The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

snarl § Two songs from The Muppet Movie / 2021-02-16 18:31:36
Robert § Two songs from The Muppet Movie / 2021-02-14 03:26:25
Bob § Two songs from The Muppet Movie / 2021-02-13 02:23:25
Sounds like § Two songs from The Muppet Movie / 2021-02-12 17:11:20
Ryan Lower § Two songs from The Muppet Movie / 2021-02-12 16:15:35
Jennifer § Two songs from The Muppet Movie / 2021-02-12 15:53:34
A few notes on daily blogging § Stock and flow / 2017-11-20 19:52:47
El Stock y Flujo de nuestro negocio. – redmasiva § Stock and flow / 2017-03-27 17:35:13
Meet the Attendees – edcampoc § The new utility belt / 2017-02-27 10:18:33
Meet the Attendees – edcampoc § The generative web event / 2017-02-27 10:18:17
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

Mario’s music

An observation from the terrific composer Nico Muhly:

[…] Although my parents had classical music on LP’s in the house, the childhood music I remember the most vividly is fragments from either live performances or, strangely, video games at my friends’ houses1.

For me, living in the country, playing a video game was sort of like music minus one: The actions of my hands informed, in a strange way, the things I heard. Collect a coin, and a delighted glockenspiel sounds. Move from navigating a level above ground to one below ground, and the eager French chromaticism of the score changes to a spare, beat-driven minimal texture. Hit a star, and suddenly the score does a metric modulation. All of these things come to bear in a later musical education; I’m positive I understand how augmented chords change an emotional texture because of Nintendo music.

Don’t miss the clip embedded at the bottom of the post, either: it’s only three minutes long, and exhilarating at precisely 1:50. Oh the glory of the horn.

1. I really think “memories of video games at your friend’s house” are, like, a thing. Very special; very distinct. Maybe such memories are no longer produced; maybe every kid has a video game system nowadays. (But probably not?) All I know is I can remember Ninja Gaiden on Chris Hayes’ NES (he lived down the street) with crystal clarity. Note that I never actually played the game; it was too difficult, and I couldn’t make it past the first screen. So I would just watch Chris play, utterly rapt.


The Kindle abroad

On a recent long jaunt around the Aegean, I realized something important about the Kindle: it’s the ultimate travel gadget.

I honestly didn’t expect this. I just brought mine so I’d have something to read! But here’s the deal:

  • The Kindle has a web browser. It’s simple and slow, but solid enough to check Gmail and In fact, it works beautifully with the mobile versions of most sites.
  • It’s almost miraculously connected. The browser wouldn’t mean much if Whispernet—Amazon’s set of carriage agreements with cell networks around the world—didn’t work everywhere. It does, and it’s also free. I was using Edge and 3G Whispernet reliably in remote-ish provinces and on sleepy islands. In fact, my Kindle generally got a stronger signal than my iPhone.
  • It’s light and durable. There’s a big difference between older Kindles (which I’m toting) and newer ones in this regard; I’m considering snagging one of the latest simply because they’re so much smaller, slimmer and lighter. But any Kindle is more portable than any iPad, and I also felt a lot more comfortable tossing the Kindle into a bag or dragging it across the beach. (I had my iPad on this trip, too, but barely used it.)
  • The Kindle works in direct sunlight. Especially when you’re traveling, this is a big deal. Standing on a busy corner or sitting on the beach, the Kindle is always totally usable. And this provides another contrast to the iPad, which always sends me scurrying to the shadows. (It really is a resolutely indoors device, isn’t it?)
  • The battery lasts forever. You know this already. My Kindle was on a once-a-week charging schedule, and that’s with lots of reading and regular internet checks.
  • Your Kindle is your itinerary. Using the Kindle as a virtual folder for travel documents was perhaps the biggest aha; it was my traveling companion who figured this out first. We got into the habit of forwarding tickets and reservations straight to our addresses, which all Kindle owners have. (Oddly, this is the one part of international service that’s not free, but the price is negligible: $0.99 per megabyte for documents delivered this way.) It feels so good to have all of your information right there, in a format that’s so legible—not just to you, but to others. Once, in Turkey, I simply passed my Kindle to a ticket agent to help her understand where we were trying to go.
  • Travel guides on the Kindle work great. I was a little skeptical about this—I think of the Kindle as being bad at random-access material, and a travel guide is definitely one of those books you want to be able to flip through freely. But as it turns out, we got a ton of use out of a Lonely Planet Kindle edition—purchased mid-trip, natch—and by the end of the trip, I felt like a dope for having bothered with a physical guide (which weighed in at about five Kindles).

