Author Archives

Ben leads the Editorial team at WordPress.com / Automattic, and contributes to Longreads, Discover, and The Daily Post.

The “Facebook of Money” That Wasn’t

To paraphrase Tolstoy, every struggling startup struggles in its own way. Except they all seem to feature extravagant soirées, hazy business plans, and round after round of beer pong on a SoMa roof deck. At Fast Company, Ainsley Harris charts the decline and fall of Tilt, a social-payments platform billed as the “Facebook of Money.” Joining other examples in the emerging genre of schadenfreude-laced startup postmortems, it offers an almost-wistful glimpse at Silicon Valley culture at the precise moment when easy funding became a thing of the past.

Over time, Beshara’s leadership alienated some of Tilt’s more experienced hires, who chose to move on rather than challenge their rookie boss. Meanwhile, Tilt continued to attract young talent barely old enough to join the company’s happy hours.

“There was too much focus on culture and creating this nirvana of a company. This is not a fraternity, this is a business,” says a former manager. Beshara seemed determined to keep the party going until the bitter end. Last September, for example, with a cash crunch imminent, he pressed forward with Tilt’s final Lake Tahoe retreat. Only a small group of employees had any idea that a sale was already in the works.

Looking back now, Beshara acknowledges the imbalance. “I feel very strongly that you want to end up on the side of human connection, human relationships,” he says. “But I think you can index too far on that and really miss the importance of really high standards.”

Read the story

Before Becoming an Art Critic, Jerry Saltz Wanted to Draw 10,000 Dante-Inspired Altarpieces

In a revealing memoir piece at New York Magazine, Jerry Saltz — the magazine’s art critic — retraces his early years as an artist in 1970s Chicago (spolier alert: it didn’t work out). It’s a gripping read not just for artists and art lovers, but for anyone who’s ever grappled with the tricky interplay of productivity, mediocrity, and coming to terms with one’s own limitations. Despite his failure to build a career as an artist, I loved how absurdly (admirably?) ambitious his plans were for his magnum opus: composing 100 illustrated altarpieces for each of Dante’s Divine Comedy cantos, for a total of 10,000:

I began my “Inferno” project just before dawn on the Thursday before Easter 1975, because Maundy Thursday is when Dante’s story begins in the poem — lost in “the dark wood of error,” having strayed from the “true way.” I planned to finish on Easter, the same day Dante finished his own journey, in 1300. I would finish in 2000, by which time I would have made 100 opening-and-closing altarpieces for each of the 100 cantos of The Divine Comedy. The 10,000 finished altarpieces were supposed to represent an idea of the infinite and a way to set myself free. Why Dante? Especially as I barely read at all and didn’t believe in God? I think because The Divine Comedy, which is a gigantic organized allegorical system where every evil deed is punished in accord with the law of equal retribution and divine love, supplied me with the formulated structure I craved. The highly established internal architectonics, the almost primitive definitiveness, what Beckett called the “neatness of identification,” were psychological shelter and weapons of revenge for me. A way to right my own world, to grasp an order like that in the Bible: “all things by measure and number and weight.” Most of all, it was a vision of justice — the good being rewarded and the bad getting their punishments.

Read the story

Haute Cuisine Has a Low Wage Problem

Every April, the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list makes a little wave in the culinary world with its endorsements and snubs, comebacks and falls from grace. At Eater, Corey Mintz takes a hard look behind the clean, minimalist lines of these restaurants’ dining rooms to expose a rarely discussed reality: The proliferation of underpaid and unpaid apprentices. Along the way, he places this labor practice in its historical context, as the high-end kitchen has become the place where the Renaissance guild meets 21st-century-privilege.

Having had the same conversation with a hundred chefs, I’ve heard all of the justifications for the unpaid staff. I’ve even had chefs suggest that, for the education they’re getting, stagiaires should be paying the restaurant. This isn’t a new idea. In the Middle Ages, children as young as seven were sent to work as apprentices, sometimes paying to learn under a master craftsman of the highly controlled craft guilds, such as printmaking or goldsmithing.

