[Plura-list] Squeeze Me; The Internet is for End-Users; Ad-tech is a bubble; Schools! Libraries! Classrooms! Get free Attack Surface hardcovers; Facebook's living will; Part 17 of Someone Comes to Town Someone Leaves Town; Seeking home call-center workers

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Mon Oct 5 15:12:28 EDT 2020

Today's links

* Squeeze Me: Carl Hiaasen's Trump-as-Florida-man masterpiece.

* The Internet is for End-Users: IETF on "user agents."

* Ad-tech is a bubble: Subprime Attention Crisis.

* Schools! Libraries! Classrooms! Get free Attack Surface hardcovers: An
imperfect solution to a thorny problem.

* Facebook's living will: Leaks reveal the company's idiotic plans to
stave off breakup.

* Part 17 of Someone Comes to Town Someone Leaves Town: This week on the
podcast: a murder most foul.

* Seeking home call-center workers: Propublica wants your story.

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

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


🛬 Squeeze Me

One of America's great novelists is Carl Hiaasen, who manages that
brilliant trick of being howlingly funny and brutally scathing in the
same breath, the "ha ha only serious" mode that gets me to buy his
novels the instant I see them on a shelf.

I discovered Hiaasen through his introductions to John D MacDonald's
Travis McGee books, which highlighted the connection between McDonald's
enduring lament for the lost, wild, Florida of the pre-tourism era and
Hiaasen's own novelistic eulogies for Florida's natural wonders.

Through more than 20 novels for adults and young readers, Hiaasen has
married a naturalist's ability to describe the savage beauty of the
dwindling pockets of untamed Florida wilderness with a Miami crime
reporter's rich stock of absurd-but-true Florida tales.

Florida Man isn't a single character - he's a pantheon: real-estate
developer, timeshare hustler, unlicensed zoo owner, crooked politician,
racist snowbird, idiot tourist. Hiaasen's books are like anthropological
case-studies, but as Twain might have written them.

Each of them is a comeuppance story of some venal person - with a
deliciously Dickensian name - getting what they deserve, often at the
hands of Skink, Hiaasen's greatest hero: a former reformist governor who
quit over corruption and disappeared into Everglades legend.

But though Hiaasen's revenge-plays are absurdist farces, they are
realistic in one regard. At the end of each, Florida is no less
imperilled. No amount of panther- or gator-devoured Florida Men can dent
their population, nor cool their destructive love for Florida itself.

On Saturday, I took a special trip to Vroman's, Pasadena's beloved,
century-old institution of a bookstore, now itself on the endangered
species list thanks to covid, and there I found a signed hardcover of
Hiaasen's latest: SQUEEZE ME.


Naturally, I read it in a single sitting. It is a work of superb, comic
genius, concerning as it does the ultimate Florida Man - Donald Trump -
being threatened by an invasive incursions of gigantic, plute-devouring
Burmese pythons.

SQUEEZE ME is a caper novel that starts when a wealthy Palm Beach
heiress - she is a member of the POTUS Pussies, proud septugenarian GOP
megadonors - goes missing at a country club fundraiser.

The next day, Angie Armstrong - a disgraced former wildlife cop who lost
her job and went to jail for feeding a poacher's hand to a gator - is
called in to catch a massive invasive python on the club grounds.

She decapitates it and takes it to her storage-locker freezer,
preparatory to turning it over to a state agency for dissection (after
all, there's something weird about that massive lump it is digesting).

Meanwhile, the club's ruthless manager has put two and two together and
understands that if that snake is dissected and the partially digested
Trumpette inside is discovered, it'll be the end of his job.

So begins the caper: a tale of stolen snakes, idiot inheritors, racist
Palm Beach aristocrats, presidential tanning-bed servicemen, petty
criminals, an amorous Secret Service agent who's been seduced by Melania...

...And a hapless Honduran undocumented migrant whom the President
publicly accuses of being the leader of a terrorist anti-Trump militia
that murdered the old lady.

All swirling around Angie, a kickass heroine who uses her animal-control
noose to collar opossums, pythons, and Florida Men.

SQUEEZE ME makes a sterling case for Trump as the ultimate Florida Man:
a snowbird *and* a real-estate developer *and* a white supremacist *and*
a conspiracist *and* a climate denier *and* a blowhard. The whole package.

And while SQUEEZE ME is a Hiaasen revenge play of enormous verve and
absurdity, it is also true to Hiaasen's core dictum that the unstoppable
invasion of Florida Man will be Florida's doom - that the state's
spectacular wild places will not be saved.

Hiaasen's traditional version of this doom is two parts real-estate
development, one part climate crisis, but, as befits this moment,
SQUEEZE ME is more like five parts climate emergency, one part condo

By pitting two invasive species - Burmese pythons and Florida Man -
against each other, with a background soundtrack of white nationalist
Trumpian bleating about "invaders," Hiaasen makes a good case for us
*all* being Florida Man.

