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The Dildo of Damocles
April 24th, 2017, 12:48 PM

What happens when you connect sex toys to the internet?

Image: Kimli

About a year ago, Udo Schneider of the global software security firm Trend Micro plopped a big pink vibrator down in front of a group of journalists at a press conference in Hanover, Germany. With a few simple tips and taps on a nearby computer, those at the event later reported, he then turned it on — remotely and without the use of any app directly tied to the writing implement.

Schneider’s stunt was one of several presentations in recent years that have shown how easy it is to hack the growing field of digitally connected sex toys. Last summer, at the Def Con hacker conference, a talk on the vulnerability of the We-Vibe remote vibrator made it clear that some devices collect user data for analysis — in the case of that device, they did so at least partially without the legal consent of users. A month later, two women filed a lawsuit against We-Vibe’s maker. It was one of the first major cases on data integrity and privacy in sex toys, and the few information security experts who probe this odd niche suspect it will not be the last.

One might have assumed that sex toy developers, often self-avowedly sensitive to user discretion and privacy, would have adopted some of the highest security standards for their high-tech devices from the start. They have at least been responsive to outcry following recent revelations; they may even be incentivized (and able) to build some of the strongest privacy and anti-hacking norms in the world of smart devices. But it’s up to an alliance of hacker activists and consumers to push for those standards, as not every developer will recognize risks or take full responsibility for them on their own. Users need to know the risks inherent in those products, and how best to protect themselves.

The risks of sex-toy hacking are intuitively dire given how inherently private sexual information is. But even experts can have a hard time pinning down specific vulnerabilities — high-tech sex toys are diverse in function and thus in the information or access they might provide. Demos like those by Trend Micro or the Def Con hackers have focused on a few vibrators, but teledildonics — the industry term for a wide variety of remote sex technologies — currently encompasses dozens of devices. They range from basic vibrators a partner can activate from afar to the high-end Kiiroo’s Onyx and Pearl, a vibrator and masturbation sleeve combo that connect to allow one to experience a distant partner’s actions in real-time. Theoretically, the toys of the future could even allow users to record every physical aspect of a sexual encounter, remote or proximate, and save it for replay or distribution.

Image: Chris Ainsworth

As with any smart device, there’s the obvious risk that a company could opaquely collect and sell, or a hacker could illicitly siphon off, metadata on users. Think: the sort of stuff ostensibly gathered for market research, like when devices are being used and how. Last spring, a hacker known as Render Man launched The Internet of Dongs (a play on the industry term for smart device networks, the Internet of Things) to probe and detect security risks in sex toys. He explained how, in the wrong hands, innocuous data could reveal uncomfortable details. “Data about when a device is used,” for example, he said, “may be evidence of infidelity, as is who a user is connected or ‘paired’ with.”

Ken Munro of Pen Test Partners, a British security firm that’s dabbled in protective dildo hacking (yes), said he’s “much more concerned about the audio and video that is linked to these toys.” On April 3, the firm reported on a dildo with a WiFi-connected endoscopic camera that testers characterized as trivial to hack. “Sextortion is a growing problem around holding individuals to ransom over very personal videos,” he said, citing a spate of scams in recent years in which women target lonely men on Skype and get them to masturbate or talk dirty, record the session, and then demand payoffs to hold the content.

But the risk of extortion may be the least of it. Kyle “qDot” Machulis of the teledildonics blog Metafetish is much more concerned about the possible direct physical consequences of toy hacking. First, there’s what Render called “incredible stalking potential.” He and Future of Sex editor Jenna Owsianik both noted that the right security flaws may allow hackers to gather identifying details, like an email address, as well as geolocation data and an IP address. Then there’s the issue of long-distance sexual assault. Owsianik and Render believe there’s a real risk an outside party could activate individuals’ sex toys. If a toy goes off in a sock drawer, that’s one thing; if a hacker takes control of one in use, that’s completely another.

This type of cyber assault is especially concerning given how difficult it could be to prosecute. Provided a victim could even find someone to sue, Alice Vachss — an outspoken sex crimes prosecutor and public commentator — said you could certainly charge them with the unauthorized remote control of a device, which is a crime. However, she added, “sex toys have long been a prompt for victim judging,” meaning it could be difficult to get anyone to take the cases seriously enough to pursue them with force. And in many jurisdictions sex crimes cases, as opposed to lesser harassment charges, require proof of intent, which could be hard to prove with a hacker. Did they know a device was in use? Did they intend, by hacking, to derive sexual stimulation from or to assault the user?