But if we have to go to “once upon a time” to date the history of your employee practices, then your labor standards are literally medieval. The Industrial Revolution — which began in the late 18th century and stretched through the mid-19th century — created a demand for both skilled and unskilled workers that radically changed the labor market. The development of unions, the rise of professional education, and the idea that children should not be indentured slaves evolved the nature of apprenticeship. While informal internships persisted — copy boys, messenger boys, bobbin boys — they weren’t part of the post-secondary educational process until the late 1960s. Within a decade, universities systematized and incentivized internships through course credits, shifting the skill-building and networking opportunity into the mandatory experience it is today.

Read the story

The (Film) Revolution Will Be Streamed

Amazon and Netflix are transforming the way independent movies are made and distributed — with far-reaching effects on an entire culture centered around film festivals, back-room negotiations, and subtle prestige battles. At The Ringer, Sean Fennessey takes a panoramic look at the changed landscape of independent filmmaking, where traditional distribution deals become increasingly obsolete.

Dillard has had to wait for more than 15 months for the public to see his movie. After brokering a deal with Blumhouse and WWE Films, Dillard entered a period when he was forced to resume his life and earn a living while tuning up his movie for its wide release. Few had seen Sleight and so momentum was difficult to come by. Artistic purgatory doesn’t pay.

“Here’s the not-so-glamorous side of independent film: All of my student loans defaulted, all my credit cards went into collections, I went back to Bad Robot to help my friends who are chefs there, to help them in the kitchen,” says Dillard. “So I was doing whatever I could, but I still had to keep so much time open for Sleight, and that process sucks —  like, it really sucks. And that’s nobody’s fault. It’s the nature of a low-budget [movie], where you can’t just pay somebody 85 grand [to fix all your problems].”

There was no such interregnum for Macon Blair.

“It seems to me like a cool way of doing things,” Blair says of his movie’s quick arrival on Netflix. “If the temperature is already up on a particular title to not let it cool off and then have to re-remind people about it nine months or 12 months later, just sort of strike while the iron is hot.”

Read the story

The Swan (Mascot) that Would Not Be Tamed

At Howler Magazine, Jeff Maysh tells the story of Cyril the Swan, the misbehaving mascot of Welsh football club Swansea City. It’s a story about the fading, post-industrial city that embraced the swan’s antics as a symbol of local identity. But it’s also the story of club groundskeeper Eddie Donne, the man inside the costume, and the making (and unmaking) of ultra-local heroes. In a particularly surreal scene, Maysh recounts a disciplinary hearing between league officials and the mascot — who appeared in full swan regalia.

Neil McClure hired Britain’s most famous sports attorney, Maurice Watkins, to defend Cyril. In 1995, Watkins had represented Manchester United star Eric Cantona after he kung fu kicked a spectator. He wanted Cyril kept away from the hearing because, Watkins told me via e-mail, he was “unpredictable to say the least.” This, he said, almost caused Lewis to “have apoplexy as the interest in the case had already generated huge sales of Cyril memorabilia, and [Lewis] had just commissioned the purchase of thousands of Cyril statuettes.” Donne avoided the TV crews and fans out front by sneaking in a back door and carrying Cyril in a bag. When Donne poked Cyril’s head out of a window, the mob went wild and began chanting, “Save our swan!”

Welsh FA chairman Alun Evans and two officials were sitting behind a long table in a barren conference room when they called for the defendant.

“They wanted to see what my vision was like,” Donne says. Cyril kicked the doors open and staggered inside. “I was falling over on purpose,” he says. “There was a plate of biscuits, so I pecked them, knocked the plate over.” As the biscuits went flying, the FA officials looked on in disbelief.
When Lewis explained that Cyril was a mute swan, the chairman instructed him to act as a translator.

“Ask Cyril, Mike, can he see a football at his feet when he is wearing his costume?” said Evans.

The swan shook his head: no.

“Ask Cyril, Mike, did he intentionally kick the ball in the direction of a Millwall player?”

Again, the answer was no.

