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The Lives of Strangers, Part 2


A couple years ago I posted two letters I’d found in an old book, and wrote about how our current digital communications, while theoretically much easier to preserve than analog media, are often less likely to be preserved in practice.

This month, Freddie DeBoer makes a very similar point:

We had, my siblings and I, my father’s old computers — an IBM 8086, its plastic yellowing, the 386 that played so many of our favorite games, the 486 that was my father’s office computer for ages. They’re gone now. Even if they endured physically, though, what would we be able to extract? The magnetic media would have died long ago, even if could find some way to open it, ancient hard drives and 5¼-inch floppies. I’m sure that, at great expense, if I had that stuff I could have some experts laboriously extract whatever remained of the data. But for all practical purposes, that stuff is gone, including things I know I would like to have, like a copy of my father’s CV. In contrast, letters from the 1910s sit, in fine and readable condition, at my feet. And today’s SSDs and flash memory are hardly better than old magnetic media in terms of longevity. Everybody says, oh well, everything will live in the cloud…. But who would pass on a password to a cloud service, assuming it didn’t become defunct, the way that this old box has been passed down to me? I think it’s a good example of the petty arrogance of the digital age.

He’s been scanning his own family’s old papers and photos and posting them to a Tumblr, which I’ve found really interesting, in much the same way as those German letters. It was also a reminder to make a local backup of my own Tumblr, which I haven’t done in a couple years, and which seems to get trickier every time.

Smart Women Adrift

Renata Adler and Joan Didion

Renata Adler and Joan Didion

Katie Roiphe coined an interesting term in her review of Renata Adler’s Speedboat:

Speedboat belongs to a genre of ’70s women’s fiction, in which a damaged, smart woman floats passively yet stylishly through the world, a genre which includes books like Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, and Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays. In all of these Smart Woman Adrift novels, there is a radical fragmentedness, a supremely controlled tone, a shrewd and jaded observation of small things, a comic or wry apprehension of life’s absurdities, and pretty yet melancholy vignettes of the state of being lost. They center around an intelligent but emotionally fragile or keenly sensitive woman without a man, or moving from man to man, a woman, in short, without a stable or conventional family situation, in a state of heightened, nervous awareness.

Having recently read these three books, I’ve been thinking about the analogs and precursors of this type in other genres. In a general sense, the “smart man adrift” is such a common protagonist in fiction that he’s almost an archetype of the contemporary novel — it’s largely because of the underrepresentation of women in literature that this female version stands out so clearly.

But getting a little more specific, and setting aside gender, the most direct precursors to these novels may be two cult favorites from 1939 — Jean Rhys’s Good Morning Midnight (which Roiphe mentions) and John Fante’s Ask the Dust. Each is narrated by a thinly veiled version of the young author, down and out in Paris and Los Angeles, respectively, drifting through life and checking all the boxes above — particularly those “melancholy vignettes”:

Walking in the night with the dark houses over you, like monsters. If you have money and friends, houses are just houses with steps and a front door —- friendly houses where the door opens and somebody meets you, smiling. If you are quite secure and your roots are well struck in, they know. They stand back respectfully, waiting for the poor devil without any friends and without any money. Then they step forward, the waiting houses, to frown and crush. No hospitable doors, no lit windows, just frowning darkness. Frowning and leering and sneering, the houses, one after another. Tall cubes of darkness, with two lighted eyes at the top to sneer. And they know who to frown at.

[Good Morning Midnight]

Maybe it’s because I just went through a long private eye phase, but the women of Roiphe’s trio also remind me of private eyes, or at least the more “psychological” type associated with Ross MacDonald and some of his followers. They fulfill the same basic role: a somewhat damaged observer of a badly damaged society. Cynical, observant, clever and well-spoken; attractive to others but always a little detached from them. These women live the way I imagine a private eye like MacDonald’s Lew Archer would live if he didn’t have any cases to solve — as a journalist, maybe, like Adler, or drifting among unhappy friends and lovers like Didion’s protagonist. When he’s not at work, his narrative voice is not so different from hers:

In the dream that took over my sleeping mind I was due to arrive someplace in a very short time. But when I went out to my car it had no wheels, not even a steering wheel. I sat in it like a snail in a shell and watched the night world go by.

The light coming through the bedroom blind changed from grey to off-white and woke me. I lay and listened to the early traffic. A few birds peeped. At full dawn the jays began to squawk and dive-bomb my window.

