[Plura-list] Surveillance Capitalism is just capitalism, plus surveillance; It's blursday; Optimizing banana-geometry with machine learning

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Wed Aug 26 12:24:09 EDT 2020

Today's links

* Surveillance Capitalism is just capitalism, plus surveillance:
Mind-control rays remain implausible.

* It's blursday: Today is Weds, Mar 179, 2020.

* Optimizing banana-geometry with machine learning: Just look at it.

* This day in history: 2005, 2015

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


🦈 Surveillance Capitalism is just capitalism, plus surveillance

You've probably heard Zuboff's excellent coinage "Surveillance
Capitalism" and perhaps you've read the paper it was introduced in, or
the book that it led to.

Today, I've published a response to that book, "How to Destroy
Surveillance Capitalism."


I wrote "How to Destroy..." after reading Zuboff's book and realizing
that while I shared her alarm about how Big Tech was exercising undue
influence over us, I completely disagreed with her thesis about the
source of that influence and what should be done about it.

Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism a "rogue capitalism," a system that
has used machine learning to effectively control our minds and shape our
behavior so that we can no longer serve as market actors whose purchase
decisions promote good firms and products over bad ones.

Because of that, Big Tech has a permanent advantage, one that can't be
addressed through traditional means like breakups or consent decrees,
nor can it be analyzed through traditional privacy lenses.

But I think that's wrong. It's giving Big Tech far too much credit. I
just don't buy the thesis that Big Tech used Big Data to create a
mind-control ray to sell us fidget spinners, and that Cambridge
Analytica hijacked it to make us all racists.

So I wrote "How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism," a short book that
delivers a different thesis: Big Tech is a monopoly problem. In fact,
it's just a part of a wider monopoly problem that afflicts every sector
of our global economy.

Accidentally and deliberately, monopolies create all kinds of malignant
outcomes. If the company that has a monopoly on search starts serving
wrong answers, people will believe them - not because of mind control,
but because of dominance.

But monopolies have an even graver failure-mode: when a large,
profitable industry collapses down to 4 or 5 companies, it's easy for
those companies to agree on what they think policy should be.

And being monopolists, they have lots of spare cash to convert that
agreement to actual policy. What's more, once an industry is
monopolized, everyone qualified to understand and regulate it probably
came from one of the dominant companies.

Think of how the "good" Obama FCC chairman was a former Comcast exec and
the "bad" Trump FCC chair is a former Verizon lawyer.

There's a name for regulatory outcomes driven by collusion among
monopolists whose regulators come from their own ranks.

We call them: "Conspiracies."

When social scientists investigate conspiracists, they find people whose
beliefs are the result of real trauma (like losing a loved one to
opiods) and real conspiracies (the Sackler family and other Big Pharma
barons suborning their regulators).

The combination of real trauma and real conspiracies gives ALL
conspiracies explanatory power. This is brilliantly documented in Anna
Merlan's "Republic of Lies," one of the most important books on the rise
of conspiratorial thinking I've read.


Surveillance Capitalism is a real, serious, urgent problem, but not
because it accidentally led to a working mind-control ray and then
turned it over to Nazis.

It's a problem because it is both emblematic of monopolies (which lead
to corruption, AKA conspiracies) and because the vast, nonconsensual
dossiers it compiles on us can be used to compromise and neutralize
opposition to the status quo.

And Big Tech *does* exert control over us, but not with mind-control
rays. Lock-in (and laws that support it) allows Big Tech to decide how
we can use our devices, who can fix them, and when they must be thrown away.

Lock-in is an invitation to totalitarianism: the Chinese government
observed the fact that Apple alone could decide which apps can run on
Iphones, then ordered Apple to remove apps that allowed Chinese people
privacy from the state.

I'm sure that the Uyghurs in concentration camps and the Falun Gong
members having their organs harvested are relieved that Apple abetted
their surveillance for reasons other than mere marketing.

This is the core of my critique, the reason I wrote this book: we should
be suspicious of all corporate control over our lives, and should insist
on nothing less than absolute technological self-determination.

The idea that "if you're not paying for the product, you're the
product," suggests the simplistic solution of just charging for
everything. But the reality is that in a monopoly, you're the product
irrespective of whether you're paying.

We deserve to be more than products.

I am so grateful to Onezero for the incredible look-and-feel of my new
book. It's a free read on their site, with a really fantastic new nav
system that will help you pick up where you left off.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the spectacular artwork that Shira
Inbar did for the book, and the tireless efforts of my editor, Brian
Merchant, who championed it internally and is ultimately responsible for
the brilliant package you see before you.

