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