[Plura-list] Ada Palmer, being brilliant for 2.5h; Restaurateur wreaks algorithmic vengeance upon Doordash; England's storks are back

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Mon May 18 14:53:01 EDT 2020

Today's links

* Ada Palmer, being brilliant for 2.5h: On the Singularity Podcast.

* Restaurateur wreaks algorithmic vengeance upon Doordash: Nonconsensual
delivery services vs arbitrage.

* England's storks are back: A 600 year old deep cut.

* See through walls with free software: TEMPEST, GNU Radio style.

* Universal broadband now: Broadband is a human right.

* Airgap-busting malware: Probabilistic sneakernet injections.

* Deliveroo, without Deliveroo: The problem isn't the service, it's the
social arrangements.

* Podcast: Part 3 of Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town: Have
your read all those books?

* US insurers say paying for pandemic treatment is "selfless": Blind
boxes r us.

* This day in history: 2010, 2015, 2019

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


🌏 Ada Palmer, being brilliant for 2.5h

Last summer, I did an interview with the Singularity Blog podcast (my
last interview was all the way back in 2012). As is my wont, I got to
talking about Ada Palmer because she's just so durned brilliant.


This prompted host Nikola Danaylov to book in an interview with Ada,
which has just gone live. It's 2.5h (!) and so worth every minute of it


I mean, I came for Ada's deep understanding of Renaissance history and
how it relates to the current pandemic, and I was not disappointed:

* This is the first pandemic ever experienced by a society that
understands how pandemics work

* "Herd immunity" to Black Death may explain autoimmune disorders in
Europe-descended people (plague killed those without an otherwise
pathologically overactive immune system)

* Prohibiting selling meat from male and female animals at the same
stall is largely ineffective

But it got so much weirder, gnarlier and more fascinating. Like, "Would
I be an atheist during the Renaissance" (probably not, I'd be a deeply
heretical theist); and "Why Michaelangelo wasn't a scientist."

But the part that made me sit up and shout "Holy smokes!" was the
discussion of whether technology is making us smarter, and Ada talked
about how poverty is a tax on cognition, an idea I'd encountered before:


Basically, if you are not economically precarious, you don't have to
devote your attention to juggling your bills all day, so just giving
people enough makes 'em something like 25% smarter - in the sense of
"able to think about stuff that matters."

The connection Ada made for me here was to the whole idea of Singularity
and human improvement, many of whose top proponents are true believers
in neoliberal capitalism who accept poverty as the cost of doing
business, and acceptable given capitalism's project to uplift us.

But even the most rapid nootropic huxter or "brain training" aficionado
couldn't, with a straight face, promise to make you 25% smarter. And
yet, here we have a simple and uncontroversial mechanism to do exactly
that for *the majority of the world.*

And yeah, this is antithetical to neoliberal capitalism, which assumes
that the cost of providing Great Men with the leisure to pursue their
vision is keeping part of the workforce so desperate they'll risk their
lives in their boss's illegally reopened electric car factory.

It was such an aha moment for me, though maybe it was obvious to you.
Even if that's the case, I promise you there's something else in here
that'll smack your gob. Just her definition of "science fiction" at the
end is worth the ride.

Here's the MP3:


Here's the feed for the podcast:



🌏 Restaurateur wreaks algorithmic vengeance upon Doordash

Gig economy delivery apps claim that they're operating "two-sided
markets," connecting delivery people with restaurants. Actually, they're
useless, overcapitalized, predatory, money-haemorrhaging parasites.

They raise titanic sums of money from the likes of Softbank (a front for
Saudi oil money) and then pay sub-starvation wages to riders while
extracting such massive commissions from restaurants (disguised as
"advertising fees," etc) that they lose money on the transaction.

The stupidest part? The gig delivery companies *are also losing money*.
Like Uber, Wework and other Softbank-backed boondoggles, these companies
aren't profitable and never will be. They exist solely to attain "scale"
whereupon they can be sold off to suckers in an IPO.

