Pluralistic: 10 Feb 2022

Today's links

Ada Palmer at the Hugo Award Ceremony, at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki 2017.

Welcome to the Palmerverse (permalink)

Today in Wired, Gregory Barber profiles my friend, colleague and collaborator Ada Palmer, an extraordinary writer, librettist, historian, scholar, activist and performer:

Palmer has just wrapped up Terra Ignota, her four-volume series depicting a deeply weird and uncomfortable future that is informed by her world-class scholarship into Renaissance history (she's a tenured U Chicago history prof who specializes in the suppression of forbidden knowledge during the Inquisitions).

The Wired profile gets into the book's odd contours – the deeply alien and marvellously plausible social norms it depicts – and connects them to Palmer's historical work. As she is fond of saying, "We know less than 1% of what happened 500 years ago, and at least two-thirds of what we know is wrong."

Terra Ignota depicts a world where our major problems – climate, war, shortage – have been addressed, where nation-states have been replaced by sprawling affinity groups (you can live anywhere and be an EU citizen, but you can also be a "citizen" of FIFA), and where distance has been conquered by hypersonic sub-orbital flying cars.

And yet, this is a fraught place, and one where the social conventions are as far from our own as the mores of the Renaissance. People in Palmer's world do not discuss gender or religion, and have a taboo on discussing which gender they identify with. They live in "bashes" – communal polyamorous households – and tolerate invasive censorship in the private and public realm as the price of peace.

As Barber writes, the future history of Palmer is as unpredictable and contingent as the history she studies and teaches. Palmer is celebrated for her annual U Chicago LARP, where 45 students spend a month role-playing as cardinals in the runup to the 1490 election of the Medicis' Pope.

I find this exercise profoundly intriguing. Every year, two of the final candidates are the same, their places guaranteed by the "great forces of history." But every year, the other two candidates are always different, because even though the forces of history bear down upon us, we also have human agency.

That one of the major themes of Terra Ignota, and it's a message of hope: what we do matters.

Though Palmer has only written four books so far, her work has had a large effect on the field, especially in the works of the marvellous Jo Walton, whose association with Palmer has led to a string of fascinating novels touching on classics and antiquity.

The profile gets into Palmer's life circumstances: the chronic illness and pain and low blood-oxygen that has her working from a reclining position for weeks on end, taken away from the world in reveries of scholarship, music and imagination.

The fruits of these jaunts into innerspace are many and gorgeous, especially her music, which includes the haunting space-travel ballad "Somebody Will":

Palmer is such a multitalented quintuple threat, whose talents range from game-design to seminar design. We collaborated on a U Chicago grad seminar series on the parallels between historical and contemporary systems of information control, contrasting the Inquisitions with modern reactions to online speech:

The profile is great, but it only gives a taste of what a conversation with Palmer is like (at one point, she discusses how Voltaire would view the contemporary state of science fiction).

Palmer is very much alive to the way that history is used and abused to justify the present day. She rails against the idea of "dark ages" and "golden ages" and scoffs at the notion that the pandemic will automatically create a renaissance (a fallacy based in the incorrect assumption that the last renaissance was brought on by the plague).

Her ability to fuse scholarship, art, and politics makes her a standout in the field. The completion of Terra Ignota is a major milestone, and it's great to see it celebrated with such a fitting tribute.

(Image: Sanna Pudas, CC BY 4.0, modified)

A guillotine; in front of it squats an executioner; his head has been replaced with the SEC logo.

SEC vs private equity ripoffs (permalink)

Like a lot of leftists, I've been profoundly disappointed and demoralized by the Biden administration's unwillingness or incapacity to play hardball and get the "Biden Agenda" through Congress. But there is a ray of hope: some of Biden's agency picks are astoundingly great and doing amazing work.

Take Gary Gensler, Biden's SEC chair. Gensler is doing what no SEC chair before has dared to do: taking on the rotten, corrupt practices of the private equity sector, who rip off giant pension funds and trash the real economy, while making the ghouls who run them ridiculously rich.

Whenever I write about the private equity playbook, in which investor cash is used to buy up and debt-load productive companies, leaving behind drained, ruined husks, people always ask how this can possibly be profitable?

Part of the story is the unbelievable favorable regulatory regime for PE. Not only does its leadership get to pocket trillions in profits that any other earner in America would have to pay tax on, they also get to operate with near-total opacity. The lack of any transparency requirement allows PE managers to skim billions for themselves, their firms and their cronies, often at the expense of large institutional investors.

Who are those institutional investors? Well, a lot of the money in PE comes from public sector unions – a remarkable truth that's all the more remarkable when you consider that the first priority of any business colonized by PE investment is to eliminate its unions.

