Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Next Financial Crisis Might Be in Your Driveway

[ed. Bubbles everywhere... Wall Street, housing, student debt.)

Lured by low interest rates, low gas prices, and a crop of seductive vehicles that are faster, smarter, and more efficient than ever before, American drivers are increasingly riding in style. Don’t be fooled by the curb appeal, though—those swanky machines are heavily leveraged.

The country’s auto debt hit a record in the fourth quarter of 2016, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, when a rush of year-end car shopping pushed vehicle loans to a dubious peak of $1.16 trillion. The combination of new car smell and new credit woes stretches from Subarus in Maine to Teslas in San Francisco.

It’s an alarming number, big enough to incite talk of a bubble. In fact, the pile of debt would cover the cost of 43.4 million Ford F-150 pickups, one for every eight or so people in the country.

Another way to look at: Every licensed driver in the U.S., on average, owes about $6,100 in car payments.

by Kyle Stock, Bloomberg |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

What We'll Tolerate, And What We Won't

It wasn’t that he told a woman there was something wrong with her for wearing a hijab in America. It wasn’t that he encouraged people to “Purge the Illegals” and gave out ICE’s hotline number at a presentation. It wasn’t that he mocked a transgender college student in front of a crowd, saying he’d still almost bang her because she looked like a man. Instead, it was his discussion of the complexities of his sexual experiences with adults as a gay teenager that caused Milo Yiannopoulos to lose his $250,000 book deal with Simon and Schuster.

The swift recent reversal of Yiannopoulos’s fortunes is in many ways illuminating. The Breitbart editor had spent the last year building a public profile by going around American college campuses giving “lectures” with titles like “Why Do Lesbians Fake So Many Hate Crimes?” and “Why Ugly People Hate Me.” At these events, he would tell people why “feminism is cancer,” refer to various people as “cunts” and “retards,” and make jokes about how Muslims were probably terrorists. When appalled students tried to have the talks canceled, he would insist that the PC left was simply afraid to deal with arguments, facts, and statistics. (The more obvious explanation is that the PC left doesn’t think a person whose idea of elevated political discourse is “100% of fat people are fucking gross”—and who gigglingly posts pictures of the overweight people at his gym—is sincere about wanting to improve political dialogue on campus.)

As Yiannopoulos would continue to bait students with outrageous and cruel remarks, and students would continue to take the bait by giving Yiannopoulos publicity and fueling his persecution narrative, he managed to bring himself mainstream attention. For God only knows what reason, a major publishing house decided to reward him with a six-figure advance. (Actually, we know full well the reason: $) Bill Maher invited Yiannopoulous on Real Time, where the two enjoyed a pleasant back-and-forth about how the left were the real intolerant ones, before agreeing that transgender people were a bunch of sex criminals who couldn’t be trusted in women’s bathrooms. (The only relief during Yiannopoulos’s otherwise unendurable Real Time appearance was provided by Larry Wilmore, who enthusiastically told Yiannopoulos to go fuck himself after Yiannopoulos speculated that his black co-panelists must have low IQs.) Finally, the Conservative Political Action Conference placed a gleaming maraschino atop Yiannopoulos’s recent success by offering him a speaking slot.

Until a few days ago, then, Milo Yiannopoulos was doing quite well for himself. Then the pedophilia tapes surfaced. It turned out that Yiannopoulos had once made a few remarks that were difficult to interpret as anything other than a defense of sex between older men and young boys:

“We get hung up on this sort of child abuse stuff, to the point where we are heavily policing consensual adults. In the homosexual world, particularly, some of those relationships between younger boys and older men — the sort of ‘coming of age’ relationship — those relationships in which those older men help those young boys discover who they are and give them security and safety and provide them with love and a reliable, sort of rock, where they can’t speak to their parents.”

When the interviewer pointed out that this sounded like “Catholic priest molestation,” Yiannopoulos replied: “You know what? I’m grateful for Father Michael. I wouldn’t give nearly such good head if it wasn’t for him…” In another interview, Yiannopoulos confirmed that age 14 he had had sexual interactions with a priest, but said that this “wasn’t molestation,” nor was it pedophilia, because “pedophilia is not a sexual attraction to somebody 13 years old who is sexually mature. Pedophilia is attraction to children who have not reached puberty.”

Conservatives were scandalized. Bill Kristol called the remarks “despicable” and CPAC rapidly rescinded Yiannopoulos’s invitation to speak. Soon after, Simon & Schuster canceled his book deal, and there were reports that Breitbart editors were threatening to resign if he wasn’t fired. During Friday’s Real Time, Bill Maher had said that Yiannopoulos was “only at the beginning of [his] career.” By Monday, it seemed like he was at the end of it.

The rapid undoing of Yiannopoulos was interesting for several reasons. It served as an instructive illustration of what conservatives were and were not willing to tolerate. All the hateful filth about women, Muslims, and transgender people actually made a conservative publishing imprint want to publish his book. These things evidently do not cross a moral line. (To his credit, National Review editor Jonah Goldberg deplored this lack of principle, commenting that “apparently the racism and anti-Semitism wasn’t a deal breaker.”)

As far as CPAC goes, Yiannopoulos’s invitation and dis-invitation shows where the standards lie. For Simon and Schuster, on the other hand, dropping Yiannopoulos may have been strictly business. As Roxane Gay, who withdrew her book from the publishing house in protest of their decision to offer Yiannopoulos a contract, explained: “Simon and Schuster realized it would cost them more money to do business with Milo than he could earn for them. They did not finally ‘do the right thing.’ They were fine with his racist and xenophobic and sexist ideologies.” Indeed, like most publishers, S&S is far more concerned with what they can sell than with whether it’s moral or immoral.

But just as interesting as what didn’t make Yiannopoulos toxic is what did. Ironically, the remarks that finally got him expelled from the mainstream were among his less indefensible. He has been condemned by almost everybody for “defending pedophilia.” But this is not quite fair. In fact, while his comments are shocking, the arguments he is making are not unfamiliar in LGBT discourse. As Current Affairs editor Yasmin Nair explained in a thoughtful and provocative essay in 2005, the intensity of feelings around child abuse often prevent people from appreciating nuanced arguments. Nair was writing about a publisher’s decision to exclude an article on pederasty from a book on the history of same-sex relationships, after right-wing complaints that it would condone “rampant child molestation.” As she writes, there is a long tradition of the right using fears about pedophilia “to condemn all queers, particularly gay men, as predators of children.” It is often impossible to have a discussion about the reality of queer people’s lives, because anyone who speaks of their neutral or positive experiences with older people as a youth is perceived as endorsing pedophilia.

Yiannopoulos says that gay men’s experiences as teens with older men are often complicated, not always easily captured by the available terminology. He says that his own teenage sexual encounters with men did not fit the labels “molestation” and “pedophilia,” especially since pedophilia refers to attraction to the pre-pubescent. He offered a further clarification on Facebook:

I do not support pedophilia. Period. It is a vile and disgusting crime, perhaps the very worst…If I choose to deal in an edgy way on an internet livestream with a crime I was the victim of that’s my prerogative. It’s no different to gallows humor from AIDS sufferers…I did say that there are relationships between younger men and older men that can help a young gay man escape from a lack of support or understanding at home. That’s perfectly true and every gay man knows it. But I was not talking about anything illegal and I was not referring to pre-pubescent boys.

