The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32
Robin Sloan is one of the founders of Snarkmarket and the author of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. He lives in California. Follow him at

The novelist’s design
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Oh this warms my heart:

That original Kindle, code-named “Fiona” after a character in Neal Stephenson’s futuristic novel The Diamond Age, was finally ready to go in the fall of 2007.

For the uninitiated: The Diamond Age is a novel premised on a world where books are transparently online and totally alive, redrawing words and images before your eyes. Imagine all the potency and fidelity of an iPad on every thin, crinkly page.

Anyway, I’m sure many writers would disagree, but for me, this is a serious reason to write futuristic fiction: sometimes, people actually make this stuff.

The blockquote is from this long, super-detailed Businessweek piece on Amazon’s Lab126 and the development of the Kindle from 2004 ’til today. It’s worth the read if you’re interested in this stuff.

Honestly, I think Amazon is such a great company. Not as austere as Apple, you know?—somehow still a gang of nerds reading science fiction, throwing stuff together, making it all work.

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‘Game that starts like Duck Hunt…’
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Going through an old notes file—a stash of loose ideas—and came across:

Game that starts like Duck Hunt, but then becomes this, like, pagan ritual -- the duck, when you hit it, explodes in a sea of color -- rainbow streamers -- the sky turns dark -- you have woken some dark Duck God...

Yep, still totally into that one.

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Pushbutton pipes
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Aha! As part of the ongoing rehabilitation of my Google Reader, I have just done two thing:

  1. Pruned my feeds significantly, dropping many (many!) that were long-dead. The RSS snake sheds its skin.
  2. Essentially “reprogrammed” the star to save the image from a post to Dropbox. This is super-cool, because at least half of my a-ha moments in Google Reader come from great (or weird) images, but I find Google Reader itself a totally lame archival system. (Also, I just really like to browse images in the OS X Finder—it’s so fast and fluid.)

How did I do that second part? It’s thanks to ifttt—read: if this, then that—a site that my polymath colleague Isaac turned me on to this week. Think of it as Yahoo! Pipes with a much simpler, more declarative interface. Or, if that analogy is impenetrable, think of it as a way to wire up different tools on the web, so that (for instance) when you post a new photo to Instagram, ifttt can also archive it to Dropbox, or when Yahoo! Weather calls for rain, ifttt can send you a text message.

My task recipe is here—you’ll have to be logged in to ifttt to see it.

Ah, but, I’m just remembering now that the site isn’t wide-open yet: so if you’re interested and think you might actually monkey with it, drop a comment here. I’ll send invites to the first three.

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Bless the toolmakers
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CC-licensed photo from bre pettis.

Bless the toolmakers… but I’m worried that everybody wants to be one.

You look at the celebration of Steve Jobs and his Apple Inc., and you see a celebration of tools. “One of the things that separates us from high primates,” Jobs said long ago, “is that we’re tool builders.” In the next breath he made his great analogy: a computer is “a bicycle for our minds.” Classic, and true.

Today, you look at a sampling of startups and you see two things:

  1. A whole lot of incredibly smart young men who want to be the next Steve Jobs, and
  2. a whole lot of tools.

This is the reigning model for startups: make a tool and scale it up. The tool’s potential users can be rich (e.g. Salesforce) or they can be numerous (e.g. YouTube) or they can be rich and numerous (e.g. the iPhone) but any way you go, you are always a step removed from the object of attention. You are not the deal, you are not the Lil’ Wayne video, you are not the flirty text message. You are the facilitator, you are the mediator, you are the vessel.


CC-licensed photo from whiteforge.

What’s the relationship between a toolmaker and a tool user? I wonder about this a lot. I mean, when I read about Steve Jobs’ illness, I think of him with care and gratitude, and I echo Dan Sinker:

Steve Jobs had a hand in every tool that made me who I am. Forever indebted and in awe.

But… I don’t think about Steve Jobs when I’m using my MacBook. I don’t think about Thomas Knoll when I’m using Photoshop. I don’t think about the sublime inventor of the kitchen table (her name lost to history) when I sit here at mine. (I don’t think about the Ikea designer who made this particular model, either.)

Now switch from tools to media.

When I read The Anthologist, I am not really thinking about Nicholson Baker, either. Sure, I think about him when I read the book review and when I flip to the title page, but after that, I’m in the story. But!—I’m going to argue that Nicholson Baker is there with me, in my head, in a much fuller and more direct way than Thomas Knoll is with me when I’m using Photoshop.

