The feeling of something waiting there for you
The other night, I pointed my telescope at Venus, which is currently shining at peak brightness. (In a few days, it will reach its “greatest illuminated extent”—a terrific phrase.) Peering at the planet, I noticed that it seemed … rather … beany.
Beany? Yes, beany. Or maybe: like a bleary football.
I felt that I recognized this beany-bleary shape, and I thought: is it possible? Does Venus have PHASES?
Of course it does. Once you think about the way the planet moves through space, relative to the sun and our viewing position here on Earth, it becomes obvious. I had never, in fact, thought about it. Galileo did: his observations of Venus provided important evidence for, you know, his whole deal.
VENUS HAS PHASES! I probably should have known this already. Oh well —
My simple telescope remains a powerful injector of cosmic awareness into my life. Venus is really out there, a three-dimensional object lit by the sun! It’s my opinion that humanity still doesn’t know what to do with this information. It’s my opinion that astronomy’s shocking revelations of scale, planets to stars to galaxies, remain mostly undigested.
This is an archived edition of Robin’s newsletter. You can sign up to receive future editions using the form at the bottom of the page.
Here’s the shape of my work life lately:
- 50% writing, which is, in turn, 90% novel revision and 10% shorter stuff: stand-alone stories and the occasional piece of quasi-journalism
- 30% olive oil business
- 20% exploration, most of which feeds back into writing in some indirect way, at some unpredictable point. In the past, this exploration has tended toward the technical, but lately, I have been renovating my long-abandoned drawing habit. Of course, I also read a lot!
What’s notable, perhaps, is that these fractions don’t apply to days or usually even to weeks; rather, it’s the year that gets portioned out. My life has become seasonal in a way I couldn’t have imagined a decade ago. October, November, and December are consumed entirely by the demands of olive oil production and sales. Meanwhile, writing is granted its own stretches of uninterrupted time, such as: right now.
This arrangement feels old-fashioned to me, in a good way. I’ve come to appreciate the “click” of shifting modes: setting one kind of work (maybe: one kind of life) aside for a few months, knowing I’ll return to it.
Ode to the Quick Computer
I’ve had an adventure in the archives.
Several years ago, I read a post by the former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassée in which he recalled the company’s in-house magazine, circa the 1980s, reserving particular reverence for a half-remembered issue that featured a poem by Ray Bradbury. For Jean-Louis Gassée, the poem’s title was indelible: Ode to the Quick Computer!
Well, I found these coordinates in aesthetic space fairly tantalizing —
- cast a net of own own, confirming that this poem exists nowhere online;
- set up an eBay alert for Apple: The Personal Computer Magazine; and
- corresponded with sellers to determine whether the issue(s) for sale contained this poem.
For years, the alerts were sporadic and the replies all “sorry, I don’t see it in the table of contents”. Then, in late 2022: a hit! I pounced. The issues arrived; they are fun documents, totally of an era.
In the topmost issue, I found the poem, and, I regret to inform you: it is bad.