It’s not, on the face of it, an unreasonable explanation. Yiannopoulos may not have made his point very well. But there’s something nuanced and defensible here. First, he’s saying that the relationships between gay men and teenage boys (according to their own accounts) have historically been messier than simple categories allow for. And second, it’s absurd to say that he can’t make dark or crass jokes about his priest if it’s his way of dealing with what happened to him.

Unfortunately for Yiannopoulos, there is no possibility of complexity where it comes to discussions around age, sex, and consent. Fears of pedophilia have made it so that even the slightest hint that one is condoning it brings instant total ostracism. (These same sentiments have also made it so that no punishment is considered too severe when it comes to those convicted of sex crimes against minors. Nobody wants to speak out on behalf of society’s most loathed group of criminals, thus they get shunted under bridges and denied housing rather than given treatment.)

Yiannopoulos has quickly found out which ideas will actually get you booted from the public square, and they’re left-wing ones rather than right-wing ones. It turned out the real people you can’t offend are the conservatives whose latent homophobia make them instantly pounce on a gay man as a defender of pedophilia when he tries to explain his world to them. How fitting that Yiannopoulos should end up subjected to the very kind of vicious misrepresentation of LGBT people that he has spent his time encouraging. How appropriate for him to discover that his friends on the right only supported him so long as he nurtured their prejudices; they loved their campy gay mascot until the moment he challenged them. Then he was a pervert.

by Nathan J. Robinson, Current Affairs |  Read more:
Image: uncredited

Monday, February 20, 2017

Liu Wen in Valentino photographed by Mario Testino for Vogue China, December 2013.

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A Biker's Sunday

It’s muscle memory, this business of riding a bike. The first tiny touch of counter steer to initiate the turn, feeling rather than seeing the road as it curves in from the left and then dipping a shoulder into my own turn as it starts, shadowing the road’s moves, squeezing in power, feeling it tighten, feeling the grip from the tyre as surely as running the palm of a gloved hand along the tarmac. It’s muscle memory.

I’m not going anywhere, in the sense that the point of this journey is the journey. It’s Sunday morning, the roads are dry, the sky isn’t threatening anything and the worst of the road salt has gone. This is going out for a ride just for the sake of the ride. There is a destination; I’m headed for British Camp on the shoulders of the Malvern Hills. There’s a café up there and I know, just know that heading towards it like migrating birds or butterflies drawn in by a particular flower on a particular day, will be dozens of others of my kind; bikers keen to get out and remember what it is about their expensive, sometimes ridiculous and often dangerous passion that drives them to do it.

I’m lucky and have a choice of bikes at home. I’ve chosen a Kawasaki Z900 from 1976. I needed a Japanese multi-cylinder engine today, something that connects me directly with the big capacity machines I lusted after as a kid. It’s not perfect, my Z900, but then neither am I and we are working together to overcome our respective shortcomings. The bike’s suspension is crude and baggy compared with modern stuff, but then I am far from being a steely-eyed pilot of a this-minute superbike, so we’ll get along fine. Adjusting the bike’s trajectory by moving a shoulder or shifting a hip, I am reconnecting with the business of working as a team, machine and rider, sharing the goal of playing with the road’s curves and straights and dips and stringing them together to form a perfect whole. I’ve ridden bikes through this winter, yes, but only as transport, only as a cheat, a quicker means of getting to where I need to be. This though, is different, this isn’t anything as mundane as transport, this is biking.

by Richard Hammond, Drivetribe |  Read more:
Image: Richard Hammond

A Corporate Defender At Heart, Former SEC Chair Returns to Her Happy Place

Mary Jo White, whose tenure as chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission under President Obama bitterly disappointed those who hoped she would aggressively enforce banking laws, is rejoining the corporate defense team at Debevoise & Plimpton, marking her sixth trip through the revolving door between various government jobs and the white-collar defense law firm she calls home.

Debevoise represents numerous major financial institutions under federal investigation, and White will now help those corporate clients manage their legal exposure.

White got the call to return to Debevoise on Inauguration Day, her last day at the SEC. As Debevoise presiding partner Michael Blair told the Wall Street Journal, “We had been waiting to make that phone call for several years.”

This latest trip through the revolving door is particularly disturbing because White declared in ethics disclosure forms before becoming SEC chair that she was retiring from her partnership at Debevoise, receiving a lump sum retirement payment of over $2 million. Instead of staying retired, she immediately went back to Debevoise after her government service ended, pocketing the money.

It is not, however, surprising.

White auditioned for the job promising to police Wall Street aggressively, and be “bold and unrelenting.” But once installed, she spent her time at the SEC operating like she still worked for Debevoise. Her tenure was marked by persistent delays on finalizing rules mandated by the Dodd-Frank Act, including those on corporate political spending and disclosure of the CEO pay ratio. One anti-corruption rule requiring oil and gas companies to disclose payments to foreign governments got finalized so late that Republicans had the opportunity to scrap it earlier this month with a special review procedure.

Critics have charged that White continued the SEC’s tradition of light enforcement. James Kidney, a former SEC trial lawyer, attacked the agency in a scathing retirement speech in 2014, saying that it “polices the broken windows on the street level and rarely goes to the penthouse floors.”

Kidney added, “I have had bosses, and bosses of my bosses … who made little secret that they were here to punch their ticket. They mouthed serious regard for the mission of the commission, but their actions were tentative and fearful in many instances.”

Under White, the SEC failed to monitor stock buybacks to prevent market manipulation. It failed to stop the epidemic of granting waivers to companies automatically banned from securities activities after settling cases of civil and criminal wrongdoing. White stood with Republican commissioners even as Democratic colleagues tried to stop those waivers from being granted. In a troubling continuance of regulatory capture at the agency, White hired a senior Goldman Sachs attorney as the SEC chief of staff.

Though White made a big show of fighting to force companies to admit guilt in any settlement, a break from past practice, in reality this tool was rarely used. According to a letter from Sen, Elizabeth Warren, of 520 settlements from June 2013 to September 2014, only 19 required admissions of guilt. And in the majority of those cases, the SEC only asked for a broad admission of the facts of the case, rather than admissions of specific securities violations. In one example, the SEC got JPMorgan Chase to admit to breaking a law in 2013, but it wouldn’t say which one.

Perhaps the most notable trend of White’s SEC tenure was how she repeatedly recused herself from cases, not only because of her past association with Debevoise (which forced recusal from cases involving Bank of America), but because her husband John White worked as a corporate lawyer at another white-shoe firm, Cravath Swaine & Moore. It’s been rumored that firms would try to sign up with Cravath just to knock White out of enforcement cases.

In the first two years, White recused herself from over four dozen investigations, according to the New York Times. In several cases, this resulted in a 2-2 split on enforcement decisions among the five-member panel, delaying or sometimes ending the offending banks’ cases.

White got ethics waivers to insert herself into some cases involving former clients, like Credit Suisse, despite the conflict of interest. Enforcement against the Swiss bank has been called cozy and soft; a recent $90 million fine for misleading investors was “almost a win-win for the SEC and Credit Suisse,” according to former SEC enforcement attorney David Chase.

Warren asked President Obama to fire White last October, saying “The only way to return the SEC to its intended purpose is to change its leadership.”

