[Plura-list] Big Tech distorts our discourse; How the IoT reinforces gentrification; Private equity goes mainstream; What to do about the police

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Fri May 29 17:25:25 EDT 2020

Today's links

* Big Tech distorts our discourse: No mind-control required.

* How the IoT reinforces gentrification: Smart doorbells and predictive
policing are fully automated karens.

* Private equity goes mainstream: If you're gonna loot, you MUST also

* What to do about the police: 15 concrete things that should be done to
reform American policing, right now.

* Masks work: Source control is a thing.

* Walmart's crummy anti-theft AI: Employees blow the whistle on their
employers' credulous machine learning procurements.

* GOP lawmaker hid his diagnosis from Democrats: Andrew Lewis wandered
around Pennsylvania's statehouse, shedding virus particles.

* Canadians newsrooms restructure as co-ops: And readers can join!

* Get a peronalized, signed Poesy the Monster Slayer: Dark Delicacies
will ship you copies signed by me and the original Poesy.

* This day in history: 2005, 2019

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


🎇 Big Tech distorts our discourse

Big Tech companies have a lot to answer for, so it's only natural that
they get a lot of the blame for problems in our world, including the way
that our discourse has become toxic and conspiracy-filled.


One popular explanation for Big Tech's role in this is the idea that Big
Tech invented a powerful brainwashing system that used machine learning
to predict how people would react to advertisers' messages, and this was
hijacked by political operatives as a brainwashing tool.

Exhibit A for this theory is Big Tech's own marketing claims - the
things they tell advertisers when they're explaining why advertisers
should pay them a lot of money to buy ads on their service.

Self-serving marketing claims should be viewed with extreme skepticism.

People have been claiming to have invented brainwashing systems for
thousands of years. Every one of them was either deluded or a charlatan.
It's possible to change peoples' minds by appealing to their reason or
by controlling narratives over long timespans.

But the CIA/pickup artist/Cambridge Analytica claim that if you merely
phrase your message in the right way, you can convince people that up is
down and left is right? That always turned out to be a lie, a trick, or
a coincidence.

You don't have to believe that Big Tech has used machine learning to
perfect the mind-control ray to believe that Big Tech is really bad for
our discourse.

The industry's concentration means that it can control who speaks, and
who hears what they say.

It controls which facts are visible when we do research. it controls
which media is at the top of the chart, and which is buried thousands of
screens down. You can ABSOLUTELY condemn Big Tech for destroying our
discourse without having to believe in mind-control.

This matters.

If Big Tech *has*/ perfected mind-control, then "Big" doesn't matter.
Indeed, breaking Big Tech in to smaller pieces just scatters
mind-control rays into more hands.

If Big Tech's discourse distortion is about Bigness, and not
mind-control, then we have an obvious remedy: antitrust, and its suite
of tools, from breakups to merger scrutiny to structural separation.

I am no tech exceptionalist. Big Tech is run by the same ordinary
mediocrities that run any industry. They're not supergeniuses (though
some, high on their own supply, believe that they are!).

The same tools that tamed the oil barons and the rail barons and the
phone barons will tame the tech barons. Tech is unexceptional, and so no
exception need be made.


🎇 How the IoT reinforces gentrification

Documentarian Brett Gaylor continues his run of outstanding short
documentaries on the perils of the Internet of Things for the CBC. Last
week, it was his short film on climate change and machine learning.


Now he's back with a smart, riveting 8 minutes on how smart doorbells
and predictive policing reinforces gentrification, basically creating a
mesh of fully automated karens that call the cops on anyone who "looks


Gaylor tells his story on LA's Skid Row, a no-man's-land where, for
decades, homeless people were herded into and left alone with little
support -- but also with little official attempts to remove them.

Today, as downtown LA surges, the interface where Skid Row rubs up
against expensive condos has become a highly automated, fully surveilled
battlefield. It's a place where algorithms tell cops to go to "find
crime" (by definition, cops find crime where they look for it).

And it's a place where machine learning, facial recognition and
networked sensors form a virtual chase-team that harries some of the
worst-off people on the continent.


🎇 Private equity goes mainstream

Private equity was always a catastrophically destructive grift. Just ask
employees of the Olive Garden, Toys R Us or Sears. And PE's expansion
into health care was terrible even before the pandemic. But man, has
PE's toxic nature been revealed by the crisis.

