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October 29, 2009

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November 1, 2009
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The Obamas’ Marriage

By JODI KANTOR

 

I.

Another Washington dusk, another motorcade, another intimate evening played out in public view. On Oct. 3, just a day after their failed Olympics bid in Copenhagen, Barack and Michelle Obama slipped into a Georgetown restaurant for one of their now-familiar date nights: this time, to toast their 17th wedding anniversary. As with their previous outings, even the dark photographs taken by passers-by and posted on the Web looked glamorous: the president tieless, in a suit; the first lady in a backless sheath.

The Obama date-night tradition stretches back to the days when the president spent half his time in Springfield, Ill., reuniting at week’s close with his wife, who kept a regular Friday manicure and hair appointment for the occasion. But five days before he ventured out for his anniversary dinner, the president lamented what has happened to his nights out with his wife.

“I would say the one time during our stay here in the White House so far that has. . . .” He paused so long in choosing his words that Michelle Obama, sitting alongside him, prompted him. “Has what?”

“Annoyed me,” the president answered.

“Don’t say it!” the first lady mock-warned. “Uh-oh.”

“Was when I took Michelle to New York and people made it into a political issue,” he continued, recalling the evening last spring when they flew to New York for dinner and a show, eliciting Republican gibes for spending federal money on their own entertainment.

We were in the Oval Office, nearly 40 minutes into a conversation about the subject of their marriage. Watched over by three aides and Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington, the two sat a few feet apart in matching striped chairs that made them look more like a pair of heads of state than husband and wife. The Obamas were talking about the impact of the presidency on their relationship, and doing so in that setting — we were in the room that epitomizes official power, discussing the highly unofficial matter of dates — began to seem like a metaphor for the topic itself.

“If I weren’t president, I would be happy to catch the shuttle with my wife to take her to a Broadway show, as I had promised her during the campaign, and there would be no fuss and no muss and no photographers,” the president said. “That would please me greatly.” He went on to say: “The notion that I just couldn’t take my wife out on a date without it being a political issue was not something I was happy with.”

Everything becomes political here, I offered, gesturing around the room.

“Everything becomes political,” he repeated very slowly. Then he said: “What I value most about my marriage is that it is separate and apart from a lot of the silliness of Washington, and Michelle is not part of that silliness.”

Perhaps she is not. But the Obamas mix politics and romance in a way that no first couple quite have before. Almost 10 months ago, they swept into Washington with inauguration festivities that struck distinctly wedding-like notes: he strode down an aisle and took a vow, she wore a long white dress, the youthful-looking couple swayed to a love song in a ceremonial first dance and then settled into a new house. Since then, photograph after official White House photograph has shown the Obamas gazing into each other’s eyes while performing one or another official function. Here is a shot of the Obamas entering a Cinco de Mayo reception, his arm draped protectively around her back. Next, a photo of the president placing a kiss on his wife’s cheek after his address on health care to Congress. Poster-size versions of these and other photographs are displayed in rotation along the White House corridors. It’s hard to think of another workplace decorated with such looming evidence of affection between the principal players.

The centrality of the Obama marriage to the president’s political brand opens a new chapter in the debate that has run through, even helped define, their union. Since he first began running for office in 1995, Barack and Michelle Obama have never really stopped struggling over how to combine politics and marriage: how to navigate the long absences, lack of privacy, ossified gender roles and generally stultifying rules that result when public opinion comes to bear on private relationships.

Along the way, they revised some of the standards for how a politician and spouse are supposed to behave. They have spoken more frankly about marriage than most intact couples, especially those running for office, usually do. (“The bumps happen to everybody all the time, and they are continuous,” the first lady told me in a let’s-get-real voice, discussing the lowest point in her marriage.) Candidates’ wives are supposed to sit cheerfully through their husbands’ appearances. But after helping run her husband’s first State Senate campaign in 1996, Michelle Obama largely withdrew from politics for years, fully re-engaging only for the presidential campaign. As a result, she has probably logged fewer total sitting-through-my-husband’s-speech hours than most of her recent predecessors. Even the go-for-broke quality of the president’s rise can be read, in some small part, as an attempt to vault over the forces that fray political marriages. People who face too many demands — two careers, two children — often scale back somehow. The Obamas scaled up.

“This is the first time in a long time in our marriage that we’ve lived seven days a week in the same household with the same schedule, with the same set of rituals,” Michelle Obama pointed out. (Until last November they had not shared a full-time roof since 1996, two years before Malia was born.) “That’s been more of a relief for me than I would have ever imagined.”

The couple now spend more time together than at nearly any other point since their early years together. On many days, they see Malia and Sasha off to school, exercise together and do not begin their public schedules until 9 or even 10 o’clock. They recently finished redecorating the White House residence, the first lady requesting an outdoor rocking chair for her husband to read in, the president scrutinizing colors and patterns, said Desirée Rogers, the White House social secretary. The pair recently began playing tennis. (He wins, she admitted; for now, he added.) This summer, the first lady surprised her husband for his birthday by gathering his old basketball buddies for a weekend at Camp David.

Barack and Michelle Obama are also a more fully fused political team than ever before, with no other jobs to distract them, no doubts about the worthiness of the pursuit dogging them. Theirs is by no means a co-presidency; aides say the first lady has little engagement with banking reform, nuclear disarmament or most of the other issues that dominate her husband’s days. But their goals are increasingly intertwined, with Michelle Obama speaking out on health care reform, privately mulling over Supreme Court nominees with the president and serving as his consultant on personnel and public opinion. When they lounge on the Truman Balcony or sit inside at their round dining table, she describes how she believes his initiatives are perceived outside Washington; later, say advisers, the president quotes the first lady in Oval Office meetings.

If winning the White House represents a resolution of the Obamas’ struggles, it also means a new, higher-stakes confrontation with some of the vexing issues that fed those tensions. Their marriage is more vulnerable than ever to the corrosions of politics: partisan attacks, disappointments of failed initiatives, a temptation to market what was once wholly private. Some of the methods the Obamas devised for keeping their relationship strong — speaking frankly in public, maintaining separate careers, even date nights — are no longer as easily available to them. Like every other modern presidential couple, the Obamas have watched their world contract to one building and a narrow zone beyond, and yet their partnership expand to encompass a staff and two wings of the White House. And while the presidency tends to bring couples closer, historians say, it also tends to thrust them back to more traditionbound behavior.

For all of their ease in public, the Obamas do not seem entirely comfortable with the bargain. As they talked about their marriage, they seemed both game and cautious, the president more introspective about their relationship, the first lady often playing the big sister dispensing advice to younger couples.

Then I asked how any couple can have a truly equal partnership when one member is president.

Michelle Obama gave what sounded like a small, sharp “mmphf” of recognition, and the fluid teamwork of their answers momentarily came to a halt. “Well, first of all. . . .” the president started. His wife peered at him, looking curious as to how he might answer the question. “She’s got. . . .” he began, but then stopped again.

“Well, let me be careful about this,” he said, pausing once more.

“My staff worries a lot more about what the first lady thinks than they worry about what I think,” he finally said, to laughter around the room.

The question still unanswered, his wife stepped back in: “Clearly Barack’s career decisions are leading us. They’re not mine; that’s obvious. I’m married to the president of the United States. I don’t have another job, and it would be problematic in this role. So that — you can’t even measure that.” She did add that they are more equal in their private lives — how they run their household, how they raise their children, the overall choices they make.

Interpreting anyone’s marriage — a neighbor’s, let alone the president’s — is extremely difficult. And yet examining the first couple’s relationship — their negotiations of public and private life, of conflicts and compromises — offers hints about Barack Obama the president, not just Barack Obama the husband. Long before many Americans, Michelle Obama was seduced by his mind, his charm, his promise of social transformation; long before he held national office, she questioned whether he really could deliver on all his earnest pledges. For nearly two decades, Michelle Obama has lived with the president of the United States. Now the rest of us do, too.

II.

JUST BEFORE THE Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. pronounced Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson man and wife on the evening of Oct. 3, 1992, he held their wedding rings — signifying their new, enduring bonds — before the guests at Trinity United Church of Christ. Michelle’s was traditional, but Barack’s was an intricate gold design from Indonesia, where he had lived as a boy.

Neither needed a reminder of just how fragile family — the black family, marriage, life itself — could be. Barack Obama Sr.’s relationships, not just with his wives but also with his children, were fleeting; in 1982, he died at the age of 46. Michelle’s parents had a long, stable marriage, but her maternal grandparents split without ever formally divorcing, and her paternal grandparents separated for 11 years.

Before Michelle, Barack had brought only one woman to Hawaii to meet his family, according to his younger half-sister, Maya Soetoro. He in turn was Michelle’s first serious boyfriend, according to Craig Robinson, Michelle’s brother: none of the others had met her standards.

During their three-year courtship, the couple shared thrilling moments, like when Barack became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. But there were crushing ones too. In early 1991, Fraser Robinson, Michelle’s father, came down with what seemed to be the flu. Just a few days later, he was brain-dead, and his family had to decide whether to end life support, according to Francesca Gray, his sister. Barack was in the middle of classes, with no money to speak of, but he flew to Chicago anyway. At the wedding the following year, Craig Robinson took his father’s place in walking Michelle down the aisle.

The Obamas were married just a month before the presidential election, a time of mounting excitement for Democrats in their neighborhood of Hyde Park and beyond. Bill Clinton looked as if he might take the White House back from Republicans. Barack was helping by running a voter-registration drive so successful that he won notice in Chicago newspapers and political circles. (Clinton ended up carrying Illinois, then a tossup state.) Obama’s efforts also helped make Carol Moseley Braun, a fellow Hyde Park resident, the first African-American woman in the U.S. Senate. Suddenly politics seemed full of new possibilities. Barack had talked to Michelle about running for office; she had misgivings but thought the day was not imminent.

For the moment, he was enmeshed in writing his memoir, “Dreams From My Father.” He had retreated to Bali for several weeks to work on the manuscript and was still preoccupied with it after his return. “Barack was just really involved in the book. [Michelle] and I would do lots of shopping and movies,” Yvonne Davila, still a close friend, remembered.

“Barack doesn’t belong to you,” she told me she warned Michelle.

III.

IN THE ANNALS of presidential coupledom, the Obamas more than slightly resemble the Clintons: a pair of Ivy League-trained lawyers, the self-made son of an absent father and a wife who sometimes put her husband’s ambitions ahead of her own. But unlike Bill Clinton, who turned his wife into an unlikely Arkansan, Obama planted himself on his wife’s turf. And while the Clinton marriage seems forged in shared beliefs about the promise of politics, the Obama union has been a decades-long debate about whether politics could be an effective avenue for social change. Even as a community organizer, Barack aimed to prod elected officials into action. His wife, who was more skeptical of politicians, tried to bypass them: when she took a job promoting community-organizing techniques, she focused on what neighborhoods could accomplish without their help.

In 1995, a State Senate seat was opening up, and Barack, then 34, announced his candidacy. “It allowed me to get my feet wet in politics and test out whether I could get something done,” he told The Times two years ago. Because he wasn’t from Chicago, had degrees from two elite schools and a background that others found odd, a friend said, he felt he had to begin by running for a relatively modest office.

As the Obamas sat with friends around their dining room table, eating Michelle’s chili and planning the run, she was plainly hesitant. “She was very open about not wanting to be in politics,” Davila said. Michelle had always wanted to be a mother, three years had passed since their wedding and now her husband — with his all-consuming memoir just finished — would be gone several days a week. Michelle “just wasn’t ready to share,” Carol Anne Harwell, who became the campaign manager, recalls. Besides, he was the former president of the Harvard Law Review, a writer and a teacher at a premier law school, the University of Chicago. Springfield was home to financial scandal so pervasive it was barely considered scandalous. “I married you because you’re cute and you’re smart,” Michelle later said she told her husband, “but this is the dumbest thing you could have ever asked me to do.”

She became his most energetic volunteer anyway. “She did everything,” Craig Robinson says. Every Saturday morning, she and Davila knocked on doors for petition signatures that would put Barack on the ballot.

As a first-time candidate, Barack could be stiff; friends remember him talking to voters with his arms folded, looking defensive. Michelle warmed everyone up, including her husband. “She is really Bill, and he is really Hillary,” one friend recently put it. But like Hillary Clinton — and countless other political wives — Michelle sometimes took on the role of enforcer. If a volunteer promised to gather 300 petition signatures, “299 did not work because 300 was the goal,” Harwell says. “You met the wrath of Michelle.”

