[Plura-list] Restaurants won't let gig drivers pee; Facebook's "backfire effect" junk science; Learn magic; Pythonesque small claims

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Thu May 14 14:55:09 EDT 2020

Today's links

* Restaurants won't let gig drivers pee: Biological imperatives.

* Facebook's "backfire effect" junk science: Weaponized replication crisis.

* Learn magic: Friends & Astronauts, endorsed by The Jerx.

* Pythonesque small claims: Pushin' up the daisies.

* Modern monetary theory's moment has arrived: Stephanie Kelton on NPR's

* Pandemics shatter AI's intrinsic conservativism:  Past performance is
no guarantee of future results.

* This day in history: 2005, 2010, 2015, 2019.

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


🐔 Restaurants won't let gig drivers pee

The "gig economy" companies are classic rentiers: in the guise of
operating a "two-sided market" (restaurants on one side, delivery people
on the other, say), they're actually just siphoning off everyone else's
margin, slowly draining them dry.


But there's one thing the gig economy can't drain, and that's drivers'

Restaurateurs, legitimately angry at the third-party delivery apps that
are destroying them through dirty tricks and rent-seeking, are denying
drivers bathroom access.


It's a classic bit of misdirection, a game of "let's you and he fight."
The delivery companies maintain the pretense that they're not employers
and thus not required to provide bathrooms for their employees.

The restaurateurs can't strike back at distant corporate execs, nor can
they do anything to the apps themselves, so they grab hold of the only
tangible element of the system that's destroying them - the drivers, who
are also being destroyed by the same system.

Execs have long made up unreasonable policies and then turned frontline
staff out to absorb the anger and frustration of customers, while
remaining insulated from any of that anger. Now it's happening to
employees who deal with suppliers, too.

Meanwhile, everybody poops. And pees. Drivers can't make ends meet
unless they pull 12-hour shifts. As the City of San Francisco has
stubbornly refused to realize for 30 years, the fact that you don't have
anywhere for people to poop doesn't mean they stop pooping.

Which is why the drivers are crouching in alleys, pissing in cups in
their cars, etc.

And then handling your dinner.


🐔 Facebook's "backfire effect" junk science

There are good reasons to worry about Facebook's "fact checking"
efforts, primarily that the company is a raging garbage fire that
destroys everything it touches and only has two approaches to solving
any problem:

1. Make it fully automated in a way that guarantees that there will be
innumerable false positives in which legitimate material is erroneously
censored, with no effective means of appeal, even as dedicated trolls
exploit the system's blind spot to carry on as normal;

2. Hire boiler-rooms full of low-waged workers to review horrific
materials and make judgment calls that require context they don't have
and can't get, until they're so traumatized they literally develop PTSD
and sue the company for psychiatric care.


But there's one reason NOT to worry about Facebook factchecking, and
that's the "Backfire Effect," a discredited psychological principle that
holds that when learn facts that challenge their worldview, they double
down on their false beliefs.

The original experiments that established the Backfire Effect as a
bedrock of social psychology have spectacularly, repeatedly failed to




Nevertheless, a Facebook exec told Stat that the reason the company is
holding back on thorough factchecks of covid conspiracy theories is
they're worried about the Backfire Effect.


Again, I don't trust Facebook to do anything well, let alone
factchecking. But among the things Facebook does badly, apparently, is
"understanding how factchecking works."

This is well-put in an op ed by Ethan Porter and ThomasWood, authors of
"False Alarm: The Truth about Political Mistruths in the Trump Era," a
peer-reviewed book from Cambridge University Press.


"By our count, across experiments involving more than 10,000 Americans,
fact-checks increase the proportion of correct responses in follow-up
testing by more than 28 percentage points."


And they did a new study to show that this would work on FB, too:
"Across all issues, people who had seen misinformation and then a
related fact-check were substantially more factually accurate than
people who had only seen the misinformation."

"Prior research has found that, on social media, fake news is
disproportionately shared by older, more conservative Americans. In our
study this group did not show any special vulnerability to backfire
effects. When presented with fact-checks they became more accurate too."