It's like we spent a couple decades worrying about the coming storm, but
assuring ourselves that at least the house had strong walls and a good
roof and foundation - only to discover that termites had turned it all
into lacework and then fucked off to a financial secrecy jurisdiction.

PE, not the pandemic, killed Hertz.


Ditto movie theaters:


PE is why hospitals are laying off ER doctors and nurses even as the ERs
themselves are heaving with patients:


And PE is *swimming* in cash, and firehosing it around, scooping up
bargains during the pandemic, so they can destroy more businesses and
make more plutes even richer when the health emergency is over.


PE is both incredibly, performatively dull, and also a really simple
form of fraud. It's a con and it only works because it is performed in
Financial High Elvish, so the people doing it sound really smart and
make you feel stupid.


But once the boringness is punctured, it deflates, and leaves behind the
contempt that PE deserves.

Oh, look, it's The Onion.

"Protestors Criticized For Looting Businesses Without Forming Private
Equity Firm First"


“Look, we all have the right to protest, but that doesn’t mean you can
just rush in and destroy any business without gathering a group of
clandestine investors to purchase it at a severely reduced price and
slowly bleed it to death."

"It’s disgusting to put workers at risk by looting. You do it by
chipping away at their health benefits and eventually laying them off.
There’s a right way and wrong way to do this."


🎇 What to do about the police

US police brutality stories raise a lot of important structural
questions about how policing works here. How can a law-enforcement
system repeatedly produce so many spectacularly lethal outcomes? What
kind of idiotic operation are cops running, anyway?

I mean, how do cops with long histories of violent misconduct stay on
the force? How do cities end up shelling out millions to bail out
violent and crooked cops, and then those cops get to keep their jobs and
reoffend until their body-count crosses some threshold?

What kind of police force produces officers who literally drive down the
street indiscriminately gassing unarmed people with their hands in the air?


Criminal defense attorney T Gregg Doucette lays out fifteen concrete
structural deficits in US policing that explain much (but not all) of
the violence, corruption and impunity that characterize American policy
violence and discrimination.


Doucette starts with "qualified immunity" - a judge-created doctrine
that effectively excuses almost any police misconduct, no matter how
blatant it is. Under QI, cops who commit crimes can't be sued if the
crime wasn't "clearly established" at the time.

This superficially reasonable idea is, in fact, a license to commit any
crime. Like, California cops who stole $100K in gold coins were not
punished because no statute said "Don't steal gold coins" (the statutes
merely said "Do not steal").

As Doucette says, "If a police officer chokes someone to death for
sport, you'd say 'killing for sport is illegal!' Then a judge'd say
'just killing them with his shin, not with his knee.'"

And the double-whammy of QI is that it keeps suits from being brought,
which keeps evidence from being entered into the record, which keeps
"clear definitions" from being generated, which means that cops can
repeatedly engage in the same midconduct without sanction.

Doucette moves on to other structural issues in US policing, like the
fact that cops don't need to carry malpractice insurance, so, on the one
hand, there's no difference between the cost of employing a repeat
offender vs a cop with a squeaky-clean record.

And on the other hand, taxpayers have to shell out millions to make
amends for crimes committed by cops.

Other issues: cops are undereducated, hired young, don't need to live in
the neighborhoods they police.

And police departments aren't required to publish "Brady lists" of cops
whom prosecutors have documented as serial liars who cannot be called
upon to testify.

Police unions cut "sweetheart deals" with cities that worsen these
deficiencies by tying the city's hands when cops commit crimes.

More: De-escalation is not a mandatory part of police training (quite
the contrary, cops are trained and equipped for "domestic warfare").

Cops are allowed to use traffic stops as a pretense for fishing
expeditions and this power is primarily targeted against people of color.

The arresting cop is also the investigating the crime - so the arresting
officer is incentivized to plant evidence, lie, etc, to "win."

Federal prosecutors are extremely reluctant to prosecute cops, even
repeat offenders who commit murder. Amy Klobuchar did not prosecute
George Floyd's murderer when he committed other assaults on the people
he was sworn to protect.


There is no reliable, comprehensive database of police violence and
killing. You can't respond to problems if you're not measuring them.

Centuries of court decisions have riddled the 4th, 5th and 8th
Amendments with loopholes, leaving the Bill of Rights in tatters.

Doucette: "For example, at the federal level the Supreme Court has ruled
it's totally 100% fine for the police to violate your Fourth Amendment
rights as long as they do so 'in good faith.'"

