Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Angry Whopper

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, February 4, 2009 12:24 pm

1. I like Burger King's weird Angry Whopper thing. As far as anthropomorphic fast food goes, this is far more interesting than, say, McDonald's Hamburgler. It also involves onion rings and I want one.

2. I love everything O'Reilly does (I was just reminiscing about one of their early books) and will be attending most of Tools of Change, their three-day conference on publishing and technology in New York City next week. I'm looking forward to hearing from Kassia Krozser, Jeff Jarvis, Laurel Touby, Bob Stein, Peter Brantley, Cory Doctorow, the distinguished Jason Epstein (author of Book Business and a great choice for this conference), the equally distinguished Tim O'Reilly himself, Joe Wikert, Kevin Smokler, Ron Hogan and Chris Baty on topics like e-books, XML, digital convergence, Kindles, Stanza, and survival techniques for writers in the digital age. It's a big agenda, the timing is right, and I will certainly be filing a report or two from this conference.

3.I'm looking forward to participating in a benefit reading for humanitarian aid in the Gaza Strip this Saturday, February 7 at 7 pm at McNally Jackson bookstore in Soho. This is to raise funds for the International Red Cross, though I'm not kidding myself that we're going to raise Warren Buffett/Bill Gates money in a downtown Manhattan bookstore on a Saturday night. I think the real value of an event like this is that it gives a chance for angry and concerned people to share ideas and express hope together.

4. On Friday, February 13 at 7 pm McNally Jackson is also presenting How History Was Made: Books That Inspired A President, a panel discussion about the admirably literary roots of our current President, featuring Laura Miller, Colm Toibin and Eric Alterman.

5. The February Words Without Borders features graphic fiction from around the world. WWB is also sponsoring a discussion of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote this Thursday, February 5 at Idlewild Bookstore in New York City, featuring translators Edith Grossman and Eduardo Lago.

6. I get interviewed by Finn Harvor at Conversations in the Book Trade.

7. TRUTH FAIL. I am being very careful to keep my memoir entirely truthful, but I've already had to fix two minor mistakes after searching through old paperwork to verify my facts. I confused my salary and job title in 1994 (after I got a big promotion and raise) with my salary in 1993, and I also confused two book publishers I worked with in the 90s -- it was McGraw-Hill who offered me a contract to write a book on client-server programming with Sybase SQL Server, not Manning (which would eventually publish my book Coffeehouse: Writings From the Web).

The first mistake was caused by rewriting: I had originally set a scene in 1994, and after I decided to reset the scene in 1993 I failed to adjust certain details accordingly. The second mistake was simple confusion: my friend Len Dorfman had been the book scout responsible for both this book contract and my later one with Manning, and I remembered incorrectly that he only scouted for Manning, when in fact he also worked with McGraw-Hill. This truth stuff is harder than I thought! Interestingly, author Tim Barrus (a friend of LitKicks, who got a lot of attention after publishing an award-winning memoir as a Native American named Nasdijj) has posted some provocative comments to one of these posts about the ideal of truthfulness in autobiography. This a complex and fascinating topic (I've also written about it with regard to Bob Dylan, JT Leroy and Ishmael Beah), but I pledge to uphold simple and strict standards with my memoir, and am embarrassed to have had to fix mistakes so quickly after beginning the project. I hope this disclosure is sufficient punishment.

8. I didn't realize that Sara Nelson, the highly-regarded but laid-off recent chief of Publisher's Weekly, came up at is one of the Silicon Alley companies that will show up in later chapters of the above-mentioned memoir, since I had many conversations about content management technology with Deanna Brown when she was founding the company at the height of the dot-com boom in late 1999 and early 2000. I almost joined the team but, as strange as this sounds, I was too busy. I probably would have made more money if I had gone, and I would have gotten to work with Sara Nelson too. Hmm!

9. Yahoo music blogger Rob O'Connor's attempted put-down of Bruce Springsteen's Super Bowl performance is weak. "You may find this hard to believe," he begins before letting the insults roll, "but I am a Bruce Springsteen fan." Yet this "fan" is surprised that Bruce cajoles the audience, slides into the camera, pulls hokey comedy routines and "kills us with show-biz overkill". Actually, overkill is the essence of any Bruce Springsteen/E Street Band concert. He's an extremely dynamic and energetic performer, which is one reason he can sell out stadiums for dozens of nights in a row. Rob O'Connor was apparently expecting Bruce to stand still and whine into a microphone while fondling a guitar like Jason Mraz, which only proves that he has never been within fifty miles of a Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band concert and should stop lying about being a fan.

