350 words total)

  • 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: Disneyland at a stroll
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • 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