[Plura-list] Fight the Power; Physicists overestimate their epidemiology game; Trump is a salesman

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Fri Sep 4 13:42:16 EDT 2020

Today's links

* Fight the Power: Another summer.

* Physicists overestimate their epidemiology game: Dunning-Kruger, meet
the vaporisation of qualitative factors.

* Trump is a salesman: He lacks the attention-span for fascism.

* CO asphyxiation accounts for half of Hurricane Laura deaths:
Generators are as deadly as 40mph winds.

* Political ads have very small effect-sizes: Mind-control rays remain

* Incredible Proof Machine: Lineal descendant of Sierra's Incredible

* Kickstarting a Girl Genius game: Adventures in Castle Heterodyne.

* This day in history: 2019

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


🍕 Fight the Power

Public Enemy has just released a new version of their 1989 anthem "Fight
the Power" (featured in the Spike Lee breakout "Do the Right Thing")
along with a video featuring Nas, Rapsody, Black Thought, Jahi, YG and


The new version is outstanding and the accompanying video even better,
integrating recent footage from the Black Lives Matter uprising, with
the guest MCs explicitly tracing the current struggle to Public Enemy's
decades of activism.

It's also a relief to see Flavor Flav back with Chuck D and Public
Enemy, after a high-profile spat and breakup that came to a head when
Flav didn't perform with Chuck D at an LA Bernie Sanders rally (I was
there, and Chuck D was incredible).

PE's next album, What You Gonna Do, comes out on Sept 25, with all-star
guests including Beastie Boys, George Clinton, Cypress Hill and Run-DMC.



🍕 Physicists overestimate their epidemiology game

A common pathology among experts in quantitative field is to assume that
when they are dealing with problems with qualitative dimensions that
they can simply model the quantitative part and ignore the squishy human
factors. This does not end well.

This has cropped up a *lot* in epidemiology during the plague months,
for example in the belief that untested "exposure notification" with
mobile apps can substitute (or even augment) shoe-leather "contact tracing":


But the Dunning-Krugerish insistence that quantitative methods can be
applied to domains with strong qualitative components isn't limited to
contact tracing - it also applies to re-opening plans.

The University of Illinois decided to re-open and bring 40,000 students
back to campus on the basis of models created by physicists who were
dismissive of the entire enterprise of epidemiology.


"We learned to like epidemiology but I cannot imagine spending another 5
years doing it" - because it didn't provide the same intellectual thrill
as physics, but everyone makes sacrifices, and for these physicists,
they had to give up "intellectual curiosity."

Their model predicted that the case-load would stay below 100, in a
worst-case scenario. Instead the cases rapidly spread to 780 before the
entire system went into lockdown. The cause? "Partying among students."

That is to say, the model did not account for the qualitative,
anthropological elements of the system it was modelling. The reason
these qualitative elements were dismissed is that they're hard to model.

It's basically a lethal version of the old joke about looking for your
keys underneath the lamppost instead of where you dropped them, because
the light is better there.

Yes, yes, "All models are wrong but some are useful," but the predicted
utility of your model is in inverse proportion to how many qualitative
factors you have to elide, not because of their insignificance but
because of their intractability.

When you vaporize the qualitative elements, the quantitative residue
that remains is of unknown usefulness.


🍕 Trump is a salesman

Trump lacks the attention-span to be a fascist. As Matt Taibbi writes,
"He might not have a moral problem with it, but two minutes into the
plan he’d leave the room, phone in hand, to throw on a robe and watch
himself on Fox and Friends."


So what is Trump? A salesman. To understand him, don't read IT CAN
HAPPEN HERE, read Cialdini's PRE-SUASION and learn how salesmen
manipulate their marks.

Taibbi: "Moreover he’s not just any salesman; he might be the greatest
salesman ever, considering the quality of the product, i.e. himself."

Here's a classic sales-tactic Trump deploys, as laid out in Brian
Tracy's "The Psychology of Selling": promise incredible change to hook
the customer, then, once they're on the hook, dial back the deliverables
to something that you can actually deliver.