If the investors can keep these bleeding giants alive long enough, they
can give them the appearance of durability - "If Uber's lasted a decade,
it must be sustainable" - which lets them cash out.

It's a con, and it demolishes the real businesses it preys on, the
workers who do the gig work, and the investors that the con artists
unload their worthless paper on.

Restaurateurs are on the verge of collapse as a result.


And it's self-reproducing. And it's spreading. It's a fucking pandemic.
Restaurateurs with no way to fight the companies themselves end up
taking it out on the drivers, their fellow infection-sufferers:


Sometimes, there's a better way. Rajan Roy is an options trader whose
pal has a small chain of pizzerias that don't deliver - but that didn't
stop Doordash from listing a delivery option for the restaurants, which
Google dutifully added a button for in its search results.


But Doordash made a mistake: they underpriced the pizzas. They were
offering to sell a $24 pizza for $16. Roy and his friend cooked up a
plan to exploit this arbitrage opportunity, and experimented with
bulk-ordering the discounted pizzas to a confederate's house.

Every pizza they bought this way represented "pure arbitrage profit." It
got even better when the restaurateur stopped bothering to put anything
on top of the crusts (which are so cheap as to be effectively free) for
these orders.

Eventually they stopped. They also learned that Doordash's "mistake" was
a predatory short con where they subsidized deliveries from a
prospective business to create the illusion of demand for delivery
services, then used that to rope the sucker into opting into Doordash.

But the real kicker is what Roy advised his friend about the game:
"given their recent obscene fundraise, they would weirdly enough be
happy to lose that money. Some regional director would be able to show
top-line revenue growth."

"I imagined their systems might even be built to discourage catching
these mistakes because it would detract, or at a minimum distract, from
top-line revenue."

After all: Grubhub lost $33m on Q1 revenue of $360m.

Doordash lost $450m on $900m revenue in 2019.

Uber Eats lost $461m on Q419 revenue of $734m. *It is Uber's most
profitable division*!

The world's economy is being ravaged by a pandemic and may not survive.
That pandemic? Capitalism.


🌏 England's storks are back

Some lovely news (for a change): for the first time in 600 years, storks
have hatched in Britain. It's thanks to the work of The White Stork Project.


The last recorded stork hatching in Britain was in 1416, when a pair
nested on the roof of Edinburgh's St Giles Cathedral.

But hunting, along with the draining of British wetlands for
agriculture, eliminated storks, spoonbills, and cranes from the region.

The White Stork Project released 100 storks in the UK - it's part of a
wave of reintroductions across Europe undertaken by different charities.
Storks are an "umbrella species" - making habitats hospitable to them
incidentally creates habitats for many other species.

One important note: this isn't the result of humans absenting themselves
from the built environment. Humans may have broken the planet, but we
can (and must) also fix it. The White Stork Project is about human
action, not inaction.

The damage to our climate and environment is not the result of your poor
individual choices. It's structural. Everybody staying indoors for
months has barely dented our CO2 problem.


"The Tragedy of the Commons" was a fraud that smuggled ecofascism (the
idea that we need to exterminate "surplus people" to save the planet)
into the mainstream of discourse.


Humans are capable of - and obliged to - act as stewards and co-equals
with our habitats and the other living things we share them with. "Doing
nothing" is something your dead relatives are good at. We don't need
more "doing nothing" in our lives.

Very shortly, you will embark upon a "doing nothing" project that lasts
about 7.5b years, until the sun starts to burn out. You've got "doing
nothing" absolutely covered. Now is the time to *do something*.


🌏 See through walls with free software

Spoiler alert for a 21-year-old novel!

In Neal Stephenson's amazing, seminal *Cryptonomicon*, a key plot-point
relates to Van Eck Freaking (AKA TEMPEST), in which tuned radio antennas
are used to read a computer screen through a wall by intercepting its
electronic noise.

Van Eck Freaking is real! And you can do it at home!

The GNU Radio project is a free software implementation of a
software-defined radio: a radio whose tuning and de/modulating
properties are determined by code, rather than by the vibrational
frequencies of a crystal.

