Pluralistic: Dumping links like Galileo dumped the orange (20 May 2023)

Today's links

A pot of chunky chicken and vegetable stew.

Dumping links like Galileo dumped the orange (permalink)

Welcome to my Saturday linkdump, the third in an occasional series that may or may not be restricted to Saturdays, but which will ever be a celebration of olde-timey linkblogging of the sort practiced by our blogfathers, blogmothers, and assorted other blogparents:

Any fule kno that Saturday is Caturday, and today's woke felinism comes courtesy of Dr Eleanor Janega, the earthiest of all the Medievalist Bloggers, author of the superb Once and Future Sex, all about dirty dirty medieval people and their filthy filthy habits:

One of Janega's winningest formulas is "Find a dopey thing about medieval people racing around social media and then set the ignorant straight in a world-beating, extremely well-informed rant."

See, for example, "I assure you, medieval people bathed":

This week, Janega addresses herself to the burning question, "Did 14th C religious leaders label cats evil, precipitating a mass European cull of poor moggies?"

The answer, you will not be surprised to learn, is: "No."

Rather, medieval people – including those in the 14th century – just adored cats. That goes double for the religious leaders, as is evidenced by all the cats monks drew in the margins of religious manuscripts. Janega also reproduces painstakingly inked manuscripts crisscrossed by pawprints left by a cat that did the medieval version of walking back and forth over your keyboard while you're trying to enter your password.

There's also a manuscript with a large blotch that is labeled by a monk who identifies it as a piss-stain left behind by a cat (presumably a cat that wanted to go out and was tired of the monk not taking the walking-back-and-forth-over-the-manuscript hint).

In case there's any doubt about how monks felt about cats, there's a freaking adorable manuscript margin-doodle of cat in a little monk's outfit. There's doodles of cats with nuns, illustrations of cats hanging out with 14th century monks, and of course, drawings of working cats keeping down the rats in the barns and kitchens of the day.

As if that wasn't enough, Janega closes with this banger: 14th century didn't kill all their cats in a witch panic, because "witch panics are not a feature of medieval society":

Indeed, medieval people didn’t really believe in the concept at all. Even in the fifteenth century when the Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches, a witch-hunting guide was written it had to justify its very existence because no one believed that ol’ Heinrich Kramer was right about witches existing.

When people think that the Middle Ages is a place full of superstitious backwards religious fanatics it allows them to think they can just ignore over a thousand years of history because all you are going to see is disease and cat murder. This then allows stupid ideas like this to perpetuate and exacerbates the problem further. Suddenly the only people paying attention to medieval history are weirdo trad people who can bend the truth to suit their own aims, and baby, we cannot have that.

Happy caturday all, and especially to Dr Janega, may her quill never blunt.

Caturday – even a caturday about people being Very Wrong About Cats – is a reminder that the internet is often great, and not a cesspit of awful. Here is one way in which that is true: Mohit Bhoite builds tiny, perfect electronic sculptures that are both gorgeous little artworks and supremely functional exemplars of the hardware hacker's noble art:

Oh. My. God. These are so great. The tiny temperature monitor with the 7-seg digital display:

This stunning 7-seg counter:

This 555 Demux, with its delicate tracery of chassis and pins:

Each one a delightful morsel, made seemingly for the artist's own pleasure and self-expression. I'm slightly disappointed that these aren't for sale (because I want all of them), but even happier that these are pure works of art, unsullied by commerce.

An important note about Bhoite's sculptures is that they're built on open source hardware, notably kits from Adafruit, often based on Arduinos and other open designs. This openness leads to "generativity," the ability of follow-on creators and inventors to make new things based on existing things.

Generativity is the heart of the early explosive growth of the internet. From "view source" teaching millions of us to make the web to the LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, Mysql and python/perl) forming the substrate for billions of projects, the generative internet was – and is – the creative internet.

Despite a decade of energetic commons-enclosing, some of the staunchest bastions of openness and generativity continue to thrive, like Wikipedia, an encyclopedia that isn't just "free as in beer," it's also "free as in speech" – free to mix and remix as you choose.

Here's a whole passel of delightful Wikipedia-generated search tools, the Search Gizmos, a whole suite of special-purpose search tools that mine Wikipedia for informational goodies:

They're the creation of Tara Calishain, and there are so many of them that's it's hard to choose just one to highlight, but I'm enormously fond of "Gossip Machine":

A powerful tool that uses Wikipedia page views to surface potential “news days” in a given year for any topic with a Wikipedia page. By analyzing daily page views and flagging dates with significantly higher-than-average views, Gossip Machine provides you with pre-filled Google News and Google Web search links, taking you straight to valuable and insightful information about your chosen topic.

