News from the republic

The Republic of Newsletters, if you would like to visualize it, is a small seaside town, just like the one in Studio Ghibli’s From Up on Poppy Hill.

On this page, I’ll keep a collec­tion of all the different email newsletter recom­men­da­tions I make this year.

High up on the hill lives the very smartest member of the Republic — he is a wizard, just about — who is named Charlie Loyd. His latest dispatch was a stunner, even by the very high standard he has established; I’m almost afraid to send you over, for fear you’ll never return. There are sections I could blockquote — want badly to blockquote — but block­quotes don’t do Wizard Loyd’s emails justice, because they are so organic, so clearly Made From Thoughts.

“It was an infrastructural hand raised for a high five that never came,” he writes. Go see what he means by that.

If you go down to the docks, odds are good you’ll run into Jeremy Singer-Vine; he’s always chatting with the crews of the boats that come and go, angling for a peek at their manifests. He has an office nearby, and from there, he sends a newsletter called Data is Plural show­casing new and/or inter­esting datasets that are publicly available for download and analysis.

Even if you’re not inter­ested in down­loading or analyzing anything, ever, the newsletter is consis­tently fasci­nating because it shows you what’s available: what counts, and is being counted.

A recent edition pointed to datasets concerning: air strikes in Yemen; the global supply of teachers; the compo­si­tion of the U.S.’s mid-Atlantic shoreline; and … “moral­izing gods”??

Moralizing gods. To test the “moralizing gods” hypoth­esis (which posits that “belief in morally concerned supernatural agents cultur­ally evolved to facil­i­tate coop­er­a­tion among strangers in large-scale societies”), the authors of a recent paper in Nature) “coded records from 414 societies that span the past 10,000 years from 30 regions around the world, using 51 measures of social complexity and 4 measures of super­nat­ural enforce­ment of morality.” The dataset is available to download. Findings: “Our analyses not only confirm the asso­ci­a­tion between moralizing gods and social complexity, but also reveal that moral­izing gods follow — rather than precede — large increases in social complexity.”

“4 measures of supernatural enforcement of morality”!!

She lives farther up the coast and only comes through our town once in a while, but when she does, it’s an event.

Meaghan O’Connell has got a VOICE. She’s one of those writers who can offer a block of text (with really very few line breaks) about anything, truly, and you gobble it up; you can’t get enough. Her most recent dispatch is just — ah! It’s wonderful. What a mind. What a voice.

In addition to its basic and appealing Meaghan-ness, the dispatch is an exemplar of one of my favorite genres, the “narration of an inter­ac­tion overheard in public”; the OH. This is a genre of tweet, too — it used to be more prevalent — and they are what I want most from the social internet. I want to feel like the royal spymaster, except instead of court intrigue, my infor­mants are bringing me news of conver­sa­tions in cafes, small kind­nesses witnessed, inter­esting shadows on sidewalks.

If there was a way to set up a social network for these little sketches alone — moments in public; concise reports of humor and grace — and really enforce that standard, it would be the only one I would ever use. It’s not possible, of course. You have to just appre­ciate the OHs where you find them.

At one end of our little town’s main street, there’s a building that used to be a mill but is now a laboratory, a workshop, and a school, all in one. Its propri­etor is Deb Chachra, and if you sat across the street spying, you’d see a steady stream of visitors: many from the island, yes, but even more from abroad, and they’ve made great voyages just to be here, to find this building, to bring news to Deb and receive news in return. She is a great node, a vital hub — and if we don’t always hear from her, it’s just because the visits never cease.


We just heard from her.

Far up the coast, in the bright gradient flow of the Automatic City, Jack Clark writes the essential weekly briefing on new devel­op­ments in artificial intelligence.

Honestly … I can’t claim this one for our little republic of newsletters. It plays for bigger stakes. People who make important decisions about AI tech­nology and policy read Jack’s email. He testified before Congress!

And, I have to say, if you’re concerned about the future of AI, here is something that should hearten you: Jack Clark is the ideal keeper of this partic­ular gate. He’s brilliant, curious, and deeply moral. It’s honestly a little bit unbe­liev­able that a person of his quality has taken up this work with such energy and success; in this respect, at least, our splinter timeline is a lucky one.

Jack is also creative! Along with the week’s news, every email includes a tiny gem of a science fiction story. Or, not a story, exactly; more like a scene. A conjuring. A glimpse.

Jack’s most recent story/scene/thing was one of my favorites so far, which is saying a lot. Scroll down to where it says “Dream Mountain.”

L.M. Sacasas lives on the back side of the hill in a very old house where a conclave of esoteric scholars occa­sion­ally gathers: historians, philosophers, philologists, at least one private detective. They come to the island on the ferry, traveling in twos and threes, whis­pering to each other in a dead language.

His latest newsletter was a treasure trove — each substan­tial section spring-loaded with ideas and implications. If the structure seems a bit dense at first: ease into it. Let your eyes, and mind, hop around. There’s good stuff waiting here.

I do know this line of thought was brought to you by the spirit of Walker Percy, who many years ago wrote, “What does a man do when he finds himself living after an age has ended and he can no longer under­stand himself because the theories of man of the former age no longer work and the theories of the new age are not yet known, for not even the name of the new age is known, and so everything is upside down, people feeling bad when they should feel good, good when they should feel bad? … . What is he then? He has not the faintest idea. Entered as he is into a new age, he is like a child who sees everything in his new world, names everything, knows every­thing except himself.”

Our small seaside town has a bookstore, of course: a satellite branch of the great Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas. Here, in a recent newsletter, a catalog of delights:

Customers who are so excited about the fancy art book they special ordered that they take it out of the shrink wrap right there and open it up on the counter to show us.

When I'm back in the office putting orders together and I can hear Chris and Nikita cracking each other up as they unpack boxes.

When I'm handselling and I offer a customer four choices and they buy all four.

Honestly, just handselling at all.

It goes on:

Unbeknownst to each other, two people are reading the Wheel of Time series at the same time. They both special order a book in advance, so they pick one up and order the next one right there like someone really strate­gizing at Red Lobster’s Endless Shrimp. They were neck and neck for a while but now Rob is pulling ahead. Last time Rob was in, picking up book 15 or something, he pulled a sonogram out of his wallet to show me, beaming with pride.

June 2019