News from the Republic
Year of the Meteor is part of a tiny Republic of Newsletters, the contours of which you will detect over the course of the year. Its neighbors include Alan Jacobs’s newsletter Snakes and Ladders, Alexis Madrigal’s 5IT, Joanne McNeil’s All My Stars, and Warren Ellis’s outstanding Orbital Operations, which remains the best ongoing chronicle of a working writer in the English language.
The Republic, 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,” or perhaps, if we must, the “OH” for short.
This is a genre of tweet, too—it used to be more prevalent—and for me, they are gold. Exactly what I want from the social internet. I want to feel like the spymaster Varys, 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 editor to be keeping 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.”
In an airy apartment just off the main street lives Navneet Alang, longtime resident of our small seaside town. But don’t look for him at home; he is always on the move, moving from one cafe to another: reading, writing, chatting, sipping a glass of wine.
His newly-inaugurated newsletter The Purposeful Object has featured, in each of its two editions so far, a very precise Netflix-and-wine pairing; no further recommendation is required.
Nav is an essential writer on technology and culture: a voice, always, for the humanities, and for complexity. In particular, I enjoyed this recent installment of his column in The Week: an assessment of Mark Zuckerberg’s theory of free speech.
He’s also someone who is often, very transparently, figuring things out, which makes reading Nav different from reading other writers (even very good ones) whose approach feels like… I don’t know, a long sigh, followed by the burden of explaining something they’ve understood for years. And maybe that understanding is, in fact, correct, and valuable… but who wants to read anything with that tone? Better to read Nav; better to figure things out together.
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.
A young designer just moved into our small seaside town and already we can’t imagine what life was like here before he arrived.
One of the really wonderful things about the internet—and this continues to be true, even in 2019—is that a person can hang out a shingle, announce “I am now going to be a key chronicler of X,” and then, by ongoing application of effort and steady refinement of voice… make it true!
Crucially, this person doesn’t have to be accredited in any way; they don’t have to be located in any particular place; they don’t even have to know anyone in the X business when they start. They just have to announce what they’re doing, and then actually do it.
Jarrett Fuller hung his shingle with a podcast, Scratching the Surface, which in just a few years has become the hub through which all design and design-adjacent brains must pass. Hang out there and you won’t miss anybody: Jarrett has talked, or will talk, to all of them. If you want a sign of just how successful he’s been: Jarrett’s is the third name alongside Michael Beirut’s and Jessica Helfand’s on this recent Design Observer book—Design Observer being, of course, the design world’s previous great self-appointed chronicler!
Anyway: alongside all this, Jarrett has started a somewhat more personal newsletter, and already it’s sending me in welcome new directions.
From reader Stephen Carradini, co-host with Chris Krycho of the podcast Winning Slowly (which looks great), comes this description of Matthew Ogle’s recurring newsletter Pome:
In the Republic of Newsletters, Pome is the wandering sage who shows up in your town without warning… and leaves without warning.
He is exactly right, and: Pome has come to town.
June 2019, Oakland