[Plura-list] Amazon's Monopoly Tollbooth; Thomas Hawk's Talking Heads; Orwell prize winner trapped in orwellian nightmare

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Wed Aug 19 11:04:13 EDT 2020

Today's links

* Amazon's Monopoly Tollbooth: Quantifying the market-power abuses of
Amazon's platform.

* Thomas Hawk's Talking Heads: Judy's in the bedroom inventing situations.

* Orwell prize winner trapped in orwellian nightmare: Jessica Johnson's
predicament puts the "kafkaesque" in "orwellian."

* Spikey: Infering key geometry from the sound of lock-entry.

* Hedge fund won't return Citi's accidental $175m deposit: No backsies.

* Yale admin: "Prepare for death": It's not quite "boola boola."

* Austerity breeds Nazis: Analyzing Weimar election data.

* This day in history: 2005, 2015, 2019

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


👁‍ Amazon's Monopoly Tollbooth

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance has published a blockbuster report
on the ways that Amazon increasingly abuses its market power against
both buyers and sellers on its platform - it's a timely addition to the
discourse on monopolism, monopsonism, competition and Big Tech.


Here are  the topline findings:

* Amazon gets an average of 30% from each sale; 5 years ago it was 19%

* Amazon's seller fee take is $60b (for comparison, AWS is only $35b)

* Seller fees have grown twice as fast as other revenues since 2014;
they're 21% of Amazon's total

* Amazon's fee growth comes primarily from forcing sellers to buy search
placement or be doomed to obscurity

* The long-run effect of these fees is to drive Amazon sellers out of

* Amazon capitalized a dominant logistics business with excess rents
from seller fees

* Seller fees are how Amazon can afford to sell rival own-brand products
below cost: Amazon subsidizes predatory pricing with fees extorted from
the businesses it preys on

ILSR makes two recommendations:

I. Subject Amazon's marketplace to public utility-like standards of
non-discrimination and fair pricing

II. Break up Amazon, "to eliminate conflicts of interest and monopoly

Some of this may sound familiar if you watched the Congressional
hearings on Big Tech and antitrust; that's because Rep Mary Gay Scanlon
[D-PA] extensively cited the report during her questioning.


👁‍ Thomas Hawk's Talking Heads

One of my favorite Flickr follows is Thomas Hawk, a photographer whose
goal is to produce 1,000,000 finished, beautiful photos licensed under
Creative Commons.


One of Hawk's more intriguing series is his "Talking Heads" photos:
stark, black-and-white images of political figures snapped while they
appear on his TV screen (I think?).


He's gotten some great ones from this week's DNC. There's Bernie Sanders:


James Clyburn:


And Nancy Pelosi:

And ooh, there's AOC:



👁‍ Orwell prize winner trapped in orwellian nightmare

The latest Made-in-Britain Tory political scandal is the "fuck the
algorithm" A-level grades omnishambles, in which the Conservative party
deployed a black-box algorithm to give rich students higher grades and
poor students lower ones.


This has resulted in many students who'd been offered places in
universities having those offers rescinded based on their
"disappointing" final grades.

Among the students who lost their places is Jessica Johnson, a young
writer whose literary achievements include winning coveted Orwell youth
prize for dystopian tales, for a story called "A Band Apart"


The story is a chilling dystopian tale of students whose class
disadvantages are magnified by an unaccountable algorithm that
empiricism-launders the privilege of the wealthy by claiming that its
judgments are "meritocratic."

Johnson had been offered a place at St Andrew’s University, but that
offer was withdrawn after the Tories' algorithm lowered her grade.

She told The Guardian that she hopes that the Tories' U-turn on
algorithmic grade-adjusments means she'll get to go to university after all.


You cannot make this shit up.

ETA: Johnson reports that the university rang her after the publicity
storm and told her they were reversing her reversal and her place has
been confirmed.



👁‍ Spikey

Locks are pretty rubbish. The lock on your door is more of a "keep out"
sign than an actual way to keep someone who wants to get in from coming
in. My daughter was 5 or 6 when I first took her to Defcon and she
learned to pick locks in an hour.

So can you! Try Toool, The Open Organization of Lockpickers, and go to
town. It's a super fun, soothing way to pass the day. Like knitting, but
simultaneously more and less practical.


