Robin Sloan
main newsletter
December 2020

Fresh from Ganymede!

Cloud Shadow With Red Diffusion Light, 1884, Eduard Pechuël-Loesche
Cloud Shadow With Red Diffusion Light, 1884, Eduard Pechuël-Loesche

I suspect many of the peo­ple receiv­ing this mes­sage have paused, in recent nights, to look toward the Great Con­junc­tion of Jupiter and Saturn. I bought a tele­scope a while back, and this week I’ve kept it pointed at the two plan­ets hud­dled in their conference.

Excuse the self-quotation but, in Sourdough, I wrote

It’s always new and aston­ish­ing when it’s yours. Infatuation; sex; card tricks.

to which we can add: see­ing the pin­prick Galilean moons for the first time with your naked eye. This is old science, old magic; it remains aston­ish­ing.

The key, for me, is the unbro­ken chain of light. If my tele­scope was some kind of dig­i­tal device with an image sen­sor and a high-res­o­lu­tion display, the view would be interesting, but it wouldn’t be aston­ish­ing, because the aston­ish­ment is: that these photons erupted out of the sun, leapt across the solar sys­tem, lev­ered match­ing pho­tons out of those moons — those worlds — which crossed the chasm back to Earth and car­omed between two mir­rors to strike some cells wait­ing in the back of my eyeball. An ana­log link; a sil­ver thread.

And, just as aston­ish­ing: there are enough pho­tons for all of us. We can all look up and receive our allotment, fresh from Ganymede!

There are really just SO many pho­tons.

Cloud Shadow With Red Diffusion Light, 1884, Eduard Pechuël-Loesche
Cloud Shadow With Red Diffusion Light, 1884, Eduard Pechuël-Loesche

I want to end this year by going back to the basics. The Soci­ety of the Dou­ble Dagger’s inter­ests are wide-ranging — an understate­ment — but/and this newslet­ter began because of books, and it is always to that pre­oc­cu­pa­tion that we will return.

What IS a book?

I’m fond of Craig Mod’s argu­ment that what makes a book is its edges, to which I will add: a book requires col­li­ma­tion.

I mean that in the opti­cal sense; a beam of light is said to be col­li­mated when all its pho­tons are point­ing in the same direction.

Most light on Earth is uncollimated, because most light is pro­duced by big radi­ant objects made up of a huge num­ber of particles, each toss­ing off pho­tons in dif­fer­ent directions. The writhing glow of a camp­fire is textbook uncol­li­mated.

Here I unfurl my ana­logy, muhuha: I think the kind of writ­ing and think­ing peo­ple do on the inter­net — on news web­sites, on social media, in email newslet­ters — is like campfire light, or the light of an inscan­des­cent bulb. And that’s great! Who doesn’t like a camp­fire?

That kind of light blooms wide … and fades fast.

Collimated light is dif­fer­ent. It doesn’t scat­ter and dif­fuse into darkness.

The light that reaches us from stars is col­li­mated, but only by accident; we see such a nar­row nee­dle of any star’s roar­ing out­put that the pho­tons are effec­tively parallel.

The more illus­tra­tive exam­ple is the laser, which man­u­fac­tures col­li­mated light. Most lasers (all?) have two mir­rors inside, and only pho­tons that have bounced straight between them are per­mit­ted to exit and become part of the laser’s beam.

This kind of light can make its way through the gulf of space, or burn a hole in the wall.

So, I think writ­ing a book requires collimation: get­ting your material pointed in the same direction, fil­ter­ing out the bits that wan­der elsewhere. I don’t mean to sug­gest that a book, fiction or nonfic­tion, ought to be single-minded; some of the very best feel polyphonic, full to bursting. But I’d argue that, in those cases, it is full-to-bursting-ness that pro­vides the axis of col­li­ma­tion. The mate­r­ial has been aimed at that objective.

A book is a laser beam.

The ecol­ogy of pub­lish­ers and book­stores and libraries all assist in this col­li­ma­tion, by the way. Maybe they’re like the mir­rors in the laser, bounc­ing a book back and forth, back and forth, pow­er­ing it up … 

There is a sense I think a lot of peo­ple share: that their con­tri­bu­tions to social media, even if they are bit-by-bit rewarding, don’t really add up to much. A sense of all those words and images just … burning away, like morn­ing mist over a pond. And: I think that sense is correct!

