This is an archived newsletter from Robin Sloan.

Week 50, execution dependent


Beatrice, Odilon Redon, 1897, printed by Auguste Clot

I woke up late this morning, because we stayed up late last night, finishing a TV miniseries about spies. I feel a bit out of step now; I really prefer my Extremely Early Sunday rhythm, up before six, plenty of time to compile and compose. And drink coffee. Lots of coffee.

Yesterday, over brunch, Kathryn and I both agreed that, of all comestible substances, coffee is the last we’d ever give up.

I’m floored by the work of Odilon Redon, which provides the art for this edition. He’s one of those artists who seems unstuck in time. If I saw some of these images in someone’s Etsy store, circa 2020, I wouldn’t bat an eye. Don’t miss the other two in this edition; they’re all very different and, wow. Just wow!

We’re coming to the end of the Year of the Meteor now; after this, there will be three more editions, and then, that’s it!

I promise to reveal, before it’s over, why this project was called the Year of the Meteor in the first place.

It’s interesting for me to consider how this newsletter has changed over the course of the year—become more of a thing-unto-itself, less of a simple “wot I did.” I’m not dismayed by the evolution; it’s basic media physics that anything you publish repeatedly, on a schedule, will take on a life of its own.

A final reminder: there’s a new zine available, the last of the year, and of this series. Orders will close in a few days, and then I’ll print them up and mail them out. Picture me, carrying a thousand zines to the post office in an enormous sack: the nerdiest Santa.

Here’s a reminder that Rudyard Kipling wrote exactly two (2) sci-fi stories, both featuring the Aerial Board of Control, a shadowy world government rooted in the power of flight, which was, of course, brand new when he wrote the stories.

I love digging in the public domain crates, and I’ve long thought I would eventually dust something off for a grand retelling, either a marquee character like Robin Hood or something more obscure like the Aerial Board of Control.

The appeal of Robin Hood (or Frankenstein, or Journey to the West, or the Ramayana) is clear: these are stories still present in popular consciousness. It’s not that they have “fandoms,” exactly; more that they occupy neurons in many, many brains, which makes their re-introduction smoother, in an almost literally physical sense.

What, though, is the status of public domain properties that have truly been forgotten? Is there really any reason to dust them off? One good reason would be personal devotion, of course: if you, presumptive author or filmmaker, are obsessed with Fame and Fortune Weekly, then that obsession will be palpable in your final product, and that counts for a lot, even if no constituency remains for The Cutest Boy on Wall Street.

And the idiomatic “digging in the crates” refers to crates of records, and the model there isn’t only a DJ finding a long-sought favorite: it’s also that DJ flipping by chance to a record they’ve never heard—a record with a truly terrible jacket—then turning it over, cocking an eyebrow, saying, “eh, why not?” And then that records provides the sample that unlocks the song that makes the DJ famous, etc., etc.—you know how it goes!

The deeply obscure has its uses, too.

Honestly, I think one of the many rationales behind public domain adaptation is the rationale behind any adaptation: it’s a weapon wielded against the terror of the blank page. Beginning a new project, absolutely anything is possible, and… that’s horrible!! So, any device that narrows the scope, any vessel that offers boundaries for your imagination, is a gift. I mean, that’s all genre is: “I want to make one of THOSE” rather than “I want to make… something??”

Thus, a public domain property can work as a micro-genre: Robin Hood Retelling; Frankenstein But Now; Something Cool With the Ramayana.

I probably won’t do anything with the Aerial Board of Control. Then again… just look at this illustration:

With the Night Mail illustration

(That’s by the great pulp-ish illustrator Frank X. Leyendecker, reproduced freely here because… it’s in the public domain!)

This interview with Guillermo del Toro was so so so so interesting. I felt like my sense of what movies are was being reconfigured, live, as I read it:

I think film, as a medium, sometimes succeeds below the radar of people’s perception. The four legs of a movie, visually, to me are: cinematography, set design, wardrobe design, and camera moves.

I mean! Of course they are!

Sometimes what you take away from an essay is just one line, a reference to something else entirely, and if you ask me, that counts as success. From this essay about the video game genre of the “dating simulator,” I took this throwaway reference:

The literary critic Catherine Gallagher has argued that romance novels can function as low-stakes “training” arenas for real life.

That led me on a hunt for Gallagher’s work, which brought me to this paper—a PDF link, there—and, within, Gallagher’s quotation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

It is laxly said that during sleep we take our dreams for realities, but this is irreconcilable with the nature of sleep, which consists in a suspension of the voluntary and, therefore, of the comparative power. […] Our state while we are dreaming differs from that in which we are in the perusal of a deeply interesting novel in the degree rather than in the kind.

So, there it is again: novel as dream!

I’m still making my way through the paper, and also looking—so far, unsuccessfully—for Gallagher’s work on novel-as-social-training that kicked off this chain of curiosity.

Here’s a recording of a panel in which four very smart people talk about visualizing high-dimensional space—a crucial tool in physics, statistics, and machine learning, among many other domains. Bookmarking the video, I wrote:

This is probably a new liberal art.

I enjoyed Dan Cohen’s podcast with Ennio Mingolla, who assesses current research into visual perception—his field—like this:

We’re somewhere in the stage of where chemistry was in the 10th or 11th century. We’re doing alchemy, if anything—as opposed to the chemistry of vision. We literally don’t have a periodic table. We don’t know what the fundamental units are.

