Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

The Memoir

THE RAFT

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, December 22, 2009 12:42 am


(This is chapter 46, the final chapter of the first draft of my memoir of the Internet industry, 1993-2003.)

Do we search out the bottom, those of us who eventually find ourselves hitting it? I think we must. But I'd had enough of trouble and poverty by the summer of 2003. And I didn't know anymore how to get back to where I once had been.

Things might have gotten still worse for me, but fortunately they got better. I didn't expect to ever hear from Dave Hendriks again after he told me his school was going out of business, taking $2000 of my back pay with it, but to my surprise he called a few weeks later, not to tell me I would ever get paid (I wouldn't), but to tell me that a school called New Horizons was taking over the Hendriks enrollment. Dave had recommended me to the owner as one of his best teachers, and the school wanted to interview me.

I visited the New Horizons campus in Commack, Long Island and was happy to find a professional operation, equipment that mostly worked, classrooms at least half full. The only problem was, they wanted me to teach Microsoft .NET. I was a lifelong Microsoft-hater, and I didn't know anything about the .NET platform. "Can you learn fast?" owner Stuart Tenzer asked me. Yeah, I could.






SINGLE POINT OF FAILURE

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, December 16, 2009 01:36 am




(This is chapter 45, the next-to-last chapter of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)

One evening in early January 2003 I showed up at Hendriks Institute's main campus in Westbury, Long Island to begin teaching a course called Relational Database Programming With Oracle and SQL.

I was supposed to meet a teacher named Oscar, who'd taught the same group of students a Visual Basic course last semester. He was going to walk me through the materials and the syllabus before I met my class. I was in for a surprise.

I'd noticed last semester that something wasn't right at the Hendriks Institute, a family-owned technology school that hired me when nobody else would. My Saturday HTML/Javascript course had gone well, but when I wandered the hallways during breaks I noticed that many classrooms only held two or three students, that the building wasn't in great shape, that all the dry-erase markers were out of ink. I was the newbie among the teachers, but the other teachers didn't seem happy to be there.

I showed up to meet Oscar and found a very angry person. This was his last day at Hendriks, he told me. Dave Hendriks had just told all the teachers that their hourly rates were being cut from $50 to $35. Oscar was so mad he could hardly talk. He'd been waiting for me to arrive so he could dump the materials in my lap and get the hell out.

"Everybody's quitting," he said. "$35 an hour. I've been here six years. I don't know what kind of teachers they think they can get for $35 an hour."

Since I'd obviously just accepted a position for $35 an hour, I recognized Oscar's intended insult, and realized the best thing I could do was get my syllabus walkthrough as quickly as possible and let the guy leave. But he had more to tell me.






HOW TO GO BROKE

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, December 9, 2009 01:00 pm




(This is chapter 44 of 46 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)

After my job at ArtAndCulture.com collapsed, I began going broke.

The long-term effect of the dot-com stock crash of 2000 and the September 11 attacks in 2001 became fully clear in 2002: the tech job market in New York City was flooded with laid-off developers like me, and no companies were initiating new projects. Programmers who had jobs were staying put, so there were no openings to fill. The headhunters who once annoyed me with persistent phone calls had simply vanished, their own phone numbers now disconnected. Where did they all go, I wondered? And where was I going to go?

It's scary how fast you can go broke when you have no income. Each month a new child support payment was due, and rent, and credit cards. I was out of ideas; I had never thought this could happen to me.






LUCKY GUY

by Levi Asher on Thursday, December 3, 2009 12:31 am




(This is chapter 43 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry. This draft will be completed when chapter 46 is posted in three weeks.)

On one of the first warm springtime days of 2002 in New York City, I suddenly found myself accepting an unexpectedly cool and excellent new job.

The offer came from my friend Ken Jordan, who had been working the Silicon Alley arts/media hustle as long as I had. He'd worked on music sites like Sonic.Net and literary sites like Word, and now he'd hooked up with a wealthy investor and art collector named Chris Vroom to acquire a bankrupt website called ArtAndCulture.com. They planned to rebuild the site and use it as the starting point for a new art-related online venture.

Ken and Chris had great connections and were close to signing contracts with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum. They hired my star designer friend Leslie Harpold to be art director, rented a chic brownstone in Chelsea to serve as the office, and wanted me aboard as chief technology officer. Was I interested?

Let's see. I was unemployed, broke and miserable. They were offering me a lot of money to build Java websites for art museums. I said yes in about two seconds.






POETRY AND POLITICS

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, November 24, 2009 11:14 pm


(This is chapter 42 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)

Heavy emotions hung in the air around New York City in early 2002.

By early 2002 the pile of debris at the World Trade Center site had finally stopped burning and smoking. The "Have You Seen ___?" posters and handbills all over the city had peeled and crackled to the ground during the winter. Meanwhile, the discussions of why the attacks happened, and how the USA should respond, continued to heat up.

