[Plura-list] Phishers deploy fake contact-tracing warnings; Podcasting John Scalzi's The Last Emperox; Private equity blew millions on pro-surprise-billing ads while cutting doctor pay

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Tue Apr 21 12:27:44 EDT 2020

Today's links

* Phishers deploy fake contact-tracing warnings: Co-evolution of a virus
with a scam.

* Podcasting John Scalzi's The Last Emperox: Mutual aid in the time of

* Private equity blew millions on pro-surprise-billing ads while cutting
doctor pay: Follow the (dark) money..

* Every Covid-19 Commerical is Exactly the Same: We're all in this

* Multi-level dungeon built into the drawers of an old dresser: 1981
Basic Set box-set cover rides again!.

* Talking bunker-busting with Trashfuture: End of the world as we know,
feeling fine..

* Whole Foods has a union-busting "heatmap" app: Solve for equilibrium
between guard labor and guillotines..

* Amazon workers plan nationwide walkout: No warehouse workers, no Amazon..

* Texas AG: We'll imprison people who warn about getting covid while
voting: Mess with Texas..

* Australian regulator takes up Right to Repair for tractors: John Deere
reinvents sharecropping..

* Smart bassinet can be remotely hacked: Internet of Shit, parenting

* Covid did not escape from a Chinese lab: Covid truthers are the new
9/11 truthers..

* This day in history: 2005, 2015, 2019.

* Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming appearances, current writing
projects, current reading.


👖 Phishers deploy fake contact-tracing warnings

Phishers are sending out fake contact-tracing messages warning people
they've come into contact with infectious individuals and asking them to
click a link to a malware dropper.


It's both totally predictable and extremely clever. We're primed to
expect these messages, we don't know what they're supposed to look like,
and finding out what this message says is really urgent. It's an ideal
moment to be sending out this kind of thing if you're a scumbag.

It's easy to feel invulnerable to phishing, but phishing is so
persistent that the moment you are vulnerable, there will almost
certainly be a phishing scam waiting to pounce.



👖 Podcasting John Scalzi's The Last Emperox

I am about to start a serialized podcast reading of my novel Someone
Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, whose first hour I've already got in
the can. It debuts later this week on the Podapalooza festival, a
pay-what-you-like, virtual podcasting festival that benefits
Givedirectly, which makes direct cash grants to families affected by
coronavirus -- and I'll be putting it in my feed next Monday.


In the meantime, I have been casting about for something to read into
this week's podcast; this weekend, my friends Doselle Young and Gretchen
Ash stopped by and sat at the end of our driveway while my wife and I
sat on our porch and we all ate tacos together (socially distanced
socializing!) and I mentioned this to them and Doselle suggested that I
read aloud John Scalzi's new novel, The Last Emperox, and I texted John
and asked if he'd be up for it, and he was, and here we are.


The Last Emperox is the final volume in the "Interdependency" trilogy
that began with "The Collapsing Empire," a novel about a galactic
civilization that depends on wormholes that allow for faster-than-light
travel, just as those wormholes start mysteriously failing. The first
book came out at the same time as my 2017 novel Walkaway and John and I
toured our books together back then.


John was supposed to be on an intense, national tour with his book right
now, but, of course, he is not.


He is one of the first wave of writers experimenting with what book
publicity looks like in the age of pandemic, and is blazing the trail
for those of us who will come later (I have three books out between now
and Christmas, so this is something I'm watching very closely). A lot of
the future of authorship is going to rely upon mutual aid, so getting a
chance to plug Scalzi's (excellent) new book in the podcast is something
I'm really excited about.



👖 Private equity blew millions on pro-surprise-billing ads while
cutting doctor pay

When private equity firms started buying up hospital doctors' groups and
opting them out of insurance plans and nailing critically ill and
injured people with "surprise bills" for thousands, they said that the
doctors were in charge, not the PE companies.

That pretence wore pretty thin when PE companies denied doctors access
to PPE, cut their wages and started firing doctors who spoke out about
their working conditions ("The doctors are in charge. Also, the doctors
are fired").


Even as health workers' wages have vanished, the health firms themselves
are making massive windfall profits and paying out billions in stock


But PE companies aren't entirely adverse to spending. Even while they
were slashing health workers' pay, they found millions for ad campaigns
aimed at convincing lawmakers not to ban surprise billing in the
stimulus bill.


PE companies like KKR and Blackstone funneled the money to the astroturf
group Doctor Patient Unity, a dark money org that lobbies for lower
health-care standards and higher bills.

In addition to the millions for TV/radio ads, there was a massive online
campaign whose spending need not be disclosed.

It's not KKR's only stimulus rodeo event: they're also backers of coal
company Longview Power that exploited Payroll Protection Plan loophole
that let them harvest millions in government handouts, declare
bankruptcy, and pocket the money.