10. Popular author Jennifer Weiner would like to freshen up literary coverage in newspapers. Here's just a sample of her good suggestions:

As matron of the arts, here are some things I don’t want to read about: new books by Philip Roth (I prefer the old ones, which were funny). New books by Cormac McCarthy. New books by any male writer prone to complaining about the indignities of old age, either general or prostate-specific, or or having his male protagonists do the same.

New short-story collection by Alice Munro. Instead of wasting eight hundred words, just say it’s every bit as wrenching and finely wrought as the last short-story collection by Alice Munro, and be done with it.

11. The politically conservative Pajamas Media blog ad network has gone out of business, and is falling over itself on the way down. Just in case anybody thinks this means the blog ad format is to blame, I'd like to point out how happy I am with, the company that sells ads for LitKicks. I make a couple hundred dollars every month via BlogAds -- sometimes more, sometimes less, but the business model appears to work just fine when sensible and realistic expectations are applied.

12. Tom Stoppard on his Cherry Orchard (via Maud).

13. Justin Taylor of HTML Giant appreciates a George Saunders short story, and explains exactly why.

14. From Boing Boing, this is your brain on fiction. Or maybe on an angry whopper.


by Levi Asher on Wednesday, January 21, 2009 01:03 am

(This is chapter 2 of my memoir of the internet industry, which begins here.)

The Internet was born in November 1969, just after an exciting summer that included the Woodstock festival, the Charlie Manson murders and the Apollo 11 moonshot. The first successful demonstration of the Internet went much more quietly. A computer at the University of California at Los Angeles exchanged a series of messages with a computer at Stanford University in Palo Alto, 360 miles away, and at this moment -- well, one can only imagine that champagne bottles were popped, colleagues in various corporations and universities and government offices were giddily notified, and several West Coast nerds went home very happy. It didn't make the evening news.

The Internet grew, slowly and steadily. By the time I graduated with a Computer Science degree from Albany State in May 1984, the Internet was still nothing but a rumor to anyone I'd ever met. I worked for an aerospace firm and a robotics firm in the late 80s and never once saw a TCP/IP packet that didn't come from inside my building. We all knew that the Internet was somewhere out there -- I read about it in magazines like Byte and InfoWorld -- and in late 1992 I noticed a strange new book called The Whole Internet: User's Guide and Catalog by Ed Krol. It was published by O'Reilly, the most respected technical publisher in the Unix field, but it had a strange sort of 60s-ish San Francisco feel to it that was unlike any other O'Reilly book. I thumbed through it and read about Telnet, FTP, Usenet, Archie and Gopher, but it didn't make much sense and I didn't know where to find the Internet anyway.

Contemplating the Tweet

by Levi Asher on Thursday, January 15, 2009 10:30 pm

I'm not sure yet if I love Twitter or not. But I think I'd better get used to it, because it's clearly here to stay, and increasingly appears to be a game-changer in every corner of the social internet.

If proof of the power of simple technology were ever needed, Twitter is that proof. I bet that some within the company would like to expand and diversify the service, but I hope they continue to resist that temptation. If Twitter did not force every single user -- it doesn't matter if you're John Cleese or some guy from Queens -- to post into the same rectangle with the same 140 characters, a lot of the charm would be lost. I wonder if the company can sustain this simplicity forever, but even if they don't, even if were to ever degrade in quality (as Facebook did, a few times), "twitter" has already become something more than "Twitter". It's the way many of us spread our news now. It replaces -- to some extent, for some people -- the instant message, the text message, the quick group email. But will it displace the blog post? I hope not, and this is where I have some concerns about the growing trend.

When's the last time Ed Champion posted a links roundup? He doesn't have to anymore; he just tweets the stuff as it rolls in. What's lost is the archivability. A single tweet can be wonderful or brilliant, but it's a fact that Twitter doesn't archive well. A links roundup on a popular blog earns a spot on the Wayback Machine and belongs to eternity. Does a tweet? I hope so, but the format doesn't encourage a writer to think in timeless terms.

Still, it's a format we can't ignore. Unlike some other bloggers I read, I don't plan to begin twittering my thoughts on literature or philosophy or history or the arts. That's what my website is for. I've tried writing about what I'm reading a few times (like today), but I like the blog format better for a variety of reasons. However, I will occasionally post about other random things on my mind -- songs on the radio, changes to the Taco Bell menu, responses to things other tweeters say -- who knows what I'll talk about? And I guess it's about time I announce my Twitter account here. Follow me if you dare.


by Levi Asher on Tuesday, January 6, 2009 10:41 pm

(This is the first chapter of my new memoir of the Internet industry.)