The dura­bil­ity of col­li­ma­tion is avail­able when­ever you sit down to clar­ify your inten­tions and orga­nize your mate­r­ial, in any medium. Including, like, wood. I don’t know that the inter­net resists this discipline, exactly … but it sure does reward the bonfires.

For as much as I enjoy send­ing this newslet­ter — and I enjoy it a LOT — its sat­is­fac­tions do not com­pare to my books, which are, if not quite laser beams … well, they point in a direction. They have been my first glimpse of a longer game.

And this is why I do this Gawain thing, too. It’s a chance to align myself, aston­ish­ingly, with all the poem’s other readers, ten years ago and fifty and five hundred; to sit inside the beam of the book.

The key, for me, is the unbro­ken chain of light ;)

Here’s a laser blast for you!

The cover of The Golden Rhinoceros
The cover of The Golden Rhinoceros

I’ve been read­ing The Golden Rhi­noc­eros by François-Xavier Fau­velle, trans­lated by Troy Tice. It’s fantastic, totally unexpected; a mod­u­lar trea­sury of scenes and events from the African Mid­dle Ages, each with a gor­geous wood­cut illus­tra­tion by Roland Sárkány. The book reads almost like a col­lec­tion of fables, but it’s all real, rigorous his­tory.

The Golden Rhi­noc­eros also boasts one of the best intro­duc­tions I’ve read in a long time, cov­er­ing not only the “what” but the “how” and “why” of the book, which is chal­leng­ing and thrilling, espe­cially for peo­ple who have read a lot — or think they have — about the Mid­dle Ages.

Troy Tice’s trans­la­tion is mus­cu­lar and inviting; in the acknowledgements, Fau­velle thanks him for con­ver­sa­tions that improved the book in both languages. Now, if only Tice’s name was on the cover, too … !

I had the thought, breez­ing past the long lines at the post office this season: every­one should sign up for PirateShip!

It’s a simple, stream­lined web­site that allows you to pur­chase and print USPS postage at home. No sub­scrip­tion required; you can buy one label for $6 and never return. I became acquainted with the site while ship­ping olive oil, but now I use it for every­thing else, too.

This reads like a pod­cast ad, but seriously, I just want you to know about PirateShip.

I think the thing that holds a lot of peo­ple back is the per­ceived has­sle of weigh­ing things. Well, you can buy a lit­tle dig­i­tal kitchen scale, or, even better, you can just make your best guess, and let USPS charge (or reimburse) you for the difference! Yes, they do that!

The Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp has put its huge col­lec­tion of wood­cuts online, thousands and thou­sands of them, all pho­tographed at very high res­o­lu­tion and released into the pub­lic domain. Basically: per­fect.

My favorites are the ornamental capitals, like this killer R:

An ornamental R
An ornamental R

Or this … uh …  what IS this?

An ornamental WHAT?
An ornamental WHAT?

Go find out :)

Earlier this month, the Museum Plantin-Moretus streamed a pre­sen­ta­tion explaining how they doc­u­mented all these wood­cuts; if you’re inter­ested in print­ing and/or archives, it’s worthwhile.

What is an indi­vid­ual? An intro­duc­tion to some head-spinning work:

At the core of that work­ing def­i­n­i­tion was the idea that an individual should not be con­sid­ered in spa­tial terms but in tem­po­ral ones: as some­thing that per­sists sta­bly but dynam­i­cally through time. “It’s a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing about indi­vid­uals,” said Mitchell, who was not involved in the work. “As kind of a verb, instead of a noun.”

A poster with the caption: Why Not Books?
A poster with the caption: Why Not Books?

Why not indeed??

A sound­board of Alex Tre­bek affirmations by Rex Sorgatz.

My friend Nathan Tay­lor recently taught a uni­ver­sity course on the dark mag­ick of the com­mand line, and one of his slide decks pro­vides a per­fect pot­ted his­tory of Unix. It’s fas­ci­nat­ing and inspiring.