It’s surprising a collective uproar over security issues didn’t come sooner. The concept of teledildonics has been around since 1975, the tech involved could have been realized in early and low-fi forms in the 1980s, and basic cyber-linked sex toys came onto the market in the 1990s. The wider sex toy industry started serious forays into teledildonics over a decade ago. Machulis started covering teledildonics in 2004, and security has been on his radar that entire time; Render started to explore the field a year later.

The wider public has had several years to adjust to the now-popular knowledge that any digitally connected device, like the Cinder grills, Nest thermostats, all-powerful Amazon Echoes, or any other number of products that have started to proliferate in many homes over the decade, can be hacked. Tech outlets were warning of systemic risks throughout smart device networks almost four years ago, and three years ago mainstream outlets started ringing alarm bells about industry reports that nearly three-fourths of all such devices were particularly vulnerable.

Image: Prachatai

Consumers might be aware of general hacking risks, said Machulis, but they rarely remember to think about the sock drawer. Machulis thinks that’s because we’re so used to certain ways of thinking about sex toys — they’re walled off, clandestine, low-tech. The folks he talks to often know about phone sex or sexting, but they think about teledildonics like sex robots: something far off rather than an immediate reality. Even when users do become aware of threats to security through their digital devices, they can be bad about taking precautions. “There are a lot of people who know the problems and are like, ‘fuck it, I want to use it anyway,’” said Machulis.

According to Render, toy developers were until recently entirely hardware vendors, not used to dealing with software. On top of inexperience, the necessity of getting a product to market quickly while keeping development costs low disincentivizes agonizing over security. “They are genuinely and innocently ignorant of the threats they face until it bites them,” Render said.

For a long time, Render claimed, no one in the tech industry would take it upon themselves to investigate and tip producers off to security shortcomings because of the subject matter. “I have no dignity, so I have no problem with it,” he said. “I see a problem and I feel this compulsion to fix the risk.” So he got proactive about testing devices and alerting manufacturers to flaws a little less than a year ago. (For all his claims to dispassionate and analytic motives, Render will admit that it feels odd to “device job satisfaction from helping people masturbate each other safely… making my mother proud.”) But his one-man crusade was long a limited and low-profile venture. He believes that until last September’s We-Vibe lawsuit, most toy developers still had no idea of the risks they ran.

Although sex toys were a tiny and low-rent market for much of their considerable history, they started to gain in social acceptability in the late 1990s (props to “Sex and the City”). Now it’s an over-$15 billion industry, projected to hit $50 billion by 2020, with hundreds of thousands of toys available across the web and even in big-box stores. It’s hard to tell how much of that market is devoted to teledildonics, or how many connected sex toy users there are overall, but We-Vibe alone had two million registered users last fall. The economically ailing adult industry also feels intense pressure to move into and mainstream virtual reality porn and remote sex rigs as fast as possible to restore its profits. Innovators spurred on by the growing market for these devices are developing ever more immersive and thus invasive and risky products.

In recognition of the expanding number of smart toy users potentially at risk, the hackers behind the Def Con We-Vibe presentation launched the Private Play Accord, an initiative to create toy security protocols . Render claimed their hack validated his own probing around and gave him the shot in the arm to really get working on the Internet of Dongs. Since then, Pornhub — arguably the king of modern porn delivery and itself a potential teledildonics player — has signed on as a sponsor. They help Render acquire toys to test and back him as he approaches developers with notes and advice. His idea is for the project to turn into — in true hacker-culture form — a loose alliance of researchers, united in intent and concern, all collaborating to make modern masturbation safer.

The makers of We-Vibe didn’t respond to the Def Con presentation last summer, and responded to the lawsuit with pretty perfunctory statements. Even when they settled the suit for $3 million and agreed to destroy the data they’d collected this March, they admitted no wrongdoing. Munro said making people aware of risks often just leads developers to offload responsibility onto consumers in user agreements and notifications. But Render has been pleasantly surprised by the way the industry as a whole has reacted to his recent work. “Every single person I’ve talked to… has been supportive of [his white-hat hacking] and quickly realizes they need to get their act together,” he said, adding as an afterthought that, at the very least, no one’s sued him it yet.

Machulis said he thinks this responsiveness is, at least in part, a manifestation of economic realities: The sex toy market is expanding, but it isn’t quite like big appliance or electronics firms yet. Most tiny, relatively young developers can’t take a huge monetary hit on a scandalous public lawsuit, or suffer terrible PR incidents. Machulis’s dream is that this vulnerability will push producers to hold all their future products to higher security standards. That would realize Render’s dream of security proactive enough that sextortion, stalking, and cyber-assisted rapes are always things we worry about in abstract, but never see in the headlines.

