A painting by Hunhar II titled Prince Dara Shikoh Visits a Sage

Prince Dara Shikoh Visits a Sage, Hunhar II, ca. 1750, from LACMA

Last fall, criss-crossing Northern California for the olive harvest, I saw a lot of herons. These birds are permanently revelatory to me, because they figured prominently in a fantasy series I read as a kid in which the blademasters all aspired to the heron’s sinuous strike, but I had no idea what a heron was or how it struck, so I just nodded along. Now, in California: I get it!

One long stretch of road took me through rice paddies that had attracted hundreds of stalking herons. Neon green speckled with white dots; it could have been a textile.

Long drives; deep thoughts. What is the heron’s strike, to a fish? What is that force reaching in from a literal other dimension? For a fish to be eaten by a bigger fish is one thing; that unfolds entirely within the boundaries of the watery universe. But to get nabbed by a HERON?

Maybe our own deaths are like that: processes unfolding in another higher and/or nearby dimension, experienced incompletely. A fatal infection doesn’t “look” like a plunging heron’s beak but, remember, to a fish, a plunging heron’s beak doesn’t look like a plunging heron’s beak, either. What the hell is water? What the hell is a heron?

I’m almost positive there’s a False Knees comic about this.


“Criss-crossing.” Have you ever noticed that, in English, these playful words almost exclusively go criss-cross, hip-hop, flip-flop rather than cross-criss, hop-hip, flop-flip? (Don’t those juxtapositions make you feel… itchy?) Here’s a winning explanation of the phenomenon from a language teacher on TikTok. (TikTok, not TokTik! See?)


I have some meta thoughts about book reviews and recommendations, but before I get to those, I want to do the straightforward thing and tell you about three new books that are great. Two of them are available now; one will be published in about two weeks. Here they are:

Three books lined up, all of which will be named and discussed in the next section

The Longing for Less by Kyle Chayka, out now, is — well, I actually wrote a blurb for this one, so why mess around? I should say: (1) I only write blurbs for books that I really truly enjoy; (2) I try to make my blurbs not totally… blurby. Let’s see if I succeeded:

Don’t let the title fool you: The Longing for Less overflows. It’s a parade of artists, architects, musicians, and philosophers, most of them new to me, all of them fascinating. This book is generous and wide-ranging, a genuine adventure; it’s thrilling to ride along with Kyle Chayka as he explores this terrain.

I chose the phrase “ride along” with care, because this is a book in which Kyle is very present, narrating his own questions and explorations, along with a few deeply emotional moments. There’s one kind of nonfiction book that goes, “Okay, I figured it out. Here are my findings.” A different kind goes, “Let’s figure it out together,” and Kyle’s book is that second kind, which I happen to prefer.

Lurking by Joanne McNeil, out now, is something truly new: a nonfiction book about the way it feels, and has felt, to use the internet. Its subtitle is How a Person Became a User: a quietly radical observation. There have been plenty of books about those users we all became: business books, policy books, how-to guides for digital designers. Joanne’s great contribution is to locate and celebrate the people we, the angsty wanderers in cyberspace, still remain. People finding their way to AOL message boards for the first time; people lying in their beds with their laptops open on their bellies; people migrating from one flawed platform to the next. In a memorable passage, Joanne writes:

In this book, I use the word “lurking” only in a positive context. Lurking is listening and witnessing on the internet, rather than opining and capturing the attention of others.

I know there are many lurkers receiving this newsletter. Thank you: for being people, whole people, not just “users.” Thank you for listening. Thank you for witnessing.

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener, out now, is the first proper memoir of the 2010s internet-making industry. It is wry and funny and deeply revealing about its subjects, which tend to be — as befits this era — companies and cultures rather than individuals. Anna makes a few smart stylistic choices that give the book a feeling of timelessness; this, in turn, allows you to regard the events telescopically, even though they’re all so fresh. Basically, Anna solved the “…do I really have to write the word ‘MySpace’?” problem — no small innovation!

All three of these books are terrific, and all three can be read very fruitfully together, or against each other; they jostle in interesting ways.

There’s a new website called Bookshop that promises the ease of Amazon with a business model that’s more friendly (which is to say: friendly at all) to independent bookstores. I was initially wary, but Danny Caine of the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas, told me he thought it was okay, so I’ll try it out.

Here are links to purchase any (or all) of these books.

(I will concede that the website’s design is great: much closer to one of Anna Wiener’s sleek startups than Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which clearly runs a website with plain blue links on a beige background, powered by Perl scripts that haven’t been updated since 1998 and can only process payments from Diners Club cards.)

Of course, you can get them from the library, too ;)


For readers in the Bay Area:

About two weeks from now, I’ll be in conversation with Kyle Chayka at Books Inc. Opera Plaza in San Francisco. That’s on Wednesday, February 26, at 7 p.m.; the event details are here. I can guarantee an interesting conversation, and, if you purchase Kyle’s book in person, he will offer to do a weird thing to the cover, which, liberated from its promotional strap, looks like this, no typography in sight:

Close-up of The Longing for Less and its cover, which is free of typography

I won’t spoil the surprise of ~the procedure~, but I will say it’s possible the special Kyle-annotated editions of Longing for Less might be worth something some day.