The year was 1969. Bell Labs had ordered a PDP-11 for the team work­ing on what would become Unix, but the com­puter didn’t arrive all at once:

So, the soft­ware was writ­ten for the hardware as the hard­ware arrived, rather than design­ing the entire sys­tem in advance; for instance, no disk drive was sup­ported until it actu­ally showed up in the lab!

Here is Nathan’s entire syllabus, with links to slides. There’s some won­der­ful mate­r­ial here.

Designing 2D graph­ics in the Japan­ese video game industry. The web­site Video Game Densetsu is up to some­thing really interesting: a kind of feral history, pow­ered by social media assemblage. If you’re inter­ested in video game his­tory, you’ll want to go explore.

Related, vibewise: Fictional Videogame Stills, Suzanne Treister’s beau­ti­ful art project from 1991. Another laser beam.

Sara Hen­dren on “areas of moral clarity,” and what it means to actu­ally argue over tough ques­tions in pub­lic:

Perhaps it’s lit­tle won­der that the hand-wringing stance — how complicated—is the most we can hope for in our think­ing spaces and our best journalism.

But: I’m dis­sat­is­fied with the wring­ing of hands.

There’s a poem tucked into this newslet­ter from Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, and it’s a stunner. I know “follow this link and read a poem” is sort of a tough sell, but WOW this one — titled “Legal Fiction,” by William Empson — struck me powerfully. And it res­onates with the celes­tial dis­cus­sion above … 

This is your recur­ring reminder that many ubiq­ui­tous punc­tu­a­tion marks began as “crit­i­cal symbols” used to anno­tate manuscripts … at … the Library of Alexandria:

The asterisk, in turn, was cre­ated by one of Zenodotus’s successors. In the sec­ond cen­tury bce, Aristarchus of Samoth­race intro­duced an array of new crit­i­cal symbols: the diple (>) called out note­wor­thy fea­tures in the text; the diple peri­es­tigmene (⸖) marked lines where Aristarchus dis­agreed with Zenodotus’s edits; and, finally, the aster­iskos (※), or “lit­tle star,” denoted duplicate lines.

The link above will take you to Shady Characters, one of the world’s loveli­est web­sites. I am way over­due for a re-recommendation of Keith Houston’s book by the same name: a truly great read on the scaf­fold­ing of read­ing itself.

(Fun fact: the antag­o­nist in an early draft of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book­store was named Zenodotus, after the great librar­ian of antiquity.)

What a stun­ning moment. We are always, at all times, the people we were and the peo­ple we are going to be.

Inside the Secret Math Soci­ety Known as Nico­las Bourbaki!

  1. There is a secret math society.
  2. Its name — the name of the whole society — is Nicolas Bourbaki.
  3. Yes.

From Kim Stan­ley Robinson’s The Min­istry for the Future:

Then later I looked it up and learned that admirals’ salaries top out at $200,000 a year. No one in the Navy gets paid more than that per year. So they call this the pay dif­fer­ential, it’s some­times expressed as a ratio from low­est pay to highest. That ratio for the Navy is about one to eight. For one of the most respected and well-run orga­ni­za­tions on Earth. Some­times this gets called wage par­ity or eco­nomic democracy, but let’s just call it fairness, effec­tiveness, esprit de corps. One to eight. No won­der those admi­rals seemed so normal — they were!

This respected, mythol­o­gized institution … it’s like … pretty social­ist 😇

Cloud Shadow With Red Diffusion Light, 1884, Eduard Pechuël-Loesche
Cloud Shadow With Red Diffusion Light, 1884, Eduard Pechuël-Loesche

The word “gossip” is underused. Most news is gossip; I say that with total admiration. Gos­sip is useful! Practical! Plenty of it is true, or on its way to becom­ing true.

What are anony­mous senior officials quoted in newspapers, if not gossips? Again, that sounds like I am trying to dimin­ish the offi­cials, but it’s the opposite: I am try­ing to ele­vate the gossip.

Intelligence, likewise: call it a “gossip briefing,” frame it up right.

In dis­trib­uted com­puter sys­tems, there’s some­thing called a gossip protocol. See, the pro­gram­mers get it.

Next time you hear some­one say “he’s such a gossip,” under­stand the state­ment to be, “he’s such an effec­tive proces­sor of socially-embedded infor­ma­tion.”