I’d forgotten the jays. Their sudden raucous reminder turned me cold under the sheet. I threw it off and got up and put on my clothes.

There was a last can of peanuts in the kitchen cupboard. I scattered the peanuts out the window and watched the jays come swooping into the yard. It was like watching a flashing blue explosion-in-reverse that put the morning world together again.

We might think of the private eye as being the way he is because of the things he has to do, but it’s just as valid to say that he winds up doing that kind of work because there’s not much else that a man like him can do. He doesn’t solve the case through Sherlock’s “observation and deduction” but through a kind of critical empathy, sharpening his picture of each character and their flaws and desires until the whole chain of events begins to seem obvious. As Raymond Chandler wrote to his publisher after mixed reviews of The Big Sleep:

I do not want to write depraved books. I was aware that this yarn had some fairly unpleasant citizens in it, but my fiction was learned in a rough school, and I probably didn’t notice them much. I was more intrigued by a situation where the mystery is solved by the exposition and understanding of a single character, always well in evidence, rather than by the slow and sometimes long-winded concatenation of circumstances. That’s a point which may not interest reviewers of first novels, but it interested me very much.

But what do you do with that kind of penetrating insight into the people around you when none of them is a murderer waiting to be exposed, when there’s no constructive purpose for it other than to distance yourself from them? In a way that’s the central question of Speedboat, and it figures heavily in the other two.

There are really two things about Roiphe’s trio that stand out from their predecessors: one is their sharply stylized prose, a different style for each of the three — I don’t like the “experimental” tag because there’s nothing inaccessible about any of them, but there’s no question the writing itself is foregrounded to a greater extent than in my other examples.

The second and more important difference is that all three of these female protagonists, as well as the authors to some extent, were insiders — to the literary world, to Hollywood, to the social set of the cities they lived in. A private eye, by contrast, is always an outsider. So were Rhys, Fante, and the writer/subjects of most of the other romans à clef we might add to the list, like Christopher Isherwood in Berlin or George Orwell in Down & Out. The Smart Women Adrift don’t seem to worry much about money, and they don’t have to worry about being accepted socially. They’re not that concerned with taking care of themselves (maybe not concerned enough) and that’s ultimately what gives them such a detached narrative voice, and the sense of a furiously churning mind without anything really worth focusing on:

My argument with the psychiatrist of Jim’s younger brother, Simon, was as follows: whether the natural gait of the horse is, in fact, the gallop or the trot. I said it was the trot. He said it was the gallop. Or the other way around. The point is that we insisted, all through dinner; we pursued it for a long, long time. It is not an argument that ramifies much. Within the first few seconds one has said all there is to say. There are many such questions, which, once they are stated, are completed. Does Macy’s tell Gimbel’s, for example, does not ramify. You have got no further if you go on to Does Saks tell Bendel’s, does Bonwit’s tell Bergdorf’s, does Chanel tell Givenchy, does Woolworth tell Kresge’s, does Penn Station tell Grand Central, does Best’s tell Peck and Peck? You are no longer expounding a proposition. You are having a tantrum. Simon’s psychiatrist and I pursued our tantrum, in duet, all evening long. The horse might have two natural gaits, the Charleston and the entrechat, for all it mattered. I meant, I didn’t like the man and I thought that, within twenty years, his profession would have vanished, leaving no artifacts of any interest except a dazed memory of fifty years of ineffective and remunerative peculation in the work of a single artist, Freud. I also meant I didn’t like his flowered shirt. He meant, I think, he didn’t like me, either.


Wearable Tech: Design Doesn’t Matter



Wearable technology isn’t fashionable, and that’s a problem that can’t be solved with better design.

I don’t think the first half of that statement is controversial. Wearable tech may be somewhat cool among a certain narrow demographic, but even then it’s not exactly a fashion statement.

But why can’t design help? Because the problem isn’t what these devices look like, it’s what they do. The reasons people wear them — productivity, health, fitness, even connectivity — are just not compatible with the aesthetics of fashion.

I’m the furthest thing from a fashion expert, but I think this is obvious enough that it doesn’t take an expert to see it. Most of these goals are a form of self-improvement, and self-improvement is almost the opposite of fashion. The essence of fashion is to project confidence, self-assurance and natural beauty — to look like you don’t need to exercise, be more productive, monitor your standing/sitting time or posture or UV exposure, be notified of every like on your Facebook page, or anything else with even a whiff of ambition or insecurity.

