Article – Robin Sloan’s Double Dagger Idea

I received this on a listserv last week and thought it interesting enough to share with everyone. I’m hoping I’m giving enough credit where credit is due; let me know if I’m not and I’ll get on that.


*On a side note, I just started Mr. Penumbras 24-Hour Bookstore and it’s lovely. I’m identifying with the main character to a scary degree. So far, so good 😉 


From: Robin Sloan <>
Subject: ‡ So, about that dagger
Date: Friday, December 28, 2012, 11:50 AM


It’s almost 2013. Okay it basically is 2013. For the New Year, then: an idea, a question, and a resolution.

(Remember, you’re receiving this message because you signed up to get ideas and/or questions and/or resolutions from me, Robin Sloan. You can unsubscribe instantly.)


If you keep an eye on the New York Times Best Seller list, every so often you’ll notice a little notation next to a book’s ranking, like this: †

It indicates that some booksellers have reported receiving bulk orders for the book in question. In other words, someone — some rich benefactor! — is buying whole boxes, almost certainly in an attempt to drive up the book’s ranking.

First, I have to say: I love the use of the typographical dagger there. I know I’m projecting, but it totally implies sneakiness and skulduggery. It even seems to sort of prick the ranking itself, deflate it a bit.

(Second, an aside, which I include because I learned it only recently and I think it’s interesting: the Times rankings don’t reflect a straight tally of books sold. Rather, they’re based on a variety of sales reports, all weighted and balanced to divine some deeper signal: a sense of a book’s commercial vitality, its momentum. Interesting, right? We think of the Best Seller list as being quite old-school — and it is — but really, that approach isn’t so different from Google’s. It’s totally an algorithm; it just happens to be executed by humans. [In my imagination, those humans roam the country in a bookmobile-turned-RV, stopping at out-of-the-way bookstores, assessing the front tables, updating their spreadsheets over assorted truck-stop breakfasts. Yes, I know they actually just live in New York.])

Anyway: Mr. Penumbras 24-Hour Bookstore had a nice run on the hardcover fiction list, peaking at around 22. But I think, in fairness to the other books on the list, Penumbra’s ranking should have carried some special notation of its own. I mean, a book gets the dagger when it benefits from the bulk orders of rich benefactors… but what about when it benefits from the support of a secret society, assembled slowly over many years, such as the very one receiving this email??

It’s hardly fair.

So, I propose a new notation, to be attached to books buoyed by such shadowy networks: the double dagger. It looks like this ‡ and oh I think it’s just perfect. The double dagger stands for the unexpected advantage. Like this: in a dark alley you are beset by a black-clad assassin; he brandishes a switchblade; grins evilly. You shake your head, full of rue, because suddenly you are holding a double dagger, its twin blades warping and flickering — they are made from pairs of steel molecules split apart, one assigned to each blade, both still quantum-entangled — and slicing through probabilities, all of them bloody.

Wisely, the assassin flees.

The double dagger. The secret weapon. I don’t know if the Times will go for it, but me, I love it. From here on out, I’ll always put one in the subject line to remind you what we’re about here. Watch for it — the sharp little ‡.


Three months and two emails ago, I asked for your advice on large-group collaboration tools. Several people suggested the website Branch, which wasn’t, at that time, quite what I had in mind. But recently, Branch added a group feature that I think looks super promising. So let’s try it out:

I’ve been thinking about something and I need more ideas than the ones currently available in my brain. I require caroms. Perturbations.

First, some background: I’ve always loved the trope in which a person placed in some new environment finds his everyday ho-hum capabilities suddenly quite super. You know the classics, of course: Kal-El of Krypton discovers that Earth’s bright yellow sun charges his cells like batteries; John Carter of Virginia discovers that Mars’ weak gravity allows him to leap like a grasshopper.

Right now, I am in the business of imagining alternate worlds that might result from a tweak in our own. (Seriously, do you understand? This is my job now.) I’m not looking to make people super; in fact, the subtler the change the better. I’m trying to come up with characteristics of our world that we take absolutely for granted, more on the level of physics and planetary composition than politics or human psychology.

For example, I’ve toyed with the idea of energy being a bit “cheaper” — the laws of thermodynamics being just slightly more liberal. What new things might that make possible? What would it be like to visit that world?

Another example: what if Earth’s plate tectonics worked differently? I’m looking for changes in the bedrock here. Literally.

I’ve found this fun to think and talk about; maybe you will too. Here’s a link to join in — and to the person who clicks it first and is greeted by an empty group, as if I’m throwing a big party and you’re the first to arrive, so it’s just you and me and the snack table: MAY I OFFER YOU AN ENTHUSIASTIC AND AWKWARD HELLO!

You’ll need a Twitter account to join, but I hope that won’t deter you. If you don’t have one already, you can always just make a little throwaway account. I do believe @AjaxPenubra is still available…

This is totally an experiment: if Branch works well and feels good, we’ll keep using it; if it doesn’t, we’ll keep looking. Feel free to send me your impressions. As before, and as always, you can just hit reply.


It’s almost 2013, and for me, as never before in my adult life — at least not since I was in college — the year ahead is a blank canvas. But I know what I am about: I will write a new book and I will produce a story-app-something-or-other designed expressly for tablets. If we reconvene at this time next year and I’ve done zero or one of those things: berate me. But why should I fail to do both? There’s such clarity here. And also, sure, a bit of attendant fear: the kind that comes from naked culpability. Why, indeed, should I fail? Can’t blame the bureaucracy. Can’t mutter about office politics. I am the office, and 100% of the bureaucracy is right here, between my head and the keyboard. Oy.

May you have clarity, too, and the culpability that comes with it, and may you paint the canvas of your 2013 — whatever part of it is yours to define — in a way that makes you proud. I’ll report back on my resolutions in a year, and of course I’ll send updates along the way. Thanks, as always, for following along.

From Berkeley,

P.S. Here’s the link to the group one more time:

P.P.S. If you are serious about Effective Email Marketing™ you always Give Them The Link One More Time™



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