Robin Sloan
main newsletter
March 2022

Super sweet spots

A painting showing the interior of an iron foundry, with workers pouring a vat of molten metal into a trough. The iron glows pale yellow against the cool grays and blues of the facility.
The Iron Foundry, Burmeister and Wain, 1885, P.S. Krøyer

It’s a cold, clear day, noth­ing on the calendar, so I thought I’d take the oppor­tu­nity to send out a newslet­ter col­lect­ing some things that have lately caught my eye.

Elyse Flayme and the final flood, my short story for MIT Tech­nol­ogy Review, has come out from behind the magazine’s paywall. It’s a weird one, and I’m proud of it! If you read it, I’d love to hear what you think. I would also, of course, love to link to your Elyse Flayme fan fic­tion … 

It’s always a total sur­prise to see how projects like this get packaged/pre­sented, and I love Stephanie Arnett’s work here; I imagine the top image as a broken, dis­torted map of Elyse’s world of Arrenia … 


A big new publication: The Fat Gold Guide to Extra Vir­gin Olive Oil, free for all, with mate­r­ial suit­able for olive oil neo­phytes and griz­zled gour­mands alike. With this guide, I’m try­ing to model the kind of resource I want to encounter on the web: well-designed, packed with media, but/and also lightweight, super sim­ple.

There are good deals to be had in the shop, too!


Jesse Solomon Clark and I have pub­lished new “liner notes” detail­ing the production, using AI tools (mine) and human tal­ent (his), of two tracks from our album Shadow Planet. I happen to think these are extremely fun documents, with audio clips that trace the evo­lu­tion of our album’s sound as it bounced on cas­sette tapes from Jesse to me (and my AI) and back.

Here’s the liner note for Magnet Train, “the catchy one”, and Sonant, “the dra­matic one”.

Shadow Planet is on Spotify and Apple Music, of course.


New_ Pub­lic, a mul­ti­far­i­ous dig­i­tal civics project, just pub­lished an inter­view with moi. I really enjoyed chat­ting with the newslet­ter’s editor, Josh Kramer. Here’s a representative bit:

New_ Pub­lic: I love the line in the epi­logue [of Penumbra], “There is no immor­tal­ity that is not built on friendship and work done with care.” I really do hope that one of the ver­sions of the inter­net that we might build in the future has much more friend­ship and care. I feel like that’s really rel­e­vant to what we’re talking about.

Robin: I keep com­ing back to this activity, this lit­tle mini project, of try­ing to iden­tify and talk about feelings, and the new feel­ings asso­ci­ated with tech­nol­ogy, specif­i­cally things like per­sonal com­puters, the web, data centers, the vast­ness of the inter­net.

This is just my opinion, but I think there ought to be more. There’s so much writ­ing and think­ing about tech­nol­ogy through sort of eco­nomic terms. And that’s impor­tant. But I think the emo­tional part of it is actu­ally what mat­ters in our day to day life. And I think when you artic­u­late things, that helps you understand them and your life better, but I think then by pub­lish­ing it you can help every­body under­stand what’s going on.


It is December; I am hunched low over my lap­top for the third day in a row. Kathryn glides past and, eye­ing my screen, she says: “Oh, your annual web­site redesign?”

“Yeeesss,” I hiss, goblin-like. My dark midwinter ritual.

The changes won’t be too evi­dent read­ing this newslet­ter, but the home page is transformed, and I now present most short stories in my Per­fect Edi­tion for­mat. (Here’s The Writer & the Witch, for exam­ple.) Let me know what you think of the pre­sen­ta­tion, and, of course, tell me if you spot any display glitches.

Good old-fashioned web pages!


Rooting around for an obscure novel, I was deliv­ered by a search engine to the online store called A Good Used Book, and I am floored. It’s wonderful.

The pre­sen­ta­tion of the mer­chan­dise here is, in my opinion, perfect: books as sov­ereign phys­i­cal objects, not abstract ~product listings~. The way each one “flips over” when you hover your cursor — it cap­tures the spirit, exactly, of inspect­ing a book in a real used book­store. So clever! So great.