I discovered Hiaasen through Travis McGee, and this book feels like the
later McGee novels: funny and hard-charging, with an undercurrent of sad
exhaustion -  taking stock of a life spent trying to change our
direction, watching as we continue our cliffwards hurdle.

I laughed aloud in so many places in this book, and cheered for the
revenge and just devoured the tale, but it left me with a strange mix of
feelings - sadness, rage, delight, like chocolate with a pinch of salt
and some habanero.

Hiaasen is one of this country's best, a writer who smuggles in so much
under cover of comedy, and this is one of Hiaasen's best.


🛬 The Internet is for End-Users

One of the most profound latent political statements in internet history
was the decision to make "user-agent" the technical term for a
web-browser - implying that the browser should work on behalf of its
user - and not on behalf of the owner of the server it connects to.

This implication underpins so many of the key struggles over the web's
destiny: ad-blocking, stream-ripping, DRM bypassing, tracker-blocking,
anonymization, etc. All of these technologies stem from the idea that a
browser's first duty is to serve its user.

This duty surpasses any duty to rightsholders, publishers, cops,
advertisers, university exam proctors or other third parties,
irrespective of the legitimacy of their claims to primacy.

"User-agent" is a way of saying that while users can be foolish
(clicking on phishing links), or wicked (posting phishing links) that
trying to avert these outcomes by using the browser to control users is
a cure that's worse than the disease.

That when you have a system that you use to communicate with your loved
ones, get your education, meet with doctors, transmit trade secrets, and
do your banking, it should respond to your needs above all others.

Naturally, this is a hotly contested proposition: there are so many
entities who could solve their problems by making your browser take
orders from THEM, not you.

This desire to control users through the browser was the source of one
of the most bitter tech-policy fights I've ever been in: EME, the fight
over whether DRM should be part of the W3C's standards for web browsers.

This was a frankly brutal fight over the very soul of the web and the
web-browser: a fight over whether the canonical browser spec would say,
"The user is in charge of the browser" or "The browser is in charge of
the user."


And we lost it. The W3C's reasoning was that the major browser vendors
had already made that call, and the users had already lost. Better to
have a standardized version of user-control than a wild west of one-off

Three years later, our lives are being lived through the browser in a
way that surpasses even our most dire warnings in the EME fight, and
every petty tyrant is hijacking the browser to extend tendrils of
control right into our homes.

Sometimes that's your school, spying on you and your family in the name
of "invigilation":


And sometimes it's your boss, who turned your home into a rent-free
branch office and uses your browser to make it stick:


All of this has reinvigorated the question of who the web is for: the
people who run the servers, or the people who run the browsers.

The IETF, another standards body, has waded into the fray, with Mark
Nottingham - an internet pioneer who chairs the IETF HTTP group -
weighing in with RFC 8890, AKA "The Internet is for End-Users."


Nottingham cites the browser's status as a "user-agent" as central to
the Internet Architecture Board's philosophy, that end-users' interests
should be favored over those of other parties.

Nottingham has an admirably expansive view of end-users, including
parents of children using the internet, people pictured in photos that
traverse the internet, people being sensed by internet-connected sensors
in a room they've just entered.

He says that the IETF's success lies not in the mere expansion or
perfection of the internet - more users, faster speeds, lower latency -
but rather in whether the net empowers users, rather than controlling them.

To make users central to IETF work, Nottingham advises engaging with the
"internet community" and points of the shortcomings and difficulties of
this principle:

* Many affected users lack the technical knowledge to engage in
discussions about IETF work

* Government representatives are imperfect proxies for the users in
their jurisdictions and even worse for users in other countries

* Civil society groups - while often technically clued in and a good
match for user interests - are resource constrained

Nottingham proposes specific outreach to affected user groups whose
lives might be affected by IETF work, with the IETF meeting those users
where they gather, rather than requiring users to come to the IETF (in
the broadest sense).

Nottingham acknowledges that some decisions involve tradeoffs in the
wellbeing of different users groups, but cautions against using this as
an excuse for failing to try to come up with positive-sum solutions.

The role of computer as obedient helpmeet or unblinking overseer has
never been more salient, and Nottingham's intervention here is a really
important, thoughtful bridging of the technical and policy implications
of that fight.


🛬 Ad-tech is a bubble

"Subprime Attention Crisis" is a new book by Tim Hwang that argues that
the ad-tech market is a bubble created by an ad industry doing what it
does best: convincing advertisers that it is really, really good at
selling its products.


Think of department story magnate John Wanamaker's infamous "Half the
money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know
which half' and consider what a sell-job he got from his ad-agency if he
thought that *only half* of his ad spending was wasted!