Harwell also noticed that the candidate’s wife was constantly trying to upgrade the campaign, eliminating anything that seemed tacky or otherwise redolent of the less-than-exalted standards of Illinois state politics. Instead of a beers-in-a-bar fund-raiser, Michelle arranged a party at the DuSable Museum of African American History with a band and a crowd of young professionals. When Harwell found an inexpensive office space with dingy walls, Michelle vetoed it. “She was like, ‘Oh, no, no, no,’ ” Harwell says. “ ‘Why would we reduce ourselves to this?’ ”

IV.

ONE DAY LAST SPRING, I walked into the Hyde Park apartment the Obamas bought when they married, hoping to find clues to their old lives.

Their unit, part of a complex of redbrick houses turned condominiums, had a few appealing touches — a green-tiled fireplace, a dining room with elaborate woodwork and a small porch in the back (where Michelle let her husband smoke, a friend said). But the apartment was narrow and worn, with fixtures that must have been aging even several years ago.

The Hole — as Michelle called her husband’s tiny, dark office — lived up to its name. The cramped master bedroom had a closet barely big enough for one wardrobe. Where did Michelle keep her clothes? The apartment was neat, friends said, but bursting with children’s gear and toys. The dining table tilted so much that food sometimes skidded south, eliciting an embarrassed look from Barack.

He would eventually learn to make his way in the State Senate, but his initial reports home were dismayed: Republicans held control, legislation he drafted was not even heard and even some Democrats teased him about his name. “He would call me and say: ‘This person is an idiot. They get an F,’ ” Harwell says.

“He went to Springfield without fully appreciating all of the consequences,” said Judson Miner, Barack’s boss at the civil rights law firm where he’d been working for several years. Shortly after arriving, Barack called Miner to tell him that he was scaling back his legal work: he could not stay on top of it from downstate. Barack took on a heavier teaching load to compensate for the lost income. Michelle, who had given up corporate law, now earned less than $50,000 a year at her nonprofit job training young leaders, a former colleague estimates.

For Barack’s swearings-in, Michelle would travel to Springfield. Harwell remembers Barack calling up with a report from downstate: “ ‘Michelle just couldn’t believe it, she had to come down to see this mess for herself.’ ”

As she heard Barack’s tales from Springfield, Michelle learned “how good legislation vanished overnight for political reasons,” Valerie Jarrett, one of the Obamas’ closest friends, told me recently in her White House office, where she is senior adviser to the president. This, Jarrett said, left Michelle even more frustrated than her husband. “He’s more of a pragmatist,” Jarrett says. Michelle “takes a very principled position, and she thinks everyone should do the right thing.”

If Barack’s career was not going quite as he had hoped, Michelle did not seem settled on what she wanted to do professionally. She had taken a new position organizing student volunteers at the University of Chicago. After she became a mother in 1998, she was tempted to stay home, but like many political spouses, she felt financial pressure to work.

“Michelle would say, ‘Well, you’re gone all the time and we’re broke?’ ” the president recalled when I spoke to the two of them. “ ‘How is that a good deal?’ ”

“You do the math,” Michelle told her friend Sandra Matthews, one day as the two sat on a playground bench. “The time is coming pretty soon when I’m going to have to decide. I’m torn.”

When she interviewed for a job at the University of Chicago Medical Center, her baby sitter canceled at the last moment, and so Michelle strapped a newborn Sasha into a stroller, and the two rolled off together to meet the hospital president. “She was in a lot of ways a single mom, and that was not her plan,” recalls Susan Sher, who became her boss at the hospital and is now her chief of staff.

In addition to serving in Springfield and teaching law, Barack Obama was making his first bid for national office, challenging Bobby Rush, a popular South Side congressman. The race placed further strains on the Obamas. Unlike the wife who smiles tightly and insists everything is fine, Michelle sent a clear series of distress signals not only to her husband but to everyone around her. “Barack and I, we’re doing a lot of talking,” she would say when asked how she was holding up, according to the Rev. Alison Boden, a former colleague at the University of Chicago.

Barack initially seems to have seen his absences as a manageable issue, something to be endured, just as he had as a child when living apart from his mother. Entering politics would be hard on a family, he knew, but he didn’t quite understand until he lived it, Jarrett told me. Sher remembers Michelle “talking to him, after the kids were born, about the importance of sheer physical presence, which wasn’t something he was really used to. She ­talked about how important it was for them to at least talk every day.”

Barack helped as much as possible: on top of juggling jobs, he paid the household bills and did the grocery shopping, often wandering supermarket aisles late at night. When business in Springfield was done for the week, he always drove home that same night, sometimes arriving past midnight. “As far as I was concerned, she had nothing to complain about,” he wrote in his second book, “The Audacity of Hope.”

One afternoon in July, sitting in Jarrett’s airy West Wing office, I asked her how the young politician responded to his wife’s assertions that he was leaving her to raise their children alone. Jarrett, whose own marriage ended in part because of career-related conflict, not only recalled Barack’s replies but she also started reciting them. “ ‘I’ll make it work,’ ” said Jarrett, speaking in his voice. “ ‘We can make it work. I’ll do more.’ ” It sounded as if she could have been describing the Barack Obama of today, certain of his ability to juggle an intimidating number of priorities.

Two months later in the Oval Office, I asked the Obamas just how severe their strains had been. “This was sort of the eye-opener to me, that marriage is hard,” the first lady said with a little laugh. “But going into it, no one ever tells you that. They just tell you, ‘Do you love him?’ ‘What’s the dress look like?’ ”

I asked more directly about whether their union almost came to an end.

“That’s overreading it,” the president said. “But I wouldn’t gloss over the fact that that was a tough time for us.”

Did you ever seek counseling? I asked.

The first lady looked solemnly at the president. He said: “You know, I mean, I think that it was important for us to work this through. . . . There was no point where I was fearful for our marriage. There were points in time where I was fearful that Michelle just really didn’t — that she would be unhappy.”

Several years later, he devoted several pages of “The Audacity of Hope” to the conflict. (Judging from interviews, more than a few Chicagoans knew that Michelle once openly resented what her husband’s political career had cost her, so he may have been wise to raise the issue before anyone else.) In the end, what seems more unusual than the Obamas’ who-does-what battles — most working parents have one version or another — is the way they turned them into a teachable moment, converting lived experience into both a political message and what sounds like the opposite of standard political shtick.

“If my ups and downs, our ups and downs in our marriage can help young couples sort of realize that good marriages take work. . . .” Michelle Obama said a few minutes later in the interview. The image of a flawless relationship is “the last thing that we want to project,” she said. “It’s unfair to the institution of marriage, and it’s unfair for young people who are trying to build something, to project this perfection that doesn’t exist.”

V.

IN THE HISTORY of Barack Obama, his landslide loss against Rush is now regarded as a constructive political failure, the point at which he shed some early dreaminess and hubris and became a cannier competitor. For the Obamas, this period was also one of constructive personal failure, forcing them to reckon with their longstanding differences.

Michelle Obama accepted that she was not going to have a conventional marriage, that her husband would be away much of the time. “That was me, wanting a certain type of model, and our lives didn’t fit that model,” she told me in an Iowa lunchroom in the summer of 2007. “I just needed the support. It didn’t have to be Barack.” Craig Robinson later told me that he and his sister, Michelle, had another realization: if their father, a city water worker, had the kinds of opportunities their generation did, he probably would not have been home for dinner every night, either.

Michelle’s mother, Marian Robinson, offered crucial help, often picking up Malia and Sasha after school. The Obamas’ closest friends — doctors, lawyers, M.B.A. types — also faced the strains of two-full-time-careers-plus-kids marriage. Now they banded into a kind of intergenerational urban kibbutz, a collective that shared meals and carpools and weekend activities.

Unlike many political wives, Michelle was almost never alone. And she mostly skipped public events. When Barack spoke at the 2002 rally protesting the impending invasion of Iraq, now considered a pivotal moment of his career, his wife was not present. “I’ve had to come to the point of figuring out how to carve out what kind of life I want for myself beyond who Barack is and what he wants,” she told The Chicago Tribune during his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign.

During that race, Michelle was still a somewhat reluctant partner: at the outset, they made a deal that if he lost, he would get out entirely. “It was a compromise,” Marty Nesbitt, one of the president’s closest friends, told me. “O.K. One. More. Try,” he explained, banging out each word on a side table.

When her husband was far outspent by a local millionaire in the primary, Michelle “was almost like the mama cub coming to protect her young,” says Kevin Thompson, a friend and former aide. By the time it became clear that Barack might be the third African-American senator since Reconstruction, she was headlining a few campaign events herself. “It really clicked with her that this may be the destiny everyone was always talking about,” Thompson said.

Michelle, who was often wary of her husband’s ambitions, may have also pushed him ahead with her high expectations of what he could achieve. “Forward propulsion” is the quality Maya Soetoro says her sister-in-law brought to Barack’s career.

Two years after the Senate race, despite lingering reservations, she helped her husband define his reasons for running for president. On an autumn day in 2006, the Obamas sat in the Chicago office of the consultant David Axelrod, surrounded by advisers, weighing whether Barack should move forward.

“What do you think you could accomplish that other candidates couldn’t?” Michelle asked, according to Axelrod. The question hung in the air. Clearly, an Obama agenda would not look very different from that of Hillary Clinton or John Edwards.

“When I take that oath of office, there will be kids all over this country who don’t really think that all paths are open to them, who will believe they can be anything they want to be,” Barack replied. “And I think the world will look at America a little differently.”

VI.

A FEW DAYS before the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, Anita Dunn, a political consultant who joined the Obama campaign, was reading the newspaper when a voter’s quote, expressing surprise that Barack Obama was a good family man, leapt out at her.

Ever since Obama made his debut on the national stage, he’d been a solo act, telling the story of his singular, even lonely-sounding journey. In Pennsylvania, where Obama lost, “the visuals of so many of our rallies was him alone,” Dunn told me, which did nothing to allay voters’ concerns that the candidate was too distant — too foreign, professorial or precocious. Now Michelle and sometimes the girls were appearing more frequently onstage with Barack. Dunn shared the quote about Barack being a good family man with advisers, reinforcing their growing view that he was a more appealing candidate when surrounded by his family. The candidate beat expectations in both Indiana and North Carolina, all but locking up the nomination.

The Obamas began the presidential campaign, it seems, still thinking of politics as Barack’s pursuit, not Michelle’s. She would need to participate heavily only at the beginning and end, and not much in the middle, Michelle told Sher. Despite her outward confidence, there were clues she was not entirely comfortable in her new role: staff members recall that of the 26 primary debates, forums in which he struggled, she attended only two or three. At the first, in Orangeburg, S.C., she sat frozen in the audience, so anxious she was unable to speak. “It was like sitting next to a pillar of salt,” says Melissa Winter, now her deputy chief of staff. She refused to even watch the remaining debates, avoiding television screens lest she catch a clip.

She also struggled to figure out where she fit in her husband’s organization. Political operatives have a habitual disdain toward candidates’ spouses, one adviser told me, which Michelle, who had trouble obtaining even routine information like talking points, initially could not overcome. She had only two staff members and no speechwriter, and when she raised issues like the need to reach out more to women voters, she wasn’t sure she had any influence on her husband’s advisers.

Because the couple rarely campaigned together, interactions between them swelled with intermediaries. Winter would get a nightly phone call from Barack, then pad down a hotel hallway and tap on her boss’s door. For Michelle’s 44th birthday, Barack deputized Winter to prepare his gift, a silver pendant necklace. “He wanted to be sure I had it wrapped appropriately, that it had a ribbon on it,” she told me. “There was a lot of back and forth.”

When Jarrett officially joined the campaign at the behest of both Obamas, in addition to a long list of duties, she served as Michelle’s representative, as well as a kind of marital guardian and glue. Michelle took her concerns about Barack — for instance, her worry that his schedule allowed him no time to think — to Jarrett, who passed them on to aides. Barack worried, Jarrett said, that his wife had taken on too much. “Was that O.K. with her?” Jarrett says he wanted to know.

