[Plura-list] Ukrainian steampunk masks; OTF spared (for now); Insurers are secret, powerful police reformers

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Wed Jul 22 14:51:47 EDT 2020

Today's links

* Ukrainian steampunk masks: The gorgeous work of Dmitriy and Aleksandra

* OTF spared (for now): Trump's administrative incompetence saves the US
Agency for Global Media from becoming Global Breitbart.

* Insurers are secret, powerful police reformers: Money talks, bullshit

* Ohio GOP leadership arrested for racketeering: Largest corruption
scandal in Ohio history.

* Little Brother as a role-playing game: Notes from the Fiction & RPG

* Anti-facial recognition tool: Fawkes will alter your images in ways
that are invisible to humans but confounding for algorithms.

* Kentucky AG sues top GOP donors: Kentucky's Republican lawmaker is the
best kind of class-traitor.

* This day in history: 2010, 2015, 2019

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


🥞" Ukrainian steampunk masks

For reasons that are unclear to me, Ukraine is a global center of
excellence in steampunk. I discovered this when William Gibson sang the
praises of one of Bob Basset's leather fetish-adjacent masks, calling it
the only steampunk artifact he'd consider owning (I bought it!)


I own many of Basset's pieces now, and so when I happened on a link to a
Ukrainian steampunk mask-maker on Etsy, I wondered if he'd branched out
of spare leatherworking to baroque, greeble-encrusted assemblages.


Artcreativehands is an altogether different amazing Ukrainan steampunk
maskmaker -- actually a pair of artists, Dmitriy and Aleksandra Bragin.


The Bragins' work is mostly masks, and from what I can tell, they work
with molded plastic masks as the base and then layer up astounding,
complex, interwoven collages of found objects, handpainted and shaded to
create a uniformity.

Inevitably, these masks show some pop-culture influences, recalling Dr
Doom, Guy Fawkes, Phantom of the Opera; but they are striking and
beautiful standalone pieces that transcend their lineage.

The Bragins get good reviews, and while their product descriptions are
(maddeningly) light on details, it's clear there's a lot of lightweight
materials, as the masks weigh in at 250-350g (not the awkward 2-3kg
you'd expect if they were solid metal).

Also offered in their store, some incredible rayguns:


And absurd, towering desk-organizers:


These are all surprisingly reasonably priced: the handmade masks are
$100-120, the guns are $90 (but the desk organizers are a pricey $300).


🥞" OTF spared (for now)

OK, I have actual good news! And not little good news, *big significant
good news*.

The US Agency for Global Media is an arms-length body funding
independent broadcasters like Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio
Liberty, Radio Free Asia and Middle East Broadcasting. These are actual,
independent, rigorous news sources that do good work.

Trump hates 'em. He appointed Steve Bannon protege Michael Pack to run
them and he fired the whole top level of management in a bid to turn
USAGM into a state-sponsored global Breitbart.

That is super-bad, but it got worse.

The Open Technology Fund spun out of Radio Free Asia. It hands out free,
no-strings money to free/open source projects and technology freedom
projects (like auditing of the security of anonymity and privacy tools).
I'm on OTF's advisory though I'm pretty dormant there.

OTF was a casualty of the Pack purge, and Pack was lobbying hard to
shift all the money used to support projects that *literally billions of
people rely on* to two closed source, sketchy-af VPNs beloved by
Trump-connected plutes.


Killing OTF would put hundreds of projects and tools at risk, and put
the billions of people who relied on them at greater risk (think
imprisonment, torture and execution).

Lucky for us, this is Trump, so he totally tripped over his own dick.


That's because Trump is administratively incompetent, and he hates
anyone who has administrative competence because they keep telling him
that if he continues running across the river on the backs of alligators
he will eventually lose a leg.

Trump is all like, "Stop telling me not to run on these alligators!
You'll distract me and an alligator will get me!"

So whenever a process depends on Trump exhibiting administrative
competence, he loses.

