Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Philosophy Weekend: Because War is a Form of Language

by Levi Asher on Friday, July 18, 2014 04:47 pm

It's because words are such effective tools of communication that we sometimes fail to realize how often we communicate without them. A conversation is sometimes a physical exchange. These conversations carry meaning that can only exist in the physical realm.

We signify to each other with words, with gestures, with emotional expressions. We also signify with commitments, with actions, and when this occurs (as it constantly does in our everyday lives) we are able to see that logical meaning is itself a physical thing. We can't say what we want to say without putting our bodies into it.

For example: my wife and I go to a wedding of a friend of hers who we haven't seen in a while. We both like the bride and groom a lot, and we used to enjoy hanging out with them, but tonight we barely get to talk to the marrying couple because they are so busy running around being the bride and groom. Still, we are glad we came to the wedding, because we are able to express something to the couple by being there. They know that we are there because we want to celebrate their marriage, and this recognition (which might not take place till weeks later when they see their wedding photos) amounts to a happy conversation that could not have been carried out if we were not there. We could have sent a card, and the card could have had many more words on it than we had a chance to speak. But the card would have expressed not more meaning but less than we expressed by being there.

Colson Whitehead's Gloomy Game

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, May 21, 2014 06:48 pm

I was nothing but psyched when I heard that postmodern novelist Colson Whitehead was writing a book about poker. Sure sounded like a great idea to me.

Whitehead is a clever, acidic satirist with a gift for inventive situations and touching emotional connections. Can he write? Absolutely -- novels like The Intuitionist and Apex Hides the Hurt have proven this. But can he write about poker? His new book The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death has some big problems (and, no, I'm not going to refer to the book as a "bad beat" or a "dead hand" so please stop expecting the obvious puns).

Gettysburg 150: Longstreet and Lee and the Quintessential Battle

by Levi Asher on Monday, July 1, 2013 11:49 pm

What happens when an irresistible force meets an unmovable object? In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 150 years ago, 51,000 people died or were severely wounded.

I'm in Gettysburg now, soaking in the historical moment with Civil War buffs, reenactors, curious locals, traveling families, bikers, historians, writers, artists, unidentifiable visitors from North and South. Everyone is friendly -- happy, even, which is strange when you consider the disaster we are here to remember. The only way to know which of the two sides any person might feel they represent is to look at the license plates on their cars.

Beats & Blues & Poker

by Levi Asher on Sunday, November 18, 2012 06:18 pm

I'm psyched to be included in an impressive series of interviews about the Beat Generation conducted by Michael Limnios at Blues @ Greece, a Greek web publication devoted to underground music and culture.

Philosophy Weekend: Cognitive Bias Gone Wild

by Levi Asher on Friday, June 29, 2012 07:48 pm

Okay, enough about what the US Supreme Court's historic ruling to uphold Obamacare means for the country. Let's talk about what our reaction told us about us. It sure was a strange reaction.

The decision was scheduled to be announced on Thursday morning, June 28, starting at 10:am. The first few sentences of the announcement appeared a few minutes later on the SCOTUSblog live stream, and as soon as the first sentences appeared, public hysteria ensued.

At least a full half hour of absolute hysteria followed, mostly caused by the fact that two cable news networks, CNN and Fox News, reported incorrectly that Obamacare had been overturned. The confusion was cleared up quickly, but now everybody was confused, and somehow the hysterical pitch of the first few minutes became the de facto tone of the news coverage for the entire day.

Even today, two days later, there is still an undertone of shock to all coverage and discussion of the Supreme Court verdict -- appreciative and relieved shock on the pro-Obamacare side, and indignant, infuriated shock on the anti- side.

I wasn't shocked. I've been following the healthcare debate closely for years, and I know the bill had been carefully designed to make it through the Supreme Court (the Obama administration is not stupid, after all). I was amazed that so many allegedly knowledgeable people were predicting that the Supreme Court would find ACA unconstitutional, because anybody who knows the history of the US Supreme Court knows how unusual a decision to overturn a law on such optional grounds would have been. The Supreme Court (as Chief Justice John Roberts would finally explain in his preamble) doesn't have a history of challenging legislation at this level, and makes an effort to steer clear of partisan politics. The honor and reputation of the court would clearly be at stake if it made a dramatic decision to overturn such a major piece of legislation, and it was Chief Justice John Roberts's responsibility above all to defend the integrity of the Supreme Court by moving cautiously.


by Levi Asher on Wednesday, November 2, 2011 08:16 pm

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?


by Levi Asher on Wednesday, July 6, 2011 08:51 am

I'm still on vacation. But here are some links:

1. The image above is from a teaser promo for a new movie based on Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis. I don't know what to think. You be the judge.

2. It was fifty years ago that Ernest Hemingway took his own life. David Ulin has some thoughts about Hemingway's impact (and lack of impact) today. Also, the FBI really was spying on him.

3. Words Without Borders' July issue is about The Arab Spring.

Why I Wrote A Book About Poker

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, May 24, 2011 08:39 pm

I've played poker all my life. I learned five card draw as a kid, and moved up to seven card stud in college. During the late 1990s, I started to hear about Texas Hold 'Em from my older brother Gary, a serious player who won a few tournaments around Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun and Atlantic City. I quickly became obsessed with the game myself.

My best-ever tournament showing is third place, unfortunately, but I do pretty well at table play. There's a misconception that poker is unsavory in some way, or that players risk losing a lot of money; this is only true on The Sopranos or among clueless tourists, because skillful and experienced poker players are responsible and careful, never risk more than they can spend, and come out ahead as often as not. The average suburban Joe spends more money on golf or fishing than I will ever lose at poker.

I raised all three of my kids to play Texas Hold 'Em, and they're all excellent at the game. I'm sure the experience builds character; it trains important life skills like patience, awareness. subtlety. I think there's tremendous psychological and literary significance to poker, and that's why I occasionally write articles about the game here on Literary Kicks.

Manifesto: On Poker Chips, Paperback Book Publishing and Health Care Reform

by Levi Asher on Monday, February 22, 2010 07:32 pm

Unless you're color-blind like me (yes, I'm color-blind, and yes, that probably does explain the color scheme here on Literary Kicks), you probably see two different color chips in the photo above.

Well, I don't. Neither did my brother Gary (who is also color-blind, naturally, since it's a deterministic genetic trait, and I'd really like it if people would start calling us "color-capable" instead of "color-blind", but that's another topic) this weekend when we both played poker at the Gulfstream casino in Miami, Florida. I have no idea what colors you see when you look at these chips. But what Gary and I both see is one tan-green-orange-gray chip that says "$25" and another tan-green-orange-gray chip that says "$5".

Reviewing the Review: November 15 2009

by Levi Asher on Saturday, November 14, 2009 06:40 pm

The New York Times Book Review could surely have found someone who knows something about poker -- say, me -- to review James McManus's Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker. Some common tipoffs that a writer doesn't know anything about poker are that he thinks Texas Hold 'Em actually has something to do with Texas, that he gets a kick out of funny names like Crooked Nose Jack McCall, or that he's more interested in listing which US Presidents played poker than in discussing the game itself. Another tipoff is that he gets lots of facts wrong, and apparently nobody at the NYTBR copy edit desk knows anything about poker either, because this article is a train wreck. First:

The friendly game, with a limit on bets (sometimes doubled for the last round), usually allows the dealer to choose the game, with an emphasis on the old, traditional stud and draw variants rather than the hyper-charged hold 'em, which in tournament play is no-limit, meaning a player can go "all in": betting all of one’s chips at once.


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