Pluralistic: 13 Oct 2021

Originally published at: Pluralistic: 13 Oct 2021 – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow


Today's links



A ped-style glyph of an armed robber sticking up a victim with raised hands; the robber's gun bears the logo for Experian, while the robber's chest is emblazoned with the logo for Charter Spectrum; the background is a blurred collage of US $100 bills.

Charter uses bad credit threats to corral ex-subscribers (permalink)

I'm more of a Charter-Spectrum hostage than a customer: I need the internet to earn my living, and my town (Burbank) has signed an exclusive deal with Charter, so I send them $134.99/mo for some of the worst internet in California.

It turns out that Charter doesn't stop abusing you when you stop being a customer: the company is now sending threatening letters ("offers") to ex-customers demanding that they sign up again on pain of a bad credit report.

That's not how Charter puts it, of course. They say they're extending a lifeline to ex-customers whose years-unpaid bills are in collection, trashing their credit.

https://www.theverge.com/2021/10/12/22722758/charter-spectrum-debt-forgiveness-letter-reporting-credit-agencies

But it's bullshit. Ex-customers who've received these letter, like Steve Schklair of Altadena, don't owe the company a dime. For Schklair, this isn't an offer, it's a threat.

https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2021-10-12/column-spectrum-billing-threat

"A well-established credit history will more likely allow you to qualify for lower mortgage rates, better chances for credit cards and approvals for home rentals…You worked hard to build a great future for yourself and your family. We look forward to welcoming you back."

Schklair doesn't owe them anything, but they're strongly implying that they're either deliberately tanking his credit already, or that they might start if he continues to selfishly place his own needs ahead of their shareholders.

Or as they put it, "when you become a customer, we will both remove your debt and cease reporting it to any credit bureau…all you have to do is purchase a Spectrum TV, internet and/or voice product."

Charter says it's only trying to shake down people who couldn't pay their bills, but as as Mitchell Clark writes in The Verge, that only makes this creepier, as the teaser rate of $50/mo blows up to $75 after a year.

"A big jump that someone who struggled with payments in the past may have a hard time dealing with."

(Image: Ervins Strauhmanis, CC BY, modified; Abu badali, CC BY-SA)



A spooky graveyard; in the foreground, a tombstone bearing the Adobe Flash logo, with a hand bursting out of the soil before it, bearing a copyright symbol. In the background, another tombstone sports the eye of 2001's HAL 9000.

Adobe uses copyfraud to preserve spyware (permalink)

The death of Adobe Flash in January 2021 was long overdue; Adobe's hyper-proprietary interactive runtime was a source of persistent, terrifying security vulnerabilities that had harmed web users for decades.

But the demise of Flash also meant that all the Flash-based media that had been created since its debut (as 1995's "Futuresplash") was snuffed out, orphaned, unplayable and lost to history.

Adobe may have skimped on security, but it spent lavishly on sales and marketing, so major media and public organizations locked up years and years of media and interactives in the Flash abandonware format.

All that meant that the reports of Flash's death were greatly exaggerated. Adobe quietly kept the Flash player on life-support with an "enterprise" version for companies with unpayable, Flash-based technology debts.

And they licensed Flash Player to China's Zhong Cheng Network, whose flash.cn site still offers Flash Player downloads. But that Flash Player comes bundled with commercial spyware and an Adobe-controlled killswitch that can remotely deactivate it.

That offered people who needed to view Flash videos or other media with a stark choice: if you didn't work for an "enterprise," you either accepted spyware and a killswitch, or you abandoned the media you needed to see.

Which is where Clean Flash Installer comes in. This is a free/open project maintained by a developer called "darktohka": Clean Flash Installer was a way to install the Flash Player without the spyware or killswitch.

Darktohka told Torrent Freak that he created Clean Flash Installer as a passion project, to preserve the Flash media that was "a huge part of his childhood."

https://torrentfreak.com/adobe-uses-dmca-to-nuke-project-that-keeps-flash-alive-secure-adware-free-211012/

Darktohka built Clean Flash Installer from scratch in .Net; it contains no Adobe code and no code from Zhong Cheng Network – Clean Flash Installer is Darktohka's code and his alone, hosted on Github for all to inspect, use and improve.