I had felt like a blank slate immediately after the attacks: I had never heard of Al Qaeda, had never remotely imagined that such a thing could happen in my city. My first emotional reaction to the attacks had been a strong feeling of gratitude towards my fellow New Yorkers and fellow Americans for bearing the horror with such dignity and unity. But in the weeks and months that followed I also became aware that the attacks had unleashed a new level of hatred between people of different nationalities, religions and ethnic groups around the world.

It was clearly Osama bin Laden's goal to polarize the world with his shocking act of violence, and it was very frustrating to realize how well he succeeded in doing this. For instance, there was a steep rise in bombings and atrocities in Israel and Palestine after September 11. Meanwhile, many Americans began arguing that we needed to respond to the attacks with a show of force: invade the Middle East, get tough, finally kick some ass. Many believed that we now had a rare opportunity to depose warlords and dictators, install democratic governments, solve the Israel/Palestine standoff in the bargain, and eventually make peace with the defeated Arab lands just as we'd eventually made peace with Germany and Japan after World War II. When George W. Bush gave a State of the Union speech in January 2002 containing harsh words about an "axis of evil" including Iraq, Iran and North Korea, many commentators began to wonder if we were ramping up for aggressive military initiatives along these lines.

I was vexed to learn how many of my own friends, family members and neighbors believed it would be a good idea for us to fight a major war against the forces of militant Islam. It was widely believed that Al Qaeda represented some new kind of enemy, motivated by religious fanaticism, implacable "like Hitler". Because I am Jewish, I was expected to support a muscle-bound strategy in the Middle East. I heard constant comparisons to Hitler and Chamberlain, and constant reminders of the dangers of appeasement. I noticed that many people seemed to also feel some sentimental attraction to the bygone patriotic spirit of World War II and hoped for a new manifestation of that spirit -- as if the USA would go to war and there would be milkshakes at drugstore fountains and kissing in Times Square.

Having done a lot of reading about the real misery and obscene waste of human life that was World War II, I was very disappointed to realize that many Americans felt that a new major war could be a constructive force in the world, or a "character-building experience". I'd sooner believe in Santa Claus.






GATHERING

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, November 18, 2009 11:13 am


(This is chapter 41 of 46 in my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)

I spent the days after September 11, 2001 in Queens with the kids, or near the World Trade Center site wishing anybody needed my help. I suddenly had a lot of free time every day, as BobDylan.com was now complete, so I was able to take part in candlelight ceremonies spontaneously taking place in Union Square and Washington Square. There were gatherings every night, and I found myself attending many of them.

I took Daniel to the West Side Highway where we joined the crowd that gathered to cheer on the rescue teams moving to and from Ground Zero. I watched a lot of TV news and learned about our new enemy Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization. I guess I hadn't been paying much attention to the news, because I hadn't heard of either name before September 11.

How had I fallen so out of touch? I'd always followed international politics but had let my attention slip during the crazy dot-com years. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade earlier I'd naively imagined that all major global problems were peacefully working themselves out. I now resolved never to lull myself into such complacency again.

I felt uneasy about the fact that we were suddenly at war in Afghanistan. War, in our peaceful age? It was a shocking development. I wondered why we couldn't respond to terrorist violence with a principled stand against violence. Instead, we were now bombing towns and cities in Afghanistan, at the same time as we cried out in pain because two cities in America had been bombed. Even so, I felt the urge for revenge against Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar as much as anyone else. I put aside my concern about our military response and eagerly followed the progress of our armed forces as they dismantled the repressive Taliban regime and began tying Al Qaeda down in the mountains of Tora Bora. The best hope was that this would end fast.






TUESDAY

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, November 10, 2009 11:38 pm


(This is chapter 40 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry. An earlier version of this chapter was published on this site in March 2003 as "A Story Without a Moral, A Day in Dust".)

Bob Dylan's new album "Love and Theft" was hitting the streets on September 11, 2001. I was building his website, and by the last week of August I knew I was in trouble.

Dan Levy and I had thrown Dylan's earlier "Time Out Of Mind" website together easily with Perl and a whole lot of BBEdit in 1997. Now these software tools were considered primitive (they were) but I hadn't realized how difficult Java-based server-side programming would be. I'd done some graphic Java programming back in 1996, and I'd built the JSP pages for the iVillage UK message boards (while Evan and Jim handled the server side) and for LitKicks. But now I was responsible all by myself for two complex server-side applications: Jive message boards, which worked fine, and a Lucene search engine for all of Bob Dylan's lyrics, which was dragging badly.

Dan wanted a full working preview on Friday, September 7. It wasn't ready, and I was starting to panic. I didn't want Dan to know how far behind I was, so I started avoiding his calls. My kids stay with me on weekends, so I got almost no work done Saturday or Sunday morning. I brought them back to Meg Sunday afternoon, and began digging in for an all-nighter.

