This is an archived newsletter from Robin Sloan.

Week 42, helpful messages between practical, determined people

The old closes and streets of Glasgow

The old closes and streets of Glasgow, Thomas Annan, 1868

I’ve been in San Francisco a lot lately. Last weekend, I gave a talk at a small, nerdy conference—in fact, I talked about that AI fantasy story project from a few months ago—and a few days before that, I attended a reading at the American Bookbinders Museum (an underrated gem) and just last night, there was a party on Folsom Street to mark the launch (on all platforms, including, I think, smart rice cookers) of Neo Cab.

I’ve now become one of those people who gawks at every corner: THIS didn’t used to be here! Oh, wow, THAT’S finally finished. What are they building over THERE? The city’s transformation has been underway for a while now but whew it is just not slowing down.

(You’d think you could find a place to eat after 10 p.m.)

I think if you follow no other links in this edition, you should follow this one. I’m not even 100% sure what we’re looking at here, other than: it’s Japan, after the typhoon; it’s boars; it’s beautiful.

I type the phrase “ah, life!” a lot—I was about to type it there—because I feel the sentiment “ah, life!” a lot. This week I read a book that introduced me to a Japanese phrase, mono no aware, which can be translated literally as “the ahhh-ness of things.”

The olive harvest is almost here, so our work with Fat Gold is ramping up. Increasingly, I’ve come to believe two related things:

  1. More people should start small businesses, especially businesses that depend, to some degree, on moving real objects through space. Having done this olive oil thing with Kathryn for a few years now, I just feel like I understand the world better—the way material flows through an economy, the choreography of it all, the friction, the thrill.

  2. A small business is a canvas: a way to be creative, and make all sorts of interesting decisions in many different domains, and act on your values—all with, I think, a bit more “bite” than art.

I mean: I like art! But I’ve found real satisfaction in this work, too, and I think a lot of people would—people who maybe don’t realize it; who got channeled early into things like law or science or tech. There’s a “full-spectrum-ness” to a small business that’s very satisfying; a real sense, as with books, of authorship.

This artist custom-paints Transformers toys to have the characteristic cel-shaded look of the original cartoon:

Cel shaded Transformers toys

That image isn’t edited or post-processed; the stylized glint is 100%… well, I was going to say trompe l’oeil, but it’s really reverse trompe l’oeil, isn’t it?—a layer of paint intended to pull a real 3D object back into flatness.

Doesn’t this sort of break your brain??

Cel shaded Transformers toys

I think these might be flip-flops but honestly I’m not sure!

News from the Republic


L.M. Sacasas lives on the back side of the hill in a very old house where a conclave of esoteric scholars occasionally gathers: historians, philosophers, philologists, at least one private detective. They come to the island on the ferry, traveling in twos and threes, whispering to each other in a dead language.

His latest newsletter was a treasure trove—each substantial section spring-loaded with ideas and implications. If the structure seems a bit dense at first: ease into it. Let your eyes, and mind, hop around. There’s good stuff waiting here.

I do know this line of thought was brought to you by the spirit of Walker Percy, who many years ago wrote, “What does a man do when he finds himself living after an age has ended and he can no longer understand himself because the theories of man of the former age no longer work and the theories of the new age are not yet known, for not even the name of the new age is known, and so everything is upside down, people feeling bad when they should feel good, good when they should feel bad? …. What is he then? He has not the faintest idea. Entered as he is into a new age, he is like a child who sees everything in his new world, names everything, knows everything except himself.”


Our small seaside town has a bookstore, of course: a satellite branch of the great Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas. Here, in a recent newsletter, a catalog of delights:

Customers who are so excited about the fancy art book they special ordered that they take it out of the shrink wrap right there and open it up on the counter to show us.

When I'm back in the office putting orders together and I can hear Chris and Nikita cracking each other up as they unpack boxes.

When I'm handselling and I offer a customer four choices and they buy all four.

Honestly, just handselling at all.

It goes on:

Unbeknownst to each other, two people are reading the Wheel of Time series at the same time. They both special order a book in advance, so they pick one up and order the next one right there like someone really strategizing at Red Lobster’s Endless Shrimp. They were neck and neck for a while but now Rob is pulling ahead. Last time Rob was in, picking up book 15 or something, he pulled a sonogram out of his wallet to show me, beaming with pride.

The old closes and streets of Glasgow

The old closes and streets of Glasgow, Thomas Annan, 1868

In the left sidebar here, click drawings, then hallucinating the cloud. Terrific. Like David McCullough on a rainy day.

This is an incredible thread featuring some gorgeous, evocative rubbings of the famous Trajan column that have apparently never appeared online before.

Bad-ass 1930s librarians on horseback.

I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a better invented compound word than the one in this poem by Anne Waldman:

I was living in San Francisco
My heart was in Manhattan
It made no sense, no reference point
Hearing the sad horns at night,
fragile evocations of female stuff
The 3 tones (the last most resonant)
were like warnings, haiku-muezzins at dawn
The call came in the afternoon
"Frank, is that really you?"

Fog horns as haiku-muezzins: think of everything you have to know to appreciate that construction; a tight twist of history and culture. And it’s fun to say! Haiku-muezzins. Terrific.

M. John Harrison, on what to do:

Try to understand the science. Try to tell the truth. Try to find a medium in which to tell the truth. Try to extend the envelope in which you will be permitted to tell the truth. Prophecy is over. Persuasion is over. Action is the last thing left. Rebellion is the last thing left. Stay steady in the face of it all. Do what you can. Write that. Record that. Try to pass helpful messages between practical, determined people.

The old closes and streets of Glasgow

The old closes and streets of Glasgow, Thomas Annan, 1868

Aren’t these images—from 1868!!—amazing? This was early photography executed in tough conditions, so the exposures must have been very long; as a result, the buildings show up razor-sharp, but the people blur. It’s all a bit ghostly.

They make me think of Alexey Titarenko’s project, more than a hundred years later: City of Shadows.

Did you know I’ve been building my own digital camera (!) in the lab? It’s a very particular kind of camera, inspired by a very particular photographer: someone you’ve heard of, guaranteed. I’ll write up the project when it’s finished—and, of course, share images.

This was something I started about four years ago (gah) then abandoned when I hit a technical wall. Earlier this year, a new component offered a way around (over? through?) that wall, so I dusted off the code and the 3D model, and now I’ve almost got it working the way I always imagined.


October 2019, Oakland

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