Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist and journalist.

His latest book is ATTACK SURFACE, a standalone adult sequel to LITTLE BROTHER. He is also the author HOW TO DESTROY SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM, nonfiction about conspiracies and monopolies; and of RADICALIZED and WALKAWAY, science fiction for adults, a YA graphic novel called IN REAL LIFE; and young adult novels like HOMELAND, PIRATE CINEMA and LITTLE BROTHER. His first picture book was POESY THE MONSTER SLAYER (Aug 2020). He maintains a daily blog at Pluralistic.net. He works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is a MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate, is a Visiting Professor of Computer Science at Open University, a Visiting Professor of Practice at the University of North Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science and co-founded the UK Open Rights Group. Born in Toronto, Canada, he now lives in Los Angeles.

Publié le 07.08.2022 à 18:12

Pluralistic: 07 Aug 2022


Today's links



EFF's printer DRM banner by Hugh D'Andrade, depicting a printer with an anthropomorphic sick face vomiting out four bars of ink.

Epson boobytrapped its printers (permalink)

"Innovation" has become a curseword, thanks to…innovation. Some of the world's most imaginative, best-funded sociopaths have spent decades innovating ways to fuck you over. While the whole tech sector likes to get in on this game, no one "innovates" like inkjet printer companies.

Printer companies are true fuckery pioneers: the tactical innovations they've developed in the war on their customers would make Otto von Bismarck blush.

Selling printers with half-empty ink-cartridges:

https://www.thestar.com/business/personal_finance/spending_saving/2012/08/19/new_printers_may_not_have_full_tank_of_ink.html

Requiring useless, mandatory "calibration tests" that use up all your ink:

https://www.consumerreports.org/printers/the-high-cost-of-wasted-printer-ink/

Or just having printers reject partially full cartridges as empty.

When you're at war with your customers, you have to anticipate that your rivals will join your customers' side – not because other businesses are paragons of consumer protection, but because it's profitable. So printer companies tried to use copyright to block ink refillers:

https://www.eff.org/cases/lexmark-v-static-control-case-archive

Then patent law:

https://www.eff.org/cases/impression-products-inc-v-lexmark-international-inc

When that got stale, they figured out how to put DRM in paper, too:

https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2022/02/worst-timeline-printer-company-putting-drm-paper-now

If we could harness the creative energy put into turning printer users into ink-stained wretches, we could end the world's reliance on Russian gas in an instant:

https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2020/11/ink-stained-wretches-battle-soul-digital-freedom-taking-place-inside-your-printer

Here's a good one! Epson will brick your printer after you've run a certain number of pages, "for your own good."

https://twitter.com/marktavern/status/1550605262700122112

How does that work? Well, Epson says that it designs its printers with little internal sponges that soak up excess ink and when they become saturated, that ink might run out of the bottom of your printer and stain your furniture.

https://epson.com/Support/wa00369

If this sounds like bullshit to you, that's because it's bullshit, as are the claims that excess ink could get into the printer's electronic circuits and start a fire:

https://fighttorepair.substack.com/p/citing-danger-of-ink-spills-epson

If your printer's sponges get too full of excess ink and you're worried about it, you can easily and cheaply install new sponges:

https://youtu.be/EocI_8awj38?t=112

But that would deny Epson a new printer sale, and divert your perfectly good printer from joining the mountains of e-waste that are poisoning the global south, and we couldn't have that.

https://pluralistic.net/2021/05/26/nixing-the-fix/#r2r

So they've rigged their printers' software so that even if you replace the sponges, the printer can still refuse to print. Replacing or resetting this software requires that you bypass the DRM designed to prevent this, and providing a DRM-defeat tool is a felony punishable by a 5-year sentence and a $500k fine under Section 1201 of the DMCA.

But maybe this is a violation of consumer protection laws. Aaron Perzanowski thinks so, and he's a law professor. If the FTC were to go after Epson on this, they would be genuine American heroes, celebrated as true guardians of the public interest.

Previously, the FTC resolved this kind of self-bricking fraud by ordering companies to disclose the practice at the time of purchase. This is not good enough.

https://www.perzanow.ski/blog/2016/7/14/ftcs-revolv-investigation

A real remedy – one that would prevent this conduct in future – would be a ban on self-bricking devices altogether, along with immunity from civil and criminal liability for companies and individuals who design defeat devices to un-brick illegally bricked gadgets, under patent, copyright, contract, and all other legal theories.

Image:
EFF/Hugh D'Andrade
https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2020/11/ink-stained-wretches-battle-soul-digital-freedom-taking-place-inside-your-printer

CC BY 3.0
https://www.eff.org/copyright

(Image: EFF/Hugh D'Andrade, CC BY 3.00


Hey look at this (permalink)



This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Neal Stephenson’s Some Remarks, a remarkable essay collection https://memex.craphound.com/2012/08/07/neal-stephensons-some-remarks-a-remarkable-essay-collection/

#10yrsago If Hemingway (and Shakespeare, and co) were coders http://byfat.xxx/if-hemingway-wrote-javascript

#20yrsago Ben Franklin, hax0r https://web.archive.org/web/20020216042825/http://www.mbay.net/~jubois/id23.htm

#5yrsago Five reasons to play D&D https://grimmwisdom.wordpress.com/2012/08/05/5-reasons-to-play-dd/

#10yrsago Science fiction grand master Jack Vance rockin’ a uke and a kazoo https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oiOt6eW0pZI

#5yrsago Amazon is the poster child for everything wrong with post-Reagan anti-trust enforcement https://www.yalelawjournal.org/note/amazons-antitrust-paradox

#5yrsago “Adversarial perturbations” reliably trick AIs about what kind of road-sign they’re seeing https://arxiv.org/pdf/1707.08945.pdf

#5yrsago Real-estate speculators bought the road and sidewalk in a gated wealthy San Francisco enclave https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/matier-ross/article/Rich-SF-residents-get-a-shock-Someone-bought-11738236.php

#1yrago End bankruptcy shopping: No more Sacklers, ever https://pluralistic.net/2021/08/07/hr-4193/#shoppers-choice

#1yrago Doordash privacywashes its war on workers https://pluralistic.net/2021/08/07/hr-4193/#boss-app

#1yrago Facebook's official disinformation research portal is a bad joke https://pluralistic.net/2021/08/06/get-you-coming-and-going/#potemkin-research-program

#1yrago Scammers sell griefers social media banning services https://pluralistic.net/2021/08/06/get-you-coming-and-going/#curse-of-bigness



Colophon (permalink)

Currently writing:

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. Friday's progress: 513 words (29955 words total)

  • The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, a nonfiction book about interoperability for Verso. Friday's progress: 510 words (25953 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. (92849 words total) – ON PAUSE

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EXPERT REVIEW

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • 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: View a SKU: Let’s Make Amazon Into a Dumb Pipe https://craphound.com/news/2022/07/31/view-a-sku-lets-make-amazon-into-a-dumb-pipe/

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

  • Red Team Blues: "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books, April 2023


This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to pluralistic.net.

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.


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


Publié le 05.08.2022 à 16:09

Pluralistic: 05 Aug 2022


Today's links



A mammoth drowning in tar, from the La Brea Tar Pits. Next to the sinking mammoth is a sinking Uber logo. In the opposite corner is a sinking business-man whose head has been replaced by a bag of money. Running diagonally across the whole image is a jagged, declining red line as from a stock-chart.

Uber's still not profitable (permalink)

Uber just released its Q2 numbers for 2022 and trumpeted that it had finally achieved cash-flow positivity – and it only took 13 years and $32 billion in losses! So has Uber finally turned a corner? Will the company finally attain profitability and repay those billions?

Nope.

The best analyst of Uber's financial disclosures – as always – is Hubert Horan, a transport analyst who has made a second career out of debullshitifying Uber's balance-sheet deceptions, proving that the company is a bezzle ("the magic interval when a confidence trickster knows he has the money he has appropriated but the victim does not yet understand that he has lost it").

https://horanaviation.com/publications-uber

Every bezzle ends. Uber's days are, therefore, numbered. But Uber is a bezzle, and so long as new suckers can be found to buy up the company's stock, its existing investors can cash out and run for the hills in advance of the collapse. Uber management devotes substantial energy to polishing turds, bringing a deceptive gleam to each quarter's results to lure in new money.

Last quarter, Uber trumpeted its first profitable quarter.

They lied.

In February, Horan did an especially fantastic job dissecting Uber's lies revealing the accounting tricks behind Uber's Q1 profitability. The main trick was this: Uber had been forced to sell off unprofitable overseas divisions in China, Russia and Southeast Asia. The company had spent billions trying to enter these markets…and failed.

https://pluralistic.net/2022/02/11/bezzlers-gonna-bezzle/#gryft

The buyers for these divisions paid back a fraction of Uber's squanderings. Worse, the buyers – Uber copycats that were also losing money – didn't pay Uber in cash. Rather, they paid in their illiquid, doomed stock, which they had assigned sky-high valuations to, borrowing a leaf from Uber's own ledger-books.

So Uber sold off unprofitable divisions, writing off billions. It swapped these divisions for junk shares in doomed companies whose own accounts were works of absolute fiction. It claimed those junk shares were worth vast fortunes, called them an "investment," and declared that it had turned a profit. That was the secret to Uber's Q1/22 profits.

Even if you accept Uber's bizarre valuations of these companies, this maneuver should not send you out to buy Uber stock. After all, if the only way Uber can turn a profit is to sell off overseas divisions and exit major markets, the company won't be "profitable" for very long. Claiming to have turned a profit by selling off a third of the company is like claiming to have saved yourself from starvation by eating both your legs. What are you going to eat tomorrow?