Unlike Obama, President Trump does not even pay lip service to that intended purpose, which is to protect investors. Trump’s choice for White’s replacement, Jay Clayton, is also a former corporate lawyer. Clayton worked for Sullivan & Cromwell, which represented Goldman Sachs, among other financial firms. Clayton’s wife Gretchen is a vice president at Goldman Sachs, leading to yet more conflicts of interest. And even before Clayton’s confirmation, the SEC’s acting chairman, Michael Piwowar, has quietly worked to roll back the power of senior attorneys to open investigations into Wall Street misconduct.

by David Dayen, The Intercept |  Read more:
Image: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg News via Getty Images

Put Me In Coach, I'm Ready to Play

My Afternoon With a Masturbation Coach

“Am I pleased with the way I masturbate?”

“Should I stop masturbating the way I have been since I was 13?

“Have I been masturbating the same way since I was 13?”

“Do I even want to masturbate better?”

“Shouldn’t I be more focused on getting laid with someone other than myself?”

These are a few of the questions I’m asking myself as I speed through a rare Southern California monsoon toward Palm Springs on the eve of New Year’s Eve.

My masturbation coach will be expecting answers to these questions.

Or at least to the first four.

I’d heard about the female equivalent on Real Sex years ago and thought of it again recently, after which I Googled “male masturbation coach in California” to see if such a thing existed. The most immediate search results yielded a smattering of SoCal sex therapists (e.g., “Naughty Lifestyle Expert” Sienna Sinclaire), and stories about a San Diego Chargers security guard who was recently filmed masturbating in front of the team’s cheerleading squad. The second page of search results, though, revealed exactly what I was looking for: Masturbation coach Ed Ehrgott, the middle-aged, dual-nipple-ringed owner of Sacred Touch for Men who asks on his website, “Could your solo sexual practice use some juice?”

You bet it could, Ed.

The fact is, save for the occasional lube adjustment, I masturbate exactly the same way I did when I was 13. There’s nothing particularly pleasing about it, though it’s one of the few remaining dopamine dumps my sober brain is permitted, and it helps me fall asleep in the absence of a blissful fog of booze and benzodiazepines. I’m single, so minding my solitary erotic life is relevant. And I’ve resolved to cultivate a number of self-care practices in 2017; in addition to enhancing my wank, I’m exfoliating and trying to drink eight cups of water a day. (...)

So I settled on Ed, who was a mere two hours from my L.A. apartment. After a brief phone call, I scheduled a 90-minute, in-person session at his “studio” — a generous term, since it turned out to be the master bedroom of his beige ranch house in North Palm Springs. Despite the rain, I arrived early and killed 30 minutes or so parked out front, awkwardly waving to passing residents of Ed’s gated community.

Just here to see Coach…

I wasn’t anticipating the loveseat.

It’s an awkwardly cozy seating arrangement — for siblings playing Xbox, let alone a masturbation interview with a stranger. But that’s where we both have a seat and I proceed with my first question: “What’s the most common thing you hear from your clients?”

“‘How can I last longer?’ I get that all the time,” Ed responds without hesitation. He’s in casual, loose-fitting clothes and judging from an occasional coughing fit, seems to be fighting a bit of a cold.

Ed claims the key to lasting longer is learning how to better manipulate your erotic energy, which most men are ashamed of. “We run away from it,” he explains. “Sure, we’ll use sex and eroticism to sell things, and there’s porn, but that’s not an accurate reflection of sexuality. Most people think men’s masturbation is really simple: Five minutes, your hand, some porn and you’re done. That’s true on one level, but really limiting.”

He explains men are just expected to know how to masturbate in our society — no lessons necessary! — and the only time it comes up in conversation is in the form of humor. “We’ll joke about it. We’ll make fun of it. But most guys aren’t gonna seriously talk about it because that would be a blow to their masculinity. We learn to do it quickly, quietly, discreetly and to remove all the evidence as soon as possible. But what worked well in our teens may not work as well as we age since our bodies and tastes change.”

“What was your favorite food when you were 13?” he asks.

“Chicken pot pie,” I respond.

“Is it still?”

Well, I’m trying to cut down on entree-sized pastries these days, I think to myself as he continues, treating it as a rhetorical question.

“That’s where masturbation coaching comes in,” he continues, extending the legs of a massage table. “It’s about taking something you began doing as an adolescent and adapting it to fit your values and needs as an adult.”

He lays down a clean sheet and taps the table.

by C. Brian Smith, MEL |  Read more:
Image: Dave van Patten
[ed. Palm Springs.]

Inside the Brutal World of Comedy Open Mikes

It takes a special kind of masochist to willingly endure the horrors of performing stand-up at New York City open mikes. And yet, because it is New York City, it isn’t surprising that there is no shortage of exactly this type of person: someone with a high tolerance for awkwardness, embarrassment and insecurity, combined with a tenacious craving to make people laugh and hopefully, if the chips fall exactly right, to do this for a living.

On any given night, there are dozens of open mikes in the five boroughs. They are often in basements and back rooms, tucked out of sight, and there is no compensation. Many times, the comics — most of them male — must pay a small price to get a few minutes — “a tight five.”

These sets serve as the birthplace of jokes that will someday make paying crowds guffaw and as the graveyard of those that don’t. The open mikes draw comedians of all experience levels, and many do more than one per night, testing whether a joke should be nurtured or laid to rest.

The material features a wide collection of topics: heartbreak, the mundane, race, gender, heartbreak, religion, more heartbreak. At a time when most late-night comedy shows and stand-up professionals are focusing on President Trump, these open mikes can be a refuge from politics — a reminder that modern American humorists have not been entirely consumed by the 24/7 news cycle.

The crowds are brutal, making it tougher for comedians to test their material. The audiences are made up almost entirely of fellow comedians. They are often scribbling their own jokes and running through their own sets mentally rather than paying attention to the stage. Sometimes, they’re just not interested in laughing. They want to be the funniest guy in the room.

“A crowd of comedians is tough just because we’re kind of jaded,” said John Donovan, 26, who attends up to 15 shows a week. “I see comedy two or three times a day already. Most of it is at an open-mike level. So you’re not expecting it to be that good.”

We took a tour of some open mikes in Manhattan one evening in the same way some comics do every day, and found ourselves in a dark world of therapeutic passion, discomfort and, sometimes, unbridled joy.

by Sopan Deb, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Christian Hansen for The New York Times

Sunday, February 19, 2017


[ed. So many great shots.]

Gates on Bio-Terrorism

[ed. This is my fear. Bugs are easier to spread than bombs.]

A chilling warning that tens of millions of people could be killed by bio-terrorism was delivered at the Munich security conference by the world’s richest man, Bill Gates

Gates, who has spent much of the last 20 years funding a global health campaign, said: “We ignore the link between health security and international security at our peril.”

Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft who has spent billions in a philanthropic drive to improve health worldwide, said: “The next epidemic could originate on the computer screen of a terrorist intent on using genetic engineering to create a synthetic version of the smallpox virus ... or a super contagious and deadly strain of the flu.”

US and UK intelligence agencies have said that Islamic State has been trying to develop biological weapons at its bases in Syria and Iraq. However, they have played down the threat, saying that the terrorists would need people with the necessary skills, good laboratories and a relatively calm environment free from the confusion and chaos of conflict zones.

Yet other security specialists say the threat from bio-terrorism has become more realistic over the past decade, particularly the past five years, with changes in molecular biology that make development of biological weapons more accessible.