From the beginning, Michelle turned Barack’s courtship all those summers ago into a parable of political conversion, casting herself as a stand-in for the skeptical voter. When she first heard of him, his name and background seemed weird, she told voters who probably felt the same way. The first time Barack asked her out, she refused. He was a newcomer, her mentee, so it would be strange for him to become her boyfriend (or the president). But slowly he worked on her. One day she heard him give a speech and found herself captivated by the possibilities of what might be.

“When you listen to her tell that story,” Robert Gibbs, the campaign spokesman and now the White House press secretary, told me, voters thought, “It’s O.K., yeah, this could work.”

She also played a vital role in heading off the most promising female candidate in United States history. It was essential for the Obama campaign to present some sort of accomplished female counterweight to Hillary Clinton, to convince Democratic women that they could vote for Barack Obama and a powerful female figure besides. Consciously or not, Michelle made herself into an appealing contrast to the front-runner. She was candid; Hillary was often guarded. Michelle represented the idea that a little black girl from the South Side of Chicago could grow up to be first lady of the United States; Hillary stood for the hold of the already-powerful on the political system. And Michelle seemed to have the kind of marriage many people might aspire to; Hillary did not.

As the campaign accelerated after the first voting contests, Michelle Obama went from headlining intimate campaign events to enormous ones. Television cameras appeared, and some of her more forceful comments were endlessly replayed. When cable shows, bloggers and opponents fixated on her — on her supposed lack of patriotism, her supposedly angry streak — Barack was irate. As unflattering reports played on television, he would tell aides stories about her parents, about her as a mother, according to Gibbs, as if defending his wife in private could somehow help. Barack even met with the Fox executives Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes in part to insist that they treat her more respectfully.

Michelle was annoyed that advisers — who had noticed for months that she could grow a bit too vehement in speeches — had never informed her of the developing problems, according to aides. Fearful of hurting her husband’s chances, she even raised the prospect of ceasing to campaign, said one adviser who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. Jarrett recalls that “she felt she had not gotten support.” According to Sher, “She was hurt at the idea that it was possible she wouldn’t be an asset.” It was almost as if she was reverting to an old pattern in her marriage: let Barack be a politician, and she would stay out of it.

But unlike other times, Michelle did not withdraw. In fact, the woman who had once resisted campaigning now told friends she enjoyed the crowds, the laughs and the votes she was earning. Her husband promised that the staff could fix whatever problems she faced. And he clearly needed her help. After years of leaving his family behind, he now turned to his wife to help carry him to the presidency.

“I’ve never done this before,” she said to her husband’s team, according to two aides. “I just need you to tell me what to do.”

Campaigns often prove toxic to participants’ personal lives, but Jarrett says the Obamas’ relationship improved in the crucible of the race. “They both rallied to each other’s defense and support,” she says. “By having to work hard at it, it strengthened their marriage.”

VII.

ON A HUMID September day, Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago stood on a platform on the South Lawn of the White House hawking his city’s Olympic bid. The Obamas flanked him, consciously or unconsciously assuming a series of identical positions as he spoke. When Michelle Obama clasped her hands in a downward triangle, the president did, too. When he folded his arms across his chest, so did she. During their own short speeches they gave outsize laughs at each other’s mild jokes and even mimed what the other was saying. As the president noted that the White House was just a tad larger than their home in Chicago, the first lady pinched her fingers to demonstrate. Milling around afterward, watching judo and fencing demonstrations, the couple leaned into each other, talking and nodding.

Friends who visit the White House describe occasionally turning corners to find the first couple mid-embrace. They also seem unusually willing, for a presidential couple, to kiss, touch and flirt in public. It may be that they are broadcasting their affection to the rest of us, an advertisement of their closeness. Or they may simply be holding tightly to each other as they navigate new and uncertain terrain. “Part of what they provide each other with is emotional safety,” Jarrett explained.

In many ways, the Obamas have made the White House into a cocoon of sorts, with weekends full of movie-watching (“Where the Wild Things Are”), Scrabble games and children’s talent shows. They have surrounded themselves with those who have known them longest and best: Marian Robinson, the first lady’s mother, has settled in (unaccustomed to being waited on, she won’t let the staff do the laundry). Marty Nesbitt and his wife, Dr. Anita Blanchard, left Chicago to rent a house nearby for the summer, while Maya Soetoro, the president’s half-sister, and her husband, Konrad Ng, just moved here temporarily from Hawaii.

Though the president reads aloud with his children in the evenings — he and Sasha are finishing “Life of Pi” — parenting in the White House is more complicated. Because the first couple cannot move freely about, their relatives take Malia and Sasha to the bookstore, on a walk through Chinatown, to the multiplex to see “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.” Last spring, according to Sher, well-meaning White House residence staff members tried to give the girls cellphones, so their parents could always reach them; the first lady stepped in to refuse.

Even the Obamas’ jokes seem like coping mechanisms for the epic changes in their lives. They are still in their 40s, and they appear to deal with the grandeur and ritual of their new home with a kind of satirical distance that is hard to imagine coming from first couples of a pre-Jon Stewart generation. The president playfully addresses his wife using her official acronym, “Flotus” (first lady of the United States). She keeps up a running commentary on her husband as he navigates his new home, according to friends and relatives. Seeing him in the Oval Office cracks Michelle Obama up, she told me. “It’s like, what are you doing there?” she said, gesturing to the president’s desk. “Get up from there!” In September, as they waited to greet a long, slow procession of foreign dignitaries and their spouses at the Group of 20 Summit in Pittsburgh, the first lady whispered in her husband’s ear about things “that I probably shouldn’t repeat,” he said.

“She can puncture the balloon of this,” he added, making him feel like the same person he was 5 or 10 years ago.

VIII.

CLEARLY, THE OBAMAS prefer to think of themselves as largely unaltered. “The strengths and challenges of our marriage don’t change because we move to a different address,” the first lady said, the president studying the carpet as she answered. But even as they serve as sources of continuity for each other, their own partnership is undergoing significant change, not just in outward circumstance — the city, the exposure, the security, the staff, the house and so on — but far more fundamentally. Michelle Obama has gone from political skeptic to political partner to a woman with a White House agenda of her own, and an approval rating higher than the president’s.

Initially, her office was seen as so peripheral by some in the West Wing that one aide referred to it as Guam: pleasant but powerless. Now Michelle Obama is towing the island closer to the mainland. In June, she appointed Sher — a lawyer, health care expert and member of the tight knot of hometown friends — her chief of staff. “The first lady wants her office to be fully integrated into the president’s agenda,” Sher says. Early this summer, for example, the first lady directed her staff to plan events that could help support health care reform and then volunteered to speak publicly on the topic. The president and first lady share a speechwriting staff, the East Wing’s press and communications team attends their West Wing counterparts’ meetings and every week, Dunn, Sher and Jarrett meet to discuss the integration of the president’s and first lady’s business.

When asked about how her insights affected the president’s thinking, the first lady seemed to bristle at the question. “I am so not interested in a lot of the hard decisions that he’s making,” she said, drawing out the “so.” “Why would I want to be in politics? I have never in my life ever wanted to sit on the policy side of this thing.” Earlier in my conversation with them, the president faced forward, even leaning a bit away from his wife, but now he uncrossed his legs, swiveled and studied her, looking amused.

“Did she say she’s not interested in policy?” Sher, who also attended the Oval Office interview, tried to recall the next day, shaking her head and smiling. “She always says that.” (The first lady may have learned from Hillary Clinton’s example the perils of appearing too involved with policy.) While her boss has a limited appetite for policy details on many subjects, Sher explains, she regularly reads briefing papers from her staff on social issues. Early next year, aides say, the first lady will become the administration’s point person on childhood obesity, working with her husband’s policy advisers as well as her own on a problem that has stymied public-health experts for years. While the overall success of the administration is Barack Obama’s test, Michelle Obama is beginning to gauge her ability to affect public opinion and behavior as well — which means risking criticism and failure.

The first lady also speaks to her husband about White House management and personnel decisions. “She is not shy about expressing her views at all,” Sher told me, recalling a conversation last spring between Barack and Michelle about a personnel problem. “She was like, you should do this, dah dah dah dah and dah dah dah,” Sher said, smacking the table. The first lady was so forceful, Sher said, that the president just grinned back until they both started to laugh. “It’s probably great that she does get worked up about injustices,” Sher went on to say. “It ­clearly seems to have an impact on him.”

Michelle Obama is also one of her husband’s chief interpreters of public sentiment. On almost every “domestic issue that’s come up — up and through health care,” the president told me, the first lady has offered “very helpful” insights on “how something is going to play or what’s important to people.”

“She’s like a one-person poll,” he explained. “Everyman!” the first lady called out.

“We’ll sit at the dinner table,” the president said. “If our arguments are not as crisp or we’re not addressing a particular criticism coming from the other side, Michelle will be quick to say, I just think the way this thing is getting filtered right now is putting you on the defensive in this way or that way.” (Sometimes, Sher says, when the president is describing some complicated issue, his wife interjects: “You know what? People don’t care about that.”)

During the campaign, Michelle Obama made much of her regular-person credentials, but they may now be expiring. She has not only a personal trainer and a stylist but also a staff of chefs and gardeners. Her world is somewhat less rarefied than that of her husband: she can steal away with less fuss, and her events bring her into more contact with ordinary citizens than his constant march of briefings. But her celebrity is nearly as great as her husband’s, her world nearly as artificial. (By the time of the Democratic National Convention, Michelle told friends, she stopped knowing what the weather was each day: she lived in the permanently controlled climate zone of airplanes, cars and hotels.) A year or two ago, when Barack Obama talked about staying grounded, he mentioned his wife; now he tends to talk about his children or his dog instead. All presidential couples experience this sort of isolation, which is part of why they tend to come to resemble each other more than they do the rest of us.

As the great experiment of the presidency rolls on, the Obamas may finally learn definitive answers to the issues they have been debating over the course of their partnership. The questions they have long asked each other in private will likely be answered on the largest possible stage. They will discern whether politics can bring about the kind of change they have longed for and promised to others, or whether the compromises and defeats are too great. They will learn whether they were too ambitious or not ambitious enough. And even if they share the answer with no one else, the two will know better if everything does in fact become political — if their marriage can both embrace politics and also at some level stay free of it.

Then, in three or seven years, the president’s political career will end. There will be no more offices to win or hold, and the Obamas will most likely renegotiate their compact once more — this time, perhaps more on Michelle Obama’s terms.

The equality of any partnership “is measured over the scope of the marriage. It’s not just four years or eight years or two,” the first lady said. “We’re going to be married for a very long time.”

Jodi Kantor is a Washington correspondent for The New York Times.

October 28, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 7:28 pm
October 28, 2009

Living for Candy, and Sugar-Coated Goblins

By DAVID COLMAN

HALLOWEEN always brings bogeymen to terrify children, but this year the bookstore holds its own terrors for parents. “I Shudder,” ($23.95, HarperCollins), the new book by the playwright and humorist Paul Rudnick, reveals a horrible truth no parent wants published: It is possible, it seems, to live on candy.

Mr. Rudnick is the living proof. At 51, 5-foot-10 and an enviably lean 150 pounds, Mr. Rudnick does not square with the inevitable mental image of a man who has barely touched a vegetable other than candy corn in nearly a half-century. Apparently, one can not only live on a dessert island, but can also do it happily and long.

“People always assume I’m lying,” said Mr. Rudnick earlier this month in his West Village apartment packed from ceiling to floor with Gothic ornamentation. “They always say: ‘That can’t be true. You’d be dead. Or huge.’ ”

But as Mr. Rudnick insisted (as he does in “I Shudder,” a collection of short pieces ranging from recollections to screeds), he is not dissembling or diseased. “There was never a time when I was not refined-sugar-centric,” he said flatly. “I was always appalled by almost all other foods; I could not understand why anyone wanted them. I did not like the taste, the smell, the concept.”

At the age of 6 he was even sent to a psychiatrist, who told his parents their son was otherwise well-adjusted, and to let him eat what he wanted and just see what happened.

“His advice was, basically, ‘Just let it go, otherwise, you will have to tie him down, force feed him, and shield your face from the projectile vomit,’ ” he recalled. “I was so dead certain about it, so completely unwilling to entertain any options that they basically had no choice.”

An invitation to take him to lunch hit a wall. He does not really eat meals, he said, more of a so-called grazer. For example, what he ate over the course of a recent, typical day was this: a plain bagel, a three-pack of Yodels, a small can of dry-roasted peanuts, some Hershey’s Kisses, and some breakfast cereal, which he eats by the handful, dry, out of the box.