Certainly with music, the case is even clearer: the artist’s presence (often literally her voice) is fully and directly felt. Music, especially pop music, imposes itself. It says: I am here with you now!

Now, personally, that relationship is what I’m after. I imagine two scenarios—one where I write a story that 10,000 people read and another where I build a tool that 100,000 people use—and the first is infinitely more appealing.

I want, frankly, to impose myself.

So when it comes to toolmaking… I just don’t understand it. Of course, I understand that these markets exist—markets for sales CRM, markets for video-viewing, markets for personal communication and status-signaling gadgetry. I just can’t understand wanting to be the person who serves them.

“There is a great satisfaction in building good tools for other people to use,” Freeman Dyson said. I’m supremely glad he feels that satisfaction, and I’m glad so many other toolmakers do, too.

But, is there a chance… just a small one… that today, in the world of startups and internet technology, too many people are making too many tools?

Even as I type it, my fingers recoil, because it sounds like such heresy. The internet is nothing but tools, built and shared. Glory to Github! We need more of this stuff, not less! … Right?

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by… toolmaking?


CC-licensed photo from Meanest Indian.

It actually makes me think of the way that consulting used to be such a scourge on the undergraduate landscape, sucking up all of the ambitious, flexible minds because it was prestigious and remunerative and in a way easy. Maybe it’s absurd to think we lost novelists and musicians to McKinsey… but I think we did.

Today, if you’re a person with the toolmaking talent, you actually have a lot of options, of which making a web platform or a framework are just a couple. If you possess the skills to make powerful tools, you’ve got one up on Archimedes. “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the earth,” he said. You, the toolmaker, can make your own place.

What do I mean?

Think of the electronic musician BT, who for years has enjoyed the advantage of a signature stuttering sound effect that he coded himself. This year, he finally decided to share his software, to put it up for sale—but you can bet he’s already working on the next great effect for his own music. It’s a competitive artistic advantage. (I mean, the dude knows Csound. Nobody knows Csound!)

Or think of Pixar, the Great Toolmaker’s side project. They sell movies, not tools, but the movies wouldn’t be possible without the tools that Pixar and Pixar alone possesses. Pixar is a place where brilliant toolmakers work for a tiny user-base: the artists across the hall. That partnership, and the feedback loop between tool and user that it permits, produces jaw-dropping results.

I mean, here’s what I think: the true intersection of technology and the liberal arts

…isn’t actually Apple. It’s Pixar.

So I wish more people were making tools for a specific creative purpose rather than for general consumer adoption. I wish more people were making tools that very intentionally do not scale—tools with users by the dozen. Tools you experience not through a web signup form, but through pathbreaking creative work.

I guess I want fewer aspirational Apples and more Pixar wannabes.

Bless the toolmakers. I’m definitely not complaining here, just thinking out loud, and wondering about this kind of person, the way you might wonder about a world-class tennis player or a wandering ascetic: How can you do that? What makes you want to get out of bed in the morning? It is honestly inscrutable to me.

But I also wonder if there are some toolmakers out there right now who feel some of the same doubt. Carried along by the current of conventional (startup) wisdom and, of course, the promise of a great scalable payout, they are busy making a web-based tool for collaborative something-or-other. But in the back of their brains, something feels wrong. Some ambition is left unfulfilled.

Here’s what I say: Come on over. Come join the side that makes books and music and movies. There are great rewards here, too, but not enough toolmakers. We need you.

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The glowing page
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Here’s an optical effect well-known to summertime readers—raise your hand if you recognize it:

You’re walking the streets with your nose in a book. Maybe you’re coming home from school, or maybe you’ve just been out wandering. It’s a beautiful sun-drenched day, but you experience it only at the margins—your eyes are focused on the bright white pages, and you’re reading steadily, flip flip flip, just as steadily as you’re walking. You are in the zone, somehow navigating busy sidewalks and complicated intersections using only your peripheral vision and, I don’t know, your medulla oblongata or something.

Then, you get home—you’re still reading—and you cross the threshold. Suddenly, the page under your nose is glowing. There’s a weird color-shift that happens, sort of a buzzing red/green effect. It’s almost as if the page has soaked up the sunlight and is now shooting it back at you here inside the house. It’s slightly painful; you squint and keep reading. It’s best not to look up, because if you do, you will realize that the whole house is color-shifted, too. Your eyes are confused and overloaded, because they’ve adjusted themselves to the white-hot square of the book.