Honestly, even if you are not ever going to read an e-book, but want a device to help you stay connected and organized while traveling—especially if you’re going a bit off the beaten track—the investment in a Kindle (barely more than a hundred bucks at this point) can’t be beat.


Brave new market

In case you didn’t see me tweet about it: I made a little page that compares the e-book and hardcover best seller lists from the New York Times. There’s a lot of variance, and a lot of different reasons for the variance. In fact, every difference seems to tell its own unique little tale. For instance, an informant told me via email:

Consider Phlebas is knocking it out of the park [on the e-book list] because the book just got listed at 99 cents. It wouldn’t suprise me if every sci-fi reader with Kindle access bought a copy of it. I know I did.

That’s interesting in at least two ways:

  • It implies that the Kindle Store moves the market. Or maybe: that the Kindle Store is the market. I haven’t seen stats for the total e-book universe—have you?—but this seems intuitively correct to me.
  • It augurs a new kind of book market in which prices can be super-dynamic. How about a special Game of Thrones intro weekend where the first book in the series is $0.99? How about selling a book for half-price while its author is out on tour, talking it up? What’s new is that you can make these price changes instantly and universally. No more declaring a new MSRP and hoping for the best from all the book sellers.

I’m going to keep updating the comparison page. Next up: paperback best seller lists.


A Snarkmarket mini-collaboration: Snarksyllabi

Via Tim’s retweet, I saw that Dan Cohen at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University released a really interesting dataset today: a million syllabi culled from the web, from 2002-2009.

I think this might make a fun Snarkmarket mini-collaboration. My tender programming chops are such that I can cook up a simple script to parse the data. I’m happy to share the code (and/or collaborate a bit) on Github, too, though I’m no pro with version control.

So the real question is: what sort of questions should we ask?

I’m open to anything, but my bias goes towards something slightly wacky, rather than, you know, something of scholarly significance. Let’s reverse-engineer an inquiry by starting with a Slate headline!

I mean, think about it—a syllabus is

  • a course of study,
  • a set of instructions,
  • a statement of values,
  • a collection of related documents,
  • an indirect payment to a bunch of authors,

and more, all in one.

What might we learn from a million of them all together?

Drop an idea, suggestion, meditation or musing in the comments!

Update: Bit of a hiccup with the database, per Dan’s second update here. As soon as the full version with the cached HTML pages is live, we’ll start playing with it. I’m leaning toward something simple and ngrammy to start, per Tim’s comment.


No ashtray-throwing here

Here’s a smart, thoughtful post from old-school Snarkmarket pal Dan Bouk over at AmericanScience. It’s about Thomas Kuhn (of the Structure of Scientific Revolutions fame), Errol Morris (of Errol Morris fame), and the way we have debates (or don’t). I think there’s a lot there that Snarkmarket fans will enjoy, not least of which is Dan’s voice.


Selling the magic

I’m a fan of the new Gawker designs and everything they imply about writing and design. More to say, but no time now. Read the Nieman Lab post—it’s awesomely detailed and full of context.


Once upon a time on the internet


John Battelle posted a nice rumination on EPIC 2014 today—how cool is that? It’s still amazing to realize that, back in 2004, this flickering Flash video from two 24-year-olds in St. Petersburg (well, maybe Matt was 23) made it all the way out here to San Francisco and played on screens like his. (Remember, this was before YouTube. The propagation of video across the internet was still a shaky thing.)

But I do want to add one twist. In his post, Battelle grades EPIC 2014 as a forecast by checking its predictions against reality. A snarky commenter calls him out:

This may not be the best example of long-term prediction. The most important statement in the video is the last one – “perhaps there was another way” – which reveals it to be just another desperate propaganda tool by the people who are scared by the prospect of the New York Times turning into a print-only “newsletter for the elite and the elderly.”

Now, I don’t know about “desperate,” but, truth be told, it was definitely a propaganda tool. Matt and I made EPIC 2014 because we’d already given one presentation about the future of news—a slide show made in PowerPoint, filled with graphs and data points and earnest bulleted exhortations—and it was a total clunker. It put people to sleep. So EPIC 2014 was our second try, and I think its most distinguishing characteristic was not that it was a future forecast but that it was a story. It was a fable, actually!—populated by the broad, archetypal characters that the form demands.