(Previously acquainted with Mr. Rudnick and having heard of his dietary quirk, I had been at a Sunday lunch with him a couple years ago, where I noted that he ordered nothing and merely ate a delicacy or two from the pastry basket.)

“People imagine that I eat an entire chocolate cake for dinner,” he said. “They think of Willy Wonka-style gluttony, but that’s their fantasy.”

But surely his favorite time of year was upon us? The day when Mr. Rudnick’s dark-humored output and sugar-sweet intake come together in a rare convergence of trick and treat? True enough, he said, and agreed to tour a variety of New York confectioneries to refine the definition of his ideal treat.

First stop: The Food Emporium near his house, where the Halloween aisle received high marks. Though well-meaning friends always give him gourmet treats as gifts, he said, Mr. Rudnick turns up his nose at them. He doesn’t like gelato; he likes ice cream. He doesn’t like Maison du Chocolat or Godiva. He likes Kit Kats. And as it turns out, this view is not limited to candy.

“What I love about Halloween is its childhood honesty,” Mr. Rudnick said. “It’s about what children want rather than what parents want them to want.”

Recalling trick-or-treating as a child in suburban New Jersey, he’s still in awe of people who gave out full-size candy bars, and is still appalled by those people who dared to put apples in trick-or-treaters’ bags. “No,” he said. “Halloween is about free candy, not diet tips.”

Still distrustful of any kind of candy-coated health message, he loves to skewer the twisted ways adults rationalize eating what they love.

“One of the greatest urban legends of our time is that dark chocolate is a health food,” he said. We had moved on to Li-Lac, the cult chocolatier in the West Village and the only gourmet spot that gets the Rudnick seal of approval. He bought a big piece of milk chocolate almond bark. “I have now read countless interviews with movie stars where they talk about having a single square of dark chocolate every day — as if they have a prescription for it.”

Underscoring this point, we went to Milk Chocolate Central: the Hershey’s store in Times Square, the source of one of Mr. Rudnick’s favorite-ever gifts, a 5-pound, 18- inch-by-9-inch Hershey’s chocolate bar. We were met almost instantly with a unnerving clatter. In the corner of the store, a giant, gleaming machine stretching some 15 feet from floor to ceiling, was pouring a silvery stream of Hershey’s Kisses down a twin helix of chutes and raining them into a bucket.

We went right over. A charming saleswoman, Mary Anne by name, let Mr. Rudnick crank the giant wheels, which magically released another avalanche — this time of Hershey’s Miniatures.

Had he been to Hershey, Pa.?

“The happiest place on earth!” he exclaimed. “But sadly they don’t offer the full factory tour anymore. There’s only a faux tour that gives you a sense of the Hershey process instead of being able to stick your arm up to the shoulder into a vat of molten chocolate, which was my dream.”

After Hershey’s, the M&M store across the street was a total letdown — just loud music and mountains of M&M-themed merchandise. After this disaster, we paid his first visit to Dylan’s Candy Bar on the Upper East Side, offering nearly every conceivable kind of candy over three floors.

“It’s nice to see that Dylan has done something altruistic with her life, rather than merely following her father into retail,” said Mr. Rudnick (a dry reference to her father, Ralph Lauren). A display of hard-to-find Wonka candy bars reminded him of his all-time favorite book of childhood, Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

“That was my ‘Bell Jar,’ my ‘To the Lighthouse,’ ” he said. “I thought that if it had been real they would just give me the factory — they wouldn’t even bother with a contest and those other kids.”

By then, we were both candied out — a feat achieved through few calories. I wondered if I could lose weight on an all-sugar diet, given how unappetizing it fast becomes.

For his part, Mr. Rudnick said that his latest blood tests were fine, and that he has had no more dental problems than any nonsugar-fixated members of his family. And, he added, his diet does include some foods, which, if not exactly health foods, do at least have a sugar level that is minor or nil, like Cheerios.

And for those who still think he should be dead from malnourishment, Suzanne Havala Hobbs, a registered dietician and a clinical associate professor at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, offered a different view.

“Some people defy all odds,” she said. “The body really can adapt to an amazing range of dietary conditions. I remember consulting for a group home, and there was a little girl there I always thought of as an air plant. She only ate white bread and fruit. I followed her for years, and she grew up all right. Somehow she got enough to grow on.”

She also thinks Halloween should be fun and sugar-packed. “I learned my lesson one year when I tried to be good and hand out boxes of raisins,” she said. “You can’t take life so seriously.”

As for Mr. Rudnick, he does not celebrate the holiday itself. “I’m one of those people who just leaves the basket outside, with the implied imperative: Don’t Knock.”

Which is probably just as well. You don’t want him setting an example.

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 1:48 pm

Michelle Obama’s Body Woman

From the campaign trail to the East Wing, Kristen Jarvis helps the first lady navigate each day.

By Dayo Olopade | Newsweek Web Exclusive 

 

Oct 26, 2009

 

 

Renegade, Renaissance, Radiance, and Rosebud, better known as the Obamas (Barack, Michelle, Malia, and Sasha, respectively), were off on Marine One, which meant Kristen Jarvis could relax, briefly. Moments after the first family were whisked off to their vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, Jarvis, whose title is special assistant for scheduling and traveling aide for the first lady, took a breather at her East Wing office. Through her indefatigable smile, she ticked off the items that Michelle Obama needed on the presidential campaign trail last year: several Sharpies, her BlackBerry, Oreo cookies, and hand sanitizer. “There’s no time to get sick,” says Jarvis, referring to her boss and herself. “You’re on call.”

 

Being a young, African-American woman overseeing the affairs for the first black first lady in the White House has its unique, historical responsibilities. During the grueling campaign year Jarvis spent with Mrs. Obama, that meant a shared spreadsheet for black hair salons from Las Vegas to Chicago. “Hairdressers in every state!” she laughs now. “It was a struggle.”

 

Just as “Obama’s cooler little brother“, Reggie Love knows a thing or two about the president and his needs, Jarvis knows her fair share about the first lady. She calls Michelle “a big sister.”

 

“I worried a lot about the first lady as the campaign continued and as all of our lives changed,” said Mike Strautmanis, senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett’s chief of staff and Jarvis’s former boss from Obama’s Senate office. “I wanted her to be around people who I knew would take care of her; and Kristen, I knew, would take care of her.”

 

The effervescent 28-year-old is a graduate of Spelman College, a prestigious historically black women’s college. Her history with the Obamas has given her insight into the couple and a unique vantage point to help the first lady make the transition from Chicago to D.C. “It’s change for them,” says Jarvis, who has introduced the first family to some of her favorite eateries around Washington. “Change is good. She’s very low maintenance. I think just being here together makes all the difference in the world.”

 

The 2004 election cycle was a blessing in disguirse for Jarvis. A staffer for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, her political world collapsed that November when her boss was bounced from Congress and George W. Bush won reelection. That’s when Pete Rouse, Daschle’s chief of staff and now a senior White House adviser, brought her into the office of a young senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. In those days, “We always knew,” she says now. “We always believed that if there was going to be a first African-American president, he was going to do it.”

 

Jarvis served as scheduler in Nevada and on the press advance team for the Obama campaign before joining Mrs. Obama for the general election. “Literally, I was in a different state every week,” she says. “A lot of it was just making it work with the resources that we were given.”

 

That, too, has changed completely from the Senate days when Obama flew coach to Chicago. Today, when the first lady wants to jet to Copenhagen with Oprah Winfrey, transform the East Room into a Stevie Wonder concert, or import 650 pounds of Hawaiian pork butt to the South Lawn of the White House for a luau, Jarvis and countless others are right there to make it happen.

 

Mrs. Obama has a personal aide, Dana M. Lewis, in the residential part of the White House. But once she steps out of the White House, Jarvis is at the first lady’s side. When Mrs. Obama decided to take a tour of government agencies including the departments of education, agriculture and veterans affairs—introducing herself to the neighbors, as it were—Jarvis was there to see the stunned looks on the faces of career employees. “It was refreshing,” she recalls. “A ‘thank you’ goes so far, and to have it come from the first lady is just great.”

 

Some of her fondest memories with the first family so far include their trips abroad. “Ghana was the most humbling experience of my life,” she says. “Just to see people on the other side of the world so excited about this first family, it was almost numbing.” The recent jaunt to Copenhagen, to make the case for Chicago hosting the 2016 Olympics, was bittersweet. “I haven’t cried at one of her speeches in a while, but this one brought me close to tears,” she says, of Mrs. Obama’s presentation for her hometown’s failed bid. “It was a tough week.”

 

Despite managing East Wing affairs, her influence extends to the West Wing, as well. In Obama’s Senate office, Jarvis hired Joshua DuBois, now executive director of the White House faith office, and junior staffers John Oxtoby, Karen Richardson, and Amanda Brown—who now work under Jarrett, health-reform director Jeanne Lambrew, and political director Patrick Gaspard, respectively. “I’ve come to admire her,” says Strautmanis. “She has a maturity that is uncommon not only for someone of her age but just for anyone.”

 

Jarvis has been with the first lady for some of her most memorable moments before and after her husband’s election. On the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Jarvis watched her boss pace the floor as she practiced for one of the most important speeches of her life. Election night was another experience entirely. She and Love were shepherding the family through the doors of the Hyatt hotel in downtown Chicago. “When we got to the hotel, I think they had just called Virginia,” Jarvis recalls. “Right after [Obama] gave the speech, I said ‘Congratulations, senator,’ and I stopped because I was wrong. I looked back and he gave me a look like, ‘Wow, I am the president.’ ”

 

Now that the entire team is in Washington, things haven’t changed too much. Michelle is still mom in chief. “First and foremost her main priority is taking care of the kids. A lot of our life depends on what they’re doing,” says Jarvis. But the campaign days of snacking on chips and cookies are over. “She’s on this healthy kick now. She’s over Oreos.”

 

Perhaps Michelle Obama is worried about practicing what she preaches: she has made healthy eating among children her signature issue, and Jarvis is working with her on that. A stack of health-conscious food writer Mark Bittman’s cookbooks litter the East Wing. Glossy photos of Mrs. Obama bending and planting in the new White House kitchen garden hang next to iconic images of her holding a Bible for her husband on Inauguration Day. At a Healthy Kids Fair last week with a crop of schoolchildren, Michelle Obama sampled zucchini quesadillas and baked apples prepared by visiting chefs. When it was time to remove her wireless microphone for hula-hooping and double-dutch, Jarvis trailed behind, repositioning the first lady’s favorite Azzedine Alaïa belt.

 

The hours are long for a White House job as intimate as Jarvis’s. But over the five years they’ve worked together, the Obamas have become like a surrogate family to her. Jarvis has lost both of her parents in the last decade. When her brother passed away last year, the president called her cell phone directly. “It was the North Carolina primary night, a big day. And he took the time to call me. The first lady called me,” she remembers. “There’s a million and one staff members and you take the time out of your day. That’s why I’m here. I work for great people.”

 
Find this article at http://www.newsweek.com/id/219710

 

© 2009 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

October 22, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 6:40 pm
October 18, 2009

The Song Decoders

By ROB WALKER

On first listen, some things grab you for their off-kilter novelty. Like the story of a company that has hired a bunch of “musicologists,” who sit at computers and listen to songs, one at a time, rating them element by element, separating out what sometimes comes to hundreds of data points for a three-minute tune. The company, an Internet radio service called Pandora, is convinced that by pouring this information through a computer into an algorithm, it can guide you, the listener, to music that you like. The premise is that your favorite songs can be stripped to parts and reverse-engineered.

Some elements that these musicologists (who, really, are musicians with day jobs) codify are technical, like beats per minute, or the presence of parallel octaves or block chords. Someone taking apart Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” documents the prevalence of harmony, chordal patterning, swung 16ths and the like. But their analysis goes beyond such objectively observable metrics. To what extent, on a scale of 1 to 5, does melody dominate the composition of “Hey Jude”? How “joyful” are the lyrics? How much does the music reflect a gospel influence? And how “busy” is Stan Getz’s solo in his recording of “These Foolish Things”? How emotional? How “motion-inducing”? On the continuum of accessible to avant-garde, where does this particular Getz recording fall?