Which takes us neatly to Q2-2022 (and H1-2022), where, once again, Uber is claiming to have attained profitability. How have they managed this incredible trick? Is the company finally going to deliver on its $32b promise of losing money on every ride but making it up in volume?

Nope.

Horan's latest analysis lays bare the latest bag of accounting tricks deployed by the company, summed up in a single line: "Uber has completely abandoned its original, failed corporate strategy, and has reverted to a lousier version of what traditional taxis had been doing for years."

https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2022/08/hubert-horan-can-uber-ever-deliver-part-thirty-one-ubers-legitimate-cumulative-losses-top-32-billion-pl-improvements-driven-by-much-higher-fares-and-multi-billion-dollar-transfers-from.html

Anyone who's taken an Uber since the lockdowns lifted knows that the company's prices have skyrocketed. What you may not know (unless you drive for Uber) is that the company has also slashed driver pay over that same period – over the past year, Uber's share of each fare climbed from 18% to 28%, a 66% increase in the shareholders' claim over the fruits of Uber drivers' labor.

This is a big deal! In Q2 alone, Uber transferred $2.8b from its drivers to its shareholders. If the company can keep that up, it will make its shareholders $11b richer (and its drivers $11b poorer) in 2022.

But how long can the company sustain this practice? After all, Uber drivers are living through the Great Resignation, the tightest labor market in a generation, with businesses of all kinds desperate to lure them out of their cars. Hell, Uber drivers can just switch to driving taxis and get a raise (many Uber drivers are cab drivers who switched when Uber's $32b investor cash firehose funded predatory low prices and driver subsidies).

Just as Uber must use unsustainable tricks to keep investors from bailing on an unprofitable enterprise, the company needs tricks to keep drivers behind the wheel even as it steals their wages. The latest trick? Letting drivers see riders' locations and drop-offs before they accept a job.

Now, this is absolutely a good thing for drivers. The idea that Uber drivers are "independent contractors" was always a tissue-thin fiction, but never so much as when the company dictated that these "independent contractors" wouldn't be allowed to know what jobs they were saying yes to, and how much those jobs would pay, before agreeing to them.

But for Uber to live up to its own mythology, it had to lie to its drivers, because at its core, the Uber myth was that it would replace yellow cabs with cars that would make runs to unprofitable exurbs that no driver would freely choose to service (while charging rates so low that drivers couldn't survive on their pay).

Uber drivers were never going to freely choose to make runs to outlying areas and then "deadhead" back to the center of town, earning nothing as they made their way back to the place where their next fare was waiting. The only way to get drivers to make these runs was through coercion: first, hide where the next job was until the driver accepted it; next, penalize drivers who cancelled unprofitable jobs after accepting them.

When Uber announced that it would finally let its "independent" drivers know what jobs they were saying yes to in advance of acceptance, it trumpeted this as a benefit to riders, because it would lead to "fewer cancelled rides." What it failed to mention was that this was because it would lead to fewer accepted rides. That is, rather than having to wait longer because drivers tapped "accept," realized they'd lose money on your business, and tapped "cancel," you would now wait longer because drivers just didn't accept your run.

Thus, Horan's conclusion that "Today, Uber is offering much worse service at much higher prices than the traditional taxi industry that it had 'disrupted.' Traditional taxis were unpopular because the only way they could keep fare revenues and costs aligned was to limit service to the densest, highest demand neighborhoods (maximizing revenue utilization and avoiding empty backhauls) and rationing service during big demand peaks…Today, Uber offers the same poor service as traditional taxis, but must charge enormously higher fares because of its much higher cost structure."

https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2022/08/hubert-horan-can-uber-ever-deliver-part-thirty-one-ubers-legitimate-cumulative-losses-top-32-billion-pl-improvements-driven-by-much-higher-fares-and-multi-billion-dollar-transfers-from.html

Uber's balance-sheet shell games demand that we credulously accept its claim to gains while ignoring the costs of those gains. In service to this, the company produces exceptionally opaque accounts that do not break out specific revenue sources and costs, using coarse topline measures to make it hard to fact-check its claims.

Nevertheless, Horan sleuths out some important figures. In 2019, Uber was running a negative 40% net margin (losing $0.40 for every dollar it brought in). It was spending $5.16 on the average trip, and averaging $1.89 in revenue on each trip.

In the past year, Uber has increased its year-over-year revenue by 105%, and its operating expenses went up by 72%. Today, the company earns $4.39 per trip and spends $4.69 per trip, narrowing its Q2-2022 operating margin to -8.8% and its net margin to -11.4%.

Hypothetically, if the company continues to raise prices and cut worker pay, it can continue to narrow the gap until it breaks even. But can Uber actually do that?

Nope.

Take Uber's wage-bill. The company bet big on formalizing its program of worker misclassification, teaming up with Lyft and other gig-work companies to spend $225m to pass California's Proposition 22, which would allow the company to abuse its drivers with impunity. But sloppy drafting errors led to the California Supreme Court striking down Prop 22 in its entirety. A similar attempt to pass a worker misclassification ballot initiative in Massachusetts also failed, not even making it to the ballot thanks to a misleading summary in the voter guide. The Massachusetts debacle cost its backers $100m.

https://pluralistic.net/2022/06/15/simple-as-abc/#a-big-ask

The failure to formalize worker misclassification, combined with a historically unprecedented tight labor market, combined with rising federal and public support for unions, is extremely bad news for businesses whose path to profitability depended on workers so desperate that they would put in 16 hours days and still need food stamps. No wonder there's a coordinated effort among the capital classes to engineer a global recession:

https://twitter.com/StephanieKelton/status/1555306569943891968

When it comes to customers, remember that riders have alternatives to Uber. Take Lyft, the uber-alike backed by billionaire Trump donor Peter Thiel (inexplicably, Lyft has cultivated a reputation as "the good Uber"). While Lyft follows Uber's lead in failing to break out gross customer payments, its revenue relative to volumes only grew by 12% in Q2, while Uber's grew by 66%. This means that Lyft is doing less gouging (of riders or drivers, or both) than Uber.

Lyft, like Uber, is a bezzle, and like Uber, Lyft is desperate for misleading accounting figures that it can trumpet to investors to goose its share price so the original scammers and their early marks can exit, clutching bags of cash. A campaign by Lyft that aimed at Uber's spiraling prices could easily tempt Uber riders into becoming Lyft drivers (likewise, a campaign aimed at drivers promising a greater share of revenues could prompt an exodus of Uber drivers).

As tech stocks (and other speculative asset classes, like crypto) crater, gamblers are desperate for a new sure thing, and both Uber and Lyft have benefitted from that. The companies' misleading Q2 figures prompted a rise in their stock prices.

That rise can be entirely attributed to three magic words: "Adjusted EBITDA Profitability." Or, more specifically, one word: Adjusted.

One year while I was teaching the Viable Paradise workshop, one of the other instructors handed out a piece of absolutely invaluable writing advice. James D Macdonald gave a lecture to the students on how to write about guns. Macdonald is a veteran with extensive firearms experience, and he explained how even minor technical errors in a writer's depiction of a gun would prompt floods of derision from his fellow Gun People.

But, Jim explained, there is an easy fix for this. Just add the word "modified" to any gun you write into a scene. If your protagonist takes aim with a modified Glock 19 and then accomplishes something technically impossible with a stock Glock 19, the gun-obsessives in your readership will tie themselves in imaginative knots to figure out what fiendishly clever modification you had in mind, and credit you for your deep knowledge of firearms.

"Adjusted EBITDA" is the "modified Glock 19" of balance sheets. Its subtext is, "Well, lesser companies may use generally accepted accounting practice to report their finances, but here at Uber, we know so much more than them that we have created our own, superior form of accountancy. If you doubt its superiority, merely consider that with plain old EBITDA, our company is hemorrhaging billions, but once we adjust that EBITDA, we are raking in fortunes! Who can deny our brilliance‽‽"

Just as Douglas Adams' hitchhikers carried a towel for its "immense psychological value," Uber and Lyft derive great PR value from their "adjustments" to their balance sheets. Non-hitchhikers assume that any hitchhiker with a towel "will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc."

More importantly, that non-hitchhiker "will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have 'lost.'" Likewise, the self-styled "brilliant investors" who are mid-bezzle and still think they have the money the confidence trickster has made off with will look at that word "adjusted" and assume the managers at Uber are on a glide path to world dominance.

Uber's bag of tricks is nearing its bottom. Its fantasy of magic, self-driving robo-taxis is over (the company spent $2.5b to make a car that had a fatal crash every 0.25 miles, and then had to pay another company $400m to take the division off its hands):

https://pluralistic.net/2020/12/08/required-reading/#goober

Same for the fantasy that it can attain profitability by throwing billions at failed overseas expansions and then make up for it by "selling" those companies to other failing businesses who claim their useless stock is worth a fortune.

https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2022/02/hubert-horan-can-uber-ever-deliver-part-twenty-nine-despite-massive-price-increases-uber-losses-top-31-billion.html

Also the fantasy that all Uber needed was to jettison the rapey frat-bro who founded the company and replace him with a cultured fellow who thinks rape is bad, actually:

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/16/style/uber-ceo-dara-khosrowshahi.html

But every bezzle ends. The Saudi royals – who provided much of the billions used to prop up the Uber bezzle in its first decades – cashed out with the company's IPO. The company may lure in some new suckers and delay the exodus of current bag-holders with its current fantasy of infinite price-hikes and wage theft, but that's a fantasy, too.

Riders who face spiraling prices will drive their own cars, or take a bus, or take a cab, or take a Lyft. Drivers who face spiraling wage-cuts will drive a cab, or take a job elsewhere, or switch to Lyft. Uber is a bezzle, and every bezzle ends.