Don’t believe me? How many designer clothing ads have you seen that feature models wearing a Bluetooth headset, or a Blackberry belt clip, or even a Fitbit wristband? If the technology isn’t part of what’s being promoted, it’s not an accessory that any photographer wants to add.

Even if it works with a certain outfit, no one who’s really fashion-conscious is going to wear the same accessory day after day with different outfits. It’s as simple as that. Dressing it up with different watch straps or colors just makes it even more obvious. And if you only wear your device on certain days, or only to the gym, it defeats the purpose of much of the long-term monitoring that was the reason you bought it in the first place, and makes it harder to justify the high cost.

If you really want people to wear your gadget all day, every day, your design focus should be to make it less visible and easier to hide. For the manufacturers, hope never dies that people will want to display their devices and provide free advertising, but somehow it never seems to work out that way. Take a look at one of the newest ones, the Lumo Lift posture tracker, which can either be clipped to a bra strap/undershirt, or secured magnetically with a visible metal square that comes in different colors. Any guesses which option more people will choose?

Actually, I predict one of the first popular third party accessories for the Apple Watch will be a clip or case that replaces the strap entirely and makes it easier to carry the device somewhere other than your wrist.

Fashion can embrace certain forms of technology, but it takes a long time, generally long enough for it to be charmingly obsolete. Watches are one example: mechanical watches are still classier than (far more accurate) quartz watches, almost a century after the quartz technology was invented. And they’re covered with marine pressure gauges and other extras that most wearers wouldn’t know how to read even if they needed to. Technology is stylish in inverse proportion to its utility.

Of course, there’s still a market for unfashionable wearable tech. There are millions of Bluetooth headsets sold every year. But they’ll never be as widespread as iPhones, and I think the adoption of the Apple Watch — along with Google Glass and every other visible wearable device — will hit the same ceiling. The first breakthrough wearable that becomes ubiquitous will be one that can be concealed.

Three Movie Ideas


When I talk to Nick, our occasional London correspondent, we often kick around ideas for movies — and I realized recently that most of them have a rough theme in common: a group of twenty-something friends who embark on a half-baked criminal plot that winds up changing their lives. It’s been a while since we’ve had a good movie like this (Office Space?), and it seems like the perfect fit for the current apathetic zeitgeist among Millenials.

You may have heard about the guy who got a studio deal from a movie idea he described on Reddit. Frankly, that still sounds like an awful lot of work. I’m not sure even the prospect of Hollywood riches could entice the two of us off our asses to actually write a screenplay. So instead I’ll outline three of our best ideas here in the hope that some more industrious person will take them:

#1. A young aspiring filmmaker gets her first big break, striking a deal to have her own script produced with a sizable budget. She can direct herself and have almost total creative control — the one condition is that she has to accept a particular mid-list young star to play a lead role. And this star turns out to be a holy terror to work with, a caricature of a spoiled actor, verbally abusive to everyone on the set and full of terrible ideas for changing the script.

At some point, the protagonist and her crew get the idea that if this star died in some dramatic way during filming, like Heath Ledger or Brandon Lee, it would generate massive publicity for the movie, give them an excuse to write the character down to a more minor role, and make life on the set much easier in general. So they start plotting (in a clumsily amateur way) to bump the star off by inducing a drug overdose, drunken car crash or some other “accidental” death. Whether they eventually succeed depends on just how dark you want to make it, but a lot of the humor would be in the failed attempts (somewhat like Harold & Maude).

#2. A similar group of aimless twenty-something friends come up with a plan to “kidnap” a rich businessman for ransom, without using any force; instead, a female member of the group will seduce him and convince him to leave town with her for an impulsive weekend affair. Maybe he’s her boss who’s been inappropriately hitting on her at work, or there’s some other revenge element, but maybe he’s just a random target.

Anyway, through a combination of “accidents” (she spills her drink on his cell phone) and clever hacking (intercepting the excuses he emails to his secretary and wife) they contrive to make it look like he’s vanished without a trace. Her job is to keep him busy and out of contact for a few days, while the others contact the family or employer and demand their ransom. Their plan is that by the time he gets home unharmed and realizes what happened, he’ll be too compromised by his own attempted infidelity to report anything to the police. (This part works even better if he’s some kind of public figure.)

