Super sweet spots
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 —
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 —
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 —
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 —
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:
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.
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.