Every time I experience this (which is often, and includes five minutes ago) it triggers a little burst of nostalgia. It makes me think of all the summers I’ve spent reading and all the places I’ve wandered back to: my childhood home in Michigan, my old dorm room, my first apartment in San Francisco. I can very distinctly remember being nine and eighteen and twenty-seven, always squinting and waiting for my eyes to re-calibrate, but never, of course, actually putting the book down. Never even considering it.

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Ai Weiwei and the Nightmare City
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Ai Weiwei on Beijing:

There are positives to Beijing. People still give birth to babies. There are a few nice parks. Last week I walked in one, and a few people came up to me and gave me a thumbs up or patted me on the shoulder. Why do they have to do that in such a secretive way? No one is willing to speak out. What are they waiting for? They always tell me, “Weiwei, leave the nation, please.” Or “Live longer and watch them die.” Either leave, or be patient and watch how they die. I really don’t know what I’m going to do.

Via Noteworthy and Not.

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Shel Silverstein was the coolest
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From a 1968 Stars and Stripes interview with Shel Silverstein:

HAL: I understand that you are going to do a movie or want to do a movie. Can you tell us about it?

SHEL: I will be doing one soon. It’s a movie I wrote and will be directing. It will be very far out. It will be the furtherest-out movie ever done in America, I know that. In any country, as far as I know.

HAL: Will it be impressionistic or realistic?

SHEL: Yeah, impressionistic and realistic. Yet, never obscure. Always very clear.

Now, please note that Shel Silverstein never directed a movie… and was probably never actually going to. Was he just messing with his interviewer? Possibly. And how fun is that?—seeding the world with news of made-up projects. Maybe that’s how you decide what to actually do: wait and see which made-up project generates the most excitement.

Also, can I just remind you that Shel Silverstein looked like this?

The coolest.

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The art of working in public
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I have two exemplary pieces of 21st-century writing that I want to share with you. Neither is hot off the CMSes; they’ve both aged just a little in their tabbed casks. They have something deeply in common—though it might not be obvious at first. One is from BERG’s Matt Webb, the other from the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal. This post is going to run a bit long, with a healthy blockquotient, but I think it will end up somewhere interesting.

First: over at the BERG blog, the studio’s director Matt Webb writes weeknote 315. Now, BERG’s weeknotes are always interesting, but this one is a stand-out. It’s long—very long—and transparently written in installments. You can plainly see the rings on the tree, the grain of the writing.

The post begins. Almost immediately there’s a pause, signaled by a section break. Another graf, another pause. Then a section begins like this:

A few hours later – still Saturday – I’m reading an article called A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600-2100 section by section, and interspersing this with reading the monthly Profit and Loss and Balance Sheets of the company from the past year.

And then Matt dives into the details of BERG’s P&L. More sections follow. He touches on sales strategy, supply chain management, even financial stock and flow. (That is, the real kind, not the Snarkmarket kind… but we’re winning the Googlefight, so watch out. Ours might be the real kind soon.)

Later, Matt writes…

I attempt to run the company perpetually at medium-risk, with occasional forays into high-risk to grow – trusting ourselves to surf this tightrope – don’t laugh at the mixed metaphor, that’s what it feels like – and sometimes it takes a while to get my sea legs at a new scale, to discover what a tolerance of “medium” feels like when the numbers themselves change. Your sensitivity and tolerance improve only with practice. I wish I’d been given toy businesses to play with at school, just as playing with crayons taught my body how to let me draw.

I’ve written in these weeknotes before how I manage three budgets: cash, attention, risk. This is my attempt to explain how I feel about risk, and to trace the pathways between risk and cash. Attention, and how it connects, can wait until another day.

…and then of course even later in the post he ends up talking about attention after all.

Got it? Okay.

Next: over at the Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal writes up the New York Public Library’s pathbreaking digital projects. Now, on one level, Alexis’s piece is more straightforward than Matt’s. It’s, like, an article. I mean, it even has a nut graf:

With all this change — not to mention a possible $40 million budget cut looming — it would be no surprise if the library was floundering like the music industry, newspapers, or travel agents. (Hey, man, we all get disintermediated sooner or later.) But that’s the wild thing. The library isn’t floundering. Rather, it’s flourishing, putting out some of the most innovative online projects in the country. On the stuff you can measure — library visitors, website visitors, digital gallery images viewed — the numbers are up across the board compared with five years ago. On the stuff you can’t, like conceptual leadership, the NYPL is killing it.