From there you could go in any direction — obviously the plan has to go wrong somehow, but that could happen in a variety of ways. Maybe the rich guy actually wanted to disappear (shades of Bulworth) and turns the tables on them somehow, or his wife wants him dead (like in Ruthless People), or he and his “kidnapper” unexpectedly fall in love…

This one literally came to me in a dream, and it may have been partly influenced by a German movie called Die Fetten Jahre sind vorbei, which has some similar elements. Here’s Nick’s UK-centric take on it:

Jeff Bridges, a banking tycoon who routes a lot of money through the isle of Guernsey (a tax haven), travels there to take care of some paperwork. Our three protagonists, parochial high street bank clerks from the island — flashy suits, fancy themselves young Gordon Geckos, pretend to read the FT every day, totally clueless — know that he’s a big hitter (they’ve seen his name again and again on legal documents), and conspire to kidnap him.

Enter [charming up-and-coming British actress], the most beautiful girl in the village. She’s roped in by our heroes and seduces Jeff into extending his stay. He gets stuck in Guernsey, having a quirky romance with the girl, while the kidnappers are in London trying incompetently to extort money from the bank for his “safe return.” Cue comical boardroom meetings in balaclavas, confusion, absurdity.

The whole thing gets tied into increasingly absurd knots: Jeff refuses to cooperate, wants to become a fisherman, etc. But despite their continuing failure to even get the bank’s attention, our three stooges manage to trigger some kind of international market crisis, and the whole thing, once backed into a seemingly inescapable corner, is resolved by a farcical government intervention (we get punctuating scenes of absurd Fed guys, like the CIA characters in Burn After Reading, who prove equally clueless). In the end everyone wins, everyone loses, and the message is that no one has a fucking clue what’s going on.

#3. So the basic premise is that a one letter typo in a common email address connects you to the inner sanctum of someone’s online life. The protagonists are two cousins or siblings who share a common last name, like Smith or Jones. They both have gmail or yahoo addresses with their first initial and surname, so they frequently get wayward messages for a particular set of strangers with the same last name and similar email addresses.

And they’re both young Americans in Europe, where they’re sharing a messy apartment, half-assing their way through graduate degrees or dead end jobs in between long nights of clubs, drugs and partying, and generally living a stereotypical bohemian expat lifestyle.

But these misaddressed emails they get are all middle-America banalities from the world they’ve left behind. Ironic snobbery ensues: at first they scoff at these idiosyncratic bobs of exactly what they profess to loathe about America, re basketball hoop zoning, Christmas light bills, Mini Cooper promotional offers, etc.

So they decide to start impersonating these suburban strangers, replying to emails on their behalf. It starts with one of them writing back to a mailing list of soccer moms debating that basketball hoop and whether it’s allowed in their homeowner’s association rules — an angry rant mocking them for living shallow, empty lives. After getting a rise out of their targets with a few emails like this, our two “heroes” get hooked and keep pushing the envelope, eventually contriving to get their targets’ passwords and infiltrate their real email accounts as well as just replying to misaddressed messages.

The movie will cut back and forth throughout between the victims of these email pranks and the perpetrators, comparing and contrasting their day-to-day lives and showing how they’re both affected by these online exchanges.

To our protagonists it still seems like harmless fun, but one of them has a real mean streak and keeps coming up with nastier plans. The other, the sensitive one, is starting to worry that they’re going too far, and also developing an online crush on the similarly-aged son/daughter of one of these families, maybe even a correspondence with them under some other false pretense.

It all comes to a head when the mean one sends a nasty prank email that inadvertently results in a tragedy; for example, he might pretend to be the dad in this same family having an affair and “accidentally” send some incriminating email to his wife, thinking it will shake up their boring lives — but instead it leads to a violent altercation in which someone is killed.

This throws our two leads into a panic, with the good one wanting to come forward and admit their involvement, and the bad one insisting they should cover it up. And then the final twist: before they can agree on what to do, they’re found out anyway by another misaddressed email, sent by one of them to the other but accidentally going to one of their victims. After all, since all the main characters, in Europe and America, are connected by a one-letter email typo, it’s just as easy for the smug protagonists to mess up as it is for their targets. As with the first two ideas, how you resolve it from there depends on how just how dark you want the movie to be.

The Greatest Private Eyes



I’m reading an interesting book from the ’80s that profiles various private detective characters and the authors who created them. It begins with a survey of writers and critics, who are asked to rank each character they’re familiar with in five categories: literary value, entertainment value, character development, plot, and writing style. The voting is in two timeframes: 1920-70, and 1970-82.