Penalties for crimes committed while wearing a badge are weaker than the
penalties for the same crimes when committed by "civilians" (a term I
despise, cops should not be a military force). They should be more harsh.

I said at the start of this thread that Doucette's list of structural
deficiencies in US policing is incomplete, and I'm sure he'd agree with
me. One important point to raise in the context of the racist elements
of US police malpractice is the origin of US policing.

American policing is rooted in "Slave Patrols" - literally vigilante
forces whose job was to return Africans who'd escaped enslavement to the
monsters who'd enslaved them.


It's conceivable that an institution could overcome roots as blighted as
this, but that is a huge, deliberate undertaking. It's not something
that happens automatically if you ignore it long enough.

So to Doucette's excellent list of reforms, I'd add one more: a frank,
well-funded, wide-ranging truth and reconciliation process to explicitly
grapple with America's white supremacist history and its connection to
law enforcement.

I'm pretty confident that Doucette would agree with this one. After all,
he spearheaded the campaign that forced the UNC to abandon its plans to
hand millions of dollars to a white nationalist group to build a Klan



🎇 Masks work

Writing in the Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, Oxford
Primary Care Prof Trish Greenhalgh presents a peer-reviewed
"Comprehensive Review" of the efficacy of masks in the context of the
covid-19 pandemic.

tldr: Masks work.


Greenhalgh invited colleagues who disputed this to make their best
arguments, then she rebutted each of those arguments, citing both public
health practice and studies.

She starts by noting that "face covering" (she dislikes the term mask,
but I'm gonna use it here for brevity) skeptics "completely ignore
various types of evidence... basic science, mathematical modelling and
real‐world case examples of asymptomatic transmission..."

The most important point for me in her work is that the majority of
debate centers on research about whether masks protect wearers, but the
point of asking the public to mask up is to prevent spreading - that is,
to protect people other than the wearer.

The evidence that even non-medical masks do this is pretty strong,
especially masks that use two layers of "different fabrics with
different physical and electrostatic properties." These appear to filter
90% of droplets.

The way to control the pandemic is to reduce the number of people each
newly infected person spreads the disease to until it is below one. With
"R0 < 1," the number of infections will steadily decline.

And it really looks like masks - even bad masks worn badly by many
people - can knock covid-19's R0 below 1. That is, cloth masks can
reverse the curve and end the pandemic.

What's more, the evidence against masks is really weak, including
studies purporting to show that mask-wearing may encourage riskier
behavior, or that masks will cause anxiety, or facial rashes, or other
negative outcomes.

Bottom line: "Mathematical modelling suggests that a face covering that
is 60% effective at blocking viral transmission and is worn by 60% of
the population will reduce R0 to below 1.0. This leaves plenty of room
for error as people make their own imperfect coverings from old clothing
and as some people either cannot or will not wear a face covering."


🎇 Walmart's crummy anti-theft AI

Employees at Walmart HQ are so concerned about the terrible performance
of "Everseen" - the theft detector that monitors the self-checkout
system - that they made a slick video detailing its inadequacies and
sent it to Wired journalist Louise Matsakis.


The employees - who style themselves the Concerned Home Office
Associates - say they're "past their breaking point" with Everseen
(which they call "Neverseen") and detail many ways in which it generates
both false positives and false negatives.

For example, if you stack two of the same product atop each other and
swipe only the bottom one, the system will not sound a theft alert. But
if you set down your cellphone in the scanning area, it will dispatch a
staffer to investigate.

This was a nuisance and worse before the pandemic, but as infections
race through Walmart staff, sometimes killing them, false positives that
force staff to interact closely with customers who'd otherwise be able
to self-checkout presents potentially lethal risk.

Meanwhile, "Everseen declined to answer questions about its technology.
In a statement, a spokesperson said the company 'accurately and
effectively identifies potential theft [sic] is why retailers have
successfully deployed it at thousands of locations to date..."

It's like an AI grifter checklist: magical claims about controlling
undesirable people, works little better than a random number generator,
refuses to discuss details...

There's only one thing missing: a deeply disturbing promotional video
offering a vision of robotic authoritarianism.

Oh, wait!



