Robin Sloan
the lab
January 2023

Attention Router

Hello from the lab!

Throughout 2023, this newsletter will be largely devoted to mapping new “ways of relating” online. You can return to the December edition, if you missed it, to get the gist.

This is an archived edition of Robin’s lab newsletter. You can sign up to receive future editions using the form at the bottom of the page.

The modern TCP/IP internet came online in January 1983. Forty years later, we’re entering an auspi­cious season for imag­i­na­tion and invention.

This first lab newsletter of 2023 is very link-y, perhaps a bit raw. That feels like a good place to start, because my main objective this year is to be an “attention router”, brisk and functional, connecting you to some worth­while inven­tions and provocations. And, with luck, contributing a few myself.

So! Lots of links below. Skim ruthlessly. Perhaps you’ll spot one or two that resonate with your own questions and/or preoccupations.

A shard of a broken vessel, fabulously colorful, with streaks of blue, green, and yellow. You almost can't believe it's 2000 years old; shouldn't it be GRAY?
Fragment of a vessel, circa 1 CE, Roman

It’s my newsletter, and I will therefore begin with this:

I wrote a new story that was just published by Brand New Box, a digital product studio in Lawrence, Kansas. It concerns a giant modular synthesizer, and the web edition features a virtual synthe­sizer you can actually play, so I feel embold­ened to share it with this crowd.

Here’s the story: In the Stacks (Maisie’s Tune)

I’m very taken with a little wave of apps that allow you to publish and maintain a feed as easily as you’d tweet.

Beluga is an iOS app that publishes your feed to an S3-compatible storage provider. It also provides a simple feed reader. All together, it really does look and feel like Twitter … except it’s all feeds, feeds, FEEDS!

Postcard takes a more web-centric approach, bundling together a simple home page, feed, AND email newsletter, with no app required. It is an offering of the appealingly-named Contraption Company.

Microfeed is a light­weight CMS “for podcasts, blogs, photos, videos, documents, and curated URLs”. Heterogeneity, yes! You set it up by deploying your own copy to the free tier of Cloudflare Workers.

These apps all have a wonderful lightness to them; impres­sive work all around.

The question remains: what about discovery?

Val Town is a new platform for tiny cloud functions, and if it’s something different from the apps above, it still seems to “rhyme”, somehow.

All of these offerings want to suggest that it should be trivially easy to pin a feed, or a function, to the internet: as easy as sticking a magnet to the fridge.

There are some provoca­tive ideas lurking in Val Town. After creating your tiny cloud function, you can make it public, and other people can call it from their tiny cloud functions, using a clever addressing scheme.

This makes me think of the ambient “composability” of the Ethereum Virtual Machine — only simpler, and faster, and cheaper. (It wouldn’t be such a terrible fate for Web3, in the end, to be “raided for parts”, all its genuinely humane ideas detached from the heavy chassis of the blockchain.)

I think Val Town’s is great, too. Can we just add that everywhere?

An exercise for the reader: what might a network of feeds built entirely on Val Town look like? That is to say, they wouldn’t quite be “feeds” as we know them, static content updated at intervals, but rather flexible, free-running code. How might these feed-functions call one another, relate to one another? What new inter­ac­tions might be possible — richer than RSS, weirder than social media?

Those are murky questions, possibly bad ideas — so, obviously, I am having fun thinking about them.

From my notes:

Again, this sense of, “if they’re gonna make it, I’m gonna use it.”

Pinning bits of code to the universe. As easy as posters on utility poles.

This is the computing envi­ron­ment we are swimming around in — this is water. “Pure” platforms and do-over protocols are just not tenable.

Live in the world!

Max Krieger’s Voiceliner is a lovely, inventive app for capturing voice notes on the go, in a struc­tured format; its approach feels, to me, truly new. If you’re an invet­erate note-to-self-er, or aspire to be, you ought to check it out.

