Modern online media is all about the signal boost, so every Friday here at Flavorwire, we take a moment to spotlight some of the best stuff we’ve read online this week. Today, a candid talk with an Oscar-winning filmmaker, thoughtful essays on acknowledging privilege in wealth and how to read in 2019, and the fascinating story of an international caviar ring.
David Gauvey Herbert on the caviar con.
We love nothing more than a story of crime where you least expect it, and over at Longreads, Herbert has a doozy: the story of “the long-running war between caviar-mad Russians, local fishermen, and the feds” for a caviar-bearing in a small town in the Ozarks. And then, in a surprising twist, it turns out the big story wasn’t what it appeared to be at all:
In Warsaw, Baravik and his three friends rented a cabin, bought fishing licenses at Walmart, and hit the Roadhouse, which by now was brimming with snaggers who paid $8 a day for the privilege of jostling with one another for position on the small dock.
Money was changing hands all over Warsaw. Petr Babenko drove his white Mercedes van around town buying up pregnant females. Another man, Fedor Pakhnyuk, openly bragged that he had sold $15,000 worth of caviar in 2011. Now he was en route to buying 36 quarts of paddlefish eggs — with a retail value in the thousands of dollars. He also ran a ramshackle processing station behind his motel room. Caviar madness had taken hold.
None of these men knew that the Roadhouse dockworker that sold day passes had a hidden camera over his shoulder. Or that he was keeping meticulous records of their personal information for future arrest warrants. Or that Gary Hamilton, the friendly middle-aged man running the dock who slept in the camper 15 yards up the hill was in fact Gregg Hitchings, the undercover wizard of the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Mairead Small Staid on reading in the smartphone age.
In this thoughtful, almost mournful essay for the Paris Review, Staid marks the 25th anniversary of Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age by noting not just what that volume got right (basically everything) but how to course-correct – the small steps one can take, as it is so elegantly put here, to reorient oneself to read vertically rather than horizontally:
And perhaps the greatest danger posed to literature is not any newfangled technology or whiz-bang rearrangement of our synapses, but plain old human greed in its latest, greatest iteration: an online retailer incorporated in the same year The Gutenberg Elegies was published. In the last twenty-five years, Amazon has gorged on late capitalism’s values of ease and cheapness, threatening to monopolize not only the book world, but the world-world. In the face of such an insidious, omnivorous menace—not merely the tech giant, but the culture that created and sustains it—I find it difficult to disentangle my own fear about the future of books from my fear about the futures of small-town economies, of American democracy, of the earth and its rising seas.
“Ten, fifteen years from now the world will be nothing like what we remember, nothing much like what we experience now,” Birkerts wrote. “We will be swimming in impulses and data—the microchip will make us offers that will be very hard to refuse.” Indeed, few of us have refused them. As each new technology, from smartphones to voice-activated home assistants, becomes normalized faster and faster, our ability to refuse it lessens. The choice presented in The Gutenberg Elegies, between embrace and skepticism, hardly seems like a choice anymore: the new generation is born swaddled in the digital world’s many arms.
Jen Doll on the myth and tyranny of the “self-made” success story.
“Why does it feel like everyone has more money than you?” asks the headline of Doll’s latest, for Harper’s Bazaar, and it’s a fine question – particularly for those who live in expensive cities and find themselves struggling to scratch together enough cash to cover the basics. The answer, of course, is the outsized role that privilege and wealth plays in our society, but Doll doesn’t just stop there; she eloquently interrogates the issues of honesty, disclosure, and shaming that are packed into those conversations (on the rare occasions when they actually occur):
Ross Levine and Yona Rubenstein, economists at University of California, Berkeley, and The London School of Economics, wrote a paper about the shared traits of entrepreneurs in 2013. Guess what? Most were white men who were highly educated, i.e., from a certain class of privilege. Levine told Quartz, “If one does not have money in the form of a family with money, the chances of becoming an entrepreneur drop quite a bit.” (In their working paper, they explain how a “$100,000 increase in family income is associated with a more than 50 percent increase in the odds of becoming incorporated self-employed.” Further, according to Quartz, “the average cost to launch a startup is around $30,000,” and “more than 80 percent of funding for new businesses comes from personal savings and friends and family.”)
This flies in the face of the idealized rags-to-riches American success story, that it’s not only possible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, it’s also the most honorable and worthy storyline there is. Which is why disclosing the truth about how you—or who—really funded your first business, home, or even something as simple as your first car is so important. Not sharing the whole truth can cause anxiety among those who don’t have such resources; beyond that, misplaced expectations about success and achievement can lead to disappointment and even depression. And while there’s nothing wrong with getting help from your parents, keeping it under wraps takes away from the even harder-won successes of those who truly came from nothing. “Financial anxiety is the biggest crisis in America,” says Bea Arthur, a therapist and entrepreneur who just launched her third company, The Difference, Amazon’s very first Alexa skill for therapy. Arthur’s first business was started, she says, with a check written by her boyfriend at the time. “And that was not the last check,” she says. “I’m a really hard worker … but none of that could have been paid [for] if I didn’t have a rich old white boyfriend. It doesn’t just take grit.”
David Sims interviews Steven Soderbergh.
One of the best things about Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh – beyond his continuing insistence on making great, smart movies that play with form and function – is his cheerful willingness to talk openly, and at length, about the ins and outs of the business of filmmaking. And he does that in this terrific talk with Sims at The Atlantic, in which he dives into the making of his new film High Flying Bird, the current strangeness surrounding the Oscars, his “crackpot theories” on why the moviegoing calendar is the way it is, and why theatrical exhibition has to be more nimble:
Sims: You tried [a simultaneous in-theaters and home release] with Bubble in 2005, back before anyone thought that was a thing you could do. You tried it with The Girlfriend Experience in 2009. Were you just inventing the wheel before there was a car to put it on? What’s changed in the past 15 years?
Soderbergh: Well, I ran into the problem that all platforms are having, which is that the big chains don’t want to engage with this. I know [the National Association of Theatre Owners president,] John Fithian well, and have had a lot of interaction with NATO, and I am sympathetic to this issue. What I don’t understand is why everyone in this business thinks there is one template that is gonna be the unified field theory of “windowing” [or how long a movie screens in theaters]. The minute that I knew, which is usually around Friday at noon, that Logan Lucky wasn’t going to work and that Unsane was definitely not gonna work—as soon as that happens, the studio should let me drop the movie on a platform the next week. There should be a mechanism for when something dies at the box office like that.
Sims: A backup option of, You know what, if it doesn’t hit this number on opening weekend, then release it online.
Soderbergh: I think in abject failures, they should let you do whatever the hell you want. If Unsane drops and doesn’t perform, who’s harmed exactly by me 10 days later putting this thing on a platform? You can’t prove to me that that’s hurting your business.