It was stupid of me to think that I could just cruise in, grab some open source Java code and deliver a perfect application in a couple of weeks. Furious at my own bad judgment, I spent Sunday evening staring in dismay at oblique error messages, wondering what would happen if Tuesday, September 11 rolled around and the site was still not ready. The "bobdylan.com" URL was going to appear on the CD's liner notes, and since URLs were novel on CD packages in 2001, it was important that the site be in good shape once everybody showed up. What had I gotten myself into? Sony Music was not going to hold off the release of the CD because Levi Asher was getting Java runtime errors. I felt like I was facing one of the worst and most visible deadline fuckups of my life.






FALLING OUT

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, November 4, 2009 12:44 am


(This is chapter 39 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry).

By the spring of 2001 I began to face the fact that I was probably going to lose my job at iVillage.

I'd been working on a Java version of our message boards to replace our old Perl code. I almost got the go-ahead to complete this project, but then a new proposal to outsource our message boards to a company called Prospero came up and stalled my plan. I fought against this proposal bitterly, not only because outsourcing the boards would leave me without a project but also because I believed it would be the wrong move.

If we outsourced our boards, I argued to our management team, another company would physically own our data. We would maintain legal rights, but this didn't feel like a safe position in our turbulent financial times. What if Prospero went out of business, taking our boards down with them? What if they suddenly began running pop-up ads on the boards, even if our contract did not allow it? Several of us debated the pros and cons for weeks, and in the end my plan was axed.

I didn't realize how big the momentum towards outsourcing was at this time. The struggling dot-com industry was gradually moving towards a new set of approaches that would collectively come to be known as Web 2.0, and externally hosted services like Prospero were an integral part of this trend. I suppose I should have realized this and not tried so hard to change the company's decision. I may as well have been standing on a beach trying to shout down a tsunami.

Without the boards redesign to work on, I knew I was layoff bait. What, I wondered, would it feel like to be canned? I dreaded the idea of being singled out like that, of slinking away in isolated shame as friends mumbled their goodbyes, as I'd seen so many co-workers do in the past year.

If it happened to me, I resolved, I would walk out with my head high. Why should I feel ashamed? But it's hard to buck the way we really feel, and I knew I'd have to hide a lot of emotion if it took place.






VERSION 2.0

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, October 28, 2009 12:40 am


(This is chapter 38 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)

Every once in a while you get a new boss you just know you're not going to get along with. This happened to me in late 2000 after a series of layoffs and restructurings at iVillage.com.

We'd once nearly tipped 300 employees, and now we were 175 and shrinking fast. Our layoff days tended to coincide with the holiday seasons in 2000: there was the pre-July 4th layoff, the pre-Labor Day layoff, then the pre-Columbus Day layoff (and we didn't even get Columbus Day off!), then the pre-Thanksgiving layoff (get out of here, turkey).

Every layoff was accompanied by a management shuffle, and after the pre-Thanksgiving massacre I found myself with a new boss named Stella Rotelli. Now, I actually liked Stella. She was a tad bit bossy, but she was certainly smart, had no trouble at all being decisive, and always said what she thought.

The problem was, Stella didn't like me. And, like I said, she always said what she thought, so I had little trouble figuring this out. This was a problem, especially since she was now my boss and had the right to fire me anytime.

Why didn't Stella like me? I really don't know, but I think it had something to do with my laid-back manner, my sometimes overly existential way of answering questions, and possibly an independent streak that she knew wouldn't fit in well with her parade. Well, I can handle it when people don't like me. It's their right, after all. But she was my boss, and I didn't want to get laid off. And Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa were all heading our way.






Third-Quarter Interlude: Bringing It Home

by Levi Asher on Friday, October 23, 2009 02:16 am


The memoir I've been writing is an honest account of one part of my life: the work I do. Because this is a story taking place in a modern professional workplace, I like to compare it to other recent books, movies, TV shows and plays that cover similar territory, like the great TV series "The Office", the movie "Office Space", Joshua Ferris's "Then We Came To The End", Ed Park's "Personal Days", Douglas Coupland's "Microserfs", Michael Wolff's "Burn Rate", Mike Daisey's "21 Dog Years".

These works are often very clever and touching, but they can also be dishonest for at least one reason. They tend to rely heavily on irony and sardonic humor, adopting tones that are Kafkaesque, absurdist. The message of these work stories all too often amounts to "people are crazy here". And since people are crazy here, the implicit heroes of these stories maintain a knowing distance.

In real life, this is a lie. Very few of us manage to maintain a cool ironic distance from our jobs, or from the people we work with. It's much more comfortable to snicker about the problems we face every day than to admit that we are deeply, passionately engaged in the projects we work on, and that we care obsessively, often to an unhealthy degree, about what our co-workers think of us. Why is this so hard to admit? In the chapters I've recently added to this memoir, I've been forced to make one of the most painful and embarrassing admissions anybody could possibly make in an autobiography. I went to work every day and I really did care about it. I liked it when I did well and I hated it when I did badly. More importantly, I liked it when *we* did well and I hated it when *we* did badly.






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