One of the bitter ironies of companies like Open AI is the co-opting of generativity for "Generative AI," a set of products that could not be more unlike the generative projects of Bhoite or Calishain.

This kind of language game is a hallmark of every scam (not for nothing: Open AI isn't open, and its product is neither artificial nor is it intelligent). As debates over "Generative AI" (which neither "generative," nor "artificial," etc, etc) rage, it's worth revisiting how earlier debates about automation, creativity and appropriation played out.

This week in Clot Magazine, Estela Oliva interviews electronic music pioneers Jennifer Walshe and Jon "Wobbly" Leidecker (Negativland):

The whole interview is great, but it really starts to smoke when Leidecker describes "Morover" a Negativland project built on samples of billionaires' own fevered rants about AI:

With Negativland, we sample those CEO quotes directly – with Jennifer, those quotes also wind up in her notebooks, which she uses live as a source – it turns out CEO & EA musings make for an excellent libretto. Our deliverable is the ecosystem itself! Image diversity is more useful than photorealism! Sometimes the original sample is unbeatable, such as when Sam Altman’s voice falters when he says he feels terrible that AI is the reason his Rationalist friends have decided not to have kids. He thinks in the future, so many jobs will be lost to AI that our economy will be forced to come up with new solutions.

Later, Leidecker digs into the meat of the debate:

Electronic music has been dealing with issues of generative music and cybernetics since the 1940s, with Louis and Bebe Barron working out the creative potential of these new tools, making self-playing instruments capable of observing their own behaviour. I take the core questions faced by creative electronic musicians to involve issues of automation. What can be automated that points one in unheard musical directions?

Can networks involve more people, as opposed to replacing them? What new roles open up for humans once the old decisions are being handled? Electronic music has over 70 years’ worth of deeply moral and very creative responses to the issue of automation, and these patent-chasing corporations aren’t likely to bring up any of that work during their product demos. They need you to believe they invented this. But there’s a long and helpful history, and there’s still time to learn it.

These are the interesting discussions we could be having about these tools, if we could stop letting mediocre billionaire live rent-free in our heads as they hold flashlights under their chins and intone "Aaaaaaaay Eyeeeeeeee" in their spookiest voices. These guys are pumping their upcoming dump, and all the biggest disaster-stories are part of the scam: "AI will become sentient" and "AI will do your job as well as you" are both statements whose primary purpose is to increase the value of the stock in companies making "AI" technology (neither "artificial" nor you get the idea).

I mean, sure, our bosses will fire our asses and replace us with shell-scripts, but they don't need working AI to do that – no more than they needed working voice response systems to replace human operators. They just enshittify their products and services, and do it under cover of chasing amazing new technology, and reap the stock gains bequeathed by keyword-drunk investors.

But the endless repetition of this vision of Fully Automated Austerity Pronatalist Space Neofeudalism gives people absolute brain-worms. The entire passive-income/rise-and-grind subculture has been convinced that they can use AI (neither etc etc) to make a fortune by…uh…generating plausible paragraphs.

Only problem: there's no market for plausible paragraphs. The closest anyone comes is the tiny, low-dollar market for short science fiction and fantasy, which is pretty much the last bastion of paid short fiction markets. Now, these are amazing publications, and they do wonderful work, but they pay $0.01 to $0.25/word, and – more importantly – are edited by humans who sift through 1,000+ manuscripts per month looking for brilliant work to publish.

These editors are handily capable of distinguishing between extruded verbal slurry and actual short fiction, but the brain-worm bros are convinced that if they hammer these editors hard enough with enough algorithm-wrought word-salad, eventually, they'll sell a "story" (netting a princely sum in the tens of dollars!).

This is objectively very stupid, but it's also very terrible, because the human editors doing this labor of love are drowning in aishit. The most vocal among these LLM-blighted publishers is Neil Clarke, editor of the great Clarkesworld, who is waging a one-man war on spammy LLM submissions. His latest dispatch from the front lines (ominously titled "It continues…") would be hacky sf, if it wasn't real:

The one thing that is presently missing from the equation is integration with any of the existing AI detection tools. Despite their grand claims, we’ve found them to be stunningly unreliable, primitive, significantly overpriced, and easily outwitted by even the most basic of approaches.