In this case, he lost in the DC Circuit Court, which has ordered an
injunction that bans Pack from firing OTF's execs.

As Mike Masnick cautions us, this is a preliminary step towards saving
OTF, but it's still damned good news.

We could all use more good news.


🥞" Insurers are secret, powerful police reformers

When US police officers murder, maim, torture or rape people, the
individual officers often escape consequences, but that isn't the end of
it. Frequently, the victims of police misconduct sue and receive
multi-million-dollar judgements or settlements from their cities.

We talk about these payouts as though they were coming from the city's
coffers, but for most US cities - especially smaller ones - the payout
comes from an insurer, which groups small police departments into "risk
pools" and pays out judgments and settlements for misconduct.

Insurers don't like making vast payouts because Officer Snowflake was
triggered by a "disrespectful" skateboarder and got frisky with his
baton, and they have a powerful way to make their displeasure felt:
demanding reforms on pain of losing coverage.


Quiet insurance negotiations are a secret engine of transformative
police reforms in cities across America. Insurers can demand the
dismissal of officers (and even, in at least one case, a police chief!),
new hiring and training procedures, and more.

And when insurers withdraw from a city altogether, the city usually has
no choice but to disband its entire police force, turning over policing
functions to state troopers.

On the whole, this is a positive phenomenon. Cities that lose their
liability insurance tend to be free-fire zones for the very dirtiest,
most violent cops.

Consider the one-square-mile town of Maywood CA, whose police corruption
had triggered (unsuccessful) reform bids from the city council, the
state AG, and the LA Times.

"A haven for misfit cops who had been pushed out of other law
enforcement agencies for crimes or serious misconduct" -LA Times

"Gross misconduct and widespread abuse including unlawful use of force
against civilians." -California AG Xavier Becerra

Where the press, the city and state failed, the insurer succeeded. After
$17.3m worth of claims in 5 years, its insurer demanded a "performance
improvement plan" from Maywood PD, which it failed to satisfy. The city
lost its insurance - and dissolved the police department.

But before you get too excited, note that there are limits to the power
of insurers to serve as surrogates for a failed political process:
first, insurers are weirdly laissez-faire when it comes to police

Sure, they'll step in when things are farcically bad, but there are
plenty of cities whose cops engage in ghastly, brutal (and expensive)
misconduct whose insurers continue to write policies for.

In part, that's because of wide variation in local laws, which creates
variance in liability itself.

But mostly it's because it's so hard to sue cops, even for the most
awful and obvious misconduct.

Insurers don't withdraw coverage because they're aghast at bad behavior
- they do it to save money. If dirty cops can get away with illegal
conduct, insurers are happy to continue to write insurance policies for
their departments.

On the other hand, this points to a vast force-multiplier effect from
changes to law that make it easier to sue cops - such changes would
trigger massive crackdowns from insurers, who would insist on better
behvaior on pain of loss of coverage.

But even if that happens, insurers are still a wildly imperfect proxy
for effective police governance and oversight.

To understand how, consider the tale of Inkster, MI, a suburb of Detroit.

Inkster is a desperately poor place, a "slum lord heaven" and its
history of criminal conduct by its police force meant that the only
liability policy it could afford came with a $2m deductible.

When one of Inkster's cops savagely beat and tasered a Black man named
Floyd Dent, in full view of a cruiser's dashcam, Dent won a $1.4m
settlement. It was more than the city could afford, and it had to raise
property taxes on every resident to make the payment.

Now, Inkster is mostly policed by the Michigan State Police. As the
formerly incarcerated Inkster resident James Gibson told NBC: "You
changed the local department, but you've now got a city full of state
police who don't know me and don't know Inkster.

"So now there's no schools, but more cops. It's the opposite of what you
do when you want to improve the community."


🥞" Ohio GOP leadership arrested for racketeering

It's a busy news week^H^H^H^H century, but we really should pause for a
moment to take notice of literally the largest political corruption
scandal in Ohio history: the arrest of GOP House Speaker Larry
Householder and four co-conspirators by the FBI on racketeering charges.

