"What’s preventing Google from disrupting your success?"
Drew Houston’s company may be valued at $10 billion, but here in GSB Faculty West 104 on the Stanford University campus he’s being grilled like a newbie on Shark Tank. The three dozen students in this class, called "Disruptive Innovation", are relentless, even though he’s been invited as a guest. Another pupil brings up what he believes is another giant threat: "Amazon [Web Services] was this huge competitive advantage for you when you were first starting," he says. "But now they have this competing Cloud Drive."
Houston is the epitome of Northern California cool. With his full beard, hair sticking straight up, and a silver hoop piercing the middle of his left earlobe, he leans back in his chair and placidly fields the queries, no matter how snippy. "Pretty much any big company, for any sufficient market, is gonna have some chips on the table," Houston says, explaining why he thinks Amazon and Google now have services that compete with Dropbox. "That doesn’t mean it’s gonna work."
Houston, 32, finds himself in the dead center of one of the tech industry’s most fearsome turf wars. Dropbox has the distinction of being the only cloud service—and perhaps the only startup—ever to compete simultaneously against Apple ($748 billion market cap), Google ($369 billion), Microsoft ($357 billion), Amazon ($173 billion), and Tencent ($160 billion).
The stakes are clear: whomever controls your stuff may control the digital future. Over the last few years, storing and sharing data in the cloud has become an almost ubiquitous habit. Conventional wisdom had been that cloud-based storage was a commodity business, a digital file cabinet. But a better metaphor for the potential of cloud-based storage might be a portable office. "Your whole computing environment ought to follow you around," explains Houston. "Your financial records, your health information, your music playlist . . . anything that’s ‘mine.’ It’s a pretty long list." Better yet, you should eventually be able to interact seamlessly with everything in that portable office: work on documents with colleagues, send email, chronicle inventory. About storage, he says, "that’s kind of the easy part. The more interesting part is, What can you do with it?"
Unlike his amply financed competitors, which were all founded during the desktop computing era, Houston has been embedded in the cloud for eight years, ever since launching Dropbox in 2007. He’s not building smartphones, holographic lenses, or self-driving cars: his sole focus is solving the annoyances created by the invisible networked quilt that is modern computing. The cloud makes it possible to work from anywhere, anytime, but keeping everything safe and in sync is a massive software challenge. Our economy’s workforce is increasingly independent, mobile, and flexible, and the line between work and home continues to blur. The traditional design of business computing was not built for how we work today. "[Employees] are basically saying, ‘I need to get my job done,’" says Maureen Fleming, a VP at the analyst firm IDC. Those employees will gravitate to whichever service makes it easiest for them to do so.
No one yet dominates the new global network, but Dropbox just may be the most adroit cloud company in the world, the one that has solved more problems for its users than any other. That’s why Dropbox is not just surviving its onslaught of competition, but is thriving. The company says it has more than 300 million users and 4 million companies using the service. According to IDC, Dropbox owns 27% of the consumer market for file-syncing and sharing documents, more than Microsoft and Apple. It is also the most popular file-syncing and sharing service used by businesses. More than 100,000 organizations, including Hyatt, Under Armour, and Spotify, pay $15 per employee per month for Dropbox for Business, while a tiny fraction of its consumers pay $99 per year for the Pro service. Our conservative estimate of all those paying customers (assuming five employees in each business and 1% of consumers) puts Dropbox’s revenue at approximately $450 million annually, which is why the company is rumored to be going public before too long.
A potential IPO is just one of the many reasons 2015 is a critical year for Dropbox. Houston is already rolling out new features that enhance Dropbox’s utility, letting users do things such as save any file within an iPhone app to Dropbox with two taps, and edit Office documents without having to save them to a computer. These new additions will be a test: of Houston’s bet that Dropbox is a business and not merely a feature; of Dropbox’s ability to stay rigorously focused on solving customer problems at a time when it is growing madly; and of Houston’s ability to fend off his rivals’ cloud initiatives.
Toward the end of the Stanford class, another future disrupter named Jordan bluntly asks Houston, "What made you the right person to start Dropbox in the first place?" In the jargon of Silicon Valley, he’s asking about what’s called founder-market fit. Why, Jordan wants to know, does Houston have more than a puncher’s chance against Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and the rest?
by J.J. McCorvey, Fast Company | Read more: Image: Dropbox
Carmakers are afraid of Apple. YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon are upending the television industry. Skype, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and others have changed consumers’ notions of how – and how much it costs – to communicate with one another. Sectors and industry delineations as we know them are breaking down.
Once upon a time, those delineations established a fairly clear-cut world. Car companies made cars, and they were in the automotive industry. Phone companies ensured that we could speak to one another over great distances, and they were in the telecommunications sector. Broadcasting companies made television shows, and they were in the media sector.
Everything was neat and orderly. Analysts could easily categorize companies and tell the markets what they were worth, boards could oversee firms with a view to shareholders’ happiness, and all was right in the world. Until it wasn’t.
That world – in which clearly defined sectors enable easy classification of what a company does – is disappearing before our eyes. Is Apple a technology company or a luxury watchmaker? Is Google a search-engine firm or an up-and-coming car company manufacturing driverless vehicles?
But, for every Apple or Google, there are companies that seemed innovative but became obsolete or fell behind. Kodak and Nokia, for example, provide a cautionary tale for companies that began life as innovators.
Nokia, in particular, was long held up as a case study in corporate reinvention – the very epitome of constant, top-to-bottom change. Here was a company that entered and exited sectors as needed: paper, tires, rubber boots, and telecoms. And yet it has lost its way; with the sale of its mobile-phone business to Microsoft, many doubt that it can recover and reinvent itself yet again. (Of course, even if Nokia has run out of road, its loss may be Finland’s long-term gain, as startups begin to blossom from the minds of the company’s highly skilled ex-workers.)
Many traditional companies, too, have fallen behind because they hewed too closely to their traditional definitions. Like Kodak, other storied brands have not innovated: Polaroid, Radio Shack, Borders, Aquascutum, Blockbuster, and the list goes on. Their managers thought they were doing the right thing: not losing sight of the “core business.” Their board members knew the industry and had all the right credentials to oversee the managers.
But both managers and board members were wearing blinders. They did not make room around the table for those who could see that the company’s destiny did not lie only straight ahead, but also off to the side.
Ever since Siri appeared as a regular feature on the iPhone, certain young children — and, let’s face it, some of their parents — have spent hours chatting up the virtual assistant, curious about the details of her humanoid back story.
Siri, where do you live? Siri, do you have a boyfriend? Siri, how old are you?
At a time when grown-ups can use voice commands to find restaurants, change channels on their TVs or get directions, it seems logical that children would now expect devices to understand their speech and respond in kind.
“To converse with a mobile device is an assumed truth if you are 10 years old today,” Oren Jacob, the chief executive of ToyTalk, a company that creates conversational characters for children, told me recently at the company’s headquarters in San Francisco. “That is not true of high school students.”
Founded in 2011, ToyTalk already produces popular animated conversational apps — among them the Winston Show and SpeakaZoo — that encourage young children to engage in complex dialogue with a menagerie of make-believe characters. Now the company’s technology, originally designed for two-dimensional characters on-screen, is poised to power tangible playthings that children hold in their hands.
