[lit-ideas] Re: Dennis Dutton RIP

  • From: "Veronica Caley" <molleo1@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Thu, 30 Dec 2010 17:48:18 -0500

Andreas: "...that meant he was also deeply contemptuous of, well, standard business

practices and morals."

I find this very interesting because I remember a person previously on this list, or Phil. and Lit., named Nancy. I can't remember her last name but I do remember her anger when she found out that he wasn't going to pay her for whatever work she did for him on ALD. It might have been around the time Dennis sold the site. I am wondering if he promised her a share when and if it was sold.

Veronica Caley

Milford, MI

----- Original Message ----- From: "Andreas Ramos" <andreas@xxxxxxxxxxx>
To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Sent: Thursday, December 30, 2010 4:47 PM
Subject: [lit-ideas] Re: Dennis Dutton RIP

The last time I talked with Denis was perhaps nine months ago. Either
he asked me something or the other way around. We emailed every few

I didn't know he was sick. Somehow, I didn't expect he would die. He
was full of life and energy.

Denis was one of those people who stirred up a great deal of things.
He got other people motivated and engaged. He was involved in many
different fields.

There was no doubt that he was very bright. As I wrote earlier, Denis
stayed at my place a number of times and whenever he was in Silicon
Valley, we had dinner. Conversation was never boring.

But there was another side to Denis's projects. He often had hidden
agendas and very often, he didn't disclose the facts. He created, but
he also left disasters behind him. Cybereditions and Arts & Literature
Daily was a total mess. Phil-Lit and Lit-Ideas were also his projects.

I first ran across Denis while I was in graduate school. I found
"Philosophy and Literature", an academic journal that was edited by
him. It had great articles and was one of the few that I continued to
follow after I left graduate school to start a computer company. In
the early 90s, the web was starting up and I wrote to him and
suggested an email list. David Myers hosted the list at his university
at Texas and that started this list, which has been going now for more
than 15 years in various forms and various servers.

In the mid-90s, I became the co-moderator of the list. Denis and I got
into constant communication because the dotcom boom was on. People
were inventing ideas and making millions of dollars. I live in Silicon
Valley and I was working at dozens of startups (literally! I worked at
some 35 companies in that five year period.) Denis and I began talking
about digital content.

That led to CyberEditions. My friends included VCs, Silicon Valley
lawyers, etc. I began to set up a startup with Denis. We had verbal
commitments for $500K for seed money; the top Silicon Valley law firm
was involved; I developed the website, the business plan, and so on.
The goal was to create a digital publishing house. The key idea was
unique; we carried out due diligence and nobody else had thought of it
(and in fact, to this day, no one else has thought of it.)

I thought we needed a portal to attract readers, so we came up with
Arts & Literature Daily. I registered the domain name, built the
original website, and came up with the first version of the logo: the
Greek muse at a large book.

In that period, Denis was often at my place. We went to meetings with
VCs, lawyers, developers, etc. It was a great time: I was making
rather absurd amounts of money and everything seemed possible.

And we talked. Lots of wine, yes, but also remarkable amounts of
whiskey. And after a few weeks, Denis began opening up to me about his
other projects, what he was doing, and so on.

Everyone who knew Denis also knew he was contrarian. Wherever the
crowd stampeded, Denis went the opposite way, and very often, he
turned out to be right. Denis was one of the few who poked
Post-Modernism in the eye in the 80s and 90s.

That meant he was also deeply contemptuous of, well, standard business
practices and morals. The ancient Romans only knew about wine, so they
said "in vino veritas", but they didn't know about whiskey, and in
whiskey, more so. Denis confided in me, and to show me how clever he
was, he told me what he was up to with many of his projects and what
he did to his partners and friends.

For the startup, I had assembled a team of experts who were all
friends and colleagues; we had built many websites for startups. Time
is money and a three-month project in Silicon Valley during the dotcom
boom was a serious amount of money. I began to realize that my
business partner was a problem. If Denis did to them what he had done
to his other projects, well, Denis was a tenured professor in New
Zealand and frankly, if it blew up, it wouldn't hurt him. For me,
however, it was a serious risk: it'd damage my colleagues and my

So after a few meetings with key people, I told Denis that I would not
continue further. I turned CyberEditions and Arts & Literature Daily
(ALD) over to him. I told my friends, the lawyers, and the VCs that I
would not continue with the project. It became Denis' project.

I was horrified to learn later what Denis has done with people whom he
had hired to work on ALD. He hired people on promises and paid them
nothing. He used his academic connections to convince what was at the
time the best academic magazine in the humanities that they could cash
in on the dotcom boom, so in bout of insanity plus Denis' wild
promises, they bought ALD.

It turned out ALD's domain name was still registered in my name, so he
needed my signature to complete the sale. He came to Palo Alto and we
had dinner at Il Fornaio. I could have forced him to pay and he knew
it, but I signed for nothing, because I wanted nothing to do with it.
It was one of those funny scenes from a movie: he gave me the
documents, and as I began to sign, I stopped and began to tell a
long-winded irrelevant story. Denis was frantic but pretended to
listen. I finish the story, pick up the pen again, but once again, I
said "we should celebrate this with whiskey!", and yet another long
delay. He knew what I was up to, and it was rather funny. Finally I

The sale was a disaster; the journal collapsed. Denis walked away with
a good deal of money, but he destroyed the magazine and many people
lost their jobs.

We stayed in touch. I realized he must have known why I walked out of
the project, so he never brought up any of that again. Our relations
were cordial, but I never got involved in any more projects with him.

Denis was both very bright and very contrarian: that's a bad
combination. Just as cats are sometimes too smart for their own good,
Denis did many needless things that weren't good for him or others.

ALD is in my RSS feed and I still read it every day. I was glad to see
that it got many awards; it's considered one of the 100 best sites on
the web. It always amuses me when new friends tell me "Oh, you've got
to read Arts & Literature: it's a great site!" I hope it continues and
maybe in a way, it'll be one of the good things that Denis leaves

Phil-Lit and Lit-Ideas were also good. I've made many good friends
from these lists; I've visited many people on this list in Palo Alto,
SF, LA, NYC, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, and so on.

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