There are more questions for every voice, every instrument, every intrinsic element of the music. And there are always answers, specific numerical ones. It can take 20 minutes to amass the data for a single tune. This has been done for more than 700,000 songs, by 80,000 artists. “The Music Genome Project,” as this undertaking is called, is the back end of Pandora.

Pandora was founded in Oakland a decade ago, and for much of the intervening time has lived a precarious existence (the founders spent one three-year stretch working without salaries while they scrambled for investors). But thanks in part to the popularity of the Pandora iPhone app, its fortunes have lately improved. It has attracted 35 million listeners and claims about 65,000 new sign-ups a day (more than half from mobile-device users). About 75 companies are working Pandora into a variety of gizmos and gadgets and Web platforms. The business model relies largely on advertising, and its founder, Tim Westergren, says Pandora will very likely turn its first profit in the fourth quarter of this year.

However things play out for Pandora as a business, its approach is worth understanding if you’re interested in the future of listening. It’s the “social” theories of music-liking that get most of the attention these days: systems that connect you with friends with similar tastes, or that rely on “collaborative filtering” strategies that cross-match your music-consumption habits with those of like-minded strangers. These popular approaches marginalize traditional gatekeepers; instead of trusting the talent scout, the radio programmer or the music critic, you trust your friends (actual or virtual), or maybe just “the crowd.”

Pandora’s approach more or less ignores the crowd. It is indifferent to the possibility that any given piece of music in its system might become a hit. The idea is to figure out what you like, not what a market might like. More interesting, the idea is that the taste of your cool friends, your peers, the traditional music critics, big-label talent scouts and the latest influential music blog are all equally irrelevant. That’s all cultural information, not musical information. And theoretically at least, Pandora’s approach distances music-liking from the cultural information that generally attaches to it.

Which raises interesting questions. Do you really love listening to the latest Jack White project? Do you really hate the sound of Britney Spears? Or are your music-consumption habits, in fact, not merely guided but partly shaped by the cultural information that Pandora largely screens out — like what’s considered awesome (or insufferable) by your peers, or by music tastemakers, or by anybody else? Is it really possible to separate musical taste from such social factors, online or off, and make it purely about the raw stuff of the music itself?

Tim Westergren is a familiar type: the musician who was not as successful as he might have been and concluded that the system is flawed because it underrates talented people who deserve a bigger audience. He played in bands that never quite took off and for a time worked as a film-score composer. It was that job — a “methodical, calculating form of composition,” he says — that led him to dwell on the way music works and forced him to decode the individual taste of whatever director had hired him. He says he was getting pretty good at this. “So I thought I’d try to codify it,” he says.

Rangy and bright-eyed at 43, Westergren comes off more like the head of a fan club than an erstwhile rock star. The only time he seems annoyed is when he’s talking about how some unpopular musicians are unfairly overlooked — or how some popular ones are unfairly maligned. Pandora is, in effect, a response to both of those problems.

He founded his company with two tech-and-business-savvy pals in the start-up-friendly year of 1999. Back then it was called Savage Beast Technologies, and the early (not exactly farsighted) business model involved listening kiosks in record stores. Eventually the company got new financing, beefed up the executive team and landed on using its genome as the engine of an Internet radio service “that plays only music you like.”

Pandora went online in 2005 and looked much as it does today. When you arrive at the site, you’re invited to type in the name of an artist, or a specific song. Let’s say you type in “These Foolish Things,” by Stan Getz. The Pandora genome looks for something it judges to have a similar infrastructure — like, when I tried recently, “I Don’t Know Why,” by Don Byas.

This is Pandora’s first guess at a song you will like, based on upon its analysis of the song you picked. You can simply let it play; click a “thumbs down” icon to try another song; or give it a thumbs up if you want Pandora’s algorithm to know this was a particularly good choice. You can also click to learn why the song was chosen: you don’t get a full breakdown but rather a kind of thumbnail summation. In this case the Byas tune was chosen “because it features swing influences, a leisurely tempo, a tenor-sax head, a tenor-sax solo and acoustic-piano accompaniment.”

If you click a lot, the idea is that Pandora’s algorithm adjusts, squaring your taste with the genome’s database. There are other ways to tweak things — adding more songs to a “station” for the system to scrutinize, creating different stations based on other artists or songs, telling the service not to play a given song for a while. (This happens on a station-specific basis: whatever preferences I express on a station based on “My Sharona” would not affect the songs on, say, my Yanni station.)

Relying on advertising revenue — visual ads on its site as well as occasional audio ads interspersed between songs on your stations — means that much depends on Pandora’s genome doing a good-enough job to keep people listening. (There’s also a “premium” ad-free service for $36 a year, and Pandora makes a small commission if you click through its site to buy a song on iTunes or Amazon.com, but it’s primarily an ad-driven business.) Its biggest expense is the licensing fee it pays to publishers and performers; the performance fee, paid to an entity called SoundExchange, which distributes royalties to artists, is equal to something like 50 percent of Pandora’s revenue. When you start a station with a specific song, that song isn’t the first thing you hear, because this would an entail an “on demand” license, which costs even more.

By way of Pandora’s Twitter feed, I issued a call for users who not only listened to the service a lot but also felt that it had had some kind of impact on their listening tastes. Summer Sterling, a 21-year-old senior at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., often starts by typing in well-known bands like the Dixie Chicks, and that has led her to music by groups she had never heard of but now loves, like the Weepies. Stephanie Kessler, a 24-year-old M.B.A. student in St. Louis, started by typing in K T Tunstall and has found her way to Waylon Jennings and David Allan Coe.

Aashay Desai, a 25-year-old computer engineer, has become a “very meticulous” user, building some 30 stations and paying for Pandora’s premium service, which offers better sound quality and more features. Aside from his hard rock/metal station, he has a “metalcore” station that’s “a little more aggressive,” as well as a “polyrhythm metal station” that is probably his “most aggressive.” He has also built an R&B station and a trance station; more recently he discovered Django Reinhardt, whom he used as the basis for a gypsy jazz station.

Others, of course, are not impressed by the genome’s results. Someone passed along to me a harsh assessment by Bob Lefsetz, whose popular Lefsetz Letter critiques pretty much every aspect of the contemporary music business. “I tried and rejected it,” he wrote. “Was flummoxed when a Jackson Browne station I created delivered a Journey song. Huh? . . . Jackson is music for the mind, Journey is music for the MINDLESS!”

Jonathan McEuen told me he heard about Pandora a couple of years ago and started using it immediately, “with the goal of breaking whatever algorithm they had.” A devoted music fan and a musician himself, McEuen says he did not believe an online service could understand what sort of music he would like and introduce him to new artists based on some deconstruction of his listening tastes. “You can’t just reduce it to a bunch of numbers,” he recalls thinking. “This is a romantic, emotional thing,” and Pandora’s approach to it “can’t work.”

He has changed his mind. A 28-year-old clinical neuroscience researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, he’s a listener who lacks the time to keep up with music news the way he did while amassing hundreds of CDs as a student. Sometimes he runs Pandora as background music; sometimes he’s more engaged, using it as a way to learn about contemporary classical and opera — and as a result has become a fan of the music of a young composer named Eric Whitacre. “I don’t know how else I would have found out about it,” he says. “Except through the exhaustive process of making new friends on the Internet. Which is something I’m kind of loath to do.”

What I didn’t hear Pandora users talk about was the Genome Project; many didn’t really know about it. They cared about the music Pandora served up, period. But I wanted to know what was behind that music.

Nolan Gasser was the primary shaper of the lexicon that could reconcile Westergren’s genome metaphor with something a computer could evaluate. Gasser, an actual musicologist, wrote a doctoral thesis that dealt with close analyses of Renaissance composition. “I really needed to know what made that music tick,” he recalls. That systematic study flowed well into his work with Westergren — although they started with 20th-century pop, not Renaissance vocal music. First every piece is broken down into large-scale aspects of music: melody, harmony, rhythm, form, sound (meaning instrumentation and, if necessary, voice), and in many cases the text, meaning lyrics. Each of these broader categories might have 10, 30, 50 elements.

“We have a number of characteristics for vocals,” he continues. “Is it a smooth voice, is it a rough, gravelly voice, is it a nasally voice?” Similar questions are evaluated for every instrument. The upshot was about 250 “genes” for every song in the original pop-rock version of the “genome.”

Gasser also helped develop the training mechanisms to make sure the analysts are consistent about more subjective matters — like how “emotionally intense” that Stan Getz solo is. (It’s a 4 out of 5, in the genome’s view.) The test that candidates take involves being able to pick out, quickly and by ear, harmonic structures, melodic organization and other musical elements. The indoctrination that follows revolves around examples. (You think that vocal gets a 5 on the gravelly scale? Here’s Tom Waits. Is it that gravelly? )

Recently I sat in as several of Pandora’s song deconstructors gathered in a small conference room to talk about Indian music. Pandora listeners have been asking for Indian music for a while, but adding it to the service hasn’t been a simple matter. A new genre must arrive in a big batch — about 3,000 pieces of music — because Pandora’s algorithm needs lots of choices to be able to recommend something similar-sounding. And all of it has to be pulled apart first. This entails squaring the very different structures of Indian music with Pandora’s “genome” data points.

Over the previous six weeks or so, the Pandora analysts listened to 650 Indian pieces, and the session I observed was a refresher course. Steve Hogan, who oversees Pandora’s analyst squad, had given a half-dozen of its members the same two songs to analyze. The first was “Raga Ahir Bhairav,” recorded by Bismillah Khan in 1955. But the analysts had not been given this cultural information; all they had for the assignment was the music and their ears. Hogan played a snippet and pointed to Kurt Kotheimer, a bass player who often gigs around the Bay Area.

Kotheimer consulted his listening notes: “Flat second, major third, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, major sixth, flat seventh.” Everybody nodded: that’s the tone set, which helps identify the particular raga, one of 25 new “genes” added to Pandora’s algorithm to accommodate this variety of non-Western music. Based on the beat, everyone agreed that this raga was set in Teentaal, with a 16-beat rhythmic cycle often heard in North Indian classical music; it’s now in the genome too. But that was the easy part, apparently.

They moved on to vocals, and Alan Lin, a violinist, ticked off the scores he came up with for things like rhythmic intensity and the relative exoticism of the melody scale. “I actually put exotic at 3.5,” he said. This prompted Sameer Gupta — a percussionist and an expert on Indian music who was weighing in by speakerphone from New York — to lead a brief discussion of how to think about melody and exoticism in this context. Seven or eight scores related to melody, and then about the same number for harmony. (“A 5 for drone,” one analyst announced.) More scores related to form. Tempo. The timbre of the reeds. When Gupta gave his score for riskiness on the percussion — a 3.5 — Lin did a sort of fist pump: “Yes!” Evidently he’d scored it the same way, meaning progress toward properly fitting Indian music into the Music Genome Project. Things went on like this for a while. “Even if you have a solo violin with a tabla, you’re still going to have monophony,” Gupta remarked at one juncture. “I just wanted to point that out.” It was hard to believe there was a business riding on this kind of conversation.

But while some of the genes involve expert, subjective judgment, they aren’t qualitative in the most traditional sense: there’s no rating that allows an analyst to conclude that a vocal or a sax solo is simply lousy. What Pandora’s system largely ignores is, in a word, taste. The way that Gasser or Westergren might put this is that it minimizes the influence of other people’s taste. Music-liking becomes a matter decided by the listener, and the intrinsic elements of what is heard. Early on, Westergren actually pushed for the idea that Pandora would not even reveal who the artist was until the listener asked. He thought maybe that structure would give users a kind of permission to evaluate music without even the most minimal cultural baggage. “We’re so insecure about our tastes,” he says.

While his partners talked him out of that approach, Westergren maintains “a personal aversion” to collaborative filtering or anything like it. “It’s still a popularity contest,” he complains, meaning that for any song to get recommended on a socially driven site, it has to be somewhat known already, by your friends or by other consumers. Westergren is similarly unimpressed by hipster blogs or other theoretically grass-roots influencers of musical taste, for their tendency to turn on artists who commit the crime of being too popular; in his view that’s just snobbery, based on social jockeying that has nothing to do with music. In various conversations, he defended Coldplay and Rob Thomas, among others, as victims of cool-taste prejudice. (When I ran Bob Lefsetz’s dismissal of Pandora by him, he laughed it off, and transitioned to arguing that Journey is, actually, a great band.)