But… look at that nut graf. Look at the voice Alexis is rocking here—the NYPL is killing it—and look at that personal parenthetical: Hey, man, we all get disintermediated sooner or later. Here in the nut, in the very keystone of a long piece ostensibly about the New York Public Library, Alexis is tipping us off: This is actually going to be about me and you and the Atlantic, too.

Then, just a little bit later on, we read this:

I visited the library to see who was behind the excellent work at the library to see how they thought about what they were doing. And maybe I was hoping to pinch some lessons for my own work on how to teach old animals new tricks. The Atlantic was founded in 1857, after all, 54 years older than Patience and Fortitude.

And later, Alexis crosses the streams again…

People love the texture of old stories and the odd solidity of old photos. If you let them use those things for their own purposes, they love them even more. Take the New York Public Library’s stereogram collection. Stereograms were actually publicized by a key member of The Atlantic’s staff at the end of the 19th century, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

…again directly connecting the nominal subject of his piece (the NYPL) to the shadow subject (the Atlantic itself), which is, in fact, the shadow subject of most of his work, on most platforms.

And it’s glorious.

Okay, so now take a step back and consider these two pieces together.

They are written by two very different dudes, in different positions, with different objectives. But I want to argue that both are written in essentially the same style, with common characteristics both superficial—a smart but very informal voice that reads like a long email from your smartest coolest friend ever—and structural:

  • They both conjure a sense that the piece is almost being written as you read it. It feels like they’re just a graf or two ahead, and if you picked up the pace, you could catch them—overtake their blinking cursors. It feels slightly chaotic and totally thrilling.
  • They both let you inside their heads. With Matt you’re not just reading a list of, like, small-business tips. For the span of a few thousand words, you are riding shotgun as co-CEO of BERG. Likewise, with Alexis, you’re not just learning about the NYPL. You’re grabbing hold of the library’s old-made-new strategy and instantly spinning it around, asking yourself: How can I use this here at the Atlantic? It’s palpable, and it’s awesome.
  • But!—they don’t let you all the way inside. There’s plenty withheld here. In fact, here’s the genius of the style: they don’t tell you much at all. What’s BERG’s next big project? Uh, I don’t know. What’s Alexis’s strategy at the Atlantic? We’ll find out when he executes it. Even though their writing feels so revelatory, this isn’t radical transparency at all. It’s, what? Selective transparency? Choir screen transparency? I’m not leveling a criticism—this is a compliment.

I tend to zero in on this kind of writing because I aspire to do more of it myself, and to do it better. Working in public like this can be a lot of fun, for writer and reader alike, but more than that: it can be a powerful public good. The comments on Matt’s post all go something like this: Hey, thank you. I’m running a small studio myself, and this is really instructive. When you let people inside your head, they come away smarter. When you work in public, you create an emissary (media cyborg style) that then walks the earth, teaching others to do your kind of work as well. And that is transcendently cool.

At the same time: surprise is of the essence. And for me, it’s been increasingly difficult to communicate coherently about my day-to-day writing work without either a) being intolerably vague, or b) giving away the good stuff. I just can’t quite find the balance. I’m midway through George R. R. Martin’s latest—these are books famous for their ruthless surprises—and so I’m feeling this really keenly right now. We don’t want radical transparency from George R. R. Martin. We want radical opacity. We want maximum surprise!

But what I see in Matt’s and Alexis’s writing is a growing mastery of this balance. I think it’s an important new skill, maybe even a new liberal art. When you articulate it, it sounds almost like a koan, or part of some samurai code:

Work in public. Reveal nothing.

So what is this post, then? Me working on working in public, in public? Maybe. Actually, I think I might have a shadow subject of my own. As I’ve been writing here, I’ve been thinking (because come on, the scenario is inescapable): Can we get Webb and Madrigal to make something together? BERG and the Atlantic—what’s this going to take?

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‘The correct use of a semicolon is a big red flag for me’
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Here’s an interesting dialogue between two characters: Teach and Cheat. One’s a philosophy professor; the other writes students’ term papers for a fee.

Teach: Yes, but it is a red flag to me that there is plagiarism elsewhere in the paper. The second one is grammatical. In those cases I was alerted to plagiarism by the sudden appearance, in a paper that is otherwise a morass of grammatical errors, of a series of flawless sentences with complicated structures. The correct use of a semicolon is a big red flag for me. As is the use—and often misuse—of specialized jargon or technical language that I’ve not discussed with them in class. Then I type those sentences into Google, and they all wind up being smoking-gun cases of plagiarism. My favorite case this semester was plagiarism within plagiarism. When I informed this student that I suspected her paper was plagiarized, she said to me, “I got my paper from one of the students who was in your class last semester. How was I to know that she had plagiarized?” Which indicated to me, along with a number of the other email responses I got from students, that many of them don’t even know what plagiarism is.

