This is an archived newsletter from Robin Sloan. You, too, can receive these! They go out every Sunday.

Week 48, doesn't have a cat

Chess set, ca. 1885

Chess set, ca. 1885, Hungary

I was up VERY early this morning, so I just threw a bunch of stuff in here while I sipped my coffee in the darkness, resulting in a chunky, bloggy sort of newsletter. Feel free to skip around and find something you like.

From the edges

There’s a kind of free market fan who cites, as one of their great lodestars, Friedrich Hayek, the economist who imagined a market as a network of sensors, all its participants out in the world, gathering information from the edges. Really good information: realtime, textured, context-specific. Much better information than you’d ever get in the central planning office.

Acknowledging that many markets do not rise to Hayek’s standard—the market for complex weapons systems, for example, does not transport information very effectively—I happen to agree that a bustling, multifarious market is one of the world’s great information-processing machines. Markets can be healthy and exciting, full of possibility. They can help people begin things; what could be better?

But here’s what’s strange to me:

Those same Hayekians—who so prize information from the edges—are generally happy to accept the rote political alignment that leaves them enthusiasts of financial markets but skeptics of social liberation movements.

EVEN THOUGH those movements for liberation are formulated and led by people who, in so many cases, are out at the edges of human experience, reporting back.

What gives? Maybe the Hayekian believes that only a price, in dollars or yen, can convey the textured information they care about so deeply (a position that can’t actually be defended); or maybe it’s not really about information. Perhaps Hayek simply provides a convenient cover story for a deeper set of beliefs, which can perhaps be summarized as: give me my money.

If true: what a bummer! Because that broader, “Hayek-plus” viewpoint is an exciting and useful one. When I encounter writers and/or activists making claims and/or demands that seem strange to me—when I feel the burn of friction rising: “oh, give me a break…”—I often return to it.

If you believe that a customer buying apples in a grocery store in Milwaukee is a crucial sensor node, then I think you MUST agree that the same person—who, by the way, uses a wheelchair—is sensing just as crucially when they ask for better ramps in the parking lot. And the driver of the apple delivery truck, when he tells you he’s not being paid enough to live. And the apple orchard’s owner, when she explains her experience of gender dysphoria.

In so many ways, Hayek comes down to “believe people.”

Why is that so hard?

The caption detailing this statue of a Chinese star god is wonderful. “This dynamic figure shows the god in the act of adding the final dot to the Big Dipper constellation over which he presides…”

Lockout tags as objects of power. Who ever told you there aren’t magic spells in this real world of ours? They were wrong.

As you know, I will read an unlimited number of reflections on the art and craft of translation. Here is one from Fabio Bortoletti, who translated the video game Neo Cab (yep, that one!) into Italian, in which he addresses the specific challenge of using gender-neutral pronouns in a language… that doesn’t have… gender-neutral pronouns. Fascinating and inspiring.

Have you been curious about the state of the art in tunnel-boring machines? Me neither, but it turns out we both should have been!

Chess set, X

Chess set, early 19th century, India

Look at this terrific Riso booklet!

It was produced using a new software package called p5.riso, which, by its cryptic name, declares itself: an extension of the Processing programming language to aid in the production of Risograph prints.

So, obviously, this is a bullseye for me.

As soon as I saw the package, I made a copy and started dorking around, and soon after submitted a small upgrade of my own. I haven’t used it for a proper project yet; I’d like to do so in 2020.

Processing was an important waypoint for me. It’s a whole programming environment, designed primarily but not exclusively for graphics, with a shallow learning curve but a high technical and artistic ceiling. In other words: it’s easy to start and there’s no reason to stop.

I found Processing in the 2000s, when I was working at a small cable TV network, and it ended up turning my life in an interesting direction. During the 2008 election, a few colleagues of mine and I noticed that a nascent service called Twitter had become the de facto “backchannel” for the primary debates. This seemed interesting, and we wanted to pitch a production in which this live backchannel would be filtered, curated, and presented live on TV; it could be our low-budget channel’s twist on debate coverage. To make the case, we needed a mockup, and to make a mockup, I used Processing. I rendered the text of the tweets over a video file like wisps of thought that rose up from the bottom of the screen, broke apart and disappeared.

We got the greenlight, and the resulting productions constituted the first-ever display of tweets live on TV. (I am tempted to toss in a knowing “for better… and for worse?” here, but really, at the time, and the way we were doing it—the tweets were curated by human editors—I think it was fully for the better. It was a different time; a different Twitter.)

Here’s me during one of the broadcasts; look at those JEANS ;)

Portrait of the artist with a headset

More than ten years later, I still use Processing as a sketchbook all the time! Since the project’s start in—I had to go look this up—2001, it has been a paragon of not just open-source but… open everything. Aggressively accessible; extremely well-documented; overflowing with examples. Honestly, a triumph.

Beowulf and “the worth of defeated valor”—a newsletter from the Night Heron:

yes, you may be up against a monster that creeps in the night and eats people, you may be up against a dragon far stronger than you, you may be up against the bottomless pit of student debt and climate change anxiety, you may be up against whatever it is you’re up against… and truth be told, you may not overcome it, but the very attempt to overcome it is admirable beyond words. it’s the whole point of life.

