Week 36, so... outer space is one solution


Shoes, ca. 1845–65, American

On Wednesday, I drove from Oakland to Fresno and back; a courier mission. I’ve made the trip many times; often it’s by train, but when I drive, the route takes me through wind farms and across aqueducts, part of the system that makes agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley possible. The aqueducts are lovely; not spectacular, but so very clearly ENGINEERED: water dark and still in broad beds of concrete.

Following this route, you exit I-5 onto a very long, very straight farm road, immediately cross a bridge over an aqueduct, and then pass a large, fenced-in lot where a whole carnival sits folded up in storage: the ticket booth, the tilt-a-whirl, the refreshment stand with its sign promising COLD DRINKS to the empty road.

One peril of an ongoing project like this newsletter is that it presumes everybody knows exactly what’s going on, even though new people are signing up all the time.

So, a précis. I started my first email newsletter way back in 2009, following the publication of my novella Annabel Scheme through Kickstarter. There are some people reading this message who have been following along ever since! Incredible!

Since then, I’ve published two novels, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough, along with a collection of odd-shaped internet projects. I chronicled all that work using the same newsletter, which was roughly seasonal. Or maybe “migratory” is a better word; it showed up at odd times, disappeared for long stretches.

This weekly newsletter is a totally new thing this year. It started in mid-January and it will continue through December, at which point, it will end. Its archive will be deleted—edited down into a little book, or something like a book—and then, in 2020, I’ll do something different. (I have ideas.)

That’s it! That’s what we’re doing here!

The Transformers: The Movie, the cinematic extension of the cartoon released in 1986, was probably the most important cultural input of my young life. Its villain was Unicron, a robot who transformed not into a truck or a plane but A PLANET. And, he consumed other (non-transforming) planets. It was pretty intense!

Now, after thirty years, they’re finally making a Unicron toy, and it looks very credible… but even I cannot bring myself to pay $500 for a Transformer.

This week, Kathryn and I will send the fourth Fat Gold shipment of the year. That will make eight total since we started—two full seasons!

We talked a little about the milestone in our latest Field Report—and also shared some images most blesséd from Fat Gold subscribers’ kitchens.

This album review was so well-written it sent me immediately over to Spotify to listen, and although I have to report that I did NOT like the album as much as I liked the review, I’m still glad I gave it a try.

The review’s mention of producer Jack Antonoff also sent me back to his band’s NPR Tiny Desk concert, which I mentioned in an email about a year ago. It’s still one of my favorite email recommendations I’ve ever sent!

Time for some economics

Last week, I said I was probably going to listen to all of the video presentations from this recent academic convening and… I did!! I ripped the audio from a couple of them for my Fresno loop. One was so-so, but the other was a banger: Mark Blyth’s A Brief History of How We Got Here and Why. It’s erudite and accessible and funny and, honestly, this economic timeline ought to be considered a basic foundation for like, informed voting.

There’s more I want to say, but really, you ought to just watch the presentation sometime this week, and then any random comments of mine will have some context. If you find yourself initially intimidated and/or bored by the material, just stick with it; give your brain a chance to sync up with the signature cadence of academic presentation!

And then, when Blyth gets into the 1970s, the top of your skull will blow off.

There’s a rhetorical habit that is very prevalent and very bad. It involves: finding a ridiculous version of an argument you oppose, possibly by using Twitter’s search function; pointing to it; saying, “See! Look at these assholes!”

This is so bad it’s actually self-indicting, by which I mean, a person who indulges in this kind of straw-man “weirdo safari” is telling you very clearly that they are not worth your time. The instant you detect the habit, you should just close the tab.

There might—might!—be an exception in the case of an idea that truly has no serious defenders. But in that case, as a writer, you really ought to ask: why am I spending my time on this? Does everything obvious need to be litigated? Wouldn’t it be more concise and convincing simply to say, “The idea has no serious defenders”?

Now I’m laughing, imagining the great new op-ed column by Robin Sloan in which, every week, it’s just a headline like, “Why the United States Cannot Purchase Greenland,” and then the text is:

The idea has no serious defenders.

Followed by white space.

It would be glorious!


Shoes, ca. 1750–69, British

In a documentary about the origins of German “krautrock,” a musician is explaining how his band’s style emerged in the 1950s:

We tried very hard not to be Anglophonic, and not to be German. So… outer space is one solution?

I enjoyed the comic book mini-series Spider-Man: Life Story. The premise is simple: Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider in the 1960s… and then ages normally rather than being suspended in weird, slow superhero time. Over six issues, the series goes decade by decade; the final issue is set in the 2010s, and Peter is an old man.

I’m not sure the series would be interesting—or even legible??—to someone with no knowledge of the weird Spider-Man mythos that has accrued over the years. But, knowing just a bit of it, I appreciated Life Story, in part because I could never pin down quite what it was. Reboot? Retelling? Alternate timeline, elseworld? I still don’t know!

The covers are great; very graphic and design-y:

Spider-Man: Life Story

I read the comics digitally on Comixology. I still don’t know if I actually like that platform or not, but I do seem to read a lot of comics there, so!

The staff at Chronicle Books in San Francisco are huge amazing nerds, so, to celebrate editorial assistant Elizabeth Lazowski’s birthday—she is a fan of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore—they turned the office into a meeting place of the Unbroken Spine:

Chronicle Books #1

Chronicle Books #2

Chronicle Books #3

Happy birthday, Elizabeth!

There’s this odd little world of YouTube accounts that operate as crate-diggers and curators, selecting and digitizing highly niche material that’s on the verge of being forgotten and/or lost.

One great example is the Saturn Archive which, like many of these accounts, is appealingly cryptic. Who IS this person? What is the organizing principle of their collection? Paging through the videos, you begin to get a sense of it, but there’s certainly no mission statement.

Another, slightly less cryptic example is Alan Miller, who just… plays old records into YouTube??

Cross-reference these accounts with Kyle Chayka’s recent note on digital curation. What I’d add to Kyle’s argument is that almost all of the effort around digital curation, human and algorithmic alike, is focused on making sense of NEW material, but it’s just as important to take seriously the responsibility, and opportunity, of curating and presenting material from the past. The Saturn Archive is doing this work; it’s valuable and impressive.

William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops is an amazing piece of music. Here’s the backstory:

When going through his archives in 2001, he decided to digitize [his] decades-old [tape] loops to preserve them. He started a loop on his digital recorder and left it running, and when he returned a short while later, he noticed that the tape was gradually crumbling as it played. The fine coating of magnetized metal was slivering off, and the music was decaying slightly with each pass through the spindle. Astonished, Basinski repeated the process with other loops and obtained similar results.

I first encountered The Disintegration Loops in this performance showcased on NPR, and no other version, including Basinski’s original, has ever struck me quite the same way. The orchestra is playing a transcribed version of the degraded and manipulated source material; I’m just realizing, as I type this, that it’s totally a flip-flop.

You can play the piece, which lasts about forty minutes, down at the bottom of the page; look for “William Basinski (orch. Moston): The Disintegration Loops, dlp 1.1.” It’s very, very beautiful, and I highly recommend it.



Moccasins, ca. 1850, Huron

Midway through this one, I realized I had way too much I wanted to include. Well, I’ll save some of it for future dispatches; and some of it, I’ll just forget about.

Thanks, as always, for following along!


P.S. From the great and weird Dr. Stone on Crunchyroll:

Yep, that sounds about right

August 2019, Oakland

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