And grading it as a story, I (not-very-humbly) give it an A, because thanks to good luck and good timing (and great narration) it spread fast and far—from John Battelle’s desk to Rupert Murdoch’s and beyond—and it sent chills down a few spines along the way. It made people gasp, it made people laugh (yes, the name “Googlezon” is supposed to be funny) and it bent a few careers off in new directions.

I wouldn’t trade any of that, ever, for the cold consolation of being right about the future.


All hail the humble component

Over on Gizmodo, John Herrman takes TV manufacturers to task for pitching all these widget-enabled internet-connected “smart TVs.” He says:

So, here’s the idea: Just buy dumb TVs. Buy TVs with perfect pictures, nice speakers and and attractive finish. Let set top boxes or Blu-ray players or Apple TVs take care of all the amazing connectivity and content afforded to us by today’s best internet TVs. Spend money on what you know you’ll still want in a few years—a good screen—and let your A/V cabinet host the changing cast of disposable accessories. […]

And TV manufacturers: Don’t just make more dumb TVs. Make them dumber.

I love the exhortation: Make them dumber! Yes, we want stuff that’s even dumber and more durable and more flexible. We want stuff we can plug into other stuff forever.

It does seem true that in the places where requirements are clear—this must make a good picture—and interfaces consistent, things you buy can actually find their footing and hold steady in the swirl of the shiny new.

I’d love a directory of these steadfast components. I feel like my Samsung TV (very dumb) might be a candidate. The 24″ Dell LCD I’ve had at home for five years would definitely go in that directory—I think these Dell monitors are widely recognized as the, like, basic black t-shirts of computer components at this point.

But what else? And what about other domains? Certainly, a good cast-iron frying pan is a kitchen component. There’s probably some classic kind of shoe that, thanks to its timelessness and durability, has reached component status (I do not know what it is). And there are probably some components in here, right?

We can’t expect stability in durability in every domain yet. There’s not going to be a component-caliber tablet computer for quite a while, obviously. But where components are available… where things are dumb and durable… man, that’s the good stuff. That’s the stuff I find myself wanting more and more of.

What are your favorite components—either things you have or things you’d like to get?

Update: Frank Chimero pulls a Carmody1 and proposes a two-fold taxonomy: the steadfast and the hot-swap. Both have their place.

Another update: Tim Maly goes deeper with “shearing layers.”

1. pull a Carmody v. to leave a comment that exceeds the original post in insight and value.


Close encounters of the corporate kind

Not sure I agree with all of this, but it made my brain zap and crackle—Charlie Stross takes the “if corporations were people, they would be really, really awful people” argument and plays with it a bit:

Corporations do not share our priorities. They are hive organisms constructed out of teeming workers who join or leave the collective: those who participate within it subordinate their goals to that of the collective, which pursues the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance. (The sources of pain a corporate organism seeks to avoid are lawsuits, prosecution, and a drop in shareholder value.)

Corporations have a mean life expectancy of around 30 years, but are potentially immortal; they live only in the present, having little regard for past or (thanks to short term accounting regulations) the deep future: and they generally exhibit a sociopathic lack of empathy.

And I like the last line—you could call it the punchline—a lot. It reframes the whole thing in a way that’s weird, fun, and a bit unsettling.


Notes from the field

Having just returned from a five-day jaunt up the West Coast of North America, I present three findings:

  • Every city needs an Ace Hotel. As some of my colleagues know, I hate snazzy hotels; they always seem so wasteful, so frothy, so (for lack of a word) huh-I-don’t-get-it-who-actually-likes-this. By contrast, the Ace Hotels (I’ve stayed in the New York and Portland editions) seem just perfectly calibrated to me: not too much space, not too much fuss, but plenty of attention paid to the details—and to the food.
  • If you have the right temperament for it, Amtrak’s Coast Starlight route is a blast. You’ve definitely got to start down in LA, though. Get a private cabin. Read Steinbeck on the way up through Santa Barbara and Salinas. Go to sleep somewhere around Sacramento. Wake up at the California/Oregon interface, which, at least this time of year, looks basically like Narnia. Get off at Portland. And then…
  • If you find yourself in Portland this winter, go to Cascade Brewing and get their glueh kriek, a piping-hot beer served from a steaming cauldron that feels exactly like the kind of thing a half-elf ranger would drink in a dark tavern somewhere just east of the Shire.