When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a crane driver. My parents thought this was pretty funny, since I was apparently a rather brainy and un-physical kid. Nobody else ever saw a hard hat and a metal lunchbox in my future, yet I was always obsessed with buildings and urban architecture, I always wanted to stop and look when we passed a construction site, and I still wonder today if I would have found greater overall satisfaction if I'd stuck to my earliest career plan. My crane-driver dreams were probably also inspired by The Flintstones.
I recently took a walk during a lunch break from my current day job, which is in the high-tech corridor of Herndon/Reston in Northern Virginia, and spotted a bustling building site where hundreds of construction professionals were hard at work. It occurred to me that I was looking at a real-life version of the positive vision presented by countless Republican or Democratic party political ads, because these TV commercials love to show the stern, trusting faces of stolid middle-aged guys wearing hard hats at construction sites. The construction job is the idealized American job: decent pay and benefits, solid and dependable hours, the satisfaction of watching a building emerge under your feet. Here's a wider vista of the project I watched for a few minutes before heading back to my own less exciting (but also, in its own way, rewarding and satisfying) job developing Drupal-based web applications for government-sponsored sites.
After spending two months redesigning Literary Kicks and migrating it from Drupal 6 to Drupal 7, I asked my wife Caryn what she thought of the new look. "It looks the same as before," she said.
That really made me laugh, because it's true. I spent two months trying out about ten new themes, two different responsive/mobile strategies and at least three crazy ideas about completely reinventing the look and feel of the blog. I then ended up choosing a design/layout structure that strongly resembled the layout and design that was in place before. I guess I don't like to screw with a formula that works.
But, even if the difference isn't obvious, I've made significant improvements in the site's content architecture which will allow me to keep digging deeply into my archives, cross-pollinating by taxonomy and various metadata, and adapting to new reader devices and display formats. Most importantly, the entire site is now fully HTML5. If you don't know much about HTML5, you might have at least caught a glimpse of one of its champions, Tim Berners-Lee, a long-time tech hero of mine, at the London Olympics Opening Ceremony.
in the middle of the journey of the life we share together
i became lost in the woods, and could not find the correct path
Dante, the Divine Comedy
I am not actually lost in the woods, though I know I promised to finish the redesign and relaunch of Literary Kicks by early September, and I'm running late. The project is going well, but I'll need at least another full week before the new thing is ready to drop.
Here's the real honest truth: I'm enjoying the break from blogging. I decided to allow myself to take my time with the technical redesign, because ... well, I've been blathering on this infernal website for a whole long time. Sometimes I just want to be stop blogging for a couple of weeks.
You may find this hard to believe, but I sometimes just want to be silent. Silence is a good thing. The latter-day Beat poet Bob Kaufman once took a vow of silence for 10 years, whereas I'm pretty sure Litkicks will be back in the next two weeks.
Michael Stutz began exploring the literary/underground/DIY culture of the Internet as a writer for Wired and Rolling Stone so long ago that, way back when I first showed up on the lit/tech scene (which was a long time ago), he was already there to show me around. After a long self-imposed separation from the online world, he has now returned with a three-volume novel chronicling the entire life story of a connection-hungry connoisseur of online culture. Meet Michael Stutz.
Levi: Your novel Circuits of the Wind: A Legend of the Net Age is a coming-of-age tale, hearkening back to other classics of the genre from Henry Fielding's Tom Jones to J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. But your hero's world is a new one for fiction: the emerging society of online culture, from the early Unix dial-up BBS's of the 1980s to the dot-com mania of the 90s to the more scattered social networking scene of today. What kind of reaction are you getting from readers to the idea that a life lived largely online is one worthy of heroic fiction?
Michael: The novelist Tony D'Souza just called the book's hero, Ray Valentine, "the Everyman of the wired age," so it seems to be natural -- and remember McLuhan: "technology forces us to live mythically." Yet, you know, heroic fiction of the kind we're talking about is almost nonexistent in contemporary literary fiction. Arther S. Trace, Jr., an outsider intellectual, wrote a powerful, prescient book in the early 70s called The Future of Literature. This is about the only book of literary theory to map out and show the decline of heroic fiction. It was a long process, but Trace shows how it really tanks in the day of postmodernism. And you know what? I've always been repelled by postmodernism -- in everything, from literature to architecture. I don't identify with it or fit in with it at all. For decades we've had the postmodern "anti-hero" in fiction, and everything has to be ironic and heartless, and that just doesn't connect with me. I'm Beat and before. Bring me back to that and let's go off in a whole new direction and forget all this other stuff. I want to do something totally different. So if the classical hero is the way, and the new world of the net is my ineluctable material, the combination is pretty much the way it had to be.
It's not surprising that many techies like Ayn Rand. There is a minimalist clarity to her ethical philosophy, a primal unity of method and structure, that may remind an Objectivist of the intellectual foundation of a great operating system.