“Mr. Watkins,” the chairman barked, turning to the lawyer, “were you aware that Cyril patted an official on the head shortly after Swansea had scored their third goal … after encroachment on the field of play?”

“Yes, Mr. Chairman,” Watkins said. “Cyril thought that he had seen a coin thrown at the linesman and went over to console him.”

Brilliant, Maurice, brilliant, Lewis recalls thinking.

Cyril was dismissed from the room. As he was leaving, Donne saw referee Steve Dunn sitting in a chair in the corridor.

“I dipped my beak in his coffee,” he says.

Read the story

The Current Hot Chicken Craze Is Also about Race and Gentrification

Food trends always say something about the cultural moment in which they burst onto our collective consciousness, and Nashville’s beloved hot chicken is no exception. At The Ringer, Danny Chau recounts three days enjoying the addictive pain of cayenne-coated fried chicken, while also exploring a history of racial tension and the changing vibe of the neighborhoods that gave America its Bourdain-approved, spicy food of the moment.

Hot chicken has become one of the biggest national food trends of the last few years, but I didn’t come to Nashville to Columbus a dish that has existed for nearly a century. I did come to see, from the source, why America’s fascination with hot chicken is exploding at this particular moment. As recently as 10 years ago, hot chicken wasn’t a universally acknowledged dish, even in its birthplace. For the majority of its existence, it was largely contained within the predominantly black East Nashville neighborhoods that created it, kept out of view under the shroud of lawful segregation.

Prince’s old location was close to the Ryman Auditorium, where the Grand Ole Opry performed for more than three decades. Its late-night hours were perfect for performers, and early adopters like Country Music Hall of Famer George Morgan helped build a devout following. But in the segregation era, to get their fix, they had to walk through a side door. Prince’s was operated like a white establishment in reverse: blacks order in front, whites out back.

Even after desegregation, hot chicken remained hidden in plain sight for much of Nashville, due to what Purcell described as “comfort” on both sides of the racial divide.

Read the story

The Outdoorsy Type’s Dilemma

At The Guardian, Marisa Meltzer looks at the self-congratulatory corporate philosophies of outerwear giants Patagonia and The North Face. Beyond the often-amusing details (like the time employees at Patagonia’s California headquarters tried to save a butterfly chrysalis they’d spotted on the sidewalk), she unpacks the complex dynamic that allows these companies to tout their ethical sourcing and care for the environment while selling luxury goods to affluent weekend warriors.

Selling professional-grade gear to people with no intention of using it professionally isn’t exactly a new trick in marketing, as the makers of SUVs, digital cameras and headphones can tell you. Most people who buy the Nike trainers advertised by Mo Farah don’t use them to run long distances.

But North Face and Patagonia are both wrestling with a more consequential paradox, one that is central to contemporary consumerism: we want to feel morally good about the things we buy. And both companies have been phenomenally successful because they have crafted an image that is about more than just being ethical and environmentally friendly, but about nature, adventure, exploration — ideas more grandiose than simply selling you a jacket, taking your money and trying not to harm the earth too much along the way. But the paradox is that by presenting themselves this way, they are selling a lot more jackets. In other words, both companies are selling stuff in part by looking like they’re not trying too hard to sell stuff, which helps them sell more stuff — and fills the world with more and more stuff.

Read the story

Even Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Pushups Are Inspiring

What can you tell about a Supreme Court Justice by their workout ethic? At Politico Magazine, Ben Schreckinger meets Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s personal trainer and tries to emulate her routine. If you’re a RBG fan, you won’t be surprised to learn that she’s as kickass on a weight bench as she is on that other bench. if you’re not a RBG fan (who are you?), you’ll at least aspire to be as fit as her in your 80s.

From there, we went to the floor. Johnson said Ginsburg takes great pride in progressing from horizontal pushups against a wall when he first began working with her, to pushups with her knees down on the ground, to full pushups.

“Justice Ginsburg does 10 pushups and she does not do the so-called ‘girl pushups,’” explained Georgetown Law Professor Mary Hartnett during an appearance with the justice earlier this month at the Virginia Military Institute. “She does not use her knees. And then she stretches back for a very brief pause and she does 10 more.”