(Image: JERRYE AND ROY KLOTZ MD, CC BY-SA 3.0, modified)


Hey look at this (permalink)



This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago ‘That would make a wicked WiFi antenna’ is the nerd equivalent of ‘That would make a wicked bong' https://memex.craphound.com/2002/08/05/wifi-antennae-are-the-nerds-bong/

#15yrsago Kadrey’s Butcher Bird: Dante meets RE/Search https://memex.craphound.com/2007/08/05/kadreys-butcher-bird-dante-meets-re-search/

#5yrsago Toronto’s real-estate bubble is finally bursting https://wolfstreet.com/2017/08/03/toronto-gta-house-condo-price-bubble-crash/

#1yrago Facebook escalates war on accountability: Privacywashing vs Ad Observer https://pluralistic.net/2021/08/05/comprehensive-sex-ed/#quis-custodiet-ipsos-zuck

#1yrago Drone delivery crashes: What do AI, self-driving cars and Amazon drones have in common? https://pluralistic.net/2021/08/05/comprehensive-sex-ed/#droned

#1yrago Anti-vaxers cool the mark: Using sociology to understand the con https://pluralistic.net/2021/08/05/comprehensive-sex-ed/#goffman

#1yrago Meet the new generation of pro-abortion activists: No more Mx Nice Intersectionalist https://pluralistic.net/2021/08/05/comprehensive-sex-ed/#never-again



Colophon (permalink)

Currently writing:

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. Yesterday's progress: 509 words (29442 words total)

  • The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, a nonfiction book about interoperability for Verso. Yesterday's progress: 500 words (25443 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. (92849 words total) – ON PAUSE

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EXPERT REVIEW

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • 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: View a SKU: Let’s Make Amazon Into a Dumb Pipe https://craphound.com/news/2022/07/31/view-a-sku-lets-make-amazon-into-a-dumb-pipe/

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

  • Red Team Blues: "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books, April 2023


This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to pluralistic.net.

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.


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


Publié le 04.08.2022 à 17:10

Pluralistic: 04 Aug 2022


Today's links



A blurred Petsmart mall store. In the foreground is a giant mousetrap baited with a glittering pet-trimming clipper.

A TRAP for workers (permalink)

One of the weirdest parts of conspiratorialism is the hunt for anagrams as secret expressions of guilt. Ken Cheng's recent BBC Comedy of the Week show, he has a great bit on this, pointing out how weird it is that someone figured out that "delta" and "omicron" are an anagram for "media control."

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0ckq7pb

As Cheng says, "do they think the coronavirus was invented by Tom Marvolo Riddle?" And yet, sometimes, villains really do use word-games to tip their hands. How else to explain that Petsmart's predatory "job training" scheme for new hires is called TRAP?

https://www.wired.com/story/contract-clause-loading-us-workers-with-debt/

TRAP – "training repayment agreement provision" – was billed as a free job training scheme for new Petsmart hires, a 4-week program to teach you to groom cats and dogs. But this "free" program actually loaded new hires up with $5500 in debt that they owed to the company if they quit, got fired, or were laid off within two years.

https://twitter.com/LifeatPetSmart/status/1148626627389267969

In a darkly hilarious turn, TRAP didn't even train you to groom pets. As a new class action suit led by ex-Petsmart employee BreAnn Scally reveals, most of the "training" was just sweeping floors, and the "four-week" course ended after three weeks.

https://protectborrowers.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/PetSmart-complaint_file.pdf

As Caitlin Harrington writes for Wired, California law actually prohibits these schemes, barring employers from clawing back training expenses unless they "primarily benefit the worker." Additionally, California employers are prohibited from "operating as an unlicensed post-secondary school."

But employers know that workers are at a disadvantage when it comes to enforcing these laws. Indeed, it's hard to know how Scally – who was making $15/hour and relying on family members to cover her monthly shortfall – could have sought justice against the private equity backed Petsmart except through class-action suits.

It's easy for employers to bar their workers from participating in class-action suits: all they need to do is subject those workers to "binding arbitration" agreements where they surrender their right to seek justice in courtrooms, and instead must plead their case to a fake corporate judge (an "arbitrator") who is paid by the employer who wronged them.

Some clever lawyers have developed a fantastic countermove to this, the "mass arbitration" action, where hundreds or thousands of workers or customers bulk-file arbitration claims, forcing the company that harmed them to pay thousands of dollars for arbitrators to hear each claim:

https://pluralistic.net/2022/06/12/hot-coffee/#mcgeico

But convicted monopolist Microsoft continues to lead the corporate world in innovative fuckery. They've just updated their terms and conditions to ban mass arbitration:

https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/servicesagreement/upcoming-updates.aspx?tduid=(e6d11a05aa8500a3b4be6d4c42131db4)(266696)(1503186)(33330X911642Xf7acc8227d2c85bbb5b31c0b2833ea5b)()

For customers in the United States, in the Binding Arbitration and Class Action Waiver section, we’ve added procedures if 25 or more customers file coordinated arbitrations. These arbitrations would be resolved in batches of up to 50 individual arbitrations. After each batch of up to 50 is resolved, the next batch of up to 50 individual arbitrations could be filed. We’ve clarified that arbitrators may award injunctions that would affect you and us only. We’ve also clarified that if a court finds part of this section unenforceable, an arbitrator would resolve all arbitrable claims and remedies before any court proceeding begins on remaining ones. We’ve given courts rather than arbitrators authority to decide more issues, including whether this section is enforceable and what it covers, and to enjoin arbitrations that don’t comply with it. We’ve also provided that small claims court cases may be filed in your home county only.

It's only a matter of time until this evil fuckery proliferates into every binding arbitration agreement, which would allow companies using TRAP clauses to get away with it, free from the risk of either class action or mass arbitration.

What's that? "Companies using TRAP clauses?" Yes, companies. Petsmart is by no means alone in creating a modern system of indenture, where your employer can fine you for quitting your job, and mire you in debt even if they lay you off.

A report called "Trapped at Work" from The Student Borrower Protection Center shows how TRAP clauses have found their way into "hair salons, hospital chains, IT firms, and trucking companies," sectors that together account for a third of all US workers:

https://protectborrowers.org/trapped-at-work-how-big-business-uses-student-debt-to-restrict-worker-mobility/

As the report notes, these employers TRAP their workers with bills in the "tens of thousands of dollars" and charge extremely high interest rates. Harrington points out that Petsmart's contracts promise "the highest rate permitted by law of the state in which this agreement was executed."

Like binding arbitration, TRAP clauses started out as a way to simplify negotiations between extremely powerful entities, but quickly became a means to extinguish any hope of justice in dealings between the wealthy and the poor. The first TRAP clauses were introduced in the 1980s for high-paid professionals such as "engineers, security brokers, and airline pilots."

But the erosion of labor law and the disappearance of unions freed up employers to TRAP all kinds of low-waged workers. Harrington points to the scholarship of Loyola Law's' Jonathan F Harris, who has documented this in detail:

https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3642017

TRAPs are ways for employers to get around the few remaining labor protection laws, like California's ban on noncompete agreements and the antitrust laws than ban employers for forming secret "no poach" deals that suppress wages. But they're also a way to head off the Great Resignation, by fining low-waged workers several months' pay for having the temerity to quit, and then smacking them with usurious interest rates.

TRAPs mean that workers who speak up about unfair or unsafe conditions. Carmen Comsti from National Nurses United told Harrington that the $10,000 TRAPs the monopolist HCA Health burdens nurses with mean that nurses are unwilling to speak out practices that harm patients – because if they get fired, they'll owe HCA $10k. And, as with Petsmart, the $10k "training" that HCA charges its nurses for is "regular old orientation that you would get on the job no matter what."

TRAPping workers requires a mix of desperation and deception. Workers who have the power to negotiate the terms of their employment will obviously try to eliminate TRAP clauses, so their new bosses lie about the enforceability of TRAPs. Scally was told that Petsmart wouldn't hit her for TRAP recoupment even if she quit early, provided they'd already made enough to cover the cost of her training. That was a lie.

California banned TRAPs for healthcare workers in 2020, and Colorado is poised to make it harder to TRAP workers, banning employers from forcing workers to repay standard on-the-job training expenses. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau is considering a nationwide ban on TRAPs:

https://www.consumerfinance.gov/about-us/newsroom/cfpb-launches-inquiry-into-practices-that-leave-workers-indebted-to-employers/

But TRAP clauses aren't the only form of corporate indenture. Worker misclassification – where employees are falsely classed as 'independent contractors' – opens all kind of avenues for indenture. The workforce at Arise – predominantly Black women – are forced to pay cash for their own training, and fined if they quit their terrible, humiliating jobs:

https://pluralistic.net/2020/10/02/chickenized-by-arise/#arise

Corporate America has an infinite appetite for dreaming up new schemes to reduce worker pay and security, offloading as many business risks as possible onto workers who can be dismissed without notice or compensation. It's going to take unions – mass movements of workers – to provide the countervailing power needed to check the business lobby.

https://pluralistic.net/2022/07/07/collectivism/#ruling-class-solidarity

(Image: Nightscream, modified)


Hey look at this (permalink)



This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Baen Books’ latest reader-friendly e-book venture https://slashdot.org/story/02/08/03/2314232/buy-one-book-get-twenty-two-free

#20yrsago Janis Ian’s successful fallout https://web.archive.org/web/20020803224324/http://www.janisian.com/article-fallout.html

#20yrsago Danny O'Brien's Random acts of Internet kindness https://web.archive.org/web/20020820082606/http://www.oblomovka.com/entries/2002/08/03

#20yrsago Bruce Sterling and I, debating spam http://www.viridiandesign.org/notes/301-350/00325_open_source_speech.html