👖 Every Covid-19 Commerical is Exactly the Same

I am in awe of Microsoft Sam's supercut, "Every Covid-19 Commerical is
Exactly the Same."


Sam's right: every one of these videos hits the same notes: "We're here
for you," "uncertain times," "people," "families," "we're all in this

And Sam's right about the reasons: they're all laboring under the same
constraints: producing in a hurry, using stock footage and B-roll, while
in the same crisis (in part, this is testament to how similar every
director's idea of B-roll is, too).

But the writing and narration are eerily similar, too, reflecting just
how quickly our rhetoric has ossified into cliche.

More than that, I think the writing represents the limited number of
ways to paper over the truth we are all sensing.

That these corporations are not our friends. They are colony organisms
that treat us as their inconvenient gut flora. If they survive, it will
be because they hire the lobbyists who help them divert stimulus away
from us to their shareholders.

"We're all in it together" the same way were were "all in it together"
in 2008, when the banks trousered trillions, used signature mills to
steal our houses, and corrupted our political process for a decade.

They firehosed the money they grifted to back the Trump campaign,
because of course they did, because they'd back Adolf Hitler if he'd
lower their taxes by a nickel.

"We're all in this together." Some of us are more in this than others.


👖 Multi-level dungeon built into the drawers of an old dresser

The *best thing* I've seen on Twitter this week (month?) is Justin
Alexander's thread documenting "The Dungeon of Drezzar," Peter Heeringa
and Troy Wilhelmson's spectacular multilevel dungeon built into a series
of dresser drawers.


Heeringa and Wilhelmson built an entire dungeon-level into each drawer,
painstakingly painted, staged and decorated. It's intricate: the
"tavern" includes a teeny tiny noticeboard where adventurers can leave
notes for one other.


There are effects that span multiple drawers, like a well that goes
straight down, and each drawer can be removed and played on a game-table.


But that's nothin', because, as Alexander notes, the dragon guarding the
bottom level and her lair match the cover of the 1981 Basic D&D; box set.


This is so amazing that I am in a state of grace and prepared to meet my

Holy. Shit.

(Bonus: After I posted this as a Twitter thread, Heeringa sent me this
video of a walkthrough of Drezzer:)



👖 Talking bunker-busting with Trashfuture

I had a fantastic time as a guest on the latest Trashfuture podcsat; we
discussed the British effort to dominate the global championship for
"Making empty symbolic gestures rather than compensating health care
workers" Premier League.


But the real meat of our discussion is the luxury bunker industry and
the plute hobbits who are fleeing to New Zealand to cower in them,
wetting their beds while proles reboot civilization (AKA the plot of my
novella *Masque of the Red Death*):


These trembling masters of the universe are planning to emerge someday
with thumb-drives full of Bitcoin and AR-15s, enabling them to assemble
a harem and live out an eternal Frazetta-painting future.

They will be disappointed.

Here's an MP3:



👖 Whole Foods has a union-busting "heatmap" app

Whole Foods management have found a cost-effective way of managing
employee dissatisfaction. Instead of providing adequate pay and
protection, they're tracking union activity with an "interactive
heatmap" that prioritizes union-busting activities.


What signals does the heatmap incorporate to predict unionization? It's
quite a list: "employee 'loyalty,' turnover, and racial diversity;
'tipline' calls to human resources; proximity to a union office; and
violations recorded by OSHA."

Also: "Local economic and demographic factors such as the unemployment
rate in a store's location and the percentage of families in the area
living below the poverty line."

It's basically an immiseration index.

Fighting unions is expensive. Between 2014-17, US companies spent $100m
on anti-unionization "consultants."

But it's still cheaper than paying a living wage and providing a safe
work environment.

Ever since mass digital surveillance burst on the scene, I've been
asking myself "Why spy?" What utility does mass surveillance provide to
the states (and firms) that procure it?


I think the answer is that unequal states are intrinsically unstable.
Every era has needed a narrative to prevent the many from redistributing
the concentrated wealth of the few. Once, it was the divine right of
kings: aristos are richer for you because God made it so.

Today, we hear stories like "meritocracy" (the people on top are the
best people, and if you're better you can join them) or "shared
prosperity" (allowing the natural leaders of the genetic lottery to
dominate will produce more for us).

But these stories are wearing thin.

People are increasingly unwilling to accept fairy tales about how
someday they might rise to the exalted heights (the spectacle of the
idiot children of the rich frolicking in pools of vintage Veuve make it
obvious that rewards are not allocated by merit).

And the cod-eugenic explanation wears thinner by the day, revealing the
white supremacist face behind its mask.

Absent a normative tale of why we should accept inequality, elites turn
to other methods. Historically, these are either:

* Redistribution, or

* Guard labor.