This is not the future we dreamt of. It's been stolen from us by the brain-worms. Writing in Business Insider, the great Nathan Proctor describes how automation lets companies bring about the "death of ownership":

When your device won't accept the ink you chose, or run the software you prefer, or let you repair it at the depot of your choosing (or even on your own kitchen table), do you really own it?

This is the theme of much of my work, of course, including my novella "Unauthorized Bread," which performs the science-fictional trick of building a world around a single technical conceit to magnify and clarify the underlying issues:

Proctor leads PIRG's Right to Repair campaign, and he's a comrade. He's got these companies' numbers and he's a tireless fighter:

I believe in truth in advertising. If you're going to sell somebody something, sell it to them. If you are going to lease something to somebody, lease it to them. If you tether their future purchases to a secret "agreement" that you baked into the technology that they don't know about, that is deceptive. Not to mention, tinkering and fixing are American traditions. The ethos of "if it's broke, then fix it" has other benefits, too. Repair teaches critical skills, it saves consumers money, it helps cut waste and product obsolescence. Tinkering and fixing also leads to product innovations that can benefit everyone.

Preach on, brother!

For ever tech bro who took cyberpunk dystopia as a suggestion, there are a dozen more who took it as a warning. Technologists like Micah Lee are on the front lines with Proctor and others. Lee was my colleague at EFF when Snowden contacted him privately, identifying himself as a would-be whistleblower who was trying to securely deliver a trove of US government leaks to some journalists who were struggling with the technology.

Now Lee is at the Freedom of the Press Foundation and The Intercept, and he's working on a book: "Hacks, Leaks and Revelations," is a practical manual for whistleblowers, reporters and investigators. Subtitled "The Art of Analyzing Hacked and Leaked Data," it's out in November:

Meanwhile, Lee has put swathes of the book online for early perusal:

This book isn't a mere manifesto – it's a manual, and it contains exercises for the reader to help them build a secure process for communicating and publishing in a way that protects sources.

Micah's work is a reminder that the internet is made of people. Take the people away, all you've got is algorithms spamming each other (this is the plot of my short story, "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth"):

People matter. Everything people make – corporations, cities, workplaces, networks – only matter to the extent that they help people. Here's a useful rule of thumb: when you're trying to figure out whether a cause deserves your support, ask yourself, "Does this help people? Does it help more people than the alternative? Does it help people who need help?"

Asking that question made me a union man. That's why I've been walking the WGA picket-lines in my neighborhood on my home-days while touring. It's also why I cheered the dancers at LA's Star Garden Topless Dive Bar when they became the first topless dancers in America to win recognition for their union:

The Star Garden workers are organized under the Actors’ Equity Association, the same union I wrote a check to when I paid Wil Wheaton to record the audiobook of Red Team Blues (Wil's a union man, too:)

There's been a lot of "ha ha the strippers unionized ha ha" nonsense in response to this news, but fuck that. Sex work is work. These are workers. They work in a field that is physically demanding, potentially dangerous, and rife with exploitative practices. Damned right they need a union. Go, sisters, go!

People who think they understand ironic laughter because they made a snotty remark about a stripper's union are absolute amateurs. To see how it's done, check out The Onion, a publication that is consistently pretty funny, but also reliably screamingly, viciously, incredibly funny, especially about the things that hurt the most.

The canonical example of this, of course, is The Onion's first issue after the 9/11 attacks, headlined "HOLY FUCKING SHIT" and containing such articles as "Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake":

The Onion continues to be America's leading ha-ha-only-serious forum, serving, somehow, as both escape valve and flame-fanner for the nation's bitterest ailments. For years, they've run their "‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens" headline after every major mass shooting:

But as America continues to record multiple, daily, mass shootings, The Onion's writers needed something else. Yesterday, they ran "Americans Describe What It’s Like Surviving A Mass Shooting," and oh shit is it a doozy:

“It makes you really appreciate how free we are as a country when you’re hiding under a desk with bullets flying over your head.”

“Those 15 minutes standing a safe distance away from the school while the suspect finished shooting were the most harrowing of my life.” (picture of a cop)

“There’s nothing like a brush with death to remind you that all your previously held beliefs are correct and should not be questioned.” (Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA))

“My boss let me use one of my three unpaid sick days to get sewed up.”

“Only two of my three kids came home from school, but Texas has no property taxes, so it’s a wash.”

I mean.


The new Gilded American Age is already looking a little tarnished. The unholy alliance between the infinite greed of the capital classes and the sadistic indifference of the terrified, authoritarian, musket-fucking Bible-bashers has us racing for the precipice.