Into my cart went the obscure novel; into my cart went a vin­tage paper­back titled Water: The Mir­ror of Science; into my cart went six more.

The exam­ple of A Good Used Book, along­side 50 Watts Books (which like­wise shows off new arrivals in a very phys­i­cal way), gives me great con­fi­dence that it IS pos­si­ble to oper­ate alter­na­tives to Ama­zon and even Bookshop — the lat­ter of which I like fine, but lik­ing isn’t loving, and wow, I love these places.

They’ve done it, somehow: cap­tured the deep spirit of the book­store on the web!


I am HYPED for my friend Kiyash Monsef’s debut novel, titled Once There Was. It’s the story of a girl whose father was secretly a vet­eri­nar­ian to mag­i­cal creatures. I’ve had the plea­sure of read­ing a cou­ple of drafts of this book, and I loved its parade of the clas­sic sil­hou­ettes of world mythology, celebrating/subverting all your favorites. The best part, though, is Kiyash’s total mas­tery of “the storyteller’s voice”, with its patient clar­ity and delicious inevitabil­ity.

I’ll be cer­tain to remind you about this one when it’s pub­lished, about a year from now.


Maya is doing some great, clas­sic blog­ging on a beautiful, hand­made web­site.

In a post about crochet, she writes:

A lot of dif­fer­ent fiber arts work seems so clearly tech­no­log­i­cal in an inno­v­a­tive way and yet entirely anonymous — it’s impos­si­ble to sit with two sticks and string and think your­self capa­ble of rein­vent­ing it all, and yet we don’t have records of so much that (par­tic­u­lar, individual, named) women came up with over the cen­turies.

I also enjoyed her parable of the pythons, which “rhymes” a bit with my argu­ment over at platforms.fyi.


Matt Webb is unmatched in his abil­ity to take in an idea, spin it up like a top, then send it careen­ing back out into the world. Here is a recent exemplar of his method: a post that glis­tens with imag­i­na­tive condensation, each droplet a whole sci­ence fic­tion story.

You can receive his blog posts via email, turn­ing it essen­tially into a newslet­ter — one that has my highest recommendation.


Here is a great story about typ­ing Khmer vs. speak­ing it; really, about dif­fer­ent kinds of literacy. Totally cool and fas­ci­nat­ing.


From the same web­site (a good one, and new-ish), here is a story on the global trans­la­tor shortage. I didn’t know about the tech­nique of “English templating” for subtitles, in which (say) a Korean TV show’s French sub­ti­tles are trans­lated from an inter­me­di­ate English trans­la­tion rather than from the orig­i­nal Korean. I under­stand the prac­ti­cal­ity of that flow, but the idea of the Eng­lish language’s expres­sive­ness (or lack thereof) as a uni­ver­sal bot­tle­neck is pretty deflating.

I have said this before: all hail the trans­la­tors, THE essen­tial cus­to­di­ans of global politics, business, and culture. There is, in my opinion, no job more impor­tant to the present and future of this planet.


I loved the lat­est edi­tion of Joanne McNeil’s newslet­ter, which includes a com­pelling pre­dic­tion about the aes­thetic trend that is, or ought to be, com­ing next.

Where newslet­ters are concerned, as with so many other things, your body knows the score; which ones do you open imme­di­ately, eagerly, upon arrival? Which do you let linger, not out of any par­tic­u­lar aversion, just because, hmm, maybe later? I open Joanne’s emails the moment I see them. I read them straight through.


Here is a sim­ple ques­tion with a fas­ci­nat­ing answer: “How did the gold stan­dard work? I mean ACTU­ALLY work?”

I have been inter­ested lately in the ~intel­lec­tual region~ roughly where finance meets sociology. I watched sev­eral lec­tures from Perry Mehrling’s course on the eco­nom­ics of money and banking and found myself ener­gized by his approach, which he calls “the money view”; I guess I’d describe it as “taking seri­ously what bankers actu­ally do”, rather than wav­ing them away as execu­tors of some abstract eco­nomic function.