Gates, making his first appearance at the Munich security conference on Saturday, said: “Whether it occurs by a quirk of nature or at the hand of a terrorist, epidemiologists say a fast-moving airborne pathogen could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year. And they say there is a reasonable probability the world will experience such an outbreak in the next 10 to 15 years.”

He added: “It’s hard to get your mind around a catastrophe of that scale, but it happened not that long ago. In 1918, a particularly virulent and deadly strain of flu killed between 50 million and 100 million people.

“You might be wondering how real these doomsday scenarios really are. The fact that a deadly global pandemic has not occurred in recent history shouldn’t be mistaken for evidence that a deadly pandemic will not occur in the future. And even if the next pandemic isn’t on the scale of the 1918 flu, we would be wise to consider the social and economic turmoil that might ensue if something like ebola made its way into urban centres.”

Gates said advances in biotechnology, new vaccines and drugs could help prevent epidemics spreading out of control. “Most of the things we need to do to protect against a naturally occurring pandemic are the same things we must prepare for an intentional biological attack,” he said.

“Getting ready for a global pandemic is every bit as important as nuclear deterrence and avoiding a climate catastrophe. Innovation, cooperation and careful planning can dramatically mitigate the risks presented by each of these threats.”

by Ewen MacAskill , The Guardian | Read more:
Image: The Guardian

Curtis Mayfield

Saturday, February 18, 2017


The problem with depression—the thing that makes it so hard to describe, and gives its sufferers a bad conscience—is its resemblance to unhappiness. Unhappiness is part of every life, and most people learn how to cope with it: by changing the conditions that cause it, or by distracting themselves, or by actively repressing it. A person who can’t deal with being unhappy is seen as a moral failure—childish, selfish, “difficult.” It is all too easy to apply the same judgment to a depressed person, as if depression just meant luxuriating in unhappiness. David Foster Wallace wrote a brilliant story, “The Depressed Person,” in which a woman worries that by describing her suffering she will only disgust her friends and even her therapist—a worry which itself feeds into her suffering.

But depression is actually the opposite of unhappiness, because it is precisely not “a part of life.” When you are unhappy, life is pressing you, hurting you, and you are forced to respond to it. An unhappy life is a problem, and to be absorbed in a problem is to be absorbed in existence. When you are depressed, on the other hand, there is no problem, because there is nothing to be solved. Existence itself seems to retreat, to leave you stranded, without purchase on things, people, yourself. In her new memoir, This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression, Daphne Merkin describes it this way:
Now you can no longer figure out what it is that moves other people to bustle about out there in the world, doing errands, rushing to appointments, picking up a child from school. You have lost the thread that pulled the circumstances of your life together. Nothing adds up and all you can think about is the raw nerve of pain that your mind has become—and, once again, how merciful it would be to yourself and others to extinguish this pain.
This is the situation that Heidegger called anxiety, and that Sylvia Plath describes as being covered with a bell jar. Nothing matters—not obligations, or commitments, or challenges, or pleasures. It is this failure of mattering that feels so impossible to remedy, and which leads the depressed person to thoughts of suicide. (...)

For Merkin... depression is something that emerges from within, the medium in which she lives. She experiences it as “a yawning inner lack—some elusive craving for wholeness or well-being.” Writing about a lack is difficult, and perhaps no one has ever captured exactly what it feels like to be depressed, simply because one can’t describe a negative. Merkin avoids this problem by writing less about the feeling of depression than about its causes and its remedies. What, she asks, made her so miserable? And what happens when she tries—through therapy, medication, or hospitalization—to cure that misery?

The answer to the first question—what causes depression?—depends largely on the vocabulary you use to ask it. Is depression understood philosophically, as a response to the true nature of reality—its futility, loneliness, despair? Or is it understood medically, as a deficit of certain brain chemicals, which turns it into a disease like diabetes?

by Adam Kirsch, Tablet | Read more:
Image: uncredited
Depression is pervasive: In 2015, about 16 million — or 6.7 percent of — American adults had a major depressive episode in the past year. Major depression takes the most years off of American lives and accounts for the most years lived with disability of any mental or behavioral disorder. It is also expensive: From 1999 to 2012, the percentage of Americans on antidepressants rose from an estimated 6.8 to 12 percent. The global depression drug market is slated to be worth over $16 billion by 2020.

The National Institute of Mental Health defines a major depressive episode as “a period of two weeks or longer during which there is either depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure, and at least four other symptoms that reflect a change in functioning, such as problems with sleep, eating, energy, concentration, and self-image.” This falls in line with what Matthew Hutson, in a new feature for Nautilus, describes as the disease model of depression: that depression is “a breakdown, a flaw in the system, something to be remedied and moved past.” In his compelling and challenging piece, Hutson profiles several researchers who advance an argument that depression can serve a possibly positive purpose in the lens of evolution. But rather than deifying evolution and trying to scry out what it meant for us, let’s focus on what’s more immediately useful for lived human lives today: that, in some circumstances, depression may be, in the arc of a life, yielding of insights and personal meaning. All of this is in no way meant to minimize the suffering that depression can cause — but to suggest the uses that it may serve.

At the center of Hutson’s piece is Paul Andrews, an evolutionary psychologist at McMaster University in Canada. Andrews argues that depression may be “an adaptation for analyzing complex problems.” He sees it in the condition’s bouquet of symptoms, which include “anhedonia,” or an inability to feel much pleasure; people who are depressed ruminate frequently, often in spirals; and they get more REM sleep, a phase associated with memory consolidation. This reflects an evolutionary design, the argument goes, one that’s to, as Hutson summarizes, “pull us away from the normal pursuits of life and focus us on understanding or solving the one underlying problem that triggered the depressive episode.” Like, say, a “failed” relationship. The episode, then, is a sort of altered state, one different from the hum of daily life, one that’s supposed to get you to pay attention to whatever wounding led to the upset. For example, 80 percent of subjects in a 61-person study of depression found that they perceived some benefit from rumination, mostly assessing problems and preventing future mistakes.

For now, Andrews’s “analytical rumination hypothesis” is just that, a hypothesis, a term that combines the Greek hypo (under) with -thesis (placing). It’s a concept, an observation, one that acts as a structure for further inquiry. Still, already, there is something very powerful, and even actionable, in reconceptualizing (some) depressive episodes as having a function, as presenting a quest toward understanding for the sufferer to undertake. Other research helps to refract the light being shined here: Laura King, a psychologist at the University of Missouri, has spent a couple decades studying people’s experiences of meaning in life, and she told me in an interview at this year’s Society for Personality and Social Psychology meeting that the meaning people derive from difficult experiences depends not on the amount that they’re suffered, but the extent of reflection — or meaning-making — they’ve done on what prompted a given nadir. Following this logic, if the job of a depressive episode is to figure out what’s gone awry, what emotional knots need to be untangled, what attachment patterns need to be identified and addressed, then antidepressants are an incomplete treatment, just like you wouldn’t prescribe Percocet to a heal a broken ankle without also supplying a cast.

by Drake Baer, Science of Us |  Read more:

The Ultimate Pursuit in Hunting: Sheep

For the herd of bighorn sheep, the rocky cliffs were a safe place, with 360-degree views and plenty of nooks to blend into the gray rocks. The ground was sprinkled with scat, and the air carried a scent like a barnyard. Thousands of feet below, the landscape unfurled into a smooth checkerboard of ranch land that stretched to the horizon. The only threat up here would be to newborn lambs, susceptible to being plucked away by eagles.

