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This is an archived newsletter from Robin Sloan. You, too, can receive these! They go out every Sunday.

Week 34, kid-to-kid transmission

Mountain Stream on a Summer Day

Mountain Stream on a Summer Day, Nakabayashi Chikutō, ca. 19th century

I spent most of last week splashing in the clear water of a sinuous river north of Nevada City. In winter, when the snow in the mountains melts, it runs wild, and those torrents have, over thousands of years, carved the rock into smooth, billowing channels and carried huge, smooth boulders tumbling through them. The result looks something like a Road Runner cartoon, but with cool blue and green substituted for dusty orange and yellow.


At the river, I stole a friend’s copy of Tim Wu’s The Curse of Bigness, and it was so good I stayed up late, reading by headlamp. The book is concise—you know I love short books—and so well-written it’s like, pellucid.

I am someone who would say they “understand antitrust,” aaand… it turns out I didn’t know the history at all. This book powerfully corrects that, and then, in its final chapters, uses the historical foundation to make a case for more and better antitrust action in the 21st century.

The Curse of Bigness is so compact and so high-quality that its entire text is basically quotable, but here’s one fact—well-known to antitrust people, I think—that feels like potent ammunition:

An argument for monstrous consolidation, in the past and present, is that it permits economies of scale that, in turn, produce economic value that’s not achievable any other way.

Well.

In 1912, a year after Standard Oil’s breakup, the combined stock of all its constituent parts—including the companies that would become Exxon, Mobil, and Chevron—was worth significantly more than all of Standard Oil’s stock had been. So, even by the cold, limited logic of financial markets, it’s clear the leviathan firm had been suppressing value, not maintaining it.

I was not previously someone who thought breaking up Google, Facebook, and others was appropriate; I favored other remedies. The Curse of Bigness changed my mind.


I enjoyed Tim Wu’s book so much that it motivated me to look up the series, Columbia Global Reports. I ordered a couple more that look interesting, and was delighted to see an existing favorite on the page: Atossa Araxia Abrahamian’s The Cosmopolites, one of the most deeply 21st-century dispatches I’ve ever read. Like a slim little William Gibson novel, except it’s all real.


I’ve been enjoying the newsletter from the Jain Family Institute. I still can’t tell quite what this institute does, or what its policy priorities are, which… is sort of great?? The newsletter is eclectic and surprising in a way I’ve never encountered with an institutional roundup; it reads almost like some smart weirdo’s blog.

A link that caught my eye in the latest edition was the Baby’s First Years study, in which a randomized group of low-income mothers in four U.S. cities receive a small monthly stipend for the first three years of their child’s life, with data gathered on the children’s development as they turn one, two, and three years old. The stipend is cash; it’s unconditional. So this is, among other things, a test of how a limited version of a “guaranteed income” might change people’s lives; their brains. It’s brilliant, and I’m eager to read about the results.

And just $16 million, total—a bargain to learn about something potentially so important.


Here are some ways you can tangibly support the protesters in Hong Kong.


Down the street, there’s a multi-family compound with eight kids in it, and I often hear them playing—part of the music of the neighborhood. Lately, they have been enthusiastically chanting “na na na-boo boo,” and whoa has that been around forever or what?? I hypothesize that no adult has ever said “na na na-boo boo” to a child. The taunt has instead survived 100% on kid-to-kid transmission, always leaping from the oldest to the youngest in the playground cohort. I sort of hate the chant itself, but/and I am very impressed by its like, memetic hardiness.


Evan Dahm’s ongoing comic Vattu is a treasure; I’ve linked to it before. This interview—conducted by another terrific comics auteur, Sloane Leong—starts off in a predictable register, then becomes more and more radical and surprising as it proceeds.

There’s this,

I was just talking to a friend about a parallel thing! Like how we inherit our sense of narrative from the novel, a basically bourgeois form that is equipped mainly to build a socially isolated image of a person-as-character, and not as deeply equipped to talk about big systemic and ideological questions.

which I think is… probably right?