Mehrling’s work also offers the use­ful reminder that money is “made” on many, many levels — not only, or even chiefly, by cen­tral banks. Here’s more on this point from Daniel H. Neilson, a for­mer stu­dent of Mehrling’s whose newslet­ter I’ve come to depend on.


I watched a doc­u­men­tary series on the his­tory of China and one episode dwelled on the tran­quil­ity and appeal of life dur­ing the Song Dynasty, roughly 1000-1300. I always appre­ci­ate these iden­ti­fi­ca­tions of places and times it was pretty great to be a human. China in the year 1100, per this doc; Rome in the sec­ond century, per Gibbon; the Bay Area in the year zero, per The Ohlone Way.

All of these claims can be contested, of course. The point is just to think about what it means to live a good human life, the com­forts and capa­bil­i­ties required; to resist on one hand “the arrow of progress points for­ward” and “agriculture ruined everything” on the other. Iden­ti­fy­ing these super sweet spots in his­tory doesn’t, for me, feel valedictory; rather, I find them destabilizing. Good cause for humility.

The doc­u­men­tary had a nice sec­tion about a scroll pro­duced in this period, show­ing the scrum of life along a river dur­ing a festival. It is appar­ently one of the most famous images in all of Chi­nese his­tory, so, I feel chas­tened never to have heard of it pre­vi­ously.

Here’s a very small sec­tion. The red dots are annotations, which, in this viewer, you can acti­vate to under­stand what’s being depicted. It’s great:

A small section of a larger scroll, showing a crowd of city dwellers jostling on a bridge while a boat passed underneath.
Along the River During the Qingming Festival, ca. 12th century, Zhang Zeduan

I appre­ci­ate the way these looong scrolls chal­lenge the pre­sumed uni­ver­sality of our dig­i­tal rec­tan­gle viewers. It’s basi­cally impos­si­ble to take in a work of art like this on a lap­top or phone; but hang it in a room, on a wall, and it becomes totally graspable. You can wan­der its length, peer­ing at all the wonderful details.

There’s really so much that does not fit in a square-ish rec­tan­gle!

On this web­site, there’s an adap­ta­tion of the same scroll, much more colorful, pro­duced cen­turies later. So many of the peo­ple depicted are so clearly hav­ing a great time; it’s brac­ing and, again, humbling!


Here is a use­ful syn­the­sis of con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese intel­lec­tual ecology from David Ownby, whose Reading the China Dream project I have rec­om­mended before. Seriously: if you stop read­ing all Anglo­phone op-eds about China and start sub­scrib­ing to David’s newslet­ter, with its clutch of new trans­la­tions every cou­ple of weeks, you will imme­di­ately be 1000X better off.

Again, the thing about trans­la­tors!


Over the past six months, I’ve been read­ing and view­ing a ton of mate­r­ial about the early days of the inter­net. It’s all so inspiring.

Here’s a fun exchange from an oral his­tory with But­ler Lampson, a found­ing mem­ber of Xerox PARC:

Alan Kay: But I wish that you had been at CERN on a sab­bat­i­cal when [the Web was being born].

But­ler Lampson: I probably would have been a disaster.

Kay: I don’t know. But I think you would have made a slightly better … 

Lampson: No. No. No. No. No. No. What Tim [Berners-Lee] did was perfect. My view about the web is that it’s the great fail­ure of computer systems research. Why did com­puter sys­tems researchers not invent the web? And I can tell you the answer. It’s because it’s too sim­ple.

Kay: It is too sim­ple.

Lampson: If I had been there I would have mucked it up. I swear to God. The idea that you’re going to make a new TCP con­nec­tion for every mouse click on a link? Madness! The idea that you’re going to have this crusty uni­ver­sal data type called HTML with all those stupid angle brackets? We never would have done that! But those were the things that allowed it to succeed.


Out of that same line of inquiry, I enjoyed this inter­view with Hansen Hsu, who left his job as an engi­neer at Apple to study history; he got a Ph.D. and is now a cura­tor at the Com­puter His­tory Museum. I really appre­ci­ate sto­ries like these: sharp pro­fes­sional breaks, resets, reinventions; gen­tle reminders that any­thing can happen.