#20yrsago NSA broke the Internet http://satn.org/archive/2002_07_28_archive.html#85310732

#15yrsago Henry Rollins rants about Internet freedom https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ut9-hgFbJWs

#15yrsago CBC bans employee blogging without permission – no politics or causes allowed https://web.archive.org/web/20071011063055/http://www.insidethecbc.com/bloggingrules

#10yrsago HOWTO open an electronic hotel-room lock without a key https://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2012/07/23/hacker-will-expose-potential-security-flaw-in-more-than-four-million-hotel-room-keycard-locks/

#10yrsago Cybercrime, patent-theft numbers are total bullshit https://www.propublica.org/article/does-cybercrime-really-cost-1-trillion

#10yrsago Sociability’s value comes from privacy https://web.archive.org/web/20120806214152/https://kyrobeshay.com/post/28647196980/being-social-is-about-being-private

#5yrsago William Gibson: what we talk about, when we talk about dystopia https://memex.craphound.com/2017/08/04/william-gibson-what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-dystopia/

#5yrsago Big data + private health insurance = game over https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2017-08-04/big-data-is-coming-to-take-your-health-insurance

#5yrsago Bruce Sterling in 1994, talking about crypto backdoors and the future of VR https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSINgf_UBS8

#5yrsago Tired of being gouged, Secret Service moves out of Trump Tower and into a box on the sidewalk https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/345243-secret-service-vacates-trump-tower-command-post-after-lease-dispute/

#5yrsago DRM in web standards creates new barriers to accessibility https://memex.craphound.com/2017/08/03/drm-in-web-standards-creates-new-barriers-to-accessibility/

#5yrsago After Defcon, the FBI arrested the UK national who stopped Wannacry https://www.vice.com/en/article/ywp8k5/researcher-who-stopped-wannacry-ransomware-detained-in-us-after-def-con

#5yrsago Global Wannacry payout: $140,000 — a superweapon in the hands of dolts https://memex.craphound.com/2017/08/03/global-wannacry-payout-140000-a-superweapon-in-the-hands-of-dum-dums/

#5yrsago Quackspeak ascendant: China’s subject-changing astroturfers rule the Chinese internet https://web.archive.org/web/20170701000000*/https://harvardgazette.files.wordpress.com/2016/06/50c.pdf?m=1464790150

#1yrago Elite debt hits record heights: How the rich get free money and don't pay taxes on it https://pluralistic.net/2021/08/03/fitzgerald-was-an-optimist/#debt

#1yrago Utilities governed like empires: One bad account disconnection can cost you everything https://pluralistic.net/2021/08/04/eighty-sixed/#thank-you-come-again

#1yrago Congress has allocated enough money to end the eviction crisis: But they asked the states to hand it out https://pluralistic.net/2021/08/04/eighty-sixed/#helicopter-not-found

#1yrago Vaccine refusal and health insurance: Insurers to unvaccinated: "Drop dead" https://pluralistic.net/2021/08/04/eighty-sixed/#risk-management



Colophon (permalink)

Currently writing:

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. Yesterday's progress: 558 words (28933 words total)

  • The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, a nonfiction book about interoperability for Verso. Yesterday's progress: 504 words (24943 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. (92849 words total) – ON PAUSE

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EXPERT REVIEW

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • 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: View a SKU: Let’s Make Amazon Into a Dumb Pipe https://craphound.com/news/2022/07/31/view-a-sku-lets-make-amazon-into-a-dumb-pipe/

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

  • Red Team Blues: "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books, April 2023


This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to pluralistic.net.

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.


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


Publié le 02.08.2022 à 17:26

Pluralistic: 02 Aug 2022


Today's links



An altered image of a 1968 George Wallace campaign rally at Madison Square Gardens, in which Wallace is speaking from a bunting-draped podium with a crowd behind him. Wallace has been replaced with a Gilded Age editorial campaign illustration depicting a portly millionaire with a money-bag for a head, limned by a blue 'supernova' effect. Stage left is a Democratic 'kicking donkey' image.

The high cost of "self-funded" Democrats (permalink)

It costs a lot to win a US election – even if it's just a race for (formerly) low-stakes offices that have emerged as culture-war battlegrounds (like school and election boards). In the 12 years since Citizens United, the dark money firehose has turned many races into plute-on-plute economic warfare, where cash from the 1% matters far more than votes from the 99%.

Republicans have a structural advantage when it comes to moneyball elections, because they are the party of rich people (or, more specifically, the party of rich farmers who convince poor turkeys to vote for Christmas by appealing to racism, xenophobia, transphobia, homophobia, misogyny and other forms of bigotry).

It's easy to make good on a campaign consisting of: "i) I will punish the people you hate and fear; ii) I will cut taxes for me and my rich pals; and iii) If governments were ever capable of doing good, that wisdom is lost to the ages, a forgotten art of a fallen civilization, like the secrets of pyramid-building. Today, the evil of governments is matched only by their incompetence."

It's really easy to govern incompetently, especially if you're committed to defunding all the agencies that protect regular people so that you can save enough on your taxes to send your failsons to The Citadel at $35k/year.

For Democrats, this poses a problem. Decades of declining union membership (abetted, it must be noted, by Democratic leadership) has all but eliminated unions as a source of campaign funding and volunteers. But for the Democratic faction that wants the party to stand for the interest of the professional/managerial class, there is a solution: "decent" rich people who can self-fund their own campaigns.

This is a terrible idea, even by the standards of the Democrats' neoliberal technocrat wing. The self-funded candidates who enter primary races are, at best, idiot dilletantes whose inherited wealth is derived from their having won a lottery by emerging from an extremely lucky orifice.

As Alexander Sammon writes for The American Prospect, party bosses love these fools because they are seen as bargains, candidates who won't tax the party's fundraising apparatus.

https://prospect.org/politics/democrats-self-funder-problem/

But there is a critical flaw in this logic: rich dilettantes make terrible candidates who lose elections to Republicans. Worse: because hereditary princelings can stay in primary races where they have no popular support, they can exhaust the fundraising resources of good candidates who can take must-win seats in the midterms.

Take Trudy Busch Valentine, the $215m scion of the Busch family, whose bid for the Dems' Missouri senate nomination has been almost entirely funded out of her own pocket (85% of the $3m she's spent came from her own bank account). She's a really, really bad candidate. She can't answer basic questions about a don't-say-gay law:

https://www.kansascity.com/news/politics-government/article263832082.html

She can't answer questions about a ban on health-care for trans kids:

https://www.advocate.com/politics/2022/7/27/dem-missouri-senate-candidate-flubs-trans-rights-position

And she literally didn't know what Citizens United was (you can't make this shit up):

https://twitter.com/BoldProgressive/status/1553838749062135809

If she becomes the nominee, she will lose.

But worse, if she becomes the nominee, it will be because she's her primary opponent, an anti-monopoly crusader Lucas Kunce, who actually could win, because he will campaign on issues that make a material difference to the lives of Missouri voters. Hell, even if Kunce beats her in the primary, he'll go into the senate race with a supporter base whose modest funds have been depleted fighting off this disastrous "self-funder."

The thing is, this Missouri Senate race is Democrats' to lose. The GOP candidates are a clown car: there's the Trump-endorsed (accused) wife-beater Eric Greitens, and the stunting Eric Schmitt (who wasted public money suing China over covid while serving as the state's AG). A good Democratic candidate could deliver a badly needed Senate seat.

In Wisconsin, meanwhile, there's another chaotic Democratic primary, spoiled by failson Alex Lasry (who inherited his wealth from his billionaire hedge-fund looter daddy) and Sarah Godlewski, another plute who has poured millions of her own money into her campaign, staying in the race despite the fact that nearly all of her support came from her.

Both Lasry and Godlewski dropped out of the primary after spending a combined $18.5m of their own money to attack and drain the coffers of Mandela Barnes, who never debated a real candidate and effectively ran unopposed by any serious contenders. As Sammon writes, "their effectively infinite cash kept them in the race much longer than they otherwise would have been, without ever building a meaningful constituency."

In New York City, millionaire Carolyn Maloney is bidding for the 12th District House seat, presumably on the popular appeal of her heavy stake in an "eviction happy rental apartment complex" – surely a big vote-getter for the Democratic base:

https://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/nyc-pol-income-firm-evicts-struggling-tenants-article-1.3909463

In Michigan's 5th District, Shri Thanedar has disgorged $5m from his own vast fortune despite his manifest weakness as a candidate; that money flushed out more Super PACs, including right-wing PACs (like United Democracy Project, a front for AIPAC) who've chummed the waters by dumping $5m more into the race.

We know how this turns out. The presidential bids of Michael Bloomberg, Howard Schultz and Tom Steyer demonstrate what should be obvious: dead-eyed billionaire wreckers and their fumbling, bumbling offspring are not popular with Democratic voters and will not win elections for Democrats. Bloomberg spent one billion dollars on his campaign and the only place he won was American Samoa, whose residents are denied votes in presidential elections.

And yet, self-funding continues to grow inside the Democratic party. Follow the Money's report shows that between 2016 and 2018, the spending by self-funders in Democratic races rose from 4% of Democratic spending to 12% – $547.5m! It's a sure thing that figure's only gone up since:

https://www.followthemoney.org/research/institute-reports/self-funders-continue-to-falter

This will get worse. SCOTUS's decision in FEC v Ted Cruz removed all limits from candidates ability to pocket their donors' money to pay themselves back for the loans they make to their campaign, which allows billionaires to put millions into a campaign, then get other billionaires to bail them out with tax-free campaign donations.

This means that each member of America's ruling class can serve as a one-person Citizens United, a dark money pool of their own making. It is another step on the road to government entirely run by centimillionaires and their orifice-lotto-winning larvae.