This fall, Mattel plans to introduce Hello Barbie, a Wi-Fi enabled version of the iconic doll, which uses ToyTalk’s system to analyze a child’s speech and produce relevant responses.
“She’s a huge character with an enormous back story,” Mr. Jacob says of Barbie. “We hope that when she’s ready, she will have thousands and thousands of things to say and you can speak to her for hours and hours.”
It was probably inevitable that the so-called Internet of Things — those Web-connected thermostats and bathroom scales and coffee makers and whatnot — would beget the Internet of Toys. And just like Web-connected consumer gizmos that can amass details about their owners and transmit that data for remote analysis, Internet-connected toys hold out the tantalizing promise of personalized services and the risk of privacy perils.
“Is this going to be some creepy doll that records what is going on in your home without you knowing it?” asks Nicole A. Ozer, the director of technology and civil liberties at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. “What is being recorded? How long is it being stored? Who is it being shared with?”
The advent of connected toys that can record and talk back to children is likely to deepen this debate over the Internet of Things because of the potential for these intelligent toys to powerfully affect children’s imagination, learning and social development.
There was no vainglory in the title of the first volume of Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs: “The Singapore Story”. Few leaders have so embodied and dominated their countries: Fidel Castro, perhaps, and Kim Il Sung, in their day. But both of those signally failed to match Mr Lee’s achievement in propelling Singapore “From Third World to First” (as the second volume is called). Moreover, he managed it against far worse odds: no space, beyond a crowded little island; no natural resources; and, as an island of polyglot immigrants, not much shared history. The search for a common heritage may have been why, in the 1990s, Mr Lee’s Singapore championed “Asian values”. By then, Singapore was the most Westernised place in Asia.
Mr Lee himself, whose anglophile grandfather had added “Harry” to his Chinese name, was once called by George Brown, a British foreign secretary, “the best bloody Englishman east of Suez”. He was proud of his success in colonial society. He was a star student in pre-war Singapore, and, after an interlude during the Japanese occupation of 1942-45, again at the London School of Economics (LSE) and Cambridge. He and his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, both got firsts in law.
When Geok Choo first appears in “The Singapore Story” it is as a student who, horror of horrors, beats young Harry in economics and English exams. Mr Lee always excelled at co-option as well as coercion. When he returned to Singapore in 1950, he was confident in the knowledge that she “could be a sole breadwinner and bring up the children”, giving him an “insurance policy” that would let him enter politics. He remained devoted to her. Before her death, when she lay bedridden and mute for two years, he maintained a spreadsheet listing the books he read to her: Lewis Carroll, Jane Austen, Shakespeare’s sonnets.
In his political life he gave few hints of such inner tenderness. Influenced by Harold Laski, a British academic whom he had met at the LSE, he was in the anti-colonial movement of the 1950s, and in Britain had campaigned for the Labour Party. But for him ideology always took second place to a pragmatic appreciation of how power works. He also boasted of his streetfighting prowess: “Nobody doubts that if you take me on, I will put on knuckle-dusters and catch you in a cul-de-sac.” He was a ruthless operator, manoeuvring himself into a position at the head of the People’s Action Party (PAP) to become Singapore’s first prime minister when self-governance arrived in 1959. He remained so for 31 years.
Just once in that time the steely mask slipped. Having led Singapore into a federation with Malaysia in 1963, Mr Lee led it out again when it was expelled in August 1965, with Malaysia’s prime minister accusing him of leading a state government “that showed no measure of loyalty to its central government”. For his part, he had become convinced that Chinese-majority Singapore would always be at a disadvantage in a Malay-dominated polity. Still he had believed in and worked for the merger all his life. Announcing its dissolution, he wept.
In compensation, he turned Singapore into a hugely admired economic success story. As he and his government would often note, this seemed far from the likeliest outcome in the dark days of the 1960s. Among the many resources that Singapore lacked was an adequate water supply, which left it alarmingly dependent on a pipeline from peninsular Malaysia, from which it had just divorced. It was beholden to America’s goodwill and the crumbling might of the former colonial power, Britain, for its defence. The regional giant, Indonesia, had been engaged in a policy of Konfrontasi—hostility to the Malaysian federation just short of open warfare—to stress that it was only an accident of colonial history that had left British-ruled Malaya and its offshoots separate from the Dutch-ruled East Indies, which became Indonesia.
Singapore as a country did not exist. “How were we to create a nation out of a polyglot collection of migrants from China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and several other parts of Asia?” asked Mr Lee in retrospect. Race riots in the 1960s, in Singapore itself as well as in Malaysia, coloured Mr Lee’s thinking for the rest of his life. Even when Singapore appeared to outsiders a peaceful, harmonious, indeed rather boringly stable place, its government often behaved as if it were dancing on the edge of an abyss of ethnic animosity. Public housing, one of the government’s greatest successes, remains subject to ethnic quotas to prevent the minority Malays and Indians from coalescing into ghettoes.
That sense of external weakness and internal fragility was central to Mr Lee’s policies for the young country. Abandoned by Britain in 1971 when it withdrew from “east of Suez”, Singapore has always made national defence a high priority, although direct threats to its security have eased. Relations with Malaysia have frequently been fraught, but never to the point when a military conflict seemed likely. And Indonesia ended Konfrontasi in the mid-1960s. The formation in 1967 of the Association of South-East Asian Nations, with Mr Lee as one of the founding fathers, helped unite the region. Yet Singaporean men still perform nearly two years of national service in the armed forces. Defence spending, in a country of 5.3m, is more than in Indonesia, with nearly 250m; in 2014 it soaked up over one-fifth of the budget.
Singapore’s vulnerability also justified, for Mr Lee, some curtailment of democratic freedoms. In the early days this involved strong-arm methods—locking up suspected communists, for example. But it became more subtle: a combination of economic success, gerrymandering, stifling press controls and the legal hounding of opposition politicians and critics, including the foreign press. Singapore has had regular, free and fair elections. Indeed, voting is compulsory, though Mr Lee said in 1994 that he was “not intellectually convinced that one-man, one-vote is the best”. He said Singapore practised it because the British had left it behind. So he designed a system where clean elections are held, but it has also been almost inconceivable for the PAP to lose power.
The biggest reason for that has been its economic success: growth has averaged nearly 7% a year for four decades. But Mr Lee’s party has left nothing to chance. The traditional media are toothless; opposition politicians have been hounded into bankruptcy by defamation laws inherited from Britain; voters have faced the threat that, if they elect opposition candidates, their constituencies will get less money; constituency boundaries have been manipulated by the government. The advantage of Mr Lee’s system, proponents say, is that it introduced just enough electoral competition to keep the government honest, but not so much that it risks losing power. So it can look round corners on behalf of its people, plan for the long term and resist the temptation to pander to populist pressures.
Mr Lee was a firm believer in “meritocracy”, or government by the most able, defined in large part by scholastic success. “We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think,” as he put it in 1987. His government’s ministers were the world’s best-paid, to attract talent from the private sector and curb corruption. Corruption did indeed become rare in Singapore. Like other crime, it was deterred in part by harsh punishments, ranging from brutal caning for vandalism to hanging for murder or drug-smuggling. As Mr Lee also said: “Between being loved and feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.” As a police state, however, Singapore is such a success that you rarely see a cop.