Think of how Trump reels in "nativist loons and rage cases with his
opening rants about walls and mass deportations, then slowly clawed his
numbers up with the rest of the party with his 'softening' routine. "

"Each demographic probably came away convinced he was lying to the
other, while the truth was probably more that he was lying to all of them."

The lies aren't inconsequential, but they're also not reflective of any
kind of ideology - rather, they're immoral sales-gabble.

Trump-the-seller has much more explanatory power than Trump-the-fascist
- and it also explains how salesmanship without any ethics or morals
turns into fascism.

The problem is, we're buying what he's selling (himself), by turning
every distracting, incoherent action into an existential threat and a
major news cycle (some of what he does qualifies, but not all of it).

"His schtick is to provoke rivals to the point where they drop what
they’re doing and spend their time screaming at him, which from the jump
validates the primary tenet of his worldview, i.e. that everything is
about him."

"Life under Trump has been like an endless Twitter war: infuriating,
depressing, filling us all with self-loathing, but also addictive. He is
selling an experience that everyone is buying, even the people who think
they oppose him the most."

Taibbi isn't asking us to stop addressing Trump, but he wants us to
focus on substance (which is something I'd also welcome from Biden - I
know what he's against, but there's a bunch of things I'd like him to be

"Trump has made us all crazy, and it’s time for the show to be over. We
deserve slow news days again." -Taibbi


🍕 CO asphyxiation accounts for half of Hurricane Laura deaths

According to a Houston Chronicle report, half of the confirmed
fatalities from Hurricane Laura were the result of carbon monoxide
poisoning from poorly ventilated generators.


Fatal CO poisoning can take place in as little as five minutes. The CO
deaths include entire households, like the family that ran a generator
in their garage but opened the connecting door to their house.

CO monitors are cheap and effective, and you should have them throughout
your home even if you're not running a generator.

I once rented an apartment in San Francisco where my gas heater's pilot
light kept going out. My landlord - a retired SFPD detective - would
come by and fix it.

One time I couldn't reach him, so I called PG&E;, whose technician came
by and realized that the pilot was going out because of an automated CO
emergency shutdown switch. My landlord had "fixed" the heater by
attempting to disable this and nearly killed me.

It certainly explained my frequent headaches and a cluster of other
symptoms I'd been contending with.

I always think of that near-death experience when I encounter Carrie
Poppy's outstanding tale of living in a haunted house:



🍕 Political ads have very small effect-sizes

In my recent book HOW TO DESTROY SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM, I suggest that
we should be skeptial of the claims that proprietors of
persuasion-as-a-service products make about how they can change our minds.


After all every person in history who ever claimed to have invented a
mind-control ray was either lying to the world, or to themselves.

One common way persuaders lie to themselves - and convince their
customers they've got the goods - is to assume that the efficacy of
persuasive techniques does not regress to the mean - that we won't learn
to detect and discount the new flavor of bullshit they're selling.

We've seen that again and again: remember when Upworthy headlines
worked? Or when everyone was playing Farmville? Or when the first banner
ads got double-digit clickthrough rates:


In a new study published in Science, a trio of Yale and UC political
scientists report on 59 realtime, randomized experiments in showing
persuasive political ads.


The title gives away the conclusion: "The small effects of political
advertising are small regardless of context, message, sender, or
receiver: Evidence from 59 real-time randomized experiments."

They showed 34,000 subjects real political ads from the 2016 US election
cycle, measuring the effect of ads that criticise the candidate the
subject favors, ads that promote that candidate, ads that promote the
rival candidate and ads that attack the rival candidate.

In all instances, they find real, but VERY small, effects on voter views
of candidates. Importantly, the researchers aren't just investigating
the effects of ads in one circumstance (say, a favorable ad about a
candidate you already support), but across all variations.