It's not just that these are terrible candidates who will lose elections. It's also that they will crowd out small-dollar-supported progressives like AOC, who campaign (and win) on popular issues that matter to and materially improve working peoples' lives.

But of course, that's the point.


Hey look at this (permalink)



This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Fred von Lohmann shreds WiFi FUD https://web.archive.org/web/20021014033848/http://news.com.com/2100-1033-947496.html?tag=fd_top

#15yrsago Proposal to reboot and de-cruft US Copyright Law https://craphound.com/PreliminaryThoughts.pdf

#15yrsago Shirky explains: destroying limitations is good for culture https://corante.com/social-software/new-freedom-destroys-old-culture-a-response-to-nick-carr/

#15yrsago Wal-Mart pays Mexican teens $0 an hour https://web.archive.org/web/20070802130650/https://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20056614/site/newsweek/from/RS.5/

#15yrsago TSA chief: facial twitches fight terrorism https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2007/08/conversation_wi_3.html

#10yrsago When Rudy Rucker met Kurt Gödel https://www.rudyrucker.com/blog/2012/08/01/memories-of-kurt-godel/

#10yrsago Scientology’s “Hole” – alleged torture-camp for high-ranking execs who fell out of favor https://web.archive.org/web/20120803172935/http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2012/08/scientology_concentration_camp_the_hole.php

#10yrsago Life in a city made of computers http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2012/08/how-low-power-can-you-go.html

#5yrsago UK Home Secretary evolves the self-serving crypto-denialism argument with exciting new bullshit https://www.businessinsider.com/home-secretary-amber-rudd-real-people-dont-need-end-to-end-encryption-terrorists-2017-8

#5yrsago RIP, Bassel Khartabil, Syrian free culture activist executed by the Assad regime https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2017/08/bassel-khartabil-memoriam

#5yrsago Reidentification attack reveals German judge’s porn-browsing habits https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/aug/01/data-browsing-habits-brokers

#5yrsago Norwegian Islamophobes mistake bus-seat-covers for burkhas, go bonkers https://www.thelocal.no/20170731/norwegian-anti-immigrant-facebook-groups-confuses-empty-bus-seats-with-terrorists/

#5yrsago Touring, complete: what gear survived four months of hard-wearing book-tour? https://memex.craphound.com/2017/08/02/touring-complete-what-gear-survived-four-months-of-hard-wearing-book-tour/

#1yrago Machine learning sucks at covid https://pluralistic.net/2021/08/02/autoquack/#gigo https://pluralistic.net/2021/08/02/autoquack/#gigo



Colophon (permalink)

Currently writing:

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. Yesterday's progress: 553 words (27827 words total)

  • The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, a nonfiction book about interoperability for Verso. Yesterday's progress: 505 words (23971 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. (92849 words total) – ON PAUSE

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EXPERT REVIEW

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • 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: View a SKU: Let’s Make Amazon Into a Dumb Pipe https://craphound.com/news/2022/07/31/view-a-sku-lets-make-amazon-into-a-dumb-pipe/

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

  • Red Team Blues: "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books, April 2023


This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to pluralistic.net.

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.


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


Publié le 01.08.2022 à 17:19

Pluralistic: 01 Aug 2022


Today's links



A modified Amazon product listing page; the buy with Amazon button and Prime logo have been replaced with a

Podcasting "View A SKU" (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I read my recent Medium column, "View a SKU: Let’s Make Amazon Into a Dumb Pipe," about how interop can help us demonopolize Amazon and tame its market power:

https://doctorow.medium.com/view-a-sku-32721d623aee

To explain this proposal, I need to start with an axiom: there are lots of problems with Amazon (lots!) but the fact that Amazon is really convenient is not one of those problems. Your use of Amazon isn't a mark of your "laziness" anymore than your consumption of plastics is a mark of your indifference to the planet.

As Zephyr Teachout writes in her stupendous book Break 'Em Up, "I like supporting local retail for shopping whenever possible. But I will not shame people for buying from Amazon the magic markers they use to write 'Break up Bezos’ power' on a big poster they parade outside their state attorney general’s office."

https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250200907/breakemup

The drive to "shop local" is great, but it shouldn't become a hairshirt. If you buy something from Amazon, it doesn't necessarily mean that you support union-busting, monopolization and creepy surveillance doorbells. It might just mean that you are out of time and live in a place where Amazon killed most of the retail that survived Walmart.

A Mr Gotcha panel by Matt Bors from The Nib. A downtrodden peasant says, 'We should improve society somewhat.' Mr Gotcha replies, 'Yet you participate in society, curious! I am very intelligent.'

If you've enjoyed Matt Bors's work, you understand this. It's the essence of the Mr Gotcha gag. A downtrodden peasant says, "We should improve society somewhat" and Mr Gotcha replies, "Yet you participate in society, curious! I am very intelligent."

https://pluralistic.net/2020/09/13/theory-of-change/#mr-gotcha

The fact that Amazon has given us a single database in which you can search for a large slice of all the objects of retail commerce, read reviews, and explore alternatives is good, actually. The problem is in how Amazon abuses its workforce, crams its suppliers, self-preferences its own goods, and shifts wealth from taxpaying local businesses to its tax-evading coffers.

The same politics and economics that have made it so hard not to use Amazon have also made working people much poorer, both in terms of money and time. It's not reasonable to expect people who are piecing together a living from three or four casualized jobs and paying sky-high pump prices to spend hours driving around looking for a local merchant to buy a specific widget at.

But what if we could make shopping locally – where a local alternative existed – easier than shopping at Amazon? What if we could actually turn Amazon into a tool for finding goods at local merchants?

A screenshot from Library Extension, showing an Amazon listing for one of the Divergent books with the 'Buy' button replaced by buttons to reserve at a variety of local libraries.

That's where my proposal comes in. It was inspired by Library Extension, a browser plugin that notices if you're looking at a book on Amazon and adds a "Reserve at your local library" button to the page, over the "Add to your cart" button.

https://www.libraryextension.com/

Library Extension is an example of adversarial interoperabitlity (or what we at EFF call "comcom," short for "competitive compatibility"). That's when someone adds features to an existing product or service without permission from the company that made it – like an ad-blocker that changes the websites you look at to make them better for you.

https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2019/10/adversarial-interoperability

Library Extension works as well as it does because books all share a common set of unique identifiers: the ISBN, which is easy to detect on a webpage and also easy to look up in a database of library books. Shared identifiers make cross-referencing easy.

The product listing and URL for an Amazon product page, with the ASINs highlighted in pink.

As it happens, Amazon has assigned unique identifiers to virtually anything you might want to buy: the ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number). What if a co-op created a database that cross-referenced ASINs with other inventory numbers (like UPCs and SKUs)? We could offer inventory control system plug-ins to merchants that automatically listed their inventory in a central, co-operatively managed database of what was for sale, where.

Then, users who wanted to shop locally could install a Library Extension-like browser plugin that did a quick lookup whenever they browsed an Amazon product page, and, if the product was for sale locally, replace the "Add to Cart" button with a "Buy from local merchant" one, which would automatically process a payment to the local merchant using a payment method stored in your browser (no need to set up a separate account for every merchant).

Likewise, we could expand Library Extension to add a "Buy from bookshop.org" button to every book page, and a "Buy from libro,fm" button to every audiobook page.

In other words, we could turn Amazon into a dumb pipe: a commodity supplier of catalog pages, reviews and recommendations. The conversion of centralized services into dumb pipes is a time-honored tradition, as David Isenberg wrote in his classic 1998 ACM paper:

https://www.isen.com/papers/Dawnstupid.html

Now, could we do this? As a technical matter, sure. A lot would depend on adapting small businesses' inventory control systems, but the vendors behind those systems would benefit from participating in those adaptations, as would their customers.

What about as a legal matter? Well, IANAL, but…

  • Your browser is yours. Adapting the web-pages you get served to suit your tastes is unambiguously lawful, as is providing the tools to do so. Hence the rise of ad-blockers, "the biggest boycott in world history":

https://blogs.harvard.edu/doc/2015/09/28/beyond-ad-blocking-the-biggest-boycott-in-human-history/

  • The ASIN database is a collection of factual identifiers; the USA has (wisely) not adopted the Database Right that the EU got suckered into, so databases of factual identifiers are not copyrightable:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feist_Publications,_Inc.,_v._Rural_Telephone_Service_Co.

  • Amazon's terms of service ban you from doing this kind of thing, but US federal judges are increasingly skeptical of attempts to block scraping public information through terms of service:

https://www.fenwick.com/insights/publications/hiq-labs-scrapes-by-again-the-ninth-circuit-reaffirms-that-data-scraping-does-not-violate-the-cfaa

Note that executing this plan won't solve the Amazon problem, but it will solve an Amazon problem. It's no substitute for other forms of antitrust enforcement (bans on self-preferencing, forced selloffs of anticompetitive acquisitions, merger scrutiny) but it is faster than those things, and will deliver immediate relief to shoppers and small businesses.

That's the kind of "tech exceptionalism" I'm completely here for. The breakup of the Bell System took 69 years, all told. We don't want to wait 69 years before we blunt Amazon's monopoly power:

https://onezero.medium.com/jam-to-day-46b74d5b1da4

This is why Big Tech is the natural starting place for antitrust: because Big Tech is built atop general purpose computers that can be rendered interoperable, regulators seeking to limit Big Tech power have unique, powerful additions to their to toolkits.