Life in Japan is hard, sure. But I’ve stayed for three years. Outside of work, and loneliness, and the constant miniature stresses of everyday life, Japan has clearly captured something in my imagination that has inspired me to stay. These things are small, too, just like the annoyances, but simpler: Pleasure is easy, after all, misery is complicated. So I can sum up 41 things I like about Japan in a single, massive blast of positive vibes, and then I can direct people back here when they mention my constant stream of narcissistic complaints and criticisms. I am sure that there are more than this, many things I’m forgetting, so consider this a survey, not an end-all list.
1. Hanami (Cherry Blossom Season)
It annoyed me to discover that Washington, DC has cherry blossoms that bloom at the same time as Japan’s, because my jaded Washington friend kept acting like they weren’t all that cool. The high school kids in Japan are pretty blasé, as well: “Cherry Leaf. Is… Boring.”
But I can’t walk through the park in the Spring without being swept up in the beauty of the damn things, even going so far as to write haiku:
Cherry blossoms stuck to the bottom of my shoes, only four months left.
The Kit-Kat innovation factory slowed down after 2011, but I will miss scratching the itch in the candy aisle of every new convenience store I find myself in. Visiting new towns was always tied to the possibilities of tasting a new Kit-Kat. There are regional Kit-Kats, sorted by prefecture; then there are seasonal Kit-Kats, rotated nationally every season. I’m leaving on a high note: Passionfruit.
But I’ve had Rum Raisin, two kinds of Matcha, Sakura, Sakura-Matcha, Blueberry Cheesecake, Pumpkin, Soy Sauce, Cinnamon, Sweet Potato, Strawberry, Pudding, Spicy Citrus, Pancake, Orange, Powdered Mochi, and more that I can’t even remember. Surprising highlights: Sweet Potato.
3. Silence after Sunset
The siren rings throughout my town at 6 p.m., and the children all go inside. There’s a calmness to the night then. Unless it’s summer cicada season, there’s hardly a sound in the neighborhood, just the occasional distant clanging of the subway crossing.
4. Polite Dogs I never liked dogs. The only reasons dogs don’t attack and kill you is because the thought hasn’t crossed their mind yet. But in Japan I came around to a couple of breeds. The Shiba-Inu, in particular, is a polite dog, small enough to be cute but big enough to be a dog.
There’s one that wanders around my street sometimes. It usually stops to look at me, mouth closed, straightforward and all business. It doesn’t bark or run up to me, doesn’t threaten me or run away. Just has a look and, I imagine, gives me a little bow before carrying on home.
Trains are great. They’re quiet and convenient. I remember looking at the road in America once and thinking, with awe for Franklin Roosevelt, that this pavement I stood on spanned the entire country. I could go anywhere from here. The trains in Japan feel that way – there’s a train to go home, next to the train to go to Tokyo. All that’s between me and an adventure is where I decide to wait on the platform.
There’s a park near my house with a 4.5 kilometer running path spanning a lake. Inside the lake is an island, and beside the lake is a rose garden with a windmill, a Shinto shrine, a baseball field, a public gymnasium, and a sculpture garden. All free, all just sitting there for me to run around. Urban planning, when Japan decides to apply it, is impeccable, though of course this has a lot to do with having enormous wealth to spend on them.
7. Themed Dining
You can eat dinner in a sixth-grade classroom complete with a blackboard and a pop quiz, you can get locked into a prison cell, you can get a Mongolian yurt (with a costume). There’s one bar here that is inside a cave, down the street from a bar themed like 1980’s Japan, which is down the street from a bar themed like 1940’s Japan. There are all-you-can-eat pizza buffets and places with boiling oil at your table to deep-fry your own food. The absurd eating experiences in Japan get all the attention, but that ignores another key point: The food in Japan, and the atmosphere in most restaurants, makes it ridiculously easy to spend money every weekend. Beautiful, dimly lit, romantic dining is the norm.
This is unheard of where I’m from: Pay $30 and drink as much alcohol as you can for 2-3 hours. I’ve been served pitchers of gin and tonic. A typical night out starts with a 2-hour nomihodai and then moves to karaoke, where you get an additional nomihodai built into the cost of the booth. An exhilarating means to a miserable morning.
9. Karaoke Private booths are the only way to go. No enduring the endless stream of drunken strangers, you can book a room with drunken friends and endure each other’s wails. Karaoke is a grand way of connecting on a level that didn’t exist for me in America: Sitting around, singing to each other in all your unabashed, off-key glory seems, somehow, to bring people closer together than anything else we could be doing.
An unheard-of food in the States, Okonomiyaki in my town transcends all other Japanese cuisine. Savory batter with chunks of pork, shrimp and cabbage baked in, topped with barbecue sauce and, with the modan specialty, topped off with noodles. No, this is not how it is done in the traditional okonomiyaki homelands of Hiroshima and Osaka. But, having had the dish in both locales, I can assure you that there is no better option than Bochi-Bochi modan okonomiyaki in the sleepy suburban city of Kasuya, Fukuoka Prefecture.
by Eryk Salvaggio, This Japanese Life | Read more: Images: uncredited
Buying a $450 motorcycle to ride across a communist country devastated by war with your own sounds like a great idea, right? I thought so. Here's how you can do it too.
I've been traveling the world for the last seven months or so. It's been amazing. But one thing that I've missed most about life back in LA was riding my motorcycle. Every. Single. Day.
Riding in the States isn't terribly popular. You can only lane-split legally in California. Insurance companies treat riding as a hobby and charge out-the-ass for motorcycle policies. Car drivers are often prejudiced against us. Overall, it's barely accepted. Which is a shame, because motorcycles make way more sense for personal transportation than a giant, heavy, inefficient car ever will.
That's not case in Vietnam, however — where the 37 million registered motorcycles (or "motorbikes," as they're called in much of Asia) zipping around have already exceeded 2020 planning. Riding motorbikes is a part of daily life. Nearly everyone has one. Entire families of four will ride on one scooter. Local people transport truckloads of goods strapped to the back of their bikes. It's amazing.
Riding here is is an elegant, yet frantic dance as thousands of bikes weave in-and-out of each lane with little regard for those around. Bumps are frequent; seldom acknowledged. Horns are used liberally as can be imagined. Put simply: it's insane.
Besides reveling in the moto madness, there are a ton of other reasons to travel to Vietnam. The landscapes are beautiful as they are diverse. River deltas define the south. Pine forests blanket the central highlands. The easternmost extremities of the Himalayas carve through the north. Lush jungles line the coast. The people are warm and welcoming. The food is delicious. And everything is cheap. Like fifteen cents-a-beer cheap.
Vietnam is an adventurer's haven too. There's world-class rock climbing. Diving. Kiteboarding. Kayaking. Trekking. Son Doong — the world's largest discovered cave is here too. (I'll be exploring Son Doong's smaller sister, Hang En in a few weeks!)
Since I was already in the region, there was no way I could not explore Vietnam — so after a three week stint in Cambodia, I jumped on a night bus to Saigon
My mission: Explore Vietnam from the south to the north, traveling through how the locals do. And that meant getting a bike.
by Chris Brinlee Jr, Gizmodo | Read more: Image: Chris Brinlee, Jr
The subtitle of former Harvard president Neil L. Rudenstine’s new book, Ideas of Order, announces that it is “A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” But it is not really a “close reading” in the usual sense—and that is the heart of its strengths. Rudenstine instead interprets the sonnets as a sequence, paying special attention to how the poet develops his increasingly pessimistic concerns about the honesty and durability of romantic love in these 154 lyric poems.