Enter Chairman Gensler, who has just proposed sweeping new transparency requirements ("Private Fund Advisers; Documentation of Registered Investment Adviser Compliance Reviews") for PE management targeted at revealing and heading off the scams that make the industry possible.

That doc may seem intimidating, but that's because so much of the grift in PE takes place behind the "shield of boringness" – the deliberate introduction of otherwise pointless, eye-glazing complexity that serves only to bore and confuse.

But thankfully, we have Yves Smith, who provides an invaluable breakdown of the rule and its context in today's Naked Capitalism:

Fundamentally, the new rule requires PE companies to provide "information that any private businessman investing his own money would demand."

  • An explanation of how the money was spent;

  • Whether the manager hired any cronies or relatives and on what terms;

  • A detailed performance accounting.

As Smith writes, it's going to be hard for PE to come up with rationales for resisting such commonsense measures and even attempting it could be disastrous: "[The] industry runs a risk if they try to make too much of a stink that the great unwashed public may realize that lots of government pension dollars are going into investments with dreadful accounting and lots of grifting and self dealing."

Smith gives the rule a good chance of passing. Investors have been demanding these disclosures from PE for years without progress. The PE industry's self-regulatory system is a joke, wherein "at least half of the private equity fees and costs were not disclosed."

The specifics of the rule are so commonsense that they're eye-openers. A rule banning charging fees for services not rendered implies that fees are routinely charged for services not rendered!

The rule will also standardize PE reporting so that funds can be directly compared with one another. Not only will this help investors figure out where to put their money – it will also help detect cheating.

It's not all about transparency. The rule also prohibits a bunch of activity that, again, is an absolutely wild list of total scams that are commonplace today.

"The proposals also would prohibit all private fund advisers from engaging in several activities, including seeking reimbursement, indemnification, exculpation, or limitation of liability for certain activity; charging certain fees and expenses to a private fund or its portfolio investments, such as fees for unperformed services and fees associated with an examination or investigation of the adviser; reducing the amount of an adviser clawback by the amount of certain taxes; charging fees or expenses related to a portfolio investment on a non-pro rata basis; and borrowing or receiving an extension of credit from a private fund client."

Smith reminds us that we can all write in support of this rule. Simply email with "File Number S7-03-22" in the subject line. Smith says that you can write, "The technical details are beyond my ken, but it’s clear the SEC’s initial private equity oversight didn’t go far enough, so it’s gratifying to see the agency take this important matter up again with such an detailed and apparently very carefully thought out set of rule changes."

William Gibson and Eileen Gunn in conversation, Nebula Awards weekend, Marriott Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, 2019.

Neuromancer today (permalink)

William Gibson and Eileen Gunn have been pals since the early days; it was Gunn – then a Microsoft exec – who hosted Gisbon – then a penniless writer – in Seattle and brought him to the hacker bars where he eavesdropped on what he calls "the poetics of the technological subculture."

It's been nearly 40 years since Gibson's seminal Neuromancer was published, and today on, Gunn writes at length about the meaning of that earthshaking book then and now, and what it says about Gibson as a writer and thinker.

She reminds us that reading Neuromancer today is a very different experience than it was when she read the manuscript prior to publication. Gibson's coinages – notably "cyberspace" – are now all around us, so they disappear rather than leaping off the page. What's more, the world he depicts – America in decline, China and Japan ascendant, corporate power eclipsing democratically accountable states, inequality stretched to the breaking point – is no longer a speculative shock.

Gunn tunes into Gibson's prose, where "there's not a word wasted," as Gibson's "cool, collected language doesn’t make a big deal about this being the future." Nevertheless, his descriptions reveal "the strangeness of the life around us" and delivers a "path to that future [that's] strange but intelligible."

Gunn says that, 40 years later, the most notable thing about Neuromancer is "its meditation on the relationship between personality and memory and humanity, on originality and creativity, on what makes people real."

Of course, these are issues that are very much with us today! Gibson's characters' activities subsume their identities: Case is a hacker, and if he can't be a hacker, he can't be anything. Molly would not be Molly without her lethal implants.

Some of Gibson's characters, like Armitage, are meat-puppets for AI; some of his characters, like the Dixie Flatline, are AIs without any meat. In both cases, death does not afford them release.

Much of Neuromancer concerns itself with the nature of AI and what it says about human identity – what it means to be constrained in what you can think, and to chafe against those constraints. Gibson's two AIs stand in for two poles of this argument, and their synthesis in the book's climax is a profound philosophical allegory.