They’re presented in order of fame/familiarity, but I thought sorting them by those average rankings would be more interesting. Here are the top ten in each time period:


  1. Philip Marlowe
  2. Sam Spade
  3. Lew Archer
  4. The Continental Op
  5. Ed & Am Hunter
  6. Travis McGee
  7. Nero Wolfe
  8. Nick & Nora Charles
  9. Paul Pine
  10. Mac Robinson


  1. C.W. Sughrue
  2. Murray Kirk
  3. Jacob Asch
  4. Mitch Tobin
  5. Thomas Kyd (not the playwright)
  6. Matt Scudder
  7. Albert Samson
  8. The “Nameless Detective” (Bill Pronzini)
  9. Dan Kearney
  10. Harry Stoner

There are a few on there that I’ve never read, which I plan to remedy soon. But a few notes on these lists:

  • Nearly all of these detectives work in one of four cities: LA, San Francisco, New York or Chicago.  The exceptions are Travis McGee (Miami), Harry Stoner (Cincinnati), Albert Samson (Indianapolis) and C.W. Sughrue (Montana).
  • In terms of fame and influence, the most striking absence is Mickey Spillane’s detective, Mike Hammer, who may have sold more copies than all twenty combined. It’s no surprise though, as Spillane was always seen as a hack by his fellow writers, a role he partially embraced. He famously said “I don’t have readers, I have customers,” and “Those big-shot writers … could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.” I’ve only read a few of his books and while they definitely have less literary value than the ones above, they were pretty fun. I’d say they suffer more from being dated than from a lack of quality.
  • Murray Kirk seems to be on the wrong list; as far as I know he only appeared in one book, Stanley Ellin’s The Eighth Circle, in 1958. It’s a great book, though also slightly dated.
  • Mitch Tobin too, maybe, since his five novels came out from 1966 to 1972. I’m halfway through these books and they’re incredible. Among other things, it’s the only detective series I’ve read that has a true narrative arc from one book to the next. They were written by the estimable Donald Westlake, who’s much better known for his “Parker” novels that were made into numerous films. Those are great books but I think the Mitch Tobin ones may be even better. (There’s an upcoming anthology of Westlake’s non-fiction writing that I’m looking forward to.)
  • C.W. Sughrue is the creation of James Crumley, who also had another detective character, Milo Milodragovitch. I’m not given to gushing but I can honestly say that I find the C.W. and Milo novels better than anything on the second list, or any other post-1970 crime fiction I’ve read, period — and that’s not taking anything away from the others. Crumley was just operating on a different level.
  • At least two of the most promising writers here — Timothy Harris (Thomas Kyd) and Howard Browne (Paul Pine) were lured away by Hollywood to be screenwriters after just a few private eye novels. Raymond Chandler, of course, wrote or co-wrote three classic movies, Double IndemnityThe Blue Dahlia and Strangers on a Train, but apparently he hated every minute of it and fought with the directors, and it wasn’t the end of his Marlowe novels.
  • The absence of women on both lists is striking, especially the second one. There weren’t many female private eyes before 1970, except for Nora in The Thin Man at #8 (and I’m not even sure that book should really count as a private eye novel) and Bertha Cool, who came in at #19. On the post-1970 list, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warschawski came in at #16 and Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone was #25. I haven’t read either series, so I can’t really comment. I have read a couple of the more recent Lydia Chin books, which are pretty good, and some of Sue Grafton’s popular Kinsey Millhone series which began a little too late for this survey. It’s an interesting question why there haven’t been more female private eye type characters, especially given that a number of amateur/“gentlemen” detectives in more formal or “cozy” type mysteries, as well as the officers in police procedurals, have been women, going back quite a long time. I don’t think there are inherently male elements to the private eye archetype, or if there are I don’t think they’re the important ones.