Not everyone in the adult industry takes hacking risks seriously yet. Ariana Rodriguez, who covers devices and innovations for the industry publication xBiz, said she believes “concerns about hacking sex toys are baseless,” because she is convinced the adult industry is built on privacy. But this reaction doesn’t recognize that a commitment to privacy doesn’t always mean you know how to achieve it — and that’s the problem.

In the We-Vibe lawsuit — the biggest public alert regarding toy security to date — Render believes there was no evidence of anything shady. The company essentially got slammed for not disclosing correctly what data it was collecting, but did not appear to be selling or compromising what limited data it did collect. The threat that case highlighted remained abstract to users, which is a problem as efforts like the Internet of Dongs will likely need popular support — i.e. clear indications that consumers will punish developers who fail to adequately address security issues with a firm blow to their bottom line — in order to push past the industry’s worst recalcitrance and ignorance. Hackers’ tips for consumers on how to secure their devices won’t go very far unless users are motivated to listen to or consult them.

Ultimately, security experts believe a high-profile security violation is imminent. Render says he’s waiting for the first divorce case tied to leaked device data or a major extortion scandal within a year or two, and suspects there could be a hacked toy assault case in the news within five years. Machulis “figured [a rape] would have already happened by now, honestly.” How severe the hack is and whether it will galvanize the industry or torpedo consumer confidence in the whole endeavor is entirely up in the air. It’s a strange Dildo of Damocles to have hanging over our heads, as an increasingly sexually explorative and comfortable culture. But at least the level of risk we expose ourselves to in a world of teledildonics is in our own hands.

The Dildo of Damocles was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Stay In The Friendzone
April 24th, 2017, 12:48 PM

Because marriage is a shadow dimension

“Jim, I’m stuck in the Friendzone. What should I do?” — Friendzoned Freddy
Image: Cali4beach

Freddy, if I’ve told you once I’ve told you a million times: love is bullshit and an illusion. The need for companionship, help raising kids, assistance paying rent and occasional sexy action: those are real. This does not require someone that makes your heart go pitter-pat. If you’re stuck in an elevator with someone you’re attracted to for 12 hours, you will probably fall in love with them. That’s not finding a soul mate. That’s just proximity and opportunity and elevators being crappy.

If I had to do it all again, I would go back in time and give back my worthless English degree. Instead I’d get an Escalator/Elevator repair license. Elevators and escalators are always broken. And it’s more difficult to get stuck on an escalator for 12 hours. Unless you’re ground up inside its guts.

It is nice to have crushes on people. Especially people you can never be with. You can write cute, lovelorn poems about them. You can build them up in your mind until they are absolute perfection. Yearning for something we can never have is kind of invigorating. I do this all the time. It is my preferred relationship. I get to feel all warm and floaty. And I never have to be in a real, adult relationship with someone I will eventually disappoint either as a lover or as a partner. I always forget to take out the garbage. I also don’t make any money. I also don’t watch anything other than Sports and I play Ween constantly on repeat as loudly as possible. If I weren’t attached to me I wouldn’t want to live with me, either. Living with people is kind of brutal and harrowing and you always have to pretend to listen to what they’re saying. That’s worse than being alone for the rest of your life.

At least when you’re in the friendzone with someone, you have a friend. Someone you like hanging out with, who likes the same dumb things you do and who makes you feel good to be around them. This is different than any other long-term relationship you can be in. After the first few years, it’s all eye rolls and that masturbation hand-signal whenever you’re not looking. Even the couples that start off the cutest end up acting like they’re in the third act of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? after a while. Because monogamy is nonsense and inevitably you end up blaming others for your own poor choices. Which is fine: you are attached to yourself. At the very least be on your own side.

Enjoy your time in the Friendzone, Freddy. You’re going to need friends if you ever do get into a serious relationship. Because people in serious relationships all vent about how crappy their relationships are. Then they go home and do nothing to solve the deep-seated problems of their relationships. Because bitching about them is easier. And being alone is so terrible. Also you’ll need friends to help you move out of your shared apartment when your serious relationship goes belly up. Friends that will help you move are the best kind of friends. Right up there with the friends that will have fun, meaningless sex with you for no particular reason.