Crouched behind a stand of rocks last spring, Brendan Burns, a 38-year-old with a growing reputation as sheep hunter and guide, peered over the edge, careful not to be seen or heard. Wild sheep have acute senses, and when they spook, they bolt as one, like a flock of birds. But the sheep were not home. Amid the panorama below, Burns spotted a constellation of tiny dots in a faraway meadow. The horns gave them away.

“There aren’t a lot of circles in the wild,” Burns whispered. “When you see something curved — and they kind of shine, they have this kind of glow to them — you learn to pick them up. You just train your eye to it.”

He pulled a high-powered Swarovski scope from his pack and aimed it downhill. Eight years before, there were no sheep here. Then 21 ewes and five juvenile rams were transplanted to the Rocky Boy’s Reservation of the Chippewa Cree, which straddles part of the Bears Paw Mountains, an islandlike rise on the plains.

The herd quickly grew to 100, and 40 were relocated to South Dakota. It has again grown over 100, and another 40 are likely to be transplanted this spring, part of broad attempts to replant sheep populations that are a fraction of what they once were in the West.

“There’s obviously no coyotes around, for them to be that low and feel comfortable,” Burns whispered. “This is a nice day to be a sheep.”

There were more sheep on a closer ridge, but in this group, Burns counted 38, including 11 rams.

“That gray one in the middle is the oldest one,” he said. “We’ll probably come back and hunt him in the fall.”

A man from Michigan had paid $100,000 for the year’s only chance to hunt one sheep in the herd on the Rocky Boy’s Reservation. Burns brought him there in October, and the men traipsed through the steep and rocky terrain for days before getting themselves in position for a clean shot. The ram was 10 years old, with a scar on its forehead, a cloudy eye and several missing teeth.

Its massive horns and about 80 pounds of meat were hauled back to Michigan. In exchange, the Chippewa Cree tribe at Rocky Boy’s received the $100,000, which was used to fund two tribal game wardens overseeing wildlife on the reservation.

It is a paradox of hunting, rarely so conspicuous as with wild sheep: The hunters are often the primary conservationists. In 2013, a permit in Montana sold for $480,000, still a record. Burns assisted on that hunt, too, over 18 days in the Upper Missouri River Breaks. The result was a large ram, and hundreds of thousands of dollars that went into the budget of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

“As far as sheep-hunting being a rich man’s sport, that’s absolutely true,” said Vance Corrigan, 84, who lives along the Yellowstone River in Livingston, Mont., and is one of the most accomplished big-game hunters in the world. “But if it weren’t for the rich man, those sheep wouldn’t be there.” (...)

“Some rich people are into yachts or floor tickets to the Lakers,” Burns said. “Some sheep-hunt.”

What they are not buying is an easy trophy. Sheep live in steep and treeless terrain, above the timberline in the mountains or in the rugged hills of the desert. Sheep hunts can take hunters into places few humans have gone, and can include weeks of trekking and stalking.

“For the true hunter, you can’t buy them behind the fence,” Kronberger said. “You have to climb the mountain. The fat, rich guy is going to have a much harder time. Anybody can kill a bear if they sit on the beach or along the stream long enough. I could take a guy in a wheelchair and get him a bear. You can go and get your deer, get your elk. You can’t do that with sheep. You have to go and get it.”

All that can be hard for non-hunters to understand. Those who have trophy rooms filled with a wide selection of mounts, like Corrigan and Kronberger, said that guests are rarely attracted to the sheep at first, instead taken by the more glamorous and fearsome animals. It is like a litmus test for hunting credibility.

“If I brought 1,000 people into my trophy room, almost all of them would go to the bears and say, ‘Wow, look at the bears,’” Kronberger said. “Only a few know to go to the sheep — the other sheep hunters. Half the time, people call the sheep a goat.”

by John Branch, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Leah Nash

Broiled Fish With Lemon Curry Butter

Broiled fish fillets topped with a little butter and a squirt of lemon is a quick, easy weeknight staple. But when the butter is spiked with plenty of garlic, a jolt of curry powder and piquant fresh ginger, then brightened with fresh herbs, it becomes a superb, company-worthy dish that still cooks in under 10 minutes flat. Use your favorite fish here; any mild fillet will allow the buttery sauce to shine.

Featured in: This Sauce Makes Everything Taste Better and Our 10 Most Popular Recipes Right Now.

by Melissa Clark, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Alec Cohen


4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 garlic cloves, finely grated or minced
1 ½ tablespoons minced thyme leaves
1 ½ teaspoon curry powder
1 ½ teaspoon grated ginger
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt, more as needed
¾ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
Ground black pepper, to taste
4 (6-ounce) blackfish, flounder or hake fillets
Fresh lemon juice, for serving
Dill fronds or fresh parsley, for serving


Heat the broiler. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt butter. Stir in garlic, thyme, curry powder, ginger and 1/4 teaspoon salt; heat until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in lemon zest.

Season fish with salt and pepper and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Pour sauce over fish and broil until fish is flaky and cooked through, about 5 minutes. Top with a squeeze of lemon juice and fresh dill, and serve.

Friday, February 17, 2017

American Carnage

“What happened, John?” asks Viggo Tarasov toward the end of 2014’s John Wick. “We were professionals. Civilized.”

This is around the time Tarasov gets a knife lodged in his chest — courtesy of the man in question, John Wick, whom he and other underworld criminals call Baba Yaga: “the boogeyman.” Not the kind of guy you want to piss off, you’d think. But at the start of the movie, Tarasov’s manchild of a son, Iosef, breaks into Baba Yaga’s home, kills his puppy, and steals his 1969 Boss 429 Mustang, a car as sleek and dangerous as a silver bullet. To stop him from seeking revenge on his son, Tarasov sets assassins on Wick’s tail. By the time of this little speech, Wick has already successfully killed or evaded them all. “Do I look civilized to you?” asks Wick before he finishes him off.

Wick is a maniac — but a relatable one. Iosef’s violation was no mere break-in or puppy murder, after all, but a call to war. Bonnie had Clyde, Thelma had Louise, and John Wick had a dog: a partner in crime, sure, but more importantly, a companion that allowed Wick, who’d left the killing business behind for love, to imagine a better future for himself. The puppy, Daisy, was a gift from his recently buried wife. “Now that I have found my peace,” read her note with the dog, “find yours.”

In the world of John Wick, which continues Friday with the release of John Wick: Chapter 2, there’s no such thing as peace. The violence in the Wick films favors hand-to-hand, close-up battles of the will, precise kill shots, and a knife or two. It deservedly inspires comparisons to scenes by Hong Kong action geniuses like John Woo. But the sense of a distinct social world that’s closing in on itself, from which Wick cannot escape, is the Wick movies’ unique shtick. It’s heightened in Chapter 2, which expands outward from the first film’s premise to show us the hidden world order to which Wick belongs, a miniature universe of criminals and their henchmen. There’s an entire service industry of cleaners, doctors, bankers, and weapon sellers aiding men like Wick. They have their own currency and their own code. Hierarchies of hidden power and influence preside over it all.