I know that some of my comrades-in-arms are skeptical of Big Tech antitrust, correctly asserting that other monopolies (like telecoms and entertainment companies) are also corrupt monopolies in sore need of antitrust attention. I want to break those companies' corporate power, too! In fact, my next book is all about limiting the power of tech and entertainment judges to screw creative workers:

http://www.beacon.org/Chokepoint-Capitalism-P1856.aspx

But the availability of cool, fast-acting interoperability remedies make Big Tech the natural place to start – the natural vanguard for the anti-monopoly fights we'll have to bring to every sector, from cheerleading uniforms to beer, from finance to international shipping:

https://www.openmarketsinstitute.org/learn/monopoly-by-the-numbers

Taming Big Tech is where we start, not where we end. It's the orchard with the most low-hanging fruit. Racking up victories against Big Tech will create the political will and the movement power to go after all those other monopolies:

https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2019/07/interoperability-fix-internet-not-tech-companies

Here's the podcast episode:
https://craphound.com/news/2022/07/31/view-a-sku-lets-make-amazon-into-a-dumb-pipe/

Here's a direct link to the MP3 (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive; they'll host your stuff for free, forever):

https://archive.org/download/Cory_Doctorow_Podcast_432/Cory_Doctorow_Podcast_432_-_View_a_SKU.mp3

And here's a link to my podcast feed:
https://feeds.feedburner.com/doctorow_podcast


Hey look at this (permalink)



This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Internet Radio tax created to kill small webcasters and eliminate competition https://web.archive.org/web/20020802201718/http://www.kurthanson.com/archive/news/062402/index.asp

#20yrsago Webcams and life in the panopticon http://www.drive-thru.org/#85305317

#15yrsago William Gibson’s Spook Country https://memex.craphound.com/2007/07/31/william-gibsons-spook-country/

#15yrsago TSA chief: no-fly lists work, but it’s a secret https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2007/08/conversation_wi_5.html#15yrsago LA hospital will give out your info “to protect the President” https://flickr.com/photos/doctorow/946451459/

#15yrsago DRM is digital Lysenkoism https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2007/jul/31/comment.drm

#15yrsago Bruce Schneier interviews TSA head Kip Hawley https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2007/07/conversation_wi_4.html

#10yrsago Ubisoft’s DRM leaves your computer wide open to browser-based system hijacking https://www.pcgamer.com/uplay-security-risk-spotted-ubisoft-looking-into-the-issue-now/

#10yrsago vN: a science fiction novel about robots, perverts, power and privilege https://memex.craphound.com/2012/07/31/vn-a-science-fiction-novel-about-robots-perverts-power-and-privilege/

#10yrsago Doonesbury has a new protagonist https://web.archive.org/web/20120802160523/https://thinkprogress.org/alyssa/2012/07/31/609031/doonesbury/

#10yrsago Romney’s tax-free decade What can we learn from the Aurora shooting? https://www.cnn.com/2012/07/31/opinion/schneier-aurora-aftermath/index.html

#5yrsago Bitch Doctrine: sympathy, empathy and rage from the Laurie Penny’s red pen of justice https://memex.craphound.com/2017/08/01/bitch-doctrine-sympathy-empathy-and-rage-from-the-laurie-pennys-red-pen-of-justice/

#5yrsago Amazon’s “fish antibiotics” are a way for uninsured people to buy medicine without paying for doctor’s visits https://www.vice.com/en/article/bjxwma/people-are-buying-fish-antibiotics-because-they-cant-afford-human-ones

#5yrsago Jury to rule on whether the CIA’s torture architects will stand trial for killing and maiming https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/7/31/jury-to-decide-fate-of-cia-torture-psychologists

#5yrsago Profile of Lexi Alexander: director, martial arts champ, and the first (only) woman to direct a Marvel movie https://www.wired.com/story/lexi-alexander-fights-back-against-hollywood/

#5yrsago What not to do when you’re anonymous, if you want to stay that way https://www.whonix.org/wiki/DoNot

#5yrsago A list of the most deadly calorie bombs for sale at America’s chain restaurants https://www.consumerreports.org/consumerist/here-are-this-years-8-most-ridiculously-calorie-filled-chain-restaurant-meals/

#5yrsago John Oliver reveals Alex Jones’s woo-empire of overpriced, terror-fuelled quack remedies https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyGq6cjcc3Q

#5yrsago Security researchers repeatedly warned Kids Pass about bad security, only to be ignored and blocked https://www.troyhunt.com/kids-pass-just-reminded-us-how-hard-responsible-disclosure-is/

#5yrsago Days before elections, the official in charge of Kenya’s voting machines has been tortured and murdered https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-40774938

#5yrsago How African speculative fiction gave birth to itself http://www.themanchesterreview.co.uk/?cat=343

#5yrsago Defcon vote-hacking village shows that “secure” voting machines can be broken in minutes https://thehill.com/policy/cybersecurity/344488-hackers-break-into-voting-machines-in-minutes-at-hacking-competition/

#1yrago Games Workshop declares war on its customers (again) https://pluralistic.net/2021/07/30/space-marines/#fairy-use-tale

#1yrago Github pledges legal aid for interoperators https://pluralistic.net/2021/08/01/balance-of-forces/#equilibiria



Colophon (permalink)

Currently writing:

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. Friday's progress: 553 words (27307 words total)

  • The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, a nonfiction book about interoperability for Verso. Friday's progress: 505 words (23466 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. (92849 words total) – ON PAUSE

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EXPERT REVIEW

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • 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: View a SKU: Let’s Make Amazon Into a Dumb Pipe https://craphound.com/news/2022/07/31/view-a-sku-lets-make-amazon-into-a-dumb-pipe/

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

  • Red Team Blues: "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books, April 2023


This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to pluralistic.net.

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.


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


Publié le 29.07.2022 à 20:59

Pluralistic: 29 Jul 2022


Today's links



A leafy suburb, flooded to the roofline. In the foreground is a sign advertising a new subdivision, askew and partially submerged.

Spending $200b to relocated doomed communities will save $1T (permalink)

One million US homes are built on floodplains. It would cost $200B to relocate the people who live in them. If we do that, we will save $1T. Those homes are doomed. When (not if) people leave them (either before or after floods come), they merely be arriving at a conclusion that is inevitable today.

https://prospect.org/environment/how-to-de-develop-in-an-age-of-fire-and-flood/

There's a useful concept to think about here: "Bezzle," JK Galbraith's term for "the magic interval when a confidence trickster knows he has the money he has appropriated but the victim does not yet understand that he has lost it."

Some people call this the anthropocene, but we could also call it the bezzlepocene, the magic interval in which we can pretend that there is a chance that we'll return to "normal," and can therefore ignore the increasingly pressing need to get 1,000,000 American homeowners out of the path of the rising, violent waters coming their way.

https://pluralistic.net/2022/02/11/bezzlers-gonna-bezzle/#gryft

An ad for Vita Radium suppositories.

Here's another useful concept: "peak indifference." Peak indifference is the point at which the number of people who admit that there is a problem begins an uninterrupted, continuous rise. Think of "medical radium" as a model for this. Back in the old days, people used to stuff radium – a deadly, poisonous radioactive substance – into every orifice, from asshole to appetite:

https://www.orau.org/health-physics-museum/collection/radioactive-quack-cures/pills-potions-and-other-miscellany/vita-radium-suppositories.html

Eating radium, smearing it on your skin, rubbing it on your teeth and stuffing it up your asshole is a Really Bad Idea. Do it long enough and you will die, in a very horrible way indeed. But people took the radium cure for a long-ass time and swore it helped. Some of them weren't sick to begin with. Some got better on their own. Some experienced the placebo effect.

All of that meant that, while there were always doctors and scientists running around shouting, "Please, for the love of God, stop putting radium in your asshole!" there were also lots of people saying "Don't you dare tell me what to put in my asshole!" while others were getting rich hocking radioactive butt-plugs.

Eventually, we stopped putting radium in our assholes. Somewhere in the journey from the first ad for a radium suppository and the last one, people started to self-radicalize as radium deniers. They saw enough of their loved ones develop suppurating lesions and ghastly tumors that they no longer needed convincing. Once that happened, it was inevitable: America became a land of radium-free back passages.

If a problem is real, denial can only last so long. Eventually, the interest on policy debt you accumulate from inaction will overwhelm your ability to service it, and you will end up in policy bankruptcy. No matter how many people are shouting "Don't look up!" eventually, even the hardest-bitten ideologue will become a believer, even if only as he breathes his last breath:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbIxYm3mKzI

In an ideal world, the point of peak indifference will come before the point of no return. Otherwise, denial can easily become nihilism: "Yeah, I get it now, you were right, rhinos are endangered! But now that there's only one left, we might as well find out what he tastes like, right?"

https://doctorow.medium.com/what-is-peak-indifference-b7ddb6d92ca5

(Or, more prosaically, "Yeah, you were right, these cigarettes were gonna kill me, but now that I've got Stage Four lung cancer, why quit?")

https://doctorow.medium.com/i-quit-9ae7b6010c99

There is a lot of housing stock that is in floodplains, and still more that is in urban/wilderness interfaces where wildfires are inevitable. We have to do something about that, and we're past the point where that something is "preventing floods and fires."

The thing we have to do is "managed retreat." As Gabrielle Gurley writes for The American Prospect, managed retreat is "simple, if hard-to-accept." It means ending decades of deference to developers who insist that "beauty spots" on the coast or in the woods are safe for human habitation:

https://prospect.org/environment/how-to-de-develop-in-an-age-of-fire-and-flood/

It's a lesson that California coastal towns are wrestling with. These are places where "managed retreat" is a curse-word, where politicians who dare to whisper about the risks of literally building a house on an eroding cliff-face is a bad idea are recalled and replaced with politicians who swear that we're just not putting enough radium in our assholes:

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-02-24/marina-sea-level-rise

Swish resort towns where the residents wake up one morning to find that their driveway and front lawn have disappeared overnight, so that their front door now opens onto a 200' plunge onto sharp rocks and surging seas are spectacular and cinematic, but they're not representative.