And here’s something to challenge you:

For the huge quantity of art being produced in both corporate and independent contexts I feel like we don’t meaningfully have much of an “underground” right now, or much work that’s challenging or deeply, meaningfully weird? This isn’t really a resolved idea for me. And I don’t think I am really living up to that in my work, but I guess I want to push in that direction.


The River

The River, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, ca. 1864

The other thing I read at the river, besides Tim Wu’s book, was a printout of this paper by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing about “nonscalability.” My friends made fun of me for bringing a sheaf of loose pages down to the beach. I ignored them; I HAD A PDF TO READ!!

The core of Tsing’s argument is this:

When small projects can become big without changing the nature of the project, we call that design feature “scalability.” Scalability is a confusing term because it seems to mean something broader, the ability to use scale; but that is not the technical meaning of the term. Scalable projects are those that can expand without changing.

Scalable projects are those that can expand without changing.

When I read that line, I was flung back to my time at Twitter, listening as several of the company’s earliest employees enthused about the power of a network that could grow and grow by recombining just a few simple, unchanging “primitives.” (The tweet; the account; the follow.) At the time, they were using that framework to argue against an editorial project that my colleagues and I were proposing. (They succeeded.) Reading Tsing, I realize how actually strange it is to imagine—or demand!—that the properties of a network should stay the same as it grows from ten thousand people, to a million, to a hundred million.

Honestly, I’m still mad at those early employees!

Tsing’s paper also offers a fascinating survey of two “economic landscapes” that I didn’t know anything about:

  1. Sugarcane plantations in the New World in the colonial era, and
  2. matsutake mushroom foragers (!) in the Pacific Northwest today.

The latter are the focus of Tsing’s book The Mushroom at the End of the World—what a title—which I’ve owned for a couple of years but never touched. Reading this paper has motivated me to pick it up.


Be wary of people who only ever opine on the Thing of the Moment. It’s appropriate, of course, to sometimes be engaged by that Thing, but I find it shocking to behold people getting just like, flung from Thing to Thing, seemingly without deep interests or long-term commitments.

An abiding intellectual and/or moral interest in something Not At All of the Moment is a keel. It allow you to tack against the wind; to make progress.


There’s a new spot in Oakland started by two old friends; called Bar Shiru, it’s truly a haven, with impeccable drinks and an incredible sound system that’s somehow always playing the perfect song.

Bar Shiru takes its inspiration from Tokyo’s jazz cafes, which provide a healthy reminder that public policy is a kind of space-time continuum, warping people’s plans and projects in unpredictable ways:

Japan’s proliferation of small, whimsical drinking and music venues was an unintended side effect of the Law to Regulate Adult Entertainment Businesses having strict licensing requirements for spaces over 66 square meters (~710 sqft).

And thus, a whole universe of tiny, perfect bars was born!


There’s an easy, pleasant thing you can do in your daily life that will have a small but measurably positive effect on (a) the climate of this planet, (b) labor conditions in your country, and (c) the health of your local community.

That thing is: get your meat from a real butcher shop!

You’ll support smaller meat producers, not the disgusting giants that dominate the industry. You’ll help justify a job for a skilled worker. Your meat will come from healthier animals raised using methods friendlier to the planet; this is especially true for beef. And—you might not believe me, but… believe me!—that meat will absolutely taste better.

If you’ve got to drive a little out of your way to reach the butcher shop: do that!

If the meat is more expensive: it ought to be.

(This is mostly a U.S. thing. I get the sense Europe has maintained, for the most part, a healthier relationship to meat. There definitely seem to be more butcher shops!)


Shooting the Rapids

Shooting the Rapids, Saguenay River, Winslow Homer, ca. 1905–10

Look at the passenger’s expression :)

☄️R

August 2019, Oakland

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