The best way of getting out of the friendzone is just finding someone else. When you’re in the friendzone, you are like someone’s emergency back-up lover. If something should happen to the person they’re purusing, you might be up next. If you are no longer in a twilight stage of constantly doting and available, they may freak. I was once in the friendzone. I made up a new girlfriend. I called this girlfriend “The Furry.” The lady who friendzoned me saw right through my ruse and married some other dude and is now completely gone from my life. I don’t think she was the least bit interested in my furry scenario.

Happiness is mostly unattainable. If you weren’t almost constantly searching desperately for a better way to live and be, you’d be like a dog who caught the car it was chasing. Now what are you going to do? Who the hell knows? If you became the perfect version of yourself, solved all your problems and became truly satisfied you’d probably be as bored as hell. You’d have an affair just to keep things interesting.

Refuse, Freddy. Simply refuse to play along with the sick games the universe throws at you. The universe is a cruel enough place without you playing directly into the hands of the great puppet masters. Accept your fate in the friendzone. Marry someone you like less then you imagine you like this unattainable person. And live your life as a somewhat-satisfied still-always-searching desperado.

Everyone dies and only a very few people will actually care about our deaths. You know who will care the most? You will, Freddy. You will care a lot about your own death. I don’t think dying in someone else’s arms is going to make a hell of a lot of difference in the outcome. You will probably only be passingly aware that you’re dying in someone else’s arms before you are totally dead. Then you will care a lot less about having been alone when you were dying. You’ll be dead. You will care not at all. Like New Year’s Eve. A kiss the next morning means nothing.

Jim Behrle lives in Jersey City, NJ and works at a bookstore.

Stay In The Friendzone was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Conflict: The Musical
April 24th, 2017, 12:48 PM

Notes on life

Liana Finck’s work appears in The New Yorker, in Catapult, and on Instagram.

Conflict: The Musical was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

President Unintelligible
April 24th, 2017, 12:48 PM

Um, help?

Image: Indu Harikumar
TRUMP: Number One, there’s great responsibility. When it came time to, as an example, send out the 59 missiles, the Tomahawks in Syria. I’m saying to myself, “You know, this is more than just like, 79 (sic) missiles. This is death that’s involved,” because people could have been killed. This is risk that’s involved, because if the missile goes off and goes in a city or goes in a civilian area — you know, the boats were hundreds of miles away — and if this missile goes off and lands in the middle of a town or a hamlet …. every decision is much harder than you’d normally make. (unintelligible) … This is involving death and life and so many things. … So it’s far more responsibility. (unintelligible) ….The financial cost of everything is so massive, every agency. This is thousands of times bigger, the United States, than the biggest company in the world. The second-largest company in the world is the Defense Department. The third-largest company in the world is Social Security. The fourth-largest — you know, you go down the list.
AP: Right.
TRUMP. It’s massive. And every agency is, like, bigger than any company. So you know, I really just see the bigness of it all, but also the responsibility. And the human responsibility. You know, the human life that’s involved in some of the decisions.

Does anyone know what this interview says?

Transcript of AP interview with Trump

President Unintelligible was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Project Pablo, “Risk the Rip”
April 24th, 2017, 12:48 PM

Why is it Monday again?

Photo: Jorge Quinteros

I don’t like it any more than you do. None of us likes it. And yet, here we are. I would tell you that things will get better but I’d like to think by now you know I’d never lie to you. Things at best will stay the way they are, and we all know what that’s like. Anyway, here’s some music. Enjoy? [Via]

Project Pablo, “Risk the Rip” was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

New York City, April 20, 2017
April 21st, 2017, 12:48 PM

★★ Fairly even clouds filled the sky, and fairly even water filmed the pavement of the schoolyard. What rain was falling could be ignored for minutes on end, if not all the minutes of the wait for school to begin. The bulk-planted daffodils had shriveled where they stood. When it seemed that the clouds had secured the day, the sun suddenly faded in, and for a while the sky even had blue in it. The gray returned though, and with it came a stifling and pervasive dampness, heavier by the hour.

New York City, April 20, 2017 was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

> EleanorBot
April 21st, 2017, 12:48 PM

From Everything Changes, the Awl’s newsletter. Subscribe here.

Photo by Philippe Halsman

I’ve been on kind of an Eleanor Roosevelt reading binge lately. She led a privileged life, to be sure, but not an easy one. Here is a lady who went through some shit: She was ignored and unloved by her beautiful mother because she was ugly. She lost her mother, a brother, and her beloved, alcoholic father before she was 10 years old. She was left to help bring up her surviving younger brother. She bore six children herself, one of whom died as an infant. Her husband developed polio. He cheated on her with his secretaries. Throughout all of this she was maybe gay.