The indictment is just a string of eye-opening, jaw-dropping
accusations. Householder and his co-accused are said to have engaged in
a $60m bribery scheme to enact HB6, which provided a $1.3b bailout to
the First Energy Corp for its nuclear operations.


The clearest analysis I read on this came from Naked Capitalism's Yves
Smith, who broke down the whole sordid tale with screenshots from the

The tldr is:

* Householder secretly set up a money-laundering front org called
"Generation Now" that evaded PAC reporting issues, allowing for $60m in
secret payments;

* "Political strategist" Jeff Longstreth got $1m into his brokerage account;

* Householder got campaign money, renos to his Florida  home, and his
credit cards paid off;

* Lobbyists collected lavish fees of their own;

* Money went to fund primary challenges by Repubicans pledged to vote
for the Firstenergy bailout and then funded their campaigns;

* Householder's army of freshmen Reps voted him Speaker of the House;

* One of Householder's puppets introduced HB6 and its $1.2b for Firstenergy;

* Householder coordinated with Firstenergy to arm-twist, bully, threaten
and bribe other lawmakers to vote for HB6;

* When voters launched a ballot initiative to fight the corporate
welfare, Householder and Firstenergy masterminded a disinformation
campaign warning people that signing the petition would give their
personal information to the Chinese government (!!);

* The Householder "enterprise" offered bribes to public officials to
help them defeat the ballot initiative;

* They used front-groups to offer bribes to signature gatherers for the
ballot initiative: $2500 and a plane ticket if they'd quit their jobs;

* As they drew closer to victory on the $1.2b for their paymasters at
Firstenergy, Householder and his "enterprise" set their sites on
soliciting bribes from payday lenders to pass legislation favorable to them;

From the indictment, it's clear the FBI had internal informants and
wiretaps from very early on. Householder and his co-conspirators put a
LOT of this in writing, paving the way for the legendarily
difficult-to-attain RICO charges.

Most of the $1.2b has not been paid to Firstenergy yet and could
theoretically be clawed back if the state leg votes to overturn HB6;
however, Firstenergy hasn't (yet?) been charged in connection with the
scheme (Smith speculates that they may be cooperating with the FBI).

The RICO charge means that the conspirators could be subjected to
far-reaching civil asset forfeiture, bankrupting them.

Of course, all this is against a backdrop of the Nov elections, in which
the GOP is desperate to hold onto Ohio, a feat it has only managed
through incredible voter suppression and gerrymandering.

If even a small number of state Republicans sit this election out
because of the scandal, that could be game-changing.


🥞" Little Brother as a role-playing game

On the Fictoplasm podcast, Ralph Lovegrove breaks down novels thematic
and plot elements and then sketches out how you might create a new RPG
based on them.

Most recently, Lovegrove gave this treatment to my 2008 novel Little
Brother - it's a fascinating listen.


Lovegrove suggests a dystopian RPG setting where you role-play an
artist-driven resistance movement in an authoritarian state.

You have to undertake key-exchanges and deploy anti-surveillance
measures to organize, and overcome propaganda and character
assassination by creating DIY media-channels over encrypted protocols.

Lovegrove's suggestions for how to design, run and play this campaign
were fascinating to listen to, especially after I reviewed his previous
episode, in which he sketches an RPG based on Orwell's 1984.


While I'm on the subject: there's a new omnibus edition of Little
Brother and Homeland just out from Tor Books with an intro by Edward
Snowden and a cover by Will Staehle!


That release was a prelude to the release of ATTACK SURFACE, the third
Little Brother book, which is out in October:



🥞" Anti-facial recognition tool

Fawkes is a new anti-facial recognition tool from University of Chicago
Sand Lab. It subtly alters faces in images so that that they cannot be
correctly classified by common machine learning classifiers, while
leaving them legible to human viewers.


