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kottke.org posts about Robin Sloan

Robots in disguise

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 23, 2017

Some faves are problematic; others are merely embarrassing. 1986’s Transformers: The Movie may be both, but leans towards the latter.

You have to fit into a very narrow generational window to love this movie. It was really for late Gen X/early millennial cuspers, with a little bit of a hangover into millennials proper because of home video. But for the most part, if you’re a little bit older or younger, you’re either completely baffled by this cartoon or mildly surprised that it isn’t total crap.

I saw this film in the theater with my two brothers, one older and one younger. My mom and older sister saw Ferris Bueller’s Day Off down the hall. None of us had any idea what we were in for. I would contend that of the two films, Transformers should have PG-13. Mild scatological humor is no match for beloved toys cursing and slaughtering each other.

As kids who loved the TV cartoon, we were literally invested in these characters. To the extent that a child can have net worth, a huge percentage of it was tied up in these toys, and the characters they represented. Here they are getting killed off right and left — ominous smoke pouring forth from their mouths, my god — and all Megatron can say is “that was almost too easy.”

The best analogy I can think of is this: suppose you’ve read the first three or four Harry Potter books. Those are all that’s available. You hear that there’s going to be a Harry Potter movie. But instead of a film version of the books you love, the movie busts right into the story from books 5, 6, and 7. You jump forward in time to a creeping totalitarian state, beloved characters are getting killed off right and left by Voldemort and his Death Eaters, and BAM! A half hour into the movie, Dumbledore is disarmed and blasted out of the tower.

You’re six years old, and you watch your Dumbledore die with Reese’s Pieces in your hand. Only instead of a wizard you read about in a book, he’s a robot that turns into a truck, and you have to go over your friend Davey’s house to play with him because he’s too expensive.

Then instead of a big funeral, you blast into outer space for another hour of heavy-metal soundtrack movie. More deaths. More metamorphoses. Planet-devouring robots. Cars who say “shit” and “god damn it.” “Dare To Be Stupid.”

On top of that, unlike Dumbledore’s underwhelming death in the film version of The Half-Blood Prince, the scene where Optimus Prime is killed is totally amazing.

I mean, that is almost Luke vs. Vader and the Emperor in Jedi good.

The problem with Transformers: The Movie (besides all of the problems with the movie and all the movies and TV shows that came after it) is really the toys. The whole show is designed to sell the toys. All the character deaths, the new generation introduced in the movie, and the magnificent decision to send the Autobots and Decepticons into exile in uncharted space, are all decisions made to create a market for more goddamned toys.

The toys, our physical proximity to them, the ability to shape and change them, and the ways we use them to play out narratives, are the mechanism for our affection. But they’re also intentionally disposable. It’s as far from respectable art in the traditional sense as it gets.

MovieBob’s Bob Chipman has a terrific video about this problem, specifically as it relates to Transformers: The Movie.

TL:DR — the decision to kill off most of the established characters actually forces the movie to make some compelling artistic choices. It’s a war movie where the generals and top lieutenants are killed off immediately, forcing a raw younger generation to make their own choices and mistakes. This in turn resonates with aging kids who’ve parents die and split up, who have either already faced or will soon face their own traumas.

The movie’s message — terrible things will happen, not everyone will make it intact, but you can find a way to go on — becomes a resource kids draw on as they grow up. Again, very similar to Harry Potter: just for us folks who were a little too old to catch the book before our childhoods ended.

Robin Sloan is a novelist, blogger, and media inventor. He’s also like three weeks younger than I am and grew up about three miles away. Unsurprisingly, he and I had very similar reactions to Transformers: The Movie.

I mean maybe it’s cliched to say this, or impossible with any credibility, but I’m pretty sure that movie was the most emotional experience of my life inside a movie theater? I can’t remember the whole experience with total clarity, but I do remember which friend I saw it with; I also remember my initial confusion — it didn’t announce its time-shift, so any young fan of the TV cartoon was initially like, “Wait… what?” — and, of course, THE DEATH OF OPTIMUS PRIME. What do you even say? Biblical, Shakespearean, and totally sci-fi, all at once. Megaton-scale. I wonder if the people who made the movie even understood what they were doing, what impact it would have.

