Week 24, grafjacking

A Couple Playing Cards, with a Serving Woman

A Couple Playing Cards, with a Serving Woman, ca. 1665–75, Pieter de Hooch

Earlier this week, my friend Patrick Ewing stopped by the media lab. (Patrick is the initiator of the video game Neo Cab, due out later this year, for which I did some writing.) We trained a neural network, talked about games and books, and then, suddenly—I can’t remember how this happened—I was playing a blocky ZZT game programmed by young Patrick in 1995, archived here.

Patrick’s game

Everything about this experience was amazing: the game, which displays a saucy “you’re in MY world now” spirit that anyone who ever made a game circa age 12 using primitive tools will recognize; the game’s engine, ZZT, which was created by Tim Sweeney, now the CEO of Epic Games, producers of the omnipresent Fortnite; and maybe most of all the archive, which somehow possesses a social studies project made by several precocious teens two decades ago?? Incredible.

Patrick’s game

You can play this old DOS program right in your browser, so I zoomed it full-screen and made my way through the opening screens while Patrick looked on with a mixture of mortification and, I think, pleasure.

Hey, Bay Area people!

This week, on June 13th, I’ll be interviewing the great science fiction author Ted Chiang at Green Apple’s 9th Avenue location. You are invited to come hang out with us. Ted’s new story collection Exhalation is just out, and it’s terrific.

The AI-generated quest stories advertised in this newsletter have started to trickle into mailboxes!

Here’s Dan’s.

Here’s Jake’s.

And here’s Jonathan’s :)

Jonathan's quest (and Jonathan's dog)

This is an image of the unauthorized Persian translation of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, distributed in Iran:

I'm not sure where the bicycle came from

I have no idea how this edition came to be, but/and I am very glad it exists.

Here’s a small thing that’s also sort of a big thing: a piece about a recently-translated light novel that captures the voices of both its author, Carlo Zen, and its translator, Emily Balistrieri. I can’t remember if I’ve ever seen a piece that did this before and… that’s not okay. Translators are co-authors. Their names should be on the covers in big, bold text, right up there alongside the authors whose work they so carefully shepherd.

More author-plus-translator interviews, please!

Woman with a Water Pitcher, and a Man by a Bed

Woman with a Water Pitcher, and a Man by a Bed, ca. 1667–70, Pieter de Hooch

Audiobooks are still somehow underrated. I’ve met many big-time audiobook readers, and I have long known they represent a large and fast-growing fraction of all reading, and yet I still encounter these facts as fresh and surprising every time.

I’m just not much of an audiobook listener myself. If I was only a reader, that would be fine; people are allowed to engage with different media, or not, however they like. However, as a writer, this represents a real dereliction of like, professional duty. A lot of people are experiencing the things I write as audiobooks, but/and I have basically zero experience with them. I have no intuitions. That’s a problem!

Let me share a prediction, even thought it’s slightly over-the-top. I think the trends of the last decade are going to continue basically unperturbed, and in another hundred years, when a person says “book,” it will be assumed that they mean a stream of audio narration. To specify a stream of characters instead, you’ll have to specify: “e-book” or “print book.” Those will still be around, of course! There will be tons. But the balance will have shifted, and most people will read most new books through their ears.

See? I need to understand this better!

The other day I walked to the brewery on the corner with a book in hand, plucked from the top of a tall stack. It was The Book of Merlyn, an odd sort of “missing last chapter” to T. H. White’s The Once and Future King.

The Book of Merlyn

It’s short and strange—a wry, woozy dream. It has nice bits like this:

The Book of Merlyn

And nice bits like this:

The Book of Merlyn

“Can you imagine the feelings of the bolt?”

Paging through it, I found myself less and less certain I’d ever actually read The Once and Future King. Upon reflection, I think my quasi-memories of the book come from a mashup of the Disney adaptation and an old text adventure called Arthur: Quest for Excalibur. And now I think I need to give the original a try.

Hand-drawn animation against a real, physical, miniature backdrop. Trippy and beautiful.

You must read Dan Cohen on the seismic changes happening in university research libraries.

What’s happening here is much more complicated than an imagined zero-sum game between the defenders of books and library futurists. The decline in the use of print books at universities relates to the kinds of books we read for scholarly pursuits rather than pure pleasure, the rise of ebooks and digital articles, and the changing environment of research. And it runs contrary to the experience of public libraries and bookstores, where print continues to thrive.

(I stole that neat blockquote from Alan Jacobs, who wrote a recent newsletter connected to Dan’s piece. What’s the word for that? Grafjacking?)

Andy Matuschak published an essay (gosh, it’s beautifully designed) with a provocative title: Why books don’t work. Both “book” and “work” are meant in a relatively narrow sense; Andy is talking about “explanatory non-fiction [books] which aim to convey detailed knowledge.” And he makes a persuasive case that, if your intention is to deliver information efficiently and durably to a human brain, well, it’s 2019, and we ought to be getting creative.

With his frequent collaborator Michael Nielsen, Andy produced a demo: a document intended to teach the basics of quantum computation. Even if you’re not at all interested in quantum computation, it’s worth peeking at what they invented.

Okay… maybe you have to be at least a little bit interested in quantum computation. This document exists not only in space but also in time: to “read” it fully, you must agree to receive text messages in the future—little pings and prods that will test your recollection of what you read and, as a consequence, etch it more deeply into your brain.

Their demo says of itself:

And so this essay isn’t just a conventional essay, it’s also a new medium, a mnemonic medium which integrates spaced-repetition testing. The medium itself makes memory a choice.

As much as anyone I know, Andy and Michael are keeping alive the version of the Bay Area that is a utopian lab, a place where brilliant people make the choice, again and again, not to cash out or play along, but instead push, and push, and push at the limits of what human minds can achieve with, and around, and through, computers.

I mean, hey… maybe you ARE interested in quantum computation and you just don’t know it yet?

Leisure Time in an Elegant Setting

Leisure Time in an Elegant Setting, 1663–65, Pieter de Hooch

Here in Oakland, it’s a warm, sunny day. I plan to spend it almost entirely indoors, using InDesign. AS IS MY WONT.


June 2019, Oakland

This website uses the typeface Albertus Nova, an update by Toshi Omagari of Berthold Wolpe’s classic, and GT America, designed by Noël Leu with Seb McLauchlan.

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