I'm also excited to note that this will be shortly coming out as a print
book, doubtless just as beautiful as this digital edition.

I know it's a longread, but I hope you'll give it a try.

Big Tech *needs* a corrective, and that corrective - antimonopoly
enforcement - is part of a global movement that addresses deep, systemic
problems in every sector. This is a moment for us to seize, but we have
to understand where the problem really lies.


🦈 It's blursday

Time has become a meaningless concept but still your idiotic computer
clock ticks on, insisting that today is a different day than yesterday.

There's an app for that.


Jk. There's actually a very short perl script for that, courtesy of JWZ,
which will convert the fictitious date your computer stubbornly insists
upon into the actual date.

For example, as I type these words, it is:

Tue Mar 178 12:09:22 PM PDT 2020

Here's that perl so you can fix your own computer's clock readout:

perl -e 'use Date::Parse; use POSIX; my @t = localtime; print strftime
("%a Mar ", @t) . int (1 + 0.5 + ((str2time (strftime ("%Y-%m-%d 3:00",
@t)) - str2time ("2020-03-01 3:00")) /(60*60*24))) . strftime (" %X %Z
%Y\n", @t);'


🦈 Optimizing banana-geometry with machine learning

For those of us who use work to cope with stress and anxiety with work,
the plague months have been an oddly productive time.

For data scientist Ethan Rosenthal, it was an opportunity to optimize
his banana-sandwich process.


Rosenthal's ideal peanut-butter and banana sandwich is calibrated to
have precisely the same amount of banana in every mouthful.

Naturally, Rosenthal eschews obviously incorrect solutions to this like
mashing the banana or cutting it into lengthwise, rectangular slices.

Rosenthal wants to figure out how to cut banana cross-sections and then
arrange them such that they cover as much of the bread-slice as possible
without overlapping ("maximizing the packing fraction"). And he used
machine learning to do it.

The pretrained Mask-RCNN torchvision model (with a Resnet backbone) made
it easy to detect and measure a banana and a slice of bread from a
photo. Applying the scikit-image library allows him to calculate a
"skeleton" for the banana that corresponds to its curvature.

A scipy-based least squares optimization fits a circle to the skeleton.
From there, compute a "centroid" for the banana ("which corresponds to
the center of mass of the banana mask if the banana mask were a 2D
object") and create a reference angle for a radial transection.

Scikit-image's  profile_line function allows for a radial orientation,
the first step towards identifying the seed- and stem-ends of the banana.

Now that the model is oriented "angularly with respect to the center of
the banana and radially in terms of the start and end of the banana
along the radial line," he computes the angular start and end of the banana.

All that remains is to slice the banana into "evenly spaced angles and
drawing a rectangular slice at each angle spacing." Adjust the resulting
ellipses to account for the peel-thickness, convert to polygons, and
you're in business.

Despite being a pretty simple rectangle, the bread still needs some
computational work, but it's pretty simple (the key is using a
python-based rotating calipers on the segmentation mask). Now you've got
a clean bread-box and polygonal, ellipsoidal banana slices.

There's only one problem: fitting a bunch of arbitrary polygons into a
box is NP -hard or maybe NP-complete - that is, the ideal solution is
uncomputable (similar to the "traveling salesman" and "knapsack" problems).

Rosenthal's best-fit solution recursively applies nest2D and comes up
with a good approximation of an optimal solution in finite time.

He's packaged the result in a command-line package called "nannernest"
that takes a JPEG as its sole argument and spits out an optimal
slice-and-arrange pattern for any given banana and bread-slice.

Just look at it.


🦈 This day in history

#15yrsago 1930 catalog of Fraternal Order gags and punishments

#15yrsago Oakland sheriffs detain people for carrying cameras

#5yrsago North Dakota cops can now use lobbyist-approved
taser/pepper-spray drones

#5yrsago Illinois mayor appoints failed censor to town library board

#5yrsago Former mayor of SLC suing NSA for warrantless Olympic

#5yrsago Austin Grossman's CROOKED: the awful, cthulhoid truth about
Richard Nixon

#5yrsago Health's unkillable urban legend: "You must drink 8 glasses of


🦈 Colophon

Today's top sources: Waxy (https://waxy.org/).

Currently writing:

* My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and
reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 506 words (53659 total).

Currently reading: Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum.

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 14)

Upcoming appearances:

* The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Censorship Circumvention, Aug 28,

* 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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