“Close reading” was the favored term of the New Critics in the 1930s to describe and denote the method of interpretation they advocated to replace the philological criticism and belletrism then dominating the study of literature. They wanted to study poetry not just as an instance of language, but as art. However, they insisted that literary study should be more like a science than like mere book-reviewing, with a rigorous consideration of a poem as a self-enclosed object possessing its own internal coherence. At its best, close reading is the literary equivalent of microscope work in a biology lab: scrutinizing every element of a poem, no matter how minute, and its impact on the poem’s range of meaning. The technique, which has long outlasted the doctrine that gave it rise, has forcefully shaped the way poetry is taught in the English-speaking world in both high schools and colleges. Entire class sessions are often spent on a handful of short lyric poems. It is somewhat unusual to find a syllabus assigning an entire volume of poetry by a single poet that is taught as a continuous whole rather than as a set of discrete texts.
This tendency to focus on close reading has also affected and perhaps distorted how we read lyric cycles, including the Elizabethan sonnet sequences, Shakespeare’s in particular. One symptom is that none of the major anthologies used for survey courses reproduces the sonnet cycles of Spenser, Sidney, and Shakespeare in full. Instead, they are presented through a kind of “greatest hits” approach that further pushes students toward understanding them not as continuities, but as collections. Within this approach lies a vestigial New Critical assumption that the proper unit of decipherment is not the sequence, but the sonnet, and that one can treat a given sonnet as an aesthetic whole, independent of the sequence of which it is a part.
Ideas of Order, a charmingly nonconfrontational book, never goes so far as to call that approach a misreading. But Rudenstine (who trained as a scholar of Renaissance poetry at Harvard, taught undergraduates throughout his presidency, and still teaches a freshman seminar on twentieth-century poetry at Princeton) obviously sees the absence of a book that teaches the reader how to consider the sonnets as a sequence—to see the joints and beams in the thematic and dramatic architecture of the work—as a mistake. Some academic work has addressed this problem (most notably Brents Stirling’s 1968 book, Shakespeare Sonnet Order), but there is little writing that presents these ideas to the general public. Ideas of Order aims to fill this gap: omitting footnotes and critical crossfire, it is clearly meant for a nonacademic audience. It also addresses the unfortunate state of affairs that Rudenstine describes at the book’s outset: despite their lofty reputation, the sonnets “are scarcely read, except for the few that are regularly anthologized.”
Rudenstine’s book consists of an interpretive essay, followed by a complete, unannotated text of the sonnets. In the essay, he sketches a loose “road map” for the sonnets that charts the progression of the poet through a succession of emotional stages and romantic situations, and traces a kind of “plot” through the cycle. Even casual Shakespeareans know that the majority of the sonnets are addressed to an attractive young man, urging him to have children, before they turn to a “dark lady” late in the sequence. But Rudenstine points out that many discernible episodes intervene. At sonnet 21, insecurities creep in. In 33-36, the young man betrays the poet; qualified pardon ensues, followed by separation, and then another, more severe betrayal, followed by plaintive condemnation. A horrible, long separation seems to fall between 96 and 97; after an uneasy reconciliation, the poet himself is unfaithful to the young man beginning at 109. Finally, both the young man and the poet fall under the sway of the dark lady. Rudenstine is far from dogmatic about this schema, noting that it is only one possible way to carve up the sequence, and that it does not account for the scattering of sonnets that seem to stick out at loose ends. But his modesty belies how convincing—and useful—his divisions are. (...)
Ideas of Order would be a worthwhile endeavor even if it only facilitated the understanding of readers new to the sonnets. But it does more than that, though its author soft-pedals his book’s interpretive climax. By approaching these poems as a portrait of an evolving mind, Rudenstine arrives at a reading of the sequence as a work that winds through mounting emotional pain to a bleak and sober terminus.
Anyone who has read the sonnets in full, even in a cursory manner, is aware that they are rarely the expressions of unqualified and worshipful praise that the popular imagination often takes them to be. They voice stubborn insecurity; jealousy that putrefies into hatred; anxiety about love in the shadow of death; and, most troubling, a crisis of confidence in the ability of language to communicate either sincerely or enduringly. Ideas of Order argues that, far from being overcome, these concerns acquire validity and intensity as the work advances. By the end, “Time has become a more powerful adversary, and in the last celebratory poems to the friend, beauty ceases to play any part. Indeed, even the ‘eternizing’ capacity of poetry itself is no longer mentioned.” The poet emerges broken of his commitment to honesty and beauty, and well versed in suspicion and duplicity.
At this point in the 2012 presidential race, Terry Neese was in hot demand.
“Gosh, I was hearing from everyone and meeting with everyone,” said Neese, an Oklahoma City entrepreneur and former “Ranger” for President George W. Bush who raised more than $1 million for his reelection.
This year, no potential White House contender has called — not even Bush’s brother, Jeb. As of early Wednesday, the only contacts she had received were e-mails from staffers for two other likely candidates; both went to her spam folder.
“They are only going to people who are multi-multimillionaires and billionaires and raising big money first,” said Neese, who founded a successful employment agency. “Most of the people I talk to are kind of rolling their eyes and saying, ‘You know, we just don’t count anymore.’ ”
It’s the lament of the rich who are not quite rich enough for 2016.
Bundlers who used to carry platinum status have been downgraded, forced to temporarily watch the money race from the sidelines. They’ve been eclipsed by the uber-wealthy, who can dash off a seven-figure check to a super PAC without blinking. Who needs a bundler when you have a billionaire?
Many fundraisers, once treated like royalty because of their extensive donor networks, are left pining for their lost prestige. Can they still have impact in a world where Jeb Bush asks big donors to please not give more than $1 million to his super PAC right now? Will they ever be in the inner circle again?“
A couple presidential elections ago, somebody who had raised, say, $100,000 for a candidate was viewed as a fairly valuable asset,” said Washington lobbyist Kenneth Kies. “Today, that looks like peanuts. People like me are probably looking around saying, ‘How can I do anything that even registers on the Richter scale?’ ”
by Matea Gold and Tom Hamburger, Washington Post | Read more: Image: (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
It’s a little hard to take Kirt McMaster seriously at first. He tends to run on his own schedule, and when he shows up 20 minutes late for a meeting on a recent weekday, there’s not so much as a mention of his tardiness, let alone an apology. In black jeans, a black hoodie that looks a half-size too small, brown Birkenstock sandals and a pair of fat black rings–one on his left thumb, one on his right pinkie–the 46-year-old looks more like a techno beach bum than an entrepreneur. He works out of a squat, gray, converted plumbing-supply store in Palo Alto, Calif. that doesn’t call attention to the fact that his startup, Cyanogen, is housed inside. The period sign on the façade says “John F. Dahl Plumbing and Heating (since 1895).” The wardrobe and the location are disguises, necessary when one is hatching one of the most daring plots in Silicon Valley history. But McMaster happily blows his cover minutes into our conversation, summing up his mission–preposterous as it sounds–in his booming baritone: “We’re putting a bullet through Google’s head.”