People who sell political ads and people who worry about them claim that
the small effect sizes for political ads masked large "heterogeneous
effects" - like maybe *most* ads don't work, but showing attack ads that
attack the subject's favored candidate does.

That's not what these experiments found. It's still not a complete
account (the authors don't study "need for cognition, need for
evaluation, need for cognitive closure, moral foundations, personality
type, or interest in politics"), but it's still significant.

Some people think that surveillance capitalism firms collect so much
data on us, so relentlessly, because it is so valuable. I think they
collect it because it is of such limited utility: as soon as they gain
an insight that helps them sell to us, we get inured.

They're in a limbic arms-race with our natural regression to the mean,
the way that we grow accustomed to - and bored with - new ways of
convincing, frightening, or tricking us into doing their bidding.

That's not to say that persuasion never works, or that even small
effects don't make a difference in close races, but it does suggest that
the thing that ad-tech companies sell best is...ad-tech.


🍕 Incredible Proof Machine

Around the time you get to secondary math, you'll start to formally
prove theorems, a process that is either tedious or exciting, based on
your proclivities and the quality of your instruction.

Formal proofs are a little like a puzzle and a little like a game, and
they can be addictive - what's more, then can shed light on otherwise
abstruse mathematical concepts that you may have mastered as rote
formulas but don't really understand.

That's where The Incredible Proof Machine comes in: it's a puzzle-game
whose goal is to solve increasingly complex theorems using building
blocks reminiscent of the code blocks you drag and drop in Scratch.


It was developed by computer scientist/standup comedian Joachim
Breitner, and it's free/open source software for you to hack on.


Breitner writes in an accompanying paper, "[interactive theorem provers]
give feedback whether proof is faulty or correct, allow free exploration
and can be somewhat addictive – they've been called 'the world’s
geekiest computer game' for a reason."


If this is ringing a bell, it may be because you learned your own math
with Sierra's 1992 edu-game "The Incredible Machine," which is still
playable thanks to the Internet Archive.



🍕 Kickstarting a Girl Genius game

Girl Genius is the beloved, Hugo-Award-winning graphic novel (and prose
novel) series from Kaja Foglio and Phil Foglio (whom old school gamers
will recall from Dragon Magazine's longrunning "What's New With Phil and
Dixie" comic).

Girl Genius is a madcap steampunk parody, whose strapline is "Adventure,
Romance, MAD SCIENCE!" It's an incredibly satisfying, funny and romp-y
transmedia tale that you owe it to yourself to read.

Now, Girl Genius is being ported to video-game form: the Foglios have
teamed up with Norway's Rain Games - makers of steampunk pleasers like
Teslagrad and Mesmer) to crowdfund a new game called "Adventures In
Castle Heterodyne."


It's a 3D explorer with fiendish puzzles and all the whimsy you'd expect
from the team behind it. $15 gets you a copy of the game, $30 gets
behind-the-scenes stuff and access to an online community; $60 gets a
physical collector's edition.

There are some impressive rewards at higher levels - a custom art book
($100), your face on an in-game statue ($1000), etc. They're building in
Unity and expect to deliver in Dec 2022.


🍕 This day in history

#1yrago Beijing promises "no mercy" for the "backstage masterminds" of
the Hong Kong

#1yrago Critical essays (including mine) discuss Toronto's plan to let
Google build a surveillance-based "smart city" along its waterfront

#1yrago Interview with Kim Kelly, Teen Vogue's labor reporter


🍕 Colophon

Today's top sources: Waxy (https://waxy.org/), Naked Capitalism
(https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/), Boing Boing
(https://boingboing.net), John Wilbanks (https://twitter.com/eleafeit/),
Four Short Links
(https://www.oreilly.com/radar/topics/four-short-links/), Carol Monahan.

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel
about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 505 words (57298

Currently reading: Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 14)

Upcoming appearances:

* Keynote for Law Via the Internet conference, Sept 22,

* Writing into an Uncertain Future, Afterwords Festival, Oct 1,

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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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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