Pluralistic: 31 Mar 2021

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Today's links

AT&T will lay off thousands more (permalink)

AT&T shareholders should be very, very grateful to Trump. Not only did he wave through their idiotic mergers with Time Warner and Directv, his FCC chair Ajit Pai killed Net Neutrality and then he gave them an $80 billion tax break.

At the time, AT&T execs promised that this would be good for America: they'd invest more in telcoms infrastructure, replacing their last-millennium copper wires and they'd create jobs. You will not be surprised to learn that neither of these things happened.

By 2019, AT&T had cut 23,000 jobs (they'd promised to create 7,000 jobs) and had slashed capital expenditures by a billion dollars.

Don't worry, though: they increased executive compensation substantially over that same period.

Bonuses remain high, and AT&T is still cutting: another 3,400 jobs are being eliminated. These are largely unionized jobs – and it's a pretty safe bet that some will come back as precarious scab jobs at lower pay with no benefits.

Cuba is a vaccine powerhouse (permalink)

When Oxford University began work on its covid vaccine, it promised that the resulting work would be patent-free, with an active tech-transfer assistance program so that developing nations could manufacture their own supplies.

That promise was broken. The Gates Foundation pushed the racist lie that poor people can't make safe vaccines – despite world-leading production facilities in the Global South – and convinced the university to sell exclusive rights to Astrazeneca.

Astrazeneca got the vaccine rights without having to make any promises not to gouge poor countries for access to the vaccine. Of course they didn't. Gates's ideology is that markets channel greed to positive ends, a sentiment echoed by Boris Johnson:

It's a lethal doctrine. 85 of the world's poorest countries are unlikely to get widespread access to vaccines until 2023: that's two more years for the virus to mutate into deadlier variations and re-infect people whose vaccinations have worn off.

Market-based health care is a dead letter. Big Pharma turns publicly funded research into profits by holding us to ransom. Pfizer is demanding that poor countries stake their sovereign assets to settle any claims from their products.

If you have any doubt, consider the counterexample posed by Cuba, a poor, isolated country that has been starved for 60 years under a US embargo (partially eased for a few years under Obama, now back in force).

Despite its dire straits, Cuba is a global leader in all forms of vaccine production. Of the 11 vaccines that all Cubans receive, eight are produced domestically. The country leads the world in vaccines for tropical diseases and has entirely eliminated six of them.

It's part of Cuba's incredible health system, which trains docs from all over the world, including many of America's best students – largely PoCs – who opt for a free education rather than abandoning medicine as a luxury good only available to the 1%.

Cuba has handled the covid crisis brilliantly, with only 408 deaths (0.59%, compared to the UK's 2.9%). It has sent 57 medical brigades abroad, treating 1.26m people in 40 countries.

Given all this, it's no surprise that Cuba is also a covid vaccine powerhouse. Two of the world's 23 covid vaccines in Phase III trials come from Cuba; three more are in earlier stage trials. They are the product of a nonprofit, state-owned biotech sector.

Rather than competing with one another and treating their research as trade secrets, Cuban biotech researchers collaborate. They are able to build on made-in-Cuba vaccines like the "conjugate vaccine" Quimi-Hib that is effective against meningitis and pneumonia.

It's this collaboration that has pushed Cuban mortality from all infectious diseases below 1%. The Phase III trials for Cuba's covid vaccines – Soberana 2 and Abdala – are scheduled to complete in Jun.

Given the country's excellent, community-based healthcare system, the rollout will be fast and efficient, completing in Aug 2021, putting Cuba on track to be one of the first countries in the world to vaccinate its entire population.

Cuban vaccines represents a powerful antidote to the vaccine apartheid being practiced by the Big Pharma monopolists of the rich world. For more on this, check out the This Machine Kills episode:

One of China's leading vaccine production facilities, Yongzhou Joint Biotechnology Innovation Centre, was built during the crisis under Cuban supervision and is ramping production on Pan-Corona, which was designed to attack covid variants.

Cuban vaccines are in Phase III trials in Iran, and there are talks underway with the 55 countries in the African Union, as well as Mexico, Jamaica, Vietnam, Pakistan, and India.

As Helen Yaffe writes for Counterpunch, "Cuba is a leader in biotech because it has a socialist state with a centrally planned economy, that invested in science and puts human welfare before profit; with the absence of capitalism and greed that Boris Johnson celebrates."