🐔 Learn magic

I'm a longstanding fan of The Jerx, a contrarian, anonymous "social
magic" blog that proposes a way of performing conjuring and mentalist
effects for your friends or single individuals that cuts through much of
the pretense in typical magic acts.

Andy, The Jerx's creator, is pretty relentless (and often very funny) in
his dunks on other magicians, and especially on businesses that purport
to teach you magic, or that sell you gimmicks to perform with.


So I was excited to see a rare *endorsement* of an online (free!) magic
class, Eric Hu's Friends and Astronauts, whose mission is to "teach
magic tricks for free (previously unpublished) in support of each other,
the magic community, and covid relief."


The tricks will come in time-limited collections from different
performers and creators. Once one is done, it'll be removed, so you have
to follow along if you want to learn all the effects.

The focus is "stuff you can tinker with while we’re quarantined.
Sleights, moves, DIY gimmicks, camera tricks, self-working tricks."

Here's collection #1: "3Fast, 1 Furious," with work from Tatanka Tan,
Ryan Plunkett, Joel Greenwich, and more.



🐔 Pythonesque small claims

In Davy v. Kidwai, a small claim made at British Columbia’s Civil
Resolution Tribunal, a fellow who bought a parrot diagnosed with a
deadly illness argued that the merchant who sold it to him owed him a

This may strike you as a familiar tale.


The parrot Tiberius sickened with Psittacine Beak & Feather Disease less
than a year after Kidwai sold him to Davy.

The court found that Davy had not committed fraud when he averred that
the parrot was healthy (Tiberius tested positive for PBFD three weeks
after the sale).

But the court did find in Davy's favor on the question of whether
Tiberius's quick demise violated the implied warranty of merchantability
- the idea that a product is "fit for ordinary use" at time of sale and
"durable for a reasonable period of time."

The parties agreed that a healthy Eclectus parrot should live 30-40
years, and the court held that Tiberius's illness meant he was likely to
live for less than one more year. Relying on an earlier case about a
"defective puppy," the court awarded Davy $2500.


🐔 Modern monetary theory's moment has arrived

Modern monetary theory is an economic lens for understanding how money
works. It starts from the commonsense assertion that national
governments are money-issuers, and the rest of us are money users, and
that money works differently when you are in charge of creating it.

But this challenges accepted wisdom, like the idea that national
deficits cause inflation and saddle our descendants with debt. If
governments are the source of money, then they don't tax us in order to
spend. They spend (which puts money into the economy) and then tax back.

If the government runs a "balanced budget" that means it's taxing as
much money of out existence as it is spending into existence, leaving
behind no money for the rest of us to save or spend. Balanced budgets
starve the private sector of the money it needs to operate.

When that happens, banks create private money (lending money that they
don't have on deposit, something that they are allowed to do as part of
their deal with the national government), and then they get to charge
interest for those loans.

So the finance sector hates public money - which benefits everyone - and
loves private money - which benefits them. But of course, banks
inevitably overspend and since they aren't national governments, they
risk defaulting, so they need public money to bail them out.

Governments can't default on debts owed in currencies they issue. They
just type more zeroes into a spreadsheet at the national bank and they
can pay off any debt they want. They are not "monetarily constrained."

The constraint on governments is *resources*, not money. If the
government tries to buy things the private sector is using, it gets into
a bidding war and prices go up. That's inflation.

Likewise, if the private sector has too much money, it bids against
itself and again, prices go up - inflation (think of the 2008 crisis,
when banks created too much money and we got a speculative housing
bubble, leaving governments to create money to bail them out).

Governments don't tax to balance budgets: they tax to remove money from
the system to fight inflation. Progressive taxation - higher taxes on
the rich - minimize the privation of having some of your money
annihilated, and it also weakens the 1%'s power to influence politics.

(Governments have done other things to fight inflation when they felt
the need to buy things the private sector wanted, like during WWII: war
bonds that locked up the money pumped into economy with war spending,
and rationing, which limited bids on war materiel).

MMT has seen many vindications since the 2008 crisis, when the bailouts
didn't produce the inflation we'd been warned of. Then, when the GOP tax
plan passed and left the fed budget trillions in deficit, we were warned
that the USG had no more resources to fight a future crisis.