These small changes - adversarial preturbations - merge features from
other peoples' pictures with your own to cause classifiers to misfire,
mistaking pictures of you for pictures of your "masking" target.

The creators of the tool are presenting their work at Usenix Security
and have published a paper explaining their methodology, which they call


To my semi-tutored eye, the paper is impressive. The authors validate
their tool by cloaking images of one another and testing them on leading
facial recog tools, and find that they can trick these systems 100% of
the time.

Importantly, they also devote extensive discussion to countermeasures
and set out reasons that they believe that facial recognition system
developers will struggle to defeat cloaking - or even detect when
cloaking has been used.

But there's at least one red flag here: the authors warn that they are
seeking patents on their work and advise that their tool is only for
researchers seeking to evaluate it.


🥞" Kentucky AG sues top GOP donors

Grifters eventually run out of marks and start to steal from their own
protectors -- which is why Kentucky's newly elected AG Daniel Cameron is
suing the biggest private equity funds in the world for stealing from
the state's pension plans.


Retirees have been chasing Blackstone and KKR (the world's two largest
private equity funds) through the courts to get back the pension funds
that they stole, but last month the Supreme Court sent the retirees
packing, finding that they had no standing to sue.

Immediately, Kentucky's state court bounced the state-level attempts to
hold Blackstone and KKR to justice, which is where Cameron comes in.

He just filed suit against the companies *and their CEOs* for stealing
from the state pension system.

The suit claims that the PE firms put state pensions into assets that
were "secretive, opaque, illiquid, impossible to properly monitor or
accurately value, high-fee, high-risk gambles with no historical record
of performance."

Later, Cameron calls the investments  "absolutely unsuitable investments
for a pension fund in the particular situation (Kentucky) was in, and
violated the applicable laws, codes and standards."

But Cameron goes further: he says that the CEOs of the funds PERSONALLY
bilked Kentucky out of vast sums (sometimes more than $5m/year!) in
fraudulent billings for private jet trips

But wait, it gets better.

Blackstone's CEO, the billionaire Steve Schwarzman, is one of Trump's
biggest financial backers, personally directing millions to Trump, his
PACs, and (this is critical) Mitch McConnell and the Senate Leadership

Just to put a pin in this: Cameron is AG of Kentucky. Mitch McConnell is
Senate Majority Leader and Trump's top bagman and enforcer. He is the
senior senator from...Kentucky.

And Cameron - a Republican! - just sued a critical, major source of
McConnell's campaign funds.


🥞" This day in history

#10yrsago Australian government blocks out 90% of document on web-spying

#10yrsago Can you audit the software that goes in your body?

#10yrsago New Disney Haunted Mansion movie to be produced by Guillermo

#10yrsago UK regulator turns over Internet policing standards to movie
and record industries

#5yrsago Comcast's top lobbyist insists he isn't a lobbyist

#1yrago Podcast: Adversarial Interoperability is Judo for Network
Effects https://boingboing.net/2019/07/22/podcast-adversarial-interoper.html

#1yrago Louvre purges every mention of the Sackler opioid family after
artist's protest

#1yrago Violent mobs of alleged Triad gangsters dole out savage beatings
to Hong Kong democracy protesters, cops nowhere to be found

#1yrago FBI agent describes finding "Frankensteins" and a "cooler full
of penises" at an unregulated Arizona body-donation center

#1yrago Nebraska Weather Service commemorates climate emergency by
baking biscuits inside a hot car

#1yrago App-based English-language tutors say they frequently witness
their Chinese students suffering brutal physical abuse by their parents


🥞" Colophon

Today's top sources: Tim Harford (https://timharford.com/), Naked
Capitalism (https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/), Schneier

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel
about truth and reconciliation. Today's progress: 501 words (40238 total).

Currently reading: Anger Is a Gift by Mark Oshiro

Latest podcast: Full Employment:

Upcoming appearances:

* Keynote, A Midsummer Night's Con, Jul 27,

* Virtual event with Christopher Brown for his novel "Failed State," Aug

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.

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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