Sacklers to use Purdue bankruptcy to escape justice (permalink)

The opioid epidemic is a corporate murder spree that killed more Americans than the Vietnam war, and its deaths carry on, accelerating during the pandemic. The enrichment to its principal architects outstrips the Rockefeller fortune, and they stand to retain that wealth.

The Sacklers owned Purdue Pharma, whose Oxycontin was ground zero of the epidemic. Purdue pushed deliberate lies about the safety of its product and aggressively marketed through doctors and distributors, under the direction of the family patriarch Richard Sackler.

The Sacklers were determined to come through the crisis both rich and well-loved. They laundered the family reputation with gifts to arts institutions that saw their names on galleries and museums around the world. That was the carrot.

The stick was litigiousness – their lawyers threatened me for writing about them – that let them convert blood money to legal force, burying Richard Sackler's bizarre deposition, which only came to widespread attention thanks to John Oliver.

That was just the tip of the iceberg. Lawyers for the company and the family used the law to suppress court proceedings that revealed the deliberate strategy to addict their customers to Oxy:

The courts were so complicit in the Sacklers' campaign to suppress evidence of their complicity that they became, effectively, co-conspirators in the opioid crisis:

The Sacklers didn't invent corporate crime playbook, but their contributions are significant. For example, their PR ninjas at Dezenhall Resources – late of Enron – did very will with a victim-blaming strategy that smeared the dead as reckless junkies.

Eventually, the survivors of Sacklers' opioids caught up with them. Purdue was sloughed off into a bankruptcy proceeding, and the Sacklers themselves began to cry poor, offering what they claimed were their last $4b to survivors.

But they conspicuously failed to mention the $8-9 billion they'd moved offshore:

They pumped $1b through a single bank:

(the Sacklers dismissed this story as "nothing newsworthy").

It looks like they'll get to keep that blood money, too, thanks to another act of solidarity from the US legal system. A bankruptcy judge is poised to roll the Sacklers' personal liabilities into the bankruptcy restructuring of Purdue Pharma.

As Libby Lewis explains in The American Prospect, this is a bizarre metastasis of US bankruptcy law, which, in many cases, has swallowed the entire criminal justice system.

Under the Purdue/Sackler proposal, the rights of victims will be transformed into property, owed by the Sacklers, and which the bankruptcy court claims jurisdiction over. So the bankruptcy court can decide what that asset is worth and what percentage of that the victims get.

That means that the legal claims of the victims are being nonconsensually settled without a trial. Worse, the bankruptcy judge making this settlement isn't even a federal judge with Senate confirmation, qualified to hear a criminal matter – he's just an administrative judge.

It's a twisted process. The Sacklers aren't in bankruptcy court, so they aren't obliged to disclose all those billions stashed offshore. But they've asked the judge to turn the their legal liabilities into property that he can dispose of in Purdue's bankruptcy.

So Jenny Scully, who gave birth to an opioid-addicted child six years ago, because her doctors prescribed her dangerous painkillers whose risk had been downplayed by Purdue and the Sacklers, will have no more recourse.

None of this is in the Bankruptcy Code, but the courts (especially the Second Circuit, which covers the finance sector in NYC), follow a case from the asbestos settlement era that created this weird precedent.

The exception has swallowed the rule, and now bankruptcy is the go-to way for the beneficiaries of corporate crimes – even mass deaths – to walk away with more wealth than the Rockefellers.

(Image: Geographer, CC BY-SA, modified)

AI has a GIGO problem (permalink)

The computer science maxim "garbage in, garbage out," (GIGO) dates back at least as far as 1957. It's an iron law of computing: no matter how powerful your data-processing system is, if you feed it low-quality data, you'll get low-quality conclusions.

And of course, machine learning (AKA "AI") (ugh) does not repeal GIGO. Far from it. ML systems that operate on garbage data produce garbage predictive models, which produce garbage conclusions at vast scale, coated with a veneer of algorithmic objectivity facewash.

The scale and credibility of ML-derived GIGO presents huge risks to our society in domains as varied as the credit system, criminal justice, hiring, education – even whether your kids will be taken away by Child Protective Services.

To make this all worse, the vast data-sets used to train ML systems are in scarce supply, which leads multiple ML models to be trained on the same data, enshrining the defects of that data in all kinds of systems.

One of the most significant training datasets is Imagenet, a collection of 14m labeled images that jumpstarted the ML revolution in 2012. As Will Knight writes for Wired, Imagenet's labels came from low-waged, undersupervised workers.

Imagenet is one of the data-sets examined in new research from MIT's Curtis Northcutt,, who found that Imagenet and other comparable datasets have a typical error rate of about 6%.