Cheat: I don’t disagree. But not knowing what plagiarism is isn’t really the problem. It’s unfortunate that right now the university is cracking down so hard on plagiarism. And the reason the university is cracking down so hard on plagiarism is because their product is less and less valuable these days. When students plagiarize, there’s an implicit recognition that “I’m just doing this for the grade.” That’s why they do it. And that’s the way that the majority of students look at the university, and have been for some time now. At my college, the frats had rooms full of file cabinets full of plagiarized papers. Plagiarism is old news. It’s really not just that plagiarism is getting easier to do, with the Internet. The problem is now that the grade doesn’t even get you the job.

You understand where this is going: it’s not even about plagiarism and term papers… it’s about the framework and future of college itself.

But, P.S., thinking about plagiarizing a term paper—even now, so many years removed from college—makes me physically ill. Seriously: a sick little stir in my stomach. But it has more to do with self-conception than core values. The idea of putting my name above somebody else’s words is just… like… inconceivable. The whole point of having a brain (and maybe, having a life) is that my name goes above my words and my words aren’t like anyone else’s words. This was true even back in college, when I thought I was going to be a scientist or an economist, not a journalist or a writer. So for a person like me (and I suspect there are many of you among the Snarkmatrix) plagiarism is way more than just cheating. It’s self-abnegation.

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Children of Troy
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What a thing, this link that’s being passed around, posted on Boing Boing and tweeted all over the place! The letters to the children of Troy: congratulatory messages solicited from writers, politicians, and other famous folk to commemorate the opening of the first stand-alone library in Troy, Michigan, way back in 1971.

Isaac Asimov’s index-card letter has gotten a lot of play:

E. B. White’s speaks more seriously to me, and mostly for his last line:

But it’s the letter from Clifton Wharton, then-president of MSU, that strikes me most deeply. You wouldn’t be able to guess just by reading it, I don’t think—it’s solid, but not soaring:

On the surface, this whole collection is such a cute little thing, so easy to write off: just a bunch of folksy letters sent to a new library in a suburban town. (By the way: who would even send such letters today? Or ask for them?) Lovely. Let’s move on to the next link.

But here’s the thing. I grew up in Troy, Michigan; this library, the subject of all this celebration, was my library. I spent a significant fraction of the mid-80s and early 90s in there, migrating from the Choose Your Own Adventure books on the spinning wire racks to the science fiction and fantasy novels on the long low shelves. I can still draw you a map of the place, and roughly plot Dewey decimal ranges. I can still remember the mechanical swish of the automatic door, the cold AC in the foyer, the lignin smell. I can remember whole sensory macros: my dad pulling the car up to the curb; me hopping out, hustling to the entrance; the whoosh-thunk of books going down the after-hours chute; the turn, the sprint.

And here’s the other thing. I went to school at Michigan State and grew into myself on the campus that Clifton Wharton helped build. I walked past the building marked with his name hundreds of times—maybe more. Maybe a thousand. And I mean, my god: I met Tim Carmody on that campus!

So this little correspondence cracked like lightning in my head. I mean, it’s no big deal; it’s a small thing, it’s a letter, they were both in Michigan, it makes perfect sense. And yet, and yet. Clifton Wharton, president of Michigan State University, and Marguerite Hart, librarian of Troy: a tangible thread connected them. And as soon as you realize that, you can’t help but imagine the other threads, the other connections, that all together make a net, woven before you were born, before you were even dreamed of—a net to catch you, support you, lift you up. Libraries and universities, books and free spaces—all for us, all of us, the children of Troy everywhere.

What fortune. Born at the right time.

So anyway, Wharton’s letter is my favorite. But close on its heels is the long one from then-Hawaii governor John Burns. It’s a little dorky and preachy in parts, but near the end, he writes:

If you are a child reading this, you should go home and make a Hawaiian flower lei—you get a needle and thread and sew the flowers together into a ring—and put it around the neck of the City of Troy librarian. It will tell her that you are grateful for the gift of books and of wisdom and of aloha found in the libraries of the world, and especially—for you—in Troy. And if she laughs and cries at the same time, pay no attention. That’s the way librarians always act when they’re very happy and grateful […]

And it’s not the librarian laughing and crying at the same time here; it’s me. Every time I’ve read these letters, it’s me.

9 comments