But when the crisis hit, Congress was able to spend trillions into
existence with the stroke of a pen, without inflation, because the
private sector no longer wanted the labor of a large fraction of the
workforce. The existence of the tax deficit was irrelevant.

The reason to be alarmed by the deficit left behind by the tax bill is
that it will make rich people richer, not that it will deprive the
federal government of money. That's like saying giving free Itunes gift
cards to plutes starves Apple of cards for the rest of us.

All of this is beautifully explained in a new NPR Marketplace interview
with Stephanie Kelton, MMT's most articulate, thoughtful and
knowledgable spokesperson.


Kelton's interview is tied to her upcoming (June) release, "The Deficit
Myth." The book couldn't be more timely. With the private sector no
longer interested in the labor of so many of us, nor the goods we can
produce, MMT is the lens we need.



🐔 Pandemics shatter AI's intrinsic conservativism

One of my favorite insights on Machine Learning comes form Molly
Sauter's 2017 essay Instant Recall, which describes ML's intrinsic
conservativism. Having been trained on historical data, ML can only make
good predictions if the future's like the past.


That's why your phone's predictive text nudges you to follow up "My"
with "darling" if you habitually text your spouse with that salutation.
When you type a word it's never seen, it autocompletes with a
statistically normal following word.

I took a stab at talking about some of the implications of this in an LA
Review of Books essay last January:


One interesting side-effect of the pandemic is that it magnifies this
conservative bias in ML: because we're acting in unprecedented ways, the
ML-based  predictive systems are misfiring badly ("automation is in a


Supply-chain forecasting tools are ordering both too much of things, and
too little. Recommendation systems haven't figured out that "in stock"
is the most important criteria to sort by. Shoppers aren't interested in
big ticket items.

Some of these behaviors are so unusual that they're tripping
fraud-detection systems that apply the brakes to an already broken
system ("You never bought gardening or bread-making stuff before, why
are you ordering so much now?").

And when big players like Amazon alter their algorithms to correct for
this, it adds even more chaos to the downstream systems that are trying
to predict what Amazon will do.

People who claim to know the future are always either con-artists or
delusional. The addition of abstruse stats to the prediction provides
the discredited profession of fortune-telling with a veneer of empirical
facewash, but it doesn't bring us closer to precognition.

So much of what we call "accurate prediction" is just "forcing/nudging
people to act the way they used to" - I can predict with 100% accuracy
that you will hold the same posture for the next five minutes, if I'm
allowed to shoot you through the heart before the clock starts.

As our conservative AI overlords encounter the reality of an
unprecedented situation, the difference between coercion and prediction
is becoming a lot clearer.


🐔 This day in history

#15yrsago Why writers should stop worrying about "ebook piracy"

#15yrsago Pro file-sharing seal for CDs

#10yrsago The People's Manifesto: Mark Thomas and friends' suggestions
for UK political reform

#10yrsago Barbie-themed hotel rooms for three year olds that cost

#5yrsago US Passport Agency contractors harvested Americans' data for
identity theft

#1yrago Lawyer involved in suits against Israel's most notorious
cyber-arms dealer targeted by its weapons, delivered through a
terrifying Whatsapp vulnerability

#1yrago Three years after the Umbrella Revolution, Hong Kong has its own
Extinction Rebellion chapter

#1yrago Collecting user data is a competitive disadvantage

#1yrago DOJ accuses Verizon and AT&T; employees of participating in
SIM-swap identity theft crimes

#1yrago AT&T; promised it would create 7,000 jobs if Trump went through
with its $3B tax-cut, but they cut 23,000 jobs instead

#1yrago Jury awards $2b to California couple who say Bayer's Roundup
weedkiller gave them cancer

#1yrago A year after Meltdown and Spectre, security researchers are
still announcing new serious risks from low-level chip operations


🐔 Colophon

Today's top sources: John Weeks, Naked Capitalism

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel
about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 524 words (15319

Currently reading: Facebook: The Inside Story, by Steven Levy.

Latest podcast: Rules for Writers

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

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

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