Week 35, going directly to identifiable nerds

Cuneiform tablet #1

Flour deliveries for rent payment, ca. 7th–6th century B.C., Babylonian

This Wednesday, I spent the morning delivering cases of olive oil: first to Oakland’s Market Hall, jewel of the East Bay; then across the bridge, a total slog, stealing bites of a kale salad whenever traffic halted, which was often; down into the San Francisco Produce Terminal, a bustling zone ruled by roaring trucks, and the headquarters therein of Good Eggs, a terrific local grocery delivery service; and finally onward to my last stop, the Samovar tea cafe on Valencia Street, where every time I deliver a case of olive oil I am rewarded with a free chai.

It was warm on Wednesday, so I got my chai iced.

I love making deliveries. I’m sure if I did it every day, it would—well, actually, no. I’m not sure at all. I think it’s possible I could very happily be a delivery person!

News from the Republic

The main thing I want to do this week is send you over to Alan Jacobs’s latest dispatch, a look at the new forms of organization being used on the streets in Hong Kong. His title is New Model Protest, and the message is a thrilling synthesis, drawing together news coverage, on-the-ground reports, and even—very usefully, I think—a novel.

It’s a focused, fascinating read that will stick in your brain.

Kate Lingley:

The Northern Song painter Guo Xi (ca. 1020—ca. 1090) famously describes four kinds of landscape, which I think can also be thought of as four kinds of spatial logic: they are landscapes in which one may travel, landscapes which can be contemplated, landscapes in which one may ramble, and landscapes in which one may dwell.

He clearly thought the latter two superior, btw.

The record store chain Amoeba has a video series called What’s In My Bag? in which they ask a visiting artist to make selections in the store and then explain, on camera, why they chose what they did. Simple! The result is possibly the sweetest, purest production on YouTube: just a long list of people—they’ve been making these videos for years!—expressing enthusiasm for things they love, things they’ve found.

I queued a bunch of them up and played them on my laptop while working in the kitchen the other night. The musician Emma Ruth Rundle is new to me, but/and I liked her selections a lot; several went immediately into a Spotify playlist.

This document is noteworthy for two reasons:

  • It’s a list of “infrastructure films”! Some documentaries, yes, but plenty of dramas, too. A diverse, interesting collection.
  • It’s a Google Doc created to collect the replies to a tweeted query; it’s rough and functional and useful. I think this kind of instantaneous, improvisational publishing might represent the real promise of the web; not that Anyone Can Start a Publication, but that Any Document Can Be Public. Something like that!

Even if you’re not particularly interested in video games, you’ve got to find images like this charming, right?

Graph paper ghosts:

Ghost grid

Pac-Man in his rawest form:


Those are from a piece about Japanese video game artists and the ways they have had to work with different technologies over time. It’s a quick, interesting read, with lots of images.

Now, it’s

Time for some economics

This is gonna be pretty nerdy, so feel free to skip it. Or… don’t skip it, because it’s also fascinating, and possibly important!

In his book Capital in the 21st Century, the economist Thomas Piketty identifies a simple inequality:

r > g

r is the rate of return for capital; the speed at which your investment account grows.

g is the growth rate of the economy; the speed at which workers’ incomes grow.

If g is greater than r, then regular workers slowly but surely “catch up” to the rich. This is the scenario underpinning the “rising tide lifts all boats” theory of economic development. Or, you might have encountered it like this: “Rather than carve up the pie differently… let’s grow the whole pie!” It’s also in Deng Xiaoping’s famous admonition: “Let some people get rich first.”

For a good chunk of the 20th century, this actually worked, in the U.S. and other places. But it doesn’t feel like it’s working anymore. What happened?

Piketty says the postwar years were an anomaly, with turbocharged g and relatively low r, in part because huge swaths of global capital had just been literally destroyed; up in flames. (I discussed this a bit in a previous newsletter.) Now, many decades later, the relationships has returned to its historically-normal form, with r comfortable greater than g.

