As some of you may remember, I spent 2009 writing a memoir about my experiences in New York City's New Media industry from 1993 to 2003. I've often wondered if I would ever write an update.
I might someday, and I might even write about the work I've been doing since 2009, when I moved down to Northern Virginia to get married and began working in Washington DC and in Northern Virginia's tech corridor.
I only write memoirs in past tense, so I won't be writing about my current jobs and projects anytime soon. But I wish I could, because lately it's been as exciting as Silicon Alley down in here. The big local story is the epic #fail of the Obama administration's website Healthcare.gov, which was built by several NoVa firms like CGI Federal.
The secret to creating great and enduring websites, I'm pretty sure, is to have the nerve to launch stuff that's totally not ready. This is something I've always been good at.
If you've hung around Litkicks for any amount of time, you know I've been trying to launch a new version of our long-running Action Poetry space for over a year now. I've also solicited your ideas along the way. One idea arrived that seemed to make a lot of sense to me, and this idea finally spurred me to, well, action. After a furious month of development and testing, I'm ready to show a beta today.
The big idea that got me moving? Integration with other social networks, especially Facebook. When I originally launched Action Poetry on these sites now defunct Jive message boards in 2001, the poetry community that grew around the boards existed in Internet isolation, and this isolation always felt to me like a dead end. I designed rudimentary member profiles for contributing poets, but I never wanted Literary Kicks to be in the business of social networking. Litkicks is about the content, the words -- I want my site to hook into social networks, but I don't want my site to be a social network.
I love a writer with the gumption to fix the world. The list of great shouting visionaries and Jeremiahs of classic literature includes Henry David Thoreau, whose prescription was nature and simplicity, and T. S. Eliot, who offered humanity the balm of strict religious and academic tradition. it takes a special kind of sensibility to tell the world what it's doing wrong.
Franz Kafka, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein were all social philosophers, but they never made the slightest attempt to recommend a solution to society's problems, though their fellow modernist W. B. Yeats tried. Anton Chekhov did not preach, Leo Tolstoy did. Albert Camus did not, Jean-Paul Sartre did. When the Beat Generation hit, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs all seemed aware of the same fault lines in modern civilization, but it was only Allen Ginsberg who tried to recommend a path to progress through pacifism, sexual liberation and activism, as Jack Kerouac resigned himself to lyrical drunken pessimism and William S. Burroughs built bunkers, both psychic and residential, from which to observe the disasters to come.
Jonathan Franzen is a modern novelist who has the same rare and classic passion to save the world as Thoreau, Tolstoy, Eliot, Yeats, Sartre and Ginsberg, and this one reason I like him so much. Many readers, however, do not like this kind of behavior from a novelist. The enormously successful and popular Franzen (one of the few candidates, in my opinion, for best living American writer today) is now testing his audience's patience for preaching with an unusual new volume, The Kraus Project, an annotated collection of essays by an Austrian Jewish satirist and cultural critic named Karl Kraus who was, Franzen tells us, extremely influential during the twilight years of Vienna before, during and after the First World War, a hundred years ago.
The fact that I don't love Thomas Pynchon is statistically nearly impossible.
Any literary heat map of my favorite writers would find Pynchon near the center, hovering somewhere between Brautigan, Vonnegut, Kesey, Burroughs, Thompson, Acker, Coetzee, Auster. And yet I can't stand his thick, impenetrably clever prose. I find his hysterical habit of packing multiple cosmic curlicues, pop-culture puns and obscure historical references into every sentence simply obnoxious. I don't like a writer who keeps trying to distract my attention when I'm trying to read.
But, well, here's the thing. All my friends and literary comrades and people I respect love Thomas Pynchon. I guess they find his convoluted style fun and challenging. Who knows? My friends have Pynchon tattoos, have named their bands or websites after Pynchon, have even written adoring Litkicks articles about Pynchon. I don't understand why all these smart people love him so much and I don't, and I feel very isolated in this position.
Some people think Literary Kicks is a blog. That's because I pretend it is.
However, I only started to describing Litkicks as a blog in the mid-2000s, by which time the site had already gone through a lot of changes. No matter what format Litkicks is in, it is always for me a part of a single extended experiment.
The experiment is about technology and communication, an exercise in digitally-enabled discussion, cultural reflevity and personal expression. I was a techie before I began running a website, and I like to use Litkicks the way a techie uses a laboratory. I use it to explore new ways to reach people with words, to see what happens when strangers around the world make real-time connections through shared ideas. It's an experiment I also carry out within the various web development projects I do for a living -- because, no matter how mundane a project is (luckily, most of the time, I get to work on projects I like), every web project is an experiment in mass communication. That's what makes the work always an exciting and suspenseful challenge.
