Week 39, features of a ninja house

Design for "Car à Deux Roues"

Design for "Car à Deux Roues," Brewster & Co., ca. 1870

It’s going to be an early farm day on Sunday, so I’m typing this on Saturday evening, after returning home from dinner down the street, for which our friend Jesse served up pizzas prepared in an Uuni oven, which looks like a classified 1950s spaceship prototype and cooks a terrific pizza in like seventy-five seconds. It’s an impressive machine, tiny and cleverly built, but/and it takes quite a bit of experience to really dial it in. Jesse has dialed it in.

The video game I’ve mentioned in this newsletter before, that I did some writing for—my first ever in that format—has been released!

Neo Cab is available now as part of Apple Arcade, which you can try for free if you have iOS 13. It’s a stylish and subtle story game in which you play as the last human cab driver in a near-future city where the automated megacorp Capra rules all. Every passenger is a different puzzle to solve; I wrote two of them, and I hereby challenge you to play the game and guess out which two!

Besides iOS, Neo Cab is also coming to Mac and PC, as well as Nintendo Switch, on October 3.

Here’s Nintendo’s trailer for the game. I still can’t believe I wrote some dialogue for a NINTENDO GAME!

As this year has gone on, I’ve found myself more and more preoccupied with the question: what does it mean to publish something in the 21st century? We are well and truly in it now. We can’t just be disoriented anymore. Enough clearing of the throat! It’s time to do what this century demands, publish in a way appropriate to its requirements: whatever that is, whatever those are.

(Here’s where I ought to define “publishing,” but unfortunately, I’m not sure I can. The durable production of words and images, maybe? Or, the allocation of space in culture, however small, for something new to arrive and take root. What’s “publishing”? I know it when I see it.)

A large part of the reason this dumb question can feel so open-ended, still, even in 2019, is that the logic of 21st-century publishing has been shaped too much by corporations and general-purpose platforms.

So, for my part, I think the answer, or answers, have to do with specificity.

Every book—to rewind a bit—is, in a sense, designed from scratch. Of course, there are rules and guidelines; there’s art and craft. But, still, every book is purpose-built. No good trade publisher just pastes text into a template and ships it out. Such a thing simply wouldn’t be accepted as competent work.

That will continue to be true for books, but/and the 21st century demands more than (just) books. (I don’t need to tell you that I think books are foundational. If you’ve been following along for any amount of time and I need to tell you that, whew… I just don’t know.)

So what about things that aren’t books?

“Learn to code” was a rallying cry that fell quickly into self-parody, but again, I think the corporations had a hand in that. There was always an implicit “…so you can get a job!” waiting in the second breath.

But “learn to code” doesn’t have to be about getting a job at Google. It can, indeed, be about art and craft and publishing.

For me, personally, “learn to code” has been a decades-long intellectual and emotional engagement. If, instead of coding, I’d spent all those accumulated hours practicing the guitar… I would now be VERY good at the guitar.

But even today, having more-or-less successfully “learned to code,” I wouldn’t pass the first interview at Google. So… what is it I’ve learned to do, exactly? Well: I can make things happen on screens—and not just things pre-packaged, pre-determined, but new things.

Maybe occasionally even things that have never happened on screens before.

And I think this is important for aaalmost any kind of artist in the 21st century. No; let me scale that back. It’s important for any artist who aspires to be a pathbreaker. This is totally optional! There’s plenty of art you can make using genres pre-determined, pre-packaged. You could write a whole series of absolutely tremendous literary horror novels and never learn a thing about code. You could post a series of glitched-out long-exposure photos to Instagram. Obviously.

But for anyone who feels the same itch as me, for whom these questions about the core gesture of publishing feel as urgent, then… I think code might be non-negotiable. I could be wrong! But this is what I think.

Craig Mod’s SMS book project, which I have mentioned here before, feels like an important project in this regard. Briefly: Craig went on a very long walk across Japan, sending one dispatch every day, often with a photo. These went out to whoever wanted them via SMS. Recipients had the opportunity to reply at any time, through the same channel, but importantly, Craig didn’t receive any of those replies during the walk. They were instead held for his review, and not as a stack of chat bubbles a mile high, nor as a spreadsheet or even a web page, but as a book, delivered to his home in Japan. An edition of one, with one reader: Craig.

So the project’s form expresses a set of values, an argument, and then its content is specific and lovely, and what more do you want? Beautiful, distinct, thoughtful content in a form that has something to say… come on! They put stuff like that in museums!

But/and the project was also technically unique. It was one-off software! An SMS distribution system wired up to collect replies and then send them over to a designer who in turn dispatched a finished book to a print-on-demand service!? This was a machine purpose-built for one weird thing. Maybe never to be used again!

And I think it was a really successful act of publishing if we’re talking about the allocation of space in culture. In a sense, it was all ephemeral, very 21st-century indeed; Craig’s messages have already been elbowed aside by fresher communications in all the phones on which they landed. But the experience lingers, the memory of it, and: somewhere in Japan, that one book.