As Gurley writes, the history of "managed buyouts" is typically American, riven by racism that further punishes poor and marginalized people who were shoved into unsafe housing on floodplains by denying them fair compensation for the homes they are forced out of. A Pew Charitable Trusts report details a plausible plan for creating a new agency to manage this:

https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/reports/2022/04/property-buyouts-can-be-an-effective-solution-for-flood-prone-communities

We're already living in the managed retreat. The 2018 California Camp Fire and the 2021 Lytton Creek fire in BC simply wiped away whole towns, poof, gone, literally up in smoke. But there are localized pockets of peak indifference, places taking action before the point of no return.

In Charleston, SC, they're buying and demolishing houses in the floodplain, and blocking developers from building in low-lying areas.

Managed retreat is not defeat, it's victory. Managed retreat maintains our wild and beautiful places as buffer zones that are also recreation areas: campsites, public beaches, hiking trails. Just not places where you built a permanent structure that you fill with your every worldly good and everyone you love the most in this world.

During the lockdown, the World Economic Forum asked me to give a speech on AI and technological unemployment. They agreed that I could do a talk on why this was nonsense – not least because "AI unemployment" is a shell-game of bad statistics and hand-waving and sales literature masquerading as futurism.

But more importantly, it's nonsense because we have full employment for every person alive today and yet to be born. We are going to spend the next century or more relocating every coastal human settlement inland and uphill. This isn't something that will happen – it's something that is already happening.

It's a bezzle. The con artist takes your money but you don't know it's a con, so you think you're rich. The therms we've sunk into our oceans are going to melt a lot of polar ice. If you think we can prevent it, you're proposing that we repeal the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It's fantasy, not sf.

When I turned in the text of my talk, the World Economic Forum uninvited me from their virtual event. I published it instead:

https://locusmag.com/2020/07/cory-doctorow-full-employment/

The world I described in that speech is visible in Ruthanna Emrys's stellar new novel A Half-Built Garden, where one sub-plot revolves around when we should stop taking ever-more-extreme measures to keep the Mississippi from bursting its banks and finding a new course, as it did for millennia. This is something that will happen inevitably, but moving all the people whose towns will drown is not a simple matter technical or social matter:

https://pluralistic.net/2022/07/26/aislands/#dead-ringers

Fiction is one of the key ways to hasten the point of peak indifference: it's an appeal to our imaginations, one that warns about how bad the point of no return will be, and also what a victory addressing our problems will be. When the bus is barreling towards a cliff, swerving hard is a happy ending, even if the bus rolls:

https://locusmag.com/2022/07/cory-doctorow-the-swerve/

This is the premise behind my 2024 Tor novel, The Lost Cause, which tells the story of truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias following a successful Green New Deal transition. In the book's backstory, the GND is kickstarted by a series of (ultimately) fortuitous coincidences: first, a set of late-breaking electoral scandals results in Canada's NDP winning a large parliamentary majority in a year that they had anticipated losing badly. The new Prime Minister is a Metis woman who had been picked by party grandees as a symbolic candidate in an election she was supposed to lose.

Instead, she finds herself commanding a bulletproof majority just as floods wipe half of Calgary (a city where unregulated developers have built extensively on floodplains) off the map. Rather than continuing the cycle of rebuilding and reflooding, the new PM commands that the city of Calgary will be relocated off the floodplain altogether.

This is the foundation of the "Canadian Miracle," which leads to the creation of national high-speed rail, national renewable electrification, and, eventually, an international civilian conservation corps that travels around the world, learning from and assisting in comparable projects everywhere.

Lost Cause is a novel filled with wildfires, zoonotic plagues, internal refugee crises and flashfloods. But it's a utopian novel – because it's a novel where we got to the point of peak indifference before we crossed the point of no return. It's a novel about confronting problems, rather than ignoring them.

Because managed retreat is a victory, not a defeat.

(Image: Bdelisle, CC BY 3.0; Rick Obst, CC BY 2.0; modified)


Hey look at this (permalink)



This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago UK high court experiences flash of sanity, decriminalizes sarcastic aviation tweeting https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2012/07/uk-high-court-overturns-conviction-for-twitter-joke/

#5yrsago New York property speculators have figured out how to evict everyone https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/08/17/tenants-under-siege-inside-new-york-city-housing-crisis/

#1yrago Stories from Black women's customer service hell: The women who answer the phone when you call Disney, Airbnb, Carnival and others https://pluralistic.net/2021/07/29/impunity-corrodes/#arise-ye-prisoners



Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. Yesterday's progress: 532 words (26749 words total)

  • The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, a nonfiction book about interoperability for Verso. Yesterday's progress: 538 words (22961 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. (92849 words total) – ON PAUSE

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EXPERT REVIEW

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • 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: Reasonable Agreement: On the Crapification of Literary Contracts https://craphound.com/news/2022/06/27/reasonable-agreement-on-the-crapification-of-literary-contracts/

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

  • Red Team Blues: "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books, April 2023


This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to pluralistic.net.

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.


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


Publié le 28.07.2022 à 19:40

Pluralistic: 28 Jul 2022


Today's links



A remix of Benediction of God the Father by Luca Cambiaso, c. 1565, which depicts a bearded god holding the Earth under one arm. In the remix, God's eyes have been replaced by the glaring red eyes of HAL9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Earth has been overlaid with a Matrix movie-style 'code waterfall.'

Your computer is tormented by a wicked god (permalink)

Computer security is really, really important. It was important decades ago, when computers were merely how we ran our financial system, aviation, and the power grid. Today, as more and more of us have our bodies inside of computers (cars, houses, etc) and computers in our body (implants), computer security is urgent.

Decades ago, security practitioners began a long argument about how best to address that looming urgency. The most vexing aspect of this argument was a modern, cybernetic variant on a debate that was as old as the ancient philosophers – a debate that Rene Descartes immortalized in the 17th Century.

You've doubtless heard the phrase, "I think therefore I am" (Cogito, ergo sum). It comes from Descartes' 1637 Discourse on the Method, which asks the question, "How can we know things?" Or, more expansively, "Given that all my reasoning begins with things I encounter through my senses, and given that my senses are sometimes wrong, how can I know anything?"

Descartes' answer: "I know God is benevolent, because when I conceive of God, I conceive of benevolence, and God gave me my conceptions. A benevolent God wouldn't lead me astray. Thus, the things I learn through my senses and understand through my reason are right, because a benevolent God wouldn't have it any other way."

I've hated this answer since my freshman philosophy class, and even though the TA rejected my paper explaining why it was bullshit, I still think it's bullshit. I mean, I'm a science fiction writer, so I can handily conceive of a wicked God whose evil plan starts with making you think He is benevolent and then systematically misleading you in your senses and reasoning, tormenting you for His own sadistic pleasure.

The debate about trust and certainty has been at the center of computer security since its inception. When Ken "Unix" Thompson accepted the 1984 Turing Prize he gave an acceptance speech called "Reflections on Trusting Trust":

https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~rdriley/487/papers/Thompson_1984_ReflectionsonTrustingTrust.pdf

It's a bombshell. In it, Thompson proposes an evil compiler, one that inserted a back-door into any operating system it compiled, and that inserted a back-door-generator into any compiler it was asked to compile. Since Thompson had created the original Unix compiler – which was used to compile every other compiler and thus every other flavor of Unix – this was a pretty wild thought experiment, especially since he didn't outright deny having done it.

Trusting trust is still the most important issue in information security. Sure, you can run a virus-checker, but that virus checker has to ask your operating system to tell it about what files are on the drive, what data is in memory, and what processes are being executed. What if the OS is compromised?

Okay, so maybe you are sure the OS isn't compromised, but how does the OS know if it's even running on the "bare metal" of your computer. Maybe it is running inside a virtual machine, and the actual OS on the computer is a malicious program that sits between your OS and the chips and circuits, distorting the data it sends and receives. This is called a "rootkit," and it's a deadass nightmare that actually exists in the actual world.

A computer with a rootkit is a brain in a jar, a human battery in the Matrix. You, the computer user, can ask the operating system questions about its operating environment that it will answer faithfully and truthfully, and those answers will all be wrong, because the actual computer is being controlled by the rootkit and it only tells your operating system what it wants it to know.

20 years ago, some clever Microsoft engineers proposed a solution to this conundrum: "Trusted Computing." They proposed adding a second computer to your system, a sealed, secure chip with very little microcode, so little that it could all be audited in detail and purged of bugs. The chip itself would be securely affixed to your motherboard, such that any attempt to remove it and replace it with a compromised chip would be immediately obvious to you (for example, it might encapsulate some acid in a layer of epoxy that would rupture if you tried to remove the chip).

They called this "Next Generation Secure Computing Base," or "Palladium" for short. They came to the Electronic Frontier Foundation offices to present it. It was a memorable day:

https://pluralistic.net/2020/12/05/trusting-trust/#thompsons-devil

My then-colleague Seth Schoen – EFF's staff technologist, the most technically sophisticated person to have been briefed on the technology without signing an NDA – made several pointed critiques of Palladium:

https://web.archive.org/web/20020802145913/http://vitanuova.loyalty.org/2002-07-05.html

And suggested a hypothetical way to make sure it only served computer users, and not corporations or governments who wanted to control them:

https://www.linuxjournal.com/article/7055

But his most salient concern was this: "what if malware gets into the trusted computing chip?"

The point of trusted computing was to create a nub of certainty, a benevolent God whose answers to your questions could always be trusted. The output from a trusted computing element would be ground truth, axiomatic, trusted without question. By having a reliable external observer of your computer and its processes, you could always tell whether you were in the Matrix or in the world. It was a red pill for your computer.

