September 4, 2015
Though China has been the global economic star of the last low-growth decade, it remains a totalitarian dictatorship, with its economy shrouded in state secrecy. What we’re encountering in this crisis is the spectacle of a closed society colliding with the forces of complex, free-market capitalism. If we look beyond China, we can find a long history of these collisions, dating back hundreds of years, as both closed societies and capitalism evolved and became more complex. And the history has a clear but unsettling lesson to offer: When such a collision happens, it’s a moment to genuinely worry. ... Since the dawn of capitalism, closed societies with repressive governments have — much like China — been capable of remarkable growth and innovation. Sixteenth-century Spain was a great imperial power, with a massive navy and extensive industry such as shipbuilding and mining. One could say the same thing about Louis XIV’s France during the 17th century, which also had vast wealth, burgeoning industry and a sprawling empire. ... But both countries were also secretive, absolute monarchies, and they found themselves thrust into competition with the freer countries Holland and Great Britain. Holland, in particular, with a government that didn’t try to control information, became the information center of Europe — the place traders went to find out vital information which they then used as the basis of their projects and investments. The large empires, on the other hand, had economies so centrally planned that the monarch himself would often make detailed economic decisions. As these secretive monarchies tried to prop up their economies, they ended up in unsustainable positions that invariably led to bankruptcy, collapse and conflict. ... China is a new case, for it has mixed capitalism and totalitarianism in a unique way. ... The government may not be able to control the stock market, but it does successfully keep a veil over state finances. This is what closed, authoritarian governments have done since the 16th century. ... what we are seeing in this current financial crisis is likely to be only the beginning of the political and societal crisis brought about by a dictatorship’s efforts to simulate the performance of a capitalist economy — but one that only grows. ... There is no historical example of a closed imperial economy facing large capital-driven, open states and sustainably competing over a long term.
An ancient religious divide is helping fuel a resurgence of conflicts in the Middle East and Muslim countries. Struggles between Sunni and Shia forces have fed a Syrian civil war that threatens to transform the map of the Middle East, spurred violence that is fracturing Iraq, and widened fissures in a number of tense Gulf countries. Growing sectarian clashes have also sparked a revival of transnational jihadi networks that poses a threat beyond the region. ... Islam’s schism, simmering for fourteen centuries, doesn’t explain all the political, economic, and geostrategic factors involved in these conflicts, but it has become one prism through which to understand the underlying tensions. Two countries that compete for the leadership of Islam, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, have used the sectarian divide to further their ambitions. How their rivalry is settled will likely shape the political balance between Sunnis and Shias and the future of the region, especially in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen. ... Shia identity is rooted in victimhood over the killing of Husayn, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, in the seventh century, and a long history of marginalization by the Sunni majority.
The ocean-filled moon might hold the life we’ve long searched for in space. And scientists have one shot to reach it. ... Everything we know about life says that it needs water. Conversely, every place on Earth where water exists, life does too. The conventional thinking, then, is that if you want to find alien life, the first thing you look for is alien water. Europa is the wettest known world in the solar system. Life also needs food and energy. Europa scores there too: Its ocean might be nourished by a drizzle of organic chemicals and stirred by volcanic vents like the ones dotting the mid-Atlantic ridge. If any place in the solar system holds the answer to the “Are we alone?” question, it’s a good bet that Europa, not the Red Planet, does. ... Which is not to say that getting the answer will be easy—not by a long shot. To give you a sense of exactly how hard it will be, consider three more numbers: 600 million—the average flight distance, in miles, from Earth to Europa, meaning that the journey there could take at least six years; 500—the average radiation dose, in rem per day, on Europa’s surface, enough to fry unprotected spacecraft electronics within a matter of days; and 10—the average estimated thickness, in miles, of Europa’s ice shell, more than four times as thick as the glaciers covering Antarctica. Overcoming those numbers will test the limits of human ingenuity. But a growing chorus of scientists has argued that we must try. ... most of the liquid water in the solar system is found not on the surface of rocky worlds like Earth but inside icy bodies like Europa. That raises the stakes for NASA’s upcoming mission. If we find evidence of life on Europa, it would point to a whole new class of habitable worlds across the solar system, and probably across the universe.