Once you've learned to pick locks, you get a profound realization about
security: there are billion-dollar companies whose products are just
*garbage* and always have been, who, despite this, have been in business
for decades or even centuries.

You also realize why: security is hard. Making locks that can be easily
opened with a key, not easily opened without the key, can be serviced
and mass produced? That's just hard.

Moreover, the materiality of locks - the fact that they're made from
*stuff*, and that *stuff* has its own characteristics, flaws and
behaviors, makes those problems a million times gnarlier.

For years, we've known that amateur lockpickers can reproduce your keys
by taking pictures of them. There are even grocery store machines that
take a picture of your key and duplicate it. The shape of your key is
itself a security vulnerability.

But it turns out it's not just the *shape* of your key, it's the
*sound*. Spikey is an exploit from a NUS Comp Sci team lead by Soundarya
Ramesh, laid out in this (paywalled) ACM Hotmobile paper.


Spikey is an acoustic attack on traditional six-pin locks. It analyzes a
sound recording of a key entering the keyway and hitting the pins and
infers what the key must look like based on the sounds.


The actual inference part works really reliably! Here's Ramesh demoing
the technique:


The hard part isn't the analysis, it's obtaining the recording. You need
to get a smartphone to within a few centimeters of the key as it enters
the lock, which is pretty obvious. On the other hand, it may be possible
to capture the audio by hacking a "smart" doorbell's mic.

Speaking as an author of technothrillers, this is a fantastic bit.
(attn: John Rogers).

What's more, it dispenses with the need for lockpicking altogether:
obtain an advance recording, infer the key, make the key, enter the

Ramesh speculates that a generic defense against this attack can be
found in subtle alterations in the geometry of the key - by making the
ridges smoother, it could dampen the sounds they make when hitting the
pins, frustrating attempts to infer the pin configuration.

If you want to learn lockpicking (and I think you should try!), I
recommend the picks and practice locks from Sparrows Tools, which have
never steered me wrong.



👁‍ Hedge fund won't return Citi's accidental $175m deposit

Hard to know what's more bonkers about this story: that Citibank
"accidentally" sent $175m to a hedge fund called Brigade Capital, or
that Brigade is refusing to return it.


Brigade was part of a syndicate that financed Revlon's buyout of
Elizabeth Arden (an anticompetitive merger that never should have been
approved, but whatever). Citibank administers Revlon's loan payments to
its creditors.

Last week, Citibank wired $900m extra to Revlon's various creditors,
then immediately informed them that it had made a mistake and asked them
to send it back. Brigade said no, arguing that this was just Citi paying
back the whole loan at once.

Complicating matters is a claim by Revlon's creditors that it engaged in
"collateral stripping," in which it promised the trademarks it put up as
collateral for the original loan to get new loans to see it through the
economic apocalypse.

This gambit is an emerging play in the debt-driven private equity ponzi
scheme, whereby already debt-crushed companies can raise even more money
by putting up the same collateral twice.

The company most closely associated with the scheme is J Crew, a company
that was plunged into debt by private equity looters who borrowed
heavily, pocketed the money, and destroyed the company's reputation by
reducing quality and raising prices.


To stave off a reckoning for this autophagia, the creditors exploited an
ambiguity in its contracts with its creditors to borrow again on the
same trademarks it put up as collateral on the first loan.


This is what Revlon is doing, as well, and creditors are scrambling,
demanding repayment in full on their loans even as the collateral is
being promised to new lenders.


Brigade and two other funds - Symphony and HPS - are among the creditors
whom Citi seemingly (accidentally?) repaid in full on Revlon's behalf.
Now, they're taking the position that Citi was fulfilling their prior
demand for immediate redemption and will not return the funds.

Citi's gotten a court to issue an injunction barring the creditors from
withdrawing the funds while they fight it out, and Revlon insists it has
no intention of paying back the loans as that would compromise its
"turnaround strategy."

Though two things remain unclear:

I. Why and how the actual fuck did Citibank "accidentally" wire
$900,000,000 to these funds?


II. Is Revlon's "turnaround strategy" to invest in a time machine so it
can go back in time and not engage in idiotic and heavily leveraged
mergers to monopoly?