The time is ripe for someone to try. The mobile revolution kicked into gear by the iPhone is getting stagnant just as it’s reaching a new inflection point. The number of smartphones on the planet is expected to grow from about 2.5 billion to nearly 6 billion by 2020. Prices for fast and feature-rich mobiles are crashing, allowing new powerhouses like Xiaomi to emerge in record time. Yet Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android control 96% of the mobile operating system market. It’s their chess game, and we all get to choose between white and black. McMaster doesn’t so much want to insert himself between Apple and Google as to kick their chessboard over and deliver to the world a third option, Cyanogen, a six-year-old mobile operating system that’s essentially a souped-up version of Android and available outside of Google’s control. (...)
“App and chip vendors are very worried about Google controlling the entire experience,” says Peter Levine, partner with Andreessen Horowitz. That’s particularly true for firms that compete with Apple or Google, among them Box and Dropbox in cloud storage; Spotify in music; Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Snapchat in messaging; Amazon in commerce; and Microsoft in a wide swath of sectors. The lessons from the PC era, when Microsoft used its Windows monopoly to sideline rivals and dictate terms to PC makers, still resonate. A third choice would be welcome and unleash a new wave of mobile innovation.
Cyanogen has a chance to snag as many as 1 billion handsets, more than the total number of iPhones sold to date, according to some analysts. Fifty million people already run Cyanogen on their phones, the company says. Most went through the hours-long process of erasing an Android phone and rebooting it with Cyanogen. McMaster is now persuading a growing list of phone manufacturers to make devices with Cyanogen built in, rather than Google’s Android. Their phones are selling out in record time. Analysts say each phone could bring Cyanogen a minimum of $10 in revenue and perhaps much more. (...)
Cyanogen was born long before McMaster anointed himself the David to Google’s Goliath. It dates back to 2009, when Steve Kondik, a 40-year-old entrepreneur and veteran programmer, began tinkering with Android in his Pittsburgh home during late-night hacking sessions. (Android is open source, so anyone can download the code and tweak it. As long as people don’t break things, Android apps, including Google’s own–Gmail, Maps, Drive, the Play Store and others–will run without problems. And Google, which gives away Android, makes money from ads in the apps and collects data from handsets.) An engineer who taught himself to code at age 8, Kondik has a graying, receding hairline. He is as understated and measured as McMaster is brash and impulsive. Kondik began by making some changes to the Android user interface, then worked on improving performance and extending battery life. Pretty soon a community of hundreds of developers coalesced around him and began contributing their coding skills to the Cyanogen endeavor, then called CyanogenMod. “It was completely unexpected,” Kondik says. “There was no grand vision.”
Online forums started buzzing about Kondik’s highly customizable version of Android, and by October 2011 a million people had installed Cyanogen on their phones. Eight months later it was 5 million. Eventually Samsung took notice and hired Kondik to join a research and development team in Seattle. The company gave him permission to continue with his off-hours hacking of Android. “It very quickly took over my life,” says Kondik, who remains in Seattle, where most of Cyanogen’s engineers work. (The company has fewer than 90 employees but receives contributions from as many as 9,000 open source programmers.)
While Kondik was hacking with his band of programmers, McMaster was bouncing around various tech firms. A Canadian who grew up in Nova Scotia and dropped out of college, he joined a Silicon Valley startup during the dot-com boom and later moved to southern California, where he worked at a handful of digital marketing agencies. He then helped run Boost Mobile, a prepaid wireless service that originated in Australia and is now owned by Sprint. McMaster later went to work at Sony, helping to plot mobile strategies. Like many techies McMaster was an early iPhone user. But as he brainstormed business ideas, he grew increasingly intrigued with Android’s openness. In 2012 he bought a Samsung Galaxy 3, the first Android phone he felt was on par with the iPhone, but he immediately grew frustrated that the latest Android version–known as Jelly Bean–was not available for it. So McMaster wiped his Galaxy clean and installed CyanogenMod, which, thanks to its army of programmers, had already incorporated the Jelly Bean update. This, McMaster says, led to an epiphany of sorts while he was working out one afternoon at a gym in Venice, Calif. If you could flash a device with an open operating system, you could customize it as much as you wanted. “It means you can do whatever you want with the device,” McMaster says.
Let’s assume the Pentagon somehow comes up with enough money to pay for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Suppose further the F-35 eventually passes all its test and evaluation milestones and the appropriate authorities make the appropriate Initial Operational Capability and Final Operational Capability declarations.
Let’s imagine a future in which the various services have patiently waited long enough to finally take ownership of their respective fleets, totaling some 2400+ aircraft, allowing the Pentagon to retire the F-16, A-10, F-18 and AV-8. And maybe the F-15 and F-22, as well.
Let’s also assume our allies get their stealth fighters too, replacing whatever old jets they’re currently flying. While we’re on a roll, why not assume our adversaries don’t make any hostile moves that would require a JSF-based response before we’re ready, and that no new threats or technologies emerge which would render the JSF obsolete or irrelevant.
Let’s assume everything works out in JSF-land and things go as well as they possibly can.
Despite these optimistic assumptions, this best case scenario for the F-35 still contains a rather significant flaw, an elephantine turd in the proverbial punchbowl. It comes down to a single word — hypoxia.
See, the U.S. Air Force grounded its F-22 stealth fighter fleet in May 2011 because pilots were displaying strangulation-like hypoxia symptoms at a rate nine times higher than the crews of other fighter jets. The grounding lasted for four months, during which time “the most capable aircraft in the world” was unflyable.
Then the secretary of defense stepped in and lifted the grounding while establishing tight restrictions on how pilots could fly the jet — not because engineers had isolated and solved the problem, but because if the situation had lasted much longer, the pilots would have lost their certifications, leaving the Air Force with a fleet of unusable aircraft and a cadre of unqualified pilots.
That sounded like a bad idea to everyone, so officials allowed the pilots to return to flight despite the lingering problem. In February, 2012 the Air Force grounded the fleet again — for the fifth time.
The good news is that repeatedly grounding the Raptor had virtually no impact on America’s defense posture, because the jet was not relevant to the military’s operations in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya — at least according to then-secretary of defense Robert Gates.
The non-impact of the F-22’s non-availability surely reveals something about the value of that particular jet, but that’s a topic for another day. Instead, let’s consider what will happen when we discover a similar flaw in the F-35, some malfunction that renders the JSF unable to fly safely … and necessitates a fleet-wide grounding or five.
The key phrases here are “when” and “fleet-wide,” although “five” is a pretty significant number as well. It may be worth noting that the groundings have already begun.
Paris - The box was the first thing I noticed when I stepped into Hermie Lagpao’s cramped bedroom in her apartment outside Paris. It sat in the center of a room that was cozy by default, because of its size, and made homey by years’ worth of pictures stuck in the edges of the dresser mirror.
Lagpao had spent months, using whatever money she could spare, collecting the food, gadgets, and clothing she now packed carefully into the box. She laid the cereals on top, arranging packets of biscuits and other snacks around them. She stood back to study her handiwork. She had filled every little space in the balikbayan (which literally translates to “return to your country”) box, which would now travel for at least a month by sea before reaching its destination: her children in the Philippines. “Heavy items like canned goods and shampoo go at the bottom, clothes in the middle, and the most delicate food items go on top so they don’t get crushed,” Lagpao explained.
In the 25 years that Lagpao has been working as a nanny and domestic helper in the French capital, she has packed many of these balikbayan boxes. The care packages have become something of a symbol of the Filipino diaspora as millions of women like Lagpao have gone abroad for work while their children remain at home. As of the latest estimates in 2012, there were more than 10 million Filipino migrant workers around the globe—some 10 percent of the Philippines’ population—making the country one of the world’s largest labor exporters.