Those books above, laid out on my dining table, are all advance copies, some of which I received quite a long time ago. I’ve been trying to be more thoughtful about recommending books I receive in advance.

On one hand: I’ve found many books I love because others enthused about advance copies, so I’m very glad they did. (Gideon the Ninth was last year’s great example.)

On the other hand: when someone recommends a book, and the recommendation clicks, you want to be able to read that book, either by purchasing a copy or finding it at the library! I know well the deflation of discovering a book that looks great, only to discover it is not yet available to mere mortal readers. Add to that the gloss of vanity, inescapable, that accompanies every image shared of an advance copy — pulpy badge of the publishing insider — and the vibes, they are not great.

The equilibrium I’ve found, for now, is to wait until just before or just after a book’s actual publication to talk about it. I’m curious, though, to know if you have any thoughts on the matter. An advance copy arrives; I read it; I love it; the book will not be published for another six months. What’s the move that works and feels best for the most people — author, publisher, bookseller, reader, me? I’m truly curious to hear other opinions.


I find myself reading fewer and fewer traditional book reviews these days. This is not because they’re “bad.” Usually, the reviewer has done a fine job; it’s just that the job was apparently to produce something that doesn’t interest me.

An incomplete taxonomy:

  • THE METABOLIZATION, in which a reviewer extracts and presents a nonfiction book’s key findings. I guess it’s good to be featured in a major publication, but, when that publication’s reviewer just strips your book of its tastiest bits and serves them up, a neat fillet… is it really??
  • THE INDUSTRY NEWSLETTER, in which a reviewer addresses or spins, implicitly or explicitly, the meta-story surrounding a book’s acquisition and publication. This review’s intended audience is almost exclusively people who work in, or adjacent to, publishing. This review always runs in the New York Times.
  • THE SEMINAR SESSION, in which a reviewer offers an analysis of a book and it is really very deep and very good but only useful (sometimes, only comprehensible) if you have also read the book, which, at the time most reviews are published, almost no one has done. (This isn’t universally true, and I love to see exceptions. Let’s hear it for extremely tardy reviews!)
  • THE DUEL, in which a reviewer attempts to prove themself the equal of the book’s author by deploying sentences just as beautiful as those found in the book and/or, even better, by locating with excruciating precision the book’s best sentences, maybe even its best fragments of language. This can devolve into a kind of “noticing joust” in which the reviewer one-ups the author by noticing just how well they noticed something. Intolerable.

For my part, I have written exactly one (1) traditional book review, thanks to a surprising and generous invitation from Ron Charles at the Washington Post. This was back in 2014; the book I reviewed was The Peripheral by William Gibson, who, as many of you know, is one of my favorite authors, his Blue Ant Trilogy a formative reading experience for me. My review was, not surprisingly, totally positive, without any mincing caveats. However, it was apparently also… wrong! The day the review was posted, Gibson tweeted a cold appraisal of my naivete and total misapprehension of The Peripheral’s deep grimness. I maintain that none of Gibson’s books are quite as dark as he wants us to believe; regardless, the whole thing was a traumatic experience and I am never doing it again!

Re-reading that review, I actually really like it, but/and I also vividly remember the confusion I felt writing it, wondering: “Who… is this… for?” I never quite figured that out. By contrast, I know exactly who this newsletter is for. I always have. It makes a huge difference.

In any case, the best book review format for the 21st century is the capsule review as perfected by Kevin Nguyen in Grantland circa 2013-2015. Kevin’s reviews are still my lodestar; he showed us exactly how to do it.


A painting by Hunhar II titled Mir Ja'far and Miran, depicting a hunt

Mir Ja'far and Miran, Hunhar II, ca. 1760, from the Victoria & Albert Museum

Studio D Radiodurans is an interesting organization: part consultancy, part educator. Their specialty, which they offer to make your specialty, too, is ethnography in challenging environments: “whether it’s travelling to new cultures or markets, places with minimal infrastructure, or a variable rule of law.” (Variable rule of law is a resonant phrase.)

I mention it because Studio D’s email newsletter arrived recently and, either the format has changed or I wasn’t properly paying attention before, but: it has become not only a calendar of the studio’s upcoming workshops but a fascinating digest of the preoccupations of its worldly members. This was one of those newsletters where I found myself control-clicking every link, opening up a whole line of tabs. That made me think it was probably worth sharing. You can sign up here.

(This newletter might be worth trying particularly if “global ethnography consultancy” sounds totally opaque and/or boring to you. A peek into another skein of the world!)


Oh, things are getting linky now.