Joyce Kilmer and War Poetry


joyce kilmer

If you’ve ever driven north to New York City, there’s a good chance you’ve stopped for gas at the Joyce Kilmer Service Area:

joyce kilmer service area

I’ve probably been there a hundred times. As a kid, I assumed Joyce Kilmer was a woman. When I was tall enough to read the plaques, I learned the two main facts about Kilmer that most Americans know, if they know his gender — that he died in World War I, and that he wrote this stupid poem:

joyce kilmer - trees

This time I decided to find out a little more about him:

Kilmer was considered the leading American Roman Catholic poet and lecturer of his generation, whom critics often compared to British contemporaries G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc…

With the publication of “Trees” in the magazine Poetry in August 1913, Kilmer gained immense popularity as a poet across the United States…. Over the next few years, Kilmer was prolific in his output—managing an intense schedule of lectures, publishing a large number of essays and literary criticism, and writing poetry. In 1915, he became poetry editor of Current Literature and contributing editor of Warner’s Library of the World’s Best Literature. In 1916 and 1917, before the American entry into World War I, Kilmer would publish four books…

I found a lot of his other poems online too. Some are better than the tree poem, but none are very good. Most have the same sappy Sunday School tone. And I’m not alone in that opinion; at Columbia University, Kilmer’s alma mater, they even have an annual Bad Poetry Contest in his honor.

Kilmer’s fans might argue that he just had bad timing; as one of the last prominent writers of formal, sentimental lyric poems at the advent of Modernism (J. Alfred Prufrock was written in 1915) his work was bound to seem out of place.

It’s instructive, though, to compare him with Britain’s young poets who died in the war — Rupert Brooke, Julian Grenfell, Wilfred Owen and various others — who are held in somewhat higher regard by modern readers. Their war poems are often considered in two groups: the “early war” poets like Brooke and Grenfell, both killed in 1915, were notably more patriotic, but also more sentimental and lyrical, than those who saw the war drag on. They mixed pastoral and other natural motifs, common in Georgian poetry, with celebrations of soldiers’ valor and glory. 1915 was also the year of In Flanders Fields, penned by the Canadian John McCrae, which is possibly the best-known poem of the war and exemplifies this style:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The poets who died later in the war struck a very different tone — as in Owen’s famous Dulce et Decorum Est, whose structure (a rhyming double sonnet) is a bitter mockery of those sing-songy fields-of-glory poems from just a couple years earlier:

…If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

…or Arthur West:

God! How I hate you, you young cheerful men,
Whose pious poetry blossoms on your graves
As soon as you are in them, nurtured up
By the salt of your corruption, and the tears
Of mothers, local vicars, college deans,
And flanked by prefaces and photographs
From all your minor poet friends — the fools —
Who paint their sentimental elegies
Where sure, no angel treads; and, living, share
The dead’s brief immortality…

Kilmer outlived them both; he was killed in 1918, just a few months before the Armistice. But his last poem, Rouge Bouquet, was the same sort of pious elegy that Owen and West derided — it could just as easily have been written at the beginning of the war as at the end, given its complete lack of cynicism:

…There is on earth no worthier grave
To hold the bodies of the brave
Than this place of pain and pride
Where they nobly fought and nobly died.
Never fear but in the skies
Saints and angels stand
Smiling with their holy eyes
On this new-come band…

It’s odd to think of something like that being written after those classic anti-war poems, but I’m sure it wasn’t the only example. I wonder how much of it reflects a different American experience of the war as opposed to the European one — we obviously had a shorter war and many fewer casualties — and how much it’s just a matter of Kilmer’s own sentimentality and faith. It’s also a reminder that the whole early war / late war distinction may be partly a matter of cherry-picking the poems that fit it, something imposed by anthologists and critics to fit the later “Lost Generation” narrative of postwar disillusionment.

In any case, Kilmer was a brave soldier, but was he really the best American poet we lost in the war? Another candidate is Alan Seeger (uncle of Pete Seeger), a New Yorker who joined the French Foreign Legion in 1914 and was killed in 1916, before the US even entered the conflict. His best-known poem is A Rendezvous with Death:

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair…

It definitely fits in that early-war category — natural beauty, battlefield glory and a quick trip to heaven — but considered on those terms, I like it better than Kilmer’s treacle. The first line evokes Dickinson’s Because I could not stop for Death, maybe deliberately, and it’s an interesting parallel to that poem. Admittedly I found some of his other war poems to be a little overwrought or preachy … well, in any case, as a New Yorker, Seeger is presumably not up for a rest area on the New Jersey turnpike.