It’s a distinction the Philippines has gained over four decades of state-encouraged labor migration. In what was meant to be a temporary measure to address growing unemployment, in the 1970s the Philippine government began promoting the export of its workers, particularly young men, who found jobs in the booming construction sectors of the Gulf. Today, migrant workers send back some $24 billion in annual remittances, around 8 percent of the country’s GDP. And nearly half of these workers are women, many of them in the caregiving industry. This often means they have left their own children behind to look after the children of others.
Lagpao left the Philippines for Paris in 1989 with her husband, Arnel. The two had decided to try their luck abroad after finding only sporadic work and low pay at home. They left their son Tristan, then nine years old, in the care of relatives. When their daughter Aira was born in Paris a few years later, they sent her back to the Philippines with a friend. “We had no choice,” Lagpao explained. “We had no [work] papers, and it was a precarious time for undocumented migrants then.” The girl was only five months old. “When I think back to my failures as a mother,” Lagpao said, “that moment was one of them.”
The Commission on Filipinos Overseas, the Philippine government agency that deals with the diaspora’s affairs, estimates that there are more than 50,000 Filipino migrant workers living in France—some 80 percent of whom are undocumented.
Many have to wait as long as 10 years to regularize their status and get a work permit. During this period, they cannot go home to their families for fear of not being allowed back into France. For Lagpao and her husband, this meant raising their children from a distance, through monthly remittances and at least one balikbayan box a year, marking the passage of time through the gifts inside.
Andre Witherspoon was a hair stylist before he became addicted to crack cocaine and heroin.
He tried plenty of treatments, many of them forced on him by social services and law enforcement, but none helped. He was selling drugs to fuel his own habit. He spent time in prison. He became homeless, sleeping on his feet, unable to go to shelters for the night because that would prevent him being able to find the next morning’s fix.
Two and a half years ago, at about 8pm in downtown Seattle, he was getting ready to sell some heroin when he was caught by a police officer on a bicycle. Witherspoon had been arrested, he told me, “about 65 times” before that. But this time was different.
The cycle cop was part of a new pilot program called Law-Enforcement Assisted Diversion – Lead – where police officers work closely with case managers to bring non-violent drug offenders into treatment, rather than booking them into a criminal justice system that often just makes things worse.
The officer told Witherspoon that he had a choice; either be arrested and go to jail, or enrol in the Lead program.
“I was rescued that day,” he said.
The concept of pre-arrest diversion – especially the part where police officers work closely with caseworkers and have a stake in the recovery, not just the capture and punishment of offenders – is new and unusual, but is making waves in criminal justice circles across the US.
It is still a pilot program, but several cities, including Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore and Santa Fe, are all now actively exploring exporting similar programs, and a team from New York mayor Bill de Blasio’s office visited Seattle on a fact-finding mission in January.
One of the key figures in the Lead program’s success is Lisa Daugaard. A public defender by trade, and deputy director of the Seattle Public Defender Association, she makes no secret of the belligerence which often exists between defenders like herself and prosecutors and law enforcement.
In 2001, Daugaard’s office started what became known as the Racial Disparity Project: a data-driven focus on drug-law enforcement as a driver of racial inequality in the justice system, which led to a legal challenge against Seattle police department.
“There was a lot of disproportionality,” admitted Jim Pugel, the chief deputy sheriff of King County. The situation continued, with the police defending themselves and the prosecutors’ office from the lawsuit, and continuing to arrest people, who would return to the same area as soon as they were released.
“No-one was getting anywhere, and we were spending all this money,” said Pugel. Finally, he said, exhausted, they sat down for a face-to-face meeting with Daugaard. “We don’t agree with you,” they said to her in exasperation, but if they were willing to consider doing drug enforcement differently, they wanted to know – what should they do?
In 2008, that meeting led to a deal. Daugaard would stop suing the department, and in return her organisation would come on board to build a pilot program, exploring ways that defense attorneys, social services, local communities and crisis centers and – crucially – police and prosecutors could all work together.
It may be hard to fathom or remember, but in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the American public responded with an increased level of acceptance and support for Muslims. President Bush—who had successfully courted the Muslim vote in 2000—went out of his way to praise American Muslims on numerous occasions in 2001 and 2002. However, the seeds were already being planted that would change that drastically over time. Within a few short years, a small handful of fringe anti-Muslim organizations—almost entirely devoid of any real knowledge or expertise, some drawing on age-old ethno-religious conflicts—managed to hijack the public discourse about Islam, first by stoking fears, grabbing attention with their emotional messaging, then by consolidating their newfound social capital, forging ties with established elite organizations, and ultimately building their own organizational and media infrastructure.
How this all happened is the subject of a fascinating new book, “Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream,” by sociologist Christopher Bail, of the University of North Carolina. The book not only lays bare the behind-the-scenes story of a momentous shift in public opinion, it employs cutting-edge computer analysis techniques applied to large archives of data to develop a new theoretical outlook, capable of making sense of the whole field of competing organizations struggling to shape public opinion, not just studying one or two the most successful ones. The result is not only a detailed account of a specific, significant, and also very pernicious example of cultural evolution, but also a case study in how to more rigorously study cultural evolution more generally in the future. In the process, it sheds considerable light on the struggles involved, and the difficulties faced by those trying to fight back against this rising tide of misdirected fear, anger and hatred.
For those perplexed by the explosive spread of anti-Mosque hysteria, or legislation to combat the non-existent threat of Sharia law, Bail’s account provides an in-depth view of how the broader cultural landscape has been reshaped in ways which make such panics possible, if not virtually inevitable. For those who want to fight back, there are no easy answers here. But there is a very fruitful starting point for beginning to ask the right sorts of questions. (...)
In the book, you talk about your theory as being both ecological and evolutionary. What do those terms mean more concretely and specifically?
I use the term “ecological” to counter the tendency for academics to focus on individual organizations, instead of vast fields of organizations. I think it’s a big problem because when you focus on one organization, particularly a successful organization, you tend to get a very myopic perspective on how that organization succeeded in creating cultural change. In fact, you only probably come to study the organization precisely because it’s created some sort of cultural change, and so you begin to confuse the characteristics of a successful organization with the causes of an organization becoming influential.
This is where I think evolutionary ways of thinking are really important. A big story in my book is the tendency for media rich [organizations] to shape a lot of outcomes outside the media. So, for example, when these anti-Muslim fringe groups develop a high profile after September 11, they use their privileged position to forge ties to other organizations, service groups, and so on. And this enables them to effectively create a sea change not only in how Islam appears in the media, but how people think about Islam outside the media. And so we see this kind of sounding board effect, where the more a rumor is repeated, in them more and more high profile and official setting, the more it becomes true.
So much of the story of the book is about the evolution of this fringe narrative, from a group of kind of hawkish neocons whose careers are mostly over, to a point where nearly every candidate in the 2008 Republican election is warning about the advance of Sharia law, and the looming threat of Islamism for the future of Western civilization. And now more recently, of course, we see the spread of this to people like Bobby Jindal, again, very high profile, very mainstream, public figures, reproducing this message of so-called “no go zones” in Paris.