Watching old episodes of Ultraman with my nephews, I discovered in myself a deep well of interest in mid-century kaiju (giant monster) productions. The Criterion Channel’s version of the original Godzilla with a commentary track from critic David Kalat is phenomenal; totally inspiring. I loved watching it.

(If you didn’t subscribe to my weekly newsletter in 2019, you missed my link to this YouTube playlist of the original Ultraman series—totally delightful, perfect for 5- and/or 40-year-olds — and my identification of the show’s most emo episode.)


Lately I’ve found myself laser-focused on a narrow genre of documentary about tools for making media. Here are a few I’ve watched and enjoyed:

  • 808 has the dubious distinction of being the very first movie that Apple produced. It’s a history of the iconic Roland drum machine, introduced in 1980, that went from a poorly-marketed flop to the inescapable sound of pop culture everywhere.
  • Side by Side is a documentary produced and hosted by Keanu Reeves (!) in which he takes on the question of celluloid film vs. digital files in both the production and presentation of movies. It’s careful, circumspect, and extremely nerdy: evidence of a deeply curious mind.
  • Graphic Means is a review of the parade of printing technologies that came after hot metal type and before the digital publishing revolution. So, it’s gloriously photo-electro-mechanical, everything zapping and clattering: an era of sprawling physicality that vanished the moment the Macintosh appeared. In all the interviews with graphic designers recalling those decades, there is an unmistakable mix of melancholy and relief.

My friend Jesse Solomon Clark composed the score for this short film called Coldfoot, a wail of voice and wind: the lust for gold made sonic. (Not too many composers out there who have scored high-end commercials and designed generative music systems for physical spaces like this one.)

Do you know about pick-and-place machines? These are the super-precise robots that affix tiny components to blank circuit boards, building the brain of your smartphone or Instant Pot or electric scooter. Basically every piece of electronics sold today is touched — tickled — by one of these machines. Here’s a video showing how they work. I feel like I can see the ghost of the sewing machine in the up and down, up and down of those little placement heads…

I bought the physical edition of this book years ago, and now the PDF is available for free: Bunnie Huang’s Essential Guide to Electronics in Shenzhen. Even if you, uh, do not aspire to manufacture electronics, this short book is tons of fun to read; incandescent with specificity.

Very long-term science: the pitch drop experiment.

The great choreographer Parris Goebel shares a relatively unproduced recording of a dance to a new song; it proves extremely popular; she re-records it at higher resolution, with extra sci-fi gloss. I wish you could watch them in sync, toggling back and forth between the two… What a cool pair of artifacts.

The insults of age: an essay published in 2015 that’s still wonderful. I stole a bit of Helen Garner’s bite for Mr. Ajax Penumbra in a scene I wrote recently.

Here’s a scanned PDF of the handwritten log of computer use at Stanford’s AI lab in 1967. Ghostly and delicious:

AI lab log


This recent economics paper has a banger of a title: “The Rate of Return on Everything, 1870–2015.” (That’s a direct PDF link.) From the abstract:

What is the aggregate real rate of return in the economy? Is it higher than the growth rate of the economy and, if so, by how much? […] Which particular assets have the highest long-run returns? We answer these questions on the basis of a new and comprehensive dataset for all major asset classes, including housing.

Should I spoil it? Okay, I’ll spoil it.

First: Yes, the rate of return on invested capital has been consistently greater than the growth rate of the economy. Therefore, this paper extends and deepens the findings from Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez that have proven so influential. The implication is that piles of money get bigger faster than wages rise; thus, people with piles of money stay richer than people without them, forever, and not only that, the gulf between the groups widens steadily. There is no catching up.

Second, a surprise: If you were a pile-of-money person in 1870, a very patient one, your best bet for an investment, from then until now, would have been… an apartment building! This is not what you would expect, because real estate is considered a safer asset class than stocks, and there’s that whole risk vs. return thing, right? Right?? With economists’ understatement, the paper’s authors write:

The observation that housing returns are similar to equity returns, but much less volatile, is puzzling.

The paper is worth reading, certainly for its policy implications but maybe even more so for its forensic approach to historical data. It’s like climate science in this regard: there’s no the-whole-economy-for-150-years.xls sitting around anywhere, just as there’s no ocean-temperatures-everywhere-all-the-time.csv. Instead, you must, in a very real sense, make your data, drawing from many different sources, finding where they overlap, what they omit. This is treacherous work — it would be very easy to make precisely the data you want to see — but/and the safeguard, of course, is to explain exactly what you did and why.

Anyway, it’s a very cool paper.


A painting by Hunhar II titled Women enjoying the river at the forest’s edge

Women enjoying the river at the forest's edge, Hunhar II, ca. 1765, from the Cleveland Museum of Art

Isn’t the art in this edition of the newsletter beautiful? I’m a little proud of myself for tracking down paintings by Hunhar II, a.k.a. Puran Nath, in three separate collections.

Thanks, as always, for following along.

From Oakland,

Robin


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