Pluralistic: 08 Feb 2022

Today's links

The cover for 'Pixels of You.'

Pixels of You (permalink)

Pixels of You is a new young adult sf graphic novel, written by Ananth Hirsh and Yuko Ota and illustrated by Jenn Doyle, published today by Abrams. It's a sweet, smart tale of art, bitterness, enmity and camaraderie.

Pixels' two protagonists are a pair of young women who have both won a coveted spot at an upscale photography gallery.

Indira is the survivor of a wreck that orphaned her and led to one of her eyes being replaced with a digital camera; Fawn is a human-presenting AI whose robot "parents" sacrificed all to give her a skinsuit that lets her pass as a human.

They begin the tale as rivals but when their bickering frustrates the gallery's mercurial owner, she orders them to collaborate on a graduate project, threatening to end their nascent art careers if they fail to produce work of merit.

It's a fantastic setup for a buddy story, one where the irreconcilable is reconciled, where hate flips to love and back again, and where art is debated, created, destroyed and finally remade.

Graphic novels are (unsurprisingly) great vehicles for stories about art. While painterly novels like Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev and Steven Brust's The Sun, The Moon and the Stars must approximate the visual with the literary, comics can skip that step entirely.

It's partly why Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics remains a classic: using the visual to illustrate the visual is a natural and powerful technique. It's also why Disney's Looking at Paintings is such a superb book on art theory.

Comics aren't limited to tales of visual art; it's a great medium for any tale of art and artistry. Think of Cecil Castellucci's memoir Girl on Film, variously a meditation on film, writing, rock-and-rolling, and the neurological basis for memory formation.

But comics about great visual art also present a unique challenge: while writers need not paint a great painting in order to evoke such a painting, a comic about great photography must feature images of great, striking photos.

Here's where Doyle's work really shines. Their work captures lively posture and body language, and their composition evokes both the careful work of a carefully planned landscape and the lucky accidents of the perfect from-the-hip snap.

You may be familiar with Doyle's work from their longrunning, successful crowdfunded series Knights-Errant. If so, you'll recognize their gift for character design and highly expressive, wordless panels.

I read my advance copy of Pixels of You with special interest, because Doyle and I are collaborating on a graphic novel adaptation of my novella Unauthorized Bread, which First Second is publishing.

I was already excited about working with Doyle based on their solo work, but Pixels only increased my delight at the prospect of working on a book length project with them.

A rotting apartment living room; the Wall Street 'Charging Bull' statue is in one corner; from one of its horns dangles a sign reading 'FOR RENT WALL ST.'

Wall Street's landlord business is turning every rental into a slum (permalink)

Shelter is a human right and a necessity for human thriving. The choice to turn speculation on our homes into a path to social mobility inevitably led to the crash of 2008 and 3.7 million US foreclosures.

In the Great Financial Crisis, the Obama administration chose to bail out banks, rather than borrowers, giving them the capital they needed to start buying those foreclosed homes in bulk. This was only accelerated by the Trump covid bailout, which sent trillions into the finance industry.

Wall Street landlords are the worst landlords. For years, the press has been documenting the Wall Street landlord playbook: deep cuts to maintenance that leave homes all but uninhabitable; scorching rent-hikes; and mass evictions any time a tenant balks at either measure.

Wall Street landlords are extracting never-seen levels of profit from their "investments" in our homes; some of that money is being laundered into policy that makes it possible for them to extract even higher profits. That's the "political" in "political economy": profits are turned into policy, policy increases profits.

The Wall Street landlord lobby has spent many of the millions it extracted from tenants to make those tenants' lives worse – making eviction easier, getting rid of rent controls. All this in addition to the existing landlord's leverage: "Do as I say, or live in a cardboard box."

Much of the reporting on Wall Street landlords has focused on single-family homes (including my own). But today on Propublica, Heather Vogell gives us a deeply reported, enraging look at how private equity slumlords are using public money to buy up and destroy apartment buildings, at great profit.