So the idea is really to think about cultural change, about the tendency for media coverage of fringe groups to set in motion a chain of processes that allows them to rise to public prominence precisely because of the efforts of mainstream organizations to prevent them from doing so. So it’s sort of a story about the unintended consequences of media coverage, I suppose, to put it simply
Maybe it would help to break that story down a bit in terms what the main turning points of your story. You talk first about how the fringe first gained disproportionate attention and then how the response to them backfired, and then led to the splintering of the mainstream. Could you sketch that out a bit?
Prior to the September 11 attacks, what I call mainstream Muslim organizations, or those that produce common messages about Muslims—and these are mostly pro-Muslim messages, both before and after September 11—enjoyed pretty substantial public influence, both within the media, but also in elite political circles. So Muslims voted for Bush, 3-to-1 in the 2000 election, they enjoyed private audiences with Bush, and Cheney, and of course all this “changed,” the thing that didn’t change was people continue to produce overwhelmingly pro-Muslim messages about Islam, but the media gravitated to the small group of fringe organizations, because—I argue—because of the emotional tenor of their messages.
Sociologist and social psychologists have long recognized that during periods of crisis people tend to look for sources of information that validate their feelings, and this is both an individual level, and also in the societal level, so journalists searching to figure out the true meaning of Islam may be more likely to gravitate to towards the crazy person waving a sword rather than the rather more calm, measured, dispassionate person giving a lengthy theological explanation of the tenets of Islam.
This really has two functions: one it attracts a lot of attention, and then to get your second question, it also provoked a pretty significant response from the mainstream.
For example, one popular claim was that Muslim extremists had infiltrated the White House, the more mainstream Muslim organizations became very angry about those accusations, along with a lot of other accusations about Islam being inherently violent or so on and so forth. They shifted their style from this dispassionate discourse, trying to use technical language from the Koran to distinguish the true nature of Islam from what’s promoted by groups like Al Qaeda, and they switch to a much more angry tone. So, in other words, the amplification of the emotional fringe discourse promotes an equally emotional response in the mainstream, that had the unintended consequence of a further increase in the profile of the fringe.
This is what I call the riptide in the book. This is in keeping with the environmental metaphor I use throughout the book, of kind of flowing waters. This pulls mainstream organizations further out to sea, precisely as they struggle against the current that’s drawing them out there. This not only increases the profile of the fringe organizations, but it also begins to create internal tensions within the mainstream organizations that will ultimately lead to the breakdown of the mainstream.
For example, you may recall from the book, there is a series of debates within mainstream organizations about whether and how to engage [anti-Muslim] fringe organizations, and one side of the argument is people who say we don’t stand up to them that will leave them to define Islam to the American public because at the time at least they were dominating the public discourse about of Islam. On the other hand, there are those who realize that in engaging them, they risked increasing their profile, and moreover that Muslims should not be forced to apologize for the type of terrorist groups that they believe were not inspired by Islam. And so this creates a rift within, particularly within mainstream Muslim organizations about whether Muslims need to do more to denounce terrorism.
Now, of course, they are denouncing terrorism. I have this line from a world leader in the book; he denounces terrorism so often that he could “do it in his sleep.” But you know, the media is not covering it because he’s not doing it in an angry sensational way that causes the celebrity of the fringe. Instead the medias amplifying this angry response, which in turn feeds into this narrative of the fringe groups that Muslim organizations are not peaceful moderate organizations they proclaim themselves to be, instead they are secretly terrorist sympathizers who you don’t see condemned terrorism because they secretly condone it.
And so, by this point, the rift within the mainstream Muslim community comes to, kind of substantiate some of the claims being made by the fringe groups, the anti-Muslim fringe groups. So that’s kind of the series of events in the evolutionary process that I was talking about earlier.
Two years ago I wrote about my choice to have a preventive double mastectomy. A simple blood test had revealed that I carried a mutation in the BRCA1 gene. It gave me an estimated 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer. I lost my mother, grandmother and aunt to cancer.
I wanted other women at risk to know about the options. I promised to follow up with any information that could be useful, including about my next preventive surgery, the removal of my ovaries and fallopian tubes.
I had been planning this for some time. It is a less complex surgery than the mastectomy, but its effects are more severe. It puts a woman into forced menopause. So I was readying myself physically and emotionally, discussing options with doctors, researching alternative medicine, and mapping my hormones for estrogen or progesterone replacement. But I felt I still had months to make the date.
Then two weeks ago I got a call from my doctor with blood-test results. “Your CA-125 is normal,” he said. I breathed a sigh of relief. That test measures the amount of the protein CA-125 in the blood, and is used to monitor ovarian cancer. I have it every year because of my family history.
But that wasn’t all. He went on. “There are a number of inflammatory markers that are elevated, and taken together they could be a sign of early cancer.” I took a pause. “CA-125 has a 50 to 75 percent chance of missing ovarian cancer at early stages,” he said. He wanted me to see the surgeon immediately to check my ovaries. (...)
The day of the results came. The PET/CT scan looked clear, and the tumor test was negative. I was full of happiness, although the radioactive tracer meant I couldn’t hug my children. There was still a chance of early stage cancer, but that was minor compared with a full-blown tumor. To my relief, I still had the option of removing my ovaries and fallopian tubes and I chose to do it.
I did not do this solely because I carry the BRCA1 gene mutation, and I want other women to hear this. A positive BRCA test does not mean a leap to surgery. I have spoken to many doctors, surgeons and naturopaths. There are other options. Some women take birth control pills or rely on alternative medicines combined with frequent checks. There is more than one way to deal with any health issue. The most important thing is to learn about the options and choose what is right for you personally. (...)
It is not possible to remove all risk, and the fact is I remain prone to cancer. I will look for natural ways to strengthen my immune system. I feel feminine, and grounded in the choices I am making for myself and my family. I know my children will never have to say, “Mom died of ovarian cancer.”
Regardless of the hormone replacements I’m taking, I am now in menopause. I will not be able to have any more children, and I expect some physical changes. But I feel at ease with whatever will come, not because I am strong but because this is a part of life. It is nothing to be feared.
by Angelina Jolie Pitt, NY Times | Read more: Image: Luke Macgregor/Reuters
[ed. Hard to imagine, but another story is even worse - 11 on the gross meter (scroll down).]
Before a company goes public, the highest level executives embark on a multi-city tour with their investment bankers to drum up support for the upcoming IPO. This trip is called a roadshow and since the group will typically visit dozens of cities on a tight schedule, a private jet is the preferred means of transportation. During a roadshow, it's not unusual to visit two or three cities in a single day so work starts at the crack of dawn. That doesn't mean the group goes to bed early. Every night, the bankers treat their clients to a wild night out in whatever town they are in, complete with thousand dollar dinners and endless alcohol. No matter how hard the group parties the night before, the private jet will lift them off to their next destination very early the next morning.
Just for a minute, pretend you're an investment banker traveling with some very important clients on one of these roadshows. Now imagine that you spent the previous night drinking way beyond your limit only to be startled out of bed by a piercing 6:30 am wake up call. In an attempt to get your head and body feeling remotely human again, you scarf down some waffles, eggs, bacon and at least two glasses of coffee at the hotel's breakfast buffet before jumping on the shuttle to the private airport. Within a few minutes of arriving at the airport, your entire group is seated and the plane begins to taxi down the runway. At this point you might feel a bit of relief as the morning's blur subsides. All you have to do is sit back and relax for the one hour flight to the next city.