And when r is greater than g, even by a little bit, then the rich get richer… and richer… and richer… and nobody can ever catch up. The gulf only widens. This is the scenario that gives us Gilded Ages.

So! If you believe this, then one of the policy challenges for the 21st century is figuring out how to influence the values of r and g. Tiny changes can have a big effect. For his part, Piketty suggests a coordinated global wealth tax—anywhere from 0.2 to 3%—to shave off just a bit of r’s advantage and level the playing field. Elsewhere, some proponents of the Green New Deal see it as, among other things, a strong dose of g.

There are other ways of thinking about the problem, too, and I like this question posed by the political economist Mark Blyth:

Can we have r for all?

That is, can the return on capital be truly shared? This would have to be way, WAY more serious than 401(k) plans. I’d read about one possible scheme, a social wealth fund, but it turns out, there are a lot of them!

So—this is the reason I started typing this section—I enjoyed listening to Mark Blyth’s funny, erudite roundup of many such schemes. The presentation is very wide-ranging and, if it’s sometimes technical or jargon-y, it is reliably buoyed by Blyth’s sense of humor as well as, let’s be real, his great accent. I recommend giving this video a shot, even—or maybe especially!—if economics is not comfortable terrain for you.

Blyth’s roundup was part of McMaster University’s recent Summer School in Capitalism, Democratic Solidarity, and Institutional Design. The whole event appears to have been extremely up my alley, and I believe I will end up watching almost all of the presentations.

(I found this via the Jain Family Institute’s newsletter, which I mentioned last week.)

Cuneiform tablet #2

Administrative account concerning the distribution of barley and emmer, ca. 3100–2900 B.C., Sumerian

Early in his talk, Blyth tossed off a phrase that stuck with me: “…your ability to be a sovereign and expressive subject.”

Sovereign and expressive. I think that’s quite lovely.

Craig Mod, during his VERY long walk in Japan earlier this year, sent out dispatches via SMS and invited responses through the same channel. Here’s one I pinged back to him:

Your description of a “floating” consciousness makes me want to offer another word (one of my favorites): sovereign. A walker suspended in the walk is, I think, a truly sovereign being, almost a little sovereign state—and that’s one of the most pleasant feelings there is.

Most people are familiar with synthesizers that look like big keyboards. You know, like this:


There’s another variety that tends to look more like 1950s lab equipment. Here’s an example:

A very large Moog

(That image is from the Met, of all places!!)

In an Instagram story earlier this year, I documented the basics of this kind of synthesizer. Many people have subscribed to this newsletter since then, so I thought I’d share it again: my morning with the big red library synthesizer in Lawrence, Kansas.

The Lawrence library’s synthesizer came as one big unit, but/and you can also make these synthesizers from heterogeneous parts, mixing and matching modules from different manufacturers, different technologies, different eras. Over the past couple of years, I’ve done this, assembling many of the modules myself using DIY kits.

My system is, at last, reasonably complete, and I’ve been spending a few minutes with it every day. On Saturday morning, this emerged, and I quite like it!

(This synthesizer will eventually supply the soundscape for the interactive project code-named PENTWATER.)

Kits and finished modules alike tend to come from very small companies—sometimes just one or two people. There’s a strong sense of cottage industry, and it makes me happy to spend money this way; the dollars aren’t getting slurped up into some big corporation’s coffers, but instead going directly to an identifiable nerd in Vancouver or London or Santa Cruz.

Maybe that sums up the kind of economy I want as well as anything else: Money Going Directly to Identifiable Nerds.

Cuneiform tablet #3

Deliveries of oxen, ca. 2040 B.C., Neo-Sumerian

I started several books this week that seem, so far, to be remarkable. I tend to jot these down in my Instagram stories as I encounter them, but/and I’ll include some in an upcoming newsletter, too.


August 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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