I think publishing is more destabilized than most people realize, which is saying a lot, because most people think publishing is really freaking destabilized. And I think we are overdue figuring it out.

It’s becoming clearer to me—again, I could be wrong—that software is the medium. Simple as that. There is not some dream app waiting. The app is always going to kinda suck, because it’s going to be owned by some corporation and it’s going to be, by necessity, generic; generic in a way not even the most blasé trade publisher would tolerate. So, you have to design the book-that-is-not-a-book yourself, and of course there are rules and guidelines, there’s art and craft, but every book is different, so, just sit down and do the work.

Whew that’s all pretty loose—sufficiently so that I just felt the strong impulse to delete it… but, this is what I’m thinking about. Please do not As you can see, I don’t have any answers. I just feel the question keenly.

What does it mean to publish something in the 21st century?

Design for Hansom Cab

Design for Hansom Cab, Brewster & Co., ca. 1880

Not unrelated:

The internet is edgeless. There’s real beauty to that; there’s also real danger. And if you’re starting any kind of internet or internet-adjacent project in 2019, you gotta be careful about it.

There are all these people starting email newsletters suddenly, and I’m glad! It’s good! That said, I hope some of them have considered ahead of time how their newsletters might end.

Every internet project is sorta by default open-ended, and I don’t think that’s healthy. Like a lot of unhealthy things, it’s not usually chosen. It’s just… the grain of the medium, somehow?

This is one reason I’ve found the metaphor of “seasons,” stolen from irregularly-produced prestige TV, so useful. You can do things one “season” at a time, and define “season” however you like: six weeks, six months, a year. Will there be more seasons? Maybe! Simply by framing work this way, you re-establish some edges, and with them the possibility that, one day, your work might be done. Likewise, you set up a finish line: a moment to feel happy, and accomplished, and proud.

Without seasons, or edges, or finish lines, the only options that remain (I think?) are (a) infinite work forever, or (b) a slow fade into (optionally ashamed) silence.

A few wise souls from the High Era of Blogging actually ended their blogs on purpose, with posts saying, “well, that was great. Goodbye!” Most blogs (including mine!) just slid slowly into quiescence. What a bummer.

Teju Cole said goodbye to Twitter and he never came back. I think about it all the time.

It goes without saying, books figured all of this out a long time ago.


I don’t quite have time to do them justice, but I wanted to mention two books that I picked up this week that have both been doing that electrical tingle thing in my brain (you know what I’m talking about):

The first is a novel called Rule of Capture. I went to one of SF in SF’s great events last Sunday night, lured across San Francisco Bay because my friend Hannu Rajaniemi was set to speak. The other featured author, Christopher Brown, was new to me, so I picked up one of his novels a few days before the event. Rule of Capture is a near-future legal thriller, sort of William Gibson meets John Grisham; you can see why this appeals to me.

At the event, Christopher revealed the kernel of the novel’s genesis. On the side of the highway in Texas, where he lives, looking up at a garish billboard advertising a lawyer’s services, he wondered: “Who are the billboard lawyers in dystopia?”

The other book that’s been keeping me up is Echo and Reverb: Fabricating Space in Popular Music Recording 1900-1960 by Peter Doyle. This book is, to me, just the right amount of nerdy: a detailed investigation into how and why the sense of space has been simulated in recorded music.

I was primed for Echo and Reverb by another book, which I read a couple of weeks ago, called Capturing Sound by Mark Katz. This book is notable for many things, not least of which are its renderings of early recording studios, in which bands play for giant hungry phonograph horns, the volume requirements so severe that different instruments must be moved closer to the horn at different times, so their players are seated on wheeled platforms, and there is a particular kind of studio assistant who must, with perfect timing, wheel them up to the horn.

Has that era of recording ever been recreated on film? It could be such a delight; totally slapstick.

The main thing for me, with books like these, is the reminder, over and over again, that art and ideas don’t exist independently of tools and techniques, waiting to be communicated in some transparent, crystalline way. Art and ideas are created by tools and techniques. The tools and techniques call them forth.

At that SF in SF event the other night, Hannu said something fascinating about Finnish, explaining that the language makes it easy to invent new words. English, with its huge vocabulary, encourages you to hunt for just the right word; Finnish, Hannu says, encourages you to just… make a fresh one!

Isn’t that interesting? Finnish feels like it must be a language friendly to fantasy and science fiction.

Nobody writes a gnomic paragraph-size brain-bomb better than M. John Harrison. I mean, nobody writes most things better than M. John Harrison. But the gnomic paragraph is one of his specialties.

Here’s the knack.

Features of a ninja house:

nightingale floors that are intentionally designed to make a chirping sound when walked upon, alerting occupants of any intruders.

Design for Reverse Body Hansom Cab

Design for Reverse Body Hansom Cab, Brewster & Co., ca. 1850–74

That’s it! I gotta go to bed!


September 2019, Oakland

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