There is no Philosophy Weekend this weekend because lately I've been back in the lab in a major way, cooking up a new website that will soon launch as a part of Literary Kicks. The new website will be devoted to poetry. Not snooty poetry of the type that wins awards in ballrooms for people wearing tuxedos, but rather the kinds of poetry that all of us write and share, even when we don't know we're doing so.
Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City is the first novel I've ever read that harmed itself with an epigraph. Yes, I considered the little italicized quotation that adorns the page before the first page of this novel so poorly chosen that it immediately depressed the excitement with which I had opened the book, and ended up presaging my overall dislike.
First, about that excitement: I had two good reasons to believe I would love this novel. First, Choire Sicha is one of the editorial voices identified with the golden age of Gawker, one of the most sarcastic and cuttingly relevant websites around. I would be happy to read an entire novel written in the Gawker voice (many of my friends hate Gawker, but I don't, as is evident in the number of times I've linked to the site here on Litkicks). I also respect The Awl, a lit/culture magazine that Sicha founded after leaving Gawker.
Second, I was hopeful because Very Recent History is about young urban professionals in New York City in 2009. They go to parties, check each other out on Facebook, work banal day jobs at venal corporations (which happen to be convulsing in the aftermath of the 2007/2008 Wall Street crash). This is a world I know well, and lived through myself in 2009.
So I opened this novel expecting a treat, and really all Choire Sicha had to do was mail in a good story with some believable characters and smarmy roman a clef moments, and I would be giving the book a thumbs-up on Litkicks right now.
This is a sculpture found in ancient Syria around 5000 B.C. It's a reminder of how glorious a land is today a scene of misery, genocide and fear, as the civil war against the Assad regime worsens and the world contemplates the possibility of a USA missile strike that nobody believes will help the government's victims.
Syria is a treasure of the world, a place of amazing history. It's the northern corner of the Biblical lands. It was part of the Roman empire, then the Byzantine empire, then the Islamic empire. It was a target for the Crusades, then for many centuries an Ottoman land, and finally it found itself a remote outpost of France's confused post-colonial strategy in the 20th Century.
It's not a big surprise that a land trampled by war for two millennia should today suffer from more and more war -- and yet my fellow citizens of the USA who worry about the poor victims of Assad's chemical weaponry can think of nothing better to do for the suffering country than to shoot gigantic missiles at its cities and hope some bad guys get caught in the wreckage. This is the weak proposal that President Obama is putting before Congress.
The story of Edward Snowden, Booz Allen/NSA/Prism whistleblower, is a rorschach test. Everybody sees something different in it. Me, I told you how I felt this weekend (though I wrote that blog post before the identity of Edward Snowden had been revealed). I consider Edward Snowden a hero, in the proud tradition of Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning -- though I'm more interested in the attack on Booz Allen Hamilton (a sycophantic government/military contractor that's been soaking the American taxpayer for years) than I am in the attack on the National Security Agency. I'm glad Snowden revealed the facts of PRISM, and I believe a helpful public dialogue about privacy in the Internet age is beginning to emerge.
I have a unique angle on this topic, because databases are my thing. They've been my thing since the early 1990s, when I became an expert in SQL (Structured Query Language, the most prevalent computer language in the world) data modeling and database application development. My favorite database is MySQL, the powerful open source platform. (This is the database world equivalent of saying that my favorite ice cream is vanilla, since MySQL is certainly the traditional choice for favorite open source database, but I can't help it.) MySQL powers Litkicks, and it probably powers most of the websites you've visited today.
As hard as this is to believe, this summer will mark the 19th birthday of Literary Kicks. I really have no idea why I've been doing it this long. I once had a reason; I forgot it. I guess I'm still having fun, though sometimes it's hard to tell.
All this spring and summer, we'll be hovering over the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web's breakthrough into mass popularity. This week presents another possible "birthday" date for the WWW craze: it was on April 30, 1993 that CERN announced its intention to fully share its homegrown HTML and HTTP standards and supporting software with the world as free open source. It seems likely that the exploding popularity of the Mosaic browser (which we discussed last month) helped push CERN to take this step. In fact, Unix developers already assumed that WWW software was free and open by this date anyway, so CERN's announcement wasn't really a revolutionary step, though it is a notable moment.