He likes to tell a story about a Pandora user who wrote in to complain that he started a station based on the music of Sarah McLachlan, and the service served up a Celine Dion song. “I wrote back and said, ‘Was the music just wrong?’ Because we sometimes have data errors,” he recounts. “He said, ‘Well, no, it was the right sort of thing — but it was Celine Dion.’ I said, ‘Well, was it the set, did it not flow in the set?’ He said, ‘No, it kind of worked — but it’s Celine Dion.’ We had a couple more back-and-forths, and finally his last e-mail to me was: ‘Oh, my God, I like Celine Dion.’ ”

This anecdote almost always gets a laugh. “Pandora,” he pointed out, “doesn’t understand why that’s funny.”

By the time the Genome Project got under way, the idea of taking music apart and evaluating it by its acoustic elements was not actually new. “Machine listening” was pioneered in various university settings, often by people who had the exact same problem with collaborative filtering’s reliance on social data that Westergren has. Machine listening basically involves teaching computers to assess sound (or really, waveforms representing sound) into something resembling the way that humans hear it, with the goal of eliminating living, breathing listeners from the evaluation process completely.

Like collaborative filtering, machine listening can deal with a lot of data quickly. And when Westergren was trying to raise a second round of financing after the dot-com bust, most everyone involved in the business of music and technology had come to believe that any recommendation system needed to be able to handle millions of songs, instantly. A bunch of musicians sitting around discussing the finer points of drone and monophony wouldn’t cut it. “Everybody thought it was ridiculous,” Westergren agrees. He gave something like 350 pitches to venture capitalists over three years. “Most investors could not get over this idea that we were using humans.” But to Westergren, there were elements of music that machine listening just couldn’t capture — like the emotionality of a Getz solo. So yes, he wants listeners to experience new music on the basis of the music and not the influence of other people — but to do it right, people have to analyze the music.

Whatever the algorithmic equation, of course, there’s a listener on the other end who is much harder to decode. What you want to hear can depend on your mood, or whether you’re listening at work or in a nightclub. Context affects any cultural product, but music is different from, say, books or movies. Even a casual listener hears many thousands of songs; and to love a song is to take it in — whether attentively or as background music — over and over. Mick Jagger was once asked what makes a tune a classic, and the co-author of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” replied, “Repetition.” And yet, even the most conservative listener knows the feeling of hearing a hit single once too often. Maybe because music is so ubiquitous, we respond to it almost like food: sometimes we want to try the new restaurant, sometimes the comfort of a familiar favorite dish.

Still, are all these listener-specific factors really enough to explain what music we like, and why? “Music is an inherently social experience,” argues David Goodman, the president of CBS Interactive Music Group, which includes the popular Last.fm Internet radio service. Last.fm’s social-networking model revolves largely around this idea. “The way in which you experience music by sharing, by storytelling, being part of a community. Last.fm is built on what is organic to music.”

Ali Partovi, the C.E.O. of iLike, makes a related point. Used as an application on Facebook and similar sites, iLike bills itself as a “social music-discovery service” and claims more than 50 million registered users. There’s a huge difference, Partovi argues, between “this computer thinks you’ll like this song” and “your friend thinks you’ll like this song — even if it’s the same song.” The problem with a computer reading waveforms is that it “has no common sense,” summarizes Mike McCready, a founder of a company called Music Xray, a digital-music business for entertainment companies and artists. “It doesn’t take into consideration whether the artist is just starting out or they’re at the pinnacle of their career, it doesn’t take into consideration what they wore to the Grammys or who they’re dating or what they look like or what their age is. You have to factor all of this stuff in.”

And why is that? Surely no one consciously says, “My cool friends like the new Jack White, so I’ll memorize the lyrics and pretend to like it, too, for sociocultural reasons.” Yet the research about how listeners link musical taste (at least at a genre level) and identity is extensive. Surely that’s one reason so much of digital music culture is devoted to opportunities to “share” your taste: the endless options for posting playlists, recommending songs, displaying what you are listening to now, announcing your favorite artists.

Maybe the more vivid illustration of social influence on listening habits isn’t in what we share but in what we obfuscate. Last.fm, for example, publishes a chart listing the songs that its users most frequently delete from their public listening-stream data. The guilty pleasure Top 10 is dominated by the most radio-ready pop artists — Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” several tracks by Lady Gaga. The service iLike compiles similar data on the most “suppressed” songs its users listen to in secret; Britney Spears figures prominently. Apparently even listeners who can set aside certain cultural information long enough to enjoy something uncool would just as soon their friends didn’t know. Maybe even in our most private listening moments, what our peers think matters.

Much attention has been focused in the last few years on studying music-liking at the brain level. Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist (and musician) has been one of the high-profile thinkers in this area, by way of his popular books “This Is Your Brain on Music” and “The World in Six Songs.” One of his central themes is that pretty much all humans are wired to enjoy music, and he says he believes musicality is even important to the evolution of the species.

But when you start talking about individuals, instead of humanity in general, universals are a lot harder to come by. Much depends on culture. The emotions expressed in many of those ragas that Pandora’s experts are presently decoding, for instance, are lost on the typical Westerner. Just as we’re hard-wired to learn a language, but not to speak English or French, our specific musical understanding, and thus taste, depends on context. If a piece of music sounds dissonant to you, it probably has to do with what sort of music you were exposed to growing up, because you were probably an “expert listener” in your culture’s music by about age 6, Levitin writes.

The cliché that our musical tastes are generally refined in our teens and solidify by our early 20s seems largely to be true. For better or worse, peers frequently have a lot to do with that. Levitin recalled to me having moved at age 14 and falling in with a new set of friends who listened to music he hadn’t heard before. “The reason I like Queen — and I love Queen — is that I was introduced to Queen by my social group,” he says. He’s not saying that the intrinsic qualities of the music are irrelevant, and he says Pandora has done some very clever and impressive things in its approach. But part of what we like is, in fact, based on cultural information. “To some degree we might say that personality characteristics are associated with, or predictive of, the kind of music that people like,” he has written. “But to a large degree it is determined by more or less chance factors: where you went to school, who you hung out with, what music they happened to be listening to.”

Pandora’s approach to listening violates at least three pieces of conventional digital-music wisdom: it rejects the supremacy of social-data taste communities; it shrugs off the assumption that contemporary listeners must have instant on-demand access to any single song; and, most striking, it rejects what many observers see as a given, which is that music consumers are fundamentally motivated by access to the most massive pool of songs possible. Slacker.com, a rival Internet-radio service, says its library contains about 2.5 million songs. Spotify, the European music streaming service, expected to be available in the U.S. by early next year, is generating enormous buzz because of it offers free, on-demand access to more than 5 million tunes.

Pandora’s 700,000-song library sounds puny by comparison. And yet the service has millions of devoted listeners. Why? One answer, perhaps, involves the ways that the genome, quietly, doesn’t really screen out sociocultural information. For instance, its algorithms are tweaked by genre, and the inclusion of genes for “influence” (“swing” or “gospel,” for example) brings in factors that aren’t strictly about sound. And Pandora’s algorithm does adjust if, for instance, users routinely thumbs-down a particular song under similar circumstances, meaning the genome’s acoustic judgment can at times be trumped by crowd taste. But the biggest cultural decision of all may be the one that also happens to guide Westergren’s response to the issue of scale: how, exactly, does a given piece of music get into Pandora’s system anyway?

Pandora claims to add about 10,000 songs a month to its library. The “curation” of Pandora, in effect, falls to Michael Zapruder, another musician who has found himself working for a tech company. Zapruder ended up as Pandora’s curator because he had a habit of identifying holes in the service’s collection. Eventually he was told to fill all the gaps he could. “I had a field day,” he recalls; he’d stroll through record stores, buying every single Johnny Cash CD or every tango disc available, plus anything that looked interesting. He paid attention to users’ suggestions. Somebody wrote in to say that Pandora needed to improve its jazz-trombone selection; somebody else complained about the dearth of barbershop-quartet music. He took care of it. He has beefed up the Latin-music and the J-pop catalog. The major acquisition project right now is Afrobeat, because by far the biggest failed search is Fela Kuti. Zapruder is in the midst of this research but knows that as this new batch of music comes online, “we’re going to get educated by our listeners.”

Every Tuesday he looks at the New Music Tipsheet, which lists a few hundred new tracks in a typical week. He scrutinizes the Billboard and CMJ charts. He hears directly from a wide array of distributors, from indie-focused Revolver Records to big shots like Universal Music Group. In addition to what is simply sent to Pandora (by labels, artists, P.R. firms), the company buys hundreds of CDs a month, as well as electronica and hip-hop downloads, acquired from sites like Beatport. Every month, hundreds of bands send songs, and Zapruder does his best to get onto Pandora what he figures his listeners want to hear. Still, the labor-intensive genome simply can’t absorb it all.

Westergren maintains that catalog size receded as a problem at around the 300,000-song mark. Since passing that, he says, the number of “missed” searches has declined markedly, so the great majority of people who come to the site and type in an artist or song name get a proper introduction to the Pandora system. But the more surprising part of Westergren’s response is his claim that he isn’t worried about compiling the biggest possible catalog. “This may seem counterintuitive,” he told me, “but we struggle more with making sure we’re adding really good stuff.” That sounds like a rather subjective, cultural judgment — shouldn’t the listener decide what’s good, based purely on the genome’s intrinsics-of-music guidance? Well, there’s no question that Westergren is a champion of the unheard music that gets marginalized by sociocultural judgments. But even he has standards.

Rob Walker writes the Consumed column for the magazine and is the author of “Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are.”

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 6:39 pm
October 22, 2009

One Ultrarunning Problem, Solved for Good

By CATHERINE SAINT LOUIS

GETTING serious about a sport can mean doing the previously unthinkable. Swimmers shave their bodies sleek. Cyclists take blood-boosters. And ultramarathoners have their battered toenails surgically removed — for good.

Toenail removal is not for the faint of heart, but it can be a big relief to people who compete in 50- or 100-mile races. Even the most hardened ultramarathoners, for whom 26.2 miles is a warm-up, can be distressed by bleeding under a nail or a loose nail that bangs repeatedly against the front of a shoe.

“From my experience, it’s the hard-cores” who choose to go without toenails, said Dr. Paul R. Langer, a Minneapolis podiatrist who has been on the medical team for a 250-kilometer 7-day race through the Gobi Desert. “Even within the ultra community, less than 10 percent or maybe even 5 percent are permanently removing their toenails.”

The average marathoner suffers from plenty of black-and-blue nails, but doesn’t sign up to have acid poured onto a nail bed for permanent removal.

Ultramarathoners, who number more than 17,000 nationwide, according to UltraRunning magazine — “appear crazy sometimes, but they are great strategists,” said Dr. Robert M. Conenello, a sports podiatrist who tended to contestants of a multiday race in the Sahara. “A lot of them look at their toenails as useless appendages, remnants of claws from evolutionary times long ago. I’ve heard them say, ‘Toenails are dead weight.’ ”

The most utilitarian of ultramarathoners remove the offending toenails and keep problem-free ones. Then they sport a checkerboard look in sandals.

But the practice strikes some runners as overkill. “You know any sport has gone off the rails when you have to remove body parts to do it,” said Christopher McDougall, the author of a recent book about ultrarunning called “Born to Run.”

Ultramarathoners tend to keep quiet about toenail removal, Mr. McDougall said, because they “tired of being freaks, and they don’t want to add anything more freakish to their résumé.”

Marshall Ulrich of Idaho Springs, Colo., who had all his toenails surgically removed in 1992, has become a example for the practice. He used to stop mid-race to poke a hole in a throbbing nail to relieve pressure. Now, he said, toenails are “one less thing to have to deal with.”

(You might consider streamlining, too, if, like Mr. Ulrich, you ran the sweltering Badwater Ultramarathon without a crew supplying water and food. Instead he hauled his own supplies in a cart for all but 11 of 146 miles.)

Mark Macy, a fellow ultrarunner, used to tease Mr. Ulrich about his curious-looking toes. “It looks like he has a bunch of bald-headed little men at the end of his feet,” said Mr. Macy, a lawyer in Denver.

But about five years ago, some of Mr. Macy’s own toenails grew back mangled, and he decided that permanent removal made sense. He now has only two nails per foot. “You eliminate one source of constant aggravation,” he said.