It’s also fairly long. Here, I’ll put it behind an expandable panel:
Ode to the Quick Computer, by Ray Bradbury
I would deny The right of those who terrify And use as constant tools of trade: "Aren't you afraid? Aren't you afraid?" Of what? I ask. "Computers! Aren't they monsters? Aren't they bad?" That makes me mad, that maddens me. The fools! Good Grief, they're blind. Refuse to find and see What damned computers mean to me! Their digitals which perk and hide Inside electric circuitries, Provide with ease such medicines As we most need, and find within: They make a digitalis! Good!! Which sums the substance in the blood And quickens odd-shaped humanoid To fill my void with swift replies. Where boredom once let ennui in, Computer says: take heart -- begin! Much more than brute machine I'll be, And constantly your whims attend, Show ends where no ends were before; And, more! Show starts as well as finishes. Your Will diminishes at thought of sums? So! quick computer this way comes! As out in mystery of Space We race a similar mystery: Us, And need the plus and minor factors To teach reactors how to stride And fill lost human souls with pride; And all by, quickly, under breath Do Death in which such computations As would force-feed nations of dreams; Build schemes on air that ratify Grand architectures in the sky -- Whole cities beehived in one ship To solve a trip and save a Race, And multiply Man's hopes in Space. So microprocessor takes breath and air And manufactures rare and simple words That aviaries are to boys like birds To fount them high in July rockets With seedpod futures in their pockets; Decisions bought from indecisions, Collisions of free-fall thought fused one, The fun of mathematics nimble In thimbles plug-tamped in your ear And cheerful wisdom played like drum On listening learner's tympanum. We are, at last, a traveling feast, With yeast that spawns electrically, And teaches children what they'll be If with tape libraries they keep And wake the processors from sleep. To ask us questions, then stand mum As proper answers thrive and sum. So, look! This is a book! But no page turns. Only beneath the metal burns Such stuffs as all new times are made of. So, Cowards, what are you afraid of?
I’m glad to have completed this side quest. What’s disappointing is that the poem doesn’t capture any real “computer feeling” at all —
I can imagine a much better poem with the same (lovely) title.
Maybe Craig Mod already wrote it.
You're in the right place
These days, when I’m investigating a subject, I tend to go straight to Low View Count Scholarly YouTube, which is of course the version of YouTube you get when you append the term “lecture” to your search. When you hit a tranche of videos between forty and ninety minutes long, with between 500 and 5000 views, you know you’re in the right place.
As an example, I’ve just watched the first two lectures in this series from Jennifer Roberts: a comprehensive consideration of printing’s role in art. As is often the case when I dip into scholarly material, I have found myself mildly challenged by her style —
In this lecture series, Jennifer Roberts offers one dizzying, destabilizing reframing of printing after another —
I should mention that these lectures are also rich with illustrative media. Just to choose one beautiful example, if you’ve never seen how marbling is done, as for a book’s endpapers … you gotta see this!
You know, there’s a role to play for those of us who aren’t formal members of Low View Count Scholarly YouTube but nevertheless grasp the value of the dizzying and the destabilizing. We can be translators, popularizers, metabolizers … or even just thieves: laying hands on a strange, glittering idea and making a break for it, with the boulder of thought tumbling heavy behind us.
Jennifer Roberts maintains perhaps the best account on Instagram, a graphic cornucopia. (I linked to this post in a previous edition. Talk about dizzying and destabilizing —
After following her there for a while, I thought: maybe I should see what her scholarly work is all about. That led to a YouTube search, which led to the series linked above. Lucky me!
I liked this list of the greatest tech books of all time, and not only because my publisher claims the #1 and #3 positions.
Dan Bouk has convinced me that the U.S. House of Representatives ought to have more members than 435: that its frozen size is, at this point, actively undemocratic. In his latest newsletter, he connects to a few thinkers making the same argument and considers a few interesting numbers.
If you want to really dig into this question, Dan’s comprehensive report, titled House Arrest, is the place to start and probably also the place to finish. He frames the (rather arcane) system for allocating House seats as an algorithm, which is both intellectually useful and rhetorically clever, because here in the 2020s, just about everybody understands that they need to watch their algorithms closely.
The mafia might have originated in the citrus business of 1800s Sicily:
The main hypothesis is that the growth and consolidation of the Sicilian mafia is strongly associated with an exogenous shock in the demand for lemons after 1800, driven by James Lind’s discovery on the effective use of citrus fruits in curing scurvy.
When I read this, I thought, aha, so the famous symbolism of citrus in the Godfather movies —
From lemons and oranges to cocaine and heroin —
Here is a font engineered expressly for scholars of medieval literature. It’s a truly cool, thoughtful project; go play with all the options!