I always leap when a dispatch from Jackie Luo appears. She is a sensitive chron­i­cler of her milieu, diaristic and political in the deep sense — I wanted to write “in the French sense”, I don’t know why — just endlessly readable. Her recent New Year newsletter artic­u­lates a widely-shared feeling of stuckness:

there’s a running joke (is joke the word?) on twitter that we’re all still stuck in 2020, or that we’re about to begin year eight of 2016. in my own life, at least, that has felt true. 2016 is the last year i can recall feeling deeply opti­mistic about what the new year would bring, for me and for the world at large. since then, the fragile hopes i bore for each new year have been flattened again and again into the formless sameness of a world where time means nothing and yet somehow every­thing manages to keep getting worse. the future began to feel less like an unbounded space of poten­tiality and more like a precious resource that kept diminishing, untouched. eight years is a long time. where did it all go? how did i get here? it’s hard, living in such persis­tently unprece­dented times, to know what is the natural process of aging and what’s the specific pecu­liarity of aging in this time.

Although this feeling isn’t only, or even primarily, about the internet, I think it connects to the widely-shared sense of “ … is this it?” that I have discussed in this newsletter. And I think it’s important to under­stand the search for new avenues in that richer context: of politics and economics, work and meaning, hope and dread … all of it.

Jackie’s “stuckness” makes me think of Zygmunt Bauman, the philoso­pher who saw it all with such clarity, way back in 2000:

We feel rather than know (and many of us refuse to acknowledge) that power (that is, the ability to do things) has been separated from politics (that is, the ability to decide which things need to be done and given priority) [ … ]

Read Jackie; read Zygmunt. This feeling of stuckness, the inability to get traction, underpins every other link in this newsletter.

What were the early explorers and engineers of the web discussing and debating, 29 years ago? Review the proceedings of the First Inter­na­tional Confer­ence on the World-Wide Web and find out!

I love this kind of docu­men­ta­tion “in media res”. As you read, a sense of legit­i­mate dramatic irony takes hold: these people didn’t know what was coming.

I also enjoyed browsing the code for version 0.5 of NCSA’s web server, circa 1993. It’s very simple!

Web Browser Engineering is a web book that uses the browser brilliantly. Its subject is: how to make one.

The balance between lightness and inter­ac­tivity here is wildly impres­sive. The book’s sturdy clarity supports magical flourishes: inline code examples that really run, alongside visu­al­iza­tions revealing what they’re doing. And the sidenotes are beautiful.

The web of 1993 this ain’t!

A collab­o­ra­tion between Pavel Panchekha and Chris Harrelson, this is about as close to a perfect web book as I’ve seen. (The other contender is Rodrigo Copetti’s Architecture of Consoles.) If you spend any of your time thinking about browsers and what they do, you’ll get something out of this material — even if you only make it through the introduction.

I like this: widget.json, “a file format designed to push content from the web to your home screen.” Its creators write:

We had access to an internet that was playful, weird, unexpected, and inspiring. We love the vibrancy and texture that comes from people having access to simple tools to express them­selves and create the things that they want. Widgets are an approach­able and pervasive canvas to have fun with. We hope people will create things we can’t imagine.

Stephen Wolfram’s inves­ti­ga­tion into the life and thinking of Ada Lovelace makes for a powerful read. I found the piece via Brandon Rhodes; his recommendation, just a single paragraph, is perfectly concise and stirring:

[ … ] A deep dive into the printed and hand­written evidence of the collab­o­ra­tion between Babbage and Lovelace, copiously illus­trated with both. Conclu­sively demon­strates that, of the two, Ada was the real programmer: the first member of our species to expe­ri­ence the joy of hacking a general purpose computing engine to do things that even its inventor didn’t realize it could do. Babbage comes across as a somewhat imprac­tical startup founder and Ada as the hacker who really under­stands the technology.

Another shard of a broken vessel, just as colorful, this one with a fat stripe of rusty red or brown, and a glimpse some pattern, now long-lost.
Fragment of a vessel, circa 1 CE, Roman

Faster, now:

That’s it for January. If you yourself have published anything, in any format, that roughly fits the theme of this newsletter, please don’t hesitate to send me a link. I’d love to include it in a future edition and route a bit of attention your way.

Regarding my query, in December’s newsletter, about localStorage and cross-browser synchronization, this post was illu­mi­nating. Several corre­spon­dents sent links to PouchDB, which is new to me, and looks great.

You’ll receive my next lab newsletter on February 25. See you then!

From Oakland,


January 2023, Oakland