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

When a YouTube Video Almost Made the Modular Smartphone Happen

Image by Maurizio Pesce (CC BY 2.0)

Failure stories come in two distinct flavors: “We almost had it all!” and schadenfreude. At VentureBeat, Harrison Weber’s tale of Google’s suspended project to build a modular smartphone is distinctly of the first type. It channels the excitement of the people who tried to make it happen — and the wistfulness of those who find it hard to let go. More than anything else, though, it shows how hard it to translate a cool, lightbulb-moment idea into a viable product.

“I had an old camera that I broke and I couldn’t really fix it. So I took it apart and I noticed all the components were still pretty good, except for one thing.”

“I thought: Isn’t that weird that we throw everything away just because one part is broken?” said Hakkens.

“At first, I wanted to make a phone that lasts 100 years. But then I realized, I kind of like technology — that it evolves, that it gets better. The only downside is that after it gets better, we throw everything away. I started looking into it, and it generates a lot of e-waste… I mean now we have some devices, but in the future it’s thermostats, fridges, microwaves — everything will be connected. So what if a chip breaks in your fridge? Do you just throw the entire thing away?”

The Phonebloks story spread like wildfire. Gadget blogs covered it en masse, hordes of supporters signed up to support, tweet, and share the idea with a viral marketing tool called Thunderclap, and developers fired back, saying it couldn’t be done — that it was impossible to build. Perhaps they had a point.

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God Save the Queen: Seven Stories about Elizabeth II

Image via NASA (public domain).

A couple of months ago I had a strange epiphany: the only thing currently keeping the world barely intact is a British nonagenarian who likes corgis.

The second half of the 20th century, the era in which we (kind of) still live, is in the process of vanishing, from Fidel Castro and the Voting Rights Act to Carrie Fisher and non-apocalyptic weather. Yet against all odds, the Queen — until not that long ago, the most boring member of a dysfunctional dynasty — has emerged as the embodiment of good sense and decency, an unflappable, gray-haired titan. Her very perseverance (she’s currently the world’s longest-serving head of state) proves: we’re not doomed. Yet.

Monarchies are ridiculous at best, vicious and blood-thirsty at worst. But after a year in which so many unthinkable things had come to pass, I find myself doing something previously unimaginable: rooting for Elizabeth II. She’s a mentsch. She survived 12 US presidents (chances of surviving #13: not amazing, but who knows? Windsors seem to hate dying). She’s found the precise balance between being real and unreal, flesh-and-blood and emblem. Here are a few great reads on the Queen.

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Chongqing’s Number One Noodle Obsessive

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One version of my perfect day would consist of nothing but walking from one spicy-noodle stand to another, consuming so much chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns my mouth would no longer feel like it’s connected to my body. At Roads and Kingdoms, Josh Freedman made that dream reality, following Mr. Lamp — Chongqing’s most devoted noodle explorer — around the city, in search of the ultimate bowl of xiaomian.

Lamp steps out to take a call; he returns to tell me it is a reporter for one of China’s national newspapers. The article written about me the day before has been published in the local morning paper, under the headline “American Guy Loves Chongqing Noodles So Much He Flies All the Way to Chongqing to Eat Noodles and Learn About the Ingredients.” Within hours, the article was reposted by the flagship state-run paper, the state newswire, and dozens of aggregators. The article about me writing an article was such a big hit that the national press wanted to redo it for the international edition.

I look around the table, uncomfortable with the attention, thinking about the xiaomian stories that link each person together. Mrs. Lamp and her sister-in-law sit to our right, drinking sugary iced tea and gossiping. Across the simmering hotpot, Ms. Hu and her husband propose a toast to the table. They run a store called Fat Sister’s Noodles, named, they quickly add, after Ms. Hu. They operate the store themselves, with little help, starting before dawn every morning; rarely do they have a free moment to go out and eat with friends. After several rounds of toasting and laughter, Ms. Hu’s cheeks have turned bright red, almost as red as the hotpot broth on the table between us. Brother Lamp sits back, soaking it all in, watching connections borne of noodles grow into friendship and camaraderie. He has started smoking again.

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Whose Body Is It, Anyway?

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We tend to think of our body as an integrated whole that belongs to one person: the “I” that speaks whenever we open our mouth. But throughout history, people have been losing pieces of themselves — to war, disease, or accidents — and the fate of those missing parts is often decided on without the input of the original owner. In Aeon, Alice Dreger explores the strange afterlife of bodily leftovers, and the tension between our emotional connection to our body and the demands of science, ethics, and religion:

Maybe it’s because I’m an atheist ex-Catholic that I find it difficult to relate to people who are highly ritualistic and dogmatic about how remains are treated. I find it baffling that humans will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to recover the remains of people we know are dead at the bottom of the sea. I find it maddening that Theresa Stack was for 15 years denied a Catholic funeral mass for her late husband because there were no known remains of him. Fire Battalion Chief Lawrence T Stack had died at Ground Zero on 11 September 2001. Only this year, when his family realised there was still a blood sample from him — taken back when he had offered himself to a stranger as a possible bone-marrow donor — was the family able to provide just enough of him to a priest to have their mass.

Yet.

Yet when I think of the being that once lived inside me, and now lives outside — when I look in on him after school and find him in some small variation of his daily ritual, headphones on, eating chips, reading his favourite web comic, listening to Beethoven — it is suddenly impossible to imagine every cell of his body not mattering to me, even into death. When he is away at summer camp, I sometimes visit the curls of his blond baby hair, stored in a folded piece of paper in a small cabinet of my desk.

