Week 14, particular practices

Gold aureus of Hadrian

Gold aureus of Hadrian, A.D. 134–138

This dispatch is coming to you a morning late because I had literally not a spare minute on Sunday; we rose early, went to the olive grove, and worked until the sun went down, pausing only for bacon and avocado sandwiches in the shade. It was the last day of our friend and Pruning Resident Jana Kinsman’s stay with us; she is one of those people who works so hard and cheerfully that she makes YOU want to work harder and more cheerfully, so her effect is exponential.

Now it’s Monday morning, and my arms and legs still hurt (in a good way), and I’m slurping some coffee, and I’m gonna write a newsletter!

Last week, lots of grove work; the week ahead offers several days of wide-open writing time.

The two things go together. When I work in the grove—especially pruning trees—my brain gets set to a low simmer, and every ten minutes or so, I’ll have to tug off a glove so I can tap a note into my phone or record a voice memo. I mean, this is a familiar effect; whatever happens when you’re standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes happens out there among the trees, too. It is VERY useful. Maybe even essential.


This book has been a nearly-perfect reading experience. First of all: I picked it up at the Raven in Lawrence, Kansas. I’d never heard of it before; the cover popped on the shelf; the description sounded good; I added it to my stack. So it’s one of those. Obviously ideal.

Here’s the note I made two days ago, just a few pages in, verbatim:

Tentacle. Page 15. That rising excitement, knowing you are in good hands indeed. It’s rare; even when books are good they don’t always give you this sense of, okay, I have now had a taste, and I am 100% down for whatever comes next. It’s wonderful. One of the essential book feelings.

I can say that, through page 65 at least, the feeling persists. Tentacle was written by Rita Indiana, translated by Achy Obejas, and published in English by And Other Stories, which is new to me and seems terrific.

I’ve thought and written a lot about italics over the years—the design and history of those slanting and/or curling little letterforms. Even so, there were still things in this brainy piece that were totally new to me! For example,

while nowadays all foreign text is highlighted in italic, in the days of Latin as the international language of Europe often a different combination was used—Roman for Latin and blackletter for vernacular German:

Blackletter emphasis

And look: you can italicize not only with a slant but also with a rotation.


The source, Typefaces of the Temporary State, is a wonderful type foundry. (I love that the makers of fonts have held on to the noun “foundry” even in the digital 21st century. Well-played, typographers.)

Detective Comics #1000 is out recently, and it includes a story from Warren Ellis, dark magus of the Republic of Newsletters. I bought and read it on Comixology and really enjoyed the whole (substantial) package. These anthologies of micro-stories are among my favorite kinds of comics. They totally depend on everything that’s come before—all the previous comics that weren’t micro-stories, that did the heavy lifting of setting up these weird baroque mythologies. But then, the anthology writers are able to take all those decades of paper and fold them up into beautiful little origami shapes. It’s great.

Here’s something that’s not quite Batman-related, but it’s not NOT Batman-related, either:

There are a few thousand receivers of this email who might not have seen the piece I wrote last year reflecting on the earliest issues of Detective Comics and a more recent act of creative redemption. I still think it’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen, in any medium.

This week, I went to a drinks thing on Market Street in San Francisco, down in the belly of one of the big bars where people from out of town always organize drinks things. This one was hosted jointly by MIT Technology Review and the Data & Society Institute. There, I had the chance to chat with Madeleine Elish, research lead at the institute, who reminded me of something random and interesting that transpired years ago.

I’d been invited to a forum about AI policy at Data & Society, for which I wrote a short story called The Counselor. (It’s a good story!) I was on a panel, and we were talking about how humans are included in automated systems (pilots in commercial jets, for example) partially because, when things go wrong, people want somebody to sue. In that moment, on that panel, a phrase occurred to me, and I said, “it’s like the people in those situations are ‘moral crumple zones’”—intended to soak up the damage and then, perhaps, be discarded.

I remember hearing it repeated once or twice by other people that day, and feeling mildly pleased with myself. What I didn’t know is that it kept going! Madeleine developed the pithy phrase into a load-bearing idea and wrote a paper about it!

Here’s her fully-fleshed out definition of a “moral crumple zone”:

Just as the crumple zone in a car is designed to absorb the force of impact in a crash, the human in a robotic system may become simply a component—accidentally or intentionally—that is intended to bear the brunt of the moral and legal penalties when the overall system fails.

People talk a lot about like Where Ideas Come From—in labs, in corporations, in cities—and often the process is described in very earnest terms. I think it’s often random and/or indirect and/or joke-involving, and the life of this phrase is a good example. What a cool little thing.


Drachm, ca. 1st century B.C.

Another story of unforeseen consequences! On Twitter, Randy Walters (who subscribes to these emails) writes: “It’s a convoluted path, from a chief inspector in Québec to a gentle wooden rustling as my email arrives…”

You can find out what he’s talking about here.

Late last year, I resolved never again to use “we” without a specific antecedent. I will certainly fail at this, because the unspecified “we” is very powerful and attractive; you can write sweeping things like

We cannot stand idly by while the planet burns.


We need a different kind of candidate.

Now, if you’ve already framed up your argument, made clear its scope and stakeholders—established an antecedent—then of course a standalone “we” is fine.

But often, writers don’t do this. Often—especially in op-ed columns and tweets—they luxuriate in not doing it! So, any time you see a bold undifferentiated “we,” especially when the writer or speaker seems to be reaching for some great soaring truth, the correct response is:

We who?

It’s powerful; one of those universal acids. Try it. We who?

Gold stater of Ptolemy I

Gold stater of Ptolemy I, ca. 305–284 B.C.


March 2019, Oakland

This website uses the typeface Albertus Nova, an update by Toshi Omagari of Berthold Wolpe’s classic, and GT America, designed by Noël Leu with Seb McLauchlan.

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