Despite of/because of all this she served in the White House for 12 years. She helped lead her country through an economic depression and a world war. She championed civil rights, the United Nations, refugees, and women’s right to work.

I like her a lot so I made a bot for you of smart things she said. It’s called @_EleanorBot_.

If you want realtalk from an immanently practical dead first lady who lived through times as crazy as ours, feel free to follow. And I hope you have a good weekend.

From Everything Changes, the Awl’s newsletter. Subscribe here.

> EleanorBot was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

True Facts
April 21st, 2017, 12:48 PM

Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.” proves he’s a consummate storyteller.

Kendrick Lamar’s story has never been more accessible than in this moment, when he’s trying to overhaul it. Every artist works along two parallel narratives, that of their career, and that of their life; for all his prodigiousness as an MC and his obsession with the form, Lamar’s chief talent is trimming the distance between those worlds. He brings Infernal Affairs to Compton, and he brings Compton to the White House. Lamar and his newly introduced alter ego, Kung Fu Kenny, know how stories affect people, and with each new album, he advances the form’s function as a unit, and as its own singular world.

With the arrival of “DAMN.”, after a year of high-profile returns, the question of What Makes An MC has fresh blood. Except this doesn’t address Lamar’s skill as one of our great storytellers, full stop, a moniker generally bestowed to white men in glasses, with oeuvres of prose behind their names. But in tending to the specifics of his life and where he comes from, Lamar extends an invitation to everyone who listens. So through the vehicle of the album, and through giving us an “in” into his world, Lamar has plowed an entrance into that conversation: which of our storytellers will we allow to represent us? And how far are we willing to allow them to redefine the mainstream?

If “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” was his nod towards a day in the life, and “To Pimp a Butterfly” shadowed his ascendance to celebrity, then “DAMN.” feels like Lamar’s attempt to come back down from it all. Or it could be him grasping at everyone floating just underneath him. He tells a lot of stories on this record, from the origins of his label, to the perilousness of a walk around the block, but an overarching theme is the mundanity of our everyday decisions, which just happen to change the course of our lives. And Lamar knows how that sounds. He also knows that we know how it sounds.

Despite his latest turns at innovation, Lamar’s decision to string a narrative across an album is hardly innovative for the genre: since its inception, hip-hop has served as the storyteller’s medium. Whether it’s 3 Stacks, Jay-Z, Ice Cube, or Eminem, rap’s verified demigods traffic in narrative for solidification of their repute. It’s the serious lyricist’s calling card. And Lamar’s attempts master those same methods could be his tickets to entry. However singular a track may appear on its own (“i.” and “HUMBLE.” immediately come to mind), within the context of their whole, they take on an entirely different emotional weight: a major-key, guitar heavy clap-along becomes a strike against crippling depression; a braggadocious anthem is reintroduced as a meditation against excess.

But Lamar’s adherence to plot is also a means of reigning in his own public narrative: since a handful of missteps early in his career, he’s gone out of his way to avoid a certain brand of celebrity. He’s made some blunders, and now, instead of relaying his messages through gatekeepers, he’d prefer to speak for himself. He’ll surface as part of a dual entity every now and then, to usher the conclusion of an icon’s career, or to cosign a label mate’s come-up, but, for the most part, the rapper who said “all my life I want money and power,” he now seems resigned to the ailments that prestige can bring.

If Lamar’s career thus far has been a come-up, “DAMN.” is a gradual descent from the mountain. On “YAH.”, he sounds muted, absolutely monotone, a little sick of the situation at hand and a little resigned to the fruits that it will ultimately cease to bring:

Interviews wanna know my thoughts and opinions
FOX news wanna use my name for percentage
My lastest muse is my niece, she worth livin’

He’s finally gotten the acclaim he wanted, but it’s a fuckton to chew on. He’ll stan for Killer Mike, but he’s “not a politician.” He’ll ride for Chance, but he’s not “about a religion” (although Lamar is, in fact, extremely spiritual in his own way).