That is, you can either suffer yourself to be taxed for schools,
hospitals and roads, or you can pay armed guards to prevent proles from
building guillotines outside the gates of your manor.

1Redistribution is obviously a nonstarter for plutes who take it as
gospel that "taxation is theft."

If you're a neo-aristo who doesn't want to normalize being taxed, you
can engage in a performance of redistribution through "philanthropy."

This allows you to retain the moral position that there should be no
democratic say in the allocation of the wealth of the nation, but
rather, that the super-rich alone should decide what social programs
we'll have and how they should run.

This has the side-benefit of allowing dilletantes like Betsy DeVos and
Bill Gates to do things like remake our education system in forms
dictated by their pet theories, irrespective of the evidence to support
those theories.

But if you yank on the philanthropy lever long and hard enough, it'll
break off in your hand, so you turn to guard labor.

Guard labor costs! You have to pay for guards, and then you have to fret
that they might turn on you and stage a palace coup.


But automation is a great boon to guard labor. Not only does it act as a
force-multiplier (the Stasi needed one spy for every 60 people in the
DDR; the NSA can effect global surveillance at a ratio more like
1:10,000) - but computers don't stage palace coups.

As our friends in the right like to say, "Solve for equilibrium." The
more "union heatmaps" you have (assuming they actually work), the less
you have to pay your workers in order to maintain a stable workplace.

Rather than squandering resources on either paychecks or indiscriminate
unionbusting, you can direct your fuckery budget with laser focus,
targeting only those shops likely to organize.


👖 Amazon workers plan nationwide walkout

Amazon warehouse workers are planning a nationwide "mass call out" - a
stay-at-home protest whose demands are for facilities where someone
tests positive to be shut and cleaned, and for workers to receive pay
while they're waiting for it to reopen.


Workers at 50 Amazon warehouses have signed up to participate. They also
want to eliminate the quotas that force them to work at such an intense
pace that they have to choose between handwashing and getting the job done.


Amazon has been aggressively union-busting its warehouse employees even
as they have raked in record profits due to the pandemic (Jeff Bezos
added $24B to his fortune thanks to the crisis).


The company's panic that the pandemic tilts the balance of power towards
its low-wage workers is palpable. They've even started firing their
(nominally) impossible-to-replace tech workers in retaliation for
solidarity with warehouse workers.


Recent years have seen tech worker uprisings wherein high-waged workers
openly defied their employers, staged mass walkouts, and embarrassed and
humiliated senior management both publicly and internally. The reprisals
were limited, a testament to the scarcity of tech workers.

It's nice to extract higher profits for your tech company shareholders,
sure, but it's hard to do that without tech workers.

Now, it's warehouse workers that have the leverage. Getting new workers
into those jobs during pandemic lockdown is very hard.

Without warehouse workers, Amazon ceases to be a going concern.

It's no wonder the company is lashing out like a maddened bull. Yes, the
company is stronger than ever - but it's also weaker.



👖 Texas AG: We'll imprison people who warn about getting covid while voting

The Attorney General of Texas, Ken Paxton, has threatened Texans with
prison if they publicly state their belief that the coronavirus pandemic
means that everyone should be casting postal votes to avoid getting


His argument: the risk of covid infection is not a disability under
relevant laws. Therefore, if you say people should apply for a mail-in
ballot, you violate Texas law prohibiting "intentionally causing false
information to be provided on an application for ballot by mail."

The penalty for violating TEX. ELEC. CODE § 84.004 is "a state jail
felony," carrying 6mos-2yrs in jail and up to $10,000 in fines.



👖 Australian regulator takes up Right to Repair for tractors

A breakthrough in the agricultural Right to Repair fight: the Australian
Consumer and Competition Commission is investigating whether it's legal
for companies like John Deere to bully farmers into exclusively using
their repair services.


The ACCC is investigating whether the use of DRM in tractor parts (which
necessitates an expensive and useless service call to type an unlock
code into the tractor's keyboard after the farmer effects the repair)
and the extraction of data from farmers are legal.

Check Jenny List's commentary at Hackaday for more:



👖 Smart bassinet can be remotely hacked

The Snoo "smart bassinet" is a $1,300 gadget that allows you to control
its rocking motions and send sounds to its speaker over the internet.

You. Will. Never. Guess. What. Happened. Next.


Ang Cui and Red Balloon Security audited the Snoo and found
authentication and infrastructure issues that allowed them to take
control of the device over the internet and direct its rocking motor
with forces exceeding the safe levels set by the manufacturers.

They raised the neck-stresses from 0.2g to 0.7g, and the forehead
stresses from 0.3g to 1.8g.