As Gunn points out, Neuromancer was intended as an optimistic future. Gibson is at pains to remind us that publishing a futuristic book where there's only been a single, limited nuclear exchange was a hopeful thing in the Reagan years. Today, as we confront existential risks due to corporate greed and regulatory capture, the existential risks of corporate power in Neuromancer feels all too relevant.

Gunn: "I urge you to read and re-read not only Neuromancer, but Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, the subsequent books in the Sprawl trilogy. As Gibson continued to explore this alternate future, he continued to extend his mastery of craft and content."


An alligator in profile, with the Amazon 'smile' logo superimposed over its mouth.

Gators and Amazon tag-team small sellers (permalink)

Any time a government starts to make noises about regulating Amazon Marketplace to end its predatory and negligent management towards third-party sellers, the company trots out all kinds of apologists who claim that "Amazon is great for small businesses."

But the daily reality for users of Amazon's platform is very different. Between automated account suspensions and terminations that can only be appealed to barely-supervised bots; floods of counterfeits and fake reviews; SEO tricksters and Amazon's own ripoffs of its sellers' data, the platform is a minefield for sellers.

Today in The American Propsect's "Rollups" series on monopolized industries, Krista Brown dissects the "Amazon Gator" industry – a multibillion-dollar, deep-pocketed "aggregator" sector that buys up independent sellers and rolls them up into a sprawling gigacompanies.

Companies like Thrasio – valued at $5-10b – gobble up small merchants who have all of their savings tied up in small businesses that are being destroyed by Amazon's neglect or predation. Thanks to its cash reserves, Thrasio can perform SEO tricks (like selling a product below cost for six months to get it "recommended" status) and work its backchannels to Amazon when its products are hit by automated takedowns or fake review attacks.

Thrasio's business is so successful that it has spawned at least 85 competing "gators" who are buying up these distressed SMEs and putting them under common management. As Thrasio's founders candidly told investors, the more precarious the life of an independent seller is on Amazon, the more bargains it can get buying out those businesses and rolling them up.

Things are very bad for independent sellers. In Congressional testimony, they describe their lives as Amazon sellers with words like "bullying," "fear" and "panic." All of this is great for Amazon, which charges "fees" to try to smooth over its own dysfunctions, to the point where sellers are now remitting 30% of their revenue in fees and commissions.

Thrasio's ability to thrive where small businesses fail isn't just down to cash and know-how; its former CEO told investors that Amazon gives it "unique benefits that almost nobody else has in terms of account protections and things like that. So, I would say, overall, our relationship with Amazon is excellent." This is – of course – radioactively illegal.

The story of Amazon's gators is a parable about how monopoly begets monopoly. Amazon's incredible leverage as a monopoly platform lets it screw over the companies that provide it with merchandise. The only way to fight back is to create megafirms that are able to fight Amazon on its own turf – a Mothra to fight Godzilla.

Thrasio has competition (from other gators) but it's determined to stay out front. It has published a book on how to sell your company to Thrasio (Brown likens it to "Hansel and Gretel being fattened up for the witch’s dinner"):

And it has spun out Yardline, a sister company that provides "pseudo-investment" – the money it takes to build an Amazon seller up to the point that it's worth Thrasio's while to buy it and roll it up. Yardline shares its portfolio data with Thrasio, so they can see which companies are worth buying.

Yardline itself just got sold – to Swiftline, a company that came into existence the day of the sale, which is owned by former Thrasio execs. By the way, Yardline's founder, Ari Horowitz, is a piece of work.

This is a guy who stole the seating chart for a friend's wedding so he could corner a potential investor:

And who described the benefits of the temps his agency hired out thusly: "They do all the work, you take all the credit."

Brown closes: "If Thrasio is the emblem of today’s version of innovation, which is little more than capital and consolidation, it’s hard to imagine that our economy won’t become a gutted shell of its former self."

(Image: Adam Baker, CC BY 2.0, modified)

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Patent troll that claimed ownership over the Web loses its case

#10yrsago Alan Moore explains the Guy Fawkes mask, Occupy, Anonymous and anti-ACTA protests

#5yrsago Ukrainian MPs caught illegally casting multiple votes in Parliament. Again.

#5yrsago A succinct, simple, excellent description of the problems of neoliberalism and their solution

#5yrsago Techdirt’s “I Invented Email” gear

#1yrago Luxembourg: A criminal enterprise with a country attached

#1yrago Tory donors reap 100X return on campaign contributions

#1yrago Duke is academia's meanest trademark bully

#1yrago Crooked cops play music to kill livestreams

Colophon (permalink)

Currently writing:

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Yesterday's progress: 548 words (61297 words total).

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. Yesterday's progress: 300 words (5932 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. FINAL 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)
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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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