Tempestsdr is Martin Marinov's six-year old, Java-based implementation
of TEMPEST using GNU Radio:


Recently, Federico 'Larroca' La Rocca reimplemented the tool in a new
package called GR Tempest:


It's designed to eavesdrop on keyboards, HDMI, VGA, and other electronic
I/O systems through solid barriers.

All of this is cool and gnarly, but even better is the historical
context of GNU Radio.

In 1992, EFF fought the Bernstein case, the case that legalized civilian
access to working cryptography, striking down the NSA's longstanding ban
on crypto.


EFF's winning argument was the "code is speech" - that is, source code
is a form of expressive speech for the purposes of the First Amendment
and thus any law that controls source code infringes on our
Constitutional rights.

That 9th Circuit Appeals decision paved the way for all the security
tools you use today - everything from checking to make sure that your
pacemaker upgrade hasn't been tampered with to keeping your financial
transactions secure.

GNU Radio was created by Eric Blossom and funded by John Gilmore as a
way to use the Bernstein decision to lock in freedom for software
defined radios and the general purpose computers they ran on.

They understood that the regulatory model for radios -  designing them
to only operate on specific frequencies - would come into conflict with
software freedom as SDRs proliferated. Eventually, commercial radio
devices would just be computers running SDR code.

When that happened, the only way to ensure these devices were incapable
of straying from their approved use would be to prohibit users from
changing the code on those computers - and since ANY computer could be
an SDR, this collision could mean lockdown for ALL computers.

The idea of GNU Radio was to have a functional, free/open SDR when that
day came. It was possible that a court would find that compiled code was
also protected speech, but sourcecode is obviously more speechlike, and
so FLOSS tracked better with the Bernstein decision.

This may sound like a remote possibility, but within a couple years of
the project's founding, this EXACT scenario cropped up.

The Broadcast Flag was an effort to do an end-run around the fact that
it's illegal for US terrestrial broadcasters to encrypt their signals.

Instead, the broadcasters, studios and CE/IT companies proposed that the
unencrypted signals would have a "flag" (a single bit) that all devices
capable of being a digital TV tuner would have to look for.

If it was set to "1," these devices would have to encrypt the signal
*after* they received it, and not allow unencrypted output. Basically,
every device manufacturer in the country would be required by law to
*pretend* that over-the-air broadcasts were encrypted.

And since ALL PCs were capable of being a DTV receiver with the addition
of a software defined radio, that meant that we were on a track to
banning all computers unless they were designed to refuse to run
programs that hadn't been approved by a corporate consortium.

My first day on the job at EFF was going to the very first Broadcast
Flag meeting (actually, it was the day *before* I was hired and we were
still working on the paperwork, but this was important so I got on a
plane to LA with Seth Schoen and Fred von Lohmann).

The Broadcast Protection Discussion Group was the most smoke-filled,
dirty-dealing, skullduggery-filled room I ever sat in. Over the months
and years that followed, I saw so much dirty-tricking, so many
double-bluffs and backstabs. It was amazing and horrible.

And what's more, despite our best efforts to head off this disaster,
they succeeded, and got the FCC to regulate the Broadcast Flag into
existence (with the small win that FCC commissioners, not Hollywood
studios, would be in charge of what programs were allowed).

But EFF has a diversity of tactics at its disposal. Where activism
failed, technology and law prevailed. We sued the FCC along with the
American Library Association and Public Knowledge and won!


And part of that victory turned on the fact that GNU Radio proved that
the FCC wasn't just regulating radio devices - they had arrogated to
themselves the power to regulate any device with a general-purpose
computer in it.

The best part is GNU Radio is still finding new niches to fill,
demonstrating the incredible power and potential of Turing-completeness.
It's a powerful system - and just as importantly, it's a powerful weapon
in the War on General Purpose Computing.



🌏 Universal broadband now

As an idea, Broadband-as-a-Human-Right has followed the familiar path
(misattributed to Gandhi): "first they ignore you, then they laugh at
you, then you win."