They were also able to push the sound output of the Snoo's speaker from
its nominal max of 94.7dB to 113.93dB.

Red Balloon disclosed the flaws to the manufacturer, the Happiest Baby
Company, which patched them. Then Redballoon found new flaws and
disclosed those. The manufacturer says it's patched those too.

I'm sure those are the only defects anyone will ever find.

Or not. Because, as Red Balloon notes, the fundamental problem here is
that the hardware safety interlocks are inadequate, so there will always
be the risks that software defects will be used to do bad things to tiny

The Snoo was designed to prevent SIDS. The company says that parents who
are worried about these attacks can use the physical wifi disconnection
switch, which also switches off remote monitoring (the fact that this
switch exists is actually really good news).

As Lily Hay Newman notes in her excellent story, the finances behind
this are messy. Red Balloon's lead investor, Bain Capital (ugh) own a
Snoo competitor company that uses Bluetooth, but not wifi, thus limiting
its attack-surface.

But also, Red Baloon and Snoo *share* an investor, Greycroft (ugh), so
maybe this mitigates any conflict of interest?


👖 Covid did not escape from a Chinese lab

Covid did not escape from a Chinese lab.

China is an untrustworthy, paranoid, autocratic state with a history of
deadly epidemiological coverups (SARS), and it mishandled and lied about
the covid crisis early on.

But covid is not a bioweapon.

Here's a pretty good high-level explainer from Eliza Barclay:


Here's Snopes rebuttal to an incredibly irresponsible Washington Post
op-ed that pushed the conspiracy theory:


tldr: "Not only do these arguments — discussed in detail below — lack
merit on their own, factual scientific studies concerning the origin of
SARS-CoV-2 actually provide the strongest refutation to date of the
claim the virus was 'created in a lab.'"

Article after article has quoted esteemed scientists with direct
expertise in the field who have staked their reputations to rebut these
claims, using evidence and reason.


It's not true.

There are actual coronavirus conspiracies, like the loopholes that let
big businesses siphon 94.5% of the $349 Paycheck Protection Program
earmarked for small businesses:


And the conspiracies by private equity companies to slash health
workers' pay while collecting bailouts and denying claims and spending
millions to lobby against surprise billing:


As with 9/11 truthers, the coronavirus-in-a-lab truthers have grasped
something essential - that opportunistic sociopaths view tragedies as
opportunities to loot and consolidate power - and then reach the wrong
conclusion: that they caused this crisis.

Disaster capitalists and other war criminals DO sometimes cause crises
(toppling governments in Latinamerica, say), but they don't need to.

They have created a world that's so unstable that disasters happen on
the reg, and they have "ideas lying around" waiting for the right moment.


This is actually way more sinister. It means that when elites
contemplated a crisis like 9/11 or coronavirus, their response wasn't to
plan to prevent the crisis or soften its impact, it was to plan how to
use it to their advantage.

We don't need to indict sociopaths for conspiring to cause crises. The
depravity of planning to profit from them is more than sufficient to
condemn them as unfit to rule.


👖 This day in history

#15yrsago Ghana nationalizes folklore, threatens jail for folk artists

#5yrsago Sony sends pre-emptive threat letter to journalists

#5yrsago Tory chairman accused of smearing party rivals' Wikipedia

#5yrsago Drowned in the Mediterranean: Libyan refugees tell their
stories https://vimeo.com/125247024

#1yrago Stop & Shop strike convinces 75% of loyal customers to take
business elsewhere https://www.skyhook.com/blog/stop-and-shop-strike-impact

#1yrago Most Republican voters were Trumpists before Trump, and most of
the rest have converted since 2016

#1yrago A secret Finnish subculture of women and girls who ride
hobbyhorses has come out of the shadows


👖 Colophon

Today's top sources: Super Punch (https://superpunch.net/), Waxy
(https://waxy.org/), Slashdot (https://slashdot.org), Naked Capitalism
(https://nakedcapitalism.com/), Beyond the Beyond
(http://www.wired.com/category/beyond_the_beyond/), Editor David

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel
about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 517 words (5816

Currently reading: I'm getting really into Anna Weiner's memoir about
tech, "Uncanny Valley" and Jo Walton's forthcoming novel "Or What You

Latest podcast: Podcast swap: Wil Wheaton on Little

Upcoming appearances:

* Apr 22, Flatten The Curve Summit https://flattenthecurve.tech/

* Apr 23, Canada Reads Q&A;

* Apr 25: Podapalooza https://www.podapalooza.org/live

Upcoming books: "Poesy the Monster Slayer" (Jul 2020), a picture book
about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Pre-order here:

"Attack Surface": The third Little Brother book, Oct 20, 2020.

"Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new
introduction by Edward Snowden: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583

This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.
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*When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla* -Joey "Accordion Guy"

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