I’ve been read­ing Robert MacFarlane’s Land­marks, a sort of ety­mo­log­i­cal trav­el­ogue (!) cel­e­brat­ing the UK’s store­house of hyper­spe­cific nat­ural language. He wants us to enjoy words like smeuse,

a Sus­sex dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the reg­u­lar pas­sage of a small animal.”

And ammil,

a Devon term for the fine film of sil­ver ice that coats leaves, twigs, and grass when freeze fol­lows thaw, a beau­ti­fully exact word for a fugi­tive phe­nom­enon I have sev­eral times seen but never before been able to name.

There’s the almost painfully beau­ti­ful èit, which

refers to “the prac­tice of plac­ing quartz stones in moor­land streams so that they would sparkle in moon­light and thereby attract salmon to them in the late sum­mer and autumn.”

And here we find the res­o­nant root of Darth Vader’s dark order:

a sìth, “a fairy hill or mound,” is a knoll or hillock pos­sess­ing the qual­i­ties which were thought to con­sti­tute desir­able real estate for fairies — being well-drained, for instance, with a dis­tinc­tive rise, and crowned by green grass.

I bought the Kin­dle edi­tion because I was impa­tient but I regret the choice, because this is a book thick with glos­sary pages, as much for ran­dom access as read­ing straight through. I’ll def­i­nitely acquire a paper copy.

Besides, Land­marks needs to stand on the shelf next to one of my finest finds ever, Word-Hoard by Stephen A. Bar­ney — 

The cover of Word-Hoard
The cover of Word-Hoard

—an Old Eng­lish vocabulary, nothing more, noth­ing less, slim as a pamphlet. Inside, it’s just a repro­duc­tion of a typewrit­ten original; per­fect.

An interior page of Word-Hoard; extremely funky
An interior page of Word-Hoard; extremely funky

Above, you can see the entry for helm, which is of course a hel­met. We learn that it’s related to hall and hell—and suddenly, an invis­i­ble web blazes to life. On the next page, Stephen A. Bar­ney tells us

HALL, HELL, and HELM are all cov­ered places of a sort; derived from the same root are HOLE, HOLLOW, HULL, and HOLSTER.

Of course; isn’t a hel­met just a hall for the head?

Words res­onate with each other, and with us, like the strings in a piano. I didn’t always know this: when you play a piano’s key, it strikes one string, but many pro­duce sound, sum­moned into sympathetic vibration.

Words are spells; there’s no get­ting around it. There’s a rea­son glamour (which meant magic spell before it meant glossy allure) shares a root with grammar.

All of this is woven tight with my attrac­tion to what I have called Eng­lish Mid­win­ter Mode. I love rid­ers in the snow, magic that works only on the longest night of the year, a sprig of holly set above the door as ward against malevolence. I guess what I’m say­ing is I love The Dark Is Rising, but only because Susan Cooper dis­tills it so well, this Anglophone inheritance.

And it is all just Eng­lish, of course. Hop over to another lin­guis­tic net­work and you’ll find a whole dif­fer­ent set of sounds and spells … but still, I believe, some of the same feelings.

Cloud Shadow With Red Diffusion Light, Eduard Pechuël-Loesche, 1884
Cloud Shadow With Red Diffusion Light, Eduard Pechuël-Loesche, 1884

The images in this newslet­ter are water­color ren­di­tions by Eduard Pechuël-Loesche of strange effects wit­nessed in skies all over the world fol­low­ing the erup­tion of Krakatoa in 1883. (One is from 1876, unrelated, but lovely.) There haven’t been that many events expe­ri­enced in sync by every per­son on this planet. The pan­demic is surely one. Kraka­toa was perhaps another.

Eruptions; there’s an ety­mol­ogy for you.

The images are avail­able thanks to the Pub­lic Domain Review, one of the truly great web­sites. Their Instagram account is a dream.

For a while, these newslet­ters have felt to me like “too much and not enough”:

I have some reme­dies for this com­ing in 2021: a new design and some fresh affor­dances for me and you both.

In the meantime, happy Christmas, hap­pier New Year. I hope to see you on Jan­u­ary 1st; the Green Knight awaits, as freaky as always.

From Oakland, the dif­fuse glow of a friendly bulb,


December 2020