But the pandemic has made the notion concrete and urgent for obvious
reasons: during lockdown, if you have you internet, you're disconnected
from the world - education, employment, health, family, romance.
Lawmakers are taking notice.


America has the slowest, least available, most expensive broadband in
the developed world. And when Frontier filed for bankruptcy, we learned
way. Monopolists carriers deliberately choose not to roll out profitable
fiber to millions of households.


That's right, Frontier chose to leave *billions* on the table because
the investment would take 10 years to earn out, and the analysts that
controlled their share prices hate >5yr investments, and Frontier's
execs' mostly get paid in stocks.

Frontier's worst-served customers are rural, with no alternative
(Frontier's filing book these customers as an "asset" because they can
be charged arbitrarily high sums and provided with substandard service
thanks to the lack of competition.

This isn't the first time this happened. When "electrification" was
bringing prosperity to America, rural households were neglected and
abused by power companies. During the New Deal, they formed
electrification co-ops that worked with things like the TVA to extend

These co-ops later became "telephone co-ops" that provided connectivity
to America's underserved, rural populations. Today, the surviving
electrification and telephone co-ops are performing techno-economic

In the US's poorest predominantly-white county, a surviving co-op got
fiber to EVERY household, using a mule called "Ol Bub" to get to the
most inaccessible homes. The county was flooded with $25/h telework jobs
- tech support, education and more.


The connection between electrification and broadband was first made,
AFAIK, by the brilliant Susan Crawford, whose " Fiber: The Coming Tech
Revolution—and Why America Might Miss It" is essential reading.


Meanwhile, the idea continues to spread, fuelled by the revealed truths
of pandemic: in a new Techcrunch column, Kevin Frazier (Harvard Public
Policy/Berkeley Law) makes the case for a Universal Basic Internet.


Frazier's proposal is explicitly based on the FDR-era Rural
Electrification Administration, whose two polestars were employing and
empowering community members, and teaching people "how to make the most
of their newfound light."

REA didn't create electricity users, it created electricity *owners*.
Just as the Depression "showed rural America had been left in the dark,
COVID-19 has revealed the plight of the millions of Americans left offline."

The pandemic and the Frontier bankruptcy make the private sector's
inadequacy and unsuitability to provide broadband undeniable. We
wouldn't let AT&T; decide where our interstate highways go - your
ability to get connected shouldn't be at their whim, either.


🌏 Airgap-busting malware

A new report from ESET describes Ramsay, a piece of malware designed to
infect and exfiltrate data from airgapped computers - computers that are
never connected to the internet.


Ramsay relies on the fact that doing useful work on airgapped computers
requires transfering files with removable media like thumbdrives. So
Ramsay travels by thumbdrive: it infects a non-gapped computer, which
infects the drive, which infects the airgap system.

Then, when another thumbdrive is inserted into the airgap system later,
Ramsay transfers a payload of stolen files to it, and then when that
drive is inserted into a net-connected system, the payload is transfered
to the system and sent back over the internet.

Catalin Cimpanu's Zdnet writeup is really good and clear. He calls
attention to ESET's observation that Ramsay seems linked to Darkhotel, a
hacker group with ties to the South Korean government.



🌏 Deliveroo, without Deliveroo

"Reclaiming Work" is a brilliant, 7-minute documentary on delivery
platform co-ops around the world, created by Novara Media:


Delivery platforms like Grubhub and Deliveroo are parasitical,
money-hemorrhaging dumpster fires that guts restaurateurs' margins and
subject workers to brutal, precarious work, not to turn a profit, but to
convince suckers to buy shares:


But food delivery itself is great! People who have good (well paid,
stable, with benefits) jobs as delivery people enjoy the work! And as
every Chinese restaurant in New York has proved, it's possible to
deliver food *and* sustain a restaurant.

That's where "platform coops" come in. The apps that the platform
companies created are not rocket surgery. Moderately skilled programmers
can and do clone them without breaking a sweat.

A platform coop is a what happens when workers own the app and the service.