Plenty of distance runners lose their toenails repeatedly. For some, it can be a badge of honor, proof of miles logged and the repetitive toe-banging they have endured. The proud wear hats and T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Toenails are for sissies.”

Some marathoners have their nails temporarily removed by a podiatrist if they are ingrown or dangling precariously. For them, the leap to permanent removal isn’t inconceivable.

Take Dr. Lisa Bliss, who won Badwater, the 135-mile race in Death Valley, in 2007, two years after having her two big toenails permanently removed. Previously, she had four times had a podiatrist cut away two misshapen nails that had grown back — painfully — into the nail bed instead of lying flat. So, she figured, why not just get rid of the nails?

Her online photo diary of the procedure — which is not for the squeamish — has become a forum for people who are trying to decide if the pain and weeks of recovery are worth it.

Dr. Bliss, from Spokane, Wash., still wears open-toed sandals and says that her nails “look better now than when they were black and blistered, and half falling off.”

The podiatrists interviewed for this article said that permanent toenail removal should be a last resort. Many blackened toenails can be solved by wearing shoes that aren’t too snug, or ones that accommodate the foot swelling that’s the norm with long distances, or by filing the nails flat on top.

However, advice for the average marathon runner who runs on pavement may be of little use to ultramarathoners, who run on trails and downhill slopes that jam their toes against the fronts of their shoes. “When you run that far and for that long, something is bound to happen,” said Dr. Jamie Yakel, a sports podiatrist in Denver.

Run enough 100-milers, go up and down enough mountains on manpower alone, and a full set of toenails starts to seem like a luxury. “Once you lose the nail once, it never adheres to the nail bed like it once did,” Dr. Langer said. “That’s why someone might be prone to the same nail getting beat up over and over.”

Permanent removal carries risks. Sometimes a bulbous shape will form on the toe tip, Dr. Langer said, making nerves more sensitive and leaving the toe vulnerable to sores or calluses.

And, in some rare cases, toenails grow back even after surgery to do away with them. Mr. Macy’s big toenails started to return, and he got rid of them a second time. “Mine just keep coming,” he said ruefully.

Still, for some, the surgery is worth it. “It sounds bad, but it’s really not, because it solves all your problems,” said Roy Heger of Medina, Ohio, an ultramarathoner who had his big left toenail permanently removed to avoid mid-race patch-ups at medical tents.

Dr. Conenello, who once had a patient fly from Russia to his practice in Orangeburg, N.Y., for a permanent removal, said, “I’ve never had a patient have any regrets.”

Other runners rule out permanent removal. “My toenails are terrible,” said Tia Bodington, the editor of UltraRunning magazine, who recalled talking with a colleague, Lisa Henson, after the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. “I was going to get a pedicure, but I only had three toenails, and Lisa only had four,” Ms. Bodington said. “We had a great laugh about it.”

That does not mean she wants to part with her nails for good. “I personally cannot make that jump,” she said.

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 6:39 pm

Cheer Up, DC Will Never Be Cool

Everyone in New York is sad because DC is so much cooler now, because we lost all the money and they have President Cool Guy. Well don’t worry. DC still sucks.

DC isn’t cool. It’s boring. The hip and cool new DC residents brought to town to work for the Obama administration? Uh, they’re “hip” and “cool” in a really, really relative sense. Like, cooler than 50-year-old Heritage Foundation senior research fellows.

DC is boring. It’s small: 591,833 residents, with a “daytime population” of a million. (Some like to enlarge the “metro area” to include Baltimore, making it the fourth-largest such area in the country, which is like claiming Philly is a part of New York) And if you’re counting the whole metro area, you’re counting people who live in the least cool places in America: the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

Sure, 30 years ago DC had Bad Brains and Minor Threat, and today it still has, uh, Ian Svenonius (the Sassiest Boy in America!), but the intervening years have gentrified the hell out of a quarter of the city proper and kept the rest in abject urban poverty, more or less. Not a great recipe for “cool”!

There’s no “creative class” of monied young jerks showing up in DC with the express purpose of wasting their funds making indie dance music, starting literary journals, or even buying researching jobs at Vanity Fair. The biggest celebs are TV pundits. There is no DC equivalent of a Beatrice Inn, except maybe the entirely non-exclusive (and so old!) Cafe Milano.

And even if we’re just talking about DC stealing New York’s thunder with the death of the financial sector, trust us: they’re not going to enjoy the spoils of obscene imaginary wealth with the same flash as our bankers once did.

Your DC congressional staffer is typically a well-meaning (or formerly well-meaning) dork who dresses and drinks like he did in college. Or they’re just fratty assholes. The career bureaucrats managing the money at Treasury and the Fed? No bonuses = no bottle service (this is a pretty good argument for moving all the money to DC actually, btw).

(There is still a lot of cocaine, though.)

Just today, Lady Peggy Noonan summed up her own warped interpretation of the mood of New York: “And now Washington becomes the financial capital of the country, of the world. Oh, what a status shift. Oh, what a fact.”

Well, if New York is no longer America’s financial capital because all the banks have been nationalized, that probably means DC is not actually the world’s financial capital, so much.

(In fairness, the Air and Space Museum is pretty cool.)

Send an email to Alex Pareene, the author of this post, at alexp@gawker.com.

October 20, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 7:11 pm

technology

That Tune, Named

How does the music-identifying app Shazam work its magic?

By Farhad Manjoo
Posted Monday, Oct. 19, 2009, at 5:14 PM ET


Shazam is the closest a cell phone can come to magic. Say you’re in a restaurant, a song comes on, and you can’t quite place the tune. In the past, your options were limited; you could try asking your spouse or the waiter for a clue, but that approach risked revealing your ignorance. (That’s “Sex Machine,” dumb ass.) Shazam—which launched in the United Kingdom in 2002 as a call-in service and became widely known in the United States last year when it hit the iPhone—solves the dilemma in a few clicks. Press a button on your phone, and in seconds you’ll get the artist and song title. Other than playing video games, it’s the most useful thing you can do on your phone.

Last week, Shazam announced that more than 50 million people worldwide have used the service—up from 35 million at the start of the year. The company also said that it’s received an undisclosed investment from the fabled Silicon Valley venture-capital firm KPCB. Shazam’s success seems justified—it’s the one app you can show to iPhone skeptics to get them to reconsider their position (though Shazam is also available on Android, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, and pretty much any other phone). Yet for all the acclaim it garners, Shazam’s inner workings are pretty mysterious. How does it actually ID your song? How does the company make money? (Here’s one hint: iPhone users should expect to see a pay version soon.) And what are the long-term prospects for a firm whose sole purpose is satisfying an acute, very occasional need?

First, a short explanation of how Shazam works. The company has a library of more than 8 million songs, and it has devised a technique to break down each track into a simple numeric signature—a code that is unique to each track. “The main thing here is creating a ‘fingerprint’ of each performance,” says Andrew Fisher, Shazam’s CEO. When you hold your phone up to a song you’d like to ID, Shazam turns your clip into a signature using the same method. Then it’s just a matter of pattern-matching—Shazam searches its library for the code it created from your clip; when it finds that bit, it knows it’s found your song.

OK, but how does Shazam make these fingerprints? As Avery Wang, Shazam’s chief scientist and one of its co-founders, explained to Scientific American in 2003, the company’s approach was long considered computationally impractical—there was thought to be too much information in a song to compile a simple signature. But as he wrestled with the problem, Wang had a brilliant idea: What if he ignored nearly everything in a song and focused instead on just a few relatively “intense” moments? Thus Shazam creates a spectrogram for each song in its database—a graph that plots three dimensions of music: frequency vs. amplitude vs. time. The algorithm then picks out just those points that represent the peaks of the graph—notes that contain “higher energy content” than all the other notes around it, as Wang explained in an academic paper he published to describe how Shazam works (PDF). In practice, this seems to work out to about three data points per second per song.

You’d think that ignoring nearly all of the information in a song would lead to inaccurate matches, but Shazam’s fingerprinting technique is remarkably immune to disturbances—it can match songs in noisy environments over bad cell connections. Fisher says that the company has also recently found a way to match music that has been imperceptibly sped up (as club DJs sometimes do to match a specific tempo or as radio DJs do to fit in a song before an ad break). And it can tell the difference between different versions of the same song. I just tried it on three different versions of “Landslide”—the original by Fleetwood Mac and covers by the Smashing Pumpkins and the Dixie Chicks—and it nailed each one.

Fisher declined to tell me Shazam’s overall hit-and-miss rate. All he would say is that the service is good enough to keep people coming back for more—the average user looks for songs eight times a month. The most common reason Shazam fails to identify a song is that it doesn’t have enough data. The system needs at least five seconds of music to make a match, and sometimes people turn it on just as the song is ending. There are also frequently errors when people look up live performances—if you hold up your phone to your TV during the musical segment on Saturday Night Live, Shazam will most probably fail to ID the song. (If you do get a match from SNL, you’re probably watching that episode with Ashlee Simpson—Shazam is a great way to catch lip-syncers in the act.) Fisher says that Shazam is technically capable of working on live performances, but they’ve turned off that ability for what he terms “business reasons.” “Right now people trust the brand—trying to match live songs wouldn’t get very high accuracy,” he says. (If you’ve got a tune stuck in your head, try using Midomi, a rival of Shazam’s that can ID songs based on your humming or singing.)

Shazam’s iPhone version has been a blockbuster, but it still represents just 20 percent of the service’s customer base, which spans more than 150 countries and pretty much every mobile carrier in the world. The iPhone version also marked a departure for the company—it was the first version that Shazam offered for free. Fisher says this proved to be a good idea; it brought Shazam instant renown, and the company now has enough of a customer base that it can make decent money through in-app ads and by getting a cut of each song purchase people make through the app. But staying fully free forever isn’t sustainable, Fisher says. The company recently unveiled a Windows Mobile version of its app that operates under a “freemium” pricing model—users who download the free version can search for five songs a month, while a premium version that goes for a one-time fee of $5 will allow unlimited song searches. Fisher says that the $5 version for the iPhone (and most other platforms) will launch by the end of the year.

The company is also planning to add a lot more services to its apps—a recommendations engine, a way to let you share your musical tastes with your friends, and charts that show the songs that people are searching for. Every Monday, Shazam sends out its charts to record labels, and execs have been known to sign artists based on the data. This has led to a new way for artists to break into the mainstream: getting featured in TV ads. In 2005, for instance, Volkswagen ran an ad in Europe for the Golf GTI that featured a remixed version of “Singin’ in the Rain” by Mint Royale. The song inspired a lot of searching on Shazam—and prompted the band’s label to release the track, which then shot to the top of the European charts. “We probably see that at least once a month around the world,” Fisher says. In other words, Shazam doesn’t only help an audience find music. Sometimes it helps music find an audience.

Farhad Manjoo is Slate‘s technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can e-mail him at farhad.manjoo@slate.com and follow him on Twitter.

Article URL: http://www.slate.com/id/2232914/

October 19, 2009

Ride at your own risk

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 10:00 pm

WASHINGTON – Since 2004, Metro bus drivers and train operators have been cited more than 4,000 times for endangering the lives of their passengers. The incidents of dangerous and sometimes illegal behavior include speeding in residential neighborhoods at more than twice the posted speed, running red lights and collisions with pedestrians, bicycles and even a wheelchair.

In addition to the daily occurrences of unsafe behavior by the operators, records obtained by WTOP through a public records request show there have been hundreds of cases of unprofessional behavior, ranging from physical altercations with passengers to bus drivers urinating into random containers on their buses. See a spreadsheet of the offenses, broken down by year.

Records show 246 documented cases of bus and train operators being rude to passengers. They include pushing a senior citizen to the floor, refusing to provide services to senior citizens and disabled passengers and hitting a passenger who was holding a small child.

Despite the number of documented infractions, Metro has fired only 18 operators over this same time period.

Emeka Moneme, Metro’s chief administrative officer, does not condone the behavior and says Metro can do better, but says the numbers have a positive side as well.

“The majority of our employees every day go about doing their jobs in the safest manner they can. That’s something we know and the numbers frankly bear that out,” Moneme says.

Metro General Manager John Catoe declined to be interviewed for this series, citing possible conflicts of interest since he decides many of the disciplinary cases.

Moneme says in every incident Metro has investigated and taken the appropriate action. Records show over the years, many of the operators were suspended, and many had to go through re-training sessions before they were allowed to return to service.