Writing for Wired, Gilad Edelman praises Hwang's book, which identifies
the huge share of ad spending that's siphoned off by the ad-tech
industry, which has interposed itself between advertisers and publishers
without delivering real value to either.

This is becoming increasingly apparent: consider the Dutch public
broadcaster NPO, which swapped out "behavioral ads" (chosen by profiling
you) with "contextual ads" (chosen by profiling the web-page it appears


Not only did NPO see similar or better click-through rates on ads that
were served without knowing *anything* about the user, but more users
saw those ads because the ads didn't have to get through a tracker blocker.

And, to Hwang's point, these high-performing, highly visible ads each
delivered double the money to NPO, because there was no scammy ad-tech
industry in the middle raking off a 50% vig for behavioral analysis,
real-time auctions and other socially useless smoke-and-mirrors.

Hwang argues that this all adds up to a bubble, where the spending is
coming from purchasers who don't know what they're buying - literally,
as programmatic ads are placed in realtime, so advertisers don't know
which publications run their ads or how they're displayed.

As with every bubble, there's an army of associated huxters pumping away
to keep the bubble inflated: ad agencies arbitraging between advertisers
and publishers, ad-tech platforms touting their devastating accuracy,
and a captured rating agency controlled by FB and Google.

And Hwang points out that ad-tech isn't standalone: it's integral to the
entire tech industry, woven into Amazon, Google, FB and even Apple's
platforms, subsidizing them and publishers.

When that bubble pops, it will be systemic - like the crash of 2008,
which revealed how mortgages had been turned into structural elements of
the entire economy.

Hwang wants to avert this calamity with a controlled deflation, with
researchers aggressively calling BS on ad-tech claims, and the creation
of a better, less scammy advertising ecosystem.

Based on this review, I just bumped Hwang's book to the top of my pile.
It certainly seems complementary to my own recent short book, HOW TO


That book's core thesis is that Big Tech lies about the efficacy of its
surveillance/persuasion products and achieves its dominance through
common-or-garden monopolization of the sort that mediocre sociopaths
have mastered since the days of the Rail Barons.

That surveillance capitalism isn't a "rogue" capitalism, it's just
"capitalism" - with surveillance, which it gets away with by creating
monopolies that can capture their regulators and enmesh themselves in
the national security complex.

This isn't identical to Hwang's formulation, but it's not so divergent,
either. From the review, I think the big difference is that Hwang
doesn't call for a reinvigoration of traditional antitrust, nor for a
renewed and muscular interoperability:



🛬 Schools! Libraries! Classrooms! Get free Attack Surface hardcovers

Figuring out how to tour a book in the lockdown age is hard. Many
authors have opted to do a handful of essentially identical events with
a couple of stores as a way of spreading out the times so that readers
with different work-schedules, etc can make it.

But not me. My next novel, Attack Surface (the third Little Brother
book) comes out in the US/Canada on Oct 13 and it touches on so many
burning contemporary issues that I rounded up 16 guests for 8 different
themed "Attack Surface Lectures."


This has many advantages: it allows me to really explore a wide variety
of subjects without trying to cram them all into a single event and it
allows me to spread out the love to eight fantastic booksellers.

Half of those bookstores (the ones WITHOUT asterices in the listing)
have opted to have ME fulfil their orders, meaning that Tor is shipping
me all their copies, and I'm going to sign, personalize and mail them
from home the day after each event!

(The other half will be sending out books with adhesive-backed
bookplates I've signed for them)

All of that is obviously really cool, but there is a huge fly in the
ointment: given that all these events are different, what if you want to
attend more than one?

This is where things get broken. Each of these booksellers is under
severe strain from the pandemic (and the whole sector was under severe
strain even before the pandemic), and they're allocating resources -
payrolled staff - to after-hours events that cost them real money.

So each of them has a "you have to buy a book to attend" policy. These
were pretty common in pre-pandemic times, too, because so many attendees
showed up at indie stores that were being destroyed by Amazon, having
bought the books on Amazon.

What's more, booksellers with in-person events at least got the
possibility that attendees would buy another book while in the store,
and/or that people would discover their store through the event and come
back - stuff that's not gonna happen with virtual events.

There is, frankly, no good answer to this: no one in the chain has the
resources to create and deploy a season's pass system (let alone agree
on how the money from it should be divided among booksellers) - and no
reader has any use for 8 (or even 2!) copies of the book.

It was my stupid mistake, as I explain here:


After I posted, several readers suggested one small way I could make
this better: let readers who want to attend more than one event donate
their extra copies to schools, libraries and other institutions.