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Salt, Sugar, Fat, Repeat: A Reading List on Restaurant Chains

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The first restaurant chain in the US, the late-19th-century Harvey House, popped up in train stations and followed the rapid growth of rail travel. It disappeared decades ago, but the project of connecting huge swaths of land with the promise of culinary sameness lives on. In a country that currently seems fractured and exhausted by its own divisions (at least from across the Canadian border, where I live), are chains a unifying force, a common denominator — or yet another arena in which cultural and political tensions play out?

Here are some of my favorite reads on America’s restaurant chains, from the generically upscale to the proudly down-home. They cover politics, economics, regional identity, and even (surprise!) food.

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Twilight of the Sawfish

Image by Petr Kratochvil (public domain).

What happens to age-old traditions when the animals on which their symbolism depends all but vanish? At Hakai Magazine, Jori Lewis chronicles her journey along the Senegal and Guinea-Bissau coast looking for sawfish — a creature so venerated it appears on all Senegalese currency, but which few people in the region have actually seen in in recent decades.

Twelve years ago, Marine Robillard began surveying residents in West African coastal communities about the cultural importance of the sawfish. Now an environmental anthropologist at a French consulting firm called AnthropoLinks, Robillard says that most people could not believe the sawfish was gone for good. “When we were in Senegal, they would say, ‘Oh, there were some sawfish here but now they have migrated north. Go north.’ When we arrived in Mauritania, they would say, ‘Oh, there are no more sawfish here, but go south, go south.’ And when we arrived in Guinea Conakry, they said, ‘Oh, no, up north.’ People think that this is true for the sawfish, for sharks, and for fish, too. People don’t think they can disappear; they think that they have only moved.”

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The Slow Death of Restaurant Kitsch

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Tiffany-style lamps. Candy-striped uniforms and/or candy-striped tablecloths. And tchotchkes: tchotchkes as far as the eye can see. The 20th-century chain-restaurant aesthetic is immediately recognizable — but where did it come from? At Collectors Weekly, Lisa Hix digs into the history of restaurant kitsch right at the moment where its earliest proponent, T.G.I. Friday’s, is beginning to impose a minimalist, clutter-free look on its locations. Along the way, she unearths the surprising origins of Friday’s as a hip singles’ bar chain, closely aligned with ’70s sexual liberation movements and a new taste for cocktails:

The Commercial Appeal newspaper called it “a place with so much atmosphere you have to push it aside to get in.” Again, 20-somethings lined up for a table, and patrons mobbed the bar. This Friday’s became a hotspot for the Memphis counterculture, known for its boozy adventures, drug experimentation, and sexual subversion—including an underground queer scene. Bands played on a stage in back, while local rock stars like Big Star lingered at candy-striped tables under leaded-glass lamps.

“Friday’s was the first place in Memphis where you could actually go in and buy a mixed drink,” Rush Bowman, who took a job there as a bar-back before becoming a bartender, tells me over the phone from his home in the Dallas metro. “Before that, you’d had to take your own bottle to a bar, and the bar would hold on to it for you. They’d make your drinks with your own bottle and charge you a setup fee. Friday’s was first real bar in town, and the employees were young people with long hair, so they looked like the customers they were trying to attract.”

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On Barbs and Demogorgons: A Stranger Things Reading List

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In a summer marked by record levels of political angst, Netflix show Stranger Things accomplished an impressive feat. It tells a story of such murky ideological leanings that everyone — from the tinfoil hatters to the vegan socialists — just had to surrender to its expertly executed ’80s pastiche and satisfying emotional pull. (And, sure, all those adorable kid actors.)

Whether you’re still high on the show’s well-calculated nostalgia or already experiencing symptoms of Upside Down withdrawal, here’s a two-part selection of stories to keep you going: from deep dives into the design of the show’s title sequence to a sprawling interview with its creators. See you on the other side!

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Unattributed: A Reading List on Plagiarism

Image by ThePixelsFactory (CC BY-SA 4.0)

It’s been just over a day since the internet exploded with analyses, memes, and hashtags on Melania Trump’s liberal use of phrases from Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech. The awkwardness of this particular case of (alleged) plagiarism will soon be drowned out by other stories. But debates around plagiarism never quite disappear: they touch on originality, authenticity, and property, concepts that are deeply linked to our modern sense of humanness.

Here are six meaty reads on plagiarism: from deep dives into infamous recent cases to essays that question the very possibility of writing that isn’t, to some extent, an act of unattributed borrowing.

1. “The Ecstasy of Influence.” (Jonathan Lethem, Harper’s, February 2007)

By now a postmodern classic, Lethem’s piece is a passionate, erudite defense of plagiarism — composed almost entirely of passages he himself lifted from other works.

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How Wellness and Self-Care Became a Sinister Ideology

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The gospel of yoga, mindfulness, and organic-everything didn’t come out of nowhere. In a world in which once-cherished social safety nets rapidly disappear, taking care of oneself has become an increasingly privatized—and increasingly expensive—endeavor. At The Baffler, Laurie Penny unpacks the ascendant ideology of self-care, and explains why it’s so hard to find an alternative model:

When modernity teaches us to loathe ourselves and then sells us quick fixes for despair, we can be forgiven for balking at the cash register. Anxious millennials now seem to have a choice between desperate narcissism and crushing misery. Which is better? The question is not rhetorical. On the one hand, Instagram happiness gurus make me want to drown myself in a kale smoothie. On the other, I’m sick and tired of seeing the most brilliant people I know, the fighters and artists and mad radical thinkers whose lives’ work might actually improve the world, treat themselves and each other in ludicrously awful ways with the excuse, implicit or explicit, that any other approach to life is counterrevolutionary.

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