This small margin of error has big consequences: first, because the errors aren't evenly distributed, and instead cluster around the kinds of biases that labelers have (for example, labeling images of woman medical professionals with "nurse" and men with "doctor").

And second, because the incorrect labels obscure relative performance differences between models. When one model does better than another, you can't know if that's because it is a better model, or because it's less sensitive to incorrect labels.

Image: Seydelmann (modified)


Cryteria (modified)


(Image: Seydelmann, CC BY-SA, modified; Cryteria, CC BY, modified)

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Anti-DRM flashmob hits Paris CD superstore

#10yrsago Britain’s back-room negotiations to establish a national, extrajudicial Internet censorship regime

#10yrsago Elephantmen: Dr Moreau meets apocalyptic noir science fiction comic

#5yrsago Hungarian ruling party wants to ban all working crypto

#5yrsago Phishers trick Mattel into transferring $3M to a Chinese bank

#5yrsago “Reputation management” companies induce randos to perjure themselves by pretending to be anonymous posters

#5yrsago Online casino bankrolls largest-ever, ruinously expensive war in Eve Online

#5yrsago Bitcoin transactions could consume as much energy as Denmark by the year 2020

#5yrsago Qatar’s World Cup stadium is being built by modern slaves

#1yrago Monopolists stole your respirator

#1yrago Amazon fires walkout organizer

#1yrsago Trump admits voter suppression

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (

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

By my reckoning it dates back to 1864:

On two occasions I have been asked, — “Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?” In one case a member of the Upper, and in the other a member of the Lower, House put this question. I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.

– Charles Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864)

(That last retort is one of my favourite quotes in the history of computer science. Or possibly in the English language :slight_smile: )

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Dammit, I came here to say that :smiley:

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Ole Charlie was certainly ahead of his time! But it lacks the snappiness of GIGO, I think you have to admit.

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This was a bit of an epiphany for me. I mean, I knew this was going on, and it’s been going on for years and years. It’s become almost accepted these days, or hardly worth pushing back against. The will of the worker has been drained. It was accepted when cutting people to cut costs for the benefit of the shareholders started. Now it’s cutting people to cut costs for the benefit of executive compensation (and of course, yes, the first version of that was the same thing, with one added step). So knowing that it happens was not my epiphany, nor was my disgust with the practice.

My epiphany is how I will never work for a corporation again. And when I say never, I guess what I really mean is unless I’m going to go homeless and starve. So yeah, that’s fairly weak of me.

My dad worked for IBM. He spent 27 years with them. They took him in, trained him, and told him to run his job like it was his own small business. They gave him ownership of his job, autonomy and responsibility in the right measure. That was early days of his career there. Things changed over the years, and with that, he changed. He didn’t love his job like he used to. He changed along with it (he didn’t become a monster or anything like that, but he did become cynical).

I decided, watching that, that my own path would be different, and it has been. The world has become more corporatized to the point that it’s near impossible to avoid it. Even today’s hustle and freelance culture, startups on the “cutting edge” and the independent working world have followed suit, where a corporate culture and becoming good corporate citizens is a goal now.

It reminds me of a definition for politics that I have to paraphrase and not attribute (because I can’t find it now, but oh how I wish I could): Politics are deciding who you are comfortable screwing over.

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Thank you, James. That’s very moving.

James, You have the spirit. Lexington, KY was an IBM town then was a Lexmark town. “Was” being the main word. I had many friends with IBM dads. I’ve said this here before but there’s a planned and managed inequality that’s at once everywhere and nowhere. Nowhere except in the multiplying people facing it. Thank You

Ah, Lexington. I had a boss from there.

IBM used to be a cradle to the grave kind of company. It was for my dad. I know the company has changed a lot, but I am grateful for what he got.

I’ve seen it happen a lot in my industry/craft of choice (theater). The corporations have moved in, smelling a dollar, and dumbed down the crafts, squeezing the labor as much as possible. It used to be a fun place to work. Not so much any more. When theater finally comes back (and it will be one of the last industries that will), I don’t know what it’s going to look like. I don’t see it going in a less corporate direction. It makes it really difficult to say whether or not I want to go back.

These days, I don’t even know what the negative trade-offs for staying away from corporations are. The risk as a worker seems to balance out. If we had healthcare that wasn’t tied to employment (reasonably affordable without a job or universal), it would be a no-brainer. That our healthcare is tied to employment is another way to keep us in the control of corporations.

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