👁‍ Yale admin: "Prepare for death"

Yale is back in session, with students physically present on campus,
engaging in all the traditional start-of-year collegiate activities,
like competitive coughing matches and eyeball-licking parties, having a
good ole Ivy League version of the Masque of the Red Death.

Not everyone at Yale is sanguine about the edu-epidemiological
situation: Laurie Santos, a psych prof (also Head of Silliman College)
sent an email on Jul 1 warning returning students to "emotionally
prepare for  for widespread infections - and possibly deaths..."

She added, "you should emotionally prepare for the fact that your
residential college life will look more like a hospital unit than a
residential college."


She also reminded the students that some of the staff at Yale come from
poor/marginalized backgrounds and don't have a choice about whether they
come to campus (the Ivies have been wracked by strike action in support
of low-waged food, custodial and other service workers).

The warnings are well-founded. As Ron Beschizza pointed out, it only
took a week for 146 returning Notre Dame students to test positive for
covid, outstripping the entire province of Ontario, whose new case-surge
topped out at 125.



👁‍ Austerity breeds Nazis

Since the 2008 crisis, western governments' answer to every economic
crash has been to smash the austerity button, dialing down public
spending just as the private sector was also slamming the doors shut.

Austerity-hit countries have also experienced the highest growth in
fascist ideology, fascist violence and support for fascist parties -
think of the surge of support in Greece for Golden Dawn.

Anti-austerity activists predicted this, of course, citing Weimar-era
austerity's role in the rise of Hitler and his Nazi Party. Now, a group
of interdisciplinary scholars have quantified the relationship between
austerity and Naziism.


They used electoral data from 1,000+ towns and 100+ cities in the runup
to the 1933 German elections, which, along with the Reichstag fire,
allowed the Nazis to seize control over the German state.

They found that "areas more severely affected by austerity had
relatively higher vote shares for the Nazi Party" (and they controlled
for confounding variables such as "city and election fixed effects").

For each "standard deviation increase in the depth of austerity" there
was "a two to five percentage point increase in vote share for the Nazis."

This wasn't mere "pocket book voting" either: the Nazis picked up votes
from the ruling party, but other parties, including rival far-right
parties, did not.

Moreover, the people who were absolutely worst off did not switch to the
Nazis - rather, they threw their support behind the Communist Party.

"This is consistent with the notion that those just above them in the
economic hierarchy, who had more to lose from the tax hikes and spending
cuts, favoured the Nazis when their party failed to provide them
economic relief."


👁‍ This day in history

#15yrsago Penguin-suited activists crash Microsoft's Berlin parliament
presentation https://netzpolitik.org/2005/microsoft-im-parlament/

#5yrsago MPAA loves fair use so much they don't want to share it with
the rest of the world

#5yrsago Chastity belts were a joke, then a metaphor, then a hoax

#5yrsago Jeb Bush: the NSA isn't spying on us enough

#1yrago More than 20 Texas cities and towns have been taken hostage by

#1yrago The TSA strip searched a grandmother on Mother's Day and now
says that she's overreacting because it's no different from a locker

#1yrago A cycle of renewal, broken: How Big Tech and Big Media abuse
copyright law to slay competition

#1yrago New Hampshire court to patent troll: it's not libel when someone
calls you a "patent troll"

#1yrago Owner of Phoenix apartment building serves eviction notices to
every tenant so he can turn their homes into unlicensed hotel rooms

#1yrago Ecofascism isn't new: white supremacy and exterminism have
always lurked in the environmental movement


👁‍ Colophon

Today's top sources: Ernesto Falcon (https://twitter.com/EFFFalcon),
Kottke (https://kottke.org/), Boing Boing (https://boingboing.net),
Naked Capitalism (https://nakedcapitalism.com/).

Currently writing:

* My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and
reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 508 words (51088 total).

Currently reading: Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 13)

Upcoming appearances:

* Keynote for Law Via the Internet conference, Sept 22,

* Writing into an Uncertain Future, Afterwords Festival, Oct 1,

Latest book:

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

* "Poesy the Monster Slayer" a picture book about monsters, bedtime,
gender, and kicking ass. Order here:
https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627. Get a personalized, signed
copy here:

Upcoming books:

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

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

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