I didn't become a computer programmer because I wanted to. It was the door that opened for me.

I was a Philosophy student at Albany State, but my stepfather Gene kept reminding me that I was eventually going to graduate and nobody was hiring philosophers. Gene (a successful businessman who still gives me good advice whenever I need it) made me a better offer after my sophomore year -- a summer job in the software department of the aerospace electronics division he managed, at General Instrument in Hicksville, Long Island. My brother Gary already had a summer job with Gene, so I decided to tag along. It was a better paycheck than McDonalds.

Back at Albany State for the autumn semester, I noticed a strange and growing convergence between the Philosophy department and the Computer Science department. My Symbolic Logic professor (who'd given me an A+) James Thomas suddenly resigned his full professorship in the Philosophy department to become a doctoral candidate and teaching assistant in the Computer Science department. I asked him about it and he said "Are you kidding? This is what's interesting in logic right now. This is where I want to be." The fact that he was demoting himself from professor to grad student didn't bother him at all. That's the kind of "logic" I admire.

A Memoir In Progress

by Levi Asher on Friday, January 2, 2009 01:51 am

I was a frustrated software developer and unpublished novelist working at a Wall Street bank in 1993 when I first heard of a strange and exciting new phenomenon taking place on our computer networks: email, Usenet newsgroups and the World Wide Web. A new communications technology was about to change the world, and I quickly made up my mind that I wanted to be part of the change.

I left the banking industry to join Time Warner's new media division, where I played an integral role in the now-famous disaster known as Pathfinder. I also launched my own website, Literary Kicks, was hired to build Bob Dylan's website, and had my own first taste of creative satisfaction and personal success. In 1999, I finally struck it "rich", cashing in on one of the biggest IPOs in stock market history, just as my marriage broke up and my workaholic tendencies reached a hysterical peak. A year later, the high-flying dot-com stock market began to crash. My paper wealth disappeared along with my job and much of my remaining sanity. I was beginning to gather my resources back together in 2001, only to face new shocking events of a completely unexpected kind. This is the memoir of a software developer who learned how to be a survivor, and a record of the life lessons learned along the way.

Glass Houses

by Levi Asher on Friday, January 2, 2009 12:02 am

1. Jerome David Salinger was born on January 1, 1919 -- ninety years ago today. Charles McGrath offers some new observations about the relationship between J. D. Salinger and his second most enduring character, Seymour Glass, and wonders what might motivate Salinger's ongoing and unyielding pursuit of solitude and silence. I have no answer, but I would compare Salinger on one hand to Beat poet Bob Kaufman (who was similarly obsessed with silence) and on another hand to Kurt Cobain, who like Salinger was dreadfully afraid of being phony.

2. It was nice of Books Inq, AuthorScoop and Jason Boog of GalleyCat to call attention to our 2008 Action Poetry randomizer. GalleyCat even excerpted some verses from a sonic nurse ode to Billy Joel.

Kate and Leo in Suburbia

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, December 24, 2008 02:52 am

1. I attended a preview screening of Revolutionary Road, the new Kate Winslet/Leonardo DiCaprio film based on a highly regarded 1961 novel by Richard Yates, along with a few friends who'd all loved the Richard Yates novel. They all hated the movie. Myself, I haven't read the novel yet, so I can tell you how the film stands on its own. (I'm also reading the novel right now, so I may sound off on this topic again once I finish.)

Revolutionary Road is the tragedy of a marriage that starts off shaky and ends worse. Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio play two earnest and artistic New Yorkers who find themselves living a conformist lifestyle in a fashionable Connecticut suburb (with a street called Revolutionary Road) even though they have strong Bohemian yearnings and can't stand their neighbors. The only neighbor they like -- in one of the film's best scenes -- is a literal madman, played by Michael Shannon, in whom they find a kindred alienated spirit.

The fiesty lovers fight constantly, humor and ignore their children, dream of solving their problems by moving to Paris, all the while descending into greater and greater miseries. I can see why my friends who are familiar with Yates's novel consider the movie a simplistic and commercial betrayal of the source material, but even so, the film packs a punch. It's a bleak and unblinking stare at a troubled modern family, and Kate Winslet's performance helps carry the message. Leo DiCaprio, unfortunately, still can't act -- he sure can emote and yell, and he has a craggy face you could carve into Mount Rushmore -- but he can't act. Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) is also fond of an artificial and histrionic style of acting (Winslet somehow manages to appear natural even in Mendes's hands), and it's frustrating to realize how much better this film could have worked in subtler hands.