It's wild to see the parties fiddle while the Shining City on the Hill burns. I think we all expect it of the Republicans, but watching the Democrats fail working people and continue to climb into bed with the ultra-wealthy and their priorities is demoralizing, especially for those of us hoping for more from the party of the New Deal.

There's been a lot of ink spilled on the Trump transformation of the GOP, but Dems' transformation from a party representing labor to a party representing McKinsey consultants is less well understood.

A new book, Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality, by Lily Geismer, tells that story:

Left Behind gets a fascinating review by Ruby Ray Daily in Public Books, where it is contrasted with Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s by Nicole Hemmer:

Both books grapple with way that the end of the Cold War and the Reagan era transformed both major US parties. In Hemmer's telling, Reagan wasn't the "dawn of the free-market conservative," but rather, the "late summer" of that brand of conservativism. Without "anticommunism" to animate it, the Reagan Right coalition thrashed in a void, eventually gelling into today's "nativism, racial resentment, and media hysteria."

Meanwhile, the Dems under Clinton turned their backs on state-backed programs and towards market-based initiatives, making today's "lopsided, unfair economic gains" inevitable. The Atari Democrats of the Clinton years were – in the words of one bitter union organizer – "crypto-Republicans."

Clinton isn't the Democrats' Eisenhower ("accommodating his party to, and sanding the radical edges off, a new consensus"). He's the Democrats' Reagan, "shaping and even leading this new market-oriented consensus."

For Geismer, Clinton wasn't simply jettisoning the New Deal – rather, he was embracing its technocratic, expertise-worshiping aspect. It was this tendency that produced Clinton's ghastly "welfare reform" and other attacks on working people. It's a stark reminder that ideology without a moral center sows the seeds of its own ruin.

Meanwhile, we live today in the Atari Democrats' world, where wealthy professionals play a high-speed game of musical chairs for the few remaining opportunities to survive the coming polycrisis with intact shelter, food and comfort. One way this plays out is in the surreal, vicious fights over college admissions.

It's only been a minute since the Varsity Blues scandal erupted: wealthy parents (including some celebrities) bribed college officials to pretend that nepobabies and failsons were elite athletes, letting them ooze into top college slots reserved for sports prodigies (slots that often represent the only chance for poor teens of color to enter these universities):

The scandal touched a nerve, perhaps because it punctured the already-fragile bubble of pretense that top colleges were full of the smartest kids in America – rather than, say, the kids whose parents attended those institutions ("legacies"), or made giant donations, or were coached and polished by tutors and consultants.

Well, there's never just one ant. Varsity Blues wasn't the only way for rich, status-obsessed parents to buy their kids' way into college. The latest rot exposed is a doozy of a scam: parents pay academics to pretend to collaborate with high-schoolers so they can put their names on papers published in peer-reviewed journals:

The story was broken last week by Dan Golden and Kunal Purhorit for Propublica and The Chronicle of Higher Education, in a long-read that details all the variations on this scam. For example, sometimes the kid does actually do some original research, but the "journal" is a fake outlet run by the "service" that connects academics and kids.

Bottom line is it works: college admissions officers are deluged with applications and don't have time to look up the "peer reviewed" publications claimed by applicants. Faculty don't have the time or inclination to do it either. The stakes are incredibly high, the costs are very high, and the institutions that do the evaluations are weak afterthoughts.

I wonder if we won't just eventually give up and admit that a degree from a Big Ten or an Ivy is just a thing you buy, like a Picasso or a blood diamond. We could just turn it into a half million dollar blue tick and have done with it.


Hate to end this linkdump on a down-note, but there you have it. Next time I do one of these, I'll try to remember to hold back one of the upbeat links for a palate cleanser.

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Security and the statistics of rare events

#15yrsago Phlashing attack permanently destroys hardware over the network

#15yrsago Napster goes DRM-free MP3

#15yrsago Netherlands bans e-voting

#15yrsago Hypocrite GOP House Leader Boehner wants wiretapping protection — but only for himself

#10yrsago The Twelve-Fingered Boy – mesmerizing YA horror novel

#10yrsago Rare, amazing original prospectus for Disneyland

#10yrsago Movie studios send fraudulent censorship demands over Pirate Bay documentary

#10yrsago My Sense About Science lecture

#5yrsago News crew discovers 40 cellphone-tracking devices operating around DC

#5yrsago Stagnant wages + soaring cost of living + massive cuts to services = collapsing US birth-rate

#1yrago About Those Killswitched Ukrainian Tractors

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Dan Gillmor (, Taylor Jessen (, Naked Capitalism (, Kottke (, Boing Boing (

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