I was able to match Ginsburg’s pushups feat with only a little grunting, though Ginsburg never grunts, as Johnson felt compelled to tell me at one point. He also let me know, as I peppered him with questions, that unlike me, Ginsburg barely rests between sets.

Read the story

Rorschach’s Inkblots Are Part of Art History

At The New Republic, Merve Emre looks at the enduring visual power of Hermann Rorschach’s inkblots while reviewing Damion Searls’ new book on the German psychiatrist and his work. Along the way, she highlights a fascinating aspect of this (largely discredited) psychological assessment tool: its place in a centuries-old conversation about the power of art to expose our inner lives.

To achieve their desired responses, the blots themselves had to function like works of art — an unusual ask for a psychological test. Rorschach was not the first or even the second to try his hand at designing inkblots. Klecksography, the study of inkblots or “blotograms” as they were once called, originated with the German poet and physician Justinius Kerner. Unlike Rorschach, Kerner was neither a scientist nor an artist but a mystic. He believed his inkblots to be “incursions of the spirit world,” magical images that spoke to him in the voices of the dead; voices he ventriloquized in the gloomy poetic captions he added to his blots. More popular than Kerner was the French psychologist Alfred Binet, who drew his inspiration for his inkblots from Leonardo da Vinci, who, it was said, had once thrown a bucket of paint at a wall and divined his next painting from the shapes he saw before him. In keeping with this backstory, Binet’s inkblots — messy, asymmetrical things — were used to measure a person’s imaginative capabilities: the greater the number of distinct forms the respondent saw in the inkblots, the greater his creative powers.

By contrast, the power of Rorschach’s inkblots derived in large part from their painstakingly crafted designs, refined through much clinical trial and error to give them the appearance of naturalness — as if the shapes had not been crafted at all, but rather “had made themselves,” Searls writes. The point was neither disordered inspiration (as it was for Binet) nor spiritual connection (as it was for Kerner), but technical perfection. There could be no trace of the artist’s hand in the thickness of the brushstrokes or the shading of the ink; nothing to rouse suspicion among Rorschach’s paranoid patients that the inkblot had been created to elicit a particular response from them. There could be no captions, no border, nothing to distract respondents from the lines, the curves, the colors. Only the aesthetic impersonality of the blot could reveal the personality of its viewer.

Read the story

On the Thin Line Separating Honesty from Rudeness

Just like beauty, rudeness is confusingly both in the eye of the beholder and a universal phenomenon, something we’re supposed to recognize in an instant. At The New York Times Magazine, Rachel Cusk explores the complicated question of politeness from various angles — from Brexit and the Trump presidency to airport security checks and in-store shopping etiquette. But she also dives deep into the fundamental difficulty of separating honesty from being plain rude.

Are people rude because they are unhappy? Is rudeness like nakedness, a state deserving the tact and mercy of the clothed? If we are polite to rude people, perhaps we give them back their dignity; yet the obsessiveness of the rude presents certain challenges to the proponents of civilized behavior. It is an act of disinhibition: Like a narcotic, it offers a sensation of glorious release from jailers no one else can see.

In the recollection of events, rudeness often has a role to play in the moral construction of a drama: It is the outward sign of an inward or unseen calamity. Rudeness itself is not the calamity. It is the harbinger, not the manifestation, of evil. In the Bible, Satan is not rude — he is usually rather charming — but the people who act in his service are. Jesus, on the other hand, often comes across as somewhat terse. Indeed, many of the people he encounters find him direct to the point of rudeness. The test, it is clear, is to tell rudeness from truth, and in the Bible that test is often failed. An unambiguous event — violence — is therefore required. The episode of the crucifixion is an orgy of rudeness whose villains are impossible to miss. The uncouth conduct of the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross, for instance, can be seen in no other light: Anyone thinking that Jesus could have done a bit more to avoid his fate is offered this lasting example of humanity’s incurable awfulness. They know not what they do, was Jesus’ comment on his tormentors. Forgive them.

Read the essay