Robin Sloan
main newsletter
July 2023

The feeling of something waiting there for you

A two-page spread from a Japanese fireworks catalog, showing various fiery formations, all simply drawn, bright ink over a dusky nighttime background.
Hirayama Fireworks catalog, 1883

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 — I know lots of other things. I’m glad, in a way, to have come by the knowledge honestly, through backyard observation.

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:

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 GassĂ©e 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 GassĂ©e, the poem’s title was indelible: Ode to the Quick Computer!

Well, I found these coor­di­nates in aesthetic space fairly tantalizing — so much so that I:

  1. cast a net of own own, confirming that this poem exists nowhere online;
  2. set up an eBay alert for Apple: The Personal Computer Magazine; and
  3. 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.

Three issues of Apple's in-house magazine, all with covers mostly black, graced by images of Apple computers or, in one case, a space shuttle.
Apple Magazine, early 1980s

In the topmost issue, I found the poem, and, I regret to inform you: it is bad.

A two-page spread with the text of Ray Bradbury's poem set against a starfield, and a few bulbous spaceships floating around the margins.
Ode to the Quick Computer, Apple Magazine, early 1980s

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!
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 — certainly not the kind that Apple computers inspired in the early 1980s. Ray Bradbury’s ode is as abstracted, as rote, as the criticism he dismisses. Bummer!

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 — and so what? Does every bit of infor­ma­tion and provo­ca­tion that enters your brain have to fit its contours exactly, Sloan? Surely not. I suspect it’s precisely the friction of mismatch that produces Actually New Ideas, rather than the comfort­able confir­ma­tion of ideas you already sorta had.

In this lecture series, Jennifer Roberts offers one dizzying, desta­bi­lizing reframing of printing after another — a new deto­na­tion every two minutes or so, boom boom boom. Printing as an event that is funda­men­tally secret, unseeable: you can only inspect the aftermath. Prints as “stains on one surface, attesting to damage done to another”! The Sudarium of Saint Veronica as an important early print! (Printing with the blood of a god!! See? That on its own is worth the price of admission.)

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 — this image, and the story behind it, turns every­thing upside-down and inside-out. What’s analog? What’s digital? What is a picture, even?!)

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.

A two-page spread from a Japanese fireworks catalog, showing various fiery formations, all simply drawn, bright ink over a dusky nighttime background.
Hirayama Fireworks catalog, 1883

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 — when an orange appears in the frame, death is close on its heels — has a deeper meaning. How clever! But … this turns out to have been a coincidence? All the sources I can find indicate that oranges took on this antic­i­pa­tory visual role simply because they were around, and colorful. Buuut I’m not quite ready to concede the possibility yet.

From lemons and oranges to cocaine and heroin — we were better off with the mafia of the 1800s!

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.

A colorful sketch of the characters from the movie The Last Unicorn, including a blue-robed wizard, an incandescent white unicorn, and, looming behind them all, an ominous red bull.
The Last Unicorn

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.

Several copies of the same book, Writing Tools, smooshed together on my shelves. You can't really see the covers, only the spines, with the title repeated.
Writing Tools, by Roy Peter Clark

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 — right now — to make my writing better?”

There are tech­niques in this book that I use every day — right now — to make my writing better, and anyone who has talked to me about craft for five minutes or more has heard me invoke one of Roy’s ideas.

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!

A two-page spread from a Japanese fireworks catalog, showing various fiery formations, all simply drawn, bright ink over a dusky nighttime background.
Hirayama Fireworks catalog, 1883

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.

From Oakland,


P.S. You’ll receive my next newsletter on August 1.

July 2023