Week 51, an empire-spanning search

Twisted acanthus leaf frame

Twisted acanthus leaf frame, late 16th century, Italy

All through November, I kept looking around and wondering, “is this winter?”

I forgot that, in California, if you need to ask: it’s not.

Now the rain has come, and stayed, and it is, without question, winter.

A reminder:

My annual reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one of the great Christmas ghost stories, will happen on New Year’s Day, starting at 10 a.m. PT / 1 p.m. ET / 6 p.m. GMT. I’ll read it mostly straight through, with a few breaks (for my benefit and yours). The live stream will be here, so make a note of that link, or save this email.

There’s no getting around it: I have always been preoccupied with media. Where does an “always” really begin, though? What is its deepest root? I’m not sure. It has a lot to do with the computer my parents set up in our basement in the late 80s—a Mac Plus, one of those beige boxes with a monochrome screen, a portal to capability.

When I was in elementary school, my neighbor Steve and I used that Mac to print out, with my mom’s help, a magazine called S ‘n’ R. That’s “Steve and Robin,” of course. It had comics and mazes and I think that’s about all.

In college, I was an economics major, and I spent a semester in Bangladesh with my friend Dan. Alongside our research project, Dan and I also published a website, produced on my orange clamshell iBook, hosted on Michigan State’s server, chronicling our experiences there. We called it the Dhaka Daily; it was not daily. And, I had approximately one thousand times more fun—derived one thousand times more satisfaction from—producing that website than doing the economics research. I thought about it constantly, unlike the research, which I was happy to ignore.

In a lot of ways, this is my origin story, because I was, thank goodness, at least wise enough then to heed that strong, clear message from deep in myself. When I returned to East Lansing for my final year of college, I changed tracks, swerved hard toward journalism, or really, as it turned out, internet media.

It says something—too much, maybe—that even the olive oil company I run with Kathryn has become, in some ways, a publishing venture.

I’ve come to accept this preoccupation, but I still don’t fully understand its source. What is it about media, all media, old and new, Riso-printed zines and AI-generated music, books and apps, screentone and CSS, that’s so magnetic to me?

This love song is hilarious and sweet. It could be an anthem for the East Bay.

Nobody gets it better than M. John Harrison. Read this sequence of three tweets.

Do I like this website? I’m not sure. Is it purely retro? Or does it push something forward?

Do I like THIS website? The monochrome aesthetic is lovely, of course, and I appreciate its busy chaos, like a newspaper from 1909. The fact that the content is in French makes it impossible for me to judge whether I could, or would, actually READ what’s on this page, or merely award it a mild “cool / I see what you did there” and close the tab.

I suspect the latter, I’m sorry to say.

I’ve been thinking about web design in 2020 and beyond; all the things that remain unexplored, all the paths not taken—or maybe foreclosed: by the supernova success of the phone, the shape of that screen, the grain of it.

I promise to let you know if I come up with anything.

Have you run across the Inspector Chen Cao mysteries by Qiu Xiaolong? This detective’s quirk is his love of poetry; he is always remembering a line as he picks his way through the murder scene. He is a sensitive soul in a ruthless world, and the mysteries he investigates tend to be as political as they are criminal. The first book in Qiu Xiaolong’s series is titled Death of a Red Heroine, and it’s superb.

You might recall a line from a poem I included in a previous edition:

The stirrings in your heart, do not seek their bloom. An inch of desire is an inch of ash.

I found it in the text of one of Adam Brookes’ spy novels, which I praised in this edition. The line so struck me that I decided to track down the poet.

Li Shangyin book

In this collection’s introduction—which is very very good—the translator Chloe Garcia Roberts writes:

While Li Shangyin’s poetry began to be collected in various anthologies fairly quickly after his death [at the age of forty-five], the fact that his work has flourished to such a degree instead of languishing in obscurity can largely be attributed to the prominent editor and literary figure Yang Yi (974-1010). After coming across a rare edition of Li’s poems, Yang Yi spearheaded an empire-spanning search for hitherto uncollected poems, feeling that what he had read did not fully represent the depth and variety of the poet’s work. His efforts results in the expansion of Li’s collected poetry from one hundred poems to just over four hundred (the current count is around six hundred) and served to ensure his poetic legacy.

“An empire-spanning search for hitherto uncollected poems”—I’d watch that movie!!

Here’s the full poem from which Brookes took that line—a different translation, obviously:

Li Shangyin poem

This year, I’ve written at length about my affinity for the email newsletter as a format, and I’ve told you about several newsletters I love.

If the format speaks to you, I encourage you to start one yourself, maybe even weave it together with others that you read. Brace yourself: newsletters don’t offer the dopamine drip of Instagram and Twitter. They grow slowly. They receive zero hearts, zero stars (though they do sometimes earn a reply, which is far better). You really need to enjoy the simple act of sitting down to write one, or you might as well be doing something else.

But maybe you WILL enjoy it! I can tell you that I spring up on Sunday mornings to write this. It is nothing more and nothing less than a perfect pleasure.