Here is Hansen’s pre­sen­ta­tion on the his­tory of inter­ac­tive computing. Super cool.


Here is a demon­stra­tion of William Blake’s inno­v­a­tive print­ing process. If you have ever won­dered what I mean when I use the term “media inventor”, this is your answer, definitively. Blake was totally vertically integrated!


I am an infre­quent but long­time cus­tomer of Comixology, the dig­i­tal comics store with a nice reader app. It was an odd expe­ri­ence to nav­i­gate to the web­site the other day and find it … gone? Amazon pur­chased the ser­vice years ago, but hadn’t changed it much; now, all at once, it has been digested. Comixology’s URL redi­rects to a generic-looking Ama­zon storefront.

Searching for an explanation, I discovered that this change hap­pened about a month ago and was widely bemoaned. For my part, I think it’s abysmal, but/and also use­ful, because it really under­scores the fundamental prop­erty of the digital, which is that it has no fun­da­men­tal properties. There is noth­ing that can­not sud­denly change. The dig­i­tal slips out of your grasp. It changes its shape when you look the other way. It is ghostly.

Contrast the real phys­i­cal book and comic book; also, the ta­ble and chair; the cast-iron pan and cheese grater. All the steady, reli­able objects that mirac­u­lously keep their end of the bargain.

Meanwhile, the dig­i­tal is con­stantly wrig­gling out of the deal.

It’s a gen­uine puzzle, because there are good rea­sons for dig­i­tal ser­vices to change. New capa­bil­i­ties emerge; design­ers learn new things about their cus­tomers. I get it! My ideal world is not a bunch of ser­vices pre­served like bog peo­ple.

Then again … bog peo­ple are pretty cool. What if there was a way to develop and upgrade dig­i­tal ser­vices that kept all pre­vi­ous ver­sions run­ning in some state? That might sound fan­ci­ful and/or stupid, but among developers, there’s a rich body of work around “reproducible soft­ware artifacts”. What if cus­tomers want those, too? I sure wish I could repro­duce Comixology’s old reader app; it ran right here in the web browser. Gone forever.

That sense of unreliabil­ity and slip­page is, of course, related to the mes­sag­ing app I built for, and with, my family. Two years later, its great feature is still: its lack of new fea­tures.

This is clearly a hot theme for me; I brought it up in that New_ Pub­lic inter­view, too:

Robin: And just to offer one exam­ple in that infinitude: A cou­ple years ago, I wrote a short story I really, really love. I still love it. And part of the premise of the story, or the conceit, was that it was posted as a Facebook Note. I love how it turned out. Lots of peo­ple read it. The fact that it was pre­sented in a slightly cryp­tic Face­book Note for­mat was def­i­nitely part of its success.

Fast for­ward a few years later, they have dep­re­cated that whole part of their platform. And now my story looks like shit. The [cover] graph­ics are gone, the font is fucked up. It’s all kind of crammed together. They basi­cally were like “oh, Face­book Notes haven’t met our growth objective, so we’re now dep­re­cat­ing the fea­ture,” with the result that I presume that all the notes that every­one had made now kind of look like garbage. Whatever, I get it. That’s the pre­rog­a­tive of platforms. That presents a real chal­lenge to the enter­prise of return­ing to things that you love and spend­ing time with the things that deserve it.


A painting showing a line of women working at a trough full of sardines, each cleaning a fish with a little knife. Behind them, other work around big barrels, in which the fish are presumably pickling.
A Sardine Curing and Packing Establishment in Concarneau, 1879, P.S. Krøyer

That’s it for this newslet­ter! The sun is still high in the sky and I’ve just ordered a pizza from the place down the street that makes them with a sour­dough crust. The Bay Area in the year zero was, for the Ohlone, a kind of paradise. In 2022, it’s far from paradise … but I’d still call it a sweet spot.

Might even make it to super some day, if we can get our act together.

From Oakland,

Robin

March 2022