Did you ever wonder where the terms “temperature” and “degrees” came from? Well, I didn’t either, but/and now I’m glad to know:
According to Galenic medicine, the reference point for a temperate state —
the “temperature”—was the body’s healthy balance between four Galenic “degrees” of both hot and cold either side of it. When we talk about temperature today, we thus still use the Galenic vocabulary.
I found that nugget embedded in the wild history of the steam engine.
The Animation Obsessive’s recounting of the making of The Last Unicorn is a captivating tale: of commercial calculation … of art-making … of finding an audience over time … and especially of translation and mutation, which you know I love.
I think stories of this kind are essential, because they capture the real uncertainty of creative work. And, I have to confess, I like this particular story because there’s no presumptive auteur, no tyrant artist. It’s more like a chain of committees, each making their own mistakes, adding their own genius.
It’s been too long since I last recommended Writing Tools, the indispensable arsenal of technique from Roy Peter Clark.
Books about the craft of writing are tricky. I think most of them are fine; not worse than that, but also not better. Writing Tools is an exception, and it is perfectly titled, because its offerings are exactly that graspable. You can put them to work immediately.
And, though this book’s success has now delivered it to writers of every kind, in every niche, Roy’s original audience was journalists, which means his advice is deeply practical, with a refreshing sense of, “What can I do today —
There are techniques in this book that I use every day —
Zelda and the infrastructural sublime
I was delighted to read an advance copy of Deb Chachra’s forthcoming book, How Infrastructure Works. I’ve been following Deb for many years, and it’s bracing to encounter not only her wide-ranging erudition but also her real-world explorations crystallized on these pages. The book arrives in October; you’ll find my blurb over here.
I’d just finished reading How Infrastructure Works when I booted up The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, the new Nintendo game that you have almost certainly heard about. (Just in case you haven’t: this is a video game of adventure and exploration set in a vast, painterly outdoor world that consistently rewards the simple act of snooping around.)
While playing, I jotted this note, which I’m not sure I can improve upon with “newsletter prose”, so I’ll just present it raw:
The feeling of a game like Zelda
The generosity of it!
It gives and gives
The sense of capacity and power
(We have to acknowledge the infantilization too. Hard things are easy in this game. Climbing and building and traveling, etc.)
The feeling of “something waiting there for you”
The breathtaking knowledge that people made this for you
But that’s the real world too! Every single thing, every big infrastructural system, was authored by people. Who are just as anonymous in their way as Zelda’s many creators. We can acknowledge and praise the geniuses at Nintendo … can’t we acknowledge and praise these other groups?
The infantilization, also, of infrastructure? Hmm, maybe it’s not so bad
Zelda and the infrastructural sublime!!
The long 2010s
I love the opinionated periodizations that historians sometimes propose, like the “long 19th century”, which might have run from the French Revolution in 1789 until the beginning of World War I in 1914, or the “short 20th century”, from 1914 until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. They are all totally made-up, of course, but/and that doesn’t mean thinking and arguing about them can’t be productive.
Here’s my pitch: “the long 2010s”, which actually begins in 2008, with the financial crisis (and the release of the first Iron Man movie, which feels important, somehow) and ends in 2022, with the passage of the IRA and/or the invasion of Ukraine. I think the simultaneous crises in streaming TV and social media form important bookends, too.
Other variations are possible. In a note, I wrote:
Maybe “the long 2010s” begins in 2007 with the iPhone, ends with Apple’s announcement of the Vision Pro. If you put Twitter inside a device like that, you would go insane. Time for something different.
Either way, welcome to the 2020s, at last!
This edition’s art is gleaned from a beautiful catalog distributed by Hirayama Fireworks of Yokohama, Japan, in the late 1800s. Notably, the co-founder of the company, Jinta Hirayama, received Japan’s first foreign patent: for his invention of “daytime fireworks”.
These images are old friends: I used them on magnets back in 2019.
P.S. You’ll receive my next newsletter on August 1.