As the record progresses, he continues adopting stories from the people around him: on “FEAR.”, he’s a black mother, anxious to instill fear in her child. He’s his father, slipping free biscuits to customers in gang territory. He’s the kids rolling around the streets of Compton, invincible and doomed, liable to the whims of the neighborhood and the nation:

I’ll prolly because I ain’t know Demarcus was snitchin’
I’ll prolly die at these house parties, fuckin’ with bitches
I’ll prolly die from witnesses leavin’ me falsely accused
I’ll prolly die from thinkin’ that me and your head was cool
I’ll prolly die from pressin’ the line, actin’ too extra
Or maybe die because these smokers
Are more than desperate
I’ll prolly die from one of these bats and blue badges
Body slammed on black and white paint, bones snappin’

After years spent building himself towards a come-up, Lamar raps himself back down to the Earth. He crafts his staircase track by track, extending those heights even as he descends. But how do you keep telling the story that needs to be told? How can you tell it in new ways? It is, inevitably, a narrative problem, and in a very good interview with Rick Rubin, Lamar acknowledges his father as the realist force in his life, and his mother’s impulses as a dreamer, before shouting out 2Pac, Biggie, Prince, and “the usual suspects” and noting the power of the narratives they wove:

The stories they were telling, whether it was fiction or not, these ideas that they were putting down made me believe any and everything that they were saying. Because it came from a space, whether being a realist point or imagination or whatever, because their ideas are so strong, and so heavy.

Lamar goes on to say that the characters and stories he inhabits are the voices and people complimenting his DNA; a motif he returns to on his most recent single:

Loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA
Cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace inside my DNA
I got power, poison, pain, and joy inside my DNA
I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA

He knows these stories, and he’s lived them. Now he’s just trying to make them real. So he studies soul and rock and pop to inhabit them, cycling through mediums to bring them to life; and in this way, Lamar’s a student of the craft, as much as Roth or Paley or Dylan Thomas or Bob Dylan or Eugenides.

Home is Lamar’s chief preoccupation. So is the experience of leaving it, and the people he’s left behind — the folks whose lives he could’ve led, and the folks his success has entangled him with, and whether those parties can ever coexist. Compton, for Lamar, isn’t a series of statistics or a boon or a gutter or a type: it is a home with stories. It’s a city deserving of different forms and exploration, with people worth examining and prodding and glorifying. Lamar, like every other artist, has his motifs: the shadow of institutionalized oppression hanging over Compton, the tumultuousness of fate and chance, the fear of love, and the fear of failure. He returns to them on “DAMN.” because he needs to, because he knows that now he can tell them better.

When Mitchell S. Jackson, author of The Residue Years, was asked by The Paris Review whether or not he was worried about what he’d write next, he responded that he was, “in a way”:

But I don’t think it’s about having things to say, or waiting for things to happen to you so that you can write about it. It’s more about going back to that one story and telling it in different ways. I was listening to an interview with Jay-Z and he said that he’s only written about five stories in his whole career. He’s only had five things he wanted to say, but he’s said them differently… There are so many stories in a place. And nothing beats writing about home.

Lamar’s form certainly fits the times: over the past few months, a lot of us have felt our origins more vividly than we may have prior. Black-ness and Latino-ness and Asian-ness and other-ness have been magnified in a way that would baffle anyone who hadn’t already felt implicated over the past eight years. And while Lamar alleges that his aim is not political, he still lives in the world, and he has to deal with it.

On “LUST.”, he raps:

We all woke up, tryna tune to the daily news
Lookin’ for confirmation, hopin’ election ain’t true
All of us worried, all of us buried, and our feeling’s deep
None of us married to his proposal, make us feel cheap

He’s creating his own narrative to get by, just like the rest of us. And in a country that could elect a black man, only to immediately turn to an administration intent on erasing every last one of his imprints, variations in form are necessary to capture that history. The record has context, implicitly and explicitly, and that could be why “DAMN.” in West Texas isn’t the same as “DAMN.” in New Orleans, and all of this was intentionally, methodically plotted by Lamar.

An MC’s calling-card is his prominence, and who among his class is The Best, and while Lamar has made it clear that he’s engaged in that conversation, it’s one he takes less seriously than his role as a storyteller. He’s become the best chronicler of his own particular history. Which is, by turns, our history. His greatest gifts will be the stories he has to give. He knows they’re the only things that will last. And so Kung Fu Kenny becomes a muse, and a historian, despite whatever protests against him arise. Would that it were true of every MC.

True Facts was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

The Leaks Are Coming From Inside Jared Kushner’s House
April 21st, 2017, 12:48 PM

And Ivanka knows.

Image: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
IVANKA has always wanted to be a Russian oligarch, and now that she is the President’s daughter she has begun actualizing her dream, a London-style subterranean house under her brand new D.C. house. When he is not running errands for Gary Cohn, JARED oversees the construction. Today he phones a REPORTER while checking in on some new fixtures downstairs.

JARED [walking briskly past the general contractor, who is actually in charge of the construction, and speaking into his phone]: I want to leak something to you.

REPORTER [gesturing to his colleagues to come over for this]: Again? Great. Let me begin recording.