That greater sense of world-building is what keeps the carnage in these movies from feeling arbitrary. It’s part of what sets the Wick films apart from other action films. The other part is the action itself. The directors of the original, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, are both veteran stuntmen. For Chapter 2, Stahelski directs alone. The fight scenes he dreams up in Chapter 2 have a rare sense of danger and spontaneity. More impressively, they heighten our sense of Wick’s character: his focus, skill, and utter singularity. The plot of Chapter 2 is essentially an excuse to draw Wick back into the business and turn everyone against him. It’s a way of showing us how big this criminal underworld is, such that entire fight scenes seemingly play out in an alternate universe happening invisibly alongside our own. It all gives the violence an irresistible grandeur. Wick isn’t merely a man on a revenge mission; by the end, he’s a man trying to fight his way through an entire social order. The John Wick universe is entirely defined by social bonds, be they friendships, debts, or, in Wick’s case, blood oaths. Violence breaks these bonds — hence the intimacy of it. Wick shoots his enemies from such short distance that his gun seemingly cuts through them like it’s a sword. It feels personal. His fights play out like negotiations, as if he’s asking, Just when is it that you plan to give up and die?

Stahelski sends Wick cascading down the stairs of Roman ruins mid-fight. He has him shoot his way out of a literal hall of mirrors, and fire into a crowd at Lincoln Center. It’s surreal — and not. The filmmaking is knowingly romantic — Wick is an astonishing force to watch — but the director doesn’t let us forget the implications of shooting or stabbing someone. That’s no romance. The violence Wick enacts on others feels unusually visceral; you can tell the filmmaker has done some thinking about what a gunshot does to a body. We feel every kill — even as we indulge the fantasy, laughing along with an admiring foe as he says, “I can assure you that the stories about this man — if nothing else — have been watered down.” Wick is such a marvel that even his enemies talk about him with smiles on their faces. He’s a legend, as abstract as air. But his kill shots are concrete reminders of his existence.

You can say the heavy backstory — the dying wife; the puppy as a last, lost symbol of hope; the criminal looking to “get out of the game” — is maudlin, even painfully familiar from every movie of its kind. But in truth these facts of Wick’s character are mere scaffolding for a story about a man we can only understand through genre tropes and myths. They’re not a way in: They’re a way around. As played with cold aplomb by Keanu Reeves, Wick is a man with unexpressed torrents of rage and sadness bubbling beneath that slick exterior. His face is calm, inexpressive, practically bulletproof. Reeves, an actor whose greatest talent might be lulling us into thinking he has no range and then pulling it out of nowhere, is perfectly cast. He growls and grimaces through his beard like a Yung Eastwood in the making — but quietly, with splashes of Alain Delon’s coolness circa Le Samourai.

by K. Austin Collins, The Ringer | Read more:
Image: Lionsgate/Ringer illustration

Obama's Lost Army

[ed. See also: Dems: New Obama Activist Army is B.S.]

On July 20, 2008, Mitch Kapor, the creator of Lotus 1-2-3 and a longtime denizen of Silicon Valley’s intellectual elite, dialed in to a conference call hosted by Christopher Edley Jr., a senior policy adviser to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Joining them on the line were some of the world’s top experts in crowdsourcing and online engagement, including Reid Hoffman, the billionaire co-founder of LinkedIn, and Mitchell Baker, the chairman of Mozilla. Drawing on Kapor’s influence, Edley had invited them to join a “Movement 2.0 Brainstorming Group.” Together, they would ponder a crucial question: how to “sustain the movement” should Obama, who was still a month away from accepting the Democratic nomination, go on to win the White House.

Edley had been a personal friend of Obama’s since his days teaching him at Harvard Law School. Their kinship had been underscored the previous summer, when Obama had invited Edley to the Chicago apartment of Valerie Jarrett, the candidate’s closest confidant, to deliver a stern lecture to the seasoned political operatives who were running his underdog bid for the presidency. The campaign team had Obama on a relentless pace of town halls and donor calls, and Hillary Clinton had been besting him in the early primary debates. Both Barack and Michelle Obama were unhappy. According to John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s account in Game Change, Edley urged Obama’s campaign managers to schedule fewer rallies and fund-raisers, and allow the candidate more time to think and develop innovative policy ideas.

The intervention, delivered with a full-blown harangue telling the troika managing the campaign—David Axelrod, David Plouffe, and Robert Gibbs—to “get over yourselves,” was deeply resented by the political professionals; in his memoir, Believer, Axelrod would later call Edley “systematically antagonizing.” But Jarrett and Michelle Obama, who was also in the meeting, hung on Edley’s every word. “He’s channeling Barack,” Jarrett thought, according to Game Change. Jarrett told Axelrod she thought Edley’s fiery presentation had been “brilliant.”

Now, a year later, Edley had been moved over to Obama’s still-secret transition team, helping to map out policy and personnel on education, immigration, and health care. It was a better fit for Edley, a dapper and soft-spoken law professor with a salt-and-pepper beard, who had served in senior policy-making roles under Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. “Although I have worked in five presidential campaigns,” he told me recently, “I hate them because there is never enough emphasis on policy.” But Edley found himself newly motivated by a single big political idea, born in part from his past experience trying to win policy fights. What if Barack Obama could become not only the first black man elected president, but the first president in history to organize an enduring grassroots movement that could last beyond his years in office?

By that point in the race, there was every reason to think that Obama could build a lasting grassroots operation. His political machine had already amassed more than 800,000 registered users on My.BarackObama, its innovative social networking platform. “MyBO,” as it was known, gave supporters the ability—unthinkable in a traditional, top-down political campaign—to organize their own local groups, campaign events, and fund-raising efforts. Its potential for large-scale organizing after the election was vast—and completely without precedent in American politics. By Election Day, Obama’s campaign would have 13 million email addresses, three million donors, and two million active members of MyBO, including 70,000 people with their own fund-raising pages. This wasn’t just some passive list of campaign supporters, Edley realized—it was an army of foot soldiers, seasoned at rallying support for Obama’s vision of change.

“As the primary season wound down, it struck me that the campaign’s broad-based engagement via the internet could evolve into a powerful tool to shape progressive politics at the national, state, and local levels,” Edley recalls. “One goal would be to support an Obama presidency. But the agenda would be far broader.”

After discussing his idea with his wife, Maria Echaveste, who had served as White House deputy chief of staff under Bill Clinton, Edley turned to his friend Kapor, a digital pioneer and progressive activist who was widely seen as a folk hero of the computer revolution. “I knew that Mitch would be an indispensable partner to judge the merits of the general idea and help figure out some details,” Edley says. “I also realized, quite quickly, that Mitch had amazing contacts in that world whom we could enlist for the project.”

Opening the July brainstorming session, Edley framed the stakes sharply, according to notes he prepared for the meeting and a summary he wrote afterward. “On the morning of November 5,” he told the assembled tech leaders, “imagine saying to millions of donors, new voters, volunteers: ‘Thanks for everything; so long.’” Instead, he urged, “Imagine a way to transfer/transmute all of that involvement into a new mechanism or set of instrumentalities through which people can feel a heightened and more powerful kind of civic engagement with each other and with Obama and other leaders. And vice versa.”