As to why so few operators have been fired over the years, Moneme says management is working to modify the disciplinary policy.

“We’ve been trying to find a way to match up the level of discipline with the offense,” Moneme says.

He points to the recent zero tolerance policy on distracted driving. The disciplinary records show more than 600 incidents of distracted driving, ranging from cell phone use to watching television while driving.

When asked about the behavioral issues, such as bus drivers urinating into containers on their buses including one instance of a driver caught urinating into a Doritos bag, Moneme would not speculate as to why drivers did so, but again said the behavior was not acceptable.

“It’s obviously not behavior that is condoned by the management of Metro.” Moneme says.

“We are obviously working very closely with all of our employees to make sure that we do follow and adhere to those standing operating procedures and make sure they operate their bus in a manner that’s expected and safe and customer friendly.”

There were several reports of operators driving so recklessly that wheelchairs tipped over on their buses. The records also show numerous cases of Metro operators refusing to provide services to senior citizens and disabled passengers. Moneme says Metro is committed to providing senior citizens and disabled residents the mobility they need.

“We want their ridership and we want them to feel safe and secure on our system. We are hearing you. Obviously, it’s being captured in the documents WTOP requested and we are taking action.”

Moneme acknowledges the records indicate that Metro can do better but says an average of three incidents of unsafe operating a day isn’t that bad compared to the size of the system.

“If you do break it down on a per day basis, in terms of bus operations, we’re talking about 1,200 buses covering a 1,500-square-mile service area providing 20 hours of service per day to almost a half a million people.

“In that broader context, it’s undeniable the system is incredibly safe in terms of the incidents we’ve received and done something about. Do we accept that that’s acceptable? Absolutely not. We want to do better and we want all of our employees to recognize that they have a personal responsibility to make sure they come back with no violations. I hope our riding public understands that’s the expectation and that’s the standard. Transit service is a very safe way to get around the region.”

 


Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 5:41 pm
October 18, 2009
Op-Ed Guest Columnist

Rebranding America

By BONO

A FEW years ago, I accepted a Golden Globe award by barking out an expletive.

One imagines President Obama did the same when he heard about his Nobel, and not out of excitement.

When Mr. Obama takes the stage at Oslo City Hall this December, he won’t be the first sitting president to receive the peace prize, but he might be the most controversial. There’s a sense in some quarters of these not-so-United States that Norway, Europe and the World haven’t a clue about the real President Obama; instead, they fixate on a fantasy version of the president, a projection of what they hope and wish he is, and what they wish America to be.

Well, I happen to be European, and I can project with the best of them. So here’s why I think the virtual Obama is the real Obama, and why I think the man might deserve the hype. It starts with a quotation from a speech he gave at the United Nations last month:

“We will support the Millennium Development Goals, and approach next year’s summit with a global plan to make them a reality. And we will set our sights on the eradication of extreme poverty in our time.”

They’re not my words, they’re your president’s. If they’re not familiar, it’s because they didn’t make many headlines. But for me, these 36 words are why I believe Mr. Obama could well be a force for peace and prosperity — if the words signal action.

The millennium goals, for those of you who don’t know, are a persistent nag of a noble, global compact. They’re a set of commitments we all made nine years ago whose goal is to halve extreme poverty by 2015. Barack Obama wasn’t there in 2000, but he’s there now. Indeed he’s gone further — all the way, in fact. Halve it, he says, then end it.

Many have spoken about the need for a rebranding of America. Rebrand, restart, reboot. In my view these 36 words, alongside the administration’s approach to fighting nuclear proliferation and climate change, improving relations in the Middle East and, by the way, creating jobs and providing health care at home, are rebranding in action.

These new steps — and those 36 words — remind the world that America is not just a country but an idea, a great idea about opportunity for all and responsibility to your fellow man.

All right … I don’t speak for the rest of the world. Sometimes I think I do — but as my bandmates will quickly (and loudly) point out, I don’t even speak for one small group of four musicians. But I will venture to say that in the farthest corners of the globe, the president’s words are more than a pop song people want to hear on the radio. They are lifelines.

In dangerous, clangorous times, the idea of America rings like a bell (see King, M. L., Jr., and Dylan, Bob). It hits a high note and sustains it without wearing on your nerves. (If only we all could.) This was the melody line of the Marshall Plan and it’s resonating again. Why? Because the world sees that America might just hold the keys to solving the three greatest threats we face on this planet: extreme poverty, extreme ideology and extreme climate change. The world senses that America, with renewed global support, might be better placed to defeat this axis of extremism with a new model of foreign policy.

It is a strangely unsettling feeling to realize that the largest Navy, the fastest Air Force, the fittest strike force, cannot fully protect us from the ghost that is terrorism …. Asymmetry is the key word from Kabul to Gaza …. Might is not right.

I think back to a phone call I got a couple of years ago from Gen. James Jones. At the time, he was retiring from the top job at NATO; the idea of a President Obama was a wild flight of the imagination.

General Jones was curious about the work many of us were doing in economic development, and how smarter aid — embodied in initiatives like President George W. Bush’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief and the Millennium Challenge Corporation — was beginning to save lives and change the game for many countries. Remember, this was a moment when America couldn’t get its cigarette lighted in polite European nations like Norway; but even then, in the developing world, the United States was still seen as a positive, even transformative, presence.

The general and I also found ourselves talking about what can happen when the three extremes — poverty, ideology and climate — come together. We found ourselves discussing the stretch of land that runs across the continent of Africa, just along the creeping sands of the Sahara — an area that includes Sudan and northern Nigeria. He also agreed that many people didn’t see that the Horn of Africa — the troubled region that encompasses Somalia and Ethiopia — is a classic case of the three extremes becoming an unholy trinity (I’m paraphrasing) and threatening peace and stability around the world.

The military man also offered me an equation. Stability = security + development.

In an asymmetrical war, he said, the emphasis had to be on making American foreign policy conform to that formula.

Enter Barack Obama.

If that last line still seems like a joke to you … it may not for long.

Mr. Obama has put together a team of people who believe in this equation. That includes the general himself, now at the National Security Council; the vice president, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; the Republican defense secretary; and a secretary of state, someone with a long record of championing the cause of women and girls living in poverty, who is now determined to revolutionize health and agriculture for the world’s poor. And it looks like the bipartisan coalition in Congress that accomplished so much in global development over the past eight years is still holding amid rancor on pretty much everything else. From a development perspective, you couldn’t dream up a better dream team to pursue peace in this way, to rebrand America.

The president said that he considered the peace prize a call to action. And in the fight against extreme poverty, it’s action, not intentions, that counts. That stirring sentence he uttered last month will ring hollow unless he returns to next year’s United Nations summit meeting with a meaningful, inclusive plan, one that gets results for the billion or more people living on less than $1 a day. Difficult. Very difficult. But doable.

The Nobel Peace Prize is the rest of the world saying, “Don’t blow it.”

But that’s not just directed at Mr. Obama. It’s directed at all of us. What the president promised was a “global plan,” not an American plan. The same is true on all the other issues that the Nobel committee cited, from nuclear disarmament to climate change — none of these things will yield to unilateral approaches. They’ll take international cooperation and American leadership.

The president has set himself, and the rest of us, no small task.

That’s why America shouldn’t turn up its national nose at popularity contests. In the same week that Mr. Obama won the Nobel, the United States was ranked as the most admired country in the world, leapfrogging from seventh to the top of the Nation Brands Index survey — the biggest jump any country has ever made. Like the Nobel, this can be written off as meaningless … a measure of Mr. Obama’s celebrity (and we know what people think of celebrities).

But an America that’s tired of being the world’s policeman, and is too pinched to be the world’s philanthropist, could still be the world’s partner. And you can’t do that without being, well, loved. Here come the letters to the editor, but let me just say it: Americans are like singers — we just a little bit, kind of like to be loved. The British want to be admired; the Russians, feared; the French, envied. (The Irish, we just want to be listened to.) But the idea of America, from the very start, was supposed to be contagious enough to sweep up and enthrall the world.

And it is. The world wants to believe in America again because the world needs to believe in America again. We need your ideas — your idea — at a time when the rest of the world is running out of them.

Bono, the lead singer of the band U2 and a co-founder of the advocacy group ONE and (Product)RED, is a contributing columnist for The Times.

October 15, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 9:52 pm

Chamber of Horrors

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce must be stopped. Here’s how to do it.

By Eliot Spitzer
Updated Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009, at 1:23 AM ET


The U.S. Chamber of Commerce—the self-proclaimed voice of business in Washington—has been wrong on virtually every major public-policy issue of the past decade: financial deregulation, tax and fiscal policy, global warming and environmental enforcement, consumer protection, health care reform …

The chamber remains an unabashed voice for the libertarian worldview that caused the most catastrophic economic meltdown since the Great Depression. And the chamber’s view of social justice would warm Scrooge’s heart. It is the chamber’s right to be wrong, and its right to argue its preposterous ideas aggressively, as it does through vast expenditures on lobbyists and litigation. Last year alone, the chamber spent more than $91 million on lobbying, and, according to lobby tracker Opensecrets.org, it has spent more than twice as much on lobbying during the past 12 years as any other corporation or group.

The problem is, the chamber is doing all this with our money. The chamber survives financially on the dues and support of its members, which are most of America’s major corporations listed on the stock exchange. The chamber derives its political clout from the fact that its membership includes these corporations. Yet we—you and I—own the companies that support the chamber and permit it to propagate its views. Our passive, permissive attitude toward the management of the companies we own has enabled the chamber to be one of the primary impediments to the reform of markets, health care, energy policy, and politics that we have all been calling for. It is time for that to change.

How, you might ask, do we own these companies? Public pension funds and mutual funds are the largest owners of equities in the market. They are the institutional shareholders that have the capacity to push management—and the boards of the corporations. Yet the mutual funds and pension funds have failed to do so. They have failed to control the management of the companies they own because the actual owners of those mutual funds and pension funds—you and I—have failed to raise our voices. We haven’t even asked questions.

Mutual funds, until recently, didn’t even disclose how they voted the proxies of shares they owned. When asked why not at a forum I was part of several years ago, the general counsel of one of the largest mutual fund companies tried to explain that it would be too expensive to make such disclosure. The answer was patently ridiculous, and it hid the much more important reason for nondisclosure: Mutual funds rarely if ever want to vote in opposition to management because mutual funds want to be included among the list of 401(k) options the company chooses for its employees. Mutual funds make money by increasing the size of the portfolios they manage, and if management knocks them off the 401(k) list, they will lose that revenue stream. This basic conflict of interest has neutered mutual funds. They are not meaningful checks on corporate mismanagement.

The comptrollers and treasurers who run public pension funds (often elected officials), have also failed to flex their political muscles. The passivity of the publicly elected officials who have the capacity to raise these issues has been a bit surprising.

So what should be done? The issue of passive institutional ownership is one of the most vexing and serious problems in American business. Expecting CEOs and boards to run companies properly without our input is a prescription for failure. But at least on the one issue of corporations playing politics with our money through support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, there is an easy answer.

The elected comptrollers and treasurers who agree—as a vast majority will—that the Chamber of Commerce has a distorted view of both economic and political policy should demand that each company in which they own stock drop its membership in the chamber. If the CEO doesn’t agree, the public pension funds should pressure the board to drop the chamber membership. If one activist state comptroller begins to build this coalition, the other state pension funds will follow.

In recent weeks, Apple and two energy companies—PG&E and Exelon—have defected from the chamber, objecting to its environmental policies. The Wall Street Journal editorial page of course views this bit of wisdom as heresy and counter to shareholder interest.

If elected comptrollers and treasurers do take a stand against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, expect a hue and cry from the typical voices. They will complain that elected comptrollers and treasurers are injecting politics into corporate management. To which the answer should be: No, they are trying to take politics out of it! It is corporate leadership, through its support of the chamber, that has injected politics into the corporations that we own. We are reminding corporate leaders that they are our fiduciaries. As long as the chamber and the CEOs who are supposed to be our representatives are using our money to be overtly political, it is our duty to respond. If we are passive, we permit the chamber to hijack our funds and companies to support positions antithetical to our own views. Waking pension funds and mutual funds from their slumber on this relatively easy issue might finally begin the necessary process of fixing mismanaged corporations.

Eliot Spitzer is the former governor of the state of New York.

Article URL: http://www.slate.com/id/2232441/

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