Looking at it as an adult today. I think the movie is astonishing. Even for all its flaws, all the rough edges in its animation, sound, script, it just does *so much more than it had to*, particularly for a movie of that kind, of that time. The scale of it… I mean have there even BEEN any other movies with planet-sized robots? Has anyone else even DARED?

Maybe that’s what makes a movie — or any piece of media? — seem special: the sense that it isn’t merely “made to spec” but rather the special product of a confluence of people who cared, for one reason or another — and with a big dollop of weird luck thrown in, always — who made something sui generis. If Transformers: The Movie belongs in any category, it’s that one: Fully Its Own Thing.

Finally: the voice acting, including Orson freaking Welles, is outstanding.

No Man’s Sky soundtrack

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 12, 2016

I don’t have a PS4 or Windows machine, so I can’t play No Man’s Sky (which seems to deliver on the long-ago promise of Will Wright’s Spore), but through the magic1 of Spotify, I was listening to the soundtrack this morning.

Other video game soundtracks I enjoy include Monument Valley and FTL.

Update: See also Robin Sloan on the appeal of No Man’s Sky and how it is like reading.

  1. I still miss Rdio. :(

How not to get screwed buying a used car

posted by Jason Kottke   May 16, 2016

This video about how not to get screwed buying a used car crams an astounding amount of good information into three minutes.

Update: Bold claim by Robin Sloan on Twitter:

The calm density of this video is way more “future of visual communication” than 99% of claimants to that title

I agree. That video contained more information than a 44-minute episode of Mythbusters but the pace and energy were more relaxed.

The secret rites of Minecraft

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 28, 2014

“Minecraft is a game about creation,” writes Robin Sloan. “But it is just as much a game about secret knowledge.”

There’s no official manual, so the game’s teeming network of devotees, young and old, proper publishers and web-based wildcats, have worked to create them by the score. Not just guides, but wikis, videos, hints, tricks. The rules can only be discovered by observation, reasoning, and experiment. Like science — or magic:

Imagine yourself a child. Imagine yourself given one of these books: not merely a story of exploration and adventure, but a manual to such.

Imagine yourself acquiring the keys to a mutable world in which you can explore caves, fight spiders, build castles, ride pigs, blow up mountains, construct aqueducts to carry water to your summer palace… anything.

Imagine yourself a child, in possession of the secret knowledge.

Maybe the most interesting thing about this, Robin writes, is how the game “calls forth” the books — another kind of magic. Is this a function of how much Minecraft players love the game? Or is that arcane, indirect, networked, bottomless well of knowledge, asking to be impossibly filled, what they love about it?

Your most outdated gadget

posted by Jason Kottke   May 23, 2013

Rob Walker asked some tech writers what their most outdated gadget was. Alexis Madrigal pretty much answers for me:

I think it’s the sound system in our car 2003 Volkswagen Golf TDI,” Madrigal says. “We have one of those magical devices that lets you play an iPod through the tape deck (how do those work?) — but it makes a horrible screeching noise when it gets hot.” That leaves the CD player and terrestrial radio: “We seem to rotate between the same three CDs we burned or borrowed some time ago, and the local NPR affiliate.”

Madrigal hastens to add that what he really wants is a stereo with “an aux-in so that I can play Rdio throughout the vehicle.” The problem? “I am scared of car audio guys,” he says. “I knew a lot of them in high school. They are a kind of gadgethead that just kind of freaks me out. I loathe the idea of going in there and having to explain why we have this old-ass tape deck, and then — because I don’t know any better — getting ripped off on a new stereo.

It’s either that or our cable box/DVR…that thing records about 20 minutes of HD programming and is 20 years old now. Really should trade it in for something made since Clinton left office. See also Robin Sloan’s dumbphone.

Mat Honan visits Google Island

posted by Jason Kottke   May 17, 2013

After taking in a four-hour keynote at the Google I/O conference, Mat Honan is transported to a magical place called Google Island.

The soft, froggy voice startled me. I turned around to face an approaching figure. It was Larry Page, naked, save for a pair of eyeglasses.