The thing people always talk about first, when they are talking about Net-a-Porter, is the packaging. For a company known for being on the leading edge of online fashion, it is surprisingly anachronistic: The black, beribboned bags that arrive, brimming with tissue paper and the promise of a life-changing ensemble, could just as easily have been delivered by uniformed footman to Eloise’s Plaza as summoned via the internet into the one inhabited by Russian oligarchs. “It’s like getting a present,” the company’s president, Natalie Massenet, likes to say, which sounds whimsical but isn’t. Elaborate packaging is integral to the Net-a-Porter brand. It was central to Massenet’s vision when she started the company in her apartment in 1999, on the premise that good old-fashioned luxury and the utilitarian promise of the internet need not be mutually exclusive, and has remained so even as the company has expanded to become one of the leading players of global e-commerce. ... Back in March, after its parent company, the Swiss luxury retailer Richemont, announced it had struck a deal to merge the site with its rival at a $1.5 billion valuation and in exchange for half of the combined company, Net-a-Porter did its best to make it seem like cause for celebration. ... The Champagne was still fizzing from the last dot-com boom when Massenet launched Net-a-Porter. ... At the time, luxury brands had little interest in selling their wares online. The prevailing sentiment was that designer clothes did not belong in a marketplace known for trafficking primarily in electronics and p~rn. ... It’s a world not unlike a high-end hotel chain, which is the point: “I wanted to make sure that the whole company was unified, like you were opening one door from one office space and then entering another one,” ... The company bends over backward to service Them, providing same-day delivery in Hong Kong, New York, and London, and seasonally in the Hamptons. There are special sales for EIPs (Extremely Important People). Occasional collections are tailored to their needs ... As the CEO of one company who sells merchandise on the site put it to me: “Everyone loves Net-a-Porter. They are great at everything. Except making money.”
The Colombian cartel boss who once supplied 80 percent of America’s cocaine has become an unlikely tourist draw. Jesse Katz pays a visit to Pablo-land. ... Villains come in all shapes and sizes, but there is always something curious about evil geniuses who turn out to be less imposing than their reputations. His chins were legendary, square hunks of padded bone engulfed by a thick, doughy ring, like a man who had swallowed his travel pillow. His mustache expanded by the year, from a tight Burt Reynolds to a flowing Joseph Stalin, usually framing a distrustful smirk. ... His hair was long and curly and cleaved by a side part, the way lesser-known nineteenth-century American presidents wore it, and at five feet five he appeared shorter than his teenage bride and a good many of his later mistresses. Pablo Escobar—once the most hunted man on the planet—was, we can say it now, kind of a schlub. ... Alive, Pablo was a murderer and a philanthropist, a kidnapper and a congressman, a populist antihero who corrupted the institutions that tried to contain him and slaughtered thousands of compatriots who got in his way. Safely in the grave, he has spawned an entertainment-industrial complex—movies, books, soap operas, souvenirs—his legacy as impossible to repress as the frisky hippos he left behind. ... The commodification of Pablo is an awkward development for many Colombians, having struggled for a generation to overcome the collective trauma he visited on them. With his Faustian slogan plata o plomo—accept the bribe or get pumped full of lead—he turned Medellín into the murder capital of the world (6,349 killings in 1991), a badland no right-minded tourist would have visited, and pushed Colombia to the brink of a narcocracy.
Meet the branding geniuses behind some of minor league baseball’s craziest logos and mascots. ... The negative attention didn’t bother Brandiose, the San Diego-based sports marketing company that came up with Hartford’s logo, which consists of a horned, bearded goat gnawing on a baseball bat. The brainchild of longtime friends Jason Klein and Casey White, the firm specializes in developing unique team identities. By now, the duo has learned that pushback against a name as strange as Yard Goats isn’t a bad thing. “You want it to be polarizing,” Klein said, because it shows that the public is interested. ... Over the last decade, minor league franchises have hired Brandiose (pronounced like “grandiose”) to sculpt distinctive name and logo combinations seemingly out of thin air. But as goofy as Brandiose designs can be, the story behind them must be carefully crafted. After all, small clubs in small cities often need ways to hook fans—particularly families with young kids—who might be less interested in watching hotshot major league prospects than they are in partaking in an inspired promotion.