JARED [stepping over another contractor, this one gluing expensive, garish tiles onto a wall]: Remember when you said Bannon is the President? [JARED flicks one of the tiles with his free hand but he doesn’t know why.] Can you write in your next article that it’s really me who is the President?

REPORTER [skeptically]: Hmm, how do I say this? We think of you more as someone who has the President’s ear, like a moderating influence maybe, but not as someone per se in charge. Someone else does that part. Like one of the generals, who suggest bombing places to make the cranky baby happy.

JARED [lying]: Yes, yes. Those are all my ideas. To be a war president is my idea. So can you please call me President Kushner next?

REPORTER [brainstorming aloud the first draft of history]: I’m writing about how deeply incompetent the President is, on a structural level, but also how, in the long run, he is absolutely fine. And that’s because every day presents a new opportunity for him to become President. “One hundred days of becoming President Trump.” That’s the pitch at least. Can you tell me more about how you fit into this narrative?

JARED [triggered by REPORTER’s use of the word “pitch”]: Sure thing. [JARED straightens his back.] It’s an app the President can use when he is doing war and diplomacy. You just type in the name of a country, or like a zip code, and the product will tell him which political candidate in those places is the quote unquote Trump. Like all those House races or whatever, the ones they are constantly having. He can use the app for that. And then the Europe ones.

REPORTER [honestly]: I like that. So the app will tell him that Marine Le Pen is France’s Trump. That’s good.

[JARED jots down “Marine La ???” directly onto his hand, even though he knows IVANKA will question why there’s ink on his skin.]

JARED [shimmying past two carpenters building a sturdy and beautiful table that will rarely be used]: Right now I have a team of programmers coming up with all the different spellings the President might use. They’re writing an algorithm based off all his Twitter typos.

[Meanwhile it sounds like a literal earthquake upstairs. BANNON is back, and he is moving furniture around. The walls are quite thin, especially for an old home, and JARED can hear most of what BANNON is screaming.]

JARED [wondering whether he asked REPORTER to sign a non-disclosure agreement]: This is all anonymous, right? No one will know I am the one who says it’s President Kushner now?

REPORTER: It would help support the claim if we could source it.

JARED [genuinely curious]: Can you say Bannon said it?

REPORTER [frustrated because he just answered this question yesterday]: It doesn’t work like that.

JARED [emboldened]: Can you say that he is breaking into my house? We just changed the locks and I can hear him dragging Ivanka’s fainting couch across the first floor.

REPORTER [putting JARED on speaker so the newsroom can hear]: I can say that if it’s happening. Bannon lives with you?

JARED: He was supposed to move out and squat in his office. He is pushing the couch and he is screaming about how the furniture business used to thrive in great American cities like Jamestown and Roanoke before the globalists took over. He is screaming that he is driving the couch to the White House and he and Ted Nugent and Sarah Palin are going to chop it up with Kid Rock’s weapons and have a giant bonfire. All fucking night long. It’s Sarah Palin’s couch now. We’re white trash monsters and we love bonfires, he is screaming.

REPORTER [fishing]: He said he loves bonfires?

JARED [energized that he is leaking correctly]: Wait. He’s adding that maybe Palin will want the bonfire at the creek. The Potomac creek. He calls it a creek to get a rise out of the Democrats, my mother says. [JARED whispers.] She means me.

REPORTER [desperate for JARED to keep talking]: What else you got?

JARED: He can’t get the couch through the doorway. He is yelling that it’s stuck. Good fucking luck getting it back into your living room, he’s saying. He’s leaving, it sounds like. Next time you change your locks, he is screaming, don’t give a spare key to the support staff. Support staffs always like me because I negatively bond with them over the minority group they most fear is infringing on their economic progress.

REPORTER [fishing again]: Do you think that’s true?

JARED [stepping over an electrician who is wiring the fourth of four subterranean bathrooms]: Of course not. We’re very good to our help.

[The REPORTER is getting another call. He shushes the newsroom, and takes them off speaker.]

REPORTER: It’s your wife. Should I conference her in?

[JARED hears footsteps. It’s IVANKA. She has entered the subterranean part of the house. She evaluates the construction as she moves toward her husband.]

IVANKA [to JARED, via the conference call, but also in person]: I know you’re leaking to the press.

JARED [shamefully]: Did I break your heart?

IVANKA [bored]: What. No. [IVANKA directs a contractor to remove all the tile he has plastered to the walls. She pulls out a sample from her enormous bag and hands it to him. Then she addresses the REPORTER.] Hello, reporter. What did Jared tell you?