Sign up for Dan Oshinsky’s Not a Newsletter and follow along with all the latest email craft and theory. It’s interesting to read, even if you don’t particularly “need” any of it because you’re just writing a monthly note to twelve friends.

For my part, re: craft and theory, I think giving a newsletter some temporal boundaries can be healthy and (weirdly?) productive. Start it, but/and decide ahead of time when it will end, and call that a “season,” the way I did with my old Primes newsletter. TV tells us: a season can be short, or a season can be long. TV tells us: a season can end and be followed very quickly by a new one, or a season can end and be followed by an interminable multi-year gap.

If you do start an email newsletter in 2020, my pledge to you is that I will be your first subscriber.

Just send me a note with a link to the signup page.

Tabernacle frame

Tabernacle frame, 19th century, Italy

Here in Berkeley, above one of the BART stations, there’s a big, blocky building called the Ed Roberts Campus, home to a cluster of organizations serving people with disabilities.

Berkeley has an interesting history in this regard, and it’s worth knowing if you don’t already. Most people have heard of the Free Speech Movement; comparatively few know about the roughly contemporaneous Independent Living Movement.

It was a multifarious thing, and I won’t attempt to summarize its objectives, because I don’t know enough to do so! But, one of the simplest things the movement wanted was curb cuts. It’s strange to imagine a world without them, but the curb cuts that are ubiquitous today, at least in the U.S., can all be traced back to a particular time and place. That place was Berkeley.

In Berkeley, in the 70s, independent living activists would creep out at night to smash steep curbs with sledgehammers and smooth the rubble into shallow ramps. Soon after, the city was molding official curb cuts. Soon after, they were spreading to other cities, other states.

At the lab, Alexis and I have been talking about technologies and policies that “generate freedom” in some sense. These “freedom generators” are often designed and deployed to serve the particular, acute needs of one kind of person, but then, their “output” washes out indiscriminately and benefits everyone.

The most tangible example we’ve come up with is curb cuts. Designed for the acute needs of wheelchair users, they make the world safer and more accessible for people walking with crutches, and pushing strollers, and riding bikes. For people with impaired vision, going slow. For people maneuvering hand trucks, making deliveries. For people not fully paying attention because they’re using their phones! Those people didn’t even exist in the 70s!

So, imagine every curb cut as a buzzing generator, like something out of science fiction, except instead of tractor beams or tachyon fields, they are producing these little bubbles of capability.

Freedom generators can produce effects as small as a street corner, as big as a planet.

If you’re interested in this kind of thing, you ought to know about Sara Hendren. This talk from 2015 is no longer the freshest summation of her work, but it’s how I was introduced to her, and it remains one of the best talks, on any subject, I’ve ever seen. She is one of the leaders of the Accessible Icon Project, which—oh, just go look. It’s simple and powerful, eloquent, full of life.

A minor obsession: the contrast between the pixelated appearance of old video games and the art that accompanied them.

I think I first became aware of this with Final Fantasy III, which I played on my Super Nintendo. The game’s manual was filled with these diaphanous illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano:

Terra by Amano

And then, of course, the corresponding character in the actual game looked like this:

Terra by pixels

Aaand I am laughing out loud here at my dining table just looking at those two images next to each other. Camera one… camera two. Camera one… camera two.

But it wasn’t a bad thing, that aesthetic chasm! There was, and is, something productive about the difference; to me, it’s as if the delicate illustration permeates the pixelated sprite like a ghost, or a soul.

I only recently learned the name of the canonical illustrator of the Mario Brothers who, from the very first game onward, has “haunted” that franchise in the same way, with illustrations that—especially in the earliest days—were so much more vivid and detailed than any Nintendo game could be.

You have definitely seen his work before; it’s part of our culture now. Here’s the art of Yoichi Kotabe:

Mario by Kotabe

Aaand… the game:

Mario by pixels

:) :) :)

Here’s a nice interview with Craig Mod; I’ve referred you before to his walking newsletter. I want to draw your attention to this answer, emphasis mine:

How should people answer the “where are you from” question?

I always give extra context, quickly: “Well, I was born in so-and-so, but I’ve been living here [in Japan] for 20 years.” Asking where someone “is really from” can be hurtful. I don’t think this is really understood in Japan. And so: I love to flip the equation, to ask “Where in Japan were you born?” to people who are clearly non-Japanese, but who seem to have been living here for a long time. Living in Japan as non-native, it’s probably the first time they’ve ever been asked that question. It never ceases to delight. In a homogenous society, being considered an insider—even if it’s performative and from a place of knowing, almost like a wink—can be a tiny gift of being made to feel not The Other, if only for a second.

It’s so simple, but/and it demonstrates such sensitivity. Have you, anytime in the last six months, asked any stranger a question like this? By which I mean, a question that feels like setting a volleyball, just so they can spike it?

“A tiny gift,” Craig says, “even if it’s performative and from a place of knowing, almost like a wink.” Those tiny gifts are the grace notes that makes life sparkle.

It’s my opinion that a lot of people out there aren’t getting enough winks, aren’t in on enough jokes, and it’s this lack that is at, or near, the root of their misery.

Reverse frame

Reverse frame, 17th century, Italy


December 2019, Oakland

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