These are great for delivery: they professionalize it, with benefits, a
living wage, predictable hours. It's a service that sustains workers and
restaurants. It's the difference between a "two-sided market" (which gig
companies claim to be) and a parasite (which they are).

It's not just delivery: Up & Go is a worker-owned home cleaning app that
pays its worker-owners $25/hour:


While Austin's Ride pays its workers 25% more than Uber or Lyft. I'll
never forget when I proposed that this could be done on a panel and an
investor in the audience was outraged, convinced that Uber were fucking
sorcerers or something.


Platform co-ops are proof that the most important thing about tech isn't
what it *does*, it's who it does it *to*, and who it does it *for*


🌏 Podcast: Part 3 of Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town

My latest podcast is up! It's the third instalment of my reading of my
2005 novel, "Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town," which Gene
Wolfe called "a glorious book unlike any book you’ve ever read."


It's the tale of a broadband-obsessed, retired serial entrepreneur
living in Toronto's bohemian Kensington Market where he's helping
crustypunk dumpster-divers build a citywide free mesh network. Also, his
father is a mountain and his mother is a washing machine.

You can catch up on the reading here:


And if you want to hear an actual actor reading it, 10,000X better than
I can, check out Bronson Pinchot's audiobook adaptation:


Here's the direct MP3 link (thanks as always to the Internet Archive for
hosting - psst, they'll host your stuff for free, forever, too):


And here's the RSS feed to subscribe to my podcast (or just search your
podcatcher for "Cory Doctorow Podcast"):



🌏 US insurers say paying for pandemic treatment is "selfless"

The US health insurance industry is the only healthy thing in America.
It's pulling down record profits and shelling out billions to its investors:


(Of course, that's not what they're telling lawmakers when they show up
begging for a bailout - then they're crying into their hats about all
their red ink):


The billions in pandemic profiteering aren't enough for the US health
insurance industry, which is why its lobbying arm is demanding that
Congress provide covid insurance through COBRA, a boondoggle that
represents a massive industry profit-center:


Defending the proposal to the Senate, health industry spokesvillain
Heather Meade of the Orwellian lobbying group "Alliance to Fight for
Health Care" called it "a selfless act."


As David Sirota points out, health insurance is the only major industry
whose normal procedure is for its customers not to know what they're
getting. Insurers turn down 1 in 5 claims - they're basically, blind
boxes, but for your life-saving healthcare.

The industry gobbles *one in ten dollars* of every US earner, and
doesn't deliver. Insurance premiums have gone up 740% since 1984.

43 million Americans are projected to lose their insurance during this

In America, health insurance is a product that safeguards your health,
except when you're at risk of getting sick.


🌏 This day in history

#15yrsago Saudi woman beats up religious cop

#10yrsago Ghostbusters attack budget cuts at the New York Public Library

#10yrsago Time to kill "Information Wants to Be Free"

#10yrsago New York Times headline writer allergic to the word "liar"

#5yrsago Blizzard bans 100,000 Warcraft players

#5yrsago Atlanta pays $20,000 to critic forced to post pro-cop message
to Facebook

#1yrago Pangea raised $180m to buy up low-rent Chicago properties "to
help poor people," and then created the most brutally efficient eviction
mill in Chicago history

#1yrago Apple removed a teen's award-winning anti-Trump game "Bad
Hombre" because they can't tell the difference between apps that
criticize racism and racist apps

#1yrago AOC grills pharma exec aout why the HIV-prevention drug Prep
costs $8 in Australia costs $1,780 in the USA


🌏 Colophon

Today's top sources: Cassie Qaurless, Bruce Schneier
(https://schneier.com/), Slashdot (https://slashdot.org/), Four Short
Links (https://www.oreilly.com/feed/four-short-links), Naked Capitalism
(https://nakedcapitalism.com/), Metafilter (https://metafilter.com).

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel
about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 515 words (16339 total).

Currently reading: The Case for a Job Guarantee, Pavlina Tcherneva

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 03)

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.
That means you can use it any way you like, including commerically,
provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link
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basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.


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

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