🎇 GOP lawmaker hid his diagnosis from Democrats

Pennsylvania State Rep Andrew Lewis showed up for work at the state
house with coronavirus. Speaker Mike Turzai warned his Republican caucus
that they might have been exposed. He did *not* tell Democrats in the


The whole PA GOP caucus appear to be fully paid-up members of the Flu
Klux Klan. After Rep Russ Diamond was exposed, he self-isolated...but
didn't bother to get a test.

Fun fact. The motto on Diamond's Twitter bio is "All that is necessary
for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

Ironic that when he found out he might be infectious, he didn't get tested?

The incident provoked an epic rant from Democratic Rep Brian Sims, who
blasted the state GOP for failing to wear masks in the legislative
chamber and blithely assuring voters that it was safe to go back to work.



🎇 Canadians newsrooms restructure as co-ops

Groupe Capitales, a chain of Quebec newspapers, has been saved from
bankruptcy after its workers formed a co-operative, a move that doubled
its paid subscriber base.


The workers formed a co-op after the bankrupt chain failed to find a
buyer. It's the largest newsroom co-op in the country, and the newsroom
staff have each pledged 5% of their pay to cover the co-op's expenses.

What's more, the co-op plans to open membership *to readers*, though
they will not get a say in editorial policy: "You contribute and you can
vote on some topics, but editorial independence of the paper has to be

"As COVID-19 continues to afflict newsrooms, Le Soleil plans to stick to
what’s working: listening to their readers. As Carignan said: 'In the
co-op model, yeah, we are the owners, but our boss is our community.'"


🎇 Get a peronalized, signed Poesy the Monster Slayer

My first-ever picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer, which First
Second books is publishing on Jul 14. The book is about a little girl
who refuses to go to bed because she's having more fun turning her toys
into monster-hunting weapons.


It's an epic tale of bedtime resistance, toy-hacking, monsters, and
parental perseverance (Poesy's parents are slowly turned into zombies
because they can't get any sleep - setting up the final monster battle!).

The whole thing is beautifully illustrated by Matt Rockefeller.

And of course, it was inspired by my own daughter, Poesy, who, at 12,
says she's now too old for picture books (although sometimes I sneak one
in at bedtime!).

On July 11, Poesy and I will pick up a box of pre-orders of Poesy the
Monster Slayer from our local indie bookstore, Dark Delicacies, which
has survived both an eviction and coronavirus.


We'll sign and personalize your pre-orders and Dark Delicacies will get
them in the mail on so that they arrive by July 14 (assuming the USPS is
still functional!).

I've said many times that this is the monster book I wish I'd had as a
kid and I wish I'd been able to read to my kid when she was a littlie.
For a while there, it was looking like we wouldn't be able to sign
pre-orders for other kids, but Dark Delicacies came through for us.

That's the kind of folks Del and Sue at Dark Delicacies are! That's why,
when they lost their lease, everyone from Guillermo Del Toro to Neil
Gaiman rallied around them and raised more than $30k to help them relocated.


I count myself so lucky to have such a great bookseller within walking
distance of my front door - and I'm so pleased to be doing these
pre-orders with both my daughter (this is a daddy-daughter first for
us!) and them.


🎇 This day in history

#15yrsago Copyright prevented transmission of Beatles music to aliens

#1yrago The UK grew rich by looting the world; now it launders billions
for other looters

#1yrago Boris Johnson may be the UK's next Prime Minister, but he's up
on criminal charges for Brexit "Battle Bus" lies

#1yrago Open Insulin: biohackers trying to create a "microbrewery" for
insulin as an answer to price-gouging https://openinsulin.org/new/

#1yrago How DRM has permitted Google to have an "open source" browser
that is still under its exclusive control

#1yrago Chinese environment ministry finds widespread pollution coverups
and corruption at the local government level

#1yrago Trump's new climate czar has repeatedly and unrepentantly
compared efforts to reduce CO2 to Hitler's slaughter of 6,000,000 Jews


🎇 Colophon

Today's top sources: Late Stage Capitalism,
(https://www.reddit.com/r/LateStageCapitalism/), Naked Capitalism
(https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/), Super Punch
(https://www.superpunch.net/), Metafilter (https://metafilter.com).

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel
about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 529 words (21044

Currently reading: Adventures of a Dwergish Girl, Daniel Pinkwater

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

Upcoming appearances: Discussion with Nnedi Okorafor, Torcon, June 14

Upcoming books: "Poesy the Monster Slayer" (Jul 2020), a picture book
about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Pre-order here:
https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627. Get a personalized, signed
copy 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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