Yet Revolutionary Road is worth catching, if only to see the stars of Titanic gloriously reunited. I was surprised that the preview audience didn't gasp during the scene where Kate Winslet fingers a brochure for the Cunard Cruise Line as she makes plans to sail with her family across the Atlantic Ocean. Once again, Kate and Leo don't make it to the other side.

2. The new Pal Joey ended up getting trashed in the New York Times. I think the show deserves a more sympathetic review, even with its many problems. It's still about a hundred times better than Little Mermaid or Legally Blonde.

3. Maud Newton introduces Iceberg, an exciting new iPhone e-book approach pioneered by ScrollMotion. In other e-book news (and there seems to be a lot of e-book news lately), Project Gutenberg is going mobile.

4. Heartbroke Daily is about one writer's persistent lovesickness.

5. I told you last week that I am going to begin an extensive writing project here on LitKicks in January. I first conceived this as a book idea, but since I am already working with an agent on a different book proposal I am going to begin writing this one right here on LitKicks in occasional blog-post segments, not necessarily chronological, and I will continue until I either tell the entire story or decide to stop.

The story is about me, specifically about my work in the internet industry in the last fifteen years. I have seen a lot -- and survived a lot -- since launching LitKicks in 1994 and leaving my job in the financial software industry to work for Time Warner's first internet startup in 1995. In the years to follow I became a spoken-word poet, helped to launch one of the web's first advertising networks, insulted Bill Gates in person, published a book, built, drank too many martinis, became a paper millionaire, went completely broke, got a divorce, watched my kids grow up, endured a year's employment in what must have been one of the most dysfunctional technology departments in the history of mankind (at A&E Network/History Channel), fell in love, and found a new footing online in the age of blogs and Web 2.0. I watched the birth of the dot-com industry, the birth of Yahoo, the birth of Amazon, the birth of Java, the birth of XML, the birth of Google, the death of the sock puppet, and the incredible hair of Rod Blagojevich (okay, Blagojevich's hair isn't in the book, but everything else is).

I have been burning to tell some of these stories for a long time, and I hope to do so in a way that is both entertaining and intellectually stimulating. I'm not a big Ernest Hemingway fan, but my method in telling this story will be to follow his advice in what must have been one of his best lines: "Write the truest sentence you know."

Truth? That's a tall order, but these stories need to be told. Some former Silicon Alley colleagues of mine may not like some of the things I'll say. Hell, I may not like some of the things I'll say. But in my opinion the only reason to write a memoir (James Frey notwithstanding) is that you want to tell the truth, and that's exactly what I plan to do. I hope you'll check out the first installment, which should appear just after New Years Day.

We'll be closing down (and putting up our annual Action Poetry retrospective) between Christmas and New Years. Yesterday I posted a video from Godspell, and in the same spirit, here's an even better random video I found on YouTube, an extremely intense version of Gethsemane from a Peruvian production of Jesus Christ Superstar. This is my idea of a good Christmas video. Enjoy, and see you in January!

Eat the Viscera

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, December 10, 2008 07:02 pm

1. Chicago activist and former Weatherman Bill Ayers has written a post-election apologia for the New York Times. I find his position reasonable enough, though Little Green Footballs is characteristically unimpressed. A belated thought occurred to me: Bill Ayers may have been one of the models (the Weathermen were certainly the aggregate model) for Eat The Document, Dana Spiotta's 2006 novel about 1960s fugitives co-existing with younger hipsters in Seattle. I liked this novel when I first read it, and have come to like it even more in retrospect.

2. You're getting tired of hearing about Roberto Bolano? Imagine how Gabriel Garcia Marquez feels. Bolano's "visceral realism" appears to mock Marquez's magical variety, but the elder statesman will be bouncing back with a new novel. Meanwhile, here's Bud Parr's report on last week's Words Without Borders event honoring Bolano (who, truth be told, is good enough to earn most of the hype).

3. Maud Newton considers recent developments in e-books for handheld devices. Myself, I just want Stanza to become available on iPhone wannabes like my own Verizon LG Dare. Lexcycle, please stop believing that the iPhone is the only handheld that matters.

4. Ed says stay writing. Correct.

5. Neil Gaiman is concerned about legal culpability for fictional characters.

6. Laura Albert will be making a rare appearance, along with Janice Erlbaum, at a benefit for exploited and homeless young women at Under St. Marks Theatre in New York City this Sunday. Info at Janice's blog.