There are many kinds of Wall Street landlord; the sector is dominated by Real-Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), a favored vehicle for offshore money-laundering, especially popular among foreign kleptocrats who smuggle their loot out of their homelands:

But as bad as REITs are, they still make better landlords than private equity companies. Unlike REITs, which are an ongoing concern, PE funds close out every ten years or so and have to realize all their profits before they do. This turns PE into industrial-scale house-flippers, obsessed by short-term gains without any regard for the long-term consequences.

PE giants aren't just buying up single-family homes; they're buying apartment buildings at an incredible rate, in deals that involve both individual buildings and taking over REITs and their entire portfolios. These are wildly profitable investments: while REITs generate 4.33% annually on their residential properties, PE companies squeeze 20% profits out of those same buildings.

That's a great deal, if you're part of the investor class with a share in the PE company. But if you're a tenant, those excessive profits are coming at your expense – at the cost of your living conditions and your pocketbook.

Start with your living conditions. Vogell uses San Francisco's Olume building – transferred from Monogram – an REIT – to Greystar in 2017 as an example. Under Greystar's management, the Olume went from a delightful place to live to a dangerous slum, even as rents skyrocketed.

Tenants whose appliances broke down were given replacements scrounged from empty units. Their broken units were never repaired, and when the replacements broke down they were replaced with the broken units the tenants had previously phoned in.

Eventually, Greystar stopped fixing appliances altogether. As the washing machines in Olume's apartments failed, Greystar directed tenants to wander the hallways, checking for unlocked, empty apartments with working machines.

Greystar cut way back on the Olume's trash collection and then failed to clean up the inevitable drifts of rotting garbage that collected in the hallways. The common spaces deteriorated due to lack of maintenance. Security was slashed and broken locks weren't replaced; strangers started to appear in the hallways and parking garage.

The city recorded waves of complaints against the Olume. Inspectors documented broken-down HVAC systems and, ominously, fire suppression systems.

Even as the Olume was rotting under neglect from its new PE owners, the cost of living in the Olume skyrocketed. One tenant's 535 sqft apartment went from $2,800 to $3,400. But this doesn't tell the whole story: Greystar followed the PE price-gouging playbook, finding all kinds of ways to squeeze its tenants – for example, the annual fee for keeping a pet in your apartment went up by 25%.

PE companies are notorious for these hidden fees, and for a tactic called "pyramiding," where fees stack up on fees, so that your effective rent goes up every month.

All of this was great business for Greystar. Within two years, it had increased its annual profits on the Olume to $2,330,407 – a 24% increase over the previous owners' take.

Greystar is on a buying spree, but it's mostly not spending its investors' money. Rather, it is the beneficiary of enormous public subsidies in the form of low-interest loans from Freddie Mac, a company chartered by Congress and backed by the US government.

Freddie Mac has been firehosing money on private equity companies buying up apartment buildings: "Large private equity firms accounted for 85% of Freddie Mac’s 20 biggest deals financing apartment complex purchases by a single borrower." Just a handful of PE companies are the primary beneficiaries of $16b of Freddie Mac's largesse: Greystar, Lonestar, Starwood, Brookfield and Harbor Group.

This free money has helped restructure the American landlord industry. In 2015, just under half of America's apartment buildings were owned by individuals. Today, it's 41% – and falling.

Freddie Mac's mission is to promote "liquidity, stability and affordability to the housing market." But the "liquidity" part has trumped stability and affordability in its daily operations. Rather than, say, giving cheap loans to tenants who want to buy their buildings and turn them into nonprofit co-ops, Freddie Mac uses its government-backed loans to subsidize rent-gouging PE slumlords.

The cycle goes around and around: the profits from slumlording are turned into slumlord-favorable policies. Blackstone – one of the country's leading Wall Street slumlords – used $6.2m of its tenants' money to fight a 2018 California ballot rent control initiative. That victory let it continue to raise rents and amass an even larger warchest to fight for even worse conditions for tenants.