I was toggling through randomized creations from this drawing machine, just click-click-click, slot machine-style, and I came across one that I really love!

Replying to my note about Friedrich Hayek and markets as sensors, an internet friend sent over a link to an anthropology paper that features a particular public banker in Egypt. It is about, among other things, how this banker is really, really good at his job.

Here’s the paper’s author, Julia Elyachar, introducing Mr. Amir—totally novelistic:

I found my way to Mr. Amir by accident. I expected nothing much from the interview, but it turned out to be a crucial part of my fieldwork. Mr. Amir had a college degree and spoke excellent modern standard Arabic—better than the bankers I worked with in USAID-funded programs who had been educated in French and English schools in Cairo. Nor did he sprinkle English phrases into his Arabic like they did in an interview situation—even when talking about banks or business. Rather, he might switch to a more “popular” (sha’bi) level of Cairene Arabic instead. Mr. Amir conducted his financial business in the flow of conversation, which was punctuated, in turn, by a flow of cigarettes, phone calls, and streams of people coming and going, offering coffee and water, and asking for help. He worked three landlines on his sprawling desk without losing concentration or looking harassed. Doors opened and closed; telephones rang and were answered; requests were considered and addressed; cigarettes were passed across the room and lit. Through these communicative channels, finance flowed—a kind of finance that was neither abstract nor flattening (Simmel 1978). Although Mr. Amir’s way of gathering, filtering, and processing information could appear chaotic, he had little problem assessing risk or calculating value. His lending unit was profitable and had an excellent track record. His strongest lending technique and mode of risk assessment, he said, was his sense (hiss) of the market, which he had honed over the years.

So really, this paper is a profile of excellence, and it cuts helpfully against the stereotype of the plodding, insensate public sector.

In a real curveball, reading about Mr. Amir lit up an old memory from my years working at Current TV, the small (now defunct) network based in San Francisco. One of the network’s top executives—a TV veteran—would often dismiss programming ideas by saying they were “execution dependent.” This is film and TV jargon; John August explains it here:

“Execution dependent” means that the best version of the movie is a hit, while a mediocre incarnation is worth vastly less.

Now, as John advises, the Current TV executive’s invocation of “execution dependent” might have simply been a way of deflecting: a way of saying “I don’t like this idea” with some padding.

Even so, it still strikes me, years later, as the strangest remark. Everything great is execution dependent! A compelling TV show, a magnetic newsletter, an inspiring public institution: at the core of each is a person, or a whole gang of people, committed to doing something well.

There’s something in the nature of big systems that wants to reach beyond this, to McDonald’s-ify the process, so that any numb hand slapping at the buttons will produce good (or good enough) results. And I guess you can do that, sometimes. But can those results ever be great in the absence of a person, or people, who really care?

Origins: When Life Was Awakening in the Depths of Obscure Matter

Origins: When Life Was Awakening in the Depths of Obscure Matter, Odilon Redon, 1883, printed by Lemercier & Cie.

At a small, strange tech gathering a while back, I heard someone say:

Technology has given everyone a superpower—to say what they want and have millions of people hear it.

But this isn’t right; “technology” didn’t do it. If you were building a social network, or any kind of internet service, in the early 2010s, it was very clear that connecting millions of people in realtime was not what “technology” wanted to do. These demands were unnatural, unreasonable; they choked networks and killed databases. What produced this “superpower” (I will not rest until every word from the original statement has been encased in scare quotes) was specific companies designing and implementing specific systems. It was difficult work, and it continues to this day.

So, it’s not reasonable to pin this one on “technology.” The metal resisted, was bent into shape. And that might lead you to ask: by who? What constituency, what material, did want this to work?

I would lightly suggest that the answer might be: capital :)

Look at this trembling, minimalist pen plotter made from spare parts. There’s a strong whiff of Nintendo’s “lateral thinking with withered technology” here.

This short video from @deezumaki on TikTok is extremely good media criticism.

Here’s a genuinely moving memorial to a lost project from the archmage.

Tim Maughan says this might be the perfect techno record and I don’t know anything about techno records, but I do like superlative claims! Spotify recently reported to me that Tim’s collection of tracks to accompany his novel Infinite Detail, the only good book playlist ever made up a large chunk of my total listening this year.

D.W. Winnicott: “It is a joy to be hidden, but a disaster not to be found.”

The Klim Type Foundry has just released Söhne, a new interpretation of Akzidenz-Grotesk, which is a typeface you know, even if you don’t realize you do: it was the most direct inspiration for Helvetica.

A whole bunch of a's

Kris Sowersby’s design notes for the typeface are INCREDIBLY good: erudite and organic, critic’s essay and artist’s diary, all at once.

Included are observations like this one, which honestly hit me so hard I made a little “oof” sound:

Helvetica’s power lies in its obviously designed nature. It feels like it was made for the maturing profession of graphic design and corporate identity. I imagine designers in the 1960s connected immediately and intuitively with it. It represents the ascendency of graphic design over book typography, which was the de-facto standard bearer for typographic standards and discourse.

Even the type specimen itself offers a neat, bullet-pointed history. What a cool presentation.


Orpheus, Odilon Redon, ca. 1903-1910


December 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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