Robin Sloan
main newsletter
March 2021

Here is your liberal art!

A view through a doorway showing a sunny street where a small crowd of people are rushing toward something unseen and exciting. A woman in a rose-colored dress shades her hand to look and see what it is; we wish we could do the same!
View through a Door to Running Figures, 1844-1845, C. W. Eckersberg

A few weeks ago, I launched a simple, one-page project: the Library Demand List, which takes the titles on the current New York Times Best Sellers list and scales them by the number of holds on each at a selection of U.S. public libraries. It’s like looking at the list through library-colored glasses.

This message was emailed to newsletter subscribers. The assumed audience is subscribers interested in a boatload of links and recommendations. (Here’s more about assumed audiences.)

The project was motivated by own curiosity, which emerged from expe­ri­ence; I was late to the Libby bandwagon, but/and now I am firmly aboard.

This is 100% conjecture, but I truly believe the surge in library e-book lending in the U.S.—which predates the pandemic, though of course it accel­er­ated even more in 2020 — is a direct conse­quence of Libby’s intro­duc­tion in 2017: its inviting simplicity, the fact that it really “has no business being so good”. (I even find its built-in reader totally pleasant!)

If you don’t already know about the back end of these systems, then Dan Cohen’s post about the thicket that is library e-book acquisition is a must-read. Libby abstracts all of that away, which makes for a great user expe­ri­ence, but/and I think it’s important to under­stand the tangle behind the scenes.

As some of you know, I own a decrepit Risograph printer; I’ve used it to print MANY different things, ranging from materials for Fat Gold to one-page fiction zines I mailed out to a few thousand people. A friend recently purchased a much newer Riso and it is a revelation: where before I struggled to reach “acceptable” with my prints, now “acceptable” is the baseline and I can go from there.

At the same time, the studio ANEMONE has released a Mac app called Spectrolite that’s designed to help people produce inter­esting color sepa­ra­tions for the Riso. You can do that in Photoshop, but, as with everything in Photoshop, it feels like chipping the little piece you want from a glacier of capability. In this app, the little piece is every­thing. Spec­tro­lite knows about the Riso ink colors exactly, and no other colors at all! It’s wonderful.

There’s a sense here of app as home-cooked meal. I can’t imagine that Spec­tro­lite has a potential userbase of more than a few thousand people, total — I could be wrong — yet it exists, and it’s slick, and ANEMONE is making it even better.

Specific, situated creative software.

I feel like this is a thing that’s totally possible and not enough people realize it.

One of ANEMONE’s prin­ci­pals operates All Well, a creative sewing studio that offers some really terrific-looking patterns. I went through a sewing phase a couple of years ago — I made my own travel duffel bag, it’s great — and these cozy, boxy cardigans make me want to set up my machine again … 

Speaking of two-person creative collaborations: the duo known as Hundred Rabbits has made an e-book of their North Pacific Logbook available for $5. As I wrote back in September,

They recently completed a 51-day transit of the Pacific Ocean, sailing from Japan to Canada in a rather small boat, and their logbook makes for gripping reading. It’s legit­i­mately harrowing — there are some close calls — so I don’t unre­servedly recommend it to everyone, but if you are up for a real-life adventure, wow. Here it is.

Jennifer Daniel leads the Unicode Consortium’s emoji subcommittee, and she recently started a newsletter connected to that work. It is tran­scen­dently good, both for its close-up view of the emoji-making process AND for Jennifer’s energy and voice. For me, this is 2021’s best new writing, in any genre.

If you’re looking for a place to start, this edition is wonderful: a look at the ingenuity behind 2020’s new emoji, which had to fit the constraints of an unsettled year.

This edition is also great; it gives you a fairly compre­hen­sive (and therefore dizzying) view of the consid­er­a­tion required for a tech­nology that aspires to universality. (It also includes a paean to the Google blobmoji.)

You get the tiniest sense of the density of issues and oppor­tu­ni­ties tangled up in emoji design and refinement, and it’s like: HERE IS YOUR LIBERAL ART! Language, culture, politics, engineering, philosophy, actual art … every­thing.

Here is a 3D model of elec­tricity consump­tion in Manchester in the early 1950s:

A kind of 3D graph built out of indi­vidual cards, their scalloped edges tracing power consump­tion over the course of a day and yielding, in aggregate, a contoured landscape of data.

Here are a couple of the constituent cards, each the record of a single day:

A view of two of the cards. Their top edges are a rough scallop tracing the day's energy consump­tion, each providing a single "contour" in the 3D graph. They're pretty colors, too; pale blue and yellow.

This is via Dan Cohen; you might already have deduced that if you enjoy my newsletter, you will also enjoy his.

What a fun collec­tion from Golan Levin: shelters as artworks.

Here’s a roundup of science fiction writers talking about world-building. Kim Stanley Robinson’s view most closely parallels my own:

I don’t like the term world-building. I’d say there’s no such thing — it’s a term out of a vocab­u­lary that grew in writing workshops to help writers talk about the craft of fiction. But the writer should remember that these diag­nostic terms are not what the reader feels while reading: the reader reads in a kind of dreamlike state in which the events of a story really happen. So the writer should focus on somehow forwarding the story. That’s the only imperative: make that “willing suspen­sion of disbelief” go into action, and take the reader away.