I often disagree with my Objectivist friend John from Oklahoma City, but he and I share a common frame of reference because we're both networking professionals: he runs his own firm, and I'm a software consultant. (I'm not an Objectivist, of course, but I am an anti-Objectivist, which means I spend a lot of time thinking about the same problems that Objectivists think about.)
I recently received an insightful email from another reader of my book Why Ayn Rand is Wrong (and Why It Matters), Tommaso Delfanti, a race car engineer from Italy. He contacted me to share his thoughts on the effectiveness of my arguments in this book. He also mentioned that he'd become interested in Ayn Rand's philosophy after playing the game Bioshock, which portrays a dystopian world in which Randian heroes (both good and corrupt, including a quasi-Randian figure named Andrew Ryan) compete with various enemies for primacy in their violent world.
I waited a couple of months before letting myself open up Walter Isaacson's acclaimed new biography, Steve Jobs. Given Isaacson's known gift for storytelling and my own penchant for computer-age pop culture history, I knew I'd be in for an obsessive reading experience once I cracked it open. This is a book I needed to clear away some uninterrupted time for.
The most enjoyable part of Steve Jobs is the first section, in which two delightful Silicon Valley counterculture tech nerds named Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak grow up and invent the world-changing Apple II, the first commercially viable personal computer, in 1977. Here, the book offers the familiar satisfying thrill we look for in the early pages of every celebrity biography: those achingly pregnant moments in which the players stand at the precipice of greatness ... and then finally step over.
The dawn of the computer age is always a compelling subject, because we can all relate in some way to the feeling of surprise, personal growth and liberation that has accompanied this rapid pace of technological change (this is a dawn, after all, that we are still somewhere in the middle of). Isaacson's Steve Jobs is a classic computer-age tale of transformation and wonder -- from the quaint beauty of the first Macintosh (a wonderful little machine, so efficient that its entire operating system fit along with several applications and free user space on a single one-megabyte diskette) to the wide smiles generated by the Toy Story movie franchise (this is what Jobs worked on in the 1990s, between the Mac and the iPhone), to the invention of the dynamic iPad device, his last offering to the world before his early death.
I tried not to show it, but I was absolutely terrified seven months ago when I launched my first Kindle book, Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters). What was I afraid of, exactly? Embarrassment, I suppose. The lingering shame of innocent hope followed by predictable failure. The apathy of my readers, the disappointment of my loved ones and friends: Levi doesn't know how to do this right.
I wasn't sure how to measure success in my first venture as an e-book publisher, but I'm always keenly aware of what failure looks like. I sent out press releases and personal notes about the book, and was pleased to see my book occupy and hold a mid-level position on the Amazon Philosophy and Politics/Ideology charts. I sold dozens of copies, then hundreds of copies. Sales never took off like a shot, but they grew at a slow and steady pace, and a variety of chatty positive/negative reviews began appearing on my Amazon page.
Why Ayn Rand is Wrong is not a success by the metrics of any major publisher. It still hasn't sold a thousand copies, though at this point I'm sure it'll reach that number soon. The best positive indication for me that the book may be a success after all is that I sold more copies in October than any month before, and that the book now comes up in the very first page -- the very first page! -- of search results when you search for "Ayn Rand" on your Kindle.
1. Isn't this a great book cover? Woolgathering is not a new Patti Smith book, and it shouldn't be mistaken for a sequel to her great Just Kids. In fact, I first bought this when it was a great little Hanuman book that looked like this:
The Hanuman book looked cool, but I think the newly republished New Directions version's cover art may be even better. Shepherd, tend thy flock.
2. Occupy St. Petersburg? Bill Ectric draws some connections between Nikolai Gogol's financial satire Dead Souls and more recent high finance scams.
3. Steve Silberman asks: What kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, really?
I did not find myself on Wall Street by accident; I had graduated from a state university with a computer science degree six years earlier, and had taken a series of jobs that each brought me closer to the top of my field. I wasn't particularly interested in high finance, but I was ambitious for an exciting career, and the financial industry was considered the most prestigious place for a techie to work in New York City at this time. I did not find what I hoped for there. My two year adventure at JP Morgan left me deeply disappointed on many levels, and I consider myself lucky that I was able to leave the financial software marketplace for better work elsewhere (I never looked back, except sometimes in anger).
1. Here at Litkicks, we love pretty much anything David Byrne ever does. His latest enigma is a series of nonexistent iPhone apps, including "Invisible Me" above, which will be displayed as part of a Pace Gallery show called "Social Media" in New York City this fall.
2. "Very Naked, No Lunch." So intones an Austrian hipster in Beat Today, a film that explores the meaning of the Beat Generation as it is manifested today within the counterculture of Central Europe. It's by Tilman Otto Wagner of Vienna, who has also written a book called The Beat Generation and Scholastic Analysis.
3. Exciting news! Litkicks favorite Art Spiegelman is writing a book about his book Maus, aptly titled MetaMaus. He'll be appearing at the 92nd Street Y in New York City to explain what this book will be.