There's just one problem. In your rush to get out of the hotel, down to breakfast and onto the plane you forgot to do one very crucial thing. Go to the bathroom. And I'm not talking about peeing. You have a stomach full of dinner, desert, drinks, eggs, waffles and coffee churning around your lower intestine at 30,000 feet. But that's not the worst part. True horror sets in when you realize you're not on a spacious 20 person G5 with couches, beds, lay-z boys and a fully tucked away private bathroom. No, on this day you are traveling on a six-person puddle jumper sitting shoulder to shoulder with your clients and co-workers. But wait, somehow the story gets even worse…
In The Devil Wears Prada, the 2006 rom-com starring Meryl Streep as a cartoonish version of the notoriously icy Vogue editor Anna Wintour, Streep delivers a speech about the importance of the fashion industry. “You think this has nothing to do with you,” Streep says to her new assistant (Anne Hathaway), who wishes she were doing hard-hitting investigative work rather than fetching coffee for an arbiter of high-end taste. “You go to your closet and you select . . . I don’t know . . . that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back.”
And yet, Streep explains, her assistant’s sweater is this particular shade of blue because a designer featured it on the runway a few years ago, a decision that then trickled down through the fashion food chain all the way to the shopping-mall clearance racks. “It’s sort of comical,” she concludes, “how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when in fact you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.” You think you choose to wear things because you like them, because they’re special, or maybe because you’re special. But in fact, you’re not special, and neither are your choices. You’re just an angora-clad cog in a great capitalist wheel.
The real Anna Wintour would never put it so bluntly, even behind closed doors. Hers is an industry that depends on all of us continuing to believe that our choices are special and that our senses of style are unique. At a White House event for aspiring fashion designers this year, Wintour said, “Fashion can be a powerful instrument for social change. It allows us to think about who we are as individuals and as a society.” She did not say, “A handful of luxury designers and a few major clothing brands decide what you will like and, in turn, buy and wear.” Why would she? The modern fashion industry wants consumers to think that we are not consumers at all, but curators instead. If the midcentury mantra was “Dress to impress,” and the roaring-’80s catchphrase was “Dress for success,” the directive now is “Dress to express.”
This approach to fashion is at the heart of Women in Clothes, a thick new book based on a survey that writers Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton circulated to more than six hundred women asking them what they wear and how they feel about it. The women offer hyperspecific thoughts about their every sartorial choice, but only a few admit that they are influenced by trends or marketing. They are much more likely to lay the blame on their own bodies. “A woman is never thin enough,” writes Vedrana Rudan. “I have a double chin, I shove my tits into minimizers that minimize nothing, I get into Levi’s designed to flatten the tummy and lift the ass, but my ass and stomach are immune to the intention of the jeans. I am a cow!”
The survey responses are shot through with the hollow promises of the fashion industry—that with the right combination of trousers and shirts and dresses and skirts, cut in the right way and worn just so, women can be more glamorous, more powerful, more desired, more respected. “I dress to withstand the elements,” says one woman. “I dress to be as interesting as the Tate. I dress to insert myself into social strata, to be accepted, to pass.” One five-year-old respondent says, in an aside designed to break every would-be earth mother’s heart, “I am always conscious of what I’m wearing.” Another woman offers a detailed journal of every high-end item she covets, from a Kenzo silk-crepe shirt to an “amazing Gudrun & Gudrun multi-coloured dream sweater.” Even unattainable fashion goals start to sound like they’d be great fun to pursue—a repudiation, somehow, of the grim, dictatorial vision of sexism as an obliging handmaiden of capitalism. There are, however, a few brief hints to the contrary: a Muslim woman who wears a jilbab writes, “When I see what the women on billboards, commercials, and game shows are wearing, it really aches my heart. I mean no offense to anyone, but it hurts me to see the bodies of these innocent women being used to sell products. And they are made to believe that this is freedom.”
Women, the book implies, are not sheep who will buy whatever they’re told is on trend or anything H&M stocks for less than $39.50. They are thoughtful and careful about what they wear and why. Fast fashion barely exists in the world of Women in Clothes; its carefully edited accounts of self-declared style preferences seem, indeed, to be the sartorial equivalent of the “slow food” revolution that Michael Pollan jumpstarted in 2006 with The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In response to a survey question about shopping, women express discomfort, embarrassment, or outright denial before the suggestion that they, as a group, buy a lot of new clothes. They describe shopping as an activity for which they must adopt a battle plan—or that, at the very least, they avoid on an empty stomach. “To hell with the whole concept of shopping,” says one respondent. “Who needs clothes?”
This professed aversion to the rigors of acquiring clothing doesn’t match up with the manifest joy that many of the women take in describing what ends up in their closets. It’s also an awkward fit with the book’s own apparent marketing strategy. Since it first appeared last fall, I’ve seen Women in Clothes on display in several women’s clothing shops, for sale alongside small leather goods and gold jewelry. It’s safe to assume that the owners of these boutiques don’t see the book as an antidote to the psychological pain endured by female shoppers, but as yet another fashionable accessory.
There’s a lot of whimsy in Women in Clothes—an artist’s rendering of various stains as they appear on women’s clothing, Lena Dunham’s description of her mother’s sartorial vibe as “bejeweled ventriloquist dummy,” a photo series cataloging each pair of black underwear a woman owns—but its main revelation is how serious women are about what they wear. They’ve so thoroughly infused their wardrobes with their hopes, dreams, and aspirations that the anthology could just as easily be titled Women as Clothes. “Because I resist the ephemerality of clothing, I make grandiose demands of it: a garment must touch on all that I have ever been and will be,” writes Ida Hattemer-Higgins in an essay about how a secondhand store in Athens helped her get over a breakup. “The irony is that, for all my grasping at eternity, in the end, I almost never wear any item for more than a few months.”
Out of context, such grandiose pronouncements seem over the top, but they’re right at home in a book about fashion and the female self. While J.Crew and GQ can still get away with acting as though it’s utterly modern for men to care about style, women have long been culturally saddled with the knowledge that they are how they look, and that therefore they are what they wear. The pursuit of stylishness is not something they opt into, but rather something they must opt out of at great social cost. Hattemer-Higgins tells herself she is resisting the ephemerality of clothing—and with it the dictates of the fashion industry—by carefully selecting each piece she wears from a pile of thrifted cast-offs.
But to scour the racks, secondhand or otherwise, for the makings of self-expression is only to double down on the importance of fashion. The truly transgressive choice—to dress purely for utility—never seems to cross the minds of the women featured in the book. I don’t blame them. Utility isn’t much fun. If you can’t control the fact that you’re going to be judged on your appearance, why not derive what pleasure you can from conveying to observers how you wish to be judged? The inadequacy of clothes—their inability to express the depth and complexity of female experiences—probably explains both why women invest their wardrobes with so much significance and why their clothes so often fail to satisfy them.
It can be hard to tell why women are overburdening their wardrobes with mystic powers of signification: Is it in spite of the fashion industry or because of it? If you were to ask Streep’s Wintour-like character, she would say the answer hardly matters. Whether you are an avid follower of fashion or studiously ignorant of what appears on the runways, you’re still affected by the prevailing style that’s set, in part, by clothing companies. Even secondhand shoppers are not immune; even the disenchanted can’t leave their houses naked.