“Welcome to Google Island. I hope my nudity doesn’t bother you. We’re completely committed to openness here. Search history. Health data. Your genetic blueprint. One way to express this is by removing clothes to foster experimentation. It’s something I learned at Burning Man,” he said. “Here, drink this. You’re slightly dehydrated, and your blood sugar is low. This is a blend of water, electrolytes, and glucose.”

I was taken aback. “How did you…” I began, but he was already answering me before I could finish my question.

“As soon as you hit Google’s territorial waters, you came under our jurisdiction, our terms of service. Our laws-or lack thereof-apply here. By boarding our self-driving boat you granted us the right to all feedback you provide during your journey. This includes the chemical composition of your sweat. Remember when I said at I/O that maybe we should set aside some small part of the world where people could experiment freely and examine the effects? I wasn’t speaking theoretically. This place exists. We built it.”

I was thirsty, so I drank the electrolyte solution down. “This is delicious,” I replied.

“I know,” he replied. “It also has thousands of micro sensors which are now swarming through your blood stream.”

“What… ” I stammered.

“Your prostate is enlarged. Let’s go hangout now. There’s some really great music I’d like to recommend to you.”

You could consider this a follow-up to 2004’s EPIC 2014 by Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore event

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 26, 2012

To celebrate the release of his new novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan is doing two related events at the Center for Fiction in NYC.

Second thing first: At 7pm on Thu, Oct 4, there will be a launch party at the Center for Fiction hosted by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Electric Literature. RSVP here.

But before the party, Robin will be interviewing a variety of people over a 24-hour period and streaming the whole thing online. I am one of the scheduled interviewees and I have no idea what we’ll talk about. But because my slot is right before the party starts, after almost 20 non-stop hours of Robin interviewing people, it’s possible we’ll just change into our sweatpants, split a pint of Cherry Garcia, and spoon on the couch.

Look at your fish

posted by Aaron Cohen   Mar 22, 2012

Robin Sloan has a new app, Fish: a tap essay, discussing the difference between liking something on the Internet and loving something on the Internet. It’s thoughtful and well done. And it’s something you ought to check out if you spend a lot of time on sites like this one. One way or another, you’ll have an opinion, the essay demands it, and Internet that makes you think is the best kind.

In the essay, Robin mentions the difference for him between what he likes and what he loves is if he keeps going back to it. Writing up this post, the last sentence of the first paragraph specifically, I think I might have realized for the first time that for me, the difference between a Tweet or post that I like or fave or star, or whatever, and one I love is if it makes me think. I might not ever visit that URL again, but I’ll think about it later. Again and again, maybe. I love that. Since I’m simple, I sometimes also love, vs like, remarkable animal videos.

Expiring Netflix Watch Instantly alerts

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 15, 2011

queuenoodle is a Twitter account that will tell you when movies expire from Netflix Watch Instantly so you can, uh, watch them. Brought you by Twitter’s media pastamaker, Robin Sloan.

Pomplamoose covers Lady Gaga’s Telephone

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 15, 2010

Love it. Robin Sloan has previously discussed this type of “production as performance” video on Snarkmarket but Pomplamoose has started using the term “VideoSong”:

This cover is a VideoSong, a new medium with 2 rules:
1. What you see is what you hear (no lip-syncing for instruments or voice).
2. If you hear it, at some point you see it (no hidden sounds).

As NPR explains, the band is actually making a living from their covers…they sold 100,000 songs last year. Here’s their album of covers on iTunes.

Stock and flow

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 19, 2010

Robin Sloan writes about stock and flow as “the master metaphor for media today”.

Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist. Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years?) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.

Nail on the head. Although I think you can also consider something like “trust” to be stock as well, in which case you can use quality flow to build up stock.

Beyonce’s Single Ladies covered by Pomplamoose

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 13, 2009

A good example of what Robin Sloan calls the production-as-performance video.

What I love about the approach is that it’s showing us a complicated, virtuoso performance, but making it really clear and accessible at the same time. It’s entertaining, but it’s also an exercise in demystification — which of course is exactly the opposite objective of every music video, ever. Their purpose has been to mystify, to masquerade, to mythologize in real-time.