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. 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 the Gawain thing every year, 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