Which I am now doing. If you WANT to attend more than one event and you
are seeking to gift a copy to an institution, I have a list for you!
It's here:


And if you are affiliated with an institution and you want to put
yourself on this list, please complete this form:


If you want to attend more than one event and you want to donate your
copy of the book to one of these organizations, choose one from the list
and fill its name in on the ticket-purchase page, then email me so I can
cross it off the list: doctorow at craphound.com

I know this isn't great, and I apologize. We're all figuring out this
book-launch-in-a-pandemic business here, and it was really my mistake. I
can't promise I won't make different mistakes if I have to do another
virtual tour, but I can promise I won't make this one again.


🛬 Facebook's living will

After years of slumber, US and EU antitrust enforcers are beginning to
stir, calling tech CEOs in for hearings, opening investigations, and
hinting darkly at the possibility of future breakups.

The tech companies have seen this day coming. Many believe the reason
Google restructured as Alphabet was to create clean cleavage lines for a
future breakup, a means to steer future enforcers (for example, away
from forcing Google to split search from advertising).

Now, a leaked internal memo obtained by the WSJ lays out Facebook's plan
to avoid breakup. It's a really stupid plan.


As reported on Engadget, the memo basically says, "If you didn't want us
to monopolize the sector, you shouldn't have allowed us to buy Whatsapp
and Instagram and now that you have, it's too late, nyah."


No, really: FB's defense is that because the initial mergers were
permitted, that permission can't be subsequently withdrawn.

What this defense fails to account for is:

* the subsequent revelation that Zuckerberg undertook the Insta
acquisition for illegal anticompetitive purposes (to snuff out a
potential future competitor);

* the fact that FB defrauded the EU when it promised not to merge the
backends of Whatsapp, Insta and Messenger

Instead, FB emphasizes that it spent a lot of money integrating these
companies it acquired under false, illegal pretenses, and it would cost
a lot to unwind them.

tldr: If we'd known your approval of these mergers was contingent on us
not breaking the law, we'd never have committed the resources to buy
these services and do illegal frauds with them. It's totally unfair to
ask us to stop now.


🛬 Part 17 of Someone Comes to Town Someone Leaves Town

This week on my podcast, part 17 of my reading of my 2006 novel "Someone
Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town," a book Gene Wolfe called "a
glorious book unlike any book you’ve ever read."


Part 17 comes with a content warning (there's a super grisly murder I
hardly remember writing and which shocked me to re-read now) and a bonus
(~60 seconds of Ken Campbell's incredible Wol Wontok, a translation of
Macbeth into Malakulan pidgin).


Here's how to get the previous instalments:


And here's a direct link to the MP3 (hosting by the Internet Archive,
who'll host your stuff too, for free, forever):


And here's  my podcast feed:



🛬 Seeking home call-center workers

On Friday, I wrote up Propublica's astounding long-read about Arise, a
"work-from-home call-center" where workers end up paying to work - under
incredibly abusive conditions - for blue-chips like Disney and Airbnb.


Workers at Arise - almost all women, mostly Black women - are tricked
into the deal, then encouraged to make ends meet by recruiting their
friends. When they've finally had enough, they have to PAY TO QUIT
("contract termination fees").

Both Propublica's original article and my summary got a lot of attention
and now I've heard from Ariana Tobin,  one of the writers on the
original story, who writes:

"We’re still collecting stories from call center workers, especially
people who work from home regardless of pandemics. If you’ve heard
responses from anyone who says they work in the industry, we’ve got a
survey they can fill out."


If you or someone you know has been roped into one of these
arrangements, please help Propublica and Tobin's team continue to do
their excellent work in blowing the lid off this modern-day form of
sweatshop labor.


🛬 This day in history

#15yrsago It’s legal to break DRM in Australia, sez High Court

#10yrsago HOWTO make a Storm Trooper helmet out of a milk jug

#5yrsago NZ government leaks on TPP: copyright terms will go to life
plus 70 years

#1yrago How this fine gentleman convinced me to donate $300 to Elizabeth


🛬 Colophon

Today's top sources: Slashdot (https://slashdot.org/), Tim Bray

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel
about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 516 words (68593 total).

Currently reading: Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 16)

Upcoming appearances:

* Library Leaders Forum, Oct 6

* 3 Big Ideas To Fix the Internet, Oct 7,

* Wired Nextfest Italia, Oct 10,

* The Attack Surface Lectures: 8 nights of bookstore-hosted events in
which I and a massive group of entertaining and knowledgeable experts
discourse on my latest novel's themes, Oct 13-22

Recent appearances:

* Disney's Haunted Mansion (Nelda Live)

* Digital Rights, Surveillance Capitalism & Interoperable Socks (MMT

* If Big Tech Is Toxic, How Do We Build Something Better? (panel)

Latest book:

* "How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism": an anti-monopoly pamphlet
analyzing the true harms of surveillance capitalism and proposing a

* "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.
That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially,
provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link
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*When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla* -Joey "Accordion Guy"

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