Edley echoed what many progressives were beginning to believe was possible with a President Obama: “There is a rare opportunity to have a citizen movement heading in the same progressive direction as an incumbent president.” According to his notes, the Silicon Valley luminaries on the call agreed. “Most felt it would be an unacceptable loss not to take advantage of the rare alignment of an incumbent President with a progressive agenda, and an online constituency of donors and supporters who can press for change against the inevitable upsurge of entrenched special interests which will resist it.”

As we now know, that grand vision for a postcampaign movement never came to fruition. Instead of mobilizing his unprecedented grassroots machine to pressure obstructionist lawmakers, support state and local candidates who shared his vision, and counter the Tea Party, Obama mothballed his campaign operation, bottling it up inside the Democratic National Committee. It was the seminal mistake of his presidency—one that set the tone for the next eight years of dashed hopes, and helped pave the way for Donald Trump to harness the pent-up demand for change Obama had unleashed.

“We lost this election eight years ago,” concludes Michael Slaby, the campaign’s chief technology officer. “Our party became a national movement focused on general elections, and we lost touch with nonurban, noncoastal communities. There is a straight line between our failure to address the culture and systemic failures of Washington and this election result.”

The question of why—why the president and his team failed to activate the most powerful political weapon in their arsenal—has long been one of the great mysteries of the Obama era. Now, thanks to previously unpublished emails and memos obtained by the New Republic—some from the John Podesta archive released by WikiLeaks, and others made available by Obama insiders—it’s possible for the first time to see the full contours of why Movement 2.0 failed, and what could have been.

by Micah L. Sifry, TNR |  Read more:
Image: Matt Mallams/Aurora

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Ai Weiwei

Every Successful Relationship is Successful for the Same Exact Reasons

Hey, guess what? I got married two weeks ago. And like most people, I asked some of the older and wiser folks around me for a couple quick words of advice from their own marriages to make sure my wife and I didn’t shit the (same) bed. I think most newlyweds do this, especially after a few cocktails from the open bar they just paid way too much money for.

But, of course, not being satisfied with just a few wise words, I had to take it a step further.

See, I have access to hundreds of thousands of smart, amazing people through my site. So why not consult them? Why not ask them for their best relationship/marriage advice? Why not synthesize all of their wisdom and experience into something straightforward and immediately applicable to any relationship, no matter who you are?

Why not crowdsource THE ULTIMATE RELATIONSHIP GUIDE TO END ALL RELATIONSHIP GUIDES™ from the sea of smart and savvy partners and lovers here?

So, that’s what I did. I sent out the call the week before my wedding: anyone who has been married for 10+ years and is still happy in their relationship, what lessons would you pass down to others if you could? What is working for you and your partner? And if you’re divorced, what didn’t work previously?

The response was overwhelming. Almost 1,500 people replied, many of whom sent in responses measured in pages, not paragraphs. It took almost two weeks to comb through them all, but I did. And what I found stunned me…

They were incredibly repetitive.

That’s not an insult or anything. Actually, it’s kind of the opposite. These were all smart and well-spoken people from all walks of life, from all around the world, all with their own histories, tragedies, mistakes, and triumphs…

And yet they were all saying pretty much the same dozen things.

Which means that those dozen or so things must be pretty damn important… and more importantly, they work.

Here’s what they are:

by Mark Manson, Quartz |  Read more:
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

Why Craigslist is Unbeatable

Reham Fagiri’s eureka moment was the result of a deal gone wrong.

It was spring 2012, and the recent Wharton graduate was trying to sell her television on Craigslist. A prospective buyer—an older, gray-haired gentleman—came to her Philadelphia apartment to take a look. When he realized Fagiri had accidentally listed the wrong television model, he was irate.

“He got really upset about that: ‘You made me drive all the way here, blah, blah, blah,’” she recalls. Fagiri asked $200 for the TV. He offered $50. When she balked at the deal, the man announced that he was simply going to take the television. He started carrying it away.

“I’m like ‘Well, I’d rather save my life than have to argue about $150,’” she tells me. “So I was like ‘I don’t even want your money. Just take the TV.’”

This is the basic flaw of Craigslist. The site facilitates peer-to-peer interactions, but does little to ensure that those transactions go off seamlessly. After her harrowing encounter, Fagiri began trading Craigslist stories with friends and classmates, many of whom were similarly frustrated with the site. “That was kind of the second step, like, ‘OK, well, clearly it’s beyond me, and it’s my classmates too,’” she remembers.

Months later, that Craigslist experience still on her mind, Fagiri started outlining a business idea: an online used-furniture marketplace dedicated to the proposition that sometimes consumers want a middleman around to shield them from irrational strangers. She called the site AptDeco, and, like Craigslist, it would allow users to list and view ads for used furniture. Unlike Craigslist, it would also process payments, coordinate pickup and delivery, and serve as a buffer between buyer and seller.

“I’m an engineer, so I started playing around with the idea in my free time,” says Fagiri. “And then I built a small site.” On launch day she sold a West Elm headboard. That’s when Fagiri knew she was on to something. “‘Oh, OK!’” she recalls thinking. “‘I guess this is a real business!’”

More than three years after it ushered that headboard to new ownership, AptDeco is thriving and pedigreed — it was part of Y Combinator’s Winter 2014 class. According to Fagiri, the site is also profitable. (“Obviously there’s fluctuations. Some months are better. But overall we’re at the break-even profitability mark.”) For its services, AptDeco takes a 23 percent cut of the sale price and charges a flat delivery fee of either $35, $95, or $145, depending on the size of the item purchased; the site also lets you hire people to remove unwanted furniture or assemble new purchases.

AptDeco’s functional business model earns it a place of honor amongst the many startups that are vying to disrupt the “moving used crap around” space. There is Chairish, founded in 2013, which focuses on designer furniture and has raised almost $9 million in venture funding, according to Crunchbase; Viyet, founded in 2012, which specializes in high-end consignment; Trove, also known as Trove Market, a mobile-focused used-furniture service that, according to Crunchbase, has raised almost $1 million in seed funding; others include Krrb, MarketSquare, and 1stDibs.

All of these startups are jostling to dethrone the unlikeliest market leader in the history of online retail: Craigslist. The site commands vast loyalty despite doing very little to actively court its users. At times, it seems to dominate through sheer inertia. And yet Craigslist abides, and thrives, as its would-be competitors struggle to establish themselves. Which raises the question: Why is it so hard to compete with a site that is only begrudgingly a business?

by Justin Peters, Backchannel |  Read more:
Image: Li-Anne Dias

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Day's catch (opihi's)
photo: markk

Politics 101

‘The Kids Think I’m a Shoe’

Stan Smith the man & Stan Smith the sneaker.

The island of Hilton Head in South Carolina is shaped like a sneaker, and Stan Smith lives on the laces, right off the river. Inside his house, the six-foot-four retired tennis player with the straightest back I’ve ever seen walks out of the second of his two closets and into the living room carrying five pairs of Stan Smiths, the sneaker, but he still can’t find the one he’s looking for. He has 40 pairs in 30 different styles, more or less.

The sneaker’s fame — and its longevity — takes even its namesake by surprise. You see, the Stan Smith is really the most basic of all possible sneakers. Its narrow white leather body is cushioned at the front with an almost-orthopedic round toe. Its three understated Adidas stripes are nearly missable perforations, as if they don’t care to be recognized, and it has just two spots of color, most classically in green: a tab on the back of the ankle and Smith’s face printed on the tongue. They are essentially anonymous, the saltine cracker of tennis shoes. They were endorsed by Stan Smith just after he won his first Grand Slam singles title in the summer of 1971 and just before he won his second, and last, the next year. He was, in other words, no Serena Williams, not even a Rod Laver.