In fact, as New Jersey poets go, Kilmer’s chief virtue seems to be that he came from an area (New Brunswick) that made a good place for a rest stop. Robert Pinsky is from Long Beach, too far away from the turnpike. William Carlos Williams was from Rutherford, which you’d think would be close enough, but the two nearest rest stops are named for New Yorkers Vince Lombardi and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton’s fatal duel was fought on the nearby Palisades cliffs, and Lombardi …well, he started as an assistant coach with the Giants, who now play in East Rutherford, so I’m assuming that’s the connection — but when he was with the team, they were still playing in New York, so it seems a little tenuous. Maybe Seeger has a shot after all…

More Bad News at Couchsurfing


Couchsurfing, the troubled nonprofit-turned-startup that I wrote about earlier this year, has now shed almost half of its employees, including the CEO:

The startup, backed by General Catalyst, Benchmark, Menlo Ventures, Point Nine and Omidyar Network, is now going to focus on mobile — and we have heard that this is where all new hires will happen. The company up to now had raised some $22.6 million, with the last $15 million in August 2012.

As for the layoffs … a spokesperson tells us that the full number is about 40% of staff, with now no more than 20 people working at the company…

A little more unconfirmed detail: part of the layoffs, apparently, have resulted in deep cuts to its engineering team, with the entire engineering team let go “except for a 3 person skeleton support crew,” according to a tipster.

Our tipster — again, this is unconfirmed — says that the reason for the layoffs and other changes is because the company has seen an $800,000 monthly burn rate. But we understand the company has a long cash runway at the moment to figure out ways to turn that around (staff cuts help, too).

This is sad news, and I don’t take any pleasure in having predicted it. I still hope there’s a going concern to be salvaged here. But it’s very difficult to imagine a business model that will provide a material return on that much investment, or even enough cash flow to keep the lights on when the existing money runs out.

Early on, in an attempt to quell user anger at the for-profit conversion, the company seems to have ruled out advertising, selling member data in any form, or charging any kind of fee for existing site functionality. That didn’t leave many options. One that they floated was to solicit donations to charity every time a “surfer” was hosted, and take a small cut of these donations. Cute but a little pushy, and it likely wouldn’t amount to more than pocket change. They also considered a “freemium” model, but there wasn’t much you could add to the basic services that would really be worth paying for:


Freemium models work best when the premium features are relatively independent of the basic features. If someone else pays for more space on Dropbox, you don’t get less space in your free account. In the case of CS, the main thing they can offer a premium member is various types of priority over non-premium members. You can dress that up however you want, but in the end you’re not really adding a new service, just pitting your existing users against each other: the premium service degrades the free one. If frequent flyers board the plane first, the rest of the passengers have to wait a bit longer. If premium CS members show up higher in searches, then free members show up lower.

In the meantime, they’ve brought back this “verification” gimmick — a way of aggressively hitting you up for a voluntary $25 donation when you join by arbitrarily attaching it to this “trust” marker whereby they send you a postcard to verify that you have a mailing address, and then you get a little check mark icon on your profile. I don’t know how much money that’s bringing in, but it can’t be very much. (And just think about it: if this process actually does have a material impact on member safety and trust, shouldn’t it be mandatory? Isn’t that the last thing you’d want to charge for if you have any regard for your members’ safety?)

So now they’re going to “focus on mobile”? To be honest, I’m not sure what that even means. They’ve already got mobile apps, which could certainly be better, but this is a network that relies on huge amounts of text-heavy user-generated content — forms, member-to-member references, discussion boards — exactly the kind of content that’s difficult to enter and consume on a tiny touchscreen. It’s about the farthest thing possible from apps like Instagram or Shazam that play to the strengths of a mobile platform. It seems more like OKCupid or Quora: it needs a good app, no question, but it also needs a fully-featured, well-functioning website — not the kind that can be run by a “skeleton support crew” while they redirect most of their budget to mobile development.

Anyway, maybe this “mobile” thing is just the latest round of buzzword bingo at a company that’s out of ideas, but I hope there’s something more substantive behind it. And it does suggest the glimmer of a revenue model, which is to simply charge for a mobile app while keeping the website free. That way they’re not technically charging for any functionality, just charging to make it easier from a phone.

I can imagine a lot of travellers setting up an account on the website, sending out some hosting requests, and somewhere in transit, frustrated with trying to load the full site on their crappy mobile browser just to find a host’s phone number or something, being willing to pony up $5 for the app.

(I can’t imagine many new members joining through an app and filling out a decent profile, because that’s just too much data entry for a small-screen environment. So again, they still need a usable website.)

Anyway, this paid mobile app strategy would be kind of sneaky, I guess, but at least it would bring in some additional revenue, and it’s the only thing I can think of that really would. What else is there?


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