(Image: Sam valadi, Carlos Delgado, CC BY 2.0, modified)

The poster for the 1973 Britcom 'No Sex Please, We're British.' Ronnie Corbet's head has been replaced by Boris Johnson's. The word 'British' has been replaced with 'Conservatives,' the wordmark for the British Conservative Party. One of the caricature heads has been replaced by the menacing red eye of HAL 9000 from '2001: A Space Odyssey.'

UK Tories want a national database of porn-viewing habits (permalink)

UK PM Boris Johnson has built a career out of running across rivers on the backs of alligators, always moving fast enough that he escapes their jaws. His career is a long string of outrageous scandals: lying, fraud, infidelity, abuse, all escaped with impunity. Like any self-respecting posh sociopath, Boris knows how to fail up.

But eventually, even the nimblest of gator-racers loses a step and finds a set of jaws clamped around his leg. Boris is embroiled in a scandal – he ordered a national lockdown that meant that no one in the land, not even the Queen, was allowed to socialize, even as he presided over more than a dozen parties in his official residence.

In the grand scheme of awful things Boris has done, this barely rates, but it has managed to rile both the UK columnist class and the Tory base, thanks in no small part to Boris's own rivals in the Conservative party, who sense an opportunity to depose him and move into the PM's flat.

In a desperate bid to save his political life, Boris has deployed Operation Red Meat, a series of stupid, unworkable and performatively cruel measures to distract from his scandal. Operation Red Meat's policies include defunding the BBC, ending all covid restrictions, campaigning against cryptography, using the military to block small migrant boats and other clickbait/culture war bullshit.

Many of Operation Red Meat's bad ideas are re-runs – policies that have already been floated and defeated, policies that would be a catastrophe if they were ever realized. That doesn't mean they won't be realized, though: Boris's support for Brexit was pure, insincere opportunism, but he still backed it.

Here's another moldy-oldie that Boris has dusted off for his distraction campaign: a plan to compile a database of the pornography preferences of every person in the UK, cross-referenced to that person's finances.

Of course, that's not how the Tories are selling it. They're calling it an "age-verification system" for online pornography. But to make this "age-verification" work, you will have to provide a credit-card or passport to the site, or a third party. These sites will make all kinds of claims about how they will protect your privacy. These claims are bullshit. They will deliberately or inadvertently keep all that stuff on file, and then they will leak it or get hacked. If the NSA and MI5 can't prevent leaks, neither can Pornhub.

And when they do, they will expose the porn-viewing habits of every Briton, along with their financial details. It's a kompromat bonanza.

This idiotic plan has been repeatedly defeated in the UK. I don't actually think the people advocating for it want it to pass – they just want the distraction. But remember, that was also the basis for the establishment support for Brexit – and then the UK got Brexit. The fact that this isn't serious doesn't mean it won't happen.

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY 3.0, modified)

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago BT claims patent over hyperlinks

#10yrsago Debunking the record industry shill who said that his amendments to Canada’s proposed copyright law are no big deal

#10yrsago Facebook’s funny accounting has “active users” who never use Facebook

#10yrsago English plainclothes police officer follows himself for 20 minutes

#5yrsago Internal TSA files reveal that they have no evidence the $1B “behavioral detection” program works

#5yrsago Congress reintroduces YODA, a bipartisan bill that protects your right to treat devices as your property

#5yrsago Enterprise firewalls are man-in-the-middling HTTPS sessions like crazy, and weakening security

#1yrago The grand conclusion of my Someone Comes to Town podcast

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Yesterday's progress: 514 words (60242 words total).

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. Yesterday's progress: 253 words (5384 words total).

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. SECOND DRAFT COMPLETE

  • 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: The Internet Heist (Part I)
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022

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