This is simple and cute and fun: a French speaker pronounces the names of French luxury brands.

This video presentation of a new technique for rendering hyper-realistic baked goods (!) is wondrous but/and also gave me strong “humans do such weird things” vibes.

Chess set, ca. 1830

Chess set, ca. 1830, Italy

This week I attempted to watch the first episode of a very poorly written sci-fi show. I didn’t know it was poorly written when I started, of course; but immediately: oof. The dialogue was just leaden. The show’s other ingredients are fine: good actors, great production design, convincing visual effects. It made me feel melancholy, that the rest of the production had been let down in this way, and for no reason. It’s not like there’s a shortage of good TV writers out there!

Later in the day, I found myself wondering: has anyone ever tried a full-on sci-fi production in the style of Mike Leigh?

He is the English filmmaker who, for many (most? all?) of his productions, starts with a loose premise but no script. Instead, he gathers a cast of actors and leads them in a series of improvisatory (improv… isational?) sessions, first on their own and then in larger combinations. This isn’t an aimless exercise: in addition to the organic character development that’s happening, there is also a kind of collaborative writing process, because Leigh is diligently recording specific things the actors say—lines and moments that emerge in those open-ended encounters. These notes get filtered and organized, combined and massaged, and so, finally, the on-camera production shoots with a script—a script made of crystallized improvisation.

Imagine all that in the context of science fiction! Your actors improvise in the angled tunnels of a lovingly-crafted starship set. From that work, you get deep naturalism, the grain of real life. Then, the filtering and structuring brings the sci-fi depth, makes it all cohere. Gosh, it could be great. (I guarantee you that this show I tried to watch would have been better off with this avant-garde process than whatever standard writers room scaffolding they used.)

Once, in a moment that has become lore, Mike Leigh sent an actor out grocery shopping as her character. So this actor is making her circuit of the store—a real store!—when Leigh appears in the aisle—he’s been watching—and jabs a finger down into her cart, which contains, among other things, a tin of cat food. He hisses: “Alison! Your character doesn’t have a cat!”

The note I appended to this brief video captured in Hong Kong by Neo Cab Patrick was: this is what cyberpunk always wanted to be

I deeply appreciate counterfactual thinking: the rigorous consideration of events that didn’t happen. In addition to its nerdy and/or useful dimensions, I think it’s an important moral tool. This podcast asks “was the Protestant Reformation inevitable?” and plays out the possibilities with erudition and grace. It will not surprise you to learn that the printing press is perhaps the crucial consideration. (And, yes: I listened to a whole podcast. I can’t believe it either!!)

In this crisp presentation, Yeuda Ben-Atar turns random notes into music. It’s a neat tricky, but/and I think his point is profound, and applies not only to music but to most of art, and things beyond art.

“Repetition legitimizes,” he says. Repetition implies design and intention. Repetition insists it wasn’t a mistake. Repetition implicates the listener or viewer or reader: “Oh, this must be a thing,” they say. “Well, okay… what kind of thing is it?”

(Ben-Atar’s presentation is also worth watching simply because it’s fun to see someone so good at a piece of software.)

From the incomparable Saeed Jones, an observation:

Our friends know our joy when they see it. Often, I think they recognize it before we do.

THIS DOES NOT CONTINUE THE E-BOOK THING—but it doesn’t… not continue the e-book thing, either…

In the 2000s, there was a digital dream of a universal library of media. What the 2010s delivered wasn’t that perfect summation of all media ever but instead a kind of flickering probability field. Years ago, I made a Twitter account called @queuenoodle (I’m still proud of that name!) that monitored one of Netflix’s APIs to alert you when only a few days remained to watch a random old movie before its license ran out. Today, that feels antique: who even watches the random old movies on Netflix anymore? It is a signature experience of media in the 2010s to think of a mildly obscure movie and discover that it’s only available as a physical disc from Amazon.

Superficially, held up against the dream of the 2000s, this feels like a bummer.

Is it entirely, though?

I subscribe to the streaming service called Mubi, which shows thirty fully obscure movies at a time, a new one cycling in each day, often in themed blocks. (To give you a sense of Mubi’s character, one of the current blocks is titled “Isabelle Huppert: Performance as Rebirth.” Another one: “What is an auteur?”) At the very bottom of the list, you see the films about to exit the service, with three days, two days, one day remaining.

So, it’s not a library at all; instead, it’s a neverending film festival. A virtual arthouse theater with thirty screens.

And it’s great!! Mubi seems, therefore, to ask: who ever said you ought to have a vast library at your fingertips? Why did you even think that’s what you wanted? Per our previous discussion of e-books and libraries: Mubi is all about the tyranny of waiting, and not getting exactly what you want. It makes those constraints productive rather than corrosive.

I don’t know. We enter 2020 with a non-universal non-library of media; it’s something unanticipated, something that seems, to me, both bummer and not. It’s complicated!

Chess set, ca. 1830

Chess set, ca. 1830, Germany


November 2019, Oakland

Here, at the bottom of the page, I shall say again: the newsletter is the best way to keep up with new offerings.

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.

Have a question? Spot a typo? Your story didn’t arrive? Email

hony soyt qui mal pence