A woman in a bonnet pushes between two other pedestrians on a narrow sidewalk, the wind pushing her umbrella back against her. One of the other pedestrians looks a little amused.
Street Scene in Windy and Rainy Weather, 1846, C. W. Eckersberg

I wrote this note to myself a while ago and found it again as I was selecting links for this newsletter:

Thinking about links:

I truly am not sure what I meant by “selling pizza but never buying beer” but I’m sort of into it?

Following my initial explo­ration of “non-fungible tokens”, which I wrote about for the Media Lab committee, I did a whole little project centered around the formal­iza­tion of an odd kind of poem that depends on language, code, and luck.

For me, the NFT part ended up being much less inter­esting than the poetry part, which is, I think, a good sign.

Here is a wondrous post about real life in Pompeii:

And what we can discover from looking at those remains is that despite what’s written down, the Roman Empire was mostly made up of service workers and slaves who didn’t give a crap about oratory and lost Repub­lican values. They just wanted decent jobs — maybe at the baker’s or the textile manufacturer’s warehouse — and a good evening meal at the local taberna.

Look: a technical guide to Correcting Tele­vi­sion Picture Faults.

I like the idea of some video artist reading this book backwards, as a guide to producing (beautiful) picture faults.

Andy Matuschak’s reflections on his year as an inde­pen­dent researcher are thoughtful and inspiring.

I think Andy is presently one of the great inves­ti­ga­tors of digital media’s potential. In my view, he’s part of an important intel­lec­tual lineage that, though it’s been atten­u­ated at times — now might be one of those times — remains unbroken, connecting gener­a­tions of excellent weirdos who insist: we can use these magic mirrors for something better.

The didactic Dr. Stone

The second season of Dr. Stone has started!

This is an anime series with an extremely high concept: in its first episode, a mysterious force sweeps across Earth, turning every human into a statue. (Animals are untouched.) Thousands of years later, a handful of people are myste­riously returned to fleshly life. The first is the young and brilliant Dr. Stone, who surveys a planet totally rewilded and decides, “I am going to reboot civilization … from scratch.” Then, we watch him do it, step by step.

The show is iden­ti­fi­able as part of an anime sub-genre I love, that doesn’t really exist in any other medium: one that luxu­ri­ates in nerdy, detailed descrip­tions of processes and techniques. Let me expand on this:

Tap or click to unmute. Captions are available.

Here is one of those beautiful, quixotic toy/game things that can only exist on the web. The top “folder” says universe; just start unfolding at random and you’ll see what I mean. Cosmic. (This is via Matt Webb.)

Look at this short story dispenser that travels from library to library!!

A while back, I received a holiday “life update” from a friend, and instead of a card, it was a little scroll of thermal paper, like a long receipt. The update was concise but/and beau­ti­fully written; a pleasure to read. It was, honestly, the best dispatch of that kind I’ve ever received, and now I want to copy the format.

I don’t have a Harpers subscription, so I was happy to have this gloss of Martin Scorsese’s recent essay, in which he discusses streaming platforms, film, and “content”.

A stray thought: the correct 21st-century defi­n­i­tion of “content” isn’t “generic media” but rather “the specific kind of media designed for platforms and algorithms”. The clue is that “content creators” exist only on (for?) platforms.

Another: you know it’s “content” if the form is provided by someone else.

It’s obvious there’s a struggle for language here, and anywhere you find that struggle, you know something inter­esting is going on … 

I’ve been playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the gorgeous and medi­ta­tive Switch game, verrry slowly for about a year now. If you’ve ever played the game, or if you’re inter­ested in under­standing how modern video games are imagined and developed, you absolutely must watch this presen­ta­tion from Breath of the Wild’s creators at a confer­ence several years ago. It’s charming and surprising and unbelievably impressive.

A nice random internet discovery: Joep Beving performs his song Hanging D. Fans of Nils Frahm will like this, I think.

It feels to me like Saturday Night Live might be entering, or already within, another one of its really good stretches; a deep sense of the absurd has taken root. This segment was my favorite from the most recent episode.

There exists a newsletter, started recently, called 50 Years of Text Games and, why yes, I will subscribe to that.

This edition, on the origin of the epochal Adventure — really the first hit video game — was a revelation; the game’s twisty passages were influ­enced by its creators’ direct expe­ri­ence with real spelunking. Some of its settings are recog­niz­able as actual portions of the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky.

Here at the beginning: the breath of the real across the face of the digital waters.

Red Plenty

Finally, a selection from the shelves. The siren in the back­ground is, naturally, the Good Book Police on their way over to the lab to confis­cate this one:

Tap or click to unmute. Captions are available.

(Yes, I know they are not footnotes, but endnotes. Comrade … such quibbling is hardly utopian.)

Here on the eastern edge of San Francisco Bay, we have entered the fair days of spring. I’ve been out and about more — running errands, making deliveries, and just walking, too. This week, there’s rain on the way. I’m feeling busy, a little bit behind on a lot of things, and happy. Basically: normal.

From Oakland,


March 2021