REPORTER: That’s not ethical for me to say.

IVANKA [while directing her lawyer via text to sue the contractors]: Ethics are for people whose income is derived primarily from a salary.

REPORTER: Can I quote you?

IVANKA: Of course not. That’s on deep background. So was whatever Jared told you, especially if it involved how our furniture blocked our doorway.

[IVANKA ends the call with the REPORTER. Then she lifts a Camelbak bladder bag she found on the sidewalk outside. The bladder bag is full of vodka and ground up painkillers.]

IVANKA [calmly]: Phone your mother and let her know we received the U.S. Treasury bonds she sent the children for the holiday.

JARED: That was kind of her.

IVANKA: She’s trolling us, Jared. She knows the bonds will be worthless by the time they mature. Please also tell her if she passive aggressively conveys she voted for her one more time that the kids and I are leaving you.

[JARED, desperate for validation, demonstrates his War and Diplomacy app to IVANKA who is now eating cashews, even though JARED is allergic.]

IVANKA: Tell her, Jared. [IVANKA finishing her cashews.] Steve also ignited a paper bag full of what I assume is dog excrement and left it in our doorway, alongside this. [IVANKA shoves the bladder bag at her husband.] Please resolve immediately.

[JARED nods pliantly, and writes down “Spotify but for fire departments,” on his arm. An electrician walks by, points to JARED’s note and says he thinks he means Seamless, not Spotify.]

The Leaks Are Coming From Inside Jared Kushner’s House was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Stranger of the Week
April 21st, 2017, 12:48 PM

Franklin Street, Brooklyn

Illustration by Forsyth Harmon

Earlier, I’d been walking behind a young guy with a spliff in one hand and a can of Arizona iced tea in the other, jeans coasting southwards of his skinny butt. He'd been progressing slowly, a blissed-out saunter, and I could picture the kind of expression he’d be wearing before I even levelled with him: there it was, a dopey, crooked smile like bunting sagged between tentpoles. A smile as much to do with the spring-at-last weather as the weed, which had smelled so good in the sunlight that I’d wanted to pluck that spliff from his hands with a quick, casual “may I?” gesture, take a drag, hand it back to him, walk on. I should have. Maybe if I’d been wearing something different—old jeans, instead of a strappy white dress on its first, self-conscious outing of the season—I would have. Maybe then I’d have felt safely in the realm of hi-and-bye rather than come-on.

I wonder how many of our interactions are, at some level, forms of redress for previous encounters with other people, efforts to rectify and recalibrate. Being meticulously kind to one friend, for example, after having snapped at another. A false mathematics: the friend you snapped at remains disgruntled and oblivious of your extra kindness to someone else. And yet, in our private internal universe, it feels as though balance has been restored.

When you stepped out of the florist some part of me wanted to rectify the non-encounter with the Arizona Iced Tea stoner and, since you and I were instantly, unavoidably walking in synch and side by side, ignoring each other would have been both ridiculous and mildly sociopathic. You were holding a big, femmey bunch of blush-colored dog roses, pink ranunculus and baby’s breath, and I looked at them, then thought of all the times I’ve walked down the street holding a bunch of flowers—how each time I’ve experienced the devastating comic genius of passing men who ask, grinning, “Are they for me?” or say, loudly, “You shouldn’t have!” It makes me suddenly lust for violence—Yes, everything is for you, Man, this world, these flowers, the female body, all here for your consumption. It makes me wish I were holding a bouquet of knives, not flowers. And of course the rage is compounded by knowing that any kind of display of irritation, any rebuke, would be met by the butthurt of “Jeez, just being friendly!” the unassailable confidence in the innocuous neutrality of the remark. There is no neutral.

So I thought, briefly, about playing the dude to you—some grim, ironic attempt to push things towards gender parity. But instead of “Are they for me?” which in practice sounds a lot more like making a lame come-on than summarily smashing patriarchy—I said, “Are they for you?” “I wish!” you said happily and you inhaled them heartily to telegraph your satisfaction. They were for your friend, whose birthday it was, and even though “her husband or daughter may have gotten her flowers already” you had thought, what the hell. You had a big, russetty, brohemian beard and were burly in a way that suggested craft beer, recreational woodwork and rugged optimism; I could see you as one of those dads who gamely dressed up in a princess outfit to please his three-year-old daughter. This flower-sniffing display won me over, is what I’m saying. You offered me a sniff and I took it and they smelled nice, but it was a faint fragrance. The weed, naturally, had been more pungent.

Stranger of the Week was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.