Nothing about Smith or the simple design of the sneaker itself — neither has changed much since 1971 — explains how Adidas was able to sell 7 million pairs by 1985. Or how that number had grown to 22 million pairs by 1988. Or why Footwear News named it the first-ever Shoe of the Year in 2014. Or how it surpassed 50 million shoes sold as of 2016. Or how the sneaker grew far beyond its start as a technical athletic shoe and became a fashion brand, its basic blank slate evolving and taking on new meaning and purpose. (...)

With his Adidas contract, Smith became one of the first American tennis players to receive an endorsement deal. It was the very beginning of the modern brand-athlete pairings that would, a little over a decade later, lead to Michael Jordan’s very own Air Jordan line, and three decades after that, to LeBron James’s reported $1 billion lifetime endorsement deal with Nike. But when Smith was playing, none of that existed yet. If you made it to the Roland Garros main draw, you would get “six shirts, a vest sweater, a regular sweater, socks, and that’s about it,” he says, counting the items off on his fingers. “You wanted to get in the main draw, so you could get the full set of clothes.”

His agent, Donald Dell, negotiated the picture of Smith’s face on the tongue, a savvy move that made the man inseparable from the sneaker, but Haillet’s name remained on the shoe until 1978, when Smith took over for good. It was by then the premier tennis sneaker. Smith remembers being beaten by opponents wearing his face on their feet. “I didn’t think it was appropriate,” he says. There was an Argentine player named Ricardo Cano, Smith recalls, who was signed to another brand but wore Stan Smiths anyway and drew the other company’s logo on the side of the shoes. The Stans were just that much better.

Smith retired from tennis in 1985. How the sneakers, 43 years after their creation, became suddenly ubiquitous is a case study in how “cool” is created and disseminated from image-makers to mainstream consciousness. In the mid-’90s, while Nike consumed the American sneaker market, a small circle of offbeat celebrities and influential marketing professionals latched onto the shoe as a sort of anti-fashion fashion statement, part of a Waspy, but not too Waspy, vintage style they helped pioneer: tucked-in Brooks Brothers shirts with ill-fitting corduroys or khakis. It helped if you drove a vintage Mercedes.

Stan Smiths fit perfectly with this aesthetic. Here was a shoe that you could buy new, but it looked the same as it had in 1971. The skateboarder Rick Howard wore Stan Smiths in a 1993 skate video sponsored by Girl Skateboards, a company co-founded by Spike Jonze. Mike Mills, who recently directed 20th Century Women, but back then designed album covers for the Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth, was more into Rod Lavers, another Adidas tennis sneaker from the ’70s, but his friend Roman Coppola, who founded the ad agency the Directors Bureau and who later wrote Moonrise Kingdom with Wes Anderson, preferred Stan Smiths. “I’ve owned a few pairs over the years, but don’t remember any specific movement or discussion around it,” he says. His sister Sofia Coppola wore them, too. By the early aughts, branding experts such as Andy Spade, who had launched and popularized his wife Kate Spade’s company, were starting to reinterpret the retro-nostalgia look for the likes of J.Crew, Warby Parker, and Shinola, to great financial success.

Then came Phoebe Philo, the creative director of Céline. In March 2011, Philo took her bow on the Céline runway at the end of the fall-winter ready-to-wear show in Stan Smiths along with low-slung black trousers and a gray turtleneck, hair tucked in. The timing could not have been better. Philo was at the peak of her influence and power. Every editor and professional fashion woman from New York to London to Paris was shopping at Céline between the shows. Kanye West had just name-dropped her in his comeback album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and was so completely bewitched by her ideas that he performed wearing women’s Céline. It was right after the label came out with the luggage bag but just before it became the only bag that seemed to matter. At this height, Phoebe Philo on the runway wearing Stan Smiths was like a gift. Here was something Philo did that everyone could copy for only $75; you could even buy a pair on Amazon. The shoes took on a new meaning. J.Crew started carrying them. The Stan Smith became fashion’s most important sneaker.

At the time, though, Adidas saw things a bit differently. While the sneaker was becoming popular in the fashion world, it was still sold almost exclusively in sporting-goods stores and often at a discount. “We weren’t really happy with how it was seen and where it was found,” says Torben Schumacher, Adidas’ vice-president of product. Adidas wanted to recalibrate how the shoe was presented.

To do that, Schumacher and Adidas decided to take the sneaker entirely off the market. “The idea of not having the model wasn’t really something that went down well,” says Schumacher, especially since it was just starting to get recognized by this new trendsetting crowd. (Smith’s first thought: “That’s interesting. I don’t really like that too much.”) Still, Schumacher and his team at Adidas spent a year and a half convincing the rest of the company of the merits of the plan. Adidas couldn’t truly reintroduce it to a new higher-end clientele, Schumacher argued, if it was still readily available in the bargain bin. “We wanted it to get the respect it deserved and the conversation about it that it deserved and for it to be seen as a commodity item,” he says. “We thought it needed something bold and drastic to prepare everyone for the story again.” By the time Adidas stopped selling the Stan Smith to places like Foot Locker, the company already had a plan of how and with whom it was going to bring it back. In 2012, the sneakers disappeared.

They began reemerging, subtly but purposefully, the next year — notably in the November 2013 issue of Vogue Paris, for which Gisele Bündchen posed naked, apart from white socks and Stan Smiths (“One of our sons saw that, we had no idea,” Margie says. “It was funny”). On January 15, 2014, they went back on sale in higher-end, fashion-focused stores like Barneys New York and the Parisian boutique Colette, still for under $100. They were instantly devoured. Later that year, Philo formally announced the Stan Smiths return, once again wearing them while taking her runway bow, this time with wide-leg pants and a camel sweater.

The trickle-down was immediate. In 2015, Adidas sold 8 million pairs of Stan Smiths. Adidas won’t confirm how many it sold in 2016, but some industry experts throw around numbers like 15 million — more than double what it moved in the shoes’ first decade of existence — the same side part and crooked smile leading them wherever they go.

Smith is the first to recognize Philo’s importance. He brings her up on two different occasions over the course of our time together. “She was one of the first to start wearing the shoe,” he remembers. “And then Pharrell Williams,” who basically bowed to Smith when they met at the U.S. Open this summer and now regularly designs his own versions of the sneaker, as does Raf Simons. “Those cost like $400 or something, and it’s the same shoe! It’s really weird, actually.”

For Smith, the sneakers are far more successful, monetarily, than he ever was in his tennis career, during which he made “$1.7 million, or something like that. I read it once,” he says. “The shoe has certainly been more than that.” In the beginning he collected an annual sum for his endorsement. These days, though, he’s paid in royalties.

Smith’s contract with Adidas expires about every five years (he’ll sign next in 2018). So why does Adidas keep Stan Smith around? Why does it need him when it has Phoebe and Gisele and Pharrell and Raf and Kanye? Turns out this 70-year-old former tennis player, who was really more of a doubles star, who has eyebrows like the flailing blowup guy at car dealerships, is the only thing that makes its shoe the original. Which is especially valuable when everybody else in the business is trying to knock off its success.

by Lauren Schwartzberg, The Cut |  Read more:
Image: João Canziani