7. I'll be making a not-so-rare appearance myself at a music/storytelling event in Greenpoint, Brooklyn on Friday evening, December 19. More details to come!

8. Friend of LitKicks John Freeman has been named the US Editor of the British literary journal Granta.

9. Daily Routines: How writers, artists, and other interesting people organize their days. The eclectic selection of writers represented here includes Franz Kafka, P. G. Wodehouse, Toni Morrison, John Updike, Gertrude Stein, J. M. Coetzee, Orhan Pamuk.

10. The Village Voice presents favorite obscure books.

11. I'm amazed at how much attention our (losing) Literary Trivia Smackdown got. There are soundbites and photos at WYNC radio, and here's a write-up at the New Yorker's Book Bench, which goes into some detail about a question involving Algonquin regular and drama critic Alexander Woolcott.

Just for the record: I did think of Alexander Woolcott (I once read an entire biography of the man) but for some incredibly dumb reason I didn't think it would be the right answer.

As for WNYC's mention of litbloggers "trying to cheat" -- well, we asked politely if we could break the rules, which isn't really the same thing as trying to cheat. Rest assured, if I ever really try to cheat at something, you won't read about it on a blog, because I'm pretty sneaky and I won't get caught.

National Book Awards 2008

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, November 19, 2008 07:17 pm

I had a great time at the National Book Awards ceremony last year, but I'm skipping the show this year, partly because I can't get excited by these nominations. I'm predicting that Marilynne Robinson will win for Home and Jane Mayer will win for The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, but neither possibility has me jumping up and down. As far as I'm concerned, this year's fiction award should go to Cost by Roxana Robinson and non-fiction to Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker, but neither title was nominated.

Kindle Konfusion

by Levi Asher on Monday, October 6, 2008 09:54 pm

Yeah, I got my hands on a real-life Amazon Kindle e-book reader for a few minutes. Did I "feel the power"? Hell no. The physical packaging reminds me of the Coleco Adam. I tried to read a story by P. G. Wodehouse and I felt like I was playing Pong.

The physical button interface is clumsy, but my main gripe with the Kindle has to do with market strategy: I believe Amazon should sell electronic books that play on a wide variety of popular devices, not a single overpriced dedicated device. When I first wrote on LitKicks that e-books won't succeed until we can read them on iPhones and Blackberries, several of you disagreed, but I think the success of a new iPhone reader called the Stanza is proving me right.

This leaves me, though, with a problem. I was originally going to get an iPhone but I didn't want to switch carriers or set my alarm clock to wait in line at the Apple Store, so I never got an iPhone. Instead, I'm rocking a Verizon LG Dare which is basically an iPhone wannabe, and I like the phone fine except it won't run Stanza. I hope the folks at Lexcycle are working on a few non-iPhone ports please ...

2. Check out Tina Brown's The Daily Beast, which features worthy contributors like Maud Newton and Rachel Maddow. At first glance the Beast appears to want to be an East coast version of Huffington Post, and since I like the Huff, I think that's just fine. The site will need to shake out a few tech things -- can we have author names in the RSS feed, please? -- but it appears to be off to a great start.

3. Andrew Gallix at the Guardian asks: whatever happened to the creative potential of digital literature? Good question. I have a bit to say about this, but it will wait for a post of its own.

4. While we're talking tech, I haven't had a chance to check Google's Book API out but I have a feeling this idea has long term potential.

5. Bat Segundo goes the distance in a feisty interview with the great film director Mike Leigh, whose latest character study is called Happy Go Lucky.

6. Bill Ectric interviews Ekaterina Sedia, author of the novel The Secret History of Moscow.

7. A linguistic study of Blog Speak (via Sully)

8. Tina Fey is writing a book! Will she reach the heights of other truly literary comedian-humorists like Groucho Marx, Robert Benchley, Woody Allen and Steve Martin? Well, she hasn't let us down yet.

9. Heaven-Sent Leaf is a new book of poetry by Katy Lederer, author of Poker Face. Poker and poetry have been a good combination since, at least, A. Alvarez.

10. A YouTube recording of a true castrato. Quite disturbing to listen to. Click through and you'll see what I mean.

11. I didn't get much of a response, folks, to my probing questions about Henry David Thoreau and the economy. Let's yak it up in the outfield, people! Really. I didn't think you were the types to get scared away by classic literature so easily (I know you can yak it up plenty when the topic is, say, Sarah Palin). So, the next round in our "Big Thinking" series will be about our public political dialogue, and our special guest writer will be Ludwig Wittgenstein. Tune in tomorrow evening when the fun begins.


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