What if it was turned? What if some villain convinced it to switch sides, by subverting its code, or by subtly altering it at the manufacturer?

That is, what if Descartes' God was a sadist who wanted to torment him?

This was a nightmare scenario in 2002, one that the trusted computing advocates never adequately grappled with. In the years since, it's only grown more salient, as trusted computing variations have spread to many kinds of computer.

The most common version is the UEFI – ("Unified Extensible Firmware Interface") – a separate operating system, often running on its own chip (though sometimes running in a notionally "secure" region of your computer's main processors) that is charged with observing and securing your computer's boot process.

UEFI poses lots of dangers to users; it can (and is) used by manufacturers to block third-party operating systems, which allows them to lock you into using their own products, including their app stores, letting them restrict your choices and pick your pocket.

But in exchange, UEFI is said to deliver a far more important benefit: a provably benevolent God, one who will never lie to your operating system about whether it is in the Matrix or in the real world, providing the foundational ground truth needed to find and block malicious software.

So it's a big deal that Kaspersky has detected a UEFI-infecting rootkit (which they've dubbed a "bootkit"), which they call Cosmicstrand, which can reinstall itself after your reformat your drive and reinstall your OS:

https://securelist.com/cosmicstrand-uefi-firmware-rootkit/106973/

Cosmicstrand does some really clever, technical things to compromise your UEFI, which then allows it to act with near-total impunity and undetectability. Indeed, Kaspersky warns that there are probably lots of these bootkits floating around.

If you want a good lay-oriented breakdown of how Cosmicstrand installs a wicked God in your computer, check out Dan Goodin's excellent Ars Technica writeup:

https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2022/07/researchers-unpack-unkillable-uefi-rootkit-that-survives-os-reinstalls/

Cosmicstrand dates back at least to 2016, a year after we learned about the NSA's BIOS attacks, thanks to the Snowden docs:

https://www.wired.com/2015/03/researchers-uncover-way-hack-bios-undermine-secure-operating-systems/

But despite its long tenure, Cosmicstrand was only just discovered. That's because of the fundamental flaw inherent in designing a computer that its owners can't fully inspect or alter: if you design a component that is supposed to be immune from owner override, then anyone who compromises that component can't be detected or countered by the computer's owner.

This is the core of a two-decade-old debate among security people, and it's one that the "benevolent God" faction has consistently had the upper hand in. They're the "curated computing" advocates who insist that preventing you from choosing an alternative app store or side-loading a program is for your own good – because if it's possible for you to override the manufacturer's wishes, then malicious software may impersonate you to do so, or you might be tricked into doing so.

This benevolent dictatorship model only works so long as the dictator is both perfectly benevolent and perfectly competent. We know the dictators aren't always benevolent. Apple won't invade your privacy to sell you things, but they'll take away ever Chinese user's privacy to retain their ability to manufacture devices in China:

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/17/technology/apple-china-censorship-data.html

But even if you trust a dictator's benevolence, you can't trust in their perfection. Everyone makes mistakes. Benevolent dictator computing works well, but fails badly. Designing a computer that intentionally can't be fully controlled by its owner is a nightmare, because that is a computer that, once compromised, can attack its owner with impunity.

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY 3.0, modified)



A still of Michael Meyers as 'Dr Evil' from the Austin Powers movies. He is holding one pinky finger to his lips. His face has been replaced by Peter Thiel's.

Peter Thiel's evil, but he's not an "evil genius" (permalink)

Peter Thiel: "I’d rather be seen as evil than incompetent." It's the far-right billionaire's most telling phrase. Thiel wants us to think he's an evil genius, because he wants us to think he's a genius. So much of Thiel's activity is devoted to self-mythologizing, like when he made us all think he was infusing the blood of teenagers in a bid to become immortal:

https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/08/peter-thiel-wants-to-inject-himself-with-young-peoples-blood

But as Ben Burgis writes for Jacobin, Thiel isn't an evil genius, "he's just a rich guy":

https://jacobin.com/2022/07/peter-thiel-superrich-wealth-inequality-political-influence/

Burgis cites Max Chafkin's 2021 Thiel biography, The Contrarian, which shines a glaring light on the distance between Thiel's stated commitment to high-minded ideals of "liberty" and his self-serving defense of mass surveillance and human rights abuses:

https://bookshop.org/books/the-contrarian-peter-thiel-and-silicon-valley-s-pursuit-of-power/9781984878533

If you think Thiel is an evil genius, then maybe these contradictions are the result of your puny brain lacking the subtlety to understand how, on a higher plane of reasoning, they can be resolved. If you understand that Theil is an ordinary mediocrity, no better than you or me, sickened by pathological greed, then there's a much simpler explanation: it's all bullshit, and the only thing Thiel really cares about is becoming richer and more powerful.

That explanation goes a long way to explain why a "libertarian" would defend Apartheid, express regret that women are allowed to vote, state that "freedom and democracy" are incompatible, and secretly fund a lawsuit to destroy a media organization that embarrassed him:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/mattdrange/2019/12/23/best-stories-of-the-decade-behind-peter-thiels-plan-to-destroy-gawker/

Thiel's self-mythologizing provides a cover for all of this, while making him far richer: for example, his campaign to make us think that Palantir played a role in killing Osama bin Laden was an obvious gambit to increase the share-price of Palantir.

Burgis cites Nathan Robinson's Current Affairs article, "Two Ways Of Responding To Conservatives," which used the example of Jordan Peterson as a template for critiquing self-mythologizing far-right figures without helping them by calling them evil geniuses:

https://www.currentaffairs.org/2018/05/two-ways-of-responding-to-conservatives

Robinson proposes a test: "Does it reinforce the person’s self-conception or undermine it?" Burgis applies this test to Thiel, urging us not to dwell on the drinking blood, taking votes away from women, or funding "neoreactionaries" like Curtis Yarvin.

Rather, Burgis says, we should focus on how Thiel spends his political money, backing "populists" like JD Vance, who say they're fighting for working people, but who oppose universal healthcare, universal childcare, and against raising the minimum wage.

Burgis: "Thiel is dangerous — not because he’s an evil mastermind, but because he’s a billionaire who enjoys playing with our politics and he couldn’t care less about the people who get hurt in the process."

Burgis's critique ties nicely into Lee Vinsel's idea of "criti-hype" – criticism that starts by accepting it's subject's own self-mythologizing, then damns them for it. Think of critics who accept Google's claims that its "AI"-driven ads can sell anything to anyone, then criticize it for having built a mind-control ray:

https://pluralistic.net/2021/02/02/euthanize-rentiers/#dont-believe-the-hype

Like Thiel, Google would rather be seen as evil than as incompetent. When Google's critics run around accusing the company of having perfected machine learning mind-control, they help Google sell ads, because the advertisers Google is pitching aren't upset that Google has a mind-control ray, provided Google will rent it out to them.

A smart synthesis of criti-hype comes from Maria Farrell, whose "Prodigal Techbro" is a great way to understand the problems with allowing ourselves to be lured into "evil genius" talk:

https://conversationalist.org/2020/03/05/the-prodigal-techbro/

Farrell's prodigal techbro is an ex-Big-Tech geek turned anti-Big-Tech crusader, whose anti-Big-Tech position starts with the proposition that they and their former colleagues were all evil geniuses who hijacked our brains' reward-centers with junk-science psych ideas like "Big Five Personality Types" and "Sentiment Analysis" (conveniently omitting the fact that these have been seriously undermined by the replication crisis):

https://replicationindex.com/category/big-five/

Focusing on what Big Tech says it does isn't just a problem because it perpetuates the companies' self-mythologizing, but also because it distracts from what we know Big Tech actually does. If we repeat the lie that Big Tech's ad billions are the result of its mind-control ray, then we omit the fact that Facebook and Google entered into an illegal conspiracy to rig the ad market:

https://techcrunch.com/2022/03/11/google-meta-jedi-blue-eu-uk-antitrust-probes/

"Just a rich guy" is the perfect epithet for Theil, who, after all, is not an ideologue or an 11-dimensional chess master. He's just another thin-skinned, greedy bastard who uses his money and power to accumulate more money and power. The rest is just window-dressing.

(Image: Dan Taylor for https://www.heisenbergmedia.com, CC BY 2.0; Austin Powers, New Line Cinema, fair use, modified)


Hey look at this (permalink)



This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Web contracts can’t be changed without notice https://web.archive.org/web/20070918070615/http://www.computerworld.com/action/article.do?command=viewArticleBasic&articleId=9028240&source=rss_news10

#10yrsago Record labels won’t share Pirate Bay winnings with artists; they’re keeping it for record companies https://torrentfreak.com/pirate-bay-loot-with-artists-120728/

#5yrsago Foxconn’s corporate welfare deal will cost Wisconsin taxpayers more than 3 billion dollars https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/politics/2017/07/28/foxconn-could-get-up-200-million-cash-year-state-residents-up-15-years/519687001/

#1yrago Bankruptcy and elite impunity: The Sacklers offer billions of reasons to overthrow the system https://pluralistic.net/2021/07/29/impunity-corrodes/#morally-bankrupt



Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Bruce Schneier (https://www.schneier.com/).

Currently writing:

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. Yesterday's progress: 585 words (26215 words total)

  • The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, a nonfiction book about interoperability for Verso. Yesterday's progress: 537 words (22423 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. (92849 words total) – ON PAUSE

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EXPERT REVIEW

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • 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: Reasonable Agreement: On the Crapification of Literary Contracts https://craphound.com/news/2022/06/27/reasonable-agreement-on-the-crapification-of-literary-contracts/

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

  • Red Team Blues: "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books, April 2023


This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to pluralistic.net.

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