Or rather, it was hosted on Github – until earlier this month, when Adobe sent a fraudulent DMCA Copyright Takedown notice to the company, falsely claiming that darktohka's code infringed on their copyright.

https://github.com/github/dmca/blob/master/2021/10/2021-10-04-adobe.md

This is pure copyfraud: Adobe didn't write Clean Flash Installer. Their notice to Github – "under penalty of perjury" – that Clean Flash Installer violated their rights is an outright, unambiguous lie.

Adobe would prefer that its business arrangements with Zhong Cheng Network remain intact and that every non-enterprise Flash user would have to run its partner's spyware and tolerate Adobe's killswitch.

It's doubtless more lucrative for Adobe that way – what company doesn't dream of compelling its customers to arrange their affairs to benefit its shareholders, even if that is to their detriment?

Often, awful laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act can be used this way, twisted into a kind of "Felony Contempt of Business Model" (as Jay Freeman calls it).

But not this time. Adobe has no right to block Clean Flash Installer – but they didn't let that stop them.

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY, modified; Genusfotografen (Tomas Gunnarsson), CC BY-SA, modified)



An old Apple 'There's an app for that' ad; the screen of the phone has been replaced with a blown up, pixelated image of a skeletal chest, and the Indian tricolor flag has been superimposed on the background.

India funded a starving kids' app, but not food (permalink)

The term "solutionism" gets thrown around a lot. Any time an attempt to address a problem fails, it's easy to point at the technological elements of the failure and deride the whole enterprise as a solutionist muddle.

Which is a pity, because solutionism is real, and it's a scourge. I mean, it can literally kill.

Take Poshan Abhiyaan, a Modi/World Bank joint project to address malnutrition-based "stunting" in children under six, something 38% of Indian children suffered in 2016.

As Aarefa Johari describes in a long investigation for Scroll.in, the absolute failure of Poshan Abhiyaan is pure solutionism: the program spent money on an app to track which kids were malnourished, but it didn't offer sufficient funds to feed them.

https://scroll.in/article/1007521/

There are a lot of details, but that's it in a nutshell. The program's funders – including the Gates Foundation – spent lavishly on an app to keep records of child hunger, and didn't care or didn't know that there wasn't adequate funding for food for the kids they tracked.

The closer you look at the scheme, the worse it gets, and Johari's reporting is a case-study in solutionism at its worst.

The front-line workers in India's anti-child-hunger campaign are the women who work at anganwadis – who meet with parents and kids and give them food.

The anganwadi system is a disaster. The centers themselves are grossly underfunded. 40% of them don't have running water. Many have toilets, but often they are purely ornamental, not connected to water or sewers.

One anganwadi, in Shivni, Barwani, had been shuttered for ten years awaiting roof repairs, while Mehmooda, the woman who staffed it, had spent a decade in a "temporary" center in a classroom.

The anganwadis are understaffed. Th full staff complement is just two workers, but many only have a single worker. They are grossly underpaid – though they work for the government, they are classed as "honorary" workers, earning "honoraria" and not entitled to benefits.

It's not uncommon for anganwadi workers to retire into dire poverty, with no pension or savings to support them.

These underpaid workers have inadequate tools: they lack soap, and the scales and height measurement tools used to evaluate malnutrition are often nonfunctional.

The anganwadi workers treat malnutrition the obvious way: by providing food. But they don't get enough food to help the families whose kids are starving – the rations are so thin that a month's food is gone in a week.

If you wanted to improve the anganwadi system, there are some obvious places to start: equip it with good buildings staffed by adequately compensated workers with functional equipment, and then give them enough food to address the hunger they find.

Instead, they got an app.

Really, you couldn't ask for a better example of solutionism, but it gets worse. The app's interface was in English, a language large numbers of anganwadi workers can't read or speak.

The phones the workers were given to run the app were old, underpowered 2G phones that hung and crashed repeatedly. Workers – themselves at the edge of poverty – were pressured to buy better phones to run the app. Many went into debt to do so, fearing for their jobs.

When better phones were eventually distributed, they were locked down so workers couldn't install the messaging tools they used to talk to each other and the families they served.

Even when run on adequate hardware by someone who was familiar with technology and could read English, the app was still terrible. It lacked basic functions, like moving a kid who aged out of the under-four category into the over-four category.

So kids got double-counted, distorting statistics. The statistics, by the way, were available to anyone nationwide through a "realtime dashboard" that omitted vital data that the workers had collected, like height and weight (these being the key to evaluating malnutrition).

To top it all off, the app didn't let workers revise the data they entered if they found an error.

The funding breakdown for the Poshan Abhiyaan program is solutionism in budgetary form: 36% for phones, 36% for "behavior-change campaigns," 8% for scales and height charts.

The discretionary budget for the women who staffed the anganwadis? Just 2% of the total.

None of this is to say that a program aimed at helping starving children shouldn't have good record-keeping.

The paper system that the anganwadis used may have been accurate, but scattered paper records are hard to collate and learn from – for example, to identify places where more funding is needed.

The thing that makes this solutionism isn't that it used digital technology – it's that it ignored all the parts of the problem not related to digital technology, sidelined the workers who understood the problem and treated them and the families they served with contempt.

Child hunger isn't the result of behavioral problems or poor record-keeping. It's the result of not enough food. Job one: make sure that the workers on the frontline have the food they say they need for the families they serve.

Job two: pay the workers a living wage. Repair the buildings they work out of. Staff those centers adequately. Make sure their toilets and scales and height-measurement tools work.

Then, if you must, add some digital technology – by incorporating the workers themselves – let them design and test the apps, evaluate the hardware, and field trial them. They are the experts and should drive the process.

The problem with solutionism isn't that technology is irrelevant to problem solving – it's that technology developed in a vacuum by people who will never have to use it will only ever make problems worse.



This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Ryanair declares war on bodily fluids, vows to remove toilets https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/ryanair-unveils-its-latest-plan-save-money-remove-toilets-plane-2369232.html

#10yrsago Agatha H and the Airship City: Girl Genius book is a cross between a comic and a prose novel https://memex.craphound.com/2011/10/13/agatha-h-and-the-airship-city-girl-genius-book-is-a-cross-between-a-comic-and-a-prose-novel/

#5yrsago Bob Dylan is the first songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for literature https://www.csmonitor.com/Books/2016/1013/Bob-Dylan-lyrics-as-literature-First-songwriter-to-win-a-Nobel-Prize

#5yrsago Hungary’s Prime Minister shuts down opposition press, then goes after everyone else https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/13/hungary-future-europe-far-right-viktor-orban

#5yrsago Talking about Allan Sherman on the Comedy on Vinyl podcast http://stolendress.com/comedyonvinyl/episode-199-cory-doctorow-on-allan-sherman-my-son-the-nut/

#5yrsago AI’s blind spot: garbage in, garbage out https://www.nature.com/articles/538311a

#5yrsago Wells Fargo’s new CEO previously denied that the bank’s sales culture had any problems https://consumerist.com/2016/10/13/new-wells-fargo-ceo-recently-denied-overbearing-sales-culture-that-created-fake-account-fiasco/

#1yrago SF as intuition pump https://pluralistic.net/2020/10/13/hopeful-disasters/#narratives

#1yrago Beyond Cyberpunk https://pluralistic.net/2020/10/13/hopeful-disasters/#technologist-wizards



Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: The Verge (https://www.theverge.com/), jijinjohn (https://twitter.com/jijinjohn), Slashdot (https://slashdot.org/).

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Yesterday's progress: 306 words (24065 words total)
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  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown." FINAL